Tag Archives: Smock

35 Cent Grilled Cheese

Part VII, Finding the Rivers, Marji Stewart: Grilled cheese fortunes

Our trip out west in 1946 was a real honeymoon. We were gone a month or longer and made some stupid blunders. One I recall is that we drove that old car up a washboard road to Monument Valley in Arizona with only a bag of water tied to the bumper. The bag fell off so we lost our water.

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1992, Bill Stewart on trip through Arizona and Utah where he and Marji lived at the time.

No water, no food and no blanket or emergency supplies in July. People who are much better prepared than we were die in that environment! The scenery in Monument Valley is breathtaking.

In California we visited with Bill’s sister Lillian who was staying with her friend Claudine. We just barged in as people thoughtlessly did back then. We saw the usual California sights, such as Knott’s Berry Farm which was incredible then. The time I remember best was dinner and dancing for just the two of us at the famous Ambassador Hotel when a big band was playing – Freddie Martin. That was heavenly music and food for this river rat.

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Cocoanut Grove in Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, 1948 postcard

However, the time wasn’t right then for us to stay in California. We headed back to Kentucky, sightseeing all the way. Glorious simple days. No air conditioning, so often driving at night to avoid the heat. There were very few choices of places to sleep and once or twice we simply slept in the car. Who would dare do that today? Also all highways were two lane. A real drag to be stuck behind a truck going up a mountain road!

Grilled cheese fortunes

Perusing the menu in a cafe somewhere in Arkansas, we thought the price of a simple grilled cheese sandwich was too costly. All of 35 cents. Driving along Route 66 we toyed with the idea of starting a business in Kentucky. What kind, though? What about a restaurant, Bill asked me. Sure, but where?

Back home to Owensboro – and to Bill’s Mom and Dad. Perhaps they Grilled cheese sandwich_on_white_plate-Senator2029-wikicommonscould spare a piece of their small property to let him build? I had no experience in food service but Bill had paid his way through the University of Minnesota working in kitchens. A fortune could be made charging 35 cents for a mere grilled cheese sandwich. It cost no more than 2 cents to prepare. So why not? Did we have a lot to learn!

Whether the Stewarts really wanted to give up an acre of land, I honestly don’t know. But give they did. We moved in with them, into Lillian’s bedroom upstairs. In the tiny room adjoining it, we made a small kitchen. We put a two burner kerosene stove and an old card table with three chairs in the little room. I washed dishes in the bathroom. Orange crates held our kitchen stuff. Not that we ate there much. Mostly we ate with the Stewarts or the Smocks. Both mothers did our laundry. Did I ever properly thank them?

I got a job as a teller in a Savings and Loan institution on Frederica Street but I had no transportation. Bill would take me to work and his dad would pick me up in the afternoon. Robert would patiently wait in his car even if it took hours to balance the books so I could leave the bank.

We finally managed to get a loan to build a restaurant, after being turned down by the “big” bank in town. Bill did all the blueprints, planning and consulting. I simply worked and my meager salary kept us afloat.

Uncle Clarence Brown, the city engineer, advised us to build a building which could be turned into a residence if we failed or changed our minds. He was Bill’s mother Mabel’s older brother. But these two greenhorns thought we knew more than the wise engineer. We decided to do it our way. We wouldn’t fail. Famous last words!

Strawberries

Allens-1963_book_of_berries-wikicommonsThere was one crisis time while Bill was building. He had ordered enough strawberry plants for another acre of land. They arrived just when Bill had a serious case of poison ivy from clearing the land. He was so sick I even had to shave him! But the strawberries couldn’t wait to be planted.

A dear older neighbor, Guy Barlow, and I planted those Tennessee Beauties. That spring of 1947 saw a prolific crop of berries. Bill and I had to pick, prepare, make jam and freeze them. We gave away a lot and sold the best ones. Do you have any idea of how many strawberries are in an acre? A lot. A whole lot. It was years before I could enjoy strawberries again.

Stewart’s Drive In

In the early summer of 1947 “Stewart’s Drive In” had its grand opening. It wasn’t long until our glazed eyes were opened too. Yes, we served grilled cheese. But. Running a small restaurant required almost 20 hours per day, seven days per week. And then we barely met our small payroll.

grilled cheese hopes at stewarts-drive-in-1948
Stewart’s Drive 1947-1948 on Stewart Court in Owensboro KY

Bill worked in the kitchen and dish area and I waited tables, worked the soda fountain and car hopped. We both worked after closing until we went home in the wee hours of the morning and crashed. Business would be great one day and zilch the next. The first winter was rough, weather-wise and financially. I served cars outdoors even when there was snow on the ground.

In the fall of 1948 Bill decided we would close for the season and go out west until early spring. We settled in Long Beach, California. Both of us got jobs. Working only eight hours a days, we felt as if we really were on vacation. Bill worked at the Union Oil refinery in blue collar work and I “slung hash” in a diner.

Uncle Clarence was right

When it came time to return to our drive in in the spring of 1949, both of us were ready to throw in the towel. Yes, I must admit we were quitters. Uncle Clarence was right, we should have built a multipurpose building.

We managed to lease the drive in and stayed in California. We moved to Wilmington to be close to the refinery. Our big apartment was two rooms plus a hall and small bath. This was a housing project, Avalon Village, a prototype of later public housing but privately owned then. The bed was a Murphy bed that pulled out from the wall in the living room. [Maybe Avalon Gardens.]

We made lots of friends but most of our fun was either on the beach or, for Bill, fishing. He went out on day trips for deep sea fishing and usually made a nice catch. Maybe a 10 pound Albacore or tuna.

California Dreamin’

marji-stewart-redondo-beach-pier-ca-1949There weren’t any decent rivers near us but there was the Pacific Ocean. Our favorite day off activity was spending the day at the beach. We had two large cloth bags (air mattresses) which we would run along the beach and hold in the wind. They filled with air and we quickly tied them. We carried them out in the surf and then rode them in to the shore before the air leaked out. Great, innocent, cheap – but very sandy – fun. Often we went dancing later somewhere in LA or to the Coliseum for special events. Always more than one hour’s drive.

To make ends meet I worked at jobs like selling home products. My territory was Watts. Even then it was a minority neighborhood, gentle and peaceful. Could it actually rock with riots, violence and murder? Yes, sixteen years later, it could and it did.

Of course I never made enough money to pay my expenses. Gasoline was less than 39 cents per gallon, sometimes 19 cents! One of my friends and I tried to get jobs at the local fish canning factory but they wouldn’t hire us. Helen said perhaps we looked too “refined”? I think they more likely thought we wouldn’t stay.

Finally Bill got into real estate and quit his job at the refinery. He was told to be prepared to survive a year before any income would start coming in. He worked in Rolling Hills, a lovely area.

Size 10 to 14

I took a job as a secretary and jill of all trades with a suit manufacturer in downtown LA. During the interview, I was told that the job required being a size 14. I was a size 10 so I told the employer “I’ll grow into it!” He laughed and hired me anyway. I doubt that I made even $35 per week and had to ride the buses downtown to the garment district, now almost in Skid Row. That was January 1950.

marji-and-bill-stewart-xmas-day-cal-1950, beyond grilled cheeseOccasionally I would have to wear the newest suit and go meet with a prospective buyer for the boss and model the garment. Lest this sound like a glamorous job, it wasn’t. I was the only person in the office and often felt the wrath of someone – customers, employees or bosses. But I was glad to have a job. However, my plans backfired for working until Bill could make it financially in real estate. When we were least expecting it, we were expecting! You could say I really did “grow into” the size 14.

We’ll leave Marji and Bill for now. See Monroe Smock, Kentucky for the beginning of this story. In a few weeks we’ll go back to the story of Marji’s mother Elizabeth and the McDonald family of Kentucky and Texas.

River Pilot, Air Pilot

Part V, Finding the rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: River Pilot, Air Pilot

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MV Sohioan, 1944 (tap for larger view)

Let me explain a bit about working on the river. The crew had to stay on 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, working 6 hours on and 6 hours off. The “dog” shift, or midnight to 6 a.m., was the hardest. Pilots usually drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot. Keeping your eyes on the long barges way down in front of you wasn’t easy, especially in foul weather and moonless nights. You had to stay wide awake.

However, there was one big plus about working on the river: wonderful food. The cooks were always the top of the line and the crew were fed three solid meals per day, plus snacks in the galley any time. When guys worked 12 hours per day, good food was like jet fuel for a 747. Everyone ate together rather than separate areas for crew and officers. It really was one big family.

Crew earned days off and would be home for a longer time than ordinary workers would be. But at the same time, they were gone a long time. Actually their families could live almost anywhere as long as it was close to a river and other transportation means. As in the military, usually mothers had the entire responsibility for raising the kids and managing the home.

Granddaddy Smock died

On March 6, 1944 we got a call from Daddy’s sister Leora. Granddaddy Smock had died of heart failure. Mother quickly contacted Daddy who was somewhere on the Mississippi River. She, Betty and I drove to meet him somewhere and then we headed for the big farm house as fast as Daddy dared drive.

At Granddaddy’s funeral I felt as if a giant had died. He had so many friends and family. John Thomas Smock was 81. He had never been ill except for an abscessed tooth. What a life!

It must have been that trip home for Granddaddy’s funeral when the folks decided to leave Evansville and move to Owensboro. I had quit school only a few days after my 16th birthday. I helped Mother and cleaned the apartment next door after the couple left each day for work. That paid a quarter a day! But my wise mother knew I needed to be in school. Did they feel a smaller town in the hospitable Blue Grass state would benefit me more?

Pilot of MV Sohioan

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“Curdsville KY 1944, MV Sohoian, working boat towing oil. Monroe Smock was its first Captain”

So soon afterward Daddy began working for the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. He was made Master of their new top of the line boat, the MV Sohioan. That was a proud moment. Mother and Daddy were wined and dined in Ohio and Daddy received a nice raise. Towing barges of oil to their destination, usually New Orleans, was sorely needed in the WWII effort.

Elizabeth-and-Monroe-Smock-Owensboro-1944We moved to a house in Owensboro probably in April 1944. It was too late now to get in the local high school year. So Mother and I decided a stint at the local business college would be good for me. The skills I learned would be useful all my life; typing and bookkeeping. I learned shorthand too but used it very little, except while working in an attorney’s office.

At the business college I made several friends; it was a small group. One of my friends was Georgia. She was a bit older but we became quite close. Georgia had a friend Lillian.

Lillian had a brother Bill who was a pilot in the Air Force. He would be home for a brief visit from overseas in July 1944. Would I be interested in writing him and perhaps meeting him when he came home? It was a common practice to write to servicemen to help boost their morale. Of course I said yes. I think we exchanged two or three letters, the very thin airmail type.

Capt. Bill Stewart, US Army Air Forces* Pilot

bill-stewart-wwii englandSometime in July Georgia called and said Bill had flown in from England and we were to meet him the next day. So about 2 in the afternoon, Georgia looked out the second story window of the business college and said, “He’s there.” Sure enough, my blind date was standing on the sidewalk looking up. A handsome fellow in US Army uniform. I stuck my head out the window and we were introduced.

A whirlwind week followed. We dated every evening. I’m sure his parents longed for him to be with them every moment. But this guy had been overseas a long time and wanted to live every moment to the fullest. We went dancing at night at a nightclub on the river.

Friends had loaned him their car to drive while home. On the weekend he took me out in his motor boat and we swam in the Ohio River. Bill’s home was on the river. His mom would prepare delicious meals and of course I ate with them. Lots of friends and family came to greet him and they were all over the place.

Robert-and-Mabel-Stewart-home-Owensboro-1944The river was prominent in Bill’s family’s lives too. The house had a huge yard, lots of trees and a big swing between two big oaks. Much of that yard is gone now, lost to erosion from the river. But it surely was a romantic setting.

This was heady stuff for a 16 year old high school dropout; dating a college graduate who held the rank of Captain and was a pilot too! I honestly think that neither of us expected to see the other again. Would we?

* The Air Force, called US Army Air Forces or USAAF, was part of the US Army until 1947.

Previous: Smocks on the Ohio River

Next: Don’t know where, don’t know when…

Smocks on the Ohio River

Part IV, Finding the rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: Back to the Ohio River

We left Texas in the summer of 1938, heading back to the river. We must have looked like the Grapes of Wrath crowd as we sadly headed back to where was always home: Kentucky. Or at least to the Ohio River.

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Thomas Hart Benton, 1940, Departure of the Joads, Grapes of Wrath series – Rockwell Center

Daddy built a small open trailer (courtesy of the local junk yard) to carry our stuff and we took off. I do remember this trip. Uncle Ben pressed some bills in Mother’s hands as they said a tearful goodbye. He knew we needed it.

The trip was uneventful except for continual flat tires on the trailer. But what can one expect for free? Finally I heard Daddy use a word I had never heard from him – damn! More flat tires. In those days, tires had inner tubes too, so double trouble.

Finally there was no way he could repair the repairs any more. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Daddy pulled in to a small gas station. After a brief conversation with the owner, he backed the trailer onto the station lot. He had arranged to leave it with all our earthly possessions. Later he would borrow a truck and come back, unload the stuff and take it home. The station owner would inherit the trailer.

It wasn’t easy pulling away from our bedding, wicker furniture and kitchen stuff. But we did. None of us expected ever to see our things again. But guess what? When Daddy went back a month or so later, it was still intact! The owner had guarded it as if it were his own. There are good people all over the world!

Ohio River: Jeffersonville IN

We stayed with Aunt Luss [Celeste Steele] in Jeffersonville, Indiana for a brief time until we could rent a bungalow in Jeffersonville [across Ohio River from Louisville KY]. The basement still had mud baked on the floor from recent flood damage. Daddy drove to Little Rock to get our stuff.

Betty and I started school. I was in junior high and Betty probably her third year of high school. Those were not remarkable years for me. Daddy was piloting on the Ohio River and the Mississippi. Mother just calmly kept the family together during all our girlish traumas. She made all our clothing and, as usual, prepared wonderful food. Mother was a superb cook; I still remember the aromas in the house when we can in from school. Also we saw a lot of Aunt Luss and her boys. Aunt Luss, too, was a natural born cook.

marji-smock-1940In those Great Depression years we had very few treats. But one special day I remember was when Mother, Aunt Luss, Betty, Jack and I went to Louisville to the big Loews theater to see Gone with the Wind. Along with an untold number of others, I immediately fell in love with Clark Gable! That day we had a studio picture made too. I had on a handmade rose gabardine blouse and long hair.

When Daddy was home he spent a lot of time studying. He bought a roll of white shelf paper and began drawing the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, with all the sand bars, bends, locks and vital information on the map. That map was spread all though the house. That must have been when he was studying to pass his exams for the advanced “Master, Mates and Pilots” license. The rivers had to be drawn from memory during the exam. He was over forty years old, with limited formal education but he passed.

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Confluence of Ohio and Mississippi Reivers, earth observatory NASA

Mississippi River: Cape Girardeau MO

Very soon after Betty finished high school, we moved to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Daddy had the offer to master one of the boats headquartered there. Cape was a boat town as well as a college town. Nice. Lots of big trees, curved streets and gentle hills. The Mississippi River dominated the town landscape and planning.

We rented a modest two bedroom apartment above a Mrs. Latimer. She owned the local business college and Betty enrolled. Betty rode to the school daily with Mrs. Latimer. In a rush to get home for lunch one day, they collided with the daily noon train. Both were injured but recovered.

Ohio River: Evansville IN

After Betty’s accident our enthusiasm for Cape waned and Mother wanted to go back closer to home. I think we settled on Evansville Indiana because another of Mother’s sisters, Aunt Grace [Kidd, Jones], lived there. It also was on the Ohio River, across from family in Daviess County, Kentucky. Evansville hosted a “ways” for repair or perhaps building new boats. (There was a shipyard there in WWII.)

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L-R Cape Girardeau on Mississippi, Evansville and Louisville on Ohio (tap to enlarge)

On Nov. 7 1941 Mother, Daddy, Betty and I made a quick trip in our old Studebaker to Evansville and Kentucky. On the road, the engine began smoking. We quickly got out of the car with our tomcat Prettything. (A beautiful yellow Persian we thought was a she when we named him.) The car didn’t go up in flames but almost. When the oil had been changed just before the trip, the mechanic had not secured the plug. There wasn’t a drop of oil left. Daddy knew too much about engines to think it could be salvaged. What to do?

We managed to get to an old hotel. Betty cleverly draped Prettything over her arm like a fur stole. All went well until Prettything began balking while going up on the old elevator. The elevator operator looked but said nothing; our secret was safe!

Next morning we had a brand new car. The folks had to buy it “on time”, something Mother never liked. But we had to go on and then get back for school and Daddy’s job. In another month, however, we saw the burned out bearings as a blessing. You couldn’t buy a new car for more than five years! Pearl Harbor changed everyone’s lives.

After Pearl Harbor

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USS Shaw explodes in Pearl Harbor Dec. 1941 NARA (tap to enlarge)

Betty got a job offer with the Department of Navy in Washington DC. It wasn’t easy for Elizabeth to part with her oldest girl, who not yet 18, went to work in a faraway BIG city. Perhaps Mother’s own experiences had prepared her for this big day?

So I began high school in Evansville IN. Honestly I remember little about the school. With Betty in DC and Daddy off on the river, Mother and I were alone most of the time. We spent a lot of time meeting boats or parked on the river bank for hours waiting for the boat to arrive.

One time the boat was delayed and there we were, far from home. We spent the night in a desolate small town. There was an old hotel. We had a room with a window facing the river. There was a brick on the floor, chained to the window sill. The instructions were: “In case of fire, throw the brick through the window and jump.” I slept soundly. But I doubt Mother got a wink in, between worrying about Daddy and possibility of being burned alive in this firetrap.

betty-smock-DC-ca-1942In the spring of 1943 Betty wrote she had a surprise. Bill Vogel had proposed and they weren’t going to wait until the war was over to marry. She and Bill had been dating since they were in high school together in Jeffersonville IN. He had joined the army and was stationed in Michigan.

Betty rode the train home from DC and Mother quickly made her some lovely outfits for her new life. Because Betty was 18 inches around her waist and 5’8″ tall, it was difficult to find ready made clothing to fit. Mother and I saw Betty off on a train to Michigan.

Next time: Working on the river, and Marji meets a pilot.

Want to start at the beginning? See Part I, Monroe Smock, Kentucky.

Smock Family Tree

My late mother-in-law, Marji Smock Stewart, did the work on this genealogy of the Smock family from Kentucky. That’s her in the photo, age 9…