William Stewart, a US Army Air Force Captain in World War II, tells about his flight across the English Channel on December 15, 1944. Enemy planes were a risk, yes, but so too was the weather.
I was standing back of the pilot in a B17 stripped down bomber with about 17 pilots on board. I was flight operations officer for our squadron. We all were riding as passengers, flying over the English Channel and back to our base in England.
I was not trying to tell the pilot how to fly the plane. He was a better pilot than I. But I wanted to see the weather ahead through the pilot’s window.
Fog and clouds were the major nemeses for countries surrounded by water. Most of the deaths in my squadron were caused by fog or poor weather and only a few by mechanical failure. I was surprised to have spent so many hours over France and Germany – flying gasoline, ammo and bombs in and wounded out – and not taken any gunfire to my airplane. But, while flying over Muenster in Germany one day, I struck a balloon cable between my fuselage and right engine. This ripped all the de-icing boot off my right wing but it didn’t bring me down. I was flying an old dependable DC3 or, as some call it, a C47.
Foggy English Channel
So, this December day, crossing the English Channel, I was looking out the front of the cockpit to see how bad it was ahead of us. The weather was terrible to say the least. Most think of the weather as moving from west to east. But it forms and changes all the time in place.
We were flying about 100 feet off the water in what looked like a tunnel. This tunnel obviously was made by the heat of aircraft engines ahead of us; there was no air movement.
Suddenly the pilot said “That looks like an airplane on the water down there.” I had not seen anything. Maybe we had met another plane or overtaken another. Things happen quickly when you meet head on, each going over 150 miles per hour.
I asked the pilot if we had enough gasoline to get back to Paris and he said “No.” This is an example of a difficult and tight situation. Most are not as bad as this but there are many bad ones.
The pilot continued to fly ahead. Soon we could see the cliffs of Dover or a similar place dead ahead. When we got close to the cliffs, the pilot turned north. The tide was out, thus we had a sandy beach if we had to crash. We all had to look up to see the church steeples and houses on top of the cliffs. The pilot was an excellent flyer and, by radio, the co-pilot somehow located a control tower and airfield close by. This was one of the most difficult situations I was ever in during my years of flying in England.
Glenn Miller, Air Force Major and band leader
We landed at some RAF base near the coast. Only a superb pilot could have found it and lined up with the runway in near zero visibility. Later the next morning we learned that a plane flying Glenn Miller had disappeared over the channel.
There may not be any air movement, yet fog just forms in still air. You don’t realize that, unless you are flying in it. Over water, fog is a real killer for pilots. The pilot has no horizons.
Bill Stewart (1915-2005) is my father-in-law. This is from an unpublished memoir he and his wife, Marji Smock Stewart, wrote. He never knew if the plane that pilot saw in the water was Glenn Miller’s plane. But it was that same day, same place.
By Marji Smock Stewart in Finding the Rivers. This is the maternal side of her family history, centring on Sarah Brogan.
My grandmother was Sarah Clementine Brogan McDonald
She was Sally to friends and family, but Mamaw to me. I was the youngest of her many grandkids. Mamaw pampered me as only a grandmother will. Mine, I thought, was an exalted position!
Sarah’s skin and hair were fair but her eyes were her jewels; deep pools of blue violet. She was tall; almost 6 foot as was her youngest child, my mother Elizabeth.
Elijah Brogan and Jane Rutherford
Sarah’s dad was Elijah Brogan. He was born in 1832 either in Anderson County, Tennessee, or Ireland. He married Jane Rutherford in 1853. She was born in 1837 to Isaac Rutherford and Sarah Dew.
Probably the Dews and Rutherfords had been Tennesseans for years. Sarah Dew, so family said, was part or all Cherokee. My grandmother Sarah had so many skills and such knowledge of the woods, plants and natural things that I can believe that she learned these from her grandmother.
Elijah and Jane had four children. Sarah, born Mar 7 1855, was the eldest. Jane Rutherford died about 1865, near the end of the Civil War. Likely Sarah took over the care of her two younger brothers and sister, skills that would serve her well for the next 70 years.
Civil War Tennessee
There was turmoil and unrest in the States in the mid-1800s. Tennessee was a bloody battleground just waiting to happen. The climax came in 1861-1865 with the war between the North and South, aka the Civil War. Sarah told her children later that, as a child, she heard gunshots and sounds of war near her home.
The Brogan family lived in northeast Tennessee, near the Kentucky/Virginia line, almost in the Cumberland Gap area (Anderson and Campbell Counties). It was rugged territory then and still is. The people were warm, friendly and helpful. But most, including Elijah, struggled to make a living. Education was not readily available nor especially desirable. Independence and survival skills were.
After Jane died and the war ended, Elijah moved his young family by open wagon to Missouri. Mamaw remembered that trip vividly. One can assume it wasn’t too comfy! Soon after arriving there, Elijah remarried. His new wife was Malinda Fickas, daughter of Adam Fickas and Susan McDonald.
MIssouri was rocky, alluvial ice age soil, with lakes and rivers providing wonderful opportunities for fish and game. Elijah and Malinda lived either in the village of Clinton or in Johnson County. Both are in the west central part of the state. Kansas City was the nearest big town.
Ellijah and Malinda soon had four children, so Sarah had a new set of siblings to nurture. Elijah died in Warrensburg MO in 1874 about age 40. Their eldest child was Martha, called Matt. She and her husband, George McDonald, homesteaded and raised a fine family in El Reno OK.
Aunt Matt visited us in Wilmington CA in the early 1950s. Two of their sons lived in Fallbrook near San Diego. So son Baylis McDonald, an avocado rancher, brought Aunt Matt to meet her niece Elizabeth’s daughter. I was honoured to have such an elder visit my home. Aunt Matt was wrinkled and darkened by working in the Oklahoma sun. Her naturally black hair was pulled back in a knot. Homesteading in Oklahoma was not a soft life in the early twentieth century!
Sarah’s brothers, Broun and Isaac Brogan, went to Colorado when young men in the late 1880s. They hoped to strike it rich in silver and gold. I doubt that they ever saw their father Elijah or sister Sarah again. They probably never struck it rich either. On a postcard they sent to Sarah from Leadville CO, they said they were homesick. Life in the raw mining towns and mountains was rough compared to the warm nests in Tennessee and Missouri.
I don’t know if my grandmother ever went to school, but she could write nicely and was an avid reader of the Bible. She was gifted artistically and had talents not easily explained. Maybe her years of nurturing young ones, plus what she had learned from her mother Jane and grandmother Sarah Dew, gave her a broad education in life.
At 17, Sarah’s life took another direction. A tall young widower from Kentucky came to visit the Brogans in Missouri. He was Hiram Columbus McDonald, known as Lum. Of a Scottish immigrant family, he was a great-nephew of Malinda’s mother. He had three young children, aged 6, 7 and 9.
Lum was thirteen years Sarah’s senior. But apparently the chemistry between them was right. They married in 1872. The Civil War had been over for 7 years. The South was in the Reconstruction period.
Sarah would return to the South where Lum lived in Daviess County, Kentucky. The seventeen year old would assume a new role, stepmother and wife. Sarah would epitomize the words of Proverbs 31:10-31: “Who can find a strong wife; her price is far above rubies…” Lum had found himself a ruby!
Their first child was born 13 months later. There would be ten more in 26 years until Mamaw was 44. In early 1899 my grandmother announced she was pregnant. Two of her sons, disgusted that their parents would “do such things,” left home and joined the army to fight in the Spanish American War! That baby whose birth they so resented turned out to be their favorite in later life – my mother Elizabeth.
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.
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.
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 could 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!
There 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.
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.
There 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.
Occasionally 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.
Part VI, Finding the Rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: 1945
My final year of high school (1944-1945) was at Owensboro Senior High. It was not especially outstanding. I felt older than the other students in my class, although I only turned 17.
On my birthday, Bill’s mother called me to come up to their house on Stewart Court. She had a gift from Bill. He was overseas in England and I was leading my own life. Dating and doing all the things that most teenagers do.
I always loved going to the Stewart home on the Ohio River. It was heaven on earth to me. My wonderful future mother-in-law had chosen a gold heart-shaped locket for me with two tiny pictures of her son inside. I still have it. With the locket was a note from Bill. He had known my age all along. How embarrassing. Oh, to be young again and longing to be older!
I received my diploma in May 1945 and enrolled in the summer session at Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College in Cape Girardeau MO. My sister Betty and husband Bill Vogel were in college there. I lived in a girls’ dorm, had friends and dated but nothing special. Bill and I exchanged letters regularly but it was not terribly serious. The war was winding down.
V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945
I was back in Owensboro by that memorable day in August when the Japanese surrendered. (Official surrender ceremony was held September 2, 1945.) A friend of Betty and Bill’s was visiting us; Dwight was a navigator in the Air Force. We were having our usual tasty Sunday dinner when the news came. People ran shouting into the streets, blowing car horns, etc. Dwight just kept eating. After all, homemade rolls and pot roast were hot and inviting. To a guy who had seen too much action, this celebration was a non-event. He continued eating Mother’s rolls until they were gone. Meanwhile, us noncombatants continued making fools of ourselves out in the street. The war was over!
Americans were still under food and gasoline rationing until up in 1946. We carefully guarded our sugar and meat coupons and never drove unless it was absolutely necessary. Servicemen started coming home and a major transition began for most people. Of course some families only experienced emptiness because their loved one(s) never returned, or returned in poor or maimed physical or psychological condition. That was sobering but, mostly, a new excitement filled the country. There was an exhilarating expectation that now, like prophesied in Isaiah 2:4, man would learn war no more. Sadly, almost 60 years later, man still hasn’t learned that.
Bill comes home
It was sometime after August 21, 1945 that Bill flew back to the States and went through official separation from army service in Camp Atterbury, Indiana. He arrived home not long after.
Bill also earned a Commercial Pilot’s license for multiengine planes. He trained as a fighter pilot but had his ear drums badly damaged by a loud cannon explosion. Therefore he was shifted to piloting big planes whose slower speeds would not further impair him. That change might have saved his life? Many of his original squadron went on to fight over Africa and did not survive. Twice in that summer of 1945 Bill flew his large transport plane to evacuate some of the ambulatory survivors and inspectors from the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. Not an easy assignment.
Back in Kentucky, it didn’t take long for romance to be ignited. Bill was so ready to settle down and have a wife and home; he was 29. At 17 I still wasn’t mature but there were stars in my eyes. Bill asked me to marry him a short time after he arrived home. Daddy wasn’t home, so Bill asked Mother “for my hand.” He expressed some concern about our age difference. Mother seemed to agree but shared that her father was 13 years older than her mother. Then she told him Sarah McDonald had eleven children. That should have frightened him away but it didn’t.
I was working in a local attorney’s office at 35 cents per hour (that’s $2.80 per day or $14 per week). Bill went to Cleveland and other areas searching for a job. But really, he wanted to be home. Bill had his fill of travel. He had been gone from home since before 1937 when he hitchhiked to Minneapolis to enroll in the University of Minnesota. So he returned to Evansville IN in October 1945 and took a job as a salesman with the National Cash Register Company.
By October we both were ready to tie the knot and we set a date of November 10, 1945. Rev. Rake, who had also married my folks, married us in his study. It was a very small wedding with our parents, Bill’s sister Lillian and the couple who stood up with us. Betty was expecting her first baby in Jeffersonville IN and was under doctor’s orders not to travel.
After the ceremony, Daddy hosted a lovely dinner at the Hotel McCurdy in Evansville IN. This was when my family began calling Bill “Stew” since Betty’s husband was also Bill. To add to the confusion, Bill Stewart’s family called him Lester, his middle name. So I had one husband with three names – Bill, Stew and Lester.
I wore a chocolate brown suit with a creme silk blouse and had a hat and veil. The hat was made of gold sequins; Bill had bought it in Paris. Bill gave me a lovely orchid, which had zero fragrance. Not to worry, he also brought me several bottles of French perfume. Never had a bride smelled so good!
There was no honeymoon for us. We had rented one room in a home in Evansville. We shared the kitchen and bath with the landlady, a war widow. She graciously arranged to be gone that weekend. As a dutiful bride I prepared breakfast the next morning. A total disaster. Bill wanted oatmeal which I didn’t have a clue how to prepare and I oversalted the sticky mess. Also I burned the bacon, which is the unpardonable sin. But Bill was sweet and did not complain.
We did walk to church on Sunday morning. Of course I wore my orchid and was dressed in my wedding suit plus coat with fur collar. I must have stood out like a Kmart Blue Light special. Someone came down from the choir and tried to get me to join the church and questioned my salvation. That embarrassed me. I think I was feeling pious for even being there, wed less than 24 hours. I still feel uncomfortable when well-intentioned people buttonhole a stranger, supposedly “witnessing”.
Four weeks, three moves
In the next four weeks I moved us and our meager belongings three more times. Each time to a larger, more private place. All of this was via the bus or walking. Finally we had a small apartment with our own tiny kitchen and our own bath. What a luxury!
I had a job in a law office in Evansville and for the next nine months we stayed put. Of course we rode the Greyhound bus back to Owensboro many weekends. Bill probably needed that good mothers’ cooking to survive my efforts at k.p.
Next time: In July 1946 Bill decided he wanted to quit his job and take a trip out west. He received all his military training in the west and loved that country. So we bought a used car from a man in Fordsville KY.
Part V, Finding the rivers, Marji Smock Stewart: River Pilot, Air Pilot
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
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.
We 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
Sometime 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.
The 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?
Part III, Finding the Rivers, by Marji Smock Stewart: Gladewater TX
In 1936 we moved to East Texas, to Gladewater where oil had been discovered. Uncle Ben [McDonald] and his family had relocated to nearby Longview and had been quite successful.
Daddy worked in the booming oil fields as a “roughneck” or laborer who worked right on the rigs. He would come home soaked in perspiration and dirt. It was as hard a job as the name implies.
East Texas was hot and humid, engulfed in oil everywhere. My memory is poor regarding a river to find. There was some sort of river – Sabine or Big Sandy – but it did not affect our lives. [Glade Creek, a tributary of the Sabine, runs through the town.]
Betty especially loved the new school and was in the band; she became a clarinet player. High school football games were great in Texas then and still are. The Gladewater band starred at the games. Betty began the 7th or 8th grade and I began the 4th. A picture of me on a pony was taken at Gladewater.
For the first time we could buy our lunch at school; away with the bothersome lunch box! My fifteen cents was supposed to get a sandwich and fruit and milk or something to drink. As often happens, I stopped at the snack stand first and indulged in candy – Milky Way, Babe Ruth, and heavenly junk. But my sins found me out. Mother discovered my indulgences so back to the lunch box. Is this the same creature who grew up to have a profound personal and professional interest in nutrition? [Ph.D. Home Economics, Ohio State University 1968]
A traumatic event happened on March 18, 1937, a community disaster. At 3:17 PM in a nearby town, New London TX, an event happened that changed its history. In a new consolidated school (1-12 grades) a gas line explosion occurred. Of the 540 students and teachers, 298 were killed. Imagine losing 55% of a school!
All the workers and volunteer groups for miles around rushed there to aid in the rescue. The governor even sent the Texas Rangers. After 17 hours, working through darkness and rainfall, they had accounted for all victims. Daddy was among the rescue teams and was understandably sobered by the experience. He bought home a discarded text book as a reminder. It was so badly battered it was unreadable. I got involved in my own school’s efforts to send things to the families, but really wasn’t old enough to be deeply affected. Daddy, Mother and Betty were.
Back in Kentucky and Indiana our family suffered, as many others did, in the great flood of 1937. Because most population centers were close to the rivers, it affected many people. Not only along the big rivers like the Ohio and Mississippi but also the many tributaries. The Depression had impacted them too so this was a double whammy.
Mother and Daddy both felt they should help their loved ones in some way. But how? They had almost no money and what would Daddy do? As always, the river beckoned. It has a powerful tug to those smitten by it.
It must have been the summer of 1938 that the folks decided we should leave Texas the second time. Daddy’s clothing drenched in perspiration convinced Mother that a man would kill himself working in that hot humid climate out on the oil rigs. Monroe had passed his 40th birthday; was this what they wanted for the rest of their lives?
But decisions to relocate are never easy; especially with children and their educational needs. I was always ready to move; Betty never was.
Next: Back to the river and Kentucky
On April 30, 1955 Elvis Presley, Johnny Horton, Jim Reeves and many others played at the Gladewater school gymnasium. The Louisiana Hayride, from Shreveport, was on tour. See Scotty Moore, Elvis’ guitarist, for what it was like. In 1956 Johnny Cash wrote the lyrics of“I Walk the Line” in Gladewater. He was backstage, waiting to perform maybe also at the school and another show featuring a huge line-up of artists. If you haven’t seen it, watch the movie Walk the Line to get an idea of what those shows, and the touring, were like.
Part II, Finding the Rivers, by Marji Smock Stewart: Bagnell Dam MO
I regret that I did not ask Daddy to tell me about taking the Sarah Mac to Missouri. I guess I thought I would have him forever. But now I long to know the details. How did he do it?
Somehow Monroe Smock managed to get the boat from Green River to the little Osage River to the site that was becoming Bagnell Dam and The Lake of the Ozarks. Did he have a skeleton crew with him; another pilot, an engineer and at least two deckhands?
Bagnell Dam construction
The lake was a construction site initially, a beehive of humanity. The building of a dam is an immense project, even the small one later named Bagnell Dam. It was a project of the Union Electric Light and Power Co. (UELPC) in Missouri, cooperatively with the US government. There was an effort in late 1928 to the 1930s to bring electricity to the remote areas of the country. And remote it was.
The area near Eldon, Missouri had been a small army post; complete with accommodations, club house, a small airport and other amenities to attract workers. I recall hearing that even Lindbergh landed there once and Daddy was in the crowd.
Daddy settled first in a tent. The tent was floored with wooden planks and had wooden walls up about 3-4 feet. In the summer it was comfortable but in the winter quite another matter.
How Mother reacted to taking her girls to live in a tent I’ll never know. I do know that wherever Daddy was, Mother wanted to be. And after all, kids are quite adaptable.
It was summer when we arrived. Mother arranged with Zoll Denton (Leora Smock’s husband) to drive us and our tiny bit of furniture to Missouri. Uncle Zoll probably drove non-stop. He stayed a few days and learned a bit about the Ozarks, then he went home on the bus or train.
Tent to “three rooms”
Mother had a lot to do making the tent livable. Daddy worked long hours piloting the Sarah Mac all over that big hole that was to become the lake. The area was quite hilly with sharp rocks, so nobody went barefoot. Betty busied herself just being a quiet helper to her mother. All of us made friends with the few scattered neighbours in tents among the trees. Today, lovely expensive homes are in the area; a prime real estate development.
Before long, we were promoted to the “three rooms” housing. A mansion compared to the tent. A one floor house but built on a hill so the back was two stories with stairs to the sloping rocky back yard.
This was when I learned to paint. I found the small can of expensive green enamel that Mother had bought to paint her second-hand table and chairs. Mother was ill and took a rare nap. So I thought it would be a nice surprise to paint the rough weathered back steps. I thought I did a beautiful job on them. But Mother didn’t appreciate my artistic talents. It took a long time to get the bright enamel off me, and my little dress was ruined. I ended up promising NEVER to paint again!
Worked together, played together
Mother and Daddy slowly became integrated into the group that worked and lived at the lake. That experience was a great equalizer. A small group, probably less than fifty families, was almost like a commune. They worked together and played together. Many nights were spent down on the lake side, having open fires on the rocky beach and toasting marshmallows, or hamburgers or fish over the fires.
Some of the men were engineers or administrators; many were college graduates. Yet others, like my folks, fit in and were accepted because they were just good people who worked hard. It was a magic life compared to the Great Depression the rest of the country was experiencing. This was about 1931.
Lake of the Ozarks
At some point Bagnell Dam was finished and operational. Tourists were drawn to the area for obvious reasons. It was a natural paradise. Daddy piloted one of the excursion boats in the summer as well as being the private pilot for Mr. Eagan, an UELPC executive from St. Louis.
We swam a lot when he had a day off. Both my parents learned to play bridge and loved it. Mother also played once a week with the women. They rotated between different homes. A small white Irish linen card table cloth and napkins are all we have left of those days. Mother longed to have “nice” china and silver like the other women had. Nobody noticed but her. Served with her superb goodies and coffee, who cared?
Five rooms and two cedar trees
We weren’t in the three room house long until we were able to move to the “five rooms”. The company had planted two small cedar trees in the front of each house. Thirty years later, in the early 1960s, Mother, Daddy and I took a trip back. It was a sweet trip but had lost the magnetism of the early years. Thomas Wolfe might have been right; you can’t go home again. Those little cedar trees, however, seemed to reach to the sky.
Then in 1978 I took a brief sabbatical from the University of Kentucky and drove through the lake region. Much of the dam area as we loved it was totally commercial. It looked like a second rate carnival had come to town and stayed. I was glad the folks weren’t with me. Let their memories live on. Those really were glory years for all of us.
Next time: Gladewater, Texas
In 1936 Daddy and Mother decided it was time to pull up stakes again. We moved to East Texas so Daddy could work in the oil fields. A mammoth oil source had been discovered there.
Dr. Marji Smock Stewart, my late mother-in-law, wrote her family story for her son and grandsons. She called it “Finding the Rivers.” She shared it with other family members too and I think would be happy to see it online. Here is an excerpt about her father Monroe Smock and his father John Thomas Smock, from Daviess County, Kentucky. (Also see her Smock family tree.)
Finding the Rivers – Part I
John Thomas Smock 1863-1944
Granddad John Thomas Smock and his family of three kids (George, Leora and Monroe) plus my grandmother Cora lived in an old red house near the bridge and curve on Curdsville Road.
In his youth, Granddaddy was a real working cowboy. He worked in the plains States, following the wheat harvest, riding his horse from one area to another. We’re talking circa 1880. Granddaddy rode a horse almost until his death in 1944. He was an avid reader of old Western cowboy novels all his life.
John Thomas must have been working in South Dakota when he met Cora Delia Kohrdt. They married about 1880. Cora’s parents were German immigrants. Her father was Otto Kohrdt. My aunt Leora was born in Elk Point, South Dakota and probably that was also true of the eldest son, George. Their youngest, Monroe Thomas Smock, was born in Monroe, Louisiana. They moved to Daviess County, Kentucky, when Monroe was very young.
In Kentucky, the Smocks lived a typical farm life but apparently Granddad did well enough to acquire more property. There were a few farm hands who did the hard labor. My Daddy learned to work on the machinery and keep it in top running order. At some point John Thomas built the big house on the bend that I remember being my grandfather’s house. I never knew grandmother Cora. She died of breast cancer April 17, 1911 when Daddy was 15.
Not too long after Cora died, Granddaddy went to Tennessee with a team of horses, pulling a big wagon. When he returned home. his children recalled, he pulled up to the house with a new wife, Lena Denton, and her four children and their belongings. In 1915 Lena and John Thomas had a baby girl: Edna Mae Smock, later Glenn.
Monroe Smock 1896-1980
Also in 1915, my father Monroe married Cecile Sims. He was about 19. Their son, Hugh Kenneth, was born May 23, 1916. Monroe and Cecile were divorced when Hugh was very young. World War I was brewing so Monroe joined the US Navy. He became a machinist and was stationed in Philadelphia before shipping overseas.
Perhaps it was this experience on a ship, far below the deck, removed from fresh air and sunlight, that caused Monroe to think “If I ever have a chance, I’m going to be a ship’s pilot.” Those working on the engines had to stay on ship and work in the heat to “ready the engines” while those assigned to topside got to go ashore when the ship pulled into dock. Probably young Monroe knew what he was missing.
After the Armistice in 1919, Monroe returned to Kentucky and I assume he farmed. Granddaddy had given his daughter Leora (Denton) a farm (his first one with the red house on Curdsville Road). This might have been when Granddaddy gave Monroe a very small farm at the back of his bigger one, which backed up on Green River.
Elizabeth McDonald 1889-1991
In the meantime, down the road towards Curdsville, Lum and Sarah McDonald’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, had returned home from Louisville. She became secretary/bookkeeper for her brothers Joe and Homer, who owned a coal mine near Henderson KY.
At some point Monroe and Elizabeth renewed an acquaintance and began “seeing each other.” After all, they had lived most of their lives about 5 miles from each other. The old Curdsville Baptist Church history shows the Smock, McDonald and Denton families had been clerks, Deacons, Sunday School Superintendents etc. since the 1800s. In a small village, everyone knows each other.
On Dec 1, 1921 Monroe and Elizabeth tied the knot in Evansville IN with Rev. Rake officiating. Elizabeth Weldon and Homer McDonald stood up with them as witnesses. Elizabeth was Mother’s childhood chum and later in 1922 married Homer, Mother’s closest brother. The two Elizabeths were friends as well as sisters-in-law for almost 80 years.
The newlyweds moved to the little farm on Green River. Somehow farming didn’t hold them, although they had a daughter, Betty Jean, born in 1924 in Curdsville.
In 1927 Mother was pregnant again but Monroe and Elizabeth, with 3 year old Betty, packed up and moved to west Texas. Ranger TX was not too far west of Fort Worth but it was the beginning of the dry country. The oil fields promised good employment, plus a small house on site was provided to married men.
Living on a lease was dirty and very different from the green fields of Kentucky. The house was right out among the huge wooden rigs, unprotected from rambunctious kids. The wind blew continually and dust was everywhere, except it was often mixed with dark sticky stuff – black gold.
In early fall 1927 Daddy received an invitation to go to one of the prime Texas hunting spots for deer with a group of men. Mother wasn’t pleased, but somehow I politely waited for my daddy to come home before I put in my appearance. On October 14, 1927, I, Marjorie Ann Smock, was born.
Kentucky and Missouri
Apparently the oil boom turned bust and when I was still young Monroe took his three gals and went back to Kentucky. Perhaps he had been lured by invitations from Homer and Joe McDonald, Mother’s brothers. Homer and Joe had a towboat, the Sarah Mac (named for their mother), built for use on Green River in Kentucky. It probably was used in moving barges of coal around, or towing barges of coal to buyers in Evansville, IN. Daddy had the offer to master her so he and Mother followed his dream again.
Around 1930 Daddy got an offer to take the Sarah Mac to Missouri. I know nothing about the financial arrangement with Homer and Joe, but the idea challenged Monroe. There was Green River, the Ohio River, the mighty Mississippi River and briefly the Missouri River to navigate prior to finding the little Osage River that ran through the Ozarks. I don’t know if Daddy had been on any rivers other than the Green and the Ohio near Daviess and Henderson Counties in Kentucky until then.
So off Daddy went, hopefully to make a better life. Mother and her girls stayed in Kentucky, waiting for word. “First find the river” was a challenge to face Daddy throughout his life. When we would go to a new place, the byword always was, “first find the river.” That was our compass.
The depression was in full swing and, knowing my mother, she was concerned about the family’s future and how her two girls would fare. Would Elizabeth leave the comfort of being in Kentucky where many of her siblings and her mother lived? Monroe and Elizabeth had an exceptional love for each other. Would it stand this test? It wouldn’t be easy, as we shall see, but theirs was a tenacious bond. It lasted almost sixty years!