“Mom, Mom, there’s somebody at the door.” Eight year old Patsy yelled as she ran into the kitchen and began yanking at her mother’s apron. “There’s a man at the door.”
“Just a minute, Patsy, hold your horses please,” she said, wiping her hands on the apron and turning for the front door.
Bruce and Eileen had just returned to the little house on Short Street the month before, bringing Their daughters Barbara and little Patsy, the Midlife Surprise with them. Surprise it was too, supposedly Grandma had locked herself in the closet and cried all day when she found out she was pregnant again. Her youngest was already fourteen and it all seemed too much to bear. Little Patsy turned out to be a delight though and she got over it.
Bruce had been transferred by his boss at Signal Oil to oversee oil production in the Santa Maria and Price Canyon fields. They had had to wait for the renters to move out and stayed in the old Arroyo Motor Hotel on South Bridge Street. Eileen and her daughters had made the miracle Thanksgiving dinner that fall of 1941 in the tiny motor court kitchen, cooking the turkey and fixins’ on a single hot plate. Twenty two years an oilfield wife teaches those kinds of skills. Make do with what you got, learned the hard way.
Eileen had called the Hillcrest Dairy as soon as they moved in and opened an account to have milk delivered. They had had milk delivered from the Shannon’s dairy when they had lived in Arroyo Grande in the early thirties. She picked up the phone and dialed 223 F-13, smiling to herself, remembering their slogan, “You can whip our cream but you can’t beat our milk.”
When she headed for the door she heard whoever was at the screen knock politely again. As she neared the door she saw a tall young man with a shock of dark hair standing there and smiling.
“Mrs Hall?” he said, “I’m George Shannon from the dairy and I have your bill.” Eileen saw that he was looking at Barbara, doing the I’m not looking but still looking as young men do. Not exactly sly but just getting a gander at her.
“Why don’t you come in while I write you a check?” She turned for the kitchen to get her purse and checkbook, walking back to the rear of the house her low heels clunking on the wooden floors.
George waited in the front room. He was looking out of the corner of his eye at the girl sitting on the sofa and playing solitaire at the coffee table. She looked up at him and smiled, laying down the Jack of hearts on the Queen.
Eileen could hear a conversation in the front room so she took a few more heartbeats to get the check written before calling from the kitchen, “Barbara come and get the check and give it to the young man, will you?”
Barbara went back, took the check and then handed it to the milkman, George, and smiled again. He smiled back, took the check and said “Thank you,” and walked out the door. Barbara watched him from the doorway and when he got in his car, he looked back and she was still standing holding the screen open. She smiled again and waved. He smiled too.
Eileen Hall, my grandmother was nobodies fool. She came into the front room and she could smell the ozone left from the lightning strike. Zap. Mission accomplished. She though perhaps the hook was set.
After he was gone Eileen and Barbara talked a little bit about it. When George was talking he mentioned a his schedule, what he did each day and Barbara remembered that he brought milk into the creamery next to the Methodist Church each day. After a couple days when he hadn’t called or stopped by she thought she would try and force the issue so she took her little sister and walked up Valley Road toward Marsalek’s. She knew he’d be coming down to the creamery and about what time. Patsy was along so it wouldn’t be too obvious what she was up to.
Sure enough the old dark blue Hillcrest Dairy truck came along and he pulled over. She tried to appear casual as if nothing was going on, like she hadn’t even seen him. George offered her a ride home so she and Patsy climbed in, Barbara next to George and Patsy on the passenger door.
Remember that Arroyo Grande had hardly a thousand people at the time. That included people living in pretty distant outlying areas and the town itself was pretty small. Barbara’s home was just about a block away. George would have been pretty dense if he couldn’t read the situation. When the truck rolled up to the house, George reached across and pulled the door handle for Patsy to hop out. She climbed down and ran into the house. Barbara lingered. When she came in the door Eileen asked her what had happened and she smiled from ear to ear and said, “He asked me out.”
And so it began. Once a week or so George would show up at the door and the two of them take in a movie at the Mission theater on Bridge Street, sandwiched between the bus depot and the telephone exchange on one side and an old Saloon on the other. They went to first run movies of the day such as Walt Disney’s Bambi, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby which my dad particularly liked, being a life long fan of Crosby’s voice. They saw Casablanca there too.
The old Arroyo Grande hall known as the “Rat Race” had slowed down because of the war. Harry Chapek, a lifelong friend of my dad had joined up on January 21st and was training as a 5th Armored Division tanker. He had fronted the house band at the hall since high school but with so many boys gone already local bands were hard to come by. They danced there too when they could.
Weekdays touring big bands came to the Pismo Pavilion where George and Barbara danced to Benny Goodman and Woody Hermans “Thundering Herd.” The managers would spread cornstarch on the dance floor to make it easier to glide and slide when twirling to the Lindy and the Two-Step Foxtrot. There was The Ward theater in Pismo and the pleasures of dining at Plessa’s restaurant or drinks and dinners at Matties where Mattie herself would tell ribald stories to the customers waiting for a table.
Mattie Belle was from Texas and a “Corker,” my grandfather said, meaning she was loud, profane and knew all the little town secrets. She had the gift of remembrance and she could remember a person she hadn’t seen for twenty years. “Jack, how are you,” she’d say, “Let me buy you a drink.” The secret was, that if she could get one in you, you’d buy more, wherein lay the profits. As for the secrets, a secret well kept is a lever. She kept her girls down in the cribs on Hinds Street where she collected information as well as currency. It’s the secret to being a good operator and the security needed to stay in business and out of trouble. It was a wide open town in the early forties and if you needed it you could get it. If they didn’t have it , it didn’t exist.
Dad had it made with these places because his family delivered milk to all the restaurants and cafes, grocery stores and homes in all the five-cities. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Barbara was charmed.
For a girl raised on the go, moving and shedding friends was what she was used to. Dating a man who was firmly rooted and the recipient of all the friendliness and care a small town can lavish on a person was a wonder to her.
Our little town was so small that you could contract all your business in just one block. Barbara left her home and walked across the swinging bridge on the way to work. She was the Jill of all trades at Cornelias dress store. She could stitch and sew, she had a marvelous eye for color and she could charm, the residue of a life trying to find the popular girls and boys in each school she ever went to. “Corny” Conrow treated her as a daughter. Barbara was starting to feel as if she was living in a place where she belonged, not just passing through. She liked it.
The Conrow’s were good friends of George’s parents and played cards with them once a week. No doubt Jack and Annie heard about this new girl George was seeing. Cornelia liked her very much and they would have known that. The Women’s Club, The Rebekahs, the bridge clubs, local festivals was where women shared what they knew. This new young woman was being investigated. It’s a little town thing. Is she good enough for our George? In a place like this you marry everyone. The good is shared, the bad is locked away. It’s like a Mafia.
She soon knew everyone on the block. The Pruess’s who had the Rexall, Hilda Harkness who owned the other dress store. Buzz Langenbeck and his wife Vareen, he cut men’s hair and she gave women their perms right behind the pink curtain at the rear of the barber shop. Clair Gibson down at the bank on the corner. There was Madsen’s hardware store, The Greyhound bus stop and cafe, The Quitman’s in their little men’s store and Bill Zeyen selling workingman’s clothes just up the street. Across from Cornelias was Bennetts grocery where “Rusty,” a confirmed redhead and his wife Muriel held court in their apron’s. Judge Jerry Dana presided over his municipal court and was fond of leaning out of his second story office window and waving to folks on the street.
She told us kids that in those days, women didn’t smoke on the street nor wore trousers, it was just too daring. Men tipped their hands to the ladies, never swore where a woman or child could hear them and kept their business to themselves. A safe place to be with kindly people who made you feel welcome.
As George was doing his courting he was slowly changing from formal dates at restaurants and theaters to the more mundane but even more important time together doing the ordinary. He would pick her up dressed in his boots and jeans, she in “Overhauls”, her hair up in a blue bandana which was becoming the fashion for young women and off they would go in the old milk wagon hauling milk and cream to the Golden State Creamery or running the routes to the grocery stores. There is an old movie film where she runs around the truck, laughing, and climbs in the passenger door as George smiles and waves from the drivers seat. Thats how she met people like Jack Ford who owned Ford’s Market in Pismo Beach or the Montgomery’s who had a little corner market in Oceano. They delivered to the old CCC camp down by the Southern Pacific tracks which was being converted to an R & R Center for the tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors flooding the county and filling all the new training camps to capacity. The war was everywhere and it was busy changing the entire population. As my father would say, Adolph Hitler stamped out the depression just like stepping on a bug.
Early in 1943 things between them were getting pretty serious. When a young man writes songs for a girl its all over for him. He has willingly put his foot in the tar baby. If you think you know your parents, well, you only know the version standing in front of you. You really only know what they let you see. That younger version is packed away somewhere, a place you will likely never go. The sad tale is, most never have an opportunity to dig that young person out, either because they never ask or when they do, it’s “Oh, you don’t want to know about that. It was long ago.” A child who listens carefully to adults gets glimpses of those people but most of that life is hidden from them. When they talk to you, everything they say is censored to some extent. Snippets from their lives are presented as lessons for you to learn. They are building character and only some blocks fit.
In the fall of forty-two, Bruce was promoted to Chief Drilling Superintendent for Signal Oil and Gas. This meant a move to Long Beach and the end of the families Arroyo Grande adventure. Barbara was not happy. She thought things were going so well that she didn’t want to leave. She had her job and she had George. She wanted to stay.
Part Four next.
Barbara and her mother sat down on sofa. Side by side on the sofa. “Mother, I don’t know what to do? I’m so scared.”
“Barbara, you have to tell him…..”