Lessons From The Grocery Store

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© 2017 by Bill Murphy

In the early 1990s, Robert Fulghum wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I suppose that if ever I wrote such a book, it would have to be titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in a Grocery Store.

I was born in February of 1941, ten months before Pearl Harbor’s day of infamy. By that time, Mom and dad had been married 6 years and he was manager of a grocery store. He was a farm-boy turned grocer. But like Za Za Gabor, had decided that farm livin’ was not the life for him.

In 1953, Jitney Jungle Stores of America, the locally owned company that Dad worked for, opened a new store in the new shopping center of Mart 51, in Jackson, MS. It was located at the intersection of old US Highway 80 and old US Highway 51. Hwy 80 ran East to Savannah GA on the Atlantic and West to San Diego on the Pacific. Hwy 51 ran South to New Orleans and North to Hurley, Wisconsin, just 10 mile shy of Lake Superior. Jackson called itself ‘The Crossroads of the South.’ We lived on Evergreen Ave., just 3 blocks north of this intersection.

After the store had been opened a short while, Dad discovered a small glitch in the system. In the early 1950s, grocery stores were never open 24/7. Hardly! Store hours at Jitney 19 were: Monday-Thursday, 7 AM to 6 PM, Friday and Saturday, 7 AM to 6:30 PM.  This limited shopping window was reflected in heavy traffic, especially on weekends. Oh, did I mention – we were NEVER OPEN on Sunday.

The store had 6 check-out stands, and on Fridays and Saturdays, all were usually manned with cashiers. The store also had one or two ‘bag-boys’ on hand weekends, whose job it was to sack the customer’s groceries and then take them to the customer’s vehicle. The ‘glitch’ was that on weekends the store was super busy. Because everyone was focused on getting customers checked-out and on their way, unused shopping carts were careless pushed aside, creating big blockages in the front aisle.

In 1953 I was in the 5th grade. But Dad put me to work each Thursday and Friday afternoons and all day Saturday – keeping these shopping carts returned to their proper place. So much for child-labor laws! (I was still working in that store when I graduated from high school in 1959.)

It wasn’t long before the shopping-cart job morphed into several other responsibilities: getting change for the cashiers, emptying their forever full trash containers, returning empty soft drink bottles to the wareroom – and bagging groceries.

Kids today simply can’t fathom how it was in the early 50s. Take for instance Health and Beauty Aids. In the early 1950s, it did not encompass 2 and 3 aisles in a store. It was truly a ‘section,’ and not a very large one! Deodorant for men was just catching on. And in the women’s section – as far as what was then called ‘sanitary supplies,’ it was simply one brand, one type, one variety, truly ‘one size fits all.’ Perhaps this next 1950s custom was only rooted in the deep south – but one of my earliest chores at Jitney 19 was to (in the privacy of the back wareroom) open the newly arrived factory-shipped box of feminine products, and using brown kraft paper, WRAP each and every package as if it was a Christmas Gift! Then, and only then, were these ‘embarrassing items’ placed on the store shelves! Who were they fooling? Oh well.

Employees fell into two categories: full time and part time. Full time employees were just that: 40 hours per week. Part time employees were scheduled as needed. I was in high school before I ever punched my first clock. At Jitney 19, the cashiers were full time, with benefits – what ever benefits the company had at the time. Checkout stands were assigned. If Mrs. Johnson’s favorite cashier was friendly Mrs. Smith, she knew to always expect her at the same register. Oh how times have changed!

Money. You’re probably wondering about the money – how much did we make. By the time I was in high school, my hourly rate had risen to almost 75c an hour. On top of that, we got tips! A few customers were known as big tippers, so there was a rush to carry out their groceries. A good tip was a quarter, never more. The usual was 5c or 10c. Most folks tipped.

We didn’t think we were getting rich, but we did know we were doing A-Ok. Understand we’re not talking about what a dollar will buy TODAY. Dad insisted that I save $5 from every paycheck. After this I could still: 1) Put enough gas in the family car for 50 miles or so. 2) Take the favorite girl to the Dog and Suds for burgers and malts. 3) Buy tickets to the latest movie. 4) Buy drinks and popcorn at the movie. And 5), still have enough pocket money left for myself to last until the next payday! (To put things into perspective – a ‘loaded’ hamburger, with a thick hand-moulded patty, painted with mayo, mustard, and ketchup ON BOTH BUNS, then pilled high with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, or whatever – was a quarter. A soft drink was a NICKLE – as were the burgers at Krystal. (I once ate 20 at one sitting!)

One irritating item seemed unfair to us. The store closed at 6:30 on Friday night. To my Dad, that meant that the front door was locked at 6:30 – not a second before. Technically, the store was NOT closed. The lights were on. Everyone was at their station of duty. So when stragglers rushed into the store at 6:29 and then proceeded to do their month’s worth of shopping – we were there to served them faithfully, if not begrudgingly, sometimes until almost 8 – although our PAY (as part-time employees) stopped at 6:30! I learned two lessons from this. One: Patience does not come naturally. And two: Some people actually think that they are numero uno.

I really enjoyed the position of bag-boy. I really did. It was like watching people at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. In Jitney 19 we saw all kinds! What an experience!

There was the day of the irritable mother and her cute teenage daughter. Mother was obviously irritated, maybe running late for something. I rolled the shopping cart filled with grocery bags to their station-wagon. The girl and I kept making goo-goo eyes at one another. Mommie raised the tailgate. The rear was filled with dozens of gallon cans of paint. Mommie Dearest barked at the girl to get in there and make room for the groceries. Embarrassed, sweet thing crawled inside. She sure looked good in those short shorts. When she lifted the second or third can of paint, it was upside down. As she passed it over her lap, the lid fell off! We had an already embarrassed damsel, and already irritated mother – and now we had damsel AND station wagon flooded with lime-green paint! Yes, I remember the color. I try NOT to remember the things that Mommie had to say about the mess.

I think it was in the 60s before the term hippie came to be. But in the mid 50s, we had our own hippie who shopped at Jitney. She was elderly. And skinny. Her skin was truly prune-like. Her hair, of course, was grey, and long and stringy. It was her attire that amazed everyone. She alway wore a black VEST, not buttoned but pinned in front – by a huge safety pin which left a wide gap in front. Just a skirt and vest – nothing under the vest. Yes, there were times that Jitney could be a real Jungle! I suppose that some of our customers were just in preparation for what was to come – Wal-Mart!

All This And No Money Either

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FPC, JCM, NMMC © 2017 Bill Murphy

When you have a large family, lived a long life, visited so many exotic places and done so many amazing things, you don’t have an excuse for not writing. Your problem is – writing about ‘WHAT?’ Sadly, things fall through the cracks. This morning, an unexpected Facebook post shook a basket of nuts from the tree.

Bishop Wallace, from my days with Jitney Jungle, was fond of saying, “All this and money too.” But FPC, JCM, and NMMC didn’t pay. They did however, claim that the retirement was out of this world.

All of my adult life I’ve worked with my eyes, hands, and imagination. I’m an artist, and paid for my keep through working as a commercial artist. I joking call that prostituting my talent. Basically – I sold pork chops for Jitney Jungle.

FPC, JCM, and NMMC didn’t sell anything, they offered a pathway to salvation.

FPC stands for First Pentecostal Church. Our family was faithful ‘dues paying’ members for 25 years + or – 1 or 2. Naturally, I volunteered my ‘gifting and abilities’ to the work of God. Shortly after our union with FPC, the church took over a struggling Bible School from Tupelo, bringing it to Jackson and renaming it JCM – Jackson College of Ministries. Only last week I ran across a proof copy of the very first JCM Catalog, which I helped layout and typeset. Soon came the monthly newspaper, conference displays, etc., etc., etc.

And then, FPC/JCM acquired a new Music Minister and Dean of Music – Lanny Wolfe. FPC and JCM were famous for their joint effort in the creation of the NMMC, The Nation Music Ministry Conference – a week long yearly event designed to educate, inspire, and showcase musicians from across the national United Pentecostal fellowship.

That was when the fun really began!

The annual NMMC was a big deal. It brought in hundreds of musicians and guests from across the nation. It was claimed that FPC would sit 1,000 – but this proved to be an exaggeration by a couple of hundred. The architects lied. Chairs in the aisles did little to help. The venue was moved to the Municipal Auditorium. The NMMC made no small economic impact on the city of Jackson either.

The NMMC was never a simple dog and pony show. No way. The days were filled with seminars from everything from fiddling to copyrights. And the night events were marathons of choirs, soloists, and dramas. My ears still ring.

And everything had it’s advertising, paperwork, forms, signage, banners, brochures, etc., etc., etc. Bill was a busy boy – for several months prior and until after the home stretch. At the time, I was probably singing to myself – If this is the days my friend, when will they ever end?

I still have a couple of old notebooks with ‘to do’ lists. I’m amazed at the length of those lists! But, I was younger then.

Now don’t get me wrong, I loved what I was doing. I felt honored to be a part of such a huge undertaking. But I also loved to grip and complain. Don’t we all?

All those fun-filled and heady days of FPC, JCM, and NMMC came roaring back this morning in the form of the drawing above of Elvis Wolfe, which Lanny posted on Facebook. I guess he must have recently run across it. The original Lanny Wolfe drawing was done for an NMMC project, and in a spare moment of madness, I took the time I couldn’t spare to create that little tension-releaser.

Thanks Lanny for sharing it with me – after all these years. As before, it brought a big smile to my face.

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The ‘Infamous’ GM&O Rebel

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When I was a small child, my mother’s older sister – known to the family simply as ‘Sister’ – lived in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Mom and I often visited her, riding the GM&O streamline passenger train THE REBEL. The Jackson, MS train station, now preserved as an historical site, was located just off Jefferson Street up the hill from the State Fair Grounds. The photo above is an earlier photo of the Rebel, when the GM&O was the GM&N. Notice the Old Capitol cupola behind the station. This was during the war years (WWII), so the train was always filled with soldiers, who according to Mom, ‘adopted’ me for the trip.

The Rebel was a unique train according to railroading history, a first of it’s kind. Up until the Rebel, built in 1935, all passenger trains in the US were ‘articulated.’ This means that each rail car SHARED a set of wheels between the cars. Individual passenger cars could not be uncoupled – none added or removed without serious work. The Rebel’s cars were built as are all passenger cars today, with wheel trucks on both ends.

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The Rebel also sported another ‘first’ for railroading – 5 airline-style HOSTESSES to cater to the needs of the passengers!

The Rebel was never know for its speed. The route from Jackson, TN to New Orleans, LA took 14 hours. Yes, this calculates to just under 35 miles per hour – but one must take into consideration the 55 STOPS it made along the way.

Speaking of stops – I remember one trip when we were traveling through typical rural southern countryside. The Rebel slowed down even slower. Looking out the window I saw an old woman waving something in her hand, as she trotted toward the tracks. The Rebel STOPPED and picked up her MAIL!

Being a railroad-minded child, I had my electric train. As a child’s toy, it simple went round and round an oval track. As a 3 and 4 year old, it greatly confused me that the Rebel LEFT the station heading RIGHT (south to Bogalusa) and RETURNED us to the station in Jackson heading LEFT. How did it turn around?

My mother loved to tell the (true) story of one return trip. I must have been no more than 3 at the time. She said that I refused to leave the station – until she led me up to the front of the train, where I could KISS the Rebel good-bye! Such has always been my fondness for trains!

The next time you’re in a bookstore, look for a book on American Railroading. You’ll find the Burlington’s Zephyr, Boston & Maine’s Flying Yankee, Illinois Central’s Green Diamond, and Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha. Chances are you won’t find the Rebel – or if you do – only a scant mention. That unfairness always puzzled me. A few years ago, the sad reason for this slight came to light.

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Unlike all the other glorious passenger trains of it’s day – the Rebel was designed and built for racial SEGREGATION! A schematic of a typical Rebel car, seen below, clearly reveals this. The smaller black section to the left has it’s own men’s and women’s restrooms – as does the larger white section to the right. (Schematic redrawn from an illustration in the GM&OHS NEWS).

Little 3 year old white boys in the early 1940s had no comprehension of this disparity. Therefore my memories of the Rebel are all beautifully positive – of happy times riding the rails – traveling to Bogalusa (a paper mill town) to visit my cherished aunt. And because of these trips, I still have a fondness for the sweet smell (to me) of a good ole paper mill. Ah, those were the days my friend!

 


This post is in response to the Daily Post Challenge.

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The Hell-evator

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© 2017 Bill Murphy

I once had a love/hate relationship with an elevator. I worked at the time in the sprawling McCarty-Holman 1920s era warehouse on Mill Street, in the Jitney Jungle corporate offices.

One gained access to our offices by a narrow flight of stairs built at an absurdly shallow angle. These much longer than necessary stairs zig-zagged thru four upward flights, divided by a short landing. Or – you could take a painfully slow, archaic elevator.

I use the term ‘elevator’ in a loose, technical sense. It could be best described as a metal cage. It invoked visions of a solitary confinement jail cell. But these doors ‘scissored‘ open and closed. Thankfully, the lower portion of the 3 cage-like walls were covered, but not the upper portions which revealed the stained brick walls of the elevator shaft, barely six inches away at most.

It was claustrophobic, no more than four feet square at the base. The load capacity of this rickety contraption was four.

More than a few people are nervous in any elevator, but this one had a quite higher than average fear-factor. Most folks took the stairs.

But I must say, this mechanical fossil had one redeeming feature; a beautiful art nouveau ceiling light medallion. The company closed in 2001, and I wanted that medallion, but it was not mine to take. Years later, fire took everything when the old building burned to the ground. Bitter/sweet memories of that old elevator remain.

Perhaps someday I’ll write a horror story featuring that infernal contraption. Unsuspecting souls will enter the prison-like cage and presses the button. Be it up or down, the devilish machine will always go DOWN. And as it descends faster and faster downward – the dirty brick walls appearing to be racing upward just inches away – it will descend faster and ever faster down into the very bowels of the earth. It makes your mind scream in terror.

That’s as much of the story as I care to think about right now!

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Aunt Penny

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Divorce is not a common thing in my extended family. Of the fifteen children of my grandparents, only two aunts divorced, both due to wandering husbands. One of those couples later remarried. So when my first marriage failed – I took it hard. The marriage was a failure, and I felt like a failure. I was taught that marriage is for keeps.

The circa 1960 photo at left from a postcard, is NOT the subject above –  although anyone who knows her would swear it is. It’s not kosher to have pics of old flames /wives laying around.

A few years after that failed marriage, love and marriage redeemed themselves in the form of Helen Carol Ringer Rainey. She and her 3 daughters Liz 4, Tricia 2, and Lois – new born, became not just a part of my life, but the very center of my life. Please see the post, ‘The Year That Changed It All.’

One Saturday afternoon years after Carol and I married, our 4 grammar school age girls were spending the day with my Mom. To keep the tykes entertained, Mom gave them old family photo albums to explore.

Now my Mom and I are alike in that we seldom throw away anything.  The girls discovered a photo of a pretty, young bride. “Who’s this?” they innocently asked.

Now to understand my mother’s reaction – and her answer inspired by that reaction – you have to understand that she was old-school prim and proper. “W-W-Why – that is – ” she stammered, “that is – your – your – your –  Aunt Penny!

The girls had found a picture of their dad’s first wife! To this day, we all continue to refer to her as ‘Aunt Penny.’

We were high school sweethearts, Aunt Penny and I. We came together through a simple misunderstanding. She and I were in the same history class. At the time, she had the hots for a boy who lived across the street from her grandfather 100+ miles north. The boy’s name was Billy Frye. As love-sick girls are apt to do, she’d written ‘Penny + Billy’ on the front of her notebook. Another of our class-mates spotted her little love notation, and assumed that this ‘Billy’ must surely be yours truly. So my buddy suggested that I invite her out on a double date. Our first date was on December 7th – Pearl Harbor Day.

I don’t know if I won out over the other Billy or if she simply opted for a Billy closer to home, because by the next weekend we were going steady. That second date was Friday – the 13th!

I suppose we were your typical 50s couple, doing all the silly stuff only adolescents dare. We talked on the phone endlessly about nothing, passed notes in class, walked the halls hand in hand, and made impossible plans. We were young and foolish, far too wrapped up in one another to be much a part of our high school scene. We claimed to be in love, yet neither of us truly understood the definition of real love. This failure did nothing to enhance our continuing relationship.

We wanted to marry right out of high school but got resistance from our parents. “Wait a year, maybe two.” If we’d waited two, we probably never would have married. She got a job in Jackson and off to Mississippi State I went to study aeronautical engineering, and to wait out that year.

I only missed two weekends coming home that year. Several of my hometown pals rode back and forth with me on occasion. Because I always left Jackson as late as possible those Sunday nights, one of them named my car ‘The Midnight Cannonball.’ Another replied, “At least the sun’s not in our eyes.”

The wedding was in her home. It lasted 12 minutes flat, reception following. I think I still have the 8mm home movies.

The divorce came seven years later. Of course there were good times in between, but I’ll save that for later. The last time we saw one another was the day she drove off into the sunset, April Fool’s Day of 1968. We had a thing about special dates.

Years later, Carol and I we were cleaning up after a successful garage sale when she commented, “Well now I’ve gotten rid of everything that once belonged to Aunt Penny.” “No you haven’t,” I replied, “You still have me!”

And she still does!

 

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