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Over Easy: Recalling the American Dream

dad at pearl harbor
Ray Owings, age 90, at Pearl Harbor in March, 2013

In case you missed it:

Good morning! This is a true account of the early years in a WWII veteran’s life, as told by Ray Owings, age 90. Ray talks about the American Dream. Is such a concept possible today? I have always associated it with being able to ‘do better,’ ie live more comfortably, than our prior generations through hard work. The other part of it, in my mind, is some type of education, but others may not share this broad definition. On that topic, I’ll share a link about how teachers and immigrant students in a high school in Portland are working with the many challenges they face today:

“Imagine moving to Moscow right now, and after a month there you had to learn science in Russian,” David Douglas High teacher Nathan Owings says of the school’s immigrant students. “How would you do?”

Miracle on 135th Avenue
A Portland high school where students speak 55 languages shows Oregon how to reform education.

Recalling the American Dream

Some may call what took place over my lifetime the American Dream. You hear that term, but no one ever gets to the nitty-gritty of how that was obtained. To do that, I think it is necessary to begin at the beginning. When I look over my life, I can divide it into segments, each lasting about twenty years.

I was born in 1923 in Bates City, MO, where my parents worked on a farm. My dad had attended a small one-room country school. When I was five or six, we moved to Oak Grove, where he ran an elevator. We met the school principal in the post office one day, and my dad asked if I could start school early, at age five. My dad was a champion at pool in town; he had very muscular forearms, and I always believed that this was probably from milking cows during his farm years.

We moved to Lebanon, MO in 1929, at the beginning of the Depression, but the Kansas City flour mill (KC Flour Mills), where my dad worked as a salesman for flour and feed, folded up and he lost his job. We moved to Macon, MO, where he ran a bulk truck for Standard Oil.

In Macon, we lived in a house next to the jail and across from the courthouse. This was during the Prohibition, and every once in a while, the sheriff would make a run into the country and bring in a still. He’d lay all the still’s accoutrements out on the sidewalk, and I enjoyed that, because I liked to eat the dried fruits sometimes used for making moonshine mash.

My dad sold kerosene and gasoline for Standard Oil; he knew the sheriff and they were on friendly terms. My dad could pinpoint the stills by his kerosene sales. Nobody was using 50 gallons of kerosene to run a small house, but my dad never told the sheriff and the sheriff never asked, because the sheriff already knew anyway. If you really want to shake it down, this was during the years of the Pendergast political machine, a time during which there was money in bootleg whiskey (as well as a monopoly on jobs and an unspoken mandate on which stores you could trade in, at least in some parts of Missouri).

Prohibition-era still photo by Lenny Frank on flickr

I went to school in Macon up until the middle of sixth grade. In 1934, my dad quit Standard Oil and bought a restaurant in Louisiana, MO, for six-hundred dollars. In February, 1934, we all got into a Chevy four-door sedan for the move, and there was a young woman living with us. She was thirteen, and the people she lived with were hard on her and mean to her. She was badly treated, so she came with us, and we all piled into that car.

Louisiana was on the Mississippi, and it was a good town for business. There was a button factory, where they made buttons out of shells from the river, a tool factory, a glove factory, a basket factory, and Stark’s Nursery, which always had good stock.

It was the height of the Depression, so the restaurant business was not an easy one. My mother, dad and I all worked there, at the Owings Cafe. I washed dishes, learned to cook and learned to run things. My dad was the best pool player in town, and he was on good terms with everyone, including the winos and the lowest of the low. One time a wino came in, belly hanging out and hairs on his chest, and he announced, “Where’s Upton? I’m sick!” My mother threw the man out before my dad could get to him, and a man sitting on a stool at the counter said, “Well now, Pearl, do you always treat your customers that way?”

My sixth grade teacher was big and tough, and dressed all the way to the floor in a high-neck dress. Her daughter taught English, and in the 8th grade I had her. At school there was an equivalent to the PTA, and our restaurant would also help out, and we would take turns cooking meals for the kids. You would see sixteen and seventeen-year-old kids come into the eighth grade class, often for the sole purpose of the noontime meal, because this was all they had. We might make a big pot of macaroni and cheese, or stew. Sometimes we made a big pot of chili, and this was high-octane fuel for the kids. The local dairy might contribute a little bottle of milk, and the local bakery would give rolls or bread for the meal. The older kids had a tendency to run things, and they ran the little kids off sometimes.

I finished the eighth grade in 1936 and started high school. I didn’t do well in classes that required time outside of class because I was busy working in the restaurant and had no time to study.

to be continued. author’s disclosure:

Ray is my father. There is another essay from Ray here.

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