GROWING UP HILLBILLY – CHAPTER XX

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New York, New York

New York, New York

When I was discharged, the U. S. Navy paid my train fare from Portsmouth, Va to Charleston with a small severance pay in cash. I saw my mother on the platform at the C&O Depot. Still angry, I wanted nothing to do with her. My life was screwed up and I blamed her.

I walked several cars back and got off toward the rear of the train. With so many people getting off, I slipped into the waiting room and out the other side. Instead of going home, I took a cab to a downtown hotel.

For three days I holed up in my room and tried to figure out what to do. Finally, I called my friend Sonny Lofts. He met me at the Summers Street Diner. Sonny played piano and sang. We had worked some of the beer joints in town as a duo, but both wanted something more. During my running away days, New York had been one of my destinations. I’d spent only a few days there before a one-way ticket awaited me at the Greyhound Depot, but New York had seduced me. I knew that someday I’d be back.

I was so angry with my mother I swore I would never go home ever again.

So that afternoon in my hotel room Sonny and I made our plans. He had some money. I had my severance pay, minus my hotel costs. Mom had remarried some cowboy from Montana before I left for the navy. They both were working days, so it was easy for me to slip into the house, pack my bag, spend the night at Sonny’s and hit the highway by way of thumb on our way to Parkersburg where we bought two one-way tickets to New York. We didn’t purchase tickets in Charleston because mom my would be working and, even if she wasn’t, there would have been a phone call from one of the other waitresses. I had no intention of having anything to do with my mother because she caused me to get kicked out of the Navy.

The bus took us north to Pittsburgh and across the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Philadelphia and on to New York. Sonny and I managed to get seats up front close to the driver. As the bus approached the Holland Tunnel, it was late at night and I noticed an orange light on top of a building in the distance. “What’s that little building?” I asked.

The driver laughed. “Son, that’s the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world.”

I shrunk down into the seat and shut up.

New York, New York

Due to the war with so much troop movement, most transportation terminals set up information bureaus. An attendant in the Greyhound Depot directed us to the YMCA on 23rd Street where we checked in for the night.

Aware of the need to find some kind of job right away, the following morning we hit the employment office. There were more jobs than man power. Sonny found work in a mid-town restaurant. I was hired as an elevator operator at the Pennsylvania Hotel. Of course these were to be temporary jobs. We were entertainers and intended to find employment as a duo. That would not be our future in New York.

I’d never heard of the Café Rouge, The Pennsylvania Hotel’s big band venue. Since I had no experience operating an elevator, I was not immediately designated as a main lobby operator. Instead my job would be the back elevators that led down to the Café Rouge, which meant that my passengers would be the night club’s patrons and employees which, included the band members.

I did not know that I would be part of music history. I got to meet many famous band leaders and their singers, which included Glen Gray and Glenn Miller and his crew; Tex Beneke, Ray Eberle, the Modernaires and Betty Hutton’s sister Marion.

One of the great delights of my young life occurred with Glenn Miller.

He’d always ask, “What would you like to hear tonight, kid?” I was called on the carpet several times when I kept the car door open, ignoring the buzzer so I could hear the Miller Orchestra’s wonderful tunes drifting out of the Café Rouge.

When the hotel transferred me to the front elevators I missed the music. I remember one celebrity while working the main elevators. My passenger was cowboy movie star Roy Rogers who asked directions to the Lincoln Hotel where Harry James and his orchestra were playing. He was so friendly I couldn’t believe he was a movie star. People I’d met from Hollywood over the years always insinuated that they were all unapproachable. Of course, being a dumb-assed hillbilly they probably thought that Hollywood would be beyond my educational level. Mr. Rogers threw a monkey wrench into the argument. He was about as plain and respectful of others as anybody from up the holler.

There were more treats for me in the Big Apple and some disappointments also. While I worked at the Pennsylvania Hotel, I still had the urge to sing with a band in a night club. One night oft from work I took the IRT Subway down to Greenwich Village and strolled down Third Street where clubs and bars liked both side. My luck was about to change.

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