A Trip to the G&O on the PB-WS Bus

Each episode of “The Way We Were” is an adventure, often down paths I have not thought about for years. One source of memories, particularly those that recur from time to time and may still affect us in subtle ways, often stems from something a relative said. My latest jaunt down “reflection lane” comes from a bus trip I made to Willow Springs with my grandmother. 
Today, the distance between Montier and Willow Springs on U.S. Highway 60 is about 25 miles. As the crow flies, it’s 22 miles. In 1957, the “crow distance” was still the same, but the old version of Highway 60, a winding and hilly blacktop, was two miles longer, which made the trip timewise and socially more dramatic. As a character in the Ozark novel, Geese to a Poor Market, said, “Son, when you go south of the Jack’s Fork River, you go into a different world.” For me back then, Willow Springs was an exotic, far-away place.
As early as the 1930s, Schofield Bus Lines operated bus service from Poplar Bluff to Willow Springs, and advertised it provided the “shortest route to Springfield via Ellsinore, Freemont, Winona, Birch Tree, [and] Mountain View.” In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Poplar Bluff-Willow Springs Bus Line, headquartered first in Ironton, and by 1956, in Poplar Bluff, operated bus service between the two towns. In addition to scheduled stops, it paused for passengers in Montier at Longnecker’s grocery store on Highway 60.  
The other general store across the highway, Welsh’s Grocery, and the Montier U.S. Post Office (zip code 65546) no longer exist, but Longnecker’s old store structure located just east of the Church of God of Prophecy still stands. Incidentally, the parents of WSHS graduates, Joanne Longnecker Taylor and Janie Longnecker Crewse operated the Montier store, formerly owned by Pete Nicholson.
In 1957, when I was around 9 years old, my grandmother and I rode the Poplar Bluff-Willow Springs bus from Montier to Willow Springs so my grandmother could cook in my mother and stepfather’s restaurant. Until a new weekend cook was hired, my grandmother would fill in. Grandpa would drive up in the afternoon to take us back to Montier that night.
The PB-WS bus was smaller than, say, a Continental Trailways Golden Eagle coach.  Although probably manufactured on a General Motors limousine chassis, it looked more like a stretched-out station wagon. Inside, it had four rows of seats; the two rows behind the driver’s seat faced each other. 
How do I remember this detail? First, an incident on a trip etched a picture in my mind (more on that later). And secondly, I confirmed it with my older, smarter brother. I wasn’t aware brother Jack had ever been a passenger on the old PB-WS bus line, but it turns out his return bus trip from St. Louis, after signing up for the Marine Corps, ended in Poplar Bluff one cold night in 1961. With limited funds, he negotiated a partial night’s stay in a hotel and caught the PB-WS bus to Montier the next morning. Jack recalls he had barely gotten warm, when he had to get up. 
Shortly after my grandmother and I boarded the bus that morning, a woman and her daughter, perhaps, 3- or- 4 years old, sat down on the seat facing ours. Surprisingly, we didn’t know them, but my grandmother and the lady passed pleasantries, while I munched on a candy cigarette from a pack I purchased in the store. My grandmother nodded at me and glanced at the girl, indicating I should offer one to her. 
My hesitance prompted a grimace from Grandma, but the women continued to talk, and the candy cigarettes were no longer an issue, so I thought. But before we got halfway to Mountain View, the hilly winding road took its toll on the little girl—she got car sick and threw up. This prompted another disapproving look at me from my grandmother.
I had seen that look before, a longsuffering countenance that told me I wasn’t measuring up to proper standards. My grandmother never raised her voice or hand to me, and I adored her, but her normally pleasant face could, as she described, “cloud-up” in an expression that would evoke shame and regret in the toughest of boys. She leaned over and whispered, “Maybe, if you had given her a piece of your candy, it would have settled her stomach.” Yikes—I felt like a dying calf in a hailstorm. 
For the record, my hesitance didn’t come from being stingy. Today, I know it was shyness. I felt awkward and didn’t have social skills equal to the situation, but after her sickness abated, I gave the girl a cigarette. By the time we got to Willow Springs, the candy cigarette incident was long forgotten . . . but apparently not lost forever. I suppose the incident has stuck with me as a lesson that you can’t always let shyness keep you from taking action.
My mother Opal and stepfather George had opened the short-lived and long-forgotten G&O Café in Willow Springs on Main Street between James Chevrolet (now, Coulter Heating and Cooling) and Doc Hicks’s poolhall. Open 24-hours a day, it boasted a pinball machine and a coin-operated arcade-style shooting game, which I eventually played for hours using coins painted with red fingernail polish that didn’t go back to the vendor. My shooting skills got quite proficient, and when G&O offered prizes for high scores, the customers insisted they should not have to compete against me.
With the vending machines and a jukebox filled with popular songs by Fats Domino, Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, and Elvis Presley, it became a hangout for teenage boys. Somehow these kids, with the language they used and the clothes they wore, seemed hipper, slicker, and cooler to me than the farm kids I knew. Some wore “tight-legged” jeans (my grandfather’s description) that hung low on their hips and barely contained the tails of their T-shirts. Others wore khaki trousers they called “Ivy-Leagues,” that had a short strap and buckle below beltline on the back. They all seemed to chew gum and say “daddy-o” and referred to girls “chicks.” In all, just fascinating to an impressionable youngster who seldom saw TV.  
It was also a rendezvous for the “after hours” folks looking for an early morning/late night breakfast to quell appetites enhanced by an evening at the honky-tonks. According to my mother, this was the site where Big John Fair (mentioned in a previous column) chug-a-lugged a bottle of catsup. 
The menu served breakfast at all hours, a lunch special, and homemade pies that my mother made. She complained that George insisted she use lard to make the piecrusts instead of Crisco. George had another pet peeve—meatloaf. He voiced the objection so many times that although I love meatloaf and make it often, every time I see it on a restaurant menu, I can hear him saying, “Never eat meatloaf in a restaurant, you don’t know what kind of [expletive omitted] they put in it.” Since the G&O wasn’t the first restaurant he owned, I’m suspicious it may have been an admission.
More than the bus rides, vending machines, and hip teenagers, the Saturday matinees at Star Theater, often Westerns, highlighted my early trips to Willow. The over-salted popcorn and watered-down soda didn’t diminish my enthusiasm to return. And little did I know how many future memories would be made there.
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