I received my first up-close experience with the grocery business when my Mom and her sister Aunt Tooky (Thelma) bought the Quality Grocery Store in El Dorado in 1948. Aunt Tooky was a very special aunt from St. Louis, Missouri, and at that time was the wealthiest person I had ever met. Her husband, Uncle Max Manne owned the Artistic Furniture Company and had made his fortune building moderately priced furniture. He once told me that he had invented the sofa hide-a-bed concept, but the Simmons Company had stolen the idea from him and had made millions with the product. Aunt Tooky was the one who personally introduced me to two of my heroes at that time; Stan Musial and Roy Rogers.
Neither Mom nor Aunt Tooky had any interest in the grocery business. Their brothers Ed and Paul West had just returned from serving in the U.S. Army in World War II and needed work so this seemed like a good option for them. After the purchase was finalized and the store was operational Aunt Tooky decided to live with us for several months to help Mom with the management of the store. Uncle Paul and Uncle Ed handled the meat market and the produce portion of the business.
They had one other employee a delivery man named Clarence who was in his early twenties in age. As a young black man he became the brunt of many pranks by my uncles who were masters at that sort of thing. They were always telling Clarence he needed to “find a good woman to marry,” and they were going to help him find just the right one. Clarence would usually tell “Mr. Paul” and “Mr. Ed” he wasn’t ready to “take that step just right now.” Because the store was not making much profit they were not able to purchase Clarence either a truck or a motor scooter to make deliveries. He had a bicycle with a basket on front which was large enough to hold most orders. The majority of his deliveries were within a two mile radius, so bicycle deliveries were manageable. Clarence spent most of his working day making deliveries which prevented him from spending much time in the store. He would probably would have endured more pranks had he been in the store more often.
Bobbie Fike was working as a maid in our home during this period, and her service was invaluable to us since Mom spent most of her days in the store. Sister Bobbie not only kept the house spotless, but her noon lunches were so delicious my sister Marilyn and I still reminisce about them when we’re together. Mom had known Sister Bobbie for several years before she and Pops married because Sister Bobbie had done domestic work for her back in the early 1940’s. Both Uncle Ed and Uncle Paul had known her since those days, and she also became the object of a few of their practical jokes.
Mom’s personal grocery shopping became much easier while managing the store because she could call Sister Bobbie for the things needed at home, and have Clarence deliver them to her on his bicycle. Our home was about a mile away and usually there was another order close-by which would make his deliveries more efficient. By the time Clarence had made four of five deliveries to our home, he commented to Uncle Paul that Sister Bobbie was not very friendly to him. Uncle Paul teasingly said to him, “You had better be careful how you treat Bobbie Fike. She is one of the meanest women I have ever known.” Clarence responded, “She don’t look all that mean to me, and I ain’t gona’ try to make her mad anyhow.” Uncle Paul said, “If you don’t believe me, ask Mr. Ed just how mean she is. He has known her a long time and remembers one of her former husbands.” When Clarence got Uncle Ed alone, he asked him about Sister Bobbie and told him what Uncle Paul had said. He picked up on the joke and began laying the ground work for another prank. He told Clarence, “Bobbie Fike has a terrible temper and once when she got into a fight with one of her husbands, she stabbed him with a butcher knife. He was lucky to live, and he got a divorce from her the next week.” He expanded on the story, “Another time, a delivery man knocked on the back door and when she didn’t hear, he knocked so hard on the door, it made the door rattle. She came to the door with a pan of boiling water and threw it in his face through the screen door telling him he shouldn’t make so much racket. It caused all the skin to peel off his face and he was in the hospital for two weeks before he could even eat.” Clarence said, “You and Mr. Paul are telling a big story on that woman, and I don’t think she could be that mean.” But the seeds of doubt had been planted.
About a week later Sister Bobbie called Mom and told her she needed a large number of groceries and in particular, some items she needed that morning to prepare lunch. Mom gathered the two sacks of groceries and asked Clarence to deliver them to the house. Uncle Paul overheard and decided to spring the trap on Clarence. Mom didn’t know anything about the tale that her two brothers had told him. Uncle Paul then called Sister Bobbie and said they wanted to pull a joke on Clarence. He told her, “When Clarence knocks on the back door, wait an extra minute or two to make him knock louder and longer than usual. Get a small pan of cool water, and when you go to the door throw it through the screen door and tell him he is making too much racket.” In about thirty minutes when Clarence arrived he found Sister Bobbie was not in the kitchen as usual, so he began knocking louder, and at the same time calling out her name. When she finally arrived he noticed the small pan in her hand and he began backing up, remembering what Mr. Ed had told him. When Sister Bobbie shouted he shouldn’t make so much noise and threw the cold water through the screen, he was so far back from the door very little water got to him. Both sacks of groceries were thrown in the air and he made a scramble to get to his bike and away to safety. Sister Bobbie called Mom and told her that Clarence had dropped both sacks on the back steps and had made a big mess! The only real loss was the quart of milk which was in a glass bottle. When Clarence got back to the store he told Mr. Paul and Mr. Ed she really was the meanest woman he ever met. As the two jokers laughed about the incident they told Clarence they had put her up to it and she was not really a mean woman. In fact they said Sister Bobbie was such a good cook she might make him a good wife. Clarence dismissed the idea completely by saying, “she is way too old for me.”
During the next year or so while the Quality Grocery was owned by our family Clarence continued delivering groceries in the neighborhood and also to our home. He knew he had been the object of a prank and understood Sister Bobbie didn’t intend to hurt him. Whenever he delivered to our house he would set the groceries on the back steps, knock on the door and quickly get on his bike. By the time Sister Bobbie arrived at the door he was half way up the driveway.