Like molasses and butter, poured over a mess of buckwheat cakes, her grin spread in warm recollection. Hazel Smith, who was ninety-eight years old, relished a historical fact: When she was young, you couldn't find a more adventuresome girl in all of Hope County. And if you know anything at all, that says a lot.
She drew herself up in the tattered arms of a green chintz recliner. And though shifting her gaze to the window lace I knew full daylight was little more than an indistinct glow full of vague moving shapes. Cataract surgery be damned.
I yelled, "Tell me more, Grandma!" Her hearing was not so good either. You had to yell to get past the whistling feedback of those ill-fitting hearing aids. She'd happily take the hint and jump right into the middle of the memory she'd probably just then been grinning about.
"Well, I was adventuresome alright but without taking a risk now and then how's a girl ever gonna know herself?" she said. "And I don't mean wrestling sheep for the 4-H none, you can bet. The smelly things."
She went on. "Sure we were all a bit more back then. You know. But this time it was your grandpa Ben who got the daring idea. You see after Pearl Harbor right away our boys had all gone in with the Service to fight. It was awful quiet round the supper table after that you can bet. One night Ben reach out, took my hand and said 'Hazel, let's you and I go to California and join the war effort. Be closer to the boys'. This took my breath away. I got up and started packing then and there."
In the following week Ben boarded up their little cabin in the Ozarks and took care of business in town. Soon after; first by buckboard, second by train, they were headed for Los Angeles California.
In a quonset hut big enough to host a football match in the California rainy season the foreman paced the aisles. He went in for teasing all the women handling riveters and other tools row after row. He called out one day.
"Well Hazel, I've never heard of a girl from Arkansas wearing shoes."
Someone snickered behind her. A woman with course hair and sad eyes leaned close and whispered "Don't you pay attention dear. The man's horrid."
Hazel already could tear down a pneumatic drill and put it back together in nothing flat. As for a little tease and grease, she could take it and hand it back even a little bit better.
"Mister Martin, sir," Hazel laid her wrench aside. "You probably know girls from Arkansas are shy. And why everyone here is a stranger to me. And this being the first time we ever spoke you must have looked up my file."
There was nervous whispering.
"And so you may have read in that file of yours both me and my husband have boys out in the field barely old enough to drive but more than able to fight. I imagine that goes for many of the ladies here."
The foreman stood now with his hands on his hips, chewing his cigar. Her voice echoed in the silence of idle rivet guns and sheet metal.
"So I appreciate you taking the time to make a little fun of me. You see now I've got something in common with all the ladies here who've been poked at by you. Now maybe we are a bit more of a team if you and the ladies'll have me. I was too shy. You are a very smart man mister Martin. Very smart."
The foreman grunted and chewed the cigar on the other side of his mouth. His eyes dared her to say one more thing.
"So to answer," said Hazel, "Why sure a girl in Arkansas can wear shoes. I still got my first pair. (Here she showed the work boots she wore, standard issue) My husband bought them for me on our wedding day."
"All right. All right," snapped the foreman, shaking his head with a tired expression. "What's everyone doing? Is this break time? Back to work. Back to work. Let Arkansas here show you how."
The following Saturday, Hazel took the trolley across the big city to the Bullock Wilshire department store. She heard from one of her new friends the Bullock Wilshire was four acres of shopping one just had to see to believe. Another friend with a smudge of grease on her nose warned: "You can get lost in there."
So why did Hazel insist on going alone? As she would tell you herself she was more adventuresome in those days.
Where the streetcar dropped her, Hazel gazed, following the lines of art-deco architecture upward. Puffy clouds dog-paddled slowly by the dizzying tower until the honk of a taxi rudely nudged her. She stepped to the sidewalk and under the ceiling mural of the port-cochère.
Over the travertine foyer floor shoppers bustled about carrying colorful boxes and bags. They looked almost business-like about it all.
Inside the vaulted Perfume Hall walls of St. Genevieve marble stood awash in muted natural light. Elegant, stuck-up, saleswomen extended offers of welcome from scented bottles. Hazel sniffed this ode to Paris and that, nodded and moved on, trying to avoid the ladies wherever possible. There was too much other stuff to explore.
Elevators finished in nickel and brass took her to floors displaying clothes and accessories in glass cases on polished rosewood stands.
There were showrooms and salons. The Louis XVI Room had designer dresses and furs modeled by dummies with the most peculiar mute expressions.
At times she’d pause to look at some modern wonder designed specially to make life easier for a woman. She couldn’t tell what it was. A useful thing should be at least recognizable.
She tired. Somehow missing home and the boys took hold and would not let go. It was a bother she could not find the elevator. The aisles meandered among children’s toys and then a department full of accessories for dogs and cats. She turned again; sure she had just gone in a circle.
The women’s shoe salon was wood-paneled and deep. The Saddle Shop featured vermilion floor tiles, wall cases of deep red oak, and a life-size plaster horse. And where is a saleswoman when you really need one?
She turned again. Never had Hazel Smith, mother of four, gotten lost in the wild North of Arkansas. There was good reason to be proud of that. But here she was starting to feel afraid and hurried--like a small furry creature gazing up from a waste paper basket.
At last, she spotted a lady between the racks of goods and headed somewhere in a hurry. It took only a glance at this woman’s understated and sensible dress to see she’d be some help and comfort to talk to. Hazel blurted out, “Oh Ms., I got lost up here. Can you please show me the way to the elevator?”
They gawked at each other for a moment in pure wonder. What was wrong? One can never tell how these strangers will take things. But Hazel had only caught herself in front of a wall-length mirror.