Grove City, PA

After nearly two years in the South Pacific, I returned to Palos Verdes in December of 1947. I had forgotten what it was like to wake up mornings without having to check for my wallet and wristwatch. Thievery was so common in Asia, while sleeping I had lost wristwatches, wallets, and once even a pistol from under my pillow.

Bob Peterson, my former partner in dealings with Java China Trading Company, soon arrived from Shanghai to join his bride Kitty in San Francisco. Bob, who was a crack engineer, had accepted employment with Cooper & Bessemer Machine Company in Grove City, Pennsylvania, near his home town of Meadville. Bob and Kitty invited me to go east with them in their new convertible Chevrolet and I accepted the invitation.

The three of us soon struck out for Meadville, arriving late February to a cold sub-zero Pennsylvania winter. Bob had rarely communicated with his folks other than letting them know he was married and finally coming home so it was a joyous homecoming for the Peterson family. As had been the case with my own folks, I think Bob’s parents nearly gave up hope of ever seeing him alive again. Bob had indeed survived many life-threatening situations in his young life, and really was lucky to still be alive.

Bob and Kitty rented an apartment in Grove City, with me sleeping on their sofa. Bob started his new job and it wasn’t long before Cooper & Bessemer realized they hired a genius. The company was launching a program to install huge Cooper & Bessemer stationary engines all over the world, and Bob was soon being groomed for the project.

Bob told the company that with my overseas experience, I was a good candidate for the division also, so I was invited for an interview. Much to my surprise, they hired me to be trained for engine installations abroad. I was skeptical but decided to give it a try. Prior to international assignment, I had to work locally as an apprentice engineer to be familiarized with the particular stationary engines I would be installing.

I rented a small apartment next to the local coffee shop, sent home for a few more heavy coats, and went to work. Bob usually underestimated everything about me, but in this instance, it soon became clear he vastly overestimated my ability to absorb, virtually overnight, the engineering skills necessary to fulfill the company’s criteria. Nevertheless, I had made it through Officer’s Cadet School and Marine Officer’s Upgrading School so I buried myself in Cooper & Bessemer engine manuals.

Saturday after my first week at work, Bob and Kitty picked me up and we all went to the local theater for an evening show. During the second feature, an attractive blonde arrived and sat next to me. Other than bumping arms a few times, nothing notable happened between us during the show. Since the movie had already started when we arrived, we stayed for the next showing to watch the beginning. When the movie reached the point where we first arrived, Bob Kitty and I got up and started working our way to the isle.

Bob tapped me on the shoulder and told me the blonde had tried to whisper her phone number to me as I passed by but I had not noticed. Not wanting to lose out, I worked my way back down the row behind her, and asked if she had volunteered her phone number as we passed by. She said she had not, but her family owned the neighborhood grocery store, and if I stopped by the next day, she would be there.

Failing to share my enthusiasm in carrying on a conversation with the flaxen beauty, several patrons, especially those directly behind me, began to complain so I made a hasty retreat. Outside I learned that Bob had made the whole thing up about the girl whispering her phone number to me. Life was never boring around Bob; out of curiosity or pure orneriness, it’s a wonder he didn’t get us killed on a number of occasions.

Though she appeared mature beyond her years in the dark theatre, the girl, Betty, I believe was her name, turned out to be only a teenager. I lost interest in her romantically due to her age, but having nothing else to do, I got in the habit of stopping by the store and visiting with Betty, or her mother, or whoever happened to be there. With few acquaintances in Grove City, I grew to consider both Betty and her mother as friends.

One week I invited Betty, with her mother’s knowledge and consent, to go later in the week to a movie with Bob, Kitty and I. When we came by to pick Betty up as planned, some rude fellow was there with a chip on his shoulder. The man told me he was Betty’s stepfather and ordered me out of the store.

As I was leaving, the man for some reason took it upon himself to continue antagonizing me by telling me no ex-service man could possibly have honorable intentions toward his daughter, and so on. I really felt now like I needed to explain myself so I tried to assure the man of my good intentions by telling him I had been just as friendly with his wife as with Betty.

Failing to get my meaning, the man was so enraged by that comment he leaped over the counter with apparent intentions of throwing me out bodily. Not wanting to retreat, and trying to diffuse the situation with humor, I picked up a couple of tomatoes and said, "I don’t fight old men, but would you consider using eggs or tomatoes"? By that time, it didn’t matter what I said. The man was so agitated that anything at all coming from me only added fuel to the fire.

Bob and Kitty who had been waiting for me in the car had grown restless so Bob came through the door to see what the holdup was. Laughing when he saw the poor man jumping around ready to fight, Bob said something like, “What the hell did you do now Phil?” With Peterson and I both laughing, the man came to his senses enough to restrain himself and calmly ask us to leave, which we did.

I later learned the stepfather’s overreaction was perhaps understandable, if not defensible, considering just prior to my entering the scene, Betty and a young man had been caught in a local church under indelicate circumstances. To make matters worse, Grove City was a Christian college town in a county still governed by Blue Laws.

Blue laws were an odd conflagration of local codes with origins dating back to seventeenth-century Puritan society. The townsfolk no longer practiced cutting off ears or burning out tongues for moral turpitude but they were still prudish, at least in their expectations of public demeanor. Betty's friendliness was apparently a continuing source of embarrassment to her stepfather.

Blue Laws essentially shut Grove City down on Sundays, closing the theatre and most, but not all, other businesses. It was against the law to trade horses on the Sabbath, but car dealerships were allowed to open as usual. The 50-mile stretch of highway to Youngstown, Ohio was also suspiciously busy Sundays. Youngstown was said to have a thriving prostitution trade as well as other vises not available in Grove City. In the end, it seemed the only thing Pennsylvania's Blue Laws accomplished was to expose hypocrisy among the pious. To his credit, before I left town, Betty’s stepfather sought me out and apologized for the way he treated me.

My second weekend in town I decided to call my Mehan relatives in Philadelphia. I had visited them several weeks earlier, prior to going to work and wanted to bring them up to date. After being disconnected several times, the operator reconnected me, and then stayed on the line monitoring my call to make sure it didn’t happen again before I was finished.

The operator, who had a very nice voice, had gone out of her way to take good care of me and so after my call to the Mehans ended, a conversation with the operator ensued. I ended up getting her name and an agreement to meet. Later I started worrying about what the operator might look like, so I decided to pose as a telephone repairman and see if I could get a peek at her prior to going out with her.

I called at the back door of the telephone company and told the person who answered that I was there to look at their switchboards. I thought the ruse was over when I was immediately escorted to the supervisor but it turned out they actually were having trouble. The supervisor described the problems they were having, then moved aside and turned the entire switchboard over to me.

The main switchboard overlooked all the operator’s switchboards and had their names displayed. I spotted my future date but the girls had their backs to me so I couldn’t tell what she looked like without figuring out a way to get her to turn around and face me. I got her on the line, and as far as she knew, I was talking to her from an outside phone.

In an effort to get her to look around, I told her that, believe it or not, I possessed psychic powers, and all she would have to do was think of the color of her blouse for example and I could describe it to her over the phone. When I accurately described the blouse she was wearing, the girl shrieked, causing such a scene that the supervisor immediately suspected I was responsible and promptly escorted me out of the building. After that, I ran into the supervisor and some of her girls almost weekly while eating or studying at the diner. The supervisor was furious, but by the time I left town, we were all friends and even had a few good laughs over my misadventures.

It was not long before I met Midge, a secretary also working for Cooper Bessemer, with whom I developed a meaningful relationship that endured throughout the balance of my engineering career, which turned out to be rather short-lived. By midsummer, despite my best efforts, the company determined that by the time I assimilated the necessary knowledge about their engines, the equipment would be obsolete, so I was terminated.

I stayed the balance of that summer as a guest of my aunt and uncle in Philadelphia, and at their summer cottage at Stone Harbor, New Jersey. I eventually decided I had too nice a family to be any place but home. I was ready to rejoin my family, Peggy, Patty, Ralph, Dad, Mom and Grandma Catherine Dorse, and to resume the lifestyle I knew best.

Stories of Philip A. Mehan - Written by Scott Dawes © 2005-2009