Stevens’ life story spans Ridgecrest history

Stevens’ life story spans Ridgecrest historyBy PAT FARRIS, News Review Publisher

I was afforded a rare opportunity recently when I was able to sit in the presence of two centenarians and listen to their stories of a history spanning more than a century, with nearly 75 of those years taking place in this community, from the days of horse-drawn carriages to the current space age.

Both Josephine Stevens and Opal Goode came to Ridgecrest in the mid-1940s soon after the Navy arrived here. Opal, born in 1907, celebrated her 110th birthday in June, a milestone achieved by only six other living Americans. Jo, born in 1915, now 102, will be the focus of this story, since the News Review carried Opal’s story in the June 2, 2017 edition. The two almost lifelong friends present a portion of the early history of Ridgecrest in a colorful and entertaining way.

Opal, who was born in Indian Territory shortly before Oklahoma became a state, was granted a birth certificate as a result of a state census. Jo, unlike Opal, does not have a birth certificate. Jo says she does not know where she was born. She never knew her birth parents. When asked where she first became aware of her surroundings, she said it was on a farm in Owensboro, Ky., when she was around age 5. She never knew any of her relatives and lived in foster homes, and was given different names along the way. “Frances Josephine Lloyd was the one that stuck,” she said.

Jo notes that she probably got her Social Security number with her first job. She came to L.A. in 1930 at the age of 15, with a couple expecting a baby who brought her along to help. In 1931 she moved to Las Vegas, then came to Ridgecrest in 1943 shortly after the Navy landed here. She didn’t like it and soon left, but returned shortly afterwards. Housing was so scarce that people lived in their cars or whatever they could find. “My first home was in a tent on East Bowman Road,” she said. She recalls that Archie Warner, then a city father, and Father Pointek, who was the first Catholic priest, told her if she would stay here, “We will look after you.”

During that time John and Ray Day were building the first motel in Ridgecrest, called the Desert Motel, across the street from the Catholic Church. “I asked them then if when they finished the room on the end, they would let me live there, and they did,” she said.

Her first job was as a waitress at the ELK Club in Inyokern. That was in 1943. During that time Inyokern was a bustling community. The club was named for the initials of the three owners, Escaloni, Livingston and Kellogg. She later went to work for Jack Ewing, a retired naval officer from the base who built a restaurant near China Lake main gate on Inyokern Road. Ewing, affectionately called “Baldy,” built the restaurant in the ’40s. It was the most popular eatery in Ridgecrest at that time. He later moved to Kernville and built the well-known Ewing’s on the Kern that still exists today.

Jo soon became well-known in the community and was regarded by many as the model of a cocktail waitress — tall, stately, always elegantly dressed, hair perfectly coiffed. She did “whatever needed to be done,” she said. “If they needed uniforms I could make them.” She later went to work for the Hideaway, which opened Dec. 15, 1952.

The Hideaway was a landmark in Ridgecrest until it was demolished in the early 1990s. The first owners were pioneering Ridgecrest developers Archie Warner and Bud Miller. The last owners were Bruce and Cheryl Bernhardi. Cheryl is the daughter of Opal. Jo and Opal first met at the Bank of America in 1946. The first bank in the valley, it was located on the base. Opal worked there as a teller, later becoming bank manager.

“By this time Opal, her husband and the Burnhardis had become my family,” Jo said. She worked at the Hideaway until it closed. The Hideaway had long served as a historical landmark, and many were dismayed when it ceased to be a part of the landscape of the community.

Jo spoke of the many interesting people she met during those years. She said many people from D.C. were advised to eat at the Hideaway. They would come straight from the airport with their briefcases handcuffed to their wrists because of the highly classified information they carried with them. The restaurant provided a relaxed atmosphere. For Ridgecrest it was top drawer. “I have often wondered how many business deals were made and written down on cocktail napkins at the Hideaway,” she said. “Both locals and the Navy frequented the Hideaway for martini lunches.”

“A fun place was Pappalardo Supper Club,” located where Bill’s Liquor now exists. It was a popular bar with a dance floor and a good place for people to meet. Jo recalls in her growing up years “wearing bloomers that met your long stockings,” making sure no skin was showing. “I remember my first pair of silk stockings in the late 40s. Nobody went bare-legged but since you couldn’t buy stockings people used a powdered Indian tan color on their legs to make it appear that they were wearing stockings. During that time silk stockings had a seam up the back. Drawing the line for the seam was notably crooked on most women.

“When I first came there was one gas pump at Hankammer’s drugstore.” That drugstore replaced the original Bentham’s (and then Cochrane’s) Corner that housed the grocery store, a one-shelf library, and a small post office, with one gas pump that goes back to the early days of Crumville (the original name of our city, taken from diary owner Mr. Crum). She remembers that the first dress shop was Don Lee’s Style Shop, located near K&R market on China Lake Boulevard. “I remember the Victory Market on Ridgecrest Boulevard with its long lines whenever meat or bread came in.”

Everyone had their own ration books, needing coupons for coffee, sugar, gasoline, tires and shoes. “We had to travel to Randsburg to get our issues of ration books. In the early days I remember that the Navy would serve a Thanksgiving dinner for people like me. It was their way of showing support to the civilian community.

“I remember when C.O. Brown, a house mover, would load houses and other buildings from other communities on a truck and trailer, and would move them to Ridgecrest. The Bamboo Club was one of those buildings. During the war it was impossible to get materials to build homes. And Ridgecrest was for a lot of years red lined by banks preventing people from getting loans to build homes as the base was considered only temporary,” she said.

Jo recalls Elliott Fox, then a city father who took a leading role in helping Ridgecrest to become a livable community. Elliott was the oldest son of Joe and Bessie Fox, who were among the original pioneers in establishing Ridgecrest. Jo recalls working for a short time at the Bamboo Club on Ridgecrest Boulevard. It was next to the popular Chicken Coop, named that because it was actually built from Bentham’s chicken coop. The Bentham family was brought here by the Fox family in 1932-33 to provide needed services.

Jo married Ernest Stevens, who was employed at China Lake, in 1956. She noted that she and her husband Steve had almost 50 happy years together before he passed away in 2004. “He was a great guy,” she said. “We had no children. I had no family except for Opal, Cheryl and Bruce.” Referring to Opal, she said, “When I need someone to cry on, she’s got the best shoulder in town. I don’t know what I would do without her.” When asked how she and Opal pass the time of day, she responded, “Be silly.”

Jo still drives her car and is often seen having lunch or dinner with friends at local restaurants. Her friends and acquaintances often remind her that she has seemed the same for the last few decades – stately, immaculately dressed, with hair and makeup tastefully done.

Jo lives alone and says she feels perfectly safe in this community. “Since I was 22 years old, my home, my people, my family have been this community. Ridgecrest has been good to me. I have many wonderful friends here.” She added that she keeps all her friends in her prayers.

There are no signs of self-pity, loneliness, or unhappiness with this “tall soul.” She is an inspiration to all those around her. When I asked her “What is the one thing in life that has helped you keep your bearings, youthfulness and happy outlook on life?” she replied without hesitation, “My faith in God.” She quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson – “In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from them.”

Pictured: Lifelong friends Opal Goode, 110, and Jo?Stevens, 102. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-09-29