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Opinion: Happy heavenly birthday, Daddy

This week my father, Oliver Ralph Hill, Sr. would have celebrated his 94th birthday. One of my favorite past-times is talking to people who remember him fondly. Sadly, the number of these people is dwindling every year.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, he attended Tennessee Industrial School and graduated Valedictorian at the age of 17. He served in the U.S. Navy in WWII.

Family legend has him losing all his Navy mustering out the money in his wallet to a pickpocket he met on a bus headed to Madera with a fellow sailor. Following the teachings of his mother, luckily, he had pinned an emergency $20 bill in his underwear.

He found a job, stayed in Madera, met my mother and sired three children. Daddy loved children and would have had many more but due to health problems, I was the last Hill off-spring.

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of getting to ride shotgun as he drove a standup, Divco milk truck while delivering milk products to people’s homes.

My dad was an accomplished salesman. He won so many sales challenges at the dairy, many of his co-workers would ask what prize he would win that year?

In 1967 he received a phone call asking him to move to Nashville and sell insurance with his older and younger brothers.

He and my brother Oliver Ralph Hill, Jr, (Rocky) drove cross country to Tennessee while my mother, brother, Brian, and I stayed in California to sell our personal property and house. Mom and I joined Daddy and Rocky in time for Thanksgiving. Brian stayed in Madera to graduate with the Madera High School, class of 1968.

The move to Nashville proved unsuccessful for both my dad and his older brother. He had moved his family from Florida to join Uncle Joe’s firm. The older brothers clearly didn’t like working for their younger brother.

We moved back to Madera in time for me to begin the 8th grade at Thomas Jefferson Junior High. I often wonder where my life would be if we had stayed in Tennesse.

Meanwhile, my father’s former employer, Clark Ferguson, restructured Quality Dairy, and the staff of milkmen was contracted as distributors.

When the company closed, my Dad’s first job after the dairy found him making pizzas at Straw Hat. He also worked as a chef at Farnesi’s and the Fruit Basket. He retired after being a coffee shop manager at Madera Valley Inn.

Happy Heavenly Birthday, Daddy I miss you every day.

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Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in Madera was an interesting time. Many of the businesses of my youth have disappeared.

On the social media site, Facebook, there is a page called Madera Memories. Carefully moderated by Brent Peart and Doug Robertson, it is a virtual place for friends to gather and reminisce about the Madera of our youth. As an example, someone might post a picture of the Sno White drive-in and rave about how good its doughnuts were.

While in college, I worked at the Sno White as a doughnut fryer. The hot, hard work taught me I needed to develop job skills where I could go to work clean and come home clean. My next foray into the workforce found me waiting tables at Berenda Ranch Restaurant. The best part was, I lived on Road 22, just a mile from the restaurant.

The tips were excellent. They raised my hourly wage ($1.65 per hour) by about $3 or $4 an hour, this was in 1976.

Chowchilla bus driver Ed Ray stopped every day for iced tea at Berenda Ranch Restaurant on his way to pick up the kids from summer school. I may have waited on him the fateful day he and the children on the bus were kidnapped.

My friendly personality made me a good waitress, as I have never met a stranger and the tips proved it. Unfortunately, my natural clumsiness and carrying multiple platters of hot food to the diners were a bad combination. I never did graduate to tables in the dining area. The restaurant had two horseshoe-shaped counters typically used by lone diners. My work ethic was good, I was a very cheerful, bad waitress. Fred and I were going together, and he wanted me to let my hair grow. After I got fired from my job as a waitress, I told him I would let it grow if I didn’t have to work in food service.

There were a lot of businesses in Madera that are now gone. We had two stationary stores, DeCesari’s and Madera Stationers, whereas today we have a big box, Office Depot. It seemed fast food places were slow setting up shop in Madera.

There was an A&W hamburger stand near downtown. When we were still too young to date, my girlfriends and I met our boyfriends at A&W as it was across South B Street from the Madera Theater.

There were other locally-owned drive-ins such as the Al-Ru, the Bigtop and the Arctic Circle. Straw Hat opened Madera’s first pizza parlor when I was in high school. The first time they changed the reel of cartoons that played on a continuous loop, it was big news around town. Our needs were pretty small town.

We had some great restaurants, and it was always a treat when the folks could afford to take the family out to dinner.

These outings taught me how things are supposed to taste. I can’t swear The Village restaurant made the best Chinese food ever, but it was what we grew up eating. I remember cousins who had moved from Madera making sure they had at least one meal at The Village before returning home. Recently, on the Madera Memories page, the question was posed: “If you had one more opportunity to eat at a childhood favorite, which one would it be?”

I voted for The Village. Other Chinese restaurants serve acceptable food, but they always just miss the mark of the taste in my memory. For me, the most disappointing is the flavor of the sweet and sour pork. I miss the Mandarin style sweet and sour spareribs The Village served.

A few years after they closed, I was in my car picking up take-out food at Maria’s Tacos. Seeing The Village makes me nostalgic for its food.

As I was waiting in the car for my order, former Village owners Darlene and Lorraine Wong came out of Burrito King with their own take-out-order. I hate it when I have a hilarious experience and there is no one there to share it.

Other members of the page commented on their favorites. For many people, Lucca’s Restaurant was always the “it place,” in Madera for special occasions. On prom night, the place was packed with boys in powder blue tuxedos and girls in long formal dresses. Many a nervous bridegroom proposed marriage to their future brides in one of the romantic and somewhat-secluded booths at Lucca’s.

One popular choice that surprised me was just how many people said given their druthers, the Mexican Kitchen would top their list. I can’t eat spicy food so that one never occurred to me.

There is one more popular Madera food I want to write about. When I was a kid my uncle worked as a butcher for the local beef distributer, Noble’s Meat. They put out some of the best steaks ever. The one product most people my age will remember is its hot dogs. They were marketed as “Noble’s King of the Weenies.”

My uncle would bring my parents five-pound boxes of hot-dogs they would keep in our freezer. They came in six-inch and foot-long varieties.

Every time my husband eats a hot-dog, no matter how good it tastes, it always falls short of the King of the Weenies.

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Long days and pleasant nights, and have a great weekend.

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Readers may contact Tami Jo Nix by emailing or following @TamiJoNix on Twitter

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