Friday, September 13, 2019

Fall Feature: Elaine Ambrose's Memoir, Frozen Dinners

     It is always a pleasure to feature award-winning, bestselling author Elaine Ambrose on my blog! Not only is she an accomplished writer, but she is also a good friend. When I learned that she had just completed the audio version of her latest book, Frozen Dinners, I invited her here to share one of her favorite chapters (you can read another chapter that was featured here).

     I've enjoyed all of Elaine's books, but the complicated family relationships in Frozen Dinners really spoke to me on a personal level. I'm confident that once you start reading her memoir, you'll be hooked, too.

Chapter Two
The Trucking Company

During the harvest of 1950, disaster came to potato farmers in southern Idaho. Bad weather, bad luck, and bad timing resulted in a poor yield, and after the meager harvest the farmers were paid less than what it cost them to grow the crops. The local bank managers demanded that loans be paid or else farms that had been bartered for collateral would be seized. 
My father clenched his teeth as he watched the local banker, who was now his former friend, pound No Trespassing signs on the farm he was renting. For nine months, he had worked to plant, weed, and harvest a worthless field of potatoes. Now, the bank owned the farm, and he owned nothing but debt.
These circumstances prompted my dad to distrust banks and vow to make it on his own. By the spring of 1951, his biggest regret, after losing the farm, was that my mother was pregnant. They already had a one-year-old boy, and Dad, only age 23, didn’t know how he could support his growing family. My mother did her best to conceal her pregnancy to minimize his distress, but the charade became more difficult because she carried twins. I was one of them.
Dad’s older brother lived in Hawthorne, Nevada near the US Army Depot. The brother wrote that there was a job for a mechanic at a local truck stop, so my father packed his family and their few possessions into a battered Ford station wagon and left Wendell for Hawthorne. Mom was sick during the ordeal, but concentrated on supporting her husband and caring for her baby boy. She left behind her parents, her sister, her friends, and her church. 
Dad quickly learned how to service the 18-wheel diesel trucks that rolled day and night between Montana and California. Through the grease, the clamor, and the meager pay, he focused on ideas that could improve his life. Something in his gut told him there was opportunity beyond the noise of the pneumatic torque wrenches he used to change hundreds of dirty tires. He just had to find it.
My mother sweltered in the Nevada heat. They had rented a cramped, one-bedroom, half of a duplex without air conditioning in the village of Babbitt. The town was a World War II housing project, later abandoned in the 1980s. On the morning of September 8, my father drove her to the hospital and then paced the floor in the waiting room, wondering how his life had turned so stressful. Three babies in 20 months. Losing his farm. Working manual labor in a sweat-filled shop with grease under his fingernails, in his nostrils, and matted through his black hair. Living in a government housing project. This wasn’t the life he wanted.
When the doctor emerged, Dad sensed something was wrong. “We lost one,” the doctor said slowly. “But, one survived and she is one healthy baby! She came out hollering!”
Dad suppressed a smile. He didn’t know if his relief was because there was one less mouth to feed or because his daughter seemed to be boisterous. “Let me see her,” he said as he passed the doctor and marched through the door.
My mother was still in recovery, but Dad noticed two bassinets in my room. One was empty. “That was for the other baby,” he said to the nurse. He looked at the healthy, 8-pound baby in the next bassinet. “Should have been a boy,” he said. Then he went back to work.
Christmas of 1951 was bleak. My parents missed their own parents and siblings back in southern Idaho, but no one had any money to travel. It didn’t feel like the holidays anyway because the weather was warm. They entered the New Year with a determination to return to Idaho. Dad worked overtime at the shop, and Mom took in a little boy to babysit. She cared for three children in cloth diapers, washed clothes in the sink, and hung them to dry on a line in the backyard. Back in that hot, temporary home in Nevada, Mom took life one day at a time to do the best she could for her children. One day she found that someone had left a new high chair on the front step. She never knew who gave such a wonderful gift, but she promised to return the favor someday to another woman in need.
Dad watched and learned as the big trucks continued to pull into and out of the shop. He worked on the refrigerated units on the trailers going south, added propane to the cooling units and diesel to the trucks. These same rigs came back through with empty trailers, and he realized that if the trucking company could still make a profit with empty trailers, it could make a much larger profit if the trailers were loaded. He tabulated how much diesel it would take at 14.9 cents a gallon to drive 1,100 miles. He talked with drivers as he serviced their trucks and asked them about their wages and expenses. He learned how payments were made for deliveries and which loads were more profitable. 
He was a visionary and studied the opportunities of the time. The 1950s brought economic advantages and posterity for many people living in post-World War II America. The automobile industry successfully produced cars and trucks, and new industries capitalized on consumer demand for more electronics and household conveniences. Most homes had one black-and-white television set, and families often ate dinner while watching TV. 
For the next two years, he read newspapers and business magazines during his work breaks. He was interested in the latest innovation in the food industry: frozen food that was inexpensive and easy to cook. The public craved these products, but couldn’t always get them because of distribution problems. My father had the answer. He would haul them in refrigerated trucks.
One day one of the drivers who came through on a regular basis told him that a small trucking company in Montana was looking for drivers. Dad decided he would become a truck driver. He quit his job as a mechanic, left Mom with three small children, and hitched a ride in a truck going to Montana. On the way, he learned how to drive an 18-wheeler.
When my father walked into the office of Hansen Packing Company in Butte, Montana, Alvin Williamson, the owner, eyed him with suspicion. Dad wore wrinkled clothes, he was unshaven, and he had grease around his fingernails. But he was impressive, a big man; he stood 6’2”, ruggedly handsome, with black hair and intense green eyes..
“I’m here for a job,” he said.
“Can you drive?” Alvin asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, not admitting that he had just learned how to maneuver a truck by hitchhiking with a Montana Express driver. “And I have an idea that will make you more money.”
Alvin leaned forward in his chair. He wanted to hear what this skinny 24-year-old stranger had to say. Within two hours, Neal Ambrose and his dream of making money had convinced Alvin to give him a job. Ambrose saw his future fortune packed tightly and conveniently into a refrigerated trailer on the back of a diesel truck.
“You’ll need a co-driver this time out,” Alvin said. “Driving in Los Angeles ain’t easy.” Dad nodded and stuck out a grease-stained hand. They shook. “There are showers and a cot upstairs,” said Alvin. “Be ready to go by six in the morning.”
My father hardly slept that night. Three other drivers shared the dormitory, and they all seemed to compete for who could snore the loudest. He wished he could talk with my mother to tell her about the job. He made another promise to himself: someday they would have a telephone.
Three days later, Mom was hanging diapers on the line when she heard a diesel truck pull up in front of the house. She laughed as Dad jumped out of the cab and ran toward her. “I got the job!” he yelled as she ran to him. 
“Are you driving that?” Mom was amazed.
“Yes, I am,” he answered as he kissed her. “And I’m on my way to California. See you in a few days.”
“Do you want to see the kids?”
“Don’t have time,” he hollered and climbed back into the cab. “But I’ll have a paycheck in two weeks.”
As the truck rumbled out of sight, my mother wondered what she should do. She had five dollars to her name, the rent was due, and the babies needed food. That night, someone left a bag of groceries and an envelope with 100 dollars on her front step, and she had never been so grateful in her entire life. Before going to bed, she prayed for her husband somewhere on the road, she prayed for her children, and she prayed for her mysterious angel. Then she dried her tears and, mentally and physically exhausted, fell asleep.
“This here is L.A.,” said Marvin Titus, Dad’s co-driver. Dad’s eyes widened as he sat in the passenger seat. He had never seen so many cars and buildings. Three lanes of traffic moved  in each direction, and there wasn’t any lane separating the oncoming traffic. “These roads can’t handle big rigs,” Marvin said as he maneuvered the truck.
“I’ve read that a new Interstate System will be built soon,” said Dad. “It will connect the country from coast to coast, and there will be north-south freeways that connect to the Interstate. We’ll be able to drive from Butte to Los Angeles in two days.”
“That’s impossible,” Marvin muttered. “They can’t do that.”
“Interstate I-5 will be built soon, and I’ll drive on it.”
Dad and Marvin had shared the cab for five days and 1,100 miles. One of them slept on a crude bed behind the seats while the other drove. They cleaned up at truck stops along the route and shared the ten dollars a day that Alvin gave them for food. Through the trip, my father learned a lot from Marvin and he admired the driver’s knowledge of trucking, but the confined quarters went against his need for space. He knew that he had to have his own truck.
Marvin turned into the warehouse district and found the Safeway Store’s loading dock. “I’ll take it in this time,” he said. “You can pull ‘er out.” He backed the 40-foot trailer down the ramp and shut off the engine. The two drivers got out to watch as the dock workers unloaded the trailer. They logged every pallet of frozen groceries and then exchanged paperwork with the workers. There were no shortages, no broken cartons, and no thawed food. Any one of those possibilities could have resulted in the load being declined. A declined load meant no paycheck.
“Okay, your turn,” said Marvin as he climbed into the passenger seat.
Dad adjusted the mirrors and put the truck into gear. He slowly eased the rig up the ramp and into the truck yard. Then he noticed that no other trucks were waiting to unload. He stopped the truck, shoved the gear in reverse, and moved the trailer backward.
“What the hell you doing?” shouted Marvin.
“I need to know how to do this,” Dad said as he watched the mirrors and backed down the ramp. It took ten tries until he got the trailer lined up and the dock workers stopped to watch. When he finally got the trailer safely down to the loading dock, they all clapped and cheered. Dad saluted and drove back into the yard.
“Show off,” muttered Marvin.
The two drivers cleaned up in the driver’s lounge of the main trucking center. Then my father scanned the message board until he found the notice he needed. A broker had a load of frozen Morton chick pot pies that needed to go north. Consumers were demanding the new innovation of frozen food, and Neal Ambrose was ready and willing to bring them their dinners.
“Bingo,” he said and wrote down the number.
It took several calls and all of his spare change, but Dad finally contacted the broker and secured a deal between the broker and Hansen Packing. Five hours later, Marvin and my father were hauling 40,000 pounds of Swanson’s frozen dinners to Montana. Night fell as Dad drove the truck away from the city, and he was relieved to see the lights of Los Angeles in his rear-view mirrors. Marvin climbed into the sleeper and was snoring before the rig turned north. 
Dad drove through the desert and noticed that the stars were extraordinarily brilliant. He felt more alive than ever, and his heart beat in rhythm with the rumbling engine of the truck. He was a trucker, and people needed the pies, soup, detergent, and toilet paper that he would deliver. He was intoxicated with the open road. When he crossed the state line into Nevada, he began to think about his family. For the first time in two weeks, he wondered how his kids were doing.
It was daylight when my father pulled into Hawthorne and stopped at the shop where he used to work. He jumped out of the cab and called for the attendant to fill the tanks. The boy looked at Dad with surprise and envy. Marvin crawled out of the truck, sleepy and disheveled.
“We have to make one quick stop,” Dad said. “Then you’ll drive.”
After the rig was serviced and the men had grabbed some food, my father drove the truck to his rented home. Mom hustled the children out to the lawn and they waited until he stopped.
“Can’t stay long,” he said as he hugged his wife and patted his children and the other little boy. “But I’ll be back in a week with my paycheck.”
He gave my mother a bag of groceries from the truck stop and all of his extra food allowance. “It’s going to be okay. I promise.” Then he climbed into the sleeper and Marvin drove away. Mom counted twenty dollars and waved good-bye. With the money she made from babysitting, she had just enough for groceries until he returned.
A week later, she heard the familiar rumble in front of the house. She ran out and met her husband with another driver. He lifted her in the air and twirled her around. “Hey, Sweetheart,” he said. “Look here!” He handed her an envelope with his paycheck for $300 plus a bonus of $50 for instigating the frozen dinner loads. They had never seen so much money at one time. 
“Can you get to the bank?” he asked. “Keep some for yourself! Maybe get a new dress!” He searched for the kids, gave them a quick hug, and hurried to the truck. “Be back in two days. Hustle. Hustle. Time is money,” he called, fired up the diesel engine and drove away.
Mom couldn’t think. A new dress? The kids needed shoes. And, how was she supposed to get to the bank with three small children? She waited until her sister-in-law stopped for a visit later that afternoon and begged her to watch the kids for an hour. The woman agreed and Mom hurried to the bank to make the deposit. She reserved enough money to pay for rent, groceries, and essentials. Then she stopped at the dime store with the intention of buying new shoes for her son. That’s when she saw the rocking chair. 
Forgoing the dress, my mother eagerly bought the shoes and the chair and drove home, the chair tied with ropes into the open trunk of the old car. That night, after the working mother picked up her son, and my brother was in bed with his story books, Mom rocked her daughter and smiled. “It’s going to be better,” she said.  
  By the spring of 1952, my parents had saved enough money to move back to their hometown of Wendell, Idaho. They rented a two-bedroom house across the street from the Presbyterian Church, and Mom found a young widowed woman who needed babysitting for her two kids while she worked. Mom took care of four children during the day and then typed for the church in the evening. When money was lean, she added a third job and typed for Bradshaw’s Honey Plant late at night. I often fell asleep listening to the clacking of the typewriter keys.
Dad was gone on the truck most of the time and Mom found companionship in the church women’s group. When she could get a babysitter, she would wear her best dress and attend the church luncheons. She carried her porcelain platter piled with homemade cookies, sure to write LA on the bottom in fingernail polish to make sure the platter was returned.
Dad leased a truck in 1953 and became an independent owner/operator. His nonstop truck driving and Mom’s three part-time jobs paid the bills with enough money left to buy a few Christmas gifts that December. The New Year promised prosperity, even if Mom still didn’t own a car.
Dad was an avid reader, and during the fall of 1954 he noticed news articles about a new invention: frozen TV dinners. A national food company named Swanson misjudged how much turkey would be sold for Thanksgiving that year and after the holiday the company had 260 tons of leftover turkey. A clever salesman noticed how meals were served in compartmentalized aluminum trays on Pan American Airways planes. The salesman convinced Swanson to develop a convenient meal, served in trays, that could be frozen and delivered across the country. Swanson gambled on the concept and packaged turkey, corn bread stuffing, peas, and sweet potatoes and initiated a nationwide advertising campaign. The company sold more than 25 million TV dinners to Americans who demanded the convenience and low cost of frozen dinners. The meals cost 98 cents per package, and people enjoyed eating them in front of their television sets.
Dad continued to develop relationships with key contacts in the Los Angeles area. Soon, he had brokered regular shipments of Swanson TV dinners. He continued to haul meat from Montana to southern California and return with pallets of frozen food to distribute to warehouses and stores in Idaho and Montana. He knew the route by heart and drove from daybreak to late at night. 
Every time my father drove through town, he left a box of frozen TV dinners. Mom didn’t have enough freezer space, so ate the dinners for every meal. Salisbury steak, little trays of corn, cherry cobbler, meat loaf and potatoes. We sat around the table scraping the bland food from the tin trays. Sometimes, to be fancy, Mom would spoon the food onto real plates. She said we were lucky that daddy could bring home food for the family. 
I remember my father bringing random surprises from his travels, and we eagerly waited at the door when we heard his truck rumble to a stop in front of the house. One time he maneuvered a large wooden crate into the living room, and my mother seemed excited as she tore open the box. Her expression changed from hopeful to confused as she uncovered four life-sized busts of Aborigine Indians. The two men and two women were carved from dark wood and each had a hole at the side of the mouth to hold a wooden pipe. The women were bare-chested.
“Aren’t these great?” my father asked, enthusiastic as a school boy. “I got them at an Indian Trade Market on the California border. They’ll look perfect in the living room. Gotta go. See you next week.”
Those four busts remained in Mom’s living room for the next forty years. At Christmas, I would add red bras on the women, much to the chagrin of my mother and the laughter of my brothers. Other “rare” gifts included a large metal shield with five swords, an adult-sized metal breast plate, an Indian shield made from painted buckskin supported by two iron arrows, a wooden Indian throwing an arrow, and a wooden Indian sitting on the ground smoking a peace pipe. He complimented the theme with several framed prints from western artist Charles Marion Russel. Mom tried to balance the cowboy and Indian theme with watercolors of flowers and pastoral landscapes. She added candles and crosses arranged on hand-crocheted doilies.  As a result, our home resembled a pawn shop in a truck stop.
Life changed dramatically again in the spring of 1955. Dad borrowed money to lease seven diesel trucks and named his company Montana Express. Mom was pregnant with their third child.
Frozen Dinners is selling in hardcover edition in local bookstores, on Barnes & NobleAmazonWalmartTarget. The eBook is available on KoboApple ITunesNOOKGoogle Play, and Amazon. The audiobook is on and Audible.

Elaine Ambrose is an award-winning, bestselling author of ten books and a popular humorist, public speaker, viral blogger, and workshop facilitator. Her books have won seven national writing awards in the past four years in three genres: creative nonfiction, children’s books, and memoir. Elaine has published 10 eBooks and recorded three audiobooks. Her memoir Frozen Dinners chronicles her childhood on an Idaho potato farm. She lives with her patient husband in Meridian, Idaho. Find her books and blogs at


  1. What a fascinating look at not only your life specifically, Elaine, but at life in general in the 1950s.

  2. I love these glimpses in your life, Elaine! I love to hear the background story.
    And the 1950s. My favourite decade!

    1. I was born at the tail end of the 50's but I have always had a fascination for that time period. Would love to have been a teen then.

  3. Wow, what an interesting chapter! Hilarious, when dad brings home the pipe 'holders'. OMG, I was like---what? Elaine's father was very resourceful and incredibly smart! Times were tough then and credit was non-existent, not like today where we can make ends meet with our line of credit or credit cards.

    Elaine, how did you know all the details of your parent's life from before and immediately following your birth? Did you interview them, read diaries, or did they tell you the stories as you were growing up? I ask because I think it's so wonderful that you have been able to write their story so vividly. Thanks for sharing Elaine's book, Marcia! I have this one on my TBR.

    1. The world was indeed a different place back then. I imagine Elaine has a good memory and listened carefully to the family stories when she was young.



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