MERCED — It was the era of big-band music, jukeboxes and 10-cent sodas. It was 1944, and two people formed a friendship inside a Merced restaurant that withstood the test of time.
Los Banos resident Floretta Dambrosio Mangus, 85, and Marilyn Foran Dasho, 84, met during their summer job at Strand Confectionery on Main Street -- now known as the Cinema Cafe.
They were 16 years old and after the summer job ended in 1944, both women moved on -- graduating high school, getting married, having children and eventually moving away.
But the longtime friends reconnected in June 2009 when Mangus saw an obituary for Dasho's brother on the Internet.
"I wrote her a letter and said, 'I don't know if you remember me,' " Mangus said. "It was very exciting because it's rare to be reconnected with a friend after so many years."
Dasho, who now lives in Washington, remembered the day she received that letter. "I went out to the mailbox and I thought, how could I forget that name?" she said. "I told her we were coming to California because my sister still lives in Merced."
After 68 years, the two friends met face-to-face in November in Merced -- and decided it was only fitting to go back to the place where it all began -- the Cinema Cafe.
And although more than six decades had passed, the reunited friends picked up right where they left off.
"We just communicated as if we never stopped seeing each other," Mangus said.
"It was fun because it was just like yesterday -- we really had a good time," Dasho said.
The two friends reminisced about all the things that have changed inside the restaurant and around the city.
"There weren't any tables or chairs in the restaurant," Dasho said. "It was all counters. People had to wait for someone to leave."
The Strand Confectionery stood next to a bus station and a movie theatre that offered Roy Rogers and Gene Autry double features for only 10 cents. Merced was an air base town and the women spent their days serving hot dogs, hamburgers, fountain sodas, ice cream sundaes and milkshakes to the servicemen.
"The streets of Merced were very safe," Mangus said. "You weren't mugged or shot at."
Both remember serving real ice cream to the servicemen -- but ice milk to the rest. They laugh about the time Dasho got in trouble with the boss for selling sodas for 5 cents instead of 10 cents. They recall a summer romance Mangus had with a handsome soldier before he went into the service.
"It was a fun town to grow up in," Dasho said. "People were always nice and smiling, it was just fun."
Mangus said Bob Hart Square didn't exist, and many of the businesses and schools have disappeared. Both women were surprised to see Castle Air Force Base go.
"I was very much surprised because lots of restaurants have closed," Mangus said. "But Merced has grown, especially the mall."
"There's a lot more homes and the college is all new," Dasho added. "The three schools I went to are gone."
But the Strand Confectionery -- now the Cinema Cafe -- still stands tall in downtown Merced after all these years. "It's really nice to see an old establishment still there -- especially in the valley," Mangus said.
The owner of the Cinema Cafe, Gerardo Olvera, 57, recalls seeing the friends dining at his restaurant in November.
"I was just surprised to see that anyone worked here in the 1940s, and it was such a joy," Olvera said, who snapped pictures of the women and paid for their lunch. "They told me they will come every year, and I hope they do come in. I will wait for them with my arms open."
Although time has changed Merced, it never changed the women's friendship.
"I guess we just really liked each other when we first met, and we had fun together," Dasho said. "I never forgot her name, and she evidentially never forgot mine."
Dasho moved to Washington after getting married in 1946, but has been back to visit once or twice a year. Mangus still lives in Los Banos, and the two friends now write letters and talk on the phone.
The next time Dasho comes to California, which might be this summer, she'll be looking for her old friend. "Oh sure, you bet," she said. "The more friends you have, the better."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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