Autobiography of One Old Ford


John N. Lewis


Part One

1. North to Alaska
2. University of Alaska, Fairbanks
3. Mississippi State
4. Home for Christmas--by Canoe
5. Adventures In North Mississippi
6. Getting Involved
7. Back to Alaska--and Back
8. Thanksgiving Bride
9. Married Student Days

Part Two

10. California Honeymoon
11. Icelandic Interlude
12. Return to England
13. Continental Holiday
14. Farewell to England
15. California Here I Come--Again
16. Michigan Meander

Part Three

17. Home at Last
18. Journeys Missed by Being Second
19. Texas Tour

Part Four

20. Wyoming Via North Carolina
21. Return of the Vagabonds
22. From King Tut to Kansas City

1. North to Alaska

When I came down the assembly line that June day in 1950, I didn't even realize that I was incomplete. In fact, I was dressed up better than most of my fellow cars. In those days, when you had the best eight-tube radio, Custom trim, Magic-Air heater, electric clock, and wheel covers, you were considered pretty fancy. There had been some talk around the plant about Borg-Warner being on strike, but I didn't see how that could affect me. After all, I was going to be an automobile, not a washing machine. Even when I was shipped out on a carrier to a dealer in North Louisiana, I just assumed I'd sit on his lot with my contemporaries until somebody came along and liked me as I was. (Special ordering cars hadn't really caught on in those days because the options were so few.) But I began to suspect something when I was put in the shop immediately and my whole rear end, from the tires up to the transmission, was yanked out. When the mechanics began to talk about how foolish it looked to drive another car from a dealer 80 miles away to take out an overdrive and "transplant" (we learned that term years later) it in me, I began to understand that I didn't just happen, but I already belonged to someone who wanted me to be just so. Looking back now, I really don't think I would have wanted it any other way.

Being planned before you are born gives one a sense of being wanted. My young owner really wanted me. In fact, he had a full, two-page centerfold of me from the Saturday Evening Post over his desk in England for months before I even knew him. While he was riding an old 28" Irish bicycle around the English countryside, he was saving money for me. Of course I had rivals. It was only the difference in the attitudes of the dealers that helped me win out over a new 1950 Nash--with a rear seat that converted to a bed.

John (I usually just call him He) was on the last year of a three-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force when a little trouble flared up in Europe over some burg called Berlin. Illinois seemed a little dull by comparison, so he immediately extended his enlistment another year and went to participate in the Berlin Airlift. This was a very busy time but, with Uncle Sam furnishing all necessities except tooth paste, a very good opportunity to save for an expensive luxury like me. And save he did. Some months the savings were more than the pay; but the extra came from extra work, like pulling night shifts for guys who had more pressing business in town. It takes quite a while to save cash for a car on a pay scale of $105 per month; but somehow with overseas pay and mustering out pay, he hit stateside with $3100. I take credit for a lot of that thrift because, after all, without a specific goal money seems to go out about as fast as it comes in--sometimes faster. But planning for me and anticipating college kept him away from those things which so easily keep a young man broke. Oh, I don't mean that he never had any fun. He did. He visited London often, and once even took and 18-day motorcycle tour of Western Europe--on $80. But he majored in low-budget sightseeing. Three-day passes and weekends didn't use up valuable furlough time for which you could get paid at the end of an enlistment. The maximum unused furlough time for which pay was allowed in 1950 was sixty days. John returned to the states for discharge with sixty-two days accrued--just for me.

When I found out I belonged to someone, I was anxious to be ready and to make a good impression when he arrived. Well, I got caught with my entire rear end out. In a way that wasn't the worst embarrassment for me. Ford had two greens that year: one a dark, metallic green, and the other a light green enamel officially listed a Palisade green. Who in the world would think that Palisade green would be the dark metallic? He would and did when he ordered me by mail. When he saw how pale I was there was no hiding the disappointment. It was much later when the metallics had faded that John finally fully appreciated my Palisade green that stayed shiny year after year.

The day I was finally picked up from the dealer's lot was one of those summer days when we had what is known in Louisiana as a "toad strangler". That is a cloudburst that puts water over the curbs and floods low areas with hardly an interruption of the hot sunshine. I left the city in flooded streets that drowned some of the popular flat-headed sixes of those days. Even before I had five miles on me, my banked V heads and the new location of my fan, to the top of the motor rather than down on the crankshaft, had proven that I was a "May colt". I could take the water. There was no way to know then how very important this trait was to be in the years ahead.

I left the dealer on June 21, 1950, for $2,142.14 cash, ready to hit the road with all options. This was before air conditioning and automatic transmissions were offered. My mohair seats were just a little warm in mid-July in the South. Soon I had a set of heavy-duty, plaid, Saran, Western Auto seat covers. Most of my days were spent just sitting under an oak tree while John was busy working as a jack-leg carpenter helping to build a house from the remains of a surplus railroad depot. The nights were somewhat busier.

There were no speed limits on Louisiana highways in 1950, and a car with an overdrive, a young driver, and cheap gasoline could pick up mileage in a hurry. At least I thought I was putting on miles; but that was because I didn't know what he was planning for us come September. The little trips to Vicksburg, Jackson, and Natchez, Mississippi and around Northeastern Louisiana were just warm ups. I really didn't get suspicious until early September when we had some trial loadings and unloadings of footlockers, dufflebags, and boxes. On September the fourth I got a wash and grease job, an oil change, and a case (6 gallons) of antifreeze crammed into my trunk. Six gallons of antifreeze for Louisiana? Well, my odometer only showed 3973 miles that day. On the morning of the fifth I was topped with gas at 4063 miles and pointed Northwest. The following morning when I got gas and another chassis lube, we were in Lincoln, Nebraska, with the odometer reading 4955 miles.

September 5 was a beautiful fall day in Arkansas and Missouri. We made a stop in Little Rock for 15.3 gallons of gas (I only have a 16-gallon tank). After two baseball games on the radio we stopped for 13.1 gallons of gas and a glass of milk and one game later stopped in Kansas City for another 10.5 gallons (for $2.25). We shut down for the night at 636 West 8th Street, Junction City, Kansas, after 822 miles.

In Junction City the next morning, after a good home cooked breakfast, we took on a passenger, another footlocker and duffelbag, plus an arsenal of hunting guns. Don Heath and John had been best buddies in the Air Force, going to radar school together in Boca Raton, Florida, sweating through a hot July of reassignment in Maxwell Field, Alabama, and establishing the original GCA facility at Scott Field, Illinois. During the winter of 1947-48 while John was on detached service to advanced radar school in California, Don was out in Nebraska involved in what was known as the Haylift. A great blizzard swept the plains, and the Air Force helped ranchers by dropping hay to stranded cattle that could not be reached with ground equipment. Although they were separated when John went overseas for the Airlift, he and Don had kept in touch. When Don found out where his friend was bound, he sold his brand new Mercury and wrote John to come by Junction City and pick him up.

For the second consecutive morning a mother with tears in her eyes watched as her son vanished towards the great, open Northwest--and in a mother's imagination, who knew what fate?

After the service stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, eyes were peeled for a good spot for lunch. A sign known to all ardent tourists, "Recommended by Duncan Hines", proved no disappointment and after the boys had enjoyed a good meal we rolled on in earnest to Cheyenne, Wyoming, before stopping for the night.

From Cheyenne to Laramie was a real fun-run in the days when old U.S. 30 dropped down the canyons where you could coast 80 miles per hour, and had to tap the brakes quite often to keep down to that speed. From Laramie to Rawlins seemed like some mighty wide open spaces to a Louisiana boy, but that was before they made the trip between Rawlins and Lander. A glance at the map before leaving Rawlings showed Three Forks, about 46 miles up the road, a logical spot for a fuel stop. It would have been. Only Three Forks was just that in 1950: a fork in the road with one abandoned building where gasoline may have been dispensed in some pre-war period. It sure looked like a long way to Lander. It was. Somewhere up on the Sweetwater was a lone station with a sign on the top as long as the building itself spelling out "Home On The Range". This must have been a welcome sight to many a worried traveler. The owner had a photo of his station taken during the great blizzards a few years earlier, and that giant sign was all that was visible above a sea of snow as far as the eye could see.

Lander, Wyoming, seemed far enough west to stop and get provisions for "going west". John got a Coleman two-burner gasoline stove and a dull brown, felt hat. What prompted that hat purchase was never very clear, even to him, unless it was all those Indians walking around Lander with similar attire set squarely on top of their heads. At any rate, it proved to be of some value months later when he was able to trade it for a wool-filled comforter which was needed at the time and is still used by his boys twenty-six years later.

There had been too much stopping and time lost shopping to suit me on this day, however, and I was glad to be moving again and getting to the mountains so I could get the first chance to try out my V-8 power and second gear-overdrive combination that I had never used before. Before night we had passed Dubois and were getting into high country. After Togwotee Pass many deer, elk, and porcupine were visible; and the air had a coolness and pungency that I had never known before. We camped that night at the South entrance to Yellowstone Park, almost 2000 miles from Delhi, Louisiana.

The next day was my first trip through Yellowstone Park. I had my picture taken parked in front of Old Faithful Inn--and the lot was not crowded in those days. In fact, we were able to zip around to most of the better-known attractions in that vast, scenic park and still exit through Gardiner, Montana, in the early afternoon. The drive up the Yellowstone River through Livingston, Montana, to Great Falls is still one of my favorites. Even after spending so much time in Yellowstone, John pushed me along pretty good that afternoon and night, because when we finally bedded down in the heart of Great Falls my odometer showed 6520 miles--3457 miles more than on September the fifth, and it was now only the eighth of September.

September the ninth was another beautiful Fall day in Big Sky Country. During a rest stop in Browning, John picked up a very classy hatchet which was soon to serve so well as it has done all the years since, and still does, in spite of one of his boys using it to chop kindling once using a concrete pier as a chopping block. Damage to both hatchet and boy (when his daddy found out) was serious, but both eventually recovered.

The mountains north of Browning gave me a chance to flex my muscles. The detour into Glacier National Park was much too brief for me; but we had to check through the Canadian border and glide across miles of the vast prairies of Alberta before he would stop for the night. We camped that night just west of Calgary, and for the first time in my life I had a frightening experience that was to become a way of life for me for many months. I turned deathly white. Frost. Here it was only turning the tenth of September, and I was caked with frost. So were my two young travelers sleeping on the ground. The frost was not the major nuisance that night, however. John learned something that he should have known instinctively. In selecting a camp site, he had picked a level spot well grassed over. Nothing wrong with that, except it happened to be directly under a power line. The singing of the wires may be romantic in the "Moonlight In Vermont", but it does not make good all-night company. We always had frost each night thereafter, but never power lines over our campsite again. Avoiding power lines was not always a great effort in the days to follow.

On the tenth of September we really got into the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Banff was almost empty by this late in the season, but a chair lift was still operating, so Don and John got to go on up the mountain for a good view of the beautiful valley below. I had to miss the chair lift, but a little later I got a view of what has to be one of the most beautiful spots in North America if not in the whole world. Rounding one of the many curves in the road, we were suddenly met by the gorgeous first glimpse of Lake Louise. The sky was a deep blue with just the right balance of contrasting, cumulus clouds high over the snow-studded back drop of sheer granite that cradles the jewel that is the lake. The chateau, which is a beauty in its own right, is designed and set so that, while it can hardly add to the natural beauty of the scene, it does not detract. Of the thousands of color slides that John has taken with his little Retina II, before and since, the one of Lake Louise remains his favorite for scenic splendor. Although mounted in glass, age is beginning to take its toll on the picture now. I am ready to go back once again so that he can try to take a new one just as lovely.

From Lake Louise north through Jasper National Park and back east to Edmonton is a long trip through mountains descending back to the monotonous prairies. Much of the mountain road was under construction, and the gravel-surfaced switchbacks are real time wasters when you want to get someplace in a hurry. It was on this stretch that we really appreciated a special capacity that I had for mountain driving that even the engineers who designed me had not anticipated. My overdrive was primarily designed to allow my engine to loaf on flat stretches at high speeds, and this it does mighty well. But in steep, twisting, mountain roads, particularly where the footing is rough and extra control is required, John put my transmission in second gear and used the overdrive as a third gear. On the short straight places this allowed for an automatic up shift to second-overdrive (almost the equivalent of direct) and on the switchbacks an instant downshift to second-direct for power and control with practically no loss of speed. This combination proved to be a real boon to maintaining a decent average speed, and of even greater value later on when I had to pull trailers in mountainous country.

Edmonton, Alberta, is a big city anyway; but situated in the northern plains, where towns for miles in every direction are so small, it seems enormous. The hard surfaced roads reaching out to welcome the traveler after miles of dusty gravel give one time to make a slight adjustment to the traffic of a city. It is needed after so many miles of loneliness.

It was not difficult to find the way to the Hudson Bay store. In fact, it would have been difficult not to as this is no log outpost, as so many still were back then, but a full city block covered by the "Bay". Hudson's Bay was for centuries the only source of supply to vast areas of the Northwest, and if the modern city dweller had no other source of supply today, he would lack very little. Not only did the boys provision themselves for the coming winter, but also had a good meal in the modern restaurant before shoving off to the north in the early afternoon.

When the end of the hard surfaced highway was left, about fifty miles north of Edmonton, it was to be a long time before we encountered any more. The season was dry and the dust was deep. To make matters worse, the map we were using was out of date, and not knowing of the cut off via the new Peace River Bridge, we made the long swing around the old road through Athabasca. The weeds and woods along the road were all the same color--dusty grey. Dust splashed in the wheel wells like water; but unlike water, the fine particles of glacial silt filtered inside the passenger compartment and covered everything. The guns on the back seat were covered with army blankets to try to protect them from the dust. At day's end when camp was made, even my bright, plaid seat covers on the rear seat were indiscernible.

Each evening there was a ritual before making camp of dumping the dust from the blankets and sweeping out clouds of dust from my interior, only to have the same misery engulf us the following day. Because of the dust, there was not much danger of being passed by another automobile in Northern Canada. Long before you could be overtaken, the dust would cause the driver coming up from the rear to slacken his pace and fall back in order to see and breathe. Motorists saw each other at fuel stops and when breakdowns occurred.

Dawson Creek, British Columbia, (not to be confused, as it usually is, with Dawson, Yukon Territory) was a welcome sight and a memorable milepost on our journey. Although the dust only became deeper and, if possible, lingered more ever-present in the air beyond Dawson Creek, this was the jumping off place for Alaska. In the center of the main (and almost only) street of Dawson Creek is Milepost 0 of the Alaska Highway with a sign on top proclaiming Fairbanks, Alaska to be only 1523 miles away (then). Of course, I had to have my picture taken circling the zero milepost. The street is plenty wide to do so easily. The builders of the prairie towns were not cramped for space.

The Alaska Highway is wide and well graded, but good camping spots are not so plentiful. After eating dust constantly for two days, we were looking for a spot on some water. Finally a good place was located on Charlie Lake. John took his hatchet and cut a trail just barely wide enough for me to pass from the highway to the lake shore. He took care to blunt the stumps of the saplings so they would not puncture my tires. We finally got far enough from the road to have a little dust screen and sound barrier between the camp site and the highway. This was an excellent camp.

Before starting supper John went down to the lake to wash the dust of the road from his hands and face. While kneeling on the bank and bending down to splash water into his dusty eyes, he was startled by a mink surfacing almost close enough for the two to touch noses. It is not clear which was the more frightened. There were many mink on the lake, and a family of them were using a rock some distance from shore as a base for their late evening frolic. Eating supper in such a setting while watching the mink and water fowl, as the air cooled to a frosty crispness, was a tonic that was to last many years--maybe for a whole lifetime.

Shortly after leaving Charlie Lake on Wednesday morning, September 13, 1950, we came upon a very large deer standing by the side of the road. She stood and watched until we were nearly to her then, with no apparent effort at all, bounded high into the air and into the brush. It seemed too far north for deer, but we were to find that several of our western prairie animals range far north of what is considered their normal territory. The day's run was short as we favored good campsites over mileage, and this was the day of the great bear hunt.

Our camp for the thirteenth was on a clear stream that cut through an abandoned saw mill site. As the boys went down to the stream to try for some fish for supper, they were confronted with some very fresh and fairly large black bear tracks. While they pondered the prospects of sleeping in a bear's picnic area, a stranger approached on foot and asked if there was any interest in helping him bag a bear that he had seen shortly before our arrival. He could hardly have found more willing accomplices. The gentleman explained that he had actually seen the bear enter a very dense brier thicket nearby that was almost surrounded by a sharp curve in the old logging road. He readily showed his new-found friends a fresh disturbance in the cut bank where he had seen the animal leave the road and climb into the thicket. As the sun was sinking, excitement was mounting.

By listening carefully it was easy to hear the feeding critter occasionally moving short distances in the dense briers. The briers in the freshly cut over land had grown so prolifically, however, that it was impossible to see any distance beyond their solid wall that lined the road, which was worn down about two feet below normal ground level. As the daylight was fading and the night chill was approaching, John proposed a quick solution to the dilemma. He stationed the other two hunters on the old log road and, taking his long barreled .22 Cold Woodsman out of its holster, crawled on hands and knees (walking was virtually impossible) into the thicket straight toward the animal noise. His plan was simple: run the bear out between his two companions; and should the bear have other ideas, the Woodsman would change his mind.

The plan was sound and worked well. As the stalker approached so close to the noise of the feeding animal that it seemed he should have been able to reach out and touch it, the briers still cut off any possible view. With a loud shout and an admonition not to miss the bear and shoot him, John put the beast on the run. He could hear the crashing of an enormous animal through the briers and, by the lessening of the noise, could tell when it broke out into the road--directly between the two men armed with .30-06 rifles. Everything seemed perfect except there was an awful lot of silence. John finally crawled from the thicket, scratched and disgusted, to find the two mighty hunters staring at each other--and at a poor old mule left behind by the lumbermen.

On September 14, we made 400 dusty miles and camped on a spit of land between two lakes. Friday, the fifteenth, we passed through Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Whitehorse is the southern terminus for the flat-bottom, paddle-wheel, wood-burning steamboats that ply the Yukon River north and west to the Bering Sea. While I was treated to a chassis lube (for $2.50), Don and John sampled some town food for a change and walked around this famous jumping-off place through which passed Robert Service and thousands of others who made the Gold Rush in the 1890's. Whitehorse would have been familiar to them still in 1950. There was, however, some evidence of it becoming a city: it already had a four-story log cabin. Camp was made that night at a deserted cabin on Lake Creek. This proved to be another mistake. Sleeping on a hard floor is not nearly as comfortable as a bed of boughs on the forest floor.

In the afternoon of September 16, after more than 400 rough miles since breakfast, I eased into Fairbanks, Alaska. Almost immediately, as we cruised down Second Avenue, I happened upon a sight that made me less apprehensive than I had been about my new home. The building was modest enough, but the sign across the front boldly proclaimed, "Fartherest North FORD Dealer On Earth". It was 5326 miles from Delhi, Louisiana, and almost as far as we could go. After making a brief reconnoiter of the bustling town of Fairbanks, we crossed Chena Slough and slowly made our way over a new stretch of macadam the few miles out to College Hill and the University of Alaska.