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

3. Mississippi State

We did not have a long time to rest. John was enrolled for the fall term in Mississippi State College, Starkville, Mississippi, and the preliminaries had already started. John had written the registrar and asked the very latest date that he could register and still start classes on time. He was told that late registration would end Saturday, September 14. During the few days we had in Louisiana, John visited with his mother and other relatives, tried out the new canoe a few times, and repaired some damage to my grill that resulted from us being in the middle of a three-car pile up one very icy Sunday the previous winter. The lowest of three insurance estimates for the repairs was $177.00. John made the repairs himself for $23.33. Most of our relationship has been like this: he takes care of me, and I take care of him.

We arrived at Mississippi State late Friday afternoon just in time to get his room assignment and locate the chow hall. Saturday morning was taken by the registration process. That afternoon we cruised downtown to see what our new hometown was like. It didn't take very long to see Starkville; but it had all the essentials of any county seat, and a lot of friendly people. His diary reveals that John got a shoeshine that afternoon for fifteen cents and saw a movie for thirty-nine cents. A haircut on Monday cost sixty cents. Whatever one may think of progress, it is a certain fact that prices have progressed.

Starting school in a strange place is always a little lonely. At first, no boxes were available in the post office, and John has always looked forward to getting, and answering, mail. On our first Sunday at Mississippi State, we went to church in Starkville and met some of the local residents. That afternoon we were introduced to an institution that was to figure prominently in our life during the next year: MSCW. Shortly after noon on Sunday, a total stranger approached us as John was unloading some luggage and asked if we were going over to the "W". John had no idea what the guy was talking about (honestly), although it is hard to believe that anyone could have been at Mississippi State a whole day and still not be aware of the "W". The boy explained that in Columbus, the county seat of the next county to the east, was located Mississippi State College for Women. Did we want to go over there? Well, why not? So we carried this young man over to MSCW to see his girlfriend, took the couple and the young lady's roommate out riding around the town of Columbus, and got acquainted with the sedate, old college that was the cause of so much traffic between Oktibbeha and Lowndes counties, Mississippi. Later, I joined this steady line of traffic, but there were other things that had to be done first.

John had to locate some fishing and hunting areas near enough to State College to be readily accessible without interfering too much with class attendance. Few places are better situated for the plug caster than Mississippi State. There are many ponds stocked with bass right on campus. One nice pond was immediately behind the school laundry, within earshot of some of the class rooms. On September 25, John joined a campus Rod & Gun Club organized by a few veterans. This opened a quick channel of friendship with other outdoor sportsmen that proved very rewarding. Once, the club went as a group to Natchez Trace Lake for a two-day fishing trip. The fishing was slow, but John won the weekly prize, which the club awarded for the largest fish caught that week, for a three-and-three-quarter pound bass caught Saturday afternoon. Early Sunday morning he went out in his Grumman before breakfast and caught a three pounder, then we made a fast trip back to Starkville in time for church.

I wore the only canoe on campus. Fifteen feet of shining aluminum and an Alaskan license plate tended to make me a little conspicuous in Mississippi. But John was rarely at a loss for fishing companions. He would always sit in the back of the canoe to paddle, and his friends up front got in some pretty good fishing.

By early October, it was common for us to leave campus at 5 a.m. to go squirrel hunting or fishing and return for eight o'clock class. As soon as classes were out on Friday, October 12, John left with Scott Lyles, a married friend from the vet's village, for Pickwick Lake, Tishamingo County. Pickwick is one of the large lakes formed by the T.V.A. dams in the Tennessee River. Late in the afternoon, Scott and John left me parked on the lake shore, took all the camping gear in the Grumman, and shoved off into the vast waterway. That night the men camped on a peninsula in one of the deep coves of still water away from the main river channel.

The next morning Scott and John arose before daybreak, made a big breakfast, loaded the duffel in the canoe, and set out to explore and fish. Upon reaching the channel of the Tennessee River from one of the many arms of the lake, the size of that canoe shrunk considerably. The channel was wide, deep, and rough. At the very point where the main channel passed the cove there was a large tree uprooted. The two fishermen clung to this clayroot while contemplating their chances of crossing over to Tennessee in such a light craft. At this exact moment, a large barge came up river carrying three decks of new automobiles. The wake from this vessel added to the whitecaps already on the river looked formidable. As these waves combined and hit the canoe, the tips of the waves washed over the gunwales, and John sitting in the rear could see Scott's stomach muscles wrap around his backbone. Since all the gear was secure and neither occupant wanted the other to know how afraid he really was, as soon as the barge wash had passed, the little canoe nosed gingerly out into the mighty Tennessee River.

At first John kept the canoe turned endwise to the rolling waves that were three or four feet high. Gradually, as they got a feel for the tossing about, he turned and headed for an island near the distant Tennessee shore. The little Grumman did just what it was made to do, and took the waves like a duck. Soon both men became comfortable enough to enjoy the ride and matched stroke for stroke until they made their landing at the remains of an old farm that had been abandoned, and largely inundated by the T.V.A. project. The two companions probably paddled fifteen miles that Saturday before arriving at six o'clock back at the landing where I was waiting for the drive back to State College many miles to the south.

The stadium at Mississippi State was only a block from the huge, old dormitory in which John stayed. On Saturdays when Mississippi State was host to other Southeastern Conference schools, there was hardly room for another automobile to squeeze onto campus. We either left early to miss the traffic jams, or stayed put until they cleared away late in the afternoon. Those were the days of low-scoring football. The Mississippi State-Georgia game was State 6, Georgia 0. John's step brother, Ken Floyd, was playing football for Delta State Teachers College in Cleveland, Mississippi. Murray State Teachers College from Murray, Kentucky, played Delta State in Greenwood, Mississippi, on the night of October 20, 1951. We went over to see Ken play. Delta State, being a rather small school, did not have a full platoon to send in each time the ball went over. Ken played offensive center and defensive linebacker. One of the more popular numbers on the juke boxes at that time was "Sixty-Minute Man." The Delta State rooters dubbed Ken their Sixty-Minute Man. The score, after a hard-fought game, was 26 to 27. John's diary does not show who won so it was most likely the Kentuckians. After the game, we drove to Cleveland, spent the night with Ken and his bride, Loretta, and returned to Starkville in time for church Sunday night. "Sixty-Minute Man", Ken Floyd, went on to become Coach of the Year of the state of Tennessee while coaching White Station High of Memphis before joining the coaching staff of Memphis State University.

A favorite pastime of men in institutions is to gripe about the food. Whether it be the army, college, or jail (I expect), the food service comes in for some rough licks from the inmates. The students at Mississippi State were no exception; but the food service certainly was. The cafeteria served a great variety of excellent food, reasonably priced, clean, appetizing, and delicious. Just below the cafeteria, at street level, was another cafeteria called "The Grill" that had later hours but just as good food; and each Sunday night it featured a prime, standing-rib roast that was one of John's main self indulgences. In addition to the two cafeterias where full meals were available, there was the "Dairy Bar" where milk-based drinks, ice cream, and cheeses from the dairy department were for sale to the general public. The quality of food available on campus was so good that many area residents regularly dropped into the Dairy Bar, and salesmen traveling U.S. 82 would detour through the campus to dine at The Grill. John was very appreciative of the food service and, irked by the ridiculous complaints of some of the students, wrote a letter to that effect that was published in the student newspaper.

One mid-morning John took me for a quick trip down to Bluff Lake for a little between-class plug casting. He had so little free time that he did not even launch his canoe, but stood on the bank of the creek which is the outlet of the large man-made lake. Casting across the stream behind a log which was jammed against the opposite bank, John could see the bass come from beneath the log and take the artificial lure. After reeling the fish to the water's edge, he jumped down from the top of the bank, cleaned the fish right there in the cold, clear water, hopped under my wheel, and made the dusty trip back to campus in record time. At twenty minutes before twelve John carried the fish into the kitchen of the main cafeteria and asked the busy chef if he would prepare it for lunch. The chef was more than just obliging. He said a fish that size should be filleted, and he could have it ready by noon. John asked him to please put it on two platters, thanked him, then hurried out to find one of his friends to invite to lunch. This was certainly no problem. He soon ran into Charlie Harvey, a south Mississippi classmate who was about ready for chow. John told him to go through the line and get only a drink, salad, and desert, but no main course. Both did this; but as soon as they reached their table, John dashed back to the kitchen where the chef was just putting two halves of his bass on heated platters. As the boys set upon their meal--less than an hour out of the water and superbly prepared (at absolutely no charge)--John felt that his praise of the Mississippi State food service was completely justified.

October, 1951, was very dry in north Mississippi. Squirrels were plentiful, but the dry hickory leaves were so crisp that walking in the woods created a racket which made stalking difficult. Nevertheless, John got a few squirrels now and then which he usually took to one of his married friends who would invite him to supper. The advantages of having a wife began to become apparent. (The disadvantages may have been apparent also but they went unnoticed.) But before one has a wife, there needs to be a girlfriend. John gave some conscious thought to this.

November 1, the temperature dropped rapidly. John went fishing but caught nothing. On November the second, busses began pouring onto campus for a Baptist Student Union convention--and it snowed. Saturday, November 3, was a busy day. First, John took several fishing buddies to Bluff Lake. Thousands of ducks had arrived from up north, and the boys caught eight bass. We had to rush back to town because there were two functions that night which John planned to attend--nearly thirty miles apart.

We gassed up in Starkville at 23,466 miles and rushed to Columbus for the open house that the "W" girls were holding for the State boys and the airmen from the U.S. Air Force base at Columbus. John had already met a few of the "W" girls, but none that really interested him. He figured that the open house would be an opportunity to have a look-see at the whole covey at once and save most of the time that it would take to meet them otherwise. (Years of troubleshooting complicated radar equipment caused John to develop very methodical techniques for attacking any problem--a system which he employs to this day.)

Cleaning up after the fishing trip made us a little late arriving at the MSCW student center; but this gave John the advantage of inspecting all the young ladies quickly without waiting for them to arrive. The room was crowded and not so very large. John systematically circled the gathering so that he had a chance to look at each girl present from across the room. Many couples had already paired off, but this was of no serious consequence. All he was looking for was the prettiest girl there. His theory being that the odds are better for a pretty girl to turn out nice than for a nice, plain girl to turn pretty. As soon as he decided on his pick of the lot, he stood and watched her face until she looked up and their eyes met. She was already with a young lieutenant, but there was a message in her glance that said, "Don't let his being here stop you." It didn't. When the young officer left his seat to go for cokes, John moved in long enough to introduce himself, learn her name, confirm a mutual interest, and then he left to make the B.S.U. convention back at State College. After the social hour which followed the meetings, some girls visiting from Blue Mountain College needed transportation to the homes in town where they were quartered. We, of course, obliged.

Sunday morning, November 4, we picked up the Blue Mountain girls for the last session of the B.S.U. convention and met some nice girls from Mississippi College; but before the day was over John had arranged a date with the MSCW sophomore he had met the previous night, and we were on our way to Columbus. By the second week end of November, U.S. 82 between Mississippi State and MSCW was my regular route.

On Sunday nights I was usually parked near the First Baptist Church in Columbus. On November 11, John was double dating with a Mississippi State classmate and his girl friend, who was a Presbyterian. The Presbyterian and Baptist churches in Columbus are less than a block apart, but the services at the former started a half hour earlier than the Baptist. Henry and Nell wanted to go to the Presbyterian service. John agreed with the stipulation that as soon as services were over they would walk down the street and catch the Baptist service also. The others readily agreed, but they really suspected that he was kidding.

The primary choir was furnishing the special music for the Presbyterians than night, probably accounting for a congregation slightly larger than usual. The little children in their white robes marched into the front pew of the adult choir loft with only their heads showing above the rail of the front curtain. After they sang several numbers, their director motioned them to be seated--and the entire choir vanished as if the floor had opened up and swallowed them. The screen had been built with adults in mind, and it hid the kids completely. The congregation simply broke up with laughter. The service was short, so as the foursome filed outside, John led them up the street, right past me to the Baptist Church. As Baptists are not generally too prompt anyway, they caught most of that service also.

Saturday, November 17, we carried some other guys with us to MSCW. John took a big box of chocolates with him. The others were ribbing him about the candy. One said, "Boy, it's too soon to be bringing that girl candy already."

Well, that was not quite the case. John's own mother had served as a dorm mother at Northwestern State College in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and he knew the value of gaining favor in the right places. Girls come and go, but house mothers have a way of sticking around where they can do a fellow a good turn now and then. The chocolate was for one of the house mothers. As a matter of fact, this particular house mother moved on to another college and gave us a standing invitation to come down any week end and she would take care of the proper introductions. The thought was appreciated even though circumstances never forced us to take advantage of the offer.

On November 21, John knocked off a couple of exams in the morning, skipped his afternoon lab, and we hit the Natchez Trace south to Jackson and U.S. 80 through Vicksburg to Louisiana. Thursday, after a big Thanksgiving feast, we went to the Delhi-Tallulah football game--which is the local equivalent of the Army-Navy game. On Friday, we visited with all the family friends that were at home, but some of John's uncles were camped far up Tensas River deer hunting. About dark John and his brother, Jimmy, who was also home from college, drove us far up river as the logging roads would allow, left me in the woods, put the ever-present canoe in the river and paddled hard for nearly two hours up river to the deer camp. The hunters were playing cards by lantern light (for matches). After a late night visit, the boys paddled back down stream to where I was waiting. The woods were very dark that night, and John had a job picking our way through the old logging trails. Once we thought the trip was a disaster. I came to an abrupt stop and my motor raced almost to top speed. It was the type of symptom that usually spells big trouble. But this time it was only a vine that had grabbed the clutch pedal from beneath and pulled it down to the floor. After John had crawled underneath and cut it loose we returned to Delhi after midnight. Little did we suspect at this time what the day after Thanksgiving held in store for the following year. But a year is a long time to a young man.

On Sunday, the twenty-fifth, John and his immediate family had their noon meal in a local restaurant after church; but for some strange reason, before church that day, John had made a phone call to a very cute little Delhi girl. Nothing in particular was discussed, and no plans were made, but evidently some favorable impressions must have been generated. The boys departed soon after noon for L.S.U. and Mississippi State. We made a very fast run up The Trace and were back in Starkville for church that night.

The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas went swiftly. John was planning his courses for the coming semester, but somehow another plan crept into his head to interfere with his studies. Maybe it was the disappointment from not being able to make the anticipated trip down the Yukon River. The Yazoo River is certainly not the likes of the mighty Yukon, but it was handy. It is formed at Greenwood, Mississippi, by the confluence of the Tallahatchie and the Yalabusha and flows south-southwest for about two hundred miles to join the Mississippi at Vicksburg. As a skinny grammar school youngster, John had lived on the bank of the Yazoo at Belzoni, "The Heart of the Delta." He decided to make a journey down the entire length of the Yazoo in his canoe, alone, at the earliest possible date. It is tonic for an active mind to have something specific for which to plan. On December 4, the decision was made (and recorded in the diary) to go on December 15, which was the day that school was out for the Christmas holidays.

I was more of a problem than anything else as far as the canoe trip was concerned, but before school let out I had lots to do. November 30, John and a friend, Louis Keslebalm, made a quick twenty-mile canoe trip down the Buttahatchie River north of Columbus. They got three ducks and lots of exercise. The "W" opened for visitors at seven p.m. At five the boys were still on the river. When they reached the highway, they had to make a round trip back to the point where they had put in to get me. (One car had been left at the lower point that morning.) John then had to drive down to the take out point, load the canoe, dash through Columbus over to Mississippi State to clean up and change clothes, the rush back to Columbus. We wheeled in at MSCW at 7:15--one of the rare times we were ever late to pick up a lady.