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

4. Home for Christmas--by Canoe

The next day, Saturday, December 1, was a big football day at State College. We went to Columbus, picked up some MSCW girls, and brought them back to a very crowded campus to see Ole Miss win the annual rivalry 49-7. Then, of course, there was the other round trip to Columbus that night to take the girls back home. On Sunday there was the usual trip to church in Starkville in the morning and Columbus that night. I passed 25,000 miles that weekend. The next weekend there was also three round trips to Columbus, only this time the main feature was a formal dance at MSCW on Saturday night. On December 11, there was a play at the "W"; and, even though this was a Tuesday night, several of us Mississippi State cars went over. There is just no telling how far "Cow College" boys will go for culture.

December 13, I took John to West Point, Mississippi, to have a wisdom tooth pulled and several teeth filled. We returned to State in time for him to watch Mississippi State beat a great Tulane basketball team 68-60. The night before, State had toppled L.S.U. (with the great Bob Petit) 59-54. On Friday we made the last trip of the year to Columbus and said goodbye to the girls for Christmas.

School was finally out at noon, Saturday, December 15. John had found a fellow student, Leroy Wells, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, with whom he was willing to risk me for the drive south. We left Starkville after noon with John driving and went straight west on U.S. 82 to Greenwood. There he unloaded the canoe and duffel bags, his gun and provisions, said goodbye to Leroy and me, and pushed out into the swift and muddy Yazoo River only a few minutes before the early, winter darkness.

As soon as the Grumman swung around the first bend in the river, mallards flew up. John reached for his .410--and remembered that he had left a new box of #6 shells on my front seat. Ironically, by the time we had gone two blocks from the river in Greenwood, Leroy noticed the shells on the seat beside him and hurried back as fast as traffic would allow--but the canoe with its lone paddler was already out of sight. John had taken the little .410 along for meat for the pot, but was left with only a few #7½-shot shells. He had told Leroy where to leave me in old Vicksburg and to expect him to arrive there by river the following Wednesday afternoon, but not to worry about him until Thursday. As the sun dropped, so did the temperature, and John paddled on into the darkness to get the "feel" of the river, and also to keep warm. The night grew pitch black. Not even the duffel bag in the middle of the canoe was visible. Paddling along blind in this fashion increases the dangers both real and imaginary.

While pondering just what might lie ahead, John got one of the most startling, most genuine, frights he has ever had. His small world suddenly changed from one of total calm, save the rythmatic dip of the paddle, to one of complete bedlam with a horrendous splashing and beating of water and air. There just was no conditioned reflex to deal with this particular situation. The canoe had plunged into a raft of wild geese sleeping on the water. The geese were no doubt equally startled; but, after beating the canoe and flapping their wings so close that John could feel their rush on his face, they probably recovered their composure much sooner. Such an experience coming instantaneously in total darkness can be quite unnerving to a lone traveler on a strange stretch of water.

Friends of John from the Rod and Gun Club had loaned him a navigational map of the Yazoo River and an extra military shelter-half. The latter, with his own, formed a cover over the canoe. With his old army blankets and comforter he had made a cozy nest on the floorboards, underneath the weatherproof covering of the shelter-halves, so that going to bed was only a matter of slipping off the seat and sliding under the thwarts. The two paddles were placed longitudinally atop the canoe canopy for the dual purpose of holding down the material in case of wind and being handy when they were needed. Once the spooking by the geese was overcome, John drank some hot chocolate from his Thermos and retired for the night, afloat on the dark river.

So long as the canoe drifted with the current, there was almost complete silence. Now and then the sound of water flowing beneath the keel would awaken the light sleeper, and he would take a paddle and push off from some drift in which the Grumman had become entrapped. Each time it became necessary to use a paddle, John noticed that it was sticking more and more to his floating "tent". He only gave this half a thought but assumed that the varnish on the paddles was reacting with the waterproofing of the shelter-halves. Finally, after a period of extra sound slumber, he awoke to find the sun coming up. Upon crawling from his snug bed and reaching for a paddle, the mystery of the sticking paddles was solved. They were frozen firmly to the fabric. The world was white with frost. A little water splashed on a paddle freed it for use, and a hungry canoeist put ashore at the first available landing.

The odds are very good for a stranger finding hospitality at any point along the Yazoo, but John had the good fortune of going ashore at Egypt Plantation, Sidon, Mississippi. After tying to the dock, he crossed a well-kept lawn with a swimming pool, to the rear door. Mrs. Thomas came to the door and invited him in. No explanation was asked, but a hasty one was given, and immediately the good lady began scrambling eggs and whipping up a hot breakfast. Mr. Thomas was out for an early-morning duck hunt. Before the meal was finished, he arrived and, upon learning of the nature of John's trip, told of his long-time desire (common to most boys that grow up along a river) of rafting the Yazoo to its mouth.

After thanking the gracious hosts for a fine start of a new day, John pushed off as the couple waved goodbye and paddled steadily all day long to reach Belzoni. The distance by river must be at least thirty-five miles as Delta rivers are not characterized by straightness. John approached Belzoni with mixed feelings. It was there he had gone to school from 1936 until 1942, but people are prone to forget the ones who go away. He pulled ashore only one block from where he had once lived, made a phone call to one couple of family friends who came down to the river and carried him home for a short visit, then put out into the stream once more.

Down stream from Belzoni about five miles is the last place that John and his family lived in Mississippi. It was a small, fertile farm in one of the bends of the Yazoo, very appropriately called "Hardcash". Lots of things had been hard there, and most certainly cash was one of them. He remembered the winter spent there when the Yazoo froze so hard that a brick thrown from the top of the high bank would not break through the ice. There were many other bitter-sweet memories of those lean pre-war years through which a youth passes all too swiftly. His intention when he paddled out of Belzoni was to go to the farm house that had been his home, introduce himself, and visit for a while; but the closer he got to the old place, the less sense this seemed to make, and at last he decided to not disturb the residents, whoever they may have been. Instead, he went ashore in the old, wild pecan grove where he had chased hogs so many times, built up a fire to cook and warm himself by, and departed with no one having known of his passing.

About 1940, the Corps of Engineers made a tremendous cut across a large bend in the river just above the spot were John lived. This diverted the main flow of current and shortened the distance for boat traffic by several miles. By 1951, willows and debris had greatly reduced the original channel that flowed behind the old house; but the cutoff was swift, as it carried the full flow of the river. After the late supper in the cold, dark woods, John paddled back a short distance to get into the cutoff before retiring for the night. As he veered around the corner from the old channel into the cutoff, he experienced a shudder that was not entirely because of the freezing night.

That exact spot was the scene of the very near demise of a runty, fifth-grade kid some years before. The monstrous dragline that dug the cutoff was a wonder for a small boy to watch as it dumped chunks of clay the size of a smokehouse upon the bank of the canal it was digging. Many times John took some old, leaky boat (that he had caught floating downstream and tied to a stump on the bank back of his house) across the river, walked upstream a half-mile or so through an abandoned farm, and watched the big dragline work. After the cut was opened and all the equipment gone, he still went up on frequent hunting trips. Once, hunting alone as usual, he walked down the cut bank to the edge of the deep water to watch the water rush through the cut. Several large willow logs were piled neatly on top of the cut bank, lying parallel to the cut. Some sixth sense (or, perhaps, subconscious hearing) caused John to glance up just in time to see about three of the logs rolling down the bank directly above him. A desperate lunge backwards along the bank almost got him clear; but the end of one of the logs, by this time bouncing clear of the ground, caught him just inside the knee of his left leg. The force of the blow sent the boy flat on his back into the water. As usual, these incidents happen so fast that complete explanations are impossible; but one scared lad, that could hardly swim under ideal conditions, was soon back on the bank, muddy as a hog, but clutching a wet rifle firmly in his hand. If the choice had come down to losing that .22 or drowning, very likely this story would have ended right there in Humphreys County, Mississippi.

As soon as the canoe was settled in the center of the current John crawled down into his sleeping nest and went to sleep for the second night on the river. He had only one real concern about sleeping adrift, and that was the possibility of drifting underneath a steep bank that was ready to sluff off into the river. Years before, while boating on the Yazoo River on a Sunday afternoon, John had paddled close to a bank just at the moment that it broke loose. Tons of earth dropped into the water in one piece, and the power unleashed was awesome. During the night, when the soft murmur of water beneath the keel announced that the canoe was still, there was always a little apprehension that rather than being hung in a drift the canoe had swept up under an overhanging bank. Just before dawn this happened. When John awoke there was no sky above and the canoe was completely beneath an overhang. He knew that the slightest disturbance could lead to disaster, and ever so gently eased it back into the stream. This ended all attempts to sleep, and since the current had been disappointingly slow, he paddled until good daylight before pulling ashore for a quick breakfast.

After breakfast John paddled steadily until mid-afternoon before pausing for a sandwich, then picked up the stroke again. His goal was Yazoo City, where he had planned to spend the night with Scott Lyles. By late afternoon rain had begun. When he felt that Yazoo City must be very near (which it was by land), he met a Corp of Engineers tug going upstream. The tug slacked speed in deference to the smaller craft, and John hailed a deck hand to ask the distance to Yazoo City. The answer came back, "Twelve miles".

Unbelievable! The map at his feet was very reliable for the entire length of the river except for this one stretch just above Yazoo City. The wind was picking up to add to the discomfort caused by the rain. There was nothing to do but bow up and paddle, but the vision of the nice, warm bed waiting in Yazoo City made the misery tolerable. Just before midnight, a tired, wet, weary, young man climbed the almost perpendicular bank to the Yazoo City power plant and asked the startled night watchman if he might use the telephone. A quick call to Mr. Lyles' (Scott's father) residence was answered by a sleepy gentleman with the unwelcome news that Scott had gone to Arkansas goose hunting. So much for the warm bed on that miserable night. It was a long walk uptown to the only cafe that was still open, but the legs needed some exercise. The waitress filled John's Thermos with steaming hot chocolate, and he walked back to the power plant, slid down the hill to the canoe; and after paddling past the small city, went to bed on the river once more.

The rain was steadily falling, with the temperature just above freezing, as John retired--very tired. The hole above the rear seat had to be covered so the rain would not get into the canoe and soak his bed. His old G.I. raincoat was just right for this. By hanging the neck of the raincoat over the pointed end of the canoe, and stretching the tail on top of the shelter-halves, the entire 15-foot canoe was converted into a waterproof sleeping bag. When the rain began John had cut a willow pole and placed it down the middle of the canoe between the thwarts and the shelter-halves to give some pitch to the covering so the rain water would go over the sides. When the wind picked up he had cut a pole for each side for weight, tying them to the edges of the fabric so they would hang between the gunwales and the waterline. As he went to sleep his one thought was what he must do should the wind get under the raincoat. To lose it would be most miserable, and yet he was just too weary to dig out thongs to tie it securely. Soaked as it was, the old coat was pretty heavy anyway. Sometime after falling soundly asleep, John awoke abruptly with his arm already immersed to the elbow in the river, gripping the sinking raincoat. The necessity for such quick action had been so thoroughly absorbed into his subconscious that he reacted instinctively before the drifter was even awake. By this time the wind was driving the rain so hard that there was no choice but to secure the coat to the canoe before snuggling back down into the army blankets. This time sleep was deep and peaceful with the heat from the water dispelling the cold from the air; and John awoke late the next morning to make breakfast on a sandbar in the bright sunshine.

December 18 was an easy day compared to the long, upwind grind of the previous day. It is easy to paddle a canoe upstream, but quite difficult to buck the wind. Canoes have such shallow draft that there is two inches or less for the water to drag upon, but most of the craft is above water and at the mercy of the wind. As the Yazoo River winds by the little settlement of Satartia, it is confined to deep banks topped by an ancient, iron bridge. John tied up beneath this old bridge, climbed the steep bank, and purchased a few supplies from a country store. The main reason he stopped was to replace the .410 shells he had left with me in Greenwood three days before. Thus supplied, he got a couple of squirrels and ducks that afternoon.

Below Satartia, the Yazoo meanders westward through very sparsely settled country. It is joined by the Sunflower River that runs almost due south until it empties into the Yazoo. John was anxious to make it past the confluence of the two rivers in daylight because he did not know the relative level of the rivers, nor the extent of the cross currents which might be encountered. All through the afternoon he kept a steady stroke to cover the ten miles from Satartia to the mouth of the Big Sunflower before dark. Just at dusk the little canoe nosed into the sweep of the current of muddy water that drains the center of the rich Mississippi Delta and southwestern Tennessee. The current beyond the junction was disappointingly slow, however, because the mighty Mississippi was on the rise and backing up its tributaries. Not realizing the trouble this would cause the next day, John retired early, and the paddles were soon frozen safely atop his little floating camp.

Wednesday, December 19, dawned as if it might be a pretty nice day. However, the current was becoming very sluggish and the breeze was blowing upstream. Before the day was very old, someone in the dense woods on the west bank of the river took a pot shot at John's head with a rifle. He was moving near the east bank at the time at a pretty rapid clip. The bullet whizzed directly behind his neck as he leaned forward for another stroke and chugged into the water before the sound of the shot reached his ears. His pace may have quickened somewhat. Although armed, it did not seem prudent for a man exposed on an open river to pause to feud with an unknown assailant firing from the cover of the forest.

As the morning wore on, the wind picked up, and each mile was harder won than the last. There were commercial fishermen on the river now: the first traffic encountered, other than the tugboat, in three days. His plan had been to raise Vicksburg in mid-afternoon; but John had not anticipated the rise of the Mississippi or the steadily rising wind. By noon the waves were white capping, running upstream.

Years ago, the Mississippi River ran by Vicksburg's waterfront, and the mouth of the Yazoo was about ten miles above the city. But the whimsical Mississippi, in one of its many changes of course, swung over into Louisiana, bypassing Vicksburg, to come back to the bluffs south of town. The U.S. Corps of Engineers, in order to provide Vicksburg with navigable water, diverted the Yazoo River through the deserted old bed of the Mississippi. John was looking forward to entering this stretch of the river, figuring the remainder of the trip would be a breeze. It was. The trouble was, however, that the breeze was a strong wind out of the Southeast rolling three-foot waves straight at the little canoe. On the crest of each wave the front half of the canoe would rise clear of the water to dive with a smack into the face of the next wave. As the pointed bow split the water, the poles holding down the shelter-halves were submerged only to bang against the sides of the craft as she quickly rose with the wave.

Holding close to the shore line in vain hopes of some protection from the ceaseless wind, John could judge his feeble progress by the willows growing out of the high water. Many times, three or four paddle strokes were required to pass one tree as so much effort was required to keep the canoe directly into the wind. To turn broadside would mean being swept upstream. Vicksburg, built upon the hills, was very visible--and seemed so near; yet it took four hours of continuous, hard paddling after it came into view before the Grumman finally came under the lee of the bluffs and found shelter from the wind. By the time John eased the canoe up to the landing and tied up at the Sprague (largest riverboat on the Mississippi), he had been paddling for twelve hours without a break and had covered thirty-five miles of river since breakfast. In four days the canoe had carried him two hundred miles to arrive at Vicksburg only threes hours behind schedule.

Since Saturday night I had been parked on South Washington Street at the home of John's beloved Aunt Lula and her daughter, Martha Friedberg. At the time John walked up from the waterfront to the nearest telephone and called their house, Bobby Pace, a friend from Louisiana, had stopped by the Friedberg's on an infrequent passing, and he and Martha drove me down to the waterfront to pick up John. He quickly lashed the Grumman to my car-top carrier and drove back to his Aunt Lula's for a good supper and a soft bed.

A soft bed is not quite synonymous with a good night's sleep. South Washington Street in Vicksburg, prior to the interstate highways, was both U.S. 80 (Savannah, Georgia to San Diego, California) and U.S. 61 (Fort William, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico below New Orleans). The Friedberg's guest bedroom was on the front of the house very close to the street. Each big truck seemed to be crossing the front porch. Before dawn, exhaustion overcame the traffic noise and John passed into a deep sleep. He awoke at daybreak sitting up in bed trying to paddle the bed away from the wall. In a nightmare, the wall was an overhanging river bank from which he was trying to escape before it came crashing down on his canoe. After such a rude awakening on December 20, we went shopping in Vicksburg, then on to Louisiana.