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

5. Adventures In North Mississippi

On December 21, I got a new tailpipe and muffler from Western Auto for $7.31. After three days in Louisiana we returned to Vicksburg to spend Christmas Eve with the Friedbergs, and returned to Louisiana on Christmas Day. The next few days, John spent more time in that canoe than with me. Some of the time he was deer hunting; but on December 27, he and his brother picked up two sisters in Delhi and carried them canoeing the Bayou Macon. They met a deer swimming downstream in the swift current. As interesting as was this unusual experience, John was more interested in one of the young ladies--the one he had phoned just before he returned to college at Thanksgiving. December 31, 1951, John's twenty-second birthday, he drove his mother to Bastrop, Louisiana, to visit his Aunt Bessie, but returned to Delhi in time for a weiner roast on an Indian mound on the bank of Bayou Macon that night before meeting at the church for the midnight service to usher in 1952.

It was a short nap between 1:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. New Year's Day when John arose to go deer hunting. He was just putting his canoe into Tensas River when two acquaintances arrived (having followed him from town) and asked to be carried up river. The duffel bags were already loaded, and the two extra passengers with their equipment made an awkward load. For this trip John had borrowed a small outboard motor for the canoe. As he was running the shoal beneath the U.S. 80 bridge, the pin in the propeller sheared. He nosed the canoe to the bank and as he turned around to work on the motor, one of the passengers decided he would have a more comfortable seat on top of John's duffle bag than down on the floorboard where he was told to sit. A canoe depends upon a low center of gravity for its stability and is unforgiving when this fact is ignored. The shift of weight tipped the upstream gunwale into the current which completed the upset. Occupants and contents were dunked into the cold water. John grabbed his gun in one hand and the duffel bag in the other, but had to watch his lunch float away. It was only five o'clock in the morning in a brand new year and already he was soaked to the skin, his gun was wet, the motor was submerged so that it would not run, and to top it all he was wearing an all-wool "Alaskan Tuxedo" for which the cleaning instructions did not include soaking in icy river water.

Most of the day was spent restoring the borrowed outboard motor. That afternoon John did run up the river, alone, to meet George and Edward Lewis (relatives) coming downstream with a big buck that Edward had killed. Upon returning to town, we picked up an L.S.U. co-ed which John had met only a few nights before and carried her to Rayville to a movie. On the way we met a motorist that had let his car get away from him on a curve. John got his old hawser out of the trunk, and I pulled the other vehicle out of the ditch.

On Wednesday, January 2, John woke up sick (probably from the cold soaking the previous day). He made a couple of phone calls to young ladies in Delhi, then we went to Vicksburg where we picked up Leroy Wells for the return trip to Mississippi State. For me the Christmas break had been a rather dull time; but I guess, all things considered, the holidays were eventful enough for John. At any rate, it was hard for him to settle back down to the routine of studying again. Some of the time that should have been spent on his lessons was spent writing letters; and our trips to Columbus became less regular.

Final exams began January 21. The afternoon before, John prepared for the finals by playing chess. Directly across the hall from his room lived a 301-pound Russian named Boris. Boris was large, not fat. He could stand flat footed with his arms above his head, bend over backwards, place his palms flat on the floor, then return to the upright position. He was not quite so nimble at chess, however. John beat him three games. The dormitory at Mississippi State was said to be the largest in the United States. Boris could almost completely evacuate it single-handedly just by preparing his favorite lunch. He had a hot plate in his room on which he fried whole skillets of garlic--not meat with garlic--just garlic.

The second day of finals got off to a miserable start. Late the night before, John recorded in his diary that he did not feel like going to bed and that he felt restless. His roommate was gone, since he was about to receive his Master's degree in chemistry and did not have to take finals. At three minutes before five a.m. John looked at his Rolex and rolled over to face the wall and try to get some more fitful sleep. At five o'clock an eerie feeling caused him to open his eyes. He knew something was amiss. Then the door to his room caught his eye. It was ajar; and he knew what that meant. He pounced to the door and looked for some fleeting figure, but could see no one. The door to the adjoining room was cracked open also, so John awoke the lone occupant there and told him that he had been robbed. John's billfold along with his money, driver's license, and a treasured "little black book" were all gone. A pass case with a few pictures and papers had fallen out of the billfold and landed on a laundry bag by his bed. Perhaps it was just as well that this did not hit the floor, because the thief was a professional and may have used any means to avoid detection.

Only two rooms were robbed in a three-story dormitory. The room next to John's had two students. One, the son of a wealthy, Delta planter, drove a new Ford Victoria and spent money like it grew on trees. (Actually, it grew on cotton stalks.) John had come from Alaska with several one-hundred-dollar bills to see him through the school year. One day he had gone through the chow line in the cafeteria, got caught short on small bills, and had to pay for lunch with a hundred-dollar bill. Knowing that this was an advertisement for trouble, he went down town and opened a bank account. When the thief made his move, the boy from the Delta had hit a mule with his car that same night and had spent the night in the hospital; and John's billfold only contained forty dollars. Part of this, however, was an old ten spot folded inside the little black book, and it had much more value to John than just ten dollars.

Back in the summer of 1945 John had made a trip to Wichita, Kansas, to visit his Aunt Mary. She had become one of the "Rosie the Riviters" of WW II, working for Boeing Aircraft building B-29's. She had married an accountant from the Beechcraft plant in Wichita; and John (then fifteen years old) wanted to go see how she was getting along up north. Leaving Waverly, Louisiana, with five dollars given him by his grandmother, he made the trip across Louisiana, through Texas, Oklahoma, and half of Kansas for the grand sum of $1.17. This was far more than he had meant to spend; but the ride he caught out of Oklahoma City was going to Tulsa rather than due north. John fell asleep on the back seat, and when the people who had picked him up turned east at Guthrie, they forgot they had a hitchhiker. When he awoke he was almost to Chandler. The motorists let him out at Chandler in the middle of the night. He went to the bus station with the idea of catching the bus back toward Oklahoma City as far as U.S. 77, but he was so tired that he finally walked down the street to an old hotel and took a room for $1.02. When he came downstairs next morning the town was buzzing with the news that the late bus to Oklahoma City had rammed a concrete bridge abutment just a few miles out of town. There were several fatalities and many serious injuries.

John went back to his thumb and arrived in Wichita in the early afternoon. By the time he had visited two weeks with his aunt and her husband, the rest of the five dollars had evaporated. As he was leaving Wichita for St. Louis on a rather circuitous route back to Louisiana, his host gave him a ten dollar bill. When John was able he tried to repay the ten dollars; but his aunt, as loving kin are prone to do, insisted that it was a gift, not a loan. Nevertheless, John folded this ten spot away, and many times he had been flat broke but still refused to spend it. It was this old ten dollar bill that hurt so much to lose to a sneak thief.

The petty thievery in the dormitory was overshadowed by the discovery that the big safe in the campus laundry had been blown and the safe from the bookstore was missing. Chip marks in the sidewalk indicated that the safe had been rolled out to the street and loaded on a vehicle. Some days later the safe was discovered in a cemetery several miles east of Starkville where it had been opened. The thief was eventually arrested, but the students never got their money back. Do victims ever?

When final exams were completed in late January, we went back to Delhi. Colleges in the "lower forty-eight" were always turning school out for something. John liked the way the University of Alaska kept school in operation so the students were not being constantly displaced. With Thanksgiving, Christmas, and mid-term breaks following so close on one another in the states, it was difficult to tell if one was in college or not. Besides the inconvenience of shuttling from state to state, the schedule complicated the dating situation so that we developed interests in girls scattered over too wide a territory. No sooner had we returned to Starkville and registered for the spring semester than John began planning a trip to L.S.U. He registered on January 30 for twenty-two semester hours; then on February 1 had his schedule rearranged so there would be no Saturday classes.

John had two small circles of friends at Mississippi State. One group was comprised of the members of the Rod and Gun Club. The other group were fellow students in the animal husbandry department. Most of these close friends were from a relatively small area of south-central Mississippi centered around Magee. On February 7, John moved upstairs to 242 Main Dorm with a new roommate: Wiley Ainsworth, from Magee, Mississippi.

Saturday, February 9, John carried Maurice Leyton, also from Magee, to Natchez Trace Lake. The boys didn't catch anything, but the game warden did. John's fishing license had been in his billfold when it was stolen. He told the game warden what had happened, and the warden accepted the story; but when Maurice came up with the same excuse for fishing without a license, the warden's credulity was strained to the point that he invited the boys to the nearest village for a short conference with the magistrate. John and I followed the warden's Jeep to a butcher shop. The butcher took off his apron, placed it upon the butcher block (which then became the bench of justice) and proceeded to fine Maurice fourteen dollars. This was more money than either of the boys had, but together they managed to scrape up that much cash, and were glad to get on back to Starkville. The following day John went completely broke. When the mail was put up that day, there was a refund from the National Service Life Insurance for five dollars.

On the fifteenth of February John and Wiley cut their afternoon classes and went to the Ainsworth home in south Mississippi. In spite of heavy rains during the night, they caught enough little bullhead catfish for a late fish supper. Saturday they did some chores around the farm, then met with some friends from State in Mendenhall that night. After attending Goodwater Baptist Church Sunday morning and eating a big country dinner, we returned to Starkville in time for evening services.

By March 7, the time seemed right for a trip to L.S.U. John had been corresponding with a co-ed there--and it was getting to be spring time down South. By cutting a physics class, we got to Jackson in time for me to get a little shop work done on my front end. For $32.00 I got new front shock absorbers, brake linings, wheel bearings packed, and wheels balanced. After a stop to visit relatives in Natchez, we pulled into the L.S.U. campus at midnight. Saturday we went on a Methodist picnic in the beautiful country just out of Baton Rouge. Sunday began with a student meeting in the B.S.U. Center followed by church at the Methodist Church. It is a long trip from Baton Rouge to Starkville, so shortly after lunch we started back north. There was the usual stop in Natchez, but we arrived in Starkville at 10:30 that night. My mileage for this trip was 18.4 miles per gallon.

The strain of a heavy academic load plus the frustration of trying to solve life's boy-girl dilemma was taking a toll on John. On Saturday, March 15, he overslept and had to be awakened by Scott Lyles for a fishing trip to Bluff Lake. It was a bad, windy day, but John still caught four bass. His mind was not on fishing, however, because he had decided to break off the frequent trips to MSCW. We made one of our last few trips to Columbus that night. I had carried John over there many times in the previous six months, during which had developed a beautiful and honorable relationship. But the time had not yet come when he was ready to settle down, so it became his painful duty to deliberately destroy that which he had so carefully cultivated.

That Saturday night was not restful. John worried most of the night and slept very little. He had always enjoyed sleeping a little late on Sunday morning; but on this particular Sunday he was up at 7:30 trying to study when a phone call came from a distraught young lady in Columbus. After lunch we again made the familiar drive to MSCW. This time, however, rather than driving around town or the countryside, I was left on the street outside campus while John spent the afternoon in the parlor of the dormitory. I could tell it was a bad time for him. There we were right in the middle of mid-semester exams, and John was caught in an emotional crisis. He tried writing as a means of release; even sent an article to the school paper on the virtue of honesty (as a result of so much cheating evident during exams). Wednesday night he spent four hours writing a three-page letter. Thursday's mail brought letters from both MSCW and L.S.U. but they only added to the frustration. Friday night John's roommate and another good friend went to Columbus, but we went to downtown Starkville and John saw a western movie--alone.

The last Monday in March, mid-term grades were posted and John signed up for the fall semester. The whole week was dull and anticlimactic, so John and a friend from south Mississippi, Charles Harvey, planned a fishing trip for the following weekend. Friday, March 29, I was loaded with tackle and gear, and we left Mississippi State for Sardis Reservoir. We went directly to the enemy camp: the campus of "Ole Miss" at Oxford. After driving around for awhile checking out the local area, the boys parked me on a gravel road at a small bridge, took the canoe and their gear, and set out down a tiny creek which eventually emptied into the enormous lake that is held behind Sardis Dam. There had been recent, heavy rains in the drainage basin, however, and the lake was high and muddy. The boys paddled for miles before coming to a boat landing. Some other unsuccessful fisherman were taking their boat out. John caught a ride with them back to where I was to pick me up. (One persistent problem of canoeists is trying to keep car and canoe in the same country.) Returning to the boat landing, John set up camp for the night. Most of the night was passed just watching the stars make their precise arc across the sky. At times such peaceful contemplation seems to help one's perspective more than a narrow, college dormitory room.

Sardis Reservoir looked so muddy and windy on Saturday morning that John loaded up as soon as it was good daylight and headed for good old Natchez Trace Lake. He had not been back there since the game warden episode; but this time he made sure that his buddy had a fishing license. We stopped in Oxford where Charles bought a small yellow, popping bug for his fly rod. This turned out to be just the right bait for Natchez Trace Lake, and the boys caught the first mess of strawberry bream from the lake in the 1952 season. We made it back to Mississippi State in time to clean the fish before dark. Charles had a married brother living in Starkville. He carried the fish there, and Sunday night John and Charles were guests for fish supper at the married student's home.

The college had invited the parents of honor students to the campus for the first weekend in April. On Thursday John's mother arrived from Louisiana. John had made a room reservation for her at the "Y" on campus. There was a short program for the parents in Lee Hall after which we carried John's mother around the college and the town of Starkville. Friday we took her into the surrounding countryside. Saturday morning his mother left for home, and that afternoon we took a friend to West Point to shear sheep.

The days were warm and sunny in Mississippi in April and, in spite of a heavy class schedule, time seemed to drag. School was out Wednesday at noon for Easter, so we left State at 1:00 p.m. heading for Vicksburg. After a supper with dear relatives, we went on to Louisiana under a bright moon, arriving in Delhi at eleven that night. Somewhere in north Mississippi that afternoon my odometer passed 30,000 miles.

Thursday it did what it usually does in Louisiana: rained--and hard. Saturday the same thing happened; but that night we went to Monroe anyway. The movie John took the L.S.U. co-ed to see that night was "Singing In the Rain."

Easter was April 13. John went to the sunrise service with his mother in Delhi. At noon they went to a country church dinner at Five Oaks Church north of Waverly, where all the members were either relatives or life-long friends. That night there was a fellowship for the young people of Delhi at John's mother's home. Afterwards, we took one of the young ladies home. On Monday John ate lunch with his mother at the high school where she was a teacher, and then we had to make that long trip back up the Trace to Mississippi State.

The week after Easter was certainly nontypical. In quick succession, John laid out $30 for a new Palm Beach, mohair sport coat that he didn't need at all, sent a $10 bill to the cleaners in a coat pocket (he was able to retrieve that), and on Friday left me parked on campus while he hitchhiked to Cleveland, Mississippi, to spend the weekend with Ken and Loretta at Delta State. Loretta was teaching English and Drama at Delta State and had put together a lovely, outdoor pageant which played to packed stands on the football field Saturday night. There was a late dance afterwards in the student center. Although not a dancer, John did drop by long enough to meet a few of the students and walk one of the cute co-eds to her dorm after the dance. Many of the family had come from Louisiana to Vicksburg to see the pageant. All stayed over, went to church, and met at Ken and Loretta's apartment for dinner before scattering for home. John got a ride as far as Greenwood with Coach Chadwick, then hitchhiked to Starkville.

The last full week of April, 1952, John was restless and sick. There were tests in some classes, but he was thinking more of the time when school would be out and we could be on our way back to Alaska. Tuesday he had me washed and went to see the movie, "With A Song In My Heart." By Wednesday night an abscessed tooth had become so painful that John called Dr. Rankin late at night to come down to his office and pull it. The next afternoon we left Starkville and drove directly to Delhi, Louisiana, in just four hours and ten minutes.