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

6. Getting Involved

Friday, April 25, 1952, was to prove a milestone in the lives of John and me. In the first place, it was uncharacteristic for us to cut Friday classes. Saturday, yes; but not Friday. So it was that we were in Delhi for the weekend before any other college students. John must have had a feeling which of the other students he was most anxious to see because early in the afternoon he went to the Delhi school, sought out the mother of the two girls he had taken canoe riding in December, and soon he and I were on the way to Monroe. Rita Gay Caldwell, the young lady in question, had transferred from Northwestern State College, at Natchitoches, Louisiana, to a business school in Monroe. Upon arriving in Monroe, John drove straight to the business school, where the teacher informed him that Rita had left class early to catch the bus to Delhi. The bus was due to leave immediately. We sped the few blocks to the Trailways station where the loaded bus was departing. John parked me in the drive, ran to the desk, and had the dispatcher page the driver to stop the bus. He then got the bewildered girl and her luggage off the bus and aboard me--and only then began to work on his explanation for such impetuous behavior. To his surprise and pleasure the young lady did not seem unduly perturbed--not even as we headed west across the Ouachita River, although Delhi is due east from Monroe.

John had a very dear first cousin who, with her husband and three darling daughters, lived in Ruston, Louisiana. He never passed through Ruston without stopping by to visit. It was to the home of this family that he took this girl on their first date. The family met us as I pulled up in front of the house and, seeing Rita's Samsonite on the back seat, they naturally suspected that the couple was married. There seemed no urgency to dispel this conclusion--and quite natural to substantiate it. The immediate result was the whole family falling in love with Rita, and Charlotte whipping up a "honeymoon" supper with her delicious chocolate pie for desert. The "newly-weds" visited with the Moodys until late that night, and at times had to struggle to hide their embarrassment as the happily married couple shared their advice for successful marriage.

Finally, the students took their leave and headed back towards Delhi. A few miles out of Ruston John pulled me over to the side of the highway and he and Rita had a little talk. He was afraid that the Moody family might decide to get them a wedding present, and then the charade would have gone too far. A decision had to be made: either the couple had to go ahead and get married, or return and tell their hosts the truth. With some reluctance the latter course was chosen. The Moodys were already asleep when we returned near midnight, so John told them the story through their bedroom window. It was much more difficult to convince them that he and Rita were not married than it had been to let them convince themselves otherwise. I knew then what the Moodys suspected: that although John and Rita weren't actually married that night, it was simply a matter of time before they would be. We saw Rita some more that last weekend in April, and took her to lunch Sunday before returning to Mississippi State.

May was a busy month at school. Preparations were necessary for a return to Alaska, and we had more trips than usual back to Louisiana. John skipped school again to go back Thursday, May 8. We stopped in Jackson at Sears, Roebuck and bought a tarpaulin and a small innerspring mattress for a homemade camp trailer he was building to take to Alaska. On Friday, the ninth, John and his Uncle George went fishing on Panther Lake. The fishing was slow, but the lake was beautiful, so John carried his uncle home and returned after dark with a different companion. Actually, there was no darkness that night. The moon was full and beautiful shining on the deep, green water of the Lake. The tall, moss-hung cypress trees rimming the lake cast ghostly shadows across the shimmering surface of still water. There was a faint attempt at frog hunting; but a full-moon night with a beautiful girl in a canoe is better suited for other pursuits. There was a quiet picnic on the shore to soft music from my radio, but John returned the lady to her home at a reasonable hour. Not so the following night, however. All day Saturday John's stepfather helped him work on his trailer, getting it ready for the trek to Alaska; but that night we took Rita to a show in Monroe and, for some reason, didn't get home until two-thirty Sunday morning.

May 11 was Mother's Day. John bought his mother a corsage; but after a chicken dinner, spent the afternoon with Rita. He gave her a letter, and she gave him a snapshot for his billfold. Why do girls do that?

On Monday, back at State College, Charles Harvey got a letter from home that discouraged him from his plan to go north with us when school was out. It looked as if John's prospects were fading as he had counted on carrying some fellow students to help with expenses; but the nearer time came to leave, the further 5,000 miles became for those Mississippi boys to contemplate getting away from home for the summer. John wrote to friends in Alaska, however, informing them of his intention to arrive early in June and to his brother at L.S.U. offering to take him up for the work experience.

John's recreation at State College was restricted almost solely to swimming during May. It was good exercise for preparation for a tiring trip but, more importantly, it was free; and what little money was left from the bare necessities had to be saved for the trip. Alaska is one of the worst places on earth to be with no money. On May 15, John even sold his roommate some of his clothes for thirty dollars. The next day we carried some classmates as far as Jackson as we went back to Louisiana. That night he took Rita frog hunting in the canoe again. They even brought back three big bullfrogs for supper.

Saturday, May 17, we had a real family outing. I had a flat bottomed fishing boat and the canoe piled on top of me, then John, his mother, stepfather, Ken and Loretta Floyd, a young band director who was renting a room from John's mother, and Rita all got aboard and we went fishing. South of Waverly, Louisiana, is a chain of pristine lakes connected by runs and bayous. Part of the party rode in the flat boat with a motor on its stern; the rest rode in the canoe towed on a long line behind the boat. The party traveled for miles. Some of the runs were so shallow that not only was the motor useless, but John and Ken had to wade and pull the boat. Finally, after passing miles of beautiful water where people were making good catches of bream, they reached a small lake that suited Pop; and indeed the party caught a big string of fish. That night there was a big fish fry at the home of John's mother. We took Rita home at midnight.

When we returned to Starkville on May 18, it was for the last time before leaving for Alaska. Most of the school work left to be done was final exams and turning in semester projects in several classes. John picked up his yearbook, received some mail including a welcome letter from a friend in Alaska, and on May 22, wrote his brother to get ready to go north. There was one final on Saturday, so we stayed on campus and John went swimming in the afternoon. On Sunday morning John and his roommate, Wiley, had breakfast together and went to church. They spent the afternoon listening to the radio. John received a letter from Rita and answered it.

On Monday morning John had a test and that afternoon another kind of test. One of the seniors, Sibb Hutchins, was in Baptist Hospital in Jackson in critical condition. Several fellow students were donating blood which Sibb needed badly. When the nurse began taking blood from John, she opened a case of faulty donor bottles. By working his fingers John was able to force the blood part way down the tube; but when he relaxed, the pressure in the bottle forced the blood (and air) back into his arm. Finally, on the third bottle, the nurse was successful in saving a pint of blood after wasting some on the two unsuccessful attempts. After a bad coughing spell that left him weak, John returned to his room and lay down to rest. When it was getting on towards late supper time, Baldy, Wiley, and Billy McGee came by to get John for supper. He left his friends in the room for a moment while he stepped down the hall to the latrine. In a wave of nausea he blacked out and fell straight backwards striking the tile floor with the back of his head. Upon coming to, he was aware of the three friends bending over him. They carried him back to his bed and made him as comfortable as possible while they went to eat. They brought back some food which resulted in nausea and vomiting most of the night.

Tuesday morning John was too sick to go to class, but managed to stagger out at eleven o'clock to take a final exam that was scheduled for eight. Letters came from home, however, to lift his spirit a little, and he kept down a light lunch. A feeble effort was made to pack for departure. Wednesday, May 28, the last test was finished. We loaded up and headed for Louisiana again, stopping in Vicksburg as usual to visit a little while with Martha Friedberg.

All day Thursday was spent finishing work on the travel trailer that I was to pull to Alaska, and by dark it was all ready to go. The lower body was plywood; the upper frame was welded steel tubing covered with canvas; the mattress was mounted on rails far enough above the floor so that footlockers, cases of canned food, tools and utensils could be stored underneath; and a cypress ridge pole gave enough slope and tension for the tarp to shed water. Nothing can close out the dust of the Alaska Highway, so the bed was tucked with enough blankets so that each layer would be less dusty than the previous one as they were peeled off and shaken out at night.

On Friday the Delhi college students began arriving home from L.S.U. and the other colleges around the state. That night we picked up Rita and went riding. Saturday was a busy day spent packing the trailer with all the items necessary for the summer in Alaska. It was nine o'clock that evening before we were able to get to Rita's house, so we simply rode up town and back. Sunday John went to church in Delhi, and that afternoon we picked Rita up and went up above Waverly to tell John's relatives goodbye. His plan was to leave Delhi early Monday Morning.