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

8. Thanksgiving Bride

John spent most of the Sunday we returned from Alaska with Rita. The next day he took her back to Ruston where they had a wonderful day with the Moody family. Tuesday, Rita took a day off from her job at the local newspaper office, and I carried the couple and the canoe to Clear Lake. They left me on one side of the lake and, carrying a light picnic lunch, paddled across to the far shore. They were a long time getting back. The very next night, September 10, we went to Vicksburg to dine with the Friedbergs. After returning to Delhi, parked in front of her mother's house, John asked Rita to become his wife. When she said, "Yes," was the biggest moment in our lives.

Thursday, after a long talk with the pastor, Brother Steinbaugh, we hit the Trace again for State College. As John picked up his room key he applied for an apartment for Rita and himself. We only spent one night at Mississippi State. He registered for nineteen semester hours, then sped back to Louisiana to be with Rita. Sunday night after Training Union we had to return to Starkville as classes began in earnest on Monday, September 15.

On September 16, the town of Starkville welcomed its students back with an open house. The movies were free as were cokes and other small favors. This was the type of entertainment we could afford because, not only was there a long school year ahead, but we were planning on assuming additional obligations before the end of the year.

The dairy department at State had live steam (which was used for utensil sterilization) available at the loading zone in the rear of the plant. John used this steam to clean the accumulation of Canadian and Alaskan highways from my engine. On Friday there was the usual, but eagerly anticipated, letter from Rita; and as much as John longed to go home for the weekend, he had an accounting class on Saturday morning, and academic pursuits prevailed. However, Rita's sister was a nursing student at Baptist Hospital in Jackson, and there was time enough after Saturday's class to drive to Jackson, take Melba out for an afternoon of house trailer shopping, dinner, and a movie, then return to Starkville by midnight.

The first Sunday of the fall term, students were invited to the homes of families from the local church as guests for Sunday dinner. John went home with the Shermans, and after a wonderful meal, returned to the dorm to write letters.

I did not get much week-day activity during this term. The few times I did go off campus, it seemed as if I were tied to an anchor. There was hardly enough power from my engine to pull away from the parking lot. Until now I had always been rather peppy, and this sluggishness was most annoying. John even took me to a dealer's garage to see if they could find anything that would cause me to be so weak. One day, however, he heard the sound of escaping exhaust and traced it to a small hole blown in the crossover pipe which led from the left exhaust manifold over to the one on the right side of the engine. The gasses issuing from the small hole were under terrific pressure. John removed the pipe and discovered my problem. Some pseudo-engineer had designed a butterfly valve within the crossover pipe. As it had aged and rusted, it finally stuck shut. Consequently the exhaust from the left cylinders could not get over to the single exhaust pipe, and power was drastically reduced. After this ridiculous arrangement was replaced with a new, open pipe, I was my old self again although 50,000 miles old.

The following day was Friday. We stopped by Bingham's Jewelry where John picked out a couple of small rings to take to Louisiana, then it was down the Trace again for us. We stopped by Jackson long enough to pick up Melba Caldwell and her friend, Maxine Moore, and carried them home for the weekend. John spent most of the weekend with Rita. She selected one of the rings he showed her--one which she still wears twenty-five years later. Sunday afternoon we picked up the two nursing students and made our usual trip back to Starkville by midnight.

Time was dragging. I stayed parked most of the time, and John had trouble concentrating on school. October 2, he received a letter from Rita with the announcement of their forthcoming wedding. The date Rita had selected was November 28, the day following Thanksgiving. With great restraint we remained in Mississippi for the weekend. Saturday morning we went to Bluff Lake. Fishing was so slow, John got one bass and a long nap. Sunday after church he wandered around campus picking up a few of the first pecans that were beginning to fall. Monday there was a letter from Rita, and one of the post office boxes that John had been waiting for became available.

With our late arrival at State College, all the boxes were taken when we got there. There is such a turnover in the first few weeks of school, however, that the waiting period for post office boxes is not very long. But John didn't want just any box. The post office at Mississippi State was on the ground floor of the YMCA student center. The door faced the street. A few boxes in the rear of the office pointed directly towards the door and the street. By driving slowly past, John could look in the door and tell if the day's mail had been put up or not. If the hanging light behind those few boxes was visible from the street, then the mail was not up; if most of the boxes were dark, the mail had been placed in the boxes. So, by noting the small block of boxes which were most visible, John put in an order for one of them only. When box 841 became available, he rented it. For the rest of our stay at Mississippi State, we never had to park at the post office to check mail; we just cruised by and the light behind the box would signal mail or no mail. I told you he tended to be systematic.

The first week of school we had stayed for Saturday classes. By October 9, we were leaving at noon--and it was only Thursday. We stopped in Jackson to see Melba and in Vicksburg to see John's Aunt Lula, but drifted into Delhi by early evening. John convinced himself (for some unknown reason) that he needed to pull the valves from my motor. They had taken considerable abuse from the severe overheating in Canada and the back pressure from the blocked exhaust pipe. Friday, at his mother's home, he proceeded to strip the accessories, heads, and valves from my motor. When Rita came by at five o'clock to see if we would be ready to take her to Natchez, Mississippi at seven, as planned, the parts were spread out in the yard. He told her not to worry, just be ready to go. He walked a block to the John Deere shop, showed the valves to the mechanics, and asked them what they thought he should do. They said, "Put them right back in the motor and let them alone."

He did, in a hurry. There was less than two hours to get everything above the block reassembled, tuned up, and get ready for his date. Wrenches were flying. Each head has 28 bolts. In his haste, however, he pulled a no-no which did not catch up with us that night, but which caused plenty of grief later on. My shade-tree mechanic reused the old head gaskets--and didn't even own a torque wrench. But I did get an oil change and my block flushed with kerosene. And we did leave for Natchez on time.

We carried Rita down to Natchez to introduce her to John's uncle, Floyd Lewis, and his family. On Sunday we carried Rita and her mother to Jena, Louisiana, so they could introduce us to the Holmes clan (the maternal side of Rita's family). The return trip was by way of Monroe to meet some more of her relatives; and after returning to Delhi, John and I still had that long drive to Starkville. It was two a.m. Monday when we made it back to school this time, and John was nearly dead with fatigue.

By Tuesday John had recovered enough to pick up a large sack of pecans. A friend from south Mississippi spent the night with him so they could get up early to open squirrel season the next morning. The morning of October 15, the boys got up at four a.m. to go hunting only to learn from the radio that the season had been put off another month due to extremely dry conditions in the woods. That night, however, they did enjoy a fine barbecue chicken supper in the vets' apartment of Sibb Hutchins and his wife. Bread cast on the waters the previous spring had already begun returning.

College is a wonderful place to be if one is there in spirit as well as body; but during the fall of 1952, John had his mind on one side of the Mississippi River and his body on the other. By the twentieth of October, Mississippi was beginning to turn a little cool. John went to a few movies, picked up nuts almost daily, and was training an ornery, white pig for a show; but by Thursday, the twenty-third, he could stay away from Rita no longer. The day before, he had washed and polished me, and one of his friends from south Mississippi, Shumock, had helped rub me down to a fine shine. We cut classes at noon again, went directly to Delhi, and stayed at Rita's home until midnight.

Friday night we left the lady a little earlier. Saturday night the engaged couple took their mothers to Rayville to see the movie, "Will Rogers." The mothers got home soon enough, but it was two a.m. before we left Rita. Sunday afternoon we carried her around to most of John's relatives to show them what the family was gaining; but we left Delhi in time to drag into Starkville at two o'clock Monday morning again.

John was sick all day Monday, but met classes anyway. He lay down on his bunk after supper and awoke Tuesday morning still clothed and with a very sore throat. Nevertheless, he worked awhile with his show pig then wrote letters to Kenneth Floyd, Joe Lawlor, Rita, and a couple of service buddies, Don Heath and Calvin Campbell. He always kept up an active correspondence with friends and relatives before television killed the noble art of writing.

Mississippi State was so old fashioned that the administration expected all its graduates to be able to write passable English. Towards that end, one night each semester an English proficiency examination was held for students who thought they were finished with their requirements in the subject. No matter how many credits one had in English, if he did not pass this exam, he could just take some more. John took his exam the night of October 29. He finished early and felt confident of the outcome, so he went by the Baptist Student Union, read a few books on courtship (a little late for that) and marriage and wrote to Rita. Almost every day there was a letter from Rita, and almost every night there was an answer.

Saturday, the first of November, was the "Little International" livestock show at Mississippi State. The gilt that John had been training and fitting for the show was a mean-tempered Ohio Improved Chester that had nearly bitten the heel off his Hyer boot as she chased him out of the pen in their first encounter. He initiated a little "stick and carrot" technique, only it was really stick and shelled corn. When the pig realized that she received corn when she was good and a sore nose when she was not, the two got along much better. Even so, bathing and powdering a pig did not exactly fit the veteran's idea of entertaining recreation.

On the morning of the show, classes of animals were shown in small groups. The frustrated judge selected John's gilt from her group. After the groups were judged, the winners were then put into competition with all other winners of that class of animal (sheep, hog, cattle). Some of John's friends had come to watch him show his pig and lend moral support. As he started into the ring for the second round, Maurice Layton eased up to his side and replaced the piece of scrap lumber John had been using to control his animal with a proper show stick which he had won at the International Livestock Show in Chicago the year before when he had been a member of Mississippi State's first place livestock judging team.

Each time the judge turned his back, John dropped his pig a couple of grains of corn from his pocket. When the judge turned to face the pig, she was standing broadside to him and acting like she knew what was going on. Finally, the judge said aloud that he didn't know if John's pig was just naturally good natured or ... At that, there was enough laughter and comments from the little group of friends to dispel such a notion, and his was pronounced the best shown pig.

The finals where the winning showmen in classes competed against each other for best showman of the show were held in a pasture near the cattle barn. John's pig had to be loaded into a trailer, hauled a mile or more, and released in the beef pasture for him to catch the best way he could. Well, the calf was on a halter; the properly fitted sheep was blocked and placed in a show stance; but a pig released from a trailer in a strange place is going to try to go home. The judge took note of this gross inequity, and awarded John the blue ribbon for showmanship primarily for the feat of getting his animal into the general vicinity of the judging area. The fine barbecue that night in one of the pastures was the main event as far as the Cow College boys were concerned, anyway.

The first weekend in November, John cut classes again and we went to Louisiana. On Friday we went to Rayville, the parish seat, where we picked up John's Aunt Mary to go to the Clerk of Court's office and witness for him to get a marriage license. Then we carried Rita back to Ruston to visit the Moodys. When we arrived back in Delhi late that night, we found that Ken and Loretta had come down from Delta State to visit. On Saturday John's mother had all the local relatives gather at her home. Rita spent the day with us learning to be a part of the family.

Sunday, November 9, typical fall weather set in. It rained. We spent the afternoon with Rita, but it continued to rain so hard that we left soon after dark to go back to Mississippi. We were crossing the Mississippi River on the Vicksburg bridge when the old head gaskets blew. If John had thought about them after he had torn the motor down the month before and had torqued them down, perhaps they would have held; but as we crossed the two-mile-long, narrow bridge, my engine began spitting, missing, and stopping. The approach to the toll gate on the Mississippi side is up a curving grade, and due to the rain there were more vehicles than usual backed up at the toll plaza. Almost each time we moved forward, the motor got harder to start. By the time we reached the toll collector, John had to keep it wound up and slip the clutch to keep it going at all. He passed a toll ticket to the collector as quickly as possible and fled to the service station just beyond the bridge exit. By this time the exhaust was a cloud of steam. After filling the radiator, we hurried up Washington Street to the Friedbergs for help.

Martha had finally traded her little '41 Ford in on a '50 Mercury. It had to push me to get me started so John could drive me down town. He parked me on the lot of a closed garage, took Martha back to her house, then borrowed her Merc to go on to Starkville. He didn't get in that night until 3:15 a.m. I had never been that late; but then I was sitting in Vicksburg with my cylinders full of water.

John spent Armistice Day apartment hunting. Wednesday, the twelfth of November, he rented half of the house at 108 Raymond Street, in Starkville. Friday he received two letters from Rita, drove the Mercury back to Vicksburg and, after a good supper with the Friedbergs, drove me on to Louisiana. After visiting with Rita, he spent the remainder of the night in the little trailer I had pulled back from Alaska. Maybe he was reflecting on the drastic change that was about to take place in our lives.

Perhaps I was getting weary of going back to Mississippi State so much. The week before the head gaskets had blown; this weekend it was generator trouble. By the time we reached Jackson, my lights were getting dim. Luckily there was a mechanic an duty at a service station near the highway in Jackson. He put a new set of brushes in the generator, and we continued northward up the Trace. Somewhere along that lonely parkway, John got so sleepy that driving became too dangerous for him to continue. We pulled well off the road down in the broad ditch for a nap.

A strange gurgling noise woke John up. There was no brook nearby to account for such a sound. When he opened the door to get out, the interior lights would not even come on. Nothing electrical worked. Quickly opening the hood, he discovered that the noise was the battery boiling. Some bad short circuit had left us stranded, helpless.

There was the large, manilla hawser in the trunk which I had pulled from the dirt in Alaska. John tied this under my front end and waited for a passing motorist. One was a long time coming; but finally one stopped, pulled me back onto the roadway, and pushed us far enough for the residual magnetism in the generator to fire the plugs and get us underway again. We had to go a long way before we had the luxury of lights. This time we were four o'clock in the morning pulling into the campus. Very wearily, John disconnected the battery cable to prevent a recurrence of the dead battery and stumbled up to his room. Shumock woke him up for classes that morning, but he slept all afternoon.

The last week of school before Thanksgiving (and the wedding) was hectic. We stayed at Starkville that last weekend, and Saturday Shumock helped load me with John's paraphernalia for the move from the dormitory to the apartment. Some zealous football fans placed a bass drum atop the canopy on the front of the grill next door, which put it almost on the level with John's room, and banged away on it for about three days. The drum was manned around the clock by a relay of beaters. It doesn't take many days (and less nights) for a bass drum to become a real nuisance. John and a friend got up one morning at three a.m. to try to steal the drum, but there were too many guards. At noon, November 26, we finally left Mississippi State for our last time single. We picked up Melba in Jackson at 2:30. Highway 80 across the South was very busy and narrow. Just inside the city limits of Vicksburg, a Studebaker jumped out in front of us. There was almost room to stop, but not quite, so we arrived in Delhi for the wedding with a bent fender.

The ladies of Delhi had given a bridal shower for Rita, and in addition to a scrapbook of recipes and bits of wisdom, they had given her many lovely and thoughtful gifts. The day before the wedding, there was a special Thanksgiving service at the church in the morning. As his guest, John carried Maria Salters, a Negro lady who had been present at his birth. Although out of contact with the family for years, Maria had seen the announcement in the paper, had brought an heirloom gift for the young couple, and wanted to attend the wedding and help with the preparations.

Thanksgiving night there was a rehearsal supper at Mrs. Caldwell's home followed by the wedding rehearsal at the church. For the setting background, John and Rita had gone out to Waverly that afternoon and loaded my trunk with bright green palmetto fronds they cut along the banks of Joe's Bayou. They had decided to provide the greenery for their wedding themselves rather than buy the more traditional ferns.

Friday, November 28, the day after Thanksgiving, John and Rita were married. They spent the morning decorating the church. The wedding was in mid-afternoon in the new sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Delhi. The reception which followed was in the old church next door. Rita had so many friends in her home town, and the people were so nice to her, that it was six p.m. before we were able to get away. During the reception I had been parked, loaded with all Rita's clothes and presents, at the home of John's mother across the street from the church. Jimmy and some of the other young people had loaded my hubcaps with rocks and smeared "Just Married" and other slogans all around my exterior. As the couple left the reception they were showered with the traditional hail of rice. We left Delhi at dusk with streamers flying to the blare of horns. By the time we passed Waverly, five miles east of town, I had pulled away from our pursuers. We only paused at the toll house at the Vicksburg bridge long enough to show the collector the pass John had received from the general manager. Our first stop was a small cafe in Jackson, Mississippi for a light supper. The cafe was near Baptist Hospital, and some of the customers were Melba's friends who recognized the newlyweds.

It was late November and winter had reached the deep South. As we cruised northward up the Natchez Trace, the temperature fell steadily. Of course my heater kept my two happy passengers warm on the long drive, but when we reached Starkville at 10:45 that night the sparsely-furnished apartment was cold. John and Rita had talked of many plans before their wedding, but couples in love do not condescend to think of the mundane necessities of everyday existence. Consequently, they found themselves, almost at midnight on their wedding night, in a cold apartment with no cover for the bed. John had to leave his bride and go down through the middle of Starkville and State college, with rocks rattling in my hubcaps, to his room at old Main Dorm and get his army blankets to carry to their honeymoon apartment. He had contemplated Rita having her electric blanket among all her bags an boxes; but sometime before, he had jokingly told her that he wasn't about to depend on any electric blanket to keep him warm after he was married. She had taken him literally and left her electric blanket at her mother's. As it turned out they really didn't need it after all.

I thought I was not going to get unloaded Saturday. For one thing, it rained most of the day. Finally the newlyweds got all of Rita's possessions, including her portable sewing machine, into the house, and we made our first family shopping trip to town. For almost three years John had been faithful to fill in his diary each night before retiring no matter how late. After that Saturday, for some reason, it was seldom used again.