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

9. Married Student Days

During the first semester after John and Rita married, life was not very different for me. Of course I went to Columbus very seldom; and to M.S.C.W. never. There were considerably fewer trips to Louisiana. John still took me to campus for his classes, but at other times I was parked alongside the curb in front of 108 Raymond Street. It soon became painfully obvious that the G.I. Bill was going to come up a little short of covering rent, groceries, school, automobile expenses, and recreation costs.

Television was just beginning to be sold in rural Mississippi. With the nearest stations in Memphis, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama, any sort of picture (and then only at night) was considered an accomplishment. John recognized the demand, however, and with his radar maintenance experience as a background, launched an intensive self-study program in television repair and started a part-time business. The manager of an appliance store in Starkville gave him shop space in the rear of his store in exchange for John handling the warranty work on the radios and record players which he sold. John removed the door swing limiter from one of my rear doors so the full opening was available for loading and unloading, and I became a pick up and delivery vehicle. Business was not exactly booming, but with nineteen hours of course work we did not need to be swamped with repair work.

The small extra income helped, and so did the sense of accomplishment that came from being fully occupied. John's overhead was low and so were his charges--and profit. Some jobs were settled by barter. One job for a service station owner was paid for with a tank of gasoline. Another for a shoe store owner was traded for a cheap pair of sport shoes. Partial payment for one job was a watermelon for Rita. Occasionally there was even a little cash income.

Although I reached 54,000 miles by the end of 1952, my expenses other than gasoline were very few. The armature in my generator was egg-shaped and kept eating up brushes. After replacing brushes a few times, John went to a garage on the outskirts of town and purchased a good armature from a 1953 Ford for $2.98 and cured that problem for the next eighteen years. At 57,243 miles the diaphragm in my fuel pump quit. Because he needed me immediately, he bought a new fuel pump for $3.78, but the next day he rebuilt the original pump for $1.34 so we never had to fear being caught off again with a sick fuel pump.

As the fall semester drew to a close, John spent many hours pouring over class schedules for the spring semester trying to plan for the maximum course load. By registration time he had devised a schedule for twenty-two semester hours--and got them approved. Since most of them were lab courses, they along with the T.V. work and a new wife just about gave John a full load. On nights when he did not have to study, Rita would go with him down town to the repair shop where they would watch Lucy, Berle, or whatever weak program would sync, while he worked. Once Rita picked up some part-time typing that she could do while John tried to align those early sets to operate on the pitiful signals that were available from such distant stations.

It is hard to imagine two people being happier. Somehow the month would end soon enough after the money; and if there was not enough gas, town was close enough to walk to wherever they needed to go. Some nights Rita and John would schottische all the way home from the shop or the show. The armory was only three blocks from the house, and one night they went there for a gospel sing with the Blackwood Brothers and some other groups that traveled throughout the South at that time. John's friends from college were welcome and dropped in occasionally for a meal; but since most of his friends had been upperclassmen, this group rapidly grew smaller.

As well as he liked college (and still does), John was beginning to have some mixed feelings. For one thing, the waiting list for the Veterans' apartments seemed endless. Another worrisome thing was seeing graduates have to accept jobs that paid only half what he could already make in the engineering and electronics fields. There seemed to be little incentive to finish school knowing that the degree in agriculture would almost assure a lower paying job than the summer jobs that were putting us through school. Nevertheless, John decided to remain in school through the summer and get his degree in seven semesters. Sibb Hutchins decided to stay out for the summer, so he and his wife agreed to sublet their apartment in Vets Village to John and Rita.

Only once were Rita and John separated while at Mississippi State. He had taken a livestock marketing seminar, open to seniors only, which required a week in Memphis, Tennessee, studying at the stock yards and packing houses. Both their mothers came up from Louisiana for a weekend visit and carried Rita back with them. John piled five other animal husbandry majors aboard me one afternoon after classes and we headed for Memphis.

Well, John didn't aim directly for Memphis. He had the Grumman on top of me again and planned to do a little fishing in northwest Mississippi. From State we went north until darkness fell, then cut across the state almost due west. That far north in Mississippi, the Delta is finally crowded to an end by the hills that converge on the Mississippi River near the Tennessee line. John planned to hit the very northern tip of the Delta. Finally, after rolling for miles through the unfamiliar hills, expecting so many to be the last one, the lights of traffic going north and south on U.S. 61 became visible in the distance. Realizing that we were finally descending the last hill (but expecting the road to continue due west until it intersected Highway 61), John put the pedal down and we were fair sailing down hill. When we reached the foot of the long down grade and started to level out, suddenly there was nothing ahead in the beam of the headlights except cotton field. The road had made a right angle turn to the north, and we were still heading west.

John turned so abruptly from sheer reflex that I rolled up on the two left wheels. This sent the two passengers in the front seat sliding down on the driver, pinning him to the door so his left arm was useless. The three fellows in the back seat were also piled up on the low side, almost assuring a roll over. My body was so strained on the chassis that John could distinctly hear the right, rear tire (two feet off the ground) spinning against the inside of the wheel well. After a few seconds, the right wheels touched ground again, and we continued on much more sedately than a moment before. When the boys got to look me over in the light next day, there was grass pinched between the rims and tires of both left wheels.

Late though it was when we reached the Delta, we crossed the levee and searched for a fishing spot to camp and go fishing the following morning. A friendly fisherman invited us to use his camp, so some of the boys slept in his trailer where they all had breakfast the next day before trying the fishing. Naturally, the water was muddy, and the fish just weren't biting. Isn't it always like that when one goes miles from home to fish?

The week in Memphis was very rewarding for John. The school program was very well organized by Wilson & Co. The oleanders were in bloom, and we took some of the boys sightseeing. One of them, Beckett, even pitched in $5.00 for gas. But we were anxious to get back to Starkville. What a long wait at the bus station for the bus from Jackson bringing Rita back.

Sometime during the spring semester Rita began to have a mysterious illness--especially in the mornings. She went to a doctor in Starkville who asker her if she wanted pink pills or blue. As she walked to the back of the store where John was working, he knew before she said a word what the diagnosis had been. While this was not really surprising, it certainly had not been put on the schedule along with the twenty-two hours. Nevertheless, both were young and healthy, so immediately after the school term ended they moved into a veteran apartment and John started summer school: genetics and organic chemistry. His most consuming study, however, was a self-imposed cram course in radio and television repair. This field seemed to offer the quickest financial return.

Although school and study cut down considerably on John's fishing, he managed to go out in the canoe occasionally. Between semesters he and Rita scrubbed the entire craft with steel wool and a chemical made especially for preparing aluminum for painting. They applied a rich coat of zinc chromate primer, then a surface coat of dark green enamel. After the weather warmed up for spring, I carried them back to the Tennessee River where John and Scott Lyles had fished the year before. We got there late in the evening and found the water level so high that finding a suitable spot for camping was difficult. John paddled until long after dark seeking a place level enough to pitch camp. Rita didn't think too highly of sleeping on the ground anywhere, much less in strange territory. Nevertheless, after breakfast the next morning she felt better about the country when she could see where she was going, and Pickwick Lake had miles of beautiful water to enjoy.

On another occasion when John and Rita were just out for a ride, they had invited Charles Harvey along. As we crossed the spillway pouring out of Bluff Lake, John paused, studied the water, and asked Charles if he thought they could make it down the spillway in the canoe. Charles was game to try. The boys emptied their pockets, launched the Grumman, and paddled out in the lake a short distance to get the feel of paddling together and made a hasty plan for going down the spillway. To have control, a canoe has to be moving faster than the water, and the water pouring down the steep concrete spillway was swift. John's main worry was the roll of water at the bottom of the spillway. He knew he had to hit it straight on rather than broadside. He and Charles got up as much speed as they could before passing under the bridge at the top of the spillway and yelled at the startled fishermen below as they flashed down the incline. When the pointed prow hit the wall of water at the bottom, it went under and shipped considerable water before bobbing to the surface as the broader beam swept over the turbulent backwave.

The stream below the dam was very swift; and not wanting to be swept away into the forest, John steered for the shore almost as soon as he gained full control over the little craft. It was not the swift water outside the canoe, but the half load inside that caused the trouble. As the canoe turned abruptly broadside to the current, the water on board continued on its way, rolling the canoe over and dumping its two occupants into the creek before the eyes of a dozen spectators. Rita was momentarily worried, of course, but she was most worried that someone would find out that she was with the two nuts that didn't know enough to keep a canoe on the lake side of a dam. Since they could not get any wetter than they were already, and having learned a little from their ignominious dunking, John and Charles retrieved the paddles, put into the lake again, and shot the artificial rapid again--this time with complete success.

Bluff Lake was one of John's favorite haunts. Beside the good fishing, it was a good place to retreat from the classroom and enjoy nature. The lake was the home of muskrat and several colonies of beaver, and in the top of a tall cypress was an eagle's nest to which the old birds returned and raised their family each year. The deep hole where the spillway dumped into the outlet creek was the home of the prehistoric spoonbill catfish. These creatures stayed on the bottom of the hole and would not take bait as did the other fish. They were occasionally caught by snagging. John saw one caught one day and decided it would be fun to hang one on his casting rod. He bought three big trot line hooks which he carried to his shop, cut the eyes from two, filed them all down so they nested together, and soldered them into a giant treble hook.

Equipped with his homemade catch-all, John and Rita went back to Bluff Lake. On each side of the spillway were concrete abutments that were favorite seats for pole fishermen. When John got to the lake, all the choice spots were occupied. He walked along the creek bank and prepared to cast across the creek into the pool in front of the other lines. The big hook was so much heavier than any lure he had cast before that he didn't have any feel for where it would go when he let if fly. It went. Instead of plunking into the pool as he intended, when it reached the opposite bank of the creek, that hook was still going up. John jammed his thumb on the level-wind reel, jerking the hook to a stop in mid air. The line settled across the shoulders of a bored fisherman sitting slumped over on the far spillway abutment. The monstrous hook made one complete wrap around his neck and hung dangling like a pendulum about a foot below his chin. A quick snatch on the rod would have cut his throat. The stoic fisherman hardly changed his position. He slowly turned his head to give the embarrassed student on the other end of the line a disdainful look, then calmly unwound the line from his neck and tossed the hook into the roiling pool below. The hook was so heavy that it immediately went to the bottom and snagged a log or some other immovable object, forcing John to cut his line and lose his spoonbill catfish catcher on its first cast.

We had picked up the little travel trailer from Louisiana (after John had removed the top frame) for the move from Raymond Street to the vet village. The trailer parked by the end of the building drew the attention of a graduate student who needed to ship his family and goods to the Mississippi Gulf coast. For less than gas money, John loaded the trailer with the fellow's household goods and me with the wife and kids (and Rita), and I drug them into Gulfport. Rita and John spent the night with the parents of Henry Toombs, one of their college friends from Gulfport. They slept late the next morning, went swimming in the Gulf, then drove over to New Orleans and turned north across the old wooden causeway to cross Lake Pontchartrain. About half way across, the sky began to roll and turn dark. We hurried as much as we dared with the empty trailer, but before we reached the Slidel shore the sky was green and the wind very gusty. As soon as we could find a place, we pulled off the road beneath the canopy of some tall, longleaf pines. Immediately the hail came. We waited out the hail, wind, and rain. When the storm passed, John had to clean the pine limbs and needles off my windshield so he could see to drive. Hail makes a dreadful sound on an automobile, but unless it is of unusual size it does no real damage. There was general relief, however, when this siege was over and we could continue the trip to north Louisiana.

John had word that an prominent business man in Delhi wanted to see him about going to work for him. Well, this seemed like the thing to do under the circumstances. (Perhaps it was. Who ever knows for sure?) Anyway, John agreed that at the end of the first summer session he would return to Delhi and begin work for $100 per week. In 1953, in the South, this was more than most college graduates could hope to earn.

We returned to Starkville Sunday night to begin closing the little business there and packing Rita's possessions for the final trip home. There was still two weeks of school plus finals before the first summer session would be finished. Since the decision had been made to leave, the time seemed to drag by slowly. To the discomfort of Rita's pregnancy was added the ever-present misery of the heat. The veterans' apartments were located down in a depression between a textile mill and the campus. There seemed to be no breeze to stir the hot Mississippi air. John bought a motor, blade, and some bearings from a supply house in Birmingham and assembled a window fan to make life bearable. He didn't mount the fan in a window, however, but placed it on the floor of the living room aimed at the bedroom door. The air was still hot, but that got it moving.

Before leaving Mississippi State John did one more stupid thing which came back to haunt him years later. Organic chemistry was not one of his favorite subjects. Many times when he should have been studying for this class, he was studying radio theory and repair. Consequently, his grades were reflecting his efforts and were not up to his usual level. The chemistry final was the last thing he had to do before leaving school. The trailer and I were packed and Rita was ready and waiting to leave when John went to take his final final. As he walked into the room to pick up the exam, John remarked to the professor that he felt it was a waste of time to take it because he wouldn't pass anyway. The prof, in an encouraging tone, replied, "Oh, yes, you have a D even without this test." In a flash of ignorant inspiration John asked if he really meant that. When the professor confirmed the grade, the student turned and walked out. One hundred thirty-three semester hours of college work without a dropped course was ended in such a rash, uncharacteristic act.

As quickly as possible, we went to the apartment, picked up Rita and the trailer, and headed west on U.S. 82. Our first stop was for lunch at Winona. In the early afternoon, we rolled down the last hill where the highway spills into the Delta just east of Greenwood. Greenwood is a major cotton market for the Delta; and although it is rather small as cities go, it will not be out-done by Memphis or Jackson for quality or fashion. We stopped in the heart of town where John took Rita to one of the smart ladies' shops for her first maternity wardrobe. The ladies in the store were so courteous, as is the custom in the deep South, and said Rita was the cutest little mother-to-be they could remember. John was mighty proud as he escorted her, dressed in one of her new outfits, back to my parking place. Before dark on July 10, 1953, we pulled into Delhi, Louisiana, to begin a new phase of our lives in the very town where John was born, although he had never really lived or gone to school there. I arrived little worse for wear even though I had seen over 60,300 miles in the previous three years.

By coincidence, John's mother was moving from a rented house in the heart of Delhi just as Rita and John were moving to town. It was a simple matter to move into this vacancy and begin work immediately. The house was much larger than the couple actually needed, but it was only a long block down the street from the clinic, a block in the other direction from the shopping district (two city blocks), and almost across the street from the First Baptist Church. Directly across the street was a funeral home.

The summer passed quickly. John was working so hard that one day was almost like another. His boss was a fair man, but he expected his employees to work as long as work lasted. This was about what John had expected when he left school, however, so there was no resentment. Two new television stations went on the air in Monroe, Louisiana, as well as Channel 25 in Jackson, Mississippi. Since these two cities were in opposite directions from Delhi, good reception from both posed some problems. By working many hours at night in his shop experimenting, and with the aid of Channel Master engineers, John devised a relatively cheap combination antenna system that gave good results for the area. From that time on it was almost impossible to keep up with the demand for television installations. He put antennas up 40 feet, 50 feet, and occasionally 60 feet above the rooftops. Most of this time I simply stayed in the yard. Rita did very little driving, and John used a pick up truck for the business.

During 1953 reliability of new television sets was not nearly what it became by the late sixties. When a new set was taken from its carton, it was a toss up if it would work or not. One shipment of twelve large consoles from a major manufacturer, which John opened, had eight defective sets. Two factory reps came all the way from Memphis to service them on the show room floor. When they departed, there were still eight of the twelve sets that would not function properly. Another major manufacturer placed the two tubes for its UHF converter beneath the chassis so that the entire chassis had to be removed from the cabinet just to replace either tube. Such problems as these made service work very hectic for the T.V. repairman, and almost forced any dealer who hoped to sell sets in volume to employ a service man. There were not enough skilled technicians to go around.

Sometime in the early fall John got a call from a competing dealer in Delhi asking him to come by for a chat. This dealer offered a more attractive work situation closer to the house with a lucrative commission arrangement. After discussing this with his employer, John made the change without missing a day of work. Neither did the amount of work decrease; but there was a change in brands which was for the better, and the work was more satisfying because the customers where more satisfied. The new location had a tremendous walk-in trade which was conducive to a very brisk radio repair business. John really delighted in this radio business because he could repair them completely for a price people could afford to pay, and it was cash business. Besides this, people seemed to appreciate having someone perform honest service quickly and thoroughly. No matter what the trouble might be with their radio, the customers were assured by the saleslady on the floor that "Dr. John" would fix it. With the exception of serious mice damage, this was almost always the case. Since a customer has no real way of knowing whether a subsequent trouble in a radio is related to a recent repair or not, John guaranteed the radios completely for three months. The few cases where this policy cost him money were more than adequately compensated by a host of satisfied customers and their word-of-mouth advertisements. Of course, the radios in those days were worth fixing as the tiny, expendable, junk radios had not yet hit the market.

By October Rita was getting very awkward going about her housework. The growing baby was such an addition to her tiny figure that she could hardly put her shoes on by herself. The baby was due in late November; but as is so often the case, it would not wait. Rita walked to the clinic when the pains began. Initial efforts were to prolong the pregnancy, but this only prolonged the agony. In the afternoon of October 10, 1953, the family was increased by a tiny baby boy. He had to remain in the incubator even after Rita was able to leave the clinic; but she went to see him regularly until, one day, she was able to bundle him up and take him home. Suddenly the whole world seemed to revolve around this tiny being.

John was with Rita at the hospital, in the delivery room, and as much as possible at home; but he had to go on with his work in order to keep paying the bills. He saw the radiant joy of motherhood fade into bone-weary tiredness from sleepless days and nights that came from caring constantly for one so helpless. Beside being premature and tiny, the baby had serious digestive problems, and soon I was carrying him and the worried parents to Monroe to a specialist. As the golden days of Indian summer gave way to dreary November, respiratory problems developed. In spite of some restful days of hope and the most constant loving care, the infant's general condition failed to improve. One afternoon John received an urgent call at work from Rita. He rushed home immediately and, with Rita's mother, we rushed to Monroe with Rita holding the tiny boy in her arms. The doctor had been notified by phone to meet the family at the hospital, but pneumonia had taken its toll. Rita and her mother waited in the hall while John followed the doctor into the room where the last futile efforts were made to sustain life. His most difficult task ever was coming out of that hospital room to tell the little mother and grandmother that the struggle was over--and lost.

That fateful day was December 5, 1953. When John and Rita and Mrs. Caldwell came outside, darkness had fallen. As we left Monroe to begin the journey back to Delhi, the news flash came over the radio that a terrible disaster had struck Vicksburg, Mississippi. Without warning, a tornado had swooped down among the hills of that old city and killed scores of people. The Sanger Theater, nestled among the tall buildings in the very heart of town, had its roof smashed, trapping many victims among the seats and tangled roof beams. Brick businesses in downtown Vicksburg were totally demolished. There was an awe among my passengers, but at the same time a strange awareness that even such an enormous tragedy is only the sum of many personal tragedies.

John's Aunt Mary and her husband, Clyde Adams, lived in Rayville, halfway between Monroe and Delhi. They had lost their daughter during open-heart surgery a few years before, and John felt such a closeness to them, particularly at this time, that he stopped by their home as we passed through Rayville. Perhaps he was subconsciously delaying the return to the big, empty house in Delhi. We found Mary and Clyde stunned by the news they had just received about Vicksburg. They, naturally, were anxious to tell their visitors the tragic news of that disaster. Soon, however, they perceived that something was amiss, and thus became the first members of the family to share the personal loss of its youngest member, and the first of a new generation.

Word preceeded us back to Delhi, and friends and relatives had gathered at the home prior to our arrival. Some of the family would probably have gathered together anyway, for it was the birthday of John's mother. He never forgets her birthday, but it has never been a very joyous occasion in the years following nineteen hundred fifty-three.

The winter passed with John busy at work. But there were not many satisfying, full days for Rita. I hardly moved at all. After December 5, I only got gas on December 31. In January I didn't get any. Rita accompanied John on his night service calls out in the country, but he was using a new station wagon for those trips. As spring approached the couple felt restless. John was studying at night on a correspondence course and systematically reading several years back issues of electronic magazines to close the gap in his training in this field that had developed while he was in college. One night, Rita said she wanted to get away from Delhi for a while.