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

10. California Honeymoon

While he was in the U.S. Air Force, John had been chosen by competitive exams to go from Illinois to California to attend an advanced radar school conducted by the manufacturers of the ground controlled approach equipment, Gilfillan Bros. Inc. He was impressed with the quality of the company and the integrity of their people. Consequently, he told Rita to dig down in his footlocker, find his diploma, and write the company and let them know that he was available. She did. This proved to be one of the most fortunate impulses in our lives.

One Saturday in mid-March, John had been on a service call to the customer who was located at the extreme northern edge of his territory--almost in Arkansas. From this call, he had to go far south of Delhi, perhaps sixty miles from one place to the other. As he passed through town and stopped by the house to check on Rita, the phone rang just as he opened the front door. The call was from Los Angeles offering a job, mileage payment to California, and a salary while in school if John would come and learn the new equipment that was in production. The offer was accepted, and Lee Stanton sent John a telegram confirming the offer.

John gave two weeks notice to his employer and began to make preparation for the trip. At last I got a little attention; more than I really needed. He put me in a shop for a new clutch plate, brake shoes, and wheel cylinder kits.

At seven a.m. on April 6, 1954, we left for California. I was fully loaded. Even the canoe on top was loaded with duffel bags. The trunk and rear seat were crammed with everything Rita though she might need in California including her sewing machine. My odometer read 63,255 miles. There were some qualms about leaving home, but by the time I nosed into the yard of Rita's Aunt Eecie and Uncle Ned in Fort Worth that afternoon, the apprehension of the young couple had been replaced by the thrill of embarking on a new adventure. They didn't have much of an idea what their future held, but were anxious to find out.

After a night's visit and breakfast with Rita's relatives, we made a good start on the morning of April 7. Before leaving Fort Worth John spotted fluid on the inside wall of one of my tires, but he didn't think too much about it--not enough, in fact. All day we rolled westward across Texas. The plains were in the grip of the worst drought since the dust bowl days of the thirties. The scenes grew more depressing as the fields became expanses of drifting sand. In places the sand had piled up and over the neat, picket fences and even up to the windows of some of the deserted houses. For miles and miles the landscape revealed a trail of broken dreams. John was never to forget the utter loneliness of that country and the extent of man's dependence on the precious rain which does not always come.

Late in the afternoon we reached Carlsbad, New Mexico. The highway into town drops down from a plateau to the city below. At the foot of the grade was the first traffic light. Since it was red, John pushed the brake pedal--and we sailed right through the intersection. Now the fluid on the tire was no longer a mystery. We were most fortunate to find a shop with a mechanic who was willing to work late at night. He pulled the wheel, honed the wheel cylinder, and put in a new wheel cylinder kit for just $6.43, parts and labor. Much has been written about crafty mechanics taking advantage of helpless motorists, and too little about such honest craftsmen who are willing to do their best to help people along on their journey. In my experience, the latter are far and away in the majority; but the former get the publicity. The brakes were repaired in time for John to find a motel before taking Rita to downtown Carlsbad for dinner at one of the fine outdoor cafes.

On the beautiful morning of April 8, I was parked at Whites City in time for my people to catch the first guided tour into the depths of Carlsbad Caverns. This is an unforgettable but time consuming tour, so it was well after noon before we were able to stop in Roswell for lunch and a lube job. While I was being serviced, John and Rita visited the Kaiser dealer's showroom and admired the new Kaiser sport car with its fiberglass body. That was the first and last one they every saw.

Through the late afternoon we rolled north along U.S. 285 over the lonely plains of New Mexico. About dark we turned west on route 66. That evening John and Rita listened to Ralph Edwards with one of his anniversary broadcasts of his famous radio programs from the town named for the show; Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Route 66 was such easy traveling, and the night was so lovely, that we passed through Albuquerque and across the Continental Divide to Gallup before stopping for the night.

The next day at noon, some local inquiry in Flagstaff, Arizona, led to one of the finest eating places between the coasts. The Black Cat Cafe served excellent food quickly but courteously and will always be remembered as an extraordinary dining surprise. After a superb meal, we turned north to visit the South Rim of the glorious Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. This early in the season the tourists were not so thick and mule deer could be seen nibbling on the buds of the fresh, spring growth. John had toured the area on a coast to coast trip in April, 1948; but this time, with a young bride, was a sort of honeymoon. The major attraction was no longer the canyon, but the companion.

By late afternoon we returned from the National Park area to Route 66 at Williams. As darkness fell, the desert chilled rapidly. The air became so cool that my heater was required for comfort. John drove late into the night. Before we finally stopped at Kingman, my heater had stopped functioning properly--something that had never happened before. Since the problem didn't seem critical, John didn't try to diagnose the trouble, and by the next morning had forgotten about it.

On the morning of the tenth, I cruised across the top of Boulder Dam (Hoover Dam) into Nevada and waited for a couple of hours while John and Rita toured the dam complex. As we climbed out of the canyon and headed into the desert, my temperature gauge signaled trouble. Since raising my hood involved removing the canoe from the cartop carrier, it had not been raised since leaving Louisiana. Expecting to find a ruptured water hose, John made the necessary under-hood inspection. To his relief (and embarrassment) he discovered that the generator mount had gradually worked down on the engine due to a nut being not quite tight enough. The belts for both water pumps had slackened and had caused, not only the overheating but, the heater malfunction of the night before. With a trusty twelve-inch adjustable wrench given him by a friend in England six years before, John quickly had this minor problem cured. In Bolder City he and Rita viewed a movie showing the construction of the giant hydroelectric project. At noon we were on the strip in Las Vegas.

Unless one is a real desert rat, there is a lot of desolation between Las Vegas and San Bernardino. Traffic along this route is simply racing to get to the other end as quickly as possible. If there were any speed limits, they were universally ignored as the utter vastness of the desert distorted all perspective of speed. After a refueling stop in Victorville, Rita lay down on the seat for a snooze as we continued to narrow the gap to our new home.

After ten p.m. we topped Cajon Pass and began coasting down the western slope of the San Bernardino Mountains at about eighty miles per hour. As the lights of the sprawling, metropolitan area came into view, John awakened Rita. She had gone to sleep in the comparative calm serenity of the desert, and was abruptly awakened to the glare of lights, the roar of eighty-five mile per hour traffic, and the sudden realization that somewhere in that conglomeration of humanity was our destination. Apprehension bordered on fear. It is one thing to contemplate a strange, new environment in the abstract, but quite another to face it squarely in the concrete. Very quickly we were swallowed by the anonymous mass that is southern California. Late that Saturday night we nosed into a motel in San Bernardino and called it journey's end at 65,690 miles, 2,435 miles from Delhi. John's new employer had agreed to pay him seven cents per mile, or $170.00, for the trip. My total expenses were $49.31.

Our first day in California was Sunday. This was fortunate for Rita because it was her first trip into such bedlam, and Sunday morning is relatively calm even in California. John wanted to make the occasion a memorable one so he drove over to Riverside to the old Mission Inn for breakfast. When we got there, the place seemed so opulent that Rita felt ill at ease and self-conscious about her dress. She would not go in. Perhaps it was just as well since we had arrived in the Golden State on borrowed money as a result of heavy bills from the previous winter.

Since John was to report to company headquarters in downtown Los Angeles Monday morning, he drove on in and checked into a hotel for Sunday night. That night he took Rita to dinner at Lucca's. The food and the violin music were both excellent; and, best of all, the big city did not seem such a terror as it had only the night before. As we paused in front of the hotel to let Rita out, the doorman motioned John to a parking place near the front of the hotel. Just the fact that the spot was vacant made it suspect, so John asked the doorman if he was sure it would be alright to leave me there overnight. Assured that it was okay, he and Rita retired for the night.

The first thing to greet the new arrivals when they walked out on the street Monday morning was a traffic ticket on my windshield. Their first morning in Los Angeles was spent in traffic court. After this welcome to the city, we found our way to 1815 Venice Boulevard and checked in with John's new employer: Gilfillan Bros., Inc. The preliminaries were simple and brief, and soon we were on our way back east to Fontana where we were to work while training. Taking Colorado Boulevard through Pasadena, John stopped for a late lunch in beautiful Arcadia before going on to Fontana to search for a place to live.

John's oldest step-brother, "Buddy" Floyd had lived in Southern California since leaving the Marine Corps shortly after World War II. Before leaving Louisiana, John had written Buddy asking him for some assessment of the housing situation. Surprisingly there was a reply, but in essence it said that the situation was hopeless. Thus encouraged, it was with a certain temerity that John cruised down Sierra Avenue, pulled up to the home of a total stranger, and asked him if he knew of a suitable dwelling which a couple of newly-weds might rent. What wonderful news it was when he said that a friend of his was just putting the finishing touches on a new duplex only a few blocks away. That was our next stop, and soon. We found Chuck still fitting trim in a perfect place for two people. About the only details lacking were getting the utilities turned on and the clean up. Chuck agreed to leave an extension cord run over from his house for the night, and John swept out the shavings and sawdust. By nightfall he had Rita set up in a brand new, furnished, efficiency apartment. Someone in charge of this universe looks after the problems beyond human capability.

That summer in California was idyllic. John's work was interesting, challenging, and rewarding. The hours were from 2:30 until 11:30 p.m. This matched his internal clock precisely and left the mornings and weekends free to be spent with Rita. The household was put on a very strict budget. Rita, John, and I were each allowed five dollars per week. When I needed more it had to come from John or Rita because the debts in Louisiana had to be paid (and they were). On most Saturdays there were day trips to places of interest: Palomar, Knott's Berry Farm, Lake Arrowhead, the beaches, the mountains, or the missions; but we always returned to the little haven at 9121 Olive Street by midnight. It was a rare Sunday that I was not parked at the First Baptist Church in Fontana.

Gilfillan Bros. had a small corps of field engineers spread all around the globe. There was some difficulty in keeping men trained to meet the growing demand. By late July it became evident that three men were going to be needed overseas before the training schedule was complete. The three nearest to being ready were picked, and one of them was John Lewis. The least desirable of the overseas locations available was Iceland. The three aspiring field engineers agreed to "odd man" coins to see who would take the Icelandic assignment. As far as John was concerned, the conclusion was foregone. Just this once he may have wished he had not been "odd". At any rate, that day he went by the public library, checked out the only three books there on Iceland, took them home to Rita and told her to start learning about their new home. She burst into tears.

The summer in California had been fun. We knew it had to end, but wished it did not have to be so soon. I had had one very bad lick that disfigured me for life but did not alter my utility. One Saturday, in Twenty Nine Palms, we were well into an intersection when a Hudson came from the right side heading straight for Rita. John swerved into the sand on the left, but the Hudson driver had been working all night and his reflexes were numb. He got me in the right rear door and quarter panel. The front tire of the other car centered the end of my rear axle, however, so the damage to me was much less than it would have been otherwise. The offending driver had driven many miles from his job, and his home was the next one beyond the intersection. His poor wife was on the steps watching for his return and saw the wreck. Since the Hudson was a total loss, and the driver and his wife so upset, John did not have the heart to get the law down on him also. He pried the quarter panel off my tire so we could roll, and we continued our journey out through the desert. Before we had gone very far, however, the damaged tire blew out. It had been cut in the wreck.

This was one of the Sears Tires that we had gotten in Great Falls in 1952. We went directly to the Sears store in San Bernardino where I got a replacement tire and tube for $10.66, at 67,000 miles. The day in the desert had been so enjoyable, in spite of the wreck, that John and Rita drove back to Redlands that night to see Walt Disney's "Living Desert"--twice.

There were very few movies that summer due to the tight budget, but they did go to San Bernardino to see "Three Coins In the Fountain;" and once in Fontana there was a double feature that was just too classic to pass up: Stienbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and Caldwell's "Tobacco Road" on one bill.

One of John's cousins had migrated to California also, and during the summer he got married. We went to the wedding, an all-day affair that ran on into the night. On a few occasions we joined this couple for trips to the beach. On one of the trips to Huntington Beach State Park, the ranger stopped us at the entrance and informed John that boats could not be launched that day. Being unfamiliar with the many regulations that might govern such a place, John, sincerely puzzled, asked, "Why not?" The ranger explained that the surf was so rough that no boats could be launched; it was just physically impossible. Still persistent, John asked if it was actually unlawful to try. The slightly exasperated ranger replied that if anyone thought they could put a boat in through the surf, they could just go ahead and try. As soon as he located a place for me in that two-mile parking lot, John unstrapped the Grumman and did just that.

The crowds of swimmers must have thought there had been an escape from the funny farm when they saw two young men attacking the Pacific Ocean with a 15-foot canoe. They ran in immediately after one breaker had crashed ashore, and were both aboard and paddling hard when the next one hit. The curl of the wave half filled the canoe with water, but soon it was in deep water and riding each crest like a sea gull. John and Huey felt that they could have gone straight to Hawaii.

Riding the waves in deep water was one thing; coming ashore was another matter. As the canoe turned toward the beach, the wave lifting the stern caused the craft to ride the face of the wave like a giant surfboard. There was nothing for the canoeists to do but ride and yell for the swimmers to duck. When the prow ran aground, the stern went right on over. With practice, it was possible to put to sea shipping very little water, but each return to the beach ended in a disgraceful capsize.

Finally the time came when John had to face the prospect of Rita and I returning to Louisiana without him. We could have made the trip safely. There was no real worry on that score, but he hated the thought of her going back across the desert by herself. John thought how long it had been since Buddy had been home to see his Dad. He told Buddy that if he would drive back to Louisiana with Rita, then fly back to California, it would be a free trip for him. Buddy agreed to make the journey. On August 10, 1954, the three met for lunch. John drove to a place in the country near the plant where he worked where delicious hamburgers were served with huge slices of purple onions that were grown on the premises. During this parting lunch John discussed the route for the trip with Buddy and made him promise to stop two nights along the way.

At 2:30 in the afternoon we left John at the plant to start his shift, and with a strange driver at the wheel, I headed out into the blistering desert. I was loaded with at least a half ton of household goods and, of course, the canoe. Before we left Highland Avenue I knew I was in for a rough trip. Buddy was a good driver, but he was bound for Louisiana in a hurry. By nightfall, in Arizona, I needed a quart of oil. We were hitting eighty-five miles per hour wherever the mountains would allow. On one detour, a boulder crashed down in the road directly in front of me. Before we could stop, I had hit it: but the rock was soft enough that it broke instead of my being damaged. All that night, the next day, and through another night, we only stopped for gas and oil. Rita drove while Buddy napped, then he would put that heavy foot down on me again. The second day out from Fontana we pulled into the yard at the home of John's mother and step-father, not far from the Mississippi River. My total expenses for the two thousand miles were $48.61, 2.45 cents per mile. It was a fast trip, but I felt much older than I had been two days before.

The return to Louisiana was timely for Rita. Her mother needed major surgery, so Rita was there to take care of her. Mrs. Caldwell was a school teacher in Delhi (as was John's mother). Since she had not recovered by the time school started, Rita was able to substitute for her that first month of school. When her mother got well, then Rita needed minor surgery. She went to Baptist Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, where her sister, Melba, was still in training, to have that done.

I was not used much that autumn, only a few trips after Rita returned from the hospital. We went to Monroe to apply for her passport so she could go overseas. I wanted to go too, but all I got to go over was the Mississippi River. On October 11, I got the last gasoline I was to have for a long, long time--over four years, as it turned out. Aunt Lula and Martha had a two-car garage in Vicksburg, but only one car. They were glad to keep me while John was away. They had kept him long before I was designed.