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

12. Return to England

The European cold weather extended to England also. The British Isles are farther north than the casual observer might realize. Molesworth is above fifty-two degrees north latitude--about the same as Goose Bay, Labrador. The BOQ was comfortable enough, however. There was a greengrocer in the adjoining building that sold all the standard fruits and vegetables plus litchi nuts, chestnuts, and tropical fruits. Rita delighted in the fresh grapes, although she looked more like she had swallowed a watermelon. The officers' mess was only a short walk away; and even though they were bare at this season, there were trees just outside the window where squirrels played in the sunshine. The old war-time base seemed like a resort to John and Rita.

January 31, 2015
Plymouth, NC

We have been reading the history of Molesworth this morning. Three famous people were stationed there: Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and me. (They only mention two for some reason.) It is notable for launching the first American air raid (if you could call it that) from England to Nazi Europe with little Douglas A-20s. B-17's came later, and the 8th Air Force was formed there. Its other claim to fame is that GI's from there married more English girls than from any other base in England. (And it is near no city.) If the same case prevailed there as at Burtonwood when I went there, every train in carried girls from all over the country. We were like a giant magnet. Anyway my big mystery then and now is, after Molesworth closed, and we went to Alconbury, somebody formed a school for NATO troops from Scandinavia so they could learn to maintain IFF equipment made by (I think) Hazeltine in New York. We had just installed it in our GCA units, and the only schooling I had had was self-taught. The only orders I ever got were verbal, but quarters for the troops and a classroom for me were assigned back at Molesworth. It was undoubtably one of the old war-time briefing rooms out on the flight line, but it still had a blackboard and chairs. I was the instructor. All the students had to have much better English than my Scandihoovian. I hope they learned something. I sure did. I had to study half the night to learn enough to get through the next day. I often wonder, of all the Tech Reps in England, who and how was I selected to instruct those guys. I never had a clue, and no one ever asked if I was willing and able. I guess I was. Ain't life a hoot?

The AACS squadron at Molesworth was more like a family than any unit with which John ever served. Captain Dave Evans was the recently-arrived commander. T/Sgt. Harry Fugett, from Arkansas, was the radio maintenance chief and an instant friend. The other officers were Captain Kepler from Montgomery, Alabama; Captain Eastman from San Bernardino, California; and Lt. Jerry Moore, also from California. Since Molesworth was newly reactivated, there was a closeness among the personnel that is not easily developed in outfits where there is constant rotation. The tour of duty in England was three years, in sharp contrast to the one year in Iceland, which allowed for the formation of lasting friendships. All the officers were accompanied by their wives who adopted Rita immediately--especially Alpha and Eugene Kepler. For John, returning to England was a homecoming.

A new GCA unit was already at the base, but it had not been assembled and properly installed. This was an easy task for John, but his immediate handicap was lack of transportation. Walking back and forth across the small airfield was good exercise, but John needed to find off-base living accommodations; and his Consul was over 400 miles away at Leith, Scotland. The upcoming American holiday, Washington's Birthday, was on Friday. John seized this opportunity to go after his car. Thursday afternoon Captain Kepler took him to Kettering to catch a northbound train. This line carried him to the historic, walled city of York where the long wait for the Flying Scot allowed ample time for a walk through the fourteenth century gate in that magnificent wall for some traditional, English tea to drive the chill of the winter night from his bones. The chill had returned several times before John boarded Britain's crack London-to-Edinburgh passenger train at York and detrained in Scotland's freezing, sleeping capital at three o'clock Friday morning.

An acquaintance had given John the address of a small hotel in Edinburgh; but when he finally found the place, not only was the door locked, but and iron grate was in front of the door as well. The taxi driver knew of a lady who lodged boarders in her home. She came to the door, even at three-thirty in the morning, and led the weary traveler to the garret. He thought he could sleep anywhere that night, but he was mistaken. British homes are heated very little during the day, but none at all at night, and this was a cold night. If the sheets had been any colder they would have cracked. John drew himself into such a tight ball that he ached all over but could not get the bed warm enough for sleeping.

At seven o'clock the good woman of the house burst in with a cheery, "Good morning," flung open the window and left as the short curtains were held almost horizontal by the zero-degree wind straight off the Firth of Forth. John didn't know whether to stay in bed and freeze slowly as he had for the past three and a half hours, or risk freezing to death suddenly while trying to shut the window. Deciding that the cold sheets had tortured him long enough, he quickly dressed and stumbled down the flight and a half of stairs to the kitchen where the coke stove was making a corner of the room habitable. The landlady dished out generous portions of eggs, Canadian bacon, toast, and the inevitable orange marmalade. It is a mystery what happens to the other parts of the orange, but a jar of peelings masquerading as jam graces every breakfast table in northern Europe.

Before daylight John was on the streets waiting for the trams to start running. He planned to be heading south before noon. He didn't reckon on the difficulties of re-importing a British vehicle which had already been exported. The formalities of clearing the vehicle through the docks required the services of a broker. Still the car could not be driven until it was properly registered with the Ministry of Transport. License plates are not issued with the vehicle registration, only the authorization to have a plate made. All day long John ran up and down the streets of Edinburgh and Leith from docks to broker, Ministry to customs, and repeatedly to the garage that made license plates which were required to be on the vehicle before it hit the streets. By late afternoon it became obvious that the plate was not going to be ready before time for the docks to close, and John did not intend to leave his car there another night. When he finally located the Consul in a warehouse, it had a flat tire. This was the least frustrating of all problems, however, because this was one thing which he was well equipped by experience to handle himself. He drove the very dirty little car out the port gate five minutes before closing time.

John reasoned that with all the traffic of such a large, busy city, no cop would notice one small car without a plate in the few blocks between the docks and the garage. He was wrong. It was probably the only vehicle without a license plate the Bobby had ever seen. He was utterly amazed at the audacity of anyone driving in such an unheard-of manner: so much so that he reluctantly allowed the foreigner to continue the few remaining blocks to the garage. Since the registration procedure could not be completed until after the plates were obtained, it was with great relief that John bolted on the permanent tag with the boldly-raised four-inch letters, OFS-96, and dashed to the Ministry office just as the windows were closing for the week. The city was dark and cold as he exited onto Princess Street, wheeled the Consul into the rush hour traffic and, without a bite of food since breakfast, headed down the coast on A-1 toward London.

As the old, Roman road carried him from the shelter of the city's fringe, the cold wind off the North Sea brought traces of sleet and snow. The Consul was warm and responsive, so the driver was not particularly concerned with the weather--not even when the traffic from the south lessened, then ceased. The curves demanded a little more caution as the sleet began to freeze, but the miles were steadily falling behind. As the road dipped into a sharp hollow with a tightly banked left curve, the lights fell on a cluster of stalled lorries. The hollow was jammed with the huge trucks. The drivers had slowed so much due to the miserable driving conditions that they did not have enough momentum to carry them up the grade on the glare ice. The road surface was so slick that even the stopped vehicles had slipped sideways on the highly banked curve. Once stopped, even the little Consul could hardly begin moving again. At first glance the situation looked hopeless. The huddle of drivers told John there was no way to get through. When they learned that he was an American with a long way to go, one of the men yelled at the others, "Come on you blokes; let's shift these lorries and get the Yank through here."

With some spinning and sliding, a crooked alley was opened through the mass of trucks. The drivers then gathered around the small car and pushed, twisted, and shoved it through the jam and up the slope enough for it to take off under its own power again. The trip south had hardly been interrupted. Miles later on another such sharp dip in the road, however, it almost was. As there was virtually no other traffic moving, John was straddling the line of rubber-mounted glass eyes marking the center of the road, and making good time. As the light car, coming out of the depression, sped over the brink of the hill, all wheels left the road. As it hit the smooth glare ice, with the startled driver frantically fighting the steering wheel, the car spun around for two complete revolutions before coming under control still heading in the right direction with little loss of speed. The icy hills were accorded considerably more respect throughout the balance of the night.

The monotony of the dark night and the fatigue of two sleepless days combined to blot out most of the passing scene. The narrow passage through the medieval wall of Alnwick was one of the few distractions to take John's attention from the road ahead and the instrument panel. Although it was more than three years old, the Consul was getting its first chance to stretch out and cruise on a hard surfaced highway. It was running well, but also using oil. About nine o'clock a stop was made for gas and oil at a garage that was open later than usual; but in the middle of the night all petrol stations were closed. Long after midnight, as John drove relentlessly through the snow clad collieries and moors of northern England, the steadily falling fuel gauge drew his memory back to another time when he was making an all-night drive across that island country in an old pre-war Wolsley.

At the completion of four years of service in the U.S. Air Force, John and two other young enlisted men had been transferred from Norfolk on the east coast of England to Lancashire on the west coast for shipment back to the States. When the prospects for immediate passage dimmed, the three restless soldiers rented an old sedan and returned to their former base for the weekend. When the time came to make the return trip to the port of embarkation, an excess of revelry on the part of the others left John the only able driver of the trio.

Gasoline had been rationed so long in Britain that few drivers under thirty years of age could remember purchasing petrol without coupons. The G.I.'s had obtained all the coupons possible before leaving Warrington, but they were not sufficient for the round trip. However, at midnight of the return journey the long-awaited end of the rationing was due. John put in all the fuel the remaining coupons would allow, then nursed the old relic out of the Norfolk Broads into the hills of the Midlands with one eye on the fuel gauge and the other on his Rolex. Long before midnight, however, the few stations were darkened, their owners retired for the night. Motoring during this period in England was light during the daytime and non-existent at night. About three in the morning, having squeezed the last mile out of the precious petrol, John eased into the yard of a garage-station somewhere in Derbyshire and awakened the owner to reluctantly sell his first tank of unrationed gasoline in more than a decade.

On this cold, snowy night in February, he hated to drag another Englishman out of his home into the wretched, wee-hour weather, but there was no suitable alternative if he was to get back to Rita before she began to worry. The Keplers had taken her to their home while John was gone to Scotland, and they were just sitting down to breakfast when he pulled in with the break of dawn on that Saturday morning. By Monday morning he was rested and back to work as usual.

House hunting became more discouraging with each trip off the base. The demand from military personnel for housing in an area where rental property was almost non-existent caused some couples to have to live long distances from their duty. One day while shopping in Huntingdon for items for the expected baby, John asked the merchant if he could suggest some place that might be for rent. He did not know of any place, but mentioned that he had an elderly aunt who had been recently widowed and lived alone in a home big enough to accommodate a couple; but she had never considered renting. This was just the type of lead John and Rita had been hoping for.

Following the storekeeper's directions, they drove the twelve miles to the village of Great Staughton at once. The dear lady was teaching a pupil her piano lesson when the Americans arrived. Since the callers were an unwelcome interruption, they very nearly did not get inside the door. Mrs. Barnard was appalled at the idea of her home being for rent. She said she had never taken in boarders. John was quick to point out all the reasons he could think of why she should begin immediately. Once she had overcome the shock of the idea, she brought in a pot of tea, and the Lewis family had a home. The house, "Averyhill," was the newest dwelling in the village (only twenty-two years old): a cosy, two-story, brick building set in a lovely yard only a short walk down Cage Lane from the village proper. John was to live in this house longer than he had ever lived in one house continously before.

Great Staughton was only twelve miles from Molesworth, a similar distance from Chelveston, and about fourteen miles from Alconbury: three air bases which John regularly served. The village was only three miles off the Great North Road (A-1) and about sixty miles north of London in the county of Huntingdonshire, the second smallest county in England. The surrounding countryside was peacefully rural as it had been for centuries.

The kitchen in "Averyhill" had, not only the usual coke stove which doubled as the water heater, but an electric stove as well. Rita's days were spent sitting by the coke stove waiting for the spring to arrive with its welcome, sunny days. One day while idly warming by the stove, she began to scrape an old, black kettle thickly crusted from years of sitting over the open eyes of the stove. As the layers of accumulated soot came off, copper began to shine through. It was an old, handmade, solid copper kettle. When Mrs. Barnard came home and saw the relic shining on the rear of the stove, she said, "Oh! child, you have found my copper kettle. If you think enough of it to go to all that work, you may have it." It now resides on the Lewis hearth, one of a few cherished possessions brought back from abroad.

About three miles from home, in the village of Kimbolton, two fine doctors practiced in partnership. Either Dr. Kilby or Dr. Grainger was by the telephone all night every night. John and Rita consulted these dedicated men in anticipation of the arrival of the new baby. After several visits with Dr. Kilby, the decision was reached to let the baby be born at home. Dr. Kilby advised the village nurse, and in a few days Nurse Nichols came to call. She explained the procedure for routine home deliveries and left a sealed package plus a list of articles for Rita to procure and have on hand at the proper time.

Very early in the morning of April 20, 1956, Rita awakened with sharp pains of increasing frequency. John called Nurse Nichols who hurried to the home immediately. After one look at the situation she told John, "If you want Dr. Kilby to be here, you'd better call him to come straightaway." One ring to Kimbolton and the good doctor was there within ten minutes. The nurse had broken open the sealed, home delivery kit and had gone to work before the doctor arrived. As the sun rose and shone into the bay window of the second story bedroom, a little, black-headed boy came into the world. By breakfast time both mother and baby were resting well, the nurse and doctor were gone on their respective rounds, and John had called the base to report that he would not be in to work that day. That beautiful, sunny Friday was undoubtedly the very type of day Robert Browning had in mind as he wrote, "Oh, to be in England now that April's there."

There was no disruption of the family routine by checking in and out of a hospital. The nurse came by twice a day for five days to bathe the baby and check the progress of both the mother and child. For the remainder of the first two weeks, she stopped by once a day. Had there been a need for her later, she would have come at any time, but there was none. Don Walter Lewis was the first child born at "Averyhill", and Mrs. Barnard was as proud as a grandmother.

By mid May the pleased parents were taking Saturday trips in the Consul with the tiny son tucked into his carry-cot on the rear seat. The bobbing and weaving through the picturesque countryside was like the soothing rocking of a cradle to the babe. Like most other babies in rural England, Don spent a good part of his days outside in his perambulator. Custom decrees that children, no matter how young, must spend considerable time outdoors in the fresh air. If the air happens to be chilly, then a few more wraps are called for, but outside they must be. In the long summer evenings, John and Rita strolled along Cage Lane pushing the pram together.

The inevitable, and almost only, religious question asked a village newcomer is: "Are you Church or Chapel?" Church, of course, refers to the Church of England, and Chapel is a loose category that encompasses all self-appointed heretics who favor any other denomination. At the foot of Cage Lane on the only street through the village--the High Street--was a new Chapel serving in only its second century. The Lewises and one or two other American couples in Great Staughton made this their church home. From the time he was three weeks old, Don was in regular Sunday attendance. He absorbed an awareness of the reverence expected during the services long before any words of explanation would have been comprehensible. Consequently he never had to be made to behave in church simply because he never learned to misbehave. The faithful few English members of the congregation adopted him as their own.

John and Rita could not have had, nor did they wish for, any richer life. His work was completely fulfilling. Rita had the growing boy to keep her busy when John was away. There was a nice garden and apple orchard to tend at home as well as his leather working hobby to fill the off duty hours. There were good friends to visit on Sunday afternoons. John found homes in the village for two other couples in his squadron so the men could car pool and thus leave the wives some means of transportation during the day. Everything needed for comfortable living was delivered to the door: milk, newspapers, coke and coal, bread, meat, fruits and vegetables, ice cream (occasionally), and the mail twice a day 364 days a year. The twenty-sixth of December, Boxing Day, was the only day the lady mail carrier did not make her rounds. Only by experiencing such peaceful living can one appreciate the depth of feeling an Englishman expresses when he says his home is his castle. It truly is.

In the summer of 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser suddenly shattered the first period of peaceful prosperity that England had enjoyed in decades by seizing the Suez Canal. The canal was owned and operated by a joint French and English stock company. The management were largely French and English also, employing Egyptian laborers. After Nasser had led the military ouster of King Farouk in 1952, and declared Egypt to be the United Arab Republic in 1953, his political relations with communist countries caused the United States to withdraw its offer of aid to Egypt for the construction of the High Aswan Dam. In order to finance the construction of the dam under Russian technical leadership, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal as a source of revenue. The British and French were not very well pleased by this decision.

Israel, who had never been allowed use of the canal, saw an opportunity for long-term advantages by being a good neighbor and helping France and England regain their confiscated property. Consequently, in November, 1956, while French and British troops attacked and conquered Suez, the Israelis swept across the Sinai capturing the entire peninsula and the canal as well. Seeing that he could not hold the canal militarily, Nasser had his withdrawing troops sink ships and barges in the channel to render the vital oil transport link between the Middle East and Europe useless.

The immediate result of the fracas down in the Eastern Mediterranean was John's driving up to the P.X. gas station on Molesworth one day and finding Esso Extra selling for $1.02 per gallon. He went straight to the main Post Exchange and purchased a 3-speed bicycle. When he rode over to the orderly room, Lt. Glen Emmons had a good laugh when he learned that John intended to use the bike to commute the twelve miles each way between Great Staughton and the base. His humor faded somewhat after he had bought a few tanks of gasoline for his Studebaker. He was the second one to start rideing a bicycle to work. After a while John purchased a ladies bike for Rita to match his own.

Gasoline rationing returned to England. Coupons were issued according to the size of the car and the distance one lived from work. Having a small car meant a meager ration. John rode his bike to work and saved the petrol coupons for the weekends. By late November the rides to and from work were completed in the dark, often accompanied by heavy fog. Cold is of little consequence to a cyclist because the exercise will warm the rider in almost any weather so long as he keeps dry. John had a heavy Yarmouth cape and cap that kept off the rain. However, the perspiration beneath the cape was often wetter than the mist above. That winter was much milder than the year before, so John continued to ride the bicycle about thirty miles each day through spring.

As their third Christmas passed since leaving the States, both Rita and John missed seeing their folks at home. They were both diligent in keeping up their correspondence with friends and relatives, so there were cards from Iceland, Alaska, and Viet Nam as well as from the United States. For the first time since John had left home ten years before, however, there was missing the seasons greeting from Aunt Lula. She had been called from Vicksburg, Mississippi, to a far brighter home.

Rita very nearly missed making it to that Christmas herself. In the late summer she had started to feel bad. She experienced strange pains and nausea which grew steadily worse. Finally, weakness forced her to bed except for the absolute necessity of caring for the baby. With John working twelve miles away, it was difficult for him to give her proper care. One night late as he was helping her to the bathroom, Rita was overcome with extreme nausea and collapsed, unconscious, in the hall. In panic, John phoned Dr. Kilby. He called the Huntingdon emergency squad then beat them to the house. (They had farther to travel.) When the large ambulance van arrived, the doctor had Rita put aboard immediately, and with two attendants riding with her, the driver sped away to Cambridge.

Dr. Kilby called the hospital in Cambridge to alert them to the emergency that was on the way. One of the leading surgeons in Europe, Mrs. Bottomly, practiced in the area. Dr. Kilby consulted with this lady, who operated on Rita that same afternoon, saving her from certain death. An ectopic pregnancy had advanced and ruptured, producing acute peritonitis. Friends at the far end of the village, Bill and Jackie Brown, took Don and cared for him until his mother could return home.

The Keplers had transferred to an air base near Oxford. John and Rita along with other friends from Molesworth gathered at their home for Christmas. The Keplers had also invited John's friend, Andy, whom he had not seen since they separated at Westover Field in 1954. Alpha roasted a large turkey and baked cakes and pies just like a grandmother expecting her whole family. It was a sort of family that joined together that day in joyous, Christian fellowship that is the essence of Christmas.

As spring came, the United States, through the United Nations, had worked out an uneasy truce in the Sinai, and the Suez Canal was opened again in March, 1957. It was to be another thirteen months before the Egyptians agreed to compensate the former owners of the canal; but when it was obvious that the resumption of the flow of oil was dependable, rationing was lifted.