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

14. Farewell to England

The summer of 1957 had passed quickly for John and Rita, but not for me. It seemed as if I had been parked in that old garage in Mississippi for years. Well, it had been three years by the time summer ended. Martha Friedberg had decided to sell her home in Vicksburg and move to Nashville, Tennessee. In the meantime, a small farm (really, an old sawmill site) had become available in Louisiana, and John bought it. The place joined his mother's home on Tensas River at Tendal, Louisiana, and he and Rita needed some place to think of as "home." No one ever paid any attention to me except occasionally one of the family would write John that he ought to sell me or give me away since I was no good to him anymore. When Martha moved to Nashville in October, John's Uncle Terrell came to Vicksburg and got me, carried me to John's new place at Tendal, and stuck me under a lean-to shed where I was to sit for another fourteen months--just waiting.

On October 28, in England, John and Rita took Don (now 1½ years old) to Whipsnade Zoo, a park atop a mesa a few miles from London. Already the toddler knew almost all the animals from books he had studied at home. Of course, he missed naming a few, like calling a huge ostrich a chicken; but his parents were pleased and amused when a married couple walked up beside them as they were watching some unusually large quilled animals. When the lady said, "What are those?", she was quite startled when a tiny voice down close to her knee promptly answered, "Those are porcupines."

In November snow came. Don loved to play in the snow, so while Rita was outside looking after the little fellow, she built a life-sized snowlady on the front lawn. She is artistic enough that there was no mistaking the figure for a snowman. The frigid lady had a full skirt, arms folded lightly so that her elbows stood free from her body, and snow hair piled high upon her head. The village people were too polite to actually stand in front of one's house and stare over the hedge, but suddenly Cage Lane became the most popular place for folks to take their daily constitutionals. Hardly anyone in Great Staughton missed passing by and seeing "Mrs. Lewis's snowlady."

As dark and dreary as England is in November, the trips through the country did not stop altogether. The main focus of the Saturday excursions, however, turned to antiques. On a trip to Nottingham, Don was taken through Nottingham Castle, but John and Rita also prowled through every antique shop they saw. But it was on Steep Hill Street in Lincoln that they spotted a set of walnut, Victorian chairs that they just had to have. Maybe the deep burgundy, cut silk seats filling the window on such a drab street made them look so attractive. Anyway, the six dining chairs and the gent's and lady's chairs became a starter set for furnishing their home, should they every have one.

Lincoln was the scene of one of John's unforgettable experiences as a young G.I. in 1949. He had received an MPN-1 GCA unit at Warrington and, with one Fred Titus from Kansas City, was delivering it to Sculthorpe, Norfolk. The unit consisted of a 6x6 Diamond T truck and a full trailer housing the electronic components. Of course, with the fifth wheel on the trailer, this rig could not be backed like a semi-trailer. In fact, with the two drivers on this trip it could not be backed at all. The truck had arrived from the States with dead batteries, but John was so anxious to leave Burtonwood Depot that he used jumper cables to get started that morning and figured to keep the old motor running until he completed the trip. Naturally the boys didn't burden themselves with any map. They knew that if they went southeast far enough they would get somewhere near Sculthorpe. A-50 took them through Knutsford and Stoke-on-Trent to Derby, and A-52 to Nottingham; but beyond Nottingham the navigation got a little sloppy. For one thing, Titus had a bad case of motion sickness and was not much help except to keep John awake with his moaning about wanting to die. As they approached a fork in the road, John had the old truck rolling pretty well and didn't want to stop, so he told his companion to choose which way he thought they ought to go. Fred quickly chose the left hand road. Well, that was the easier since they were driving on the left, but no sooner had he made the turn than John knew they were swinging too far to the north. Still, there was not much to be done and both expected to come to a secondary road soon which would lead them back to their proper route. They did not know that the River Witham paralleling A-46 had committed them to go all the way to Lincoln.

The highway was nearly level running atop the edge of a vast plateau. Off to the left the land dropped away so abruptly that small airplanes were visible flying below the level of the highway. As the road entered Lincoln, however, it descended the face of the plateau to enter the High Street which twisted its way through town and back up the steep hill again. Lincoln Cathedral, one of the most beautiful in England, stands almost at the top of this torturous climb. As the Diamond T struggled in low gear to pull the radar trailer up this ascent, John remarked as they reached the front of the cathedral, "Wouldn't this be a heck of a place to run out of gas?" As if on cue, the engine coughed and died right there.

John grabbed for all the brakes he had and yelled for Titus to jump out and chock the trailer wheels. The large van had attracted plenty of attention passing through the main business street of town, but parked almost in the cathedral gate the attention was embarrassing. There were two 5-gallon jerry cans of spare gasoline in the back of the truck that John had anticipated needing in order to reach Sculthorpe even via a direct route. These were quickly emptied in and around the truck fuel tank. Titus, miraculously cured of his illness, took the wheel and, while John crossed his fingers, tried the starter. The old batteries only had enough energy to turn the engine about two revolutions, but that was just enough. As the engine roared to life, Titus got the rig creeping up the hill as John grabbed the chocks and jumped on the running board. As soon as the rig was safely up on level ground again, Titus pulled off to the side of the road so the two could regain their composure and reflect upon their situation. An elderly English couple from across the road came out and invited the boys into their cottage for tea--the English solution to all emergencies. Over tea John and Fred received instruction on a route back south that would not require turning the rig around nor another trip through town. The detour to Lincoln put Sculthorpe out of range of even the spare gasoline, but that is another story.

For Thanksgiving and their fifth anniversary Rita was sick with the flu. This was particularly disappointing because Helen and Jerry Moore were to leave December 10, and Rita had planned a big farewell Thanksgiving feast for them. She was well again in time for Christmas shopping. His parents had planned to get Don a rocking horse from Sears for Christmas, but it was unavailable, so a special trip was made to Peterborough for a very special rocking horse--Mobo. Rita had trimmed a beautiful tree and placed it on the oak table in the bay, front window of the living room. On Christmas morning, Mobo was waiting on the floor beneath the tree. No little boy could have been happier with his "horsie" than Don. About the only time he stopped riding all day was when he tried to give his stuffed animals a ride. His mother had a little gleam in her eyes too when she spotted the silver service that Santa had dropped off for her. A few friends dropped by during the day; and of the thirty-four Christmas cards received that year, only fourteen were from the United States and some of them from friends only recently returned.

Early in January Rita and a few friends gave a farewell coffee for Shan Emmons. She and Glen had had a boy born only one day after Don, and now they were going back stateside. The same pattern of losing good friends was causing Rita and John more loneliness again. Rita had undertaken to make a pair of lovely hooked rugs, and this kept her occupied for many hours. John bought a record changer and a tape recorder and built a crude, but enjoyable, music system for the living room. He also spent many hours working at his lucrative leather craft hobby; but such activities could not replace lost friends.

March, 1958, brought lots of snow; and April, the coldest Easter in sixty years. By then Rita was satisfied that she was pregnant again. She was determined that Don should have a little sister. By Don's second birthday, the sun was back from its annual trip south, but the wind was still cold. Rita made the boy a lovely yellow cake which he promptly destroyed. The day after his birthday, Rita missed him from the yard. He knew better than to go out into the lane, and never did so alone, but he had not been instructed as explicitly about the rear gate which led from the large back yard into a pasture. When the frantic mother located her two-year-old, he had a band of about forty grown sheep herded into a fence corner trying to figure where their tiny shepherd wanted them to go.

John's work was always interesting, but sometimes more than others. He particularly enjoyed being called away to other bases on special problems that had the local maintenance personnel stumped. Sometimes he drove to Lakenheath, which was about sixty miles from home. This trip took him through Newmarket where he occasionally saw the beautiful race horses out on the heath for their early morning exercise. Captain Eastman had been transferred to Leicester, which was about seventy-five miles from home; but when his radar unit had a particular vexing problem, he asked to have Lewis sent up to work it out. Since the tech rep was convinced that no problem with a GCA unit could completely whip him, none ever did.

One morning in May, at five a.m., two officers knocked on John's door. He told Rita he knew they had not come to bring good news. They certainly did not. During the night the AACS squadron commander, Dave Evans, had been killed. He was a command pilot and an instructor pilot with thousands of hours in the cockpit, but a freak air accident had wiped him out. The night had been one of minimal air activity with only one plane scheduled to fly from Alconbury and one from an RAF base only nine miles way. At 12:15 a.m. the noisy B-57 Canberra turned low over Averyhill. John propped up on his elbow, nudged Rita, and remarked that the plane was out of the traffic pattern and too low to be so far from the base. Within two minutes it had collided with Dave's F-94, which was on a routine GCA practice approach to Alconbury.

With irony that proves fact to be stranger than fiction, a corporal from the base chose that night to get tanked up on beer and show his girlfriend what a real airman he was. Single-handed, he stole a B-45 four-engine jet bomber from the flight line, taxied it out to the wrong end of the active runway, and took off in the opposite direction from normal traffic flow. When he passed by the control tower already in the air, the tower operators assumed it was the British B-57 confusing the Alconbury runway with the RAF runway a few miles away. As the B-45 roared by the GCA trailer going the wrong way, one of the operators stepped outside to see what was happening. He reported that the bomber pulled up steeply from the air field, continued the climb until it had looped, passed back over the field upside down, and dove into the mainline railroad embankment which passed between the two air fields.

Almost as the RAF controllers called their counterparts in the U.S. tower to ask if they had contact with the B-57, the explosion of the B-45 occurred in plain sight. The American controllers, assuming what seemed to be obvious, sent the crash crew rushing to the scene of the downed B-45. As this occurred, the two planes that were authorized to be aloft were scattered over a half mile of pasture five miles in the opposite direction. The GCA crew knew that Dave had vanished from radar contact, but nothing more.

The crowning irony of the entire episode was that Margie Evans was returning home from visiting friends, driving alone in her Volkswagen, saw the mid-air collision, and was the first person to the scene of the crash that killed her husband. With all the confusion caused by the corporal, it was a long time before anyone in authority even knew there had been a second crash. Three planes and five men left the ground that fateful night, and all were destroyed. Even though the new squadron commander was a good man, nothing can lift the pall that such a tragedy casts over a close-knit group of people.

In late May John had to go to London for two weeks of school on some new navigational aids. Rita did not want to stay alone for so long, so she planned to go and visit with Ruth and Weston Hodgkins. They had been transferred to Sculthorpe, John's last home base when he was in the Air Force. The morning he had to leave for school was Whit Monday, a bank holiday, so no local trains were running. Rita had to carry him half way to London before he could find a train. She and Don took the little Consul and headed back north.

Several Gilfillan men gathered at Bushy Park for the school. John met a nice young man that served a base west of London. He had his car with him, so the two paired up and rented a room together in a very pleasant hotel on an island in the Thames close to Hampton Court Palace. Rita returned to Great Staughton on Wednesday, then on Thursday drove down to London for a long weekend. It didn't turn out exactly as planned because Don got sick at breakfast Saturday morning and his parents took him home--where he became instantly well. But Thursday evening, Friday, and Friday evening they had time to leisurely visit the London Zoo and Hampton Court Palace. Don got to see all the animals he loved so much and even got to go for a ride on a camel. Of course, the unscheduled trip home meant another early start for the train Monday morning, but it was not long until Friday afternoon came again, and Rita and Don met a happy, young father returning with presents from London.

By July an international crisis had arisen in Lebanon. President Eisenhower sent U.S. Marines to the scene to forestall a communist take over. One Thursday during all this commotion, John was working in the GCA unit a little later than usual because several C-124's were coming to Alconbury to pick up British equipment for transport to the Middle East. As a G.I. driver was carrying him back across the air field, they had to halt at the runway and wait for one of the monstrous cargo planes to land. As it rolled by, John casually remarked to the driver that his brother drove one of those planes somewhere.

After returning to the AACS orderly room, John went by his office for a few minutes but did not tarry long because he had ridden to work with Harry Fugett, and Harry was waiting for his rider so he could go home. As John and Harry stepped out of the building, a staff car pulled up to the door. A pilot stepped out and said, "Hello, John." John said, "Hello," and continued on a few steps toward the Volkswagen before realizing it was Jimmy. After all, it had been well over four years since he had seen his younger brother, and he had never seen him in uniform. Jim had flown in from Frankfurt, Germany, to load and fly right out. John knew that, once on the ground, planes had a way of always staying around longer than expected, so he hustled Him into Harry's Volkswagen and they hurried home to see Rita and Don.

As Harry wheeled into the yard at Averyhill, the garage was empty. So was John's stomach. Of course, Harry was willing for John to have his car, but the question of the moment was; where were the family? John deduced that Rita must be at the doctor's office and had Harry zip them over to Kimbolton. Sure enough, there was the Consul parked on High Street. Rita was a little surprised to see her husband walk in, but nothing compared to the surprise she had when she came out on the street.

John got his car and family and hurried back to Alconbury. While the ground crews loaded trucks into the airplanes, Jimmy took Don on a tour of the C-124. After the inevitable delay in base operations, the Lewises finally returned home about 11:00 p.m. The brothers visited while Rita fixed a late supper. Jim stayed the night and returned to the base with John the next morning. His big plane droned over Great Staughton about 10:30 on its way to Beirut. That was the only time the brothers' paths crossed in all the years John was a tech rep.

Rita's pregnancy gave her considerable discomfort during the summer of 1958. She still went on short trips to look at antiques or estate sales. Most of her trips to the base were for the Officers' Wives teas or an occasional movie at night. Usually, however, John carried her to the cinema in St. Neots or Cambridge. They saw The "Long Hot Summer" at the base theatre, The "Rainmaker" in Cambridge, and "Around the World In 80 Days" in London. They also took Don to Wembley Arena in London to see the Harlem Globetrotters. One of the trips to London was to renew passports. These important documents are only good for four years, and John's expired during the summer.

In late August Rita's traveling days came to a sudden halt. Very early one morning (naturally) she awoke in trouble. Dr. Kilby came and once more called for the Huntingdon Emergency Squad to come and whisk the little mother away to Cambridge Maternity Hospital. John could not go with her. He had to find someone with whom to leave Don so he could go to work. The hospital had a very strict and limited visiting policy anyway, so he was only able to see his wife about 45 minutes a day. The first two days Rita spent in the hospital were uneventful; but on Sunday, August 31, 1958, a tiny, premature girl was born. The hospital staff did not give the mother a very heartening prognosis for her survival. However, after ten days the mother and new baby were released to go home.

Each day as John drove to the hospital to see Rita, he passed a garden between St. Neots and Cambridge that had the largest yellow dahlias he ever saw. One afternoon he stopped and asked if he might have one of the flowers to take to Rita (she loves yellow). The gardener was of course delighted that someone had admired his plants enough to stop, and he invited the stranger in to meet his wife. The house was very plain with a porch across the front like so many in the southern states, but not at all typical of rural England. Immediately upon stepping into the sparsely furnished front room, John's eye fell on a pair of chaps on one peg on the wall and a coiled lariat on another. The old gentleman was pleased to relate to his visitor how he had immigrated out to Alberta, Canada, as a young man and become a cowboy on the prairies. A few days later as John and Don were taking Rita and the baby home, they stopped by to let the retired couple see the cause of so many trips to Cambridge. The new Lewis was named Alison Elaine.

The tiny girl was so delicate that the hospital loaned Rita a set of balance scales and weights so she could weigh the food intake by weighing the baby before and after each of the frequent feedings. Don was very helpful in watching after his little sister and running up and down the stairs for his mother, but sleep and rest were things of the past for Rita. The constant attention demanded by the helpless daughter left her little time or energy for other pursuits. On the occasional Saturday afternoon drives, Don would sit on the back seat and give Alison her bottle when she cried, but she was not the traveler that her brother had been.

As fall approached and their last remaining friends, the Fugetts, were scheduled to return to the states, John and Rita decided the time had come for them to return also. They had bought a large house on Tensas River, adjoining the property they had purchased the year before, and were anxious to see it. Their first choice for returning to the states was a mutual transfer with another tech rep. This almost worked out, but the transfer of the other party before the trade could be approved thwarted this effort. John informed the company of his desire to be in the United States for Christmas.

The ease with which tech reps could be placed in various locations changed from time to time depending upon the stability of the individuals and the demands of the military forces. The Field Engineering Department was responsive to John's request, but had to inform him that it was an inopportune time to relocate. They requested that he remain at Alconbury a few months longer and promised to try to return him to a suitable location early in 1959. His reply to this was highly arbitrary, but he sent word to California that he would be returning to the United States in December regardless of the reassignment prospects. John has had many occasions to reflect on that critical decision. It unalterably affected the rest of his life; but at the time circumstances seemed to warrant such a drastic action.

Orders were duly received authorizing passage for John Lewis on Military Air Transport Service from the U.K. to the U.S.A. However, while he had the bull by the horns and was jeopardizing his future anyway, John went ahead and booked seats for himself and his family on Pan American's newly inaugurated 707 jet service between London and New York. He had information through the G.I. grapevine that the rush of military personnel trying to get home before Christmas was causing a backlog of bumped passengers at Burtonwood; and waiting around that old base, where he had spent the miserable winter of 1948-49, while Rita struggled to take the children home alone had no appeal at all.

Before the departure date arrived, John had put all his affairs in order so there would be no nagging details left in England. Most of his valuable possessions had been shipped out with Betty and Harry Fugett's goods. He had made arrangements for a young airman and his wife to move into Averyhill. Their church in the village had presented a bible to Don and a bible story book to Alison. Richard Bailey of Cincinnati, a protege in both volleyball and radio maintenance, had purchased the Consul and was considerate enough to take possession at London Airport. Thus it was that of all the many friends they had enjoyed in England, only Bailey remained to see the little family depart.

In spite of its notorious reputation, most of the times that John had been to London throughout a total of five years, the weather had been very pleasant. However, on the December morning he chose to leave, the famous fog was in. The PAA flight originated in Paris, but could not leave there due to the fog in London. All through the morning and into the afternoon, the restless passengers waited and watched. Planes were allowed to depart but not land. Bailey stayed and entertained Don, even bought him a miniature replica of a double-decked London bus which Don kept for many years. At last a new departure time was posted. The noisy giant arrived, loaded, and soon thereafter nosed steeply up through the overcast that obliterated from view the wonderful island to which so many owe so much.

Pan American Airlines had reserved for the Lewises a set of seats facing the forward cabin bulkhead. A basinet that mounted on the bulkhead was provided for the baby, and the stewardesses were in constant attendance for any service they could render. John had bought a flight bag for Don so he could carry his own personal items on the trip. He was as poised and grown up as any two-and-a-half-year-old little man could possibly be.

Although traveling westward with the sun, headwinds slowed the big jet until the short northern day had passed while the plane was still far out over the North Atlantic. The scheduled fuel stop was Gander, Newfoundland. Rita was just not destined to see Gander. As it was when she went to Iceland, the field was closed by a raging blizzard, and the flight was diverted to Goose Bay, Labrador. If the weather at Goose Bay was any better, then Newfoundland was experiencing a real blow. The landing in the fierce crosswind was so rough that it appeared that the long, drooping left wing of the Boeing was going to touch before the landing gear. It didn't look much better on the second bounce. All things considered, any landing in that blowing snow was an achievement. During the brief stopover, when the rear cabin door was opened to pass some information between the flight crew and ground crew, the sub-zero air rolled up the isle like a wall of water.

The transatlantic flight reached New York long after the confirmed-reservation scheduled arrival time for Jackson, Mississippi. Not only had the flight connection been missed, but the airline on which the New York-Washington leg of the trip was booked had gone on strike at midnight. The agent for the airline arranged for transportation to and lodging in the nearby International Hotel. John's first realization that he was back in the United States was when he entered the taxi. The modern station wagon seemed enormous after four and a half years in the little Consul. After a much-needed, good night's sleep, the new arrivals to New York City awoke to a white world. There had been about four inches of snow during the night, and the temperature had dropped low enough that it was in no danger of melting. Don led his daddy out to play in the snow, but Rita enjoyed the luxury of a warm room that did not require her constantly poking a coke fire or sticking shillings in a meter.

The airline strike was a real inconvenience. The agent had authorized payment for the room for one night as well as the breakfast and noon meal, but the room had to be vacated by one p.m. It was after dark before passage was obtained on a Lockheed Electra to Washington, D.C.; another delay before boarding a Constellation for Atlanta; and almost daylight of December 5th when Delta's DC-6 left Atlanta for the last leg of the trip home. When the happy family came down the ramp in Jackson, two anxious grandmothers were waiting--especially to see the new granddaughter. For John's mother it was certainly one of her better birthdays.