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

16. Michigan Meander

The rest from the move was a short one for John and me. The trailer had to be unloaded, Alison's baby bed and play pen assembled, and we had to be in Ozark, Alabama, on the nineteenth. The process of registering a vehicle on the base at Fort Rucker almost sent us straight back home before starting to work. Post regulations required the removal of all decals from a vehicle except the base registry sticker. I had a few special decals that I had carried quite a while. There was Shy Ann from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the University of Alaska polar bear on the windshield. Both of these had to go, but the young M.P. relented enough to leave the old Canadian bison on the right front vent pane. This venerable buffalo was designed to fit on the left side of a vehicle, but John had placed him on the right, therefore he rode tail-first into the wind. A number of people thought this odd enough to ask John why he was turned backwards. He usually told them that it was so cold in Alaska that the poor critter just couldn't face it.

The first week end we were in Alabama, we went to Dothan where I got a pair of new tires. That Sunday John found the best eating place in south Alabama. In the center of Enterprise, Alabama, are two notable monuments. One is the famous boll weevil statue that was erected as a tribute to the Mexican insect that forced the area to abandon a poor cotton economy to become a prosperous peanut center. The second, a source of greater local pride, is the old Railroad Hotel, which sets a family style table that is the epitome of real Southern dining. When John sat down at the table with a dozen people he had never seen before, dishes were passed faster than two hands could handle, and the friendly introductions came even faster. He knew this was a place he had to bring Rita.

After two weeks of work at Fort Rucker, we made a trip back to Louisiana for a weekend visit, returning to Alabama very late at night on August 2. When I got gas August 10, at 89,882 miles, my little red book showed that I had traveled 4,401 miles since July 10, on 237.3 gallons of gas and two quarts of oil, delivering an average of over 18.5 miles per gallon in spite of pulling trailers through the mountains of the southwestern United States.

Rita traveled to Alabama on the bus to spend the last week of that assignment with us. We expected it to be the last week of employment with Gilfillan (again), and the weight of the decision was heavy indeed. The company supervisor called from Oklahoma city. He said that he understood from the people in Los Angeles that John had decided to leave the company, but asked if he would be willing to hang on a little longer to go up to Oscoda, Michigan, for some extensive field maintenance on the GCA unit at Wurthsmith Air Force Base. It was a hot summer in the South to John and Rita after so many years spent in northern Europe, so after a family council they decided to go north for awhile to escape the heat and, incidentally, delay the inevitable. We arrived back in Tendal August 21, to prepare the trailer and the kids to hit the trail again. On August 24, I had an oil change and a new filter, my first in 6,000 miles. (The "Better Ideas" came a few years early for me.) We made a quick trip to Monroe for a new tarpaulin for the trailer, and Tuesday, August 25, at 90,990 miles, I pulled the Studebaker back into the late summer tourist traffic and headed north.

Our first stop was Memphis, Tennessee. John wanted to see old "Sixty Minute Man", Kenneth Floyd. When we arrived at his house, no one was at home; but since the door was open, as was the usual custom in the South, the family went on in and refreshed themselves until Ken came home. He said when he saw the trailer parked in front of the house he was afraid to stop. He didn't know if his furniture was being repossessed, or squatters were moving in. After a brief visit, we left Memphis for Nashville--or rather attempted to. A few blocks from Ken's house, rain began to fall. Since the new tarp was tied securely on the trailer, rain was of little consequence ordinarily; but this cloudburst soon developed into a torrential downpour. Visibility became too poor for safe driving, so we pulled over to a curb to wait out the deluge. Streets were running curb deep before the rain slacked enough for us to venture back into the traffic. The rain let up just enough to permit driving, but not much more.

Old U.S. 70 was two-lane and, as did all the National Highways, wound through the main street of each town and hamlet along its route. Martha Friedberg was expecting the Lewises to arrive early in the evening; but after so much delay by the dark, rainy night, John stopped at Dickson and phoned to explain why he was running behind schedule. Also, he needed some directions to her new home, a mobile home park north of the Cumberland River. To make finding her home easier, her brother, Emmett, offered to wait at the foot of Broad Street, pick up the green Ford pulling the blue trailer, and lead it on in. Thus John arrived for his first visit with Martha since she had moved from Vicksburg.

Always a gracious hostess, this special relative had had supper waiting for hours. There was more visiting to catch up on than one night would allow; but since we still had a long journey ahead and Martha had to work the following day, everyone finally bedded down in the early morning hours. Alison, as usual, had to be put to bed twice. It was a rare night when her still-sensitive digestive system did not call for a complete change of bed linen before Rita could eventually get to sleep. The night in Nashville was not one of the exceptions.

After a super breakfast Wednesday morning and a quick farewell, we caught heavily-traveled U.S. 31W north through Bowling Green and Louisville, Kentucky. John hoped that once we had crossed the Ohio into Indiana the traffic would be lighter. If possible, it was even worse. Two hours of bumper to bumper was enough for us. He told Rita to look at the map and find something going north other than 31. Indiana 9 looked like a good alternative route. Offsetting a little to the east, we picked up this state highway at its southern end and followed it right on to the Michigan line. Now, Indiana 9 is not likely to ever become the featured route in any travel guide, but it has a special niche in John's travel memories. Not only did this rather obscure road rescue us from the traffic congestion and lead us straight toward our destination, but it had an excellent surface and traversed some of the finest farmland in the corn belt. Corn bordered the road mile after mile, interrupted only by well kept farmsteads and pigs, pigs, pigs. It was easy to see why Harold Byerly missed his Indiana so much as he fought the daily battle of the freeway in and out of Los Angeles.

Late Wednesday night we stopped at a motel where U.S. 35 crossed route 9 just south of Marion, Indiana. When John came outside Thursday morning, I was covered with frost. It surely hadn't taken long to escape the hot weather. By noon when we made a stop for lunch in Battle Creek, Michigan, the sun had restored Indian summer. Alison was sleeping so soundly that she stayed with me beneath a fine shade tree while the other three went in one of the finest restaurants in the country for a delicious chicken dinner. Don especially enjoyed, and remembered, the meal because the waitress treated him like a real person, and he was able to order for himself for the first time. It is a long drive from Battle Creek to Oscoda for an afternoon, but on this trip the trailer was lightly loaded and trailed nicely. Rather than being a handicap, it added some stability to the ride, much like the tail on a kite. That tail popped along right steadily all day, too, for shortly after dark I dragged it into Oscoda, over 1,200 miles from Tendal.

The first attempts to secure lodging were very discouraging. Labor Day weekend was near, and the cottages in the resort area along the lake shores were either filled or reserved. The last weekend of summer attracted hoards of visitors from the industrial cities to the relatively peaceful woods of northern Michigan. John managed to convince the owner of a group of cottages on lake Huron that, since he would be staying on for a while after all the tourists were gone, it would be good business to rent him a cottage. The accommodations were perfect. One large front room served as living room, dining room, and kitchen. The back half of the house consisted of two bedrooms separated by the bath. The lake shore was less than a hundred yards from the door. A half mile away was a new, log church. The bustling business center of Oscoda, with a public playground on the beach, was only a mile away; and the cottage was only a short drive from the entrance to the base where John had to work.

Field maintenance personnel worked in two-man teams. At Fort Rucker John had been teamed with Parker Platt, but he had gone on to Texas while John joined Al Dahl in Michigan. Al and his wife, Pat, had reached the area first and had found parking space for their big Spartan Manor just south of Oscoda at Au Sable. Soon the two couples were good friends, and it was a treat to have someone with which to visit so far from home. John's first working day was Alison's birthday. Rita made her a little cake and let her celebrate with a cake demolition on the stoop of the cottage. By Labor Day Pat and Rita had become friends, and the two families had a picnic dinner together. After noon they all went down to the banks of the Au Sable River to watch the exciting finish of the annual Grayling-to-Au Sable canoe race. The two-man teams practice for months for this grueling overnight test of speed and endurance. Another spectator at the race had a St. Bernard on a leash. It was the first one of the big, furry animals that Don had ever seen. He was fascinated by the giant dog and never forgot the thrill of seeing that first one.

The nights were cool in Michigan that September, but the days were delightful. While the water in Lake Huron was too cold for comfortable swimming, it was clear and clean and fun for the kids to wade along the edge of such a vast body of water. The yard of the cottage was pure sand, and the woods out back were inhabited by frisky little ground squirrels, so the children were able to pass their time at play while John was away at work. In the afternoons when he returned, we would usually go for short drives before supper. One afternoon he was lucky enough to land a small northern pike on an old Hawaiian Wiggler while casting from the bank of the lovely Au Sable.

The overhaul of the GCA set at Oscoda was expected to take six weeks; but it had not been in service long, so John and Al completed the job September 17. On Friday, September 18, they moved to a new job. John had hoped, and expected, to go to Texas; but since they were already in the area, Gilfillan asked him and Al to go to K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base near Marquette in the Upper Peninsula. On a beautiful, sunny morning we skirted the shore of Lake Huron on U.S.23 north through Alpena to Mackinaw City. John had read of the construction of the lovely suspension bridge across the Straits of Mackinaw while he was in England and was looking forward to crossing it. He was somewhat prepared for the breathtaking sight of the bridge, having driven across its predecessor, the Golden Gate; but he was really shocked when he stopped at the toll booth at St. Ignace on the northern shore. The toll for me and the little trailer was $5.85 one way. As high as that seemed, compared to the alternative of driving around lake Michigan, it was dirt cheap.

The drive along U.S. 2 on the northern shore of Lake Michigan was peaceful and beautiful. So many places tempted the travelers to stop and enjoy the sand, sun, and solitude, but John wanted to get his little family tucked into some sort of abode before night fell. After a late lunch stop at Rapid River, we took U.S. 41 north through quite a stretch of nothing to the old ore port of Marquette. Maybe it was the sight of the huge state prison on the edge of town, but Marquette seemed foreboding from the very first glance. After trying to find a room for the night, the feeling toward the old brick-street town didn't improve any. When he did find a place to stay for more money than he had ever paid for a motel before, anywhere, John thought maybe all the people that belonged in the prison weren't in there. Costs in the Upper Peninsula were high, however, and the people in business had to recover them to stay in business.

Knowing that the Dahls would be far behind pulling the big Spartan, John set out next morning to scout a place for them to park. Prospects were dim indeed. All day was spent looking for some place for two small families to camp long enough to do a little work. After dark, John went into a country store in Gwinn for a few groceries. Near the door was a bulletin board that served as a community clearing house. On the board was a notice of a cabin for rent and an address in Negaunee. As soon as possible I was in that strange town. John and the cabin owner soon struck a bargain, and the next day we found our way over a winding trail through the thick woods of birch, aspen, and spruce to as lovely a blue lake as ever graced a calendar. The place was perfect. It was secluded, yet near the base. A picture window on the back gave a view of the sandy beach, blue lake, an island in the distance, and no sign of man whatsoever.

Immediately after dropping the trailer at the cabin, we set out on a back track to find Pat and Al. A Pontiac station wagon pulling fifty feet of gleaming aluminum is not too hard to spot. John told Al that his parking problem was solved if he could manage to follow me. It was not easy to maneuver the trailer into the cabin yard; but with a little ax work on the bends in the trail, Rita soon had some company. Electricity was run from the cabin to the mobile home. The privy was centrally located between the two. A pitcher pump was located in the sink drainboard of the cabin kitchen so it would not freeze. What other comforts could anyone want?

Living close together, Al and John could go to work in one vehicle, and the ladies could have the other for their shopping trips or other outings (usually to the washateria). The cabin was fully furnished, even to a large radio-phonograph with stacks of good 78 rpm records. The owner gave John the key to his boat, and he and Don spent many afternoons enjoying fishing and rowing on the lake. The situation was better for John than any he had dared to dream about; but the radar set at K.I. Sawyer was in even better condition than the one at Wurthsmith. It was obvious that the job could not take long. Still expecting the next job to be in Texas, Al took the opportunity for some leave to take Pat to New England to visit her folks. This left Rita alone all day in the wilderness with two small children, no friends, and no telephone. To make matters worse, cold weather sneaked in with some rainy days, and Rita became ill.

By the end of September the job was finished. When the maintenance team called Oklahoma City to get their assignment to Laredo, the unexpected, but logical, request was: "Since you are so close, how about dropping back to Sault Sainte Marie and catching the set at Kinross?"

Well, it was only a hundred and eighty miles or so, and who else was ever going to get that near? On the third of October John loaded the Studebaker, helped Al get the big Spartan on the road, and we headed due east. The day was a gem of Indian summer, and the foliage was at the peak of its autumn glory. Each hill was a blaze of color. Thinking of the sylvan home he was leaving behind, John realized that he had left the raincoat which Sears had sent him in Iceland hanging behind the cabin door. He hoped the landlord would appreciate it as much as John had his boat.

The trip to Sault Sainte Marie was easy and pleasant, but John had not anticipated the difficulty which he faced in locating a dwelling place. The place was almost a ghost town. One court after the other bore the dreaded sign, CLOSED FOR THE WINTER. The resort motel operators had fled to Florida after the Labor Day weekend. When the one remaining open motel was finally located, the wife of the operator did not want to rent to anyone with children. Her husband prevailed, however, and let John have a small efficiency unit, but not before another battle of the sexes over the television set. The poor lady must have raised some hellions, because she was sure the two little children would demolish her motel. Apparently she found other things to upset her also, because on some Saturdays when John went to pay the rent, the ruckus was so loud within the house that his knock went unanswered; and he would have to return later, when she had run down, to pay the rent.

The main attraction at Sault Sainte Marie is the great locks which pass the ore boats around the rapids down which tumble the waters from Lake Superior on their way to Lake Huron, and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. The deep, booming horns of the boats signaling their approach to the locks can be heard, and felt, for miles. The passage for automobiles to Canada was by ferry, crossing the river below the rapids. While the weather was still good and the woods at the height of their colorful season, we crossed to Canada on the ferry and went up into the hills of Ontario where John photographed the north woods at their loveliest. He learned later that the big scar across the landscape from east to west was the early stages of construction of the Trans-Canada Highway.

An imaginative operator of the A&W Root Beer stand in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, lifted his fast-food stop above the ordinary. The hamburgers were not large, medium, and small, but Papaburgers, Mamaburgers, and Babyburgers. The personable waitress brought the children free root beer in small mugs frosted just as the large ones. Even three-year old Don could appreciate such good thoughtful service, and he long remembered his trip to Canada by this simple incident. As I eased onto the quay to cross back to the American shore, the loaded ferry pulled away. Concluding that we were forever stranded in Canada, Don became very worried until his daddy explained that another boat would come soon to pick us up.

Winter came with a vengeance while we were in Sault Sainte Marie. One day the trees were gorgeous; three days later they were nearly bare. A cold rain and wind ushered autumn out and winter in. The days were already so short that we went to work and returned in the darkness. One morning in mid October there was three inches of snow on the ground. Don had a new parka and played outside like he had in England, but Rita was a prisoner in the motel all day while John was at work. Each day grew a little colder and a little shorter. Al and Pat had found a spot for their trailer about ten miles south of town, so the visits with them became less frequent. The fun had simply been frozen out of such a nomadic existence. The hope to which Rita and John held was that as soon as the job at Kincheloe (the base had been renamed for a deceased pilot while we were there) was completed, they would at last be heading for Laredo, Texas.

As the completion of the maintenance drew near, Al called Oklahoma City again for the good word. It came: "The municipal airport in Duluth has been waiting for an overhaul for two years. While you are in the area, how about dropping by there and doing that little job before going to Texas?" Duluth, Minnesota, in mid winter? No, thanks, from John Lewis. Al was delighted. He was a native of Minnesota and never expected to get an assignment there since there were no military bases in the state. He tried to persuade his partner to go with him, and even promised that they would get a deer for Thanksgiving at his father's farm. As much as the prospect appealed to John personally, it seemed the time had finally come to get Rita and the children settled in a home of their own. Rita was a homemaker by nature and by choice, but how much homemaking can one do in a cramped motel?

Early in the cold, black morning of October 31, 1959, I carried my little family out of Sault Sainte Marie south toward Tendal. When daylight came we were in the cedar thickets of Upper Michigan where the growth forms solid walls along the roadside. Their density appears absolutely impenetrable. Once across the graceful span of the Mackinaw Bridge again, we split Michigan right down the middle, skirted the capitol in Lansing, paused Briefly in Jackson, then slipped the corner of Ohio to reach Fort Wayne, Indiana by early evening of Halloween. In southern Michigan we overtook autumn again. The homes bore harvest decorations, and jack-o-lanterns grinned from nearly every porch and gate post. On the southern outskirt of Fort Wayne, we pulled into an inviting motel with the largest rooms John ever encountered in one of those wayside inns. The place was far enough out of town to face a nice, rolling farm across the road. While my folks were getting settled for the night, a wagon load of kids out celebrating Halloween with an old fashioned hayride turned through the motel drive. One day's drive straight south had surely made a world of difference.

Sunday morning, in glorious sunshine, I was rolling down Indiana 3 through the corn fields and small towns that characterized the heartland of America. Crossing the Ohio at Louisville again, we passed Churchill Downs, then the Federal Depository at Fort Knox, and joined the stream of slow-moving traffic threading through the hills of central Kentucky. Just after nightfall we parked once more at Martha's home in Nashville, Tennessee.

The second day of November marked the end of an era for me. The long day was one of mixed emotions for John. As we crossed the Tennessee line into Mississippi, there was the sense of homecoming that tugs a wanderer, but at the same time there was a wistful sadness in the thought that a career in electronics that reached back twelve years was at an end. If John had known how much he was to miss it, I might very well have been on my way to Duluth. He knew very well that he was going to miss the check that had arrived from Gilfillan every Thursday without fail. After three fuel stops during the day, we arrived at Tendal in time for supper--this time for good. I was just reaching 97,000 miles.