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

19. Texas Tour

John and I pickup up our school routine again in September, and Rita somehow put another 9,000 miles on the Fairlane between the Florida trip and Christmas. Jim and Wanda had moved from Albany, Georgia to Summerville, South Carolina. John's mother went to spend Christmas with them. Since schools were out and there was no farm work pressing during the holidays, the Louisiana Lewises decided to visit the ones in South Carolina. The distance was very nearly the same as to Daytona Beach. By leaving home early in the morning of December 28, the children were at their Uncle Jimmy's new home before dark. The cousins had an opportunity to visit, play, and tour Charleston in a flash flood during their few days together. John and Rita spent the night of John's forty-first birthday at a New Year's Eve party at the home of some of Jim and Wanda's Christian friends.

All New Year's Day as he sat around watching the Bowl games and eating, John could not shake from his mind the studying that he needed to be doing 800 miles away. About dusk he told Rita to pack the bags. He had decided that since the trip had to be made, he had just as soon be driving as lying awake all night thinking about it. About 7 p.m. they pulled out of the drive at Summerville, swinging north via Orangeburg to take advantage of a little bit of Interstate. When they stopped near midnight at the closed welcome station at Augusta, Georgia, there was about three inches of snow on the ground. The sleeping family roused as John backed up an ON ramp of I-20, for gas, at Conyers. Alison moved up to the center of the front seat to give the boys more room in the back, and she was rewarded by getting to see a large bobcat cross the road in the moonlight and leap gracefully over a guardrail. Even after a rest stop in Meridian, John was too sleepy to stay awake on the long hills of eastern Mississippi, and Rita had to take the wheel to Jackson while he caught a few winks on the back seat. It was a weary bunch that returned to Tendal about nine o'clock in the morning of January 2; but at least they were at home and not on the east coast thinking about having to get there.

John got the 1971 Ranchero early in the year, but during the winter and spring I got more use than it because I was making four trips to Monroe each week. One cold, drizzly day as John came home for lunch, a young man was standing by his vehicle that was stuck on the narrow shoulder of U.S. 80 near Tendal. John stopped and told him to hop into the Ranchero quickly. In the short ride to the house, he told the motorist that he couldn't risk pulling him with the company vehicle, but he would get his old car and go back and help him out of the mud. (I always had a chain and a rope in my trunk.) As I carried them back toward the busy highway, John briefed the stranded motorist on the strategy they would use to avoid an accident. The vehicle the young man was driving was a small, foreign sports car pulling a trailer carrying a low-slung racer. His windshield wipers had stopped working and, not realizing the road shoulders had been softened by days of rain, he pulled off and mired down. There was no question of my being able to pull the stranded vehicle back to the highway; John just wanted to do it without getting killed. He told the young man that we would go past his car until there was a break in the traffic, then turn and come back so we would be on the same side of the highway as the stuck vehicle. John told him that as soon as we stopped he should hook one end of the chain to his car and jump in while John hooked the other end to my hitch, and we would pull him down the road to a safe place to pull off and unhook. He warned the stranger that the chances of getting hit where he was stuck were excellent.

When there was no traffic in sight from either direction, we made a quick turnaround and started back to the helpless car and trailer. As we slowed to make the rescue, John saw a blob of red in the rear view mirror coming about ninety miles an hour (literally) and making no move to slow down. John warned his passenger to get ready to get hit and at the same time speeded up to pass the stuck car and try to pull off the roadway. Too late the speeding driver saw he was not alone on the straight highway and tried to brake. The U-Haul trailer that he was towing jackknifed, and when everything came to rest I had a bright red Thunderbird in my trunk. Hoping to avoid more catastrophe, as soon as the Fords were untangled, John told the driver to pull on down to Tendal and wait for him. The young man who had originally stopped to fix his wipers said, "I don't guess you want to fool with me anymore?"

To this John replied, "You're still stuck aren't you?"

After a quick hook up, I spun my wheels a little to dry the pavement and snatched the cause of all the trouble out of the mud.

The Thunderbird driver had eased down the road to Tendal; but he had done some quick calculating and figured that since John hadn't taken his name nor license number he might just as well cut out and leave the country bumpkin holding the bag. Assuming that the state patrol would be on the main highway, he took off to the south on a blacktop road that passed under the railroad trestle and followed the west bank of the Tensas River. When we pulled off the highway at the Tendal store, the driver of the sports car was appalled. Referring to the fleeing driver, he said, "He's getting away."

John explained to the stranger that this was highly unlikely since the road only led to a locked gate seven miles below U.S. 80, and that if he would only wait about fifteen minutes it would be appreciated. John took me back across the old wooden bridge to our home and returned to the trestle to wait in the radio-equipped Ranchero. Just about on schedule, a very sheepish driver eased his Thunderbird and trailer back across the highway after a fifteen minute excursion through some soggy, north Louisiana farm country.

There was a little conference there by the river side on liability and ethics. The subdued speeder had his problems alright. He and his wife had four little tots in the rear of the car, a trailer stuffed with clothes and musical instruments, very little money, and no insurance. They had driven from Washington state and were anxious to get to Jackson, Mississippi to play a little country music. When they left Tendal, I was messed up pretty badly, and John had a big guitar. He patched me up almost immediately, but it was months before he was able to convert the guitar into forty dollars. By now I had been hit three times in the front, once in the right side, and twice in the rear. This wasn't helping my looks any.

Once again, when the school year ended I was relegated to sit in the cinder drive that had been a railroad bed in the early days of Tendal Lumber Company. When July came around, the Fairlane naturally drew the vacation trip honors. This time the family had decided to tour Texas without a trailer. They left Saturday, the third, slanting southwest across Louisiana, crossing into Texas across Toledo Bend Reservoir. After crossing Sam Rayburn Reservoir in the Angelina National Forest, John hurried south, passing through Beaumont in a real "toad strangler" to reach the coast on Bolivar Peninsula.

While waiting for the Galveston ferry at Port Bolivar, John walked out to a point of land to take a picture of the approaching ferry. Walking back to the car, he spotted the familiar face of H.C. Youmans in a car ahead of his own in the line of waiting traffic. H.C. and his lovely wife Carolyn had come to northern Louisiana for a couple of years in the early sixties but had moved back to Nederland, Texas. As the cars pulled onto the ferry, John parked immediately behind H.C., then he and Rita joined their friends whom they had not seen in several years for the ferry ride across the bay to Galveston. John had considered spending the night in Galveston; but the beaches were so crowded with hordes of adherents to the counter cultures afflicting the country at that time that he cruised slowly through the milling throngs and stopped for the night in Bay City.

The motel was chosen for its proximity to a Baptist Church. Independence Day, 1971, fell on Sunday. The Lewises started the day visiting in Sunday School and church with the Bay City congregation. Their young people had just returned from a giant, youth revival in Dallas known as "Youthquake" and were bubbling with infectious enthusiasm. After church the visitors skirted the coast through Port Lavaca and the picturesque resort town of Rockport to Aransas Pass. The free ferry shuttled the loaded Fairlane to Port Aransas on the tip of Mustang Island. This strip of offshore island proved to be the type of delightful vacation spot which John had been seeking. Large dunes separated the island's only highway from the hard beach sand, but occasional access roads permitted the motorists to drive through the dunes to the beautiful green water of the Gulf of Mexico. This clean beach was well used but still remained uncluttered by the blight and litter that have robbed America of so many of her beautiful beaches.

The children were soon swimming in the clean, warm water; and when they returned to the car, Rita had cut a cold, ripe watermelon. Since a whole watermelon was more than the family needed, they invited a couple from the next car down the beach to share the afternoon treat with them. This middle-age couple from San Antonio had driven down the day before and had spent the night on the beach on folding cots beside their car so they would have all the Fourth of July at the seashore. After more swimming and Alison digging a good supply of sand dollars, the family took a most reluctant leave of Mustang Island via the causeway to Corpus Christi. Before dark the water rats were in the pool of a motel in Kingsville.

"Forever Texas" Kingsville, besides being the headquarters of the famous King Ranch, is the home of Texas A & M University-Kingsville and 30,000 citizens. The night of the Fourth there was an official, city fireworks display in one of the city parks. John hurried the children out of the pool in time to see this colorful celebration, and as they returned to the motel late that night, they allowed that they had enjoyed a pretty good Independence Day.

Alison, the horse lover in the family, had never visited the King Ranch, so early Monday morning she got her chance on the twelve-mile, self-guided tour that the management has graciously marked for its many visitors. At Riviera, south of Kingsville, John detoured to the ranch where he had purchased the Beefmaster bulls eight and nine years previous. Junior Moore was on vacation, but John took the liberty of driving out in one of the irrigated pastures and photographing the most magnificent two-year-old bull he ever saw.

Between Riviera and Raymondville, Texas, are fifty-seven of the loneliest miles on the entire Gulf Coast. The rolling, sandy brush country is so sparsely populated that there is not even a gas station in all of Kenedy County. Much of this country is the range of the great Armstrong Ranch. John had watched the Armstrong brothers, John and Tobin, play polo in the Orange Bowl stadium in Miami in 1947; and it was from this remote range that President Ford, in 1976, was to select the first lady ambassador to the Court of St. Jameses, Mrs. Tobin (Anne) Armstrong. At Raymondville begins the densely populated, yet highly agricultural, rich, lower Rio Grande Valley. John made straight for Harlingen and the Headquarters of the Confederate Air Force. At the old Harlingen Air Force Base, renamed Rebel Field, a group of dedicated veterans, without any government aid, have preserved for posterity the planes and spirit with which a generation of heroes preserved America's freedom.

At Port Isabel John drove across Laguna Madre to the southern tip of Padre Island. Typical beach-front development was steadily advancing northward. It was still possible to drive along the beach, but for how much longer? Splurging a little for a change from picnic fare, the family enjoyed a fine seafood dinner in a luxurious restaurant overlooking the Gulf. As they dined they were entertained by an expert displaying his talents with a boomerang on the beach below. Only much later were they to read in the paper that he was a world's champion boomerang maker and thrower.

The main reason for driving all the way to Brownsville was to carry Rita and the kids over into old Mexico; but when they reached the border crossing, the delay and formalities seemed to be more trouble than a brief visit to Matamoros was worth. All vehicles and luggage were being thoroughly searched, and the line seemed to grow longer instead of shorter. John selected a knowledgeable looking gentleman and asked him a few questions about the procedures and what might be encountered in Mexico. This well-informed individual suggested that, if Matamoros was of no special interest and if all John wanted to do was visit Mexico, he could drive up river to Hidalgo and drive across to Reynosa without all the fuss and bother.

There was so little of the day remaining that, after driving through some of the farms of the lower valley, John returned to Harlingen where the children swam that night at the pool of "The Nation's Innkeeper": Holiday Inn. The next morning we drove to McAllen and, just as he had been told the previous day, crossed into Reynosa with little more formality than crossing the Mississippi River. There was no doubt that Reynosa was in a foreign country. The narrow streets and the city market were fascinating to the Americans. Before returning to the United States, they traveled a few miles beyond the city towards Monterrey to see if there really was a difference in the character of the two countries. There was.

John had been disappointed in not getting to Laredo while working for Gilfillan in 1959. From McAllen, Laredo is only 150 miles up the Rio Grande. Naturally, he took advantage of being so close and ran up to look the place over. Another 150 miles north of Laredo is San Antonio. Long before sundown the children were enjoying the huge pool at the Sheraton in that cosmopolitan hub of south Texas. They were persuaded to dry off and dress in time to watch the sun set and the city lights come on from the top of the 622-foot Tower of the Americas in Hemis Fair Plaza. After dark, the family thoroughly enjoyed the Paseo del Rio, San Antonio's delightful, unique river walk along the crooked San Antonio River, below street level.

San Antonio is John's favorite city. It was the scene of his basic training days, as it was for thousands of Air Force personnel. The pay for privates when John arrived at Fort Sam Houston was fifty dollars a month; and the problem was what to do with that much money. In those days, the Buckhorn Bar in downtown San Antonio had one of the finest collections of horns, antlers, rattlesnake rattles, and curiosities of the old West to be found anywhere. The Lone Star Brewing Company purchased the collection and moved the whole thing, including the grand, mahogany bar, to their brewery where it is attractively displayed. John carried the children to see this buckhorn Hall of Horns. He particularly wanted them to see Old Tex, the mounted longhorn steer sporting horns nine and a half feet from tip to tip.

Just outside of the fence of Kelly Field, on permanent display, is the XC-99. This one-of-a-kind airplane that had supplied the troops in Iceland during John and Rita's stay there has been treated rather badly since her decommissioning, but the visitors could still appreciate the size and history of this great plane that hauled more freight, and hauled it cheaper, than any airplane that ever flew. A C-5A, which is touted to be the world's largest transport plane, was parked on the ramp inside Kelly Field. Anyone with one eye and half sense could plainly see that the claim ignores the existence of the XC-99.

There were so many sights to see in San Antonio, such as the Sunken Gardens, Mission San Jose (and others), and La Villita; but one shrine more than any other has to be the focal point of any visit to this old city. In the heart of town is the spot most dear to the hearts of Texans: the Alamo. This sacred place honors the memory of men who chose to be heroes at whatever the cost; and if America ever forgets their sacrifice, then we will be in danger of losing the freedom for which they paid so great a price.

After one last feast of delicious Mexican food, it was time to leave old San Antone. By the time lunch had settled, the Fairlane was pulling into the wonderland of Aquarina Springs at San Marcos. This spot, discovered by Franciscan Monks in 1753, would seem to fit in central Florida rather than semi-arid south Texas; but the underwater ballet viewed from a submarine theatre is only one highlight of a top quality family fun complex.

From San Marcos John took a winding, back road up into the hill country to Johnson City. The sign proclaiming "Bar-B-Que" on the window of the cafe in Johnson City caught his eye. He went in to check it out and, even though it was a little early for supper, he knew that he had found the right place to eat. That small-town cafe fed a large-appetite meal. The hickory smoked meat, beans and slaw were as good as can be found anywhere. Todd's plate, which could not be distinguished from the others, cost only eighty-five cents. That night a well fed family bedded down in Fredericksburg, only seventy miles from San Antonio.

This German settlement, founded in 1846, was the home of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Before leaving next morning, John took the children by the steamboat-shaped Nimitz Hotel, now a memorial museum to the great World War II naval leader, the eight-sided community church, and the Sunday houses which farmers and ranchers built so they would have a place to stay when they came to town on weekends. A short way above town in the rocky hill country, they stopped for an early morning scramble over Bear Mountain to Balanced Rock, a huge red granite boulder perched precariously on three small pinnacles. The road north led through an area of heavy deer population to the red granite quarry which was the source of the material for the great Texas capital building. Looping by Lakes Buchanan and Marble Falls, John hurried on to Austin so they could tour the capital itself. He had told the children the story of how the state of Texas paid for the capital construction with what they had plenty of: land; and they had been through that same land, which was the XIT Ranch in the far-away panhandle. Now they had the opportunity to tie the history together with an excellent guided tour of the magnificent structure.

Vacation week was about gone and, although they had seen only a fifth of Texas, it was time to head for home. After one last steak dinner (noon meal) in downtown Austin, the passengers settled down for the 500-mile trip home. At Waco they swung east on Texas 31 to make a brief visit in Tyler with Rita's sister, Melba, and her family before cruising on across Louisiana to reach home by midnight. The seven day trip was 2,328 miles. This year the gas mileage climbed to 17.4 miles per gallon on the trip. In a few days Rita informed her husband that they had returned home with a bank balance of twenty-seven cents. Shucks! With a little better planning they could have used one more gallon of gas.