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

22. From King Tut to Kansas City

When the cool days of fall arrived, Rita planned a trip to New England. She wanted to take her mother to see the autumn colors that are more intense in the north than in the south. In October, 1975, Mrs. Caldwell and John's mother drove to Nashville, picked up Martha Friedberg, and the three ladies traveled to Plymouth together. Rita's trip was for ladies only. She took her mother and three other ladies from Plymouth all the way to Maine, across New England to Niagara Falls, and back home through Pennsylvania. John's mother and Martha stayed to keep house for him and the two children still in high school. Before the ladies returned from the trip up north, John took his guests to Williamsburg for a day; and since Martha had to return to her job in Nashville, he and his mother carried her to the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh before seeing her off on the plane back home.

When Thanksgiving of 1975 came around, Don decided to, again, pass up the family trip. On Wednesday, the twenty-sixth of November, Alison, Todd and their mother and daddy left on their annual trip a little later in the morning than usual. At noon they were visiting old, restored St. Lukes Church just south of Smithfield, Virginia. The previous month, John had stopped by there with his mother and Martha on the way to Williamsburg, and he wanted the rest of the family to see this small, Colonial, Episcopal church that dates from 1632, the oldest standing church in America of English origin. After crossing the James River at Hopewell, the next stop was Shirly Plantation on the north bank of the James. This lovely, brick home overlooking the broad tidewater stream had been the home of one family for 351 years. Crossing the Blue Ridge about dark put the pilgrims in Lexington, Virginia for the night.

Thanksgiving morning, the drive southwest out of Lexington led through some beautiful pasture land. John turned off the Interstate at Salem, Virginia, and took Virginia 311 north over the mountains, along the headwaters of the James, across the tip of West Virginia at Sweet Springs, then back to Interstate 64 near White Sulphur Springs. John had often told the kids that if West Virginia could be flattened out it would be as big as Texas. He wanted to carry them through the Mountain State so they could experience some genuine crooked mountain roads. After Virginia 311 they felt that they really didn't need to go to West Virginia for that reason.

The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs retains an elegance from another era. The directors of the C & O Railroad (the owner of the plush resort) were meeting there for Thanksgiving. John asked one of the stewards if there was enough food to accommodate a few transients. He said he thought there would be; they were roasting a hundred turkeys. The main feast was not going to be served until evening, however, so John took his little wife and youngsters over to nearby Lewisburg to the old General Lewis Inn for Thanksgiving dinner. That seemed more appropriate anyway, and certainly more in keeping with the family budget.

Traveling on U.S. 60 toward Charleston, a rerouting of U.S 19 led out to the New River Gorge to the site of the construction of the highest steel arch bridge east of the Mississippi River. Although work was stopped because of the holiday, construction was far enough along to make a side trip to the site interesting. From the top of the gorge it appeared that the view from the bottom would be even better, so John nosed the car down the steep, narrow roadway that twisted into the deep ravine. One of the switchbacks was just too short for the long sedan to wrap around. It was necessary to pull into a yard at the hairpin turn, back up, and start down again. The tiny railway station for Fayetteville, West Virginia, was in the bottom of the gorge, but the town was on top of the west bank about three snaky miles away. Ascending the cliffside trail after crossing the New River (ironically, America's oldest), John rounded a point of rock and met another car that was coming down the mountain. That road was simply not two modern cars wide. Since there was visibility ahead and none behind, John waited while the descending driver backed up until he reached a spot wide enough for two cars to squeeze between the rock face and the unprotected drop off. Residents of Fayetteville will someday have an easy way to get across New River, but they will still have a tough way to go to and from the depot.

After so much twisting and turning to cross New River, in only eight miles John crossed back to U.S. 60 and followed the Kanawha into Charleston. The following morning, with a frost as white as snow blanketing the whole Kanawha Valley, he followed the river to its confluence with the Ohio at Point Pleasant. The sun on the heavy frost made the bare trees glisten like diamonds. Crossing the Ohio, they followed the river around that state's most southern point, crossed into Ashland, Kentucky, then crossed the Big Sandy River back into West Virginia, and arrived back in Charleston in time for lunch at Taco Bell.

Picking up the only quick way out of Charleston to the south, the West Virginia Turnpike, John raced the sun for the Virginia line. A newly completed section of U.S. 21 bypassing Bluefield was a pleasant surprise, especially one long tunnel with its north entrance in West Virginia and the south exit opening into a wide, new highway in Virginia. It was late, but not dark, as they crossed the Blue Ridge at Fancy Gap. Rita had to stock up on fruit at the stands that line the road just below the North Carolina line above Mount Airy. Since this November 28 was on Friday just as it had been twenty-three years before when Rita and John got married, he wanted the evening meal to be a little special; so he rolled on to Raleigh for a feast of those delicious Icelandic lobsters. Before midnight the family was at home again.

After the Thanksgiving trip, the family did not want to leave home for Christmas. Alison was a senior, so she wanted to be near her friends for her last Christmas before leaving home for college. Don was in his second year of college at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, and he too wanted to spend his holidays in Plymouth. Todd, as usual, was noncommittal and totally agreeable to whatever the rest of the family decided. Santa Claus was bringing him a case for his guitar which he had had since July, and he could entertain himself as well in one state as in another. Just prior to Christmas, John's key personnel, husbands and wives, had a dinner party in Elizabeth City at which they surprised, embarrassed, but of course pleased him too, with a gift of some books which they knew he would cherish. Everyone probably sensed it would be the last such Christmas they would enjoy together.

John knew that 1976 was likely to be a pivotal year in his career and life. As a corporate manager he had long ago learned that there are at times conflicts between personal careers and corporate objectives; and he had learned to deal with such conflicts. Still, it was with some difficulty that he began finishing the development of some prime crop land that was almost sure to be disposed of before he could enjoy the fruits of his labor. Nevertheless, the more work that could be done, and the better crop that could be raised, the more the land would bring at disposition, so there was still a job to do.

Rita had never been to Kansas City before, so when the American Soybean Association chose that city as the site of its 1976 convention, John made plans to go and take her with him. He almost never took annual vacation anymore, but squeezed in enough days to drive to Kansas City and return rather than fly. Don was working regularly at his summer job to earn money for college, so he could not go to the convention; but at 6:10 a.m. on August the third, Rita, John, Alison and Todd left home on a meandering route to Kansas City.

The first stop was Duke University Hospital in Durham with the hope of having an orthopedic specialist take a look at Rita's right shoulder, which had given her months of continuous misery. Due to a misunderstanding by the hometown physician, this proved to be a waste of time; but while Rita was waiting to find out nothing at the hospital, John and the kids drove down to Chapel Hill to look over the campus of the nation's oldest state university, the University of North Carolina, where Alison would be a freshman in less than a month. Returning to Duke, they picked up the patient and set off north. John mailed his mother a couple of post cards during the trip, but when he returned he sent her the following letter.

August 15, 1976
Plymouth, NC

Dear Mother,

Well, we are home again after 3,060 miles. At least, Rita and I are home. The kids are out at the Sound holding services today. Don is the preacher. Todd has spent four nights at home in the past month. Alison must go to college this coming Thursday (or Friday). I have been one day off schedule all month long.

Anyway, as you know, we went to Danville, Virginia, and hugged the border on the Virginia side into Cumberland Gap. From there we visited Boonesborough and Lexington, Kentucky. The horse farms were really impressive. We spent a night south of Louisville, then crossed the Ohio into Tell City, Indiana. (Went to the chair factory.) Rolled through the pretty farm land of southern Indiana and Illinois that I first saw in the summer of 1947 to Scott Field. Drove on the base a little while, but both my old barracks were no longer there.

We had a very nice visit in St. Louis. Took the ride to the top of the Arch and saw a film about the acquisition and exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. The waterfront is very picturesque. The next morning I put the family out at the zoo while I visited Doane's (and replaced a water hose). After noon I picked up the zoo kids and sailed out to Jefferson City. We toured the capital building, overlooking the Missouri, with a very fine museum in the main halls beneath the rotunda. From there we went south to the Lake of the Ozarks and got a nice, stone cabin on the lake shore for the night. The place had two pools for the kids to swim. All of them are good swimmers now, if not divers.

Saturday, the seventh, we eased on over to U.S. 65 (straight up from Tallulah) and up to Kansas City, Missouri. We passed Unity Village (a very pretty place) and toured Kansas City some before going to our hotel. There we stayed at the only Holiday Inn of the trip, but it was nice. We were on the fifteenth floor with big windows looking right out on Municipal Auditorium (with the Republican Convention in preparation), 12th Street, and (way across the river) Kansas. The parking areas were wrapped around the hotel six floors high with the swimming pool on top of that. Alison met some Canadians in swimming, so we took them with us to one of the receptions and then showed them around town. Actually, she was German, and he was Scotch, but now Canadians.

We were a few blocks from the Crown Center, but spent all the time we needed there. There was a dress-up function each night. Alison and Rita had their long dresses, and were really pretty. The last night old Todd was diked out in a yellow coat and brown bow tie. Between the banquet and the ball he joined himself to Miss Alabama's sixteen-year-old sister (from Gadsden) and we nearly lost him right there. When I first saw them they were across the room. She was introducing him to her parents. Later, he brought her to meet us. We had met her parents the night before, but Todd was off someplace else then--probably riding the escalators. He made friends with the Organist (a young lad), and they visited quite a bit for two days. Todd is already planning how to go to the Soybean Convention next year. I am afraid he will have much better chances than I will.

Sunday we drove out to Stephenson's Apple Farm, east of Kansas City, for a fine dining experience, then up to Independence. Tuesday the ladies had a tour to the same places, but I had already taken Rita to most of the sights. She went on the bus tour Monday, but had to rest some for the night doings. The place (Kansas City) was really great, and we had a good time, but Wednesday morning we had to leave.

We left Kansas City going north to St. Joseph. I had to see the starting place of the Pony Express and the stables, etc. Then we crossed Missouri to Hannibal and visited Tom, Huck, and Mark Twain attractions before cutting through the corn patch to Springfield, Illinois. We checked in plenty early for the kids to get a good swim, then drove around a while before supper. Thursday morning was spent at the capital and museum, and we made a visit to Lincoln's Tomb before going to the fairgrounds to open the Illinois State Fair. Of course, there was much more there than we could take in, but we tried to sample as many of the eating places as possible--and there were many of them there. The food stands are very clean now, and the smells are so good it is hard to resist the food even though it is very high. Corn dogs were fifty to sixty cents. I expect when I was there before (in 1947), they were fifteen to twenty cents. I don't remember because I lived at the dairy bar.

From the fair, I drove through the very heart of the corn and soybean country to Indianapolis. The radio station in Decatur, Illinois, is WSOY. Friday morning we headed to the Speedway, before breakfast, then went to visit the capital. I took the interstate then to hurry to Dayton to tour the Air Force Museum at Wright Field. It brings back lots of memories of those nine years I spent on the bases. We saw a good film there, but the family was getting pretty tired following me around. They were real good, but Rita ached all the time. It is a good museum, however.

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon as we rolled through the hills of southern Ohio. Just before sunset, we stopped at the beautiful Bob Evans Farm, just a few miles above the Ohio River, for a dandy supper before crossing into West Virginia and on to Charleston just after dark. I headed straight for the Ramada Inn where we stayed last Thanksgiving night, for I was getting a little weary also.

Saturday morning we made a quick visit to the beautiful capital building, then began to twist through the mountains. I stopped at Lexington, Virginia, just long enough to restock the cooler with picnic food and some cold watermelon. Just over on the east side of the Blue Ridge, we pulled off into a shady lane by a cool brook for our last meal.

In late afternoon, we visited the pathetic, but historic, village of Appomattox Court House. There was a slide show about the solemn occasion there in April of 1865, and restored buildings that bore witness to the sad events. When we left there, I piled Rita into the back seat; Todd and Alison rode up front with me; and with only one last stop for gas in North Carolina, we got home about ten last night....

Soon after his return from Kansas City, John's immediate supervisor was transfered to the west coast. This was the second boss with whom he had enjoyed good rapport that had moved on in less than three years. The corporate hand was writing on the wall. In a way it was a relief when John was officially informed that the operations of which he was manager was to be sold early in 1977. At least, the knowledge allowed some sensible direction to planning. In spite of a dry year, the farming operations were at last showing the results of the intensive development program, and the new land development was exhibiting extraordinary appreciation. John was determined to phase the operation out on an up note and do as much as possible for his employees. The big, unanswered question was what was he going to do himself. One thing he determined to try to do was to wait until 1977 to worry much about it.

When Thanksgiving drew near, their daddy asked the kids where they wanted to go. Alison had made a trip to Washington, D.C. in late spring of her senior year, and she was anxious that her brothers go again with her. She particularly wanted to take them to the Smithsonian Institute. A few days before the holiday, Don announced that he wanted to make the trip with the family again. Varying the routine slightly because two of the children had to come from college, Rita prepared Thanksgiving dinner at home again. She had smoked turkey and all the trimmings.

Early Friday morning, the Lewis family departed for the nation's capitol. They stopped in Richmond just long enough to get some Hardee's charbroiled burgers for lunch, and were in D.C. by mid afternoon. From the standstill traffic on I-95, John felt sure that some bridge construction must be the cause of the holdup. He turned off at the Pentagon, went up the Arlington side of the Potomac, and crossed to the Lincoln Memorial. There he saw the cause of the traffic tie up. There were just simply more automobiles trying to pack into Washington than the city could hold. After creeping at an almost imperceptible rate to the Museum of Natural History, John told the passengers to hop out and start sightseeing without him, and he would park the car and join them later. He had no idea just how near impossible this would be.

John had seen traffic jams before, but none that seemed so permanent as that holiday traffic in Washington, D.C. After waiting at one intersection for four light changes without a car moving in any direction, John asked a mounted policeman if he had any idea where a motorist could get rid of an automobile. His laconic reply was, "Not in this town."

John was forced to drive far from the mall, cross the Interstate, and go all the way to the river to find a spot in which to park in even a semi-legal fashion. By the time he had walked back to the museum, the ridiculously short, winter open hours were almost over, but there was time to visit the gem and mineral exhibits with the boys before escorting his family on the cross-country trek back to the car. As remote as the parking place was from the Smithsonian, it was purposely near Hogate's On the Potomac. John had planned for his family to dine there on this day after Thanksgiving which, although only November 26, would be his and Rita's twenty-fourth wedding anniversary celebration. The children had never been to this notable, capital city restaurant, but it was not the first time for Rita and John.

In 1975, a group of adults from the First Baptist Church of Delhi, Louisiana, came through Washington on the way to some summer mission work in Connecticut. Rita's mother was among this active group; and since the church workers were spending the night in Falls Church, Virginia, Rita and John drove up from North Carolina and were waiting when the bus pulled into the motel. The pastor, Brother Lewis Clarke, also the bus driver, had once lived in Georgetown, so he had made reservations for the entire group at Hogate's for the night they were staying over. John and Rita joined their old friends from their former home church for the dinner that night and the tour of the city afterward.

For the 1976 Thanksgiving trip, John had made reservations at the same Falls Church motel to avoid the extravagant prices of the limited accommodations in downtown Washington. An additional five minute drive reduced the cost of lodging more than half. The feature attraction in town was the Treasure of King Tutankhamun, of Egypt, which was on view at the National Gallery of Art. The lines of people waiting to see the greatest ancient treasure ever discovered was hours long. John and his family arrived at the Gallery Saturday morning an hour and a half before opening time to find a line half a block long waiting in cold, damp breeze for the exhibit to open. By the time the door opened, the line had completely circled the huge block, and the people on the end of the line at opening time must have had a five-hour wait ahead of them before they could hope to get in. Average waiting time all day long was over three hours. Somehow the wait seemed insignificant in the light of the fact that the treasures on display had laid in an Egyptian tomb for 3,300 years before their rediscovery by the English Carnarvon Expedition in 1922. The thing that John really appreciated, beside the intrinsic beauty of the objects themselves, was the imaginative manner of display which gave the visitor a small measure of the thrill of discovery which must have overwhelmed Howard Carter when he first intruded on the resting place of the 14th-century-B.C boy king.

It is not known how many days would be required to properly see all the various museums and attractions which collectively comprise the great Smithsonian Institute; but certainly two days are not half enough. The newly-opened NASA Museum is so popular with the space-age generation that it appears doomed for perpetual crowding. John thought the small section devoted to the history of air traffic control was rather skimpy, but he was pleased to note that the nameplate on the old search radar console on display read, "Gilfillan Bros. Inc., Los Angeles, California." There is nothing like having the very best.

As the children were taken through the national capitol, the scaffolding was being erected on the east face for the inauguration of "their" president. A peanut farmer from Georgia by the name of Jimmy Carter had been elected less than four weeks before, and the reluctant Republicans were preparing for his arrival and their departure. Students of history are also a part of history.

After leaving the capitol, there was just time enough to inch through Georgetown in the late afternoon traffic on Wisconsin Avenue and pay a brief visit to the National Cathedral. There was not time to thoroughly tour that magnificent edifice, but John wanted the children to be acquainted with it so that they might consider returning on their own some day should the opportunity arise. He has found that opportunities arise in proportion to one's will to prepare for their occurrence.

When the Cathedral closed for the evening, at five o'clock, the Tarheels headed home. Traffic was steady enough on I-95 that the driver was able to set the cruise control on fifty-five miles per hour in the edge of Alexandria and not release it until reaching the outskirts of Richmond. Before midnight the family was at home in Plymouth again preparing for Sunday School and church the next day. Somehow the study of the past seems to afford a clearer perspective of the present and, perhaps, a glimpse of the future. In Washington John had gazed intently into the largest, flawless crystal ball in the world while visiting the Smithsonian; but he had seen nothing to reveal his own future.

Time for critical decisions was rapidly drawing near. As the harvest was being completed, the labor force had to be reduced. The question posed most frequently by John's acquaintances was, "What are you going to do?" It was with great difficulty that John suppressed the natural inclination to ask himself the same question and concentrated instead upon winding down a business that had been ten years building up. The uncertain future just simply could not be allowed to cast a pall over the family's Christmas. Of course, it did not lend added jubilation either.

Christmas was spent quietly at home. John's few remaining employees had given him several books for Christmas as a final gesture of their loyalty. Rita said it was the only time she had ever seen anyone read through an entire Christmas Day. Well, before another Christmas rolls around, they will have been together for twenty-five years, and very likely he will be involved in a new career field. That insatiable reading habit, formed as a lad, is probably one major reason for a worn out, middle aged drifter still having that option.