Archive for April, 2010

Across the USA (Pt. 7)

April 28, 2010

We spent eight long, boring, centuries in Santa Ana.  In the early decades of most centuries, my brother and I would sit up in the small apartment over the garage and shoot rubber bands at each other for amusement.  My grandmother used to work as an accountant and she had a giant box of them on a shelf in the closet.  Then we would shift to play the ‘guess which relative we’re going to see today’ game.

At about the fifty-year mark we would have lunch.  It was almost always peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a glass of milk.  Occasionally, my grandmother would throw in a slice of pie.  After a quick clean up of the kitchen, we’d pile into our bus and head for AuntUncle Whomever’s house.  I really don’t know why all we kids had to go because we didn’t have a clue as to who they were.  After all, if we didn’t get a Christmas present from them, they didn’t count.  We would arrive back home after dark and either have a quick snack (if we hadn’t had one elsewhere) or just flop down into bed and try to sleep in the heat.  Central air conditioning hadn’t been invented yet.

In the initial years of the fourth century, we got up early and, as promised, went over to Disneyland.  We drove around the parking lot for what seemed like hours while my dad tried to find a spot ‘just a little closer’.  Hey man!  Just park it already!  I’m not going to even try and describe our visit to the park.  Suffice it to say that we all had fun; expensive fun, but fun nevertheless.  The ticketing structure was an interesting facet of the park.

In June of 1959 the ticketing structure changed.  Each of us had to have what they called a “passport”.  This passport contained a general admission ticket, a lot of coupons for pennies off their overpriced food, and several pages of tear-out stamps marked from “A” to “E”.  The “E” ticket had just been added.  We were warned in very strong terms that we were NOT to tear out the tickets but, instead, let the ride operator tear it out.  Printed plainly on the ticket was the caveat ‘Void if Detached’.

The “A” and “B” tickets were mostly for stuff like Main Street rides and kiddy rides.  “C” tickets escalated into more challenging rides like ferryboat rides and the Rainbow Caverns Mine train ride.  Tomorrowland and Fantasyland was where you spent most all of your “D” tickets on things like Autopia and the Astro Jet rides.

We all prized the “E” ticket rides, but you only got two “E” tickets in your passport.  I spent mine on the TWA Rocket to the Moon and the SP & D Railroad train (naturally).  I went back and used my own money to buy another set of tickets so I could ride the Matterhorn bobsled ride.  It was this ticket that gave us the catch phrase “a real E-ticket ride” for any fast moving, or really scary ride in any moving object.

To this day I do not remember what my dad shelled out for these ticket books but he moaned about the cost for a month afterwards.  It was this reason we did not go to Knotts Berry Farm this trip.  I would have been happy to go there instead of Mr. Disney’s theme park.  We did spend the entire day from when the park opened to watching the fireworks while standing in the middle of Main Street on our way out to the car.  We spent an hour just getting to the road from our parking spot.

Somewhere in my house I still have all the 8mm film from my dad’s movie camera that he shot of us kids having fun.  I’ve seen it and plan on transferring it to a DVD soon.  ‘Soon’ being a relative term that actually means ‘just before or during the next millennia’.  (Oops, it’s 2010 now and I still haven’t done it.)

I did finally find someone to hang around with in the fifth century.  Her name was Harriet.  She lived two doors down from my grandmother and was lucky enough to have two bicycles.  I felt just a little silly riding a girl’s bike, but it did get me out of the house and away from the family for mornings or afternoons.  She had finished the school year about a week before we got there so both of us were kinds bored.  She was only fifteen, but since I was only seventeen it didn’t matter.

She was kind of plain looking but did a lot of smiling with perfectly white teeth.  She knew all sorts of places within range of a bicycle that we could visit like the local library, the swimming pool, a small amusement park and the farmer’s market.  I tried to get my dad to let me take the bus, but he said he was worried that I only had an International Drivers License.  For some reason, it was not valid here in the United States.  He’d let me do a little driving on the trip, but here in Southern California it was different.  Actually, being able to buzz around on a bicycle was pretty cool.  We could take shortcuts not available to cars.

The day before we were scheduled to leave, Harriet and I pedaled down to the municipal pool and splashed around for a while.  She introduced me to about six or eight friends, most of them girls, and only two of them were brave enough to wear the new bikinis.  The rest of them wore one-piece suits.  All the kids around me were very tanned and healthy-looking.  Must be all those oranges for breakfast every day.

We packed up the night before our departure and went to bed early.  Our target time of leaving was five in the morning.  This was done mostly to try and beat the traffic of the morning rush.  We hit the road only fifteen minutes late and swept up north on highway 99.  By the time the sun rose, we were well down into the valley past Bakersfield and headed to Fresno.

The rest of our trip was pretty uneventful.  When we got almost to Stockton we cut west and drove over the hills to Richmond.  We crossed the bridge, got on highway 101 and went north to our temporary home at Hamilton Air Force Base.  We had reservations in the guest housing so we could look around for a place to live.

Three days later, my parents settled on a little house up in Petaluma.  When our household goods arrived in a month we met the flatbed truck carrying the shipping containers at the new house and watched as they unpacked everything and carried it into the house.  Neighbors came over to say hello and brought food for our hungry tribe.

Once the dust settled, the next phase of my life began – fitting into the sun-worshipping, surfing, car-crazy kids of California.

T.O.M.

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Across the USA (Pt.6)

April 20, 2010

Our visit with grandparents was a huge success.  We learned our morning chores well and soon I could milk all five cows in just under forty minutes.  My sisters learned to spot the wooden eggs and leave them alone.  My brother finally was able to split wood small enough so that it fit into the wood-burning kitchen stove.  We all toned up our muscles, got a little tanned, and began working as a team.

We were originally to spend ten days, but my mom got a little restless to see her mom out in Los Angeles so we packed up on the eighth day and pulled out the next morning.  It was a very long, hot, tedious, hot, mind numbing, hot, ride.  Have I mentioned how hot it was?  Our window mounted swamp cooler failed to swamp and just allowed the arid air to sweep over us.  We drank gallons of water and panted.

We had gone back north towards Durango, but then peeled off west on good old US160.  This highway passed just north of Mesa Verde National Park and, as planned, we made a stop there to look at the cliff dwellings and explore ruins.  Despite the heat, it was very interesting actually.  When we left, we passed through Cortez and headed directly to the Four Corners.

Everyone, except my dad who thought it was undignified, got on all fours and did the tourist thing of being in four states at the same time.  A little further down the road we took an interesting little sandy road and found a small water hole to camp by.  This time, there were no bugs that we noticed; however, all night long we’d be awakened by huffings, puffings, growls, and grunts as the various residents of the desert came to drink.  One of them, a coyote I think, got interested enough to tip over our aluminum cooler.  The resulting crash as it hit the ground from our camp table had everyone on edge for the rest of the night.

At around four in the morning we agreed that we weren’t going to get much more sleep and took off while it was much cooler.  We passed through colorfully named towns such as Teec Nos Pos, Teq Nec Lah, Dennehotso (which we thought was hilarious), Baby Rocks, and Cow Springs (another couple of thigh-slappers).

When we reached Tuba City, my dad roamed around to all four gas stations looking for a bargain.  When he found that fifty-two cents was everywhere he really got ticked off.  He picked the station that looked to be the least prosperous and gave them his business.  Big deal.  We rarely put more than eleven or twelve gallons in anyway so what real difference did it make?  He was big on teaching us “the principles of the thing” instead of calling it “cheap”.

After fortifying the bus with gas, and our tummies with semi-decent food, we went back on the highway towards our night goal of a place near Williams, Arizona.  But first, we had to pass through Flagstaff.  The road was very poorly marked and if it hadn’t been for my ‘bump of direction’ we would have gone a long ways towards Phoenix – which was definitely the wrong way.  About the time my brain went “ding!” my dad saw the sign telling us that Phoenix was ahead and pulled over to look at the ‘damn map’ again.  We only retraced about eight or nine miles and ended up on US66 towards Williams.

Williams appeared in front of us as we rounded a bend.  We had a nice long drink of very cold water in the town square and, after stopping at another gas station, we were directed to a great campground not too far out of town.  We swung through a big western-style gate with a huge signboard overhead announcing the Bunnyville Campground and pulled up at the clubhouse.  We were assigned a spot right down on the water of a nice lake where the fishing was free.

My dad, my brother and I pitched camp in a hurry and dashed off to the lake juggling fishing gear.  All we had was spinning gear and everyone else had fly casting rigs.  It also appeared that the only ones catching anything had boats or rafts and were out in the lake.  Not a good thing for shore fishermen.  I think it was my brother that came up with the idea to put an one of those clear bubbles that you can partially fill with water.  Once that was attached, you stripped off about eight or nine feet of plain leader with a dry fly at the end.

Raring back and letting fly with the weight of the water filled bobber made for casts of heroic proportions.  We found we could easily get ranges of over a hundred feet.  Since the bobbers had just enough water to make them barely float, once they hit the water we’d just let them sit for a moment and then slowly reel it back to shore.

My dad got the first hit.  It was a huge trout that jumped completely clear of the water and splashed back down.  His drag started whining loudly as the fish took off for the center of the lake.  Laughing maniacally, he horsed that fish all the way back to shore.  It weighed two and a half pounds.

Invigorated by his success my brother and I began whipping the surface of the lake to a froth with our casts.  First I landed a nice trout and then my brother got the biggest one at just over three pounds.  We hated to quit, but all we needed for dinner was at our feet.  I got to clean them after what I think was a rigged ‘rock/paper/scissors’.

Our trout dinner was very tasty and afterwards we just sat around the fire and slipped into a food-induced stupor.  Day turned to twilight which didn’t linger very long because of the surrounding mountains and then to full dark.  In the stillness, between various noises from other campers, we could hear fish jumping.  We told my sister that it was the swamp monster coming to get her.  Yeah, I know that’s cruel, but what are brothers for?

The next day we spent all day running up one hill and down the backside of it.  Nowadays, I40 takes off at Seligman and runs pretty much due west to get to Kingman.  Back then, US66 took a path that went way northwest to Peach Springs and back down to the southwest to hit Kingman.  It was a very long trip.  When we passed trough the town of Antares, my mom remarked that it certainly did feel like the surface of a sun.

We finally reached California at Needles.  It had been a long trip and now our goal seemed a lot closer.  There was a state park west of Needles where we camped that night.  To get to it we had to travel up a huge dry wash.  The road was crushed gravel and it seemed like every mile or so we had to cross a big concrete culvert sort of thing.  My dad said it was for flood control.  Flash floods are a real danger out here.  Everyone looked to the skies for signs of rain.

This was the first night we actually felt cold.  Blankets were thrown across sleeping bags and when we got up the next morning dew had formed on everything.  We also found we had another flat tire.  This one wasn’t so bad though.  A sharp stone had cut through the tread and nicked the inner tube.  We had the wheel pulled, the tire off and tube patched in just under a half hour.

Today we should make Santa Ana if we were lucky.  One of the town we passed through caused gales of laughter.  We pronounced it like the train station announcers in a Bugs Bunny cartoon:  KooooooooooK-A-Mongaaaa.  I bet they really hate Warner Brothers for that.  At least we didn’t make “that left toin at Alber-kurk-ie”.

Down through the valley we went, passing grove after grove of orange trees.  Thousands of them.  Then, on some of the low hills, we started seeing the donkey engines of oil wells.  The smell of citrus trees gave way to petroleum products.  Cruising through Orange, we saw a sign telling us of the new complex opened up in Anaheim called Disneyland.  We had been promised a visit there as well as my favorite of Knotts Berry Farm, which was just up the road from Disneyland.  The rest of the way to grandma’s house was filled with speculations on when we would get to go there.

We arrived in Santa Ana.  It was a beautiful little town surrounded by orange groves.  (What else?)  My mom’s mother lived in a two story house that had a backyard courtyard and a small apartment over the garage.  My brother and I were assigned beds there.  This was a very cool thing because it got us out of the house and away from everyone we’d been sitting next to for the last billion miles.  We were to stay here for ten days also.

T.O.M.

Across the USA (Pt. 5)

April 13, 2010

Morning arrived and once again we were assigned farm duties.  I had to go out and do the milking for five rather surly cows.  I say surly now, but I didn’t know that until the first time I approached them in the pasture.  Rounding them up consisted of a running game whereby I ran back and forth over the grass while they loped right in front of me laughing.

Fortunately, I’d played a lot of foosball and had the stamina to keep up with them.  As I narrowed their field of coverage by running back and forth in front of them I managed to back them up enough to force them through the gate and into the small pen.

Panting heavily, I swung the gate closed and smacked the first one on the butt to get her moving into the barn.  She looked back at me, swished tail a couple of times, and meekly trotted across the floor and into the milking area.  Milking a cow is fairly easy if you can rub your head and pat your stomach at the same time while reciting the Gettysburg Address.  The hardest part is keeping the business end aimed at the bucket and batting away the barn cats.

One of the cats in particular kept trying to dip her paw into the bucket.  I nipped that early on by squirting a couple of blasts across her face.  She began frantically wiping her paw over it while fighting off the other cats.  It’s sorta like sharks; give them something else to do while you swim out of the area.

By the time the fourth cow was ready for milking my forearms and wrists were aching.  I felt like they should look like Popeye’s arms from the pain.  I had to take a break so I stood up, cricked my back, and took what milk I’d gathered so far and poured it into the separator.  My brother arrived about that time and I taught him how to keep the machine running and hold the various buckets to catch the cream and milk.

Refreshed a little, by the time I tackled the fifth cow I was running on sheer determination alone.  She kept trying to shift sideways and knock the bucket over.  In the process she would kick my ankle – hard.  She would turn to me with that “did I do that” look.  She settled down when I punched her on the flank and kept squeezing.

Finally the milking was done so I separated what I had just gathered and the two of us hauled it back to the house.  My sisters had gathered all the eggs without fuss as the chickens seemed less quarrelsome then my Uncle’s chickens.  What they didn’t know was the there were some wooden eggs in the nests that were used to encourage egg production.  Of all the eggs they gathered, about ten of them were wooden.  We had a laugh over that.  They didn’t think it was so funny.

After breakfast we were all turned loose to do kid stuff.  We already knew that most families around the farm were relatives of some sort; some of them by marriage and some of them by blood.  The closest was about a half-mile down the dirt road so I began walking.  Nobody used bicycles here because of the gravel roads.  Gravel is very tricky to maintain your balance on.

Actually, I found out later that my grandparents had three horses.  One was used for plowing but the other two were sort of riding horses.  During my first visit down the road, my cousin, Dale, taught me to ride bareback.  That bony old horse was like riding the business end of a very large, hard comb.  At any pace over a plodding walk it felt as if hundreds of tiny builders were whacking at your privates with little hammers.  Galloping?  Forgeddaboudit!

He did have a spare saddle which he taught me to throw over the horse and cinch up properly.  He even taught me a trick.  It seems a horse will swallow air while you are making ready to saddle him/her.  When you throw the saddle over him/her and cinch it up tightly you think you’re ready to climb aboard.  Not so.  The first time you put a foot in the stirrup the saddle will slide down the rib cage and you’ll end up on your butt with the horse snickering back at you.

So, when you’re just about to cinch the saddle, you punch the horse in the ribs hard.  Sometimes you have to do it a couple of times but once you hear (or smell) the air exiting – by the means you might expect – then you quickly pull the cinch even tighter.  Sneaky animals, horses.

Our travels were greatly enhanced by the use of horses.  A couple of days later, several of us kids, mostly relatives, saddled up.  The locals were taking my brother and I out to what they called ‘four corners’.  Now, I’d already heard of Four Corners and thought something might be afoot here in the way of hazing tenderfoots.

Four Corners is a properly designated State rest area out on US Highway 160 that exits Colorado and enters Arizona.  It does it in such a manner as to pass directly adjacent to southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico.  If you spread yourself out like a spider you can be in four states at the same time.  It is the only place in the entire US where four states come together.

But, I digress.  These old hands were taking the dudes for a ‘ride’.  We ambled along winding our way through small hills and down streams.  We went across a big wooden bridge over a dry arroyo that had huge boulders along the bed.  Dennis told me that when there was a big storm up in the hills that water would roll those rocks down the streambed quite a ways.

The local school kids had lotteries started up where a big number was painted on a given rock and everyone would place bets on how far it would roll in the next storm.  Purses could get up into the sums of twenty or thirty dollars at times.  These kids really needed better hobbies.

We crested a big hill and out in the rounded valley below was a single post stuck in the middle of a barren dustbowl.  Dale pointed to it and told us that was the four corners.  I mumbled a muted ‘gee whiz’ and looked impressed.  I didn’t really feel like it, but I followed them down the hill and we rode around the post and back up the hill.  The locals then told us we’d been in four states just now.

I know how to read a map.  I knew for sure that Four Corners was about fifty-five miles, or so, away as the crow flies so this couldn’t be it under any circumstances.  I wisely kept my mouth shut though because they were having so much fun kidding us.  With suitable expression of dudeness, I acted impressed.  We rode back to one of my cousins homes for lunch.

My brother and I have such a rapport at times that it seems uncanny.  We can improvise comedy routines that will really get you laughing.  One day as we sat in the living room we launched into a very Abbott and Costello routine:

“Hey!  What’s that seat you sitting on made of?”  He asked me.

“Hide.”

“Hide?”

“Yeah, hide.”

“Hide.  Is that so?”

“Yeah, HIDE!  You know, the cow’s outside!”

“So what, I’m not afraid of a cow.”

Damn, we really break each other up.

My granddad’s farm wasn’t really what anyone would call a working farm.  He had a couple fields of corn, some beans, a line of squash and zucchini plus a really good watermelon patch.  Now, I know you’re al l thinking ‘wow, a watermelon patch’ but some of them looked purely scrawny.  Most of them were as round as, and felt like, a cannonball.  That got us thinking about cannonballs, cannons, things that shoot, and finally, to a big slingshot that would shoot hard melons.

We gathered up the items we would need:  a couple of old inner tubes, a nice piece of leather about a foot square, some baling wire and tin snips.  We cut the tubes up into thin bands and braided them into two lengths of about four feet each.  Next we wired one end of the rubber band to holes we cut on either side of the leather hunk.  The hardest part was searching for a suitable launch pad.

We finally found a defunct fence (well, it really wasn’t completely defunct but we fiddled with it until it defunked).  We wired the loose ends to posts on either side of the big empty space that we found.  Next up was the trial run.  We gathered several young volunteers of the watermelon persuasion and set them down on the ground handy to our launcher.

Fortunately, a rather large clapboard shed was within range and almost dead across a small field from our contraption.  With a small can of paint that would hardly be missed, we put a nice target on the side of the shed.  We were ready.

Putting our first load into the pouch, we began stretching the bands back.  Unfortunately, we didn’t notice that one side was beginning to slide under the wire binding it to the fence post.  Since I was the person holding the bag as it were, when the wire released the band it snapped back sharply and whacked me across the chest rather severely.

“Oh, gosh, gee whiz.  Consarn it.  That really smarts.”  I managed to croak out while bending over and trying to take in a breath.  What I really said should have melted the rubber band.  My sister couldn’t make up her mind to clap her hands first over her mouth or over her ears.  Everyone kept trying to pound me on the back but that wasn’t what I really needed just then.  An oxygen bottle would have been nice.

We made adjustments to the device and tried again.  I tried to talk my brother into giving it a go, but he’s too wary of things like that.  I carefully drew back the bands again until they were almost vibrating with pent-up tension.  A little elevation for luck and I let go.

The cannonball…er…watermelon arced across the field and impacted with a bang somewhere far over the shed.  We wondered what it could have been but decided to continue our test.  Another watermelon was loaded, the elevation was reduced and I let go.  The fruit sailed across the field with military precision and shot through an open window far to the left of the target.  Several loud noises were heard as it came to rest.

Well, we had the range, now we needed the precision.  Another super-hard watermelon, slightly larger than the rest, was fitted with care into the pouch.  I carefully drew back the bands and made sure they were equally tense.  Bent over slightly so I could sight better I aimed and let fly.  The watermelon flew across the field and whacked the side of the shed at about the top of the second ring.  Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there.  It crashed through the rather thin board and touched down somewhere in the middle of my granddad’s work bench.

What we didn’t know at the time was that my granddad was working near the bench and had left a bucket of old oil he had just drained out of the tractor on it.  We scored a direct hit on the bucket.  You have NO idea how far a blast like that can scatter a few quarts of oil.  Spilled milk has nothing on oil.

My granddad came boiling out of the shed casting an eye in every direction.  I doubt very much if he could see the faint dust clouds left by us rapidly departing kids.

That evening we were a bit subdued and didn’t do much clowning around like we usually did.  My granddad announced to nobody in particular that somehow a bucket of oil had exploded on his workbench and he’d be really happy if somebody would clean it up for him.  It took us almost an hour to mop up that black gooey mess.

There was a very old Montgomery Wards Airline floor model radio in the living room.  According to my grandma, she and granddad listened to the news about Pearl Harbor on it about a month after it had been delivered from the store.  Until September of 1941 it wouldn’t have mattered because they hadn’t any electricity out that far.

In any case, I found that it didn’t work.  I got permission to ‘mess with it’.  I’d been working with radios for quite a while actually.  I had built a crystal set, a one-tube radio and a broadcast band modulator so checking to see what ailed this radio wasn’t hard.  I pulled it away from the wall, pushed the plug into the wall and turned it on.

Every tube seemed to light except one.  It was located way forward (from the back of the set) and partially hidden behind the tuner mechanism.  I turned the set off again and pulled the plug.  When I reached into the radio to pull the tube I managed to touch elbow to the top connector of one of the tubes.  In most cases, the top connector is where the high voltage is.  I hadn’t allowed enough time for the power supply capacitors to discharge and my elbow completed the circuit between elbow, arm, fingers, and chassis.

There was a soft pop (probably my finger exploding), a very numb feeling coming over my entire arm, and a rather loud clunk when the back of my head hit the wall.  My grandmother called from the next room and asked if I was okay.  I managed to stammer out a reply that I was fine without gasping too much.

Some people learn from mistakes and some people don’t.  I’m probably in the latter group because I again reached into the radio to pull the tube.  This time I was VERY careful and gently rocked the tube until it came free from the socket.  Heat had erased the tube type printed on the glass, but a handy tube chart was glued to the underside of the wooden shelf holding the chassis.  I only found that because I managed to drop the tube with numb fingers and look up as I retrieved it.

The tube type was a 6V6, which is part of the audio amplifier.  I got permission to drive into town and buy a new one.  Darn thing cost me almost three dollars.  I returned, placed the tube into the socket and plugged the radio in.  After a few seconds music and static blasted out at top volume.  Whoever had last used the radio when the tube blew had left the volume all the way up.

At reduced volume that huge twelve-inch speaker sounded very nice indeed reproducing the sounds of Glen Miller.  My grandparents were happy it was fixed and I got the exclusive use of a giant slab of gooseberry cobbler.  Nyahhh, nyahhh, to my siblings.

Note:  I still have that radio.  It was willed to me.  It still runs just fine, but the next tube that blows will spell doom because you can hardly find tubes any more.  Sad, really, because tube radios just seem to sound better than tinny transistorized sets.

T.O.M.

Across the USA (Pt. 4)

April 8, 2010

The drive to Dodge City was very hot.  We panted while sitting on the hot cloth seats.  We could barely sit back because the vinyl inserts got hot enough to raise welts.  As a consequence, we kids got a little out of hand.

It started with a classic ‘stop touching me’ and went bad from there.  Soon, we were surreptitiously pinching, hitting, poking, and needling each other.  The swamp cooler ran out of water and we couldn’t find any to refill it with so that air stayed hot and dry.  Our supply of drinking water, not the best anyway since it had been filled with pale yellow water from the faucet, ran out.

We finally pulled over at a gas station that had an attached store.  The owner should have worn a woolen overcoat with brass buttons, an eye patch, a bandanna over his head and carried a cutlass.  He was a pirate.  Sodas, which normally sold for around thirty cents had a price tag of seventy-five cents on the ice tub.  We bought only two.

While he kept a wary eye on everyone in the store, my brother and I went to the side of the store outside and discovered a water tap.  He went back to the bus and found all our canteens and, trying not to clink them together, brought them to me.  I eased the tap open and filled every one of them.  The water tasted cool and clean to me.

When Bluebeard mentioned that the next gas was almost seventy miles away my dad just scoffed.  The pirate’s last shot was ‘see you in a couple of hours’.  My dad just smiled.  We had almost a half-tank of gas.  That would get us all the way to Dodge City and then some.

Dodge City turned out to be a real bust for us kids.  We’d been watching western serials on television over in Germany and thought that with a name and history like Dodge City had they would still be packing six-shooters in the streets.  Not so.  People seemed normal, if a little irritable in the heat, and didn’t even say ‘shucks’ to us once.

There was an old portion of town, set aside for the tourists, that was supposed to be authentic.  It looked the part, but I got the impression if you went behind the false fronts you’d see nothing but timber shoring them up.  It wasn’t quite that bad, but it did seem that every building had some sort of entrance fee.  Just drop a dime into the bin and come see ‘authentic this’ and ‘old-timey that’.  For a half-dollar they’d lock you up in the ‘hoosegow’ for ten minutes.  Whee, what fun.

A couple of guys stepped into the street from two different saloons and drew on each other.  Amid some fairly good gun work, they shot each other on alternate hours and twice on Sunday.  It was a good show.  The stage rattled in twice a day with appropriate dust cloud and properly dressed schoolmarms and dudes stepped down looking like their shoes hurt.

We came away mostly unimpressed with Dodge City.

We took US 50 out of Dodge City and dropped southward to meet US 160.  Our eventual goal now was Durango, Colorado.  Night began to fall as we passed through sleepy, dusty towns until we found an arrow pointing to a lake.  We turned off and wandered over a bumpy road until we came to the lake.  It wasn’t much of a lake, but the tall cottonwood trees gave some shade.  It wasn’t deep either.  I could wade across it and not get my tummy wet.

The evening breeze picked up and kept the mosquitoes at bay.  And, if that wasn’t enough, the smoky fire we started would.  Dinner was good and, once the dishes were washed, we were allowed to go run around for a while.  My brother discovered the blackberry patch and didn’t tell anyone.  I asked him why his fingers were blue and he finally told me.  I grabbed a big pot and went back around the lake to fill it.

The berries were very ripe and were probably the largest blackberries I’d ever seen.  There appeared to be a whole hillside of brambles and I filled the pot and myself before coming back to the bus.  My mom saw them and wanted more so she sent me and my sister back with two more pots.  We filled those also.  She had plans for them in the morning.

Around midnight, a pickup truck with its lights off idled past us and went around the lake.  I could hear doors slamming and an occasional snatch of conversation.  Most people have no idea how well sound carries across water so when I began to hear girlish giggles and manly chuckles I had a pretty good idea what was talking place.  I was either asleep or they were really quiet when the left.

We entered Colorado the next morning.  The air seemed to get cooler as we gained altitude.  Around noon we got to Trinidad and pulled into Trinidad Lake State Park to eat.  It was so nice there we stayed several hours.  My brother and I found that canoe rentals were reasonable enough so we rented one for an hour and messed about the lake.  We’d flit from one part of the bank to another, ground the bow, and take off exploring.

I was amazed at the amount of just plain crap thrown aside into the weeds.  Tons of fishing gear wrappers, empty bait tubs, beer cans, and other items littered the small trails that ran everywhere.  In Germany, you would have a hard time finding anything lying around like that.  Not only are there laws, but there are a sort of park ranger there to back it up.  If nobody official kept you from littering, there was always pressure from just plain folks to keep your act clean.

Once, as we drifted slowly across the lake, my brother looked down and pointed with a shout that there was a huge fish following us.  I looked and sure enough there was a very large catfish just swimming and nudging the frayed end of a rope dragging behind us.  He’d come up, grab the rope in his mouth and then try to dive.  I thought it was my brother doing something behind me until I saw the fish.  I could have just barely covered the catfish’s head with a paper plate.

Towards the end of the hour, we paddled back and turned the canoe in.  By the time the two of us walked back to our picnic table, everyone was almost packed and ready to go.  We jumped into our assigned seats and left to begin the long climb up towards Wolf Creek Pass.

First we had to go north until we got to Walsenburg then west past colorfully named places like Muleshoe and Seven Mile Plaza.  By the time we got to South Fork we had started up the eastern grade to Wolf Creek Pass.  My dad found a pullout next to the road and we let the engine cool down a little before beginning the climb.  Being air-cooled, the Volkswagen runs efficiently and cools down very fast.

Refreshed with a drink from the very cold stream we got aboard the bus and started out.  Most of the time we remained in third gear until the grade got really steep.  Down to second gear at times, our top speed was just over twenty-five miles per hour.  Luckily, there were quite a few pullouts where a slow moving vehicle could let others pass while not having to stop.  We did a lot of pulling over.

The final grade had us in first gear.  Whining up the slope at a stately ten miles per hour we had all the time we needed to look out at all the patches of snow under the trees and the huge piles of it where the snowplows had dumped it at the side of the road.  In one small stretch we couldn’t see anything but a ten foot tall wall of dirty snow.

We ground into the parking area at the summit – right at ten thousand eight hundred and fifty seven feet.  It was the highest I’d been in over four years except for the one time we went skiing down near München.  We all stood in front of the rustic sign naming the pass and showing its altitude and had our picture taken by a guy from a passing family.

My dad asked me if I wanted to drive back down the west side.  I said I’d be happy to.  We loaded back up and down the hill we went.  He cautioned me to never get above third gear until we got down into the flats.  He explained that I could get too fast and the brakes would heat up enough to lock so use the engine as a brake.  Good advice.

I wound around sweeping curves, taking quite a bit of time between light brake applications.  Cars would whiz past us whenever they could pass us.  The downside didn’t have tow lanes so they had to wait until they could pass us in the single lane road.  One guy in particular was very obnoxious when he passed me but signaled that he though I was number one in his book.

I smiled greatly when we came up on him at the side of the road – two huge black streaks leading to the smoking rear end of his car.  He’d hit his brakes too many times or too hard and they locked on him.  Happily, it was his two back brakes and not a steering brake.  I tapped the horn as we passed and waved.  He signaled to me again with both hands.

We reached our interim stop, Bayfield, in the early evening.  This was to be a short stop to visit some sort of relative on my dad’s side; an uncle, I believe.  He was a big, rough hewn kind of guy that rarely smiled.  He lived on a farm with lots of outbuildings we could explore while the grown-ups chatted.  My brother and I peeked into a big barn first.

There were two horses in stalls at one end, and a huge pile of left-over horse at the other.  Both smelled a lot so we slipped out the back and ended up in a chicken yard.  Now, I’ve never been afraid of a chicken, but when this one little black dude with half his feathers missing charged us cackling and squawking, we beat a hasty retreat.

Two smaller buildings proved to be just storehouses for ‘stuff’, mostly canned food.  Then, one shed way out in a field showed some promise.  Through the open door we could see a couple of old cars.  I’ve always been a fan of old cars and, as we got closer, I could see one of them was a 1937 Chevy Coupe.  It appeared to be in pretty good shape, but it was up on blocks and had no wheels or tires on it.

Right next to it was an old Willy’s Jeep.  It was the convertible model called a Jeepster and I thought it was from 1949 or 1950.  I opened the door and sat down in the driver seat.  It was set pretty low because of my uncle’s height so I couldn’t see very well over the dash.  It was originally an old maroon color, but it had two blue fenders on the left and a gray rear quarter panel.  Obviously, he’d been fixing it up.

We threw a few rocks into his pond trying to hit the ducks floating around but didn’t come close.  They just quacked at us and swam out of range.  A faint voice called to us from the house so we had to cut our explorations short and get back for some dinner.

Dinner was good.  Heavy farm food like corn on the cob, thick slices of roast beef, mashed potatoes and stiff brown gravy and the like was on the table.  For dessert, we had a huge slice of cherry pie.

Rather then try driving the miles to Durango, my dad elected to just camp out in one of their pastures for the night and drive in the next day to my grandparent’s farm in Breen.  We unloaded just the bare minimum for comfort and cover and slept under the stars.

Next morning, we kids were assigned duties.  I drew egg gathering and asked if there was some secret method of dodging that nasty little rooster.  My aunt told me that when I opened the first gate he’d charge me and to dodge to the side and trap him by swinging the gate through the opening and he’d be caught in that little triangular area behind the gate.  Sounded like a plan to me.

I was prepared for his charge, but it didn’t come.  I eased past the gate carefully looking in all directions and still no feathered missle.  I crept towards the henhouse and cracked the door.  It squeaked just a tiny bit.  That did it – he woke with fire in his eye and began pecking at my feet and ankles.

I swatted at him but he deftly dodged every swing of my basket.  His gabbling woke every hen in the house and they began to add to the din.  It was insanely noisy with all the cackling so I tried to make the best of it and reached for the first nest of eggs.  The owner took exception to me grabbing them and pecked at me the whole time.

I finally got those three eggs in the basket and moved onward through the rest of the nests.  I had at least four pockmarks on my arms from attacking hens and two of them were bleeding.  Those damn chickens have a really sharp beak.  I counted around eighteen or so eggs and decided to beat a hasty retreat.

This time the head rooster followed me beating at my heels with his wings.  I smiled when I managed to hit him with the gate as I opened it.  A small victory, but I felt better.

Breakfast was also farm fare.  At least three frying pans on the wood-fired stove were cooking things like omelets, bacon and leftover mashed potatoes.  The bacon was not the paper-thin stuff you see in supermarkets but nice thick slices manually taken from a huge side of smoked pig.  All of it was delicious.

After packing up and saying our goodbyes we headed out for the few miles to my dad’s father’s farm.  We were held up in Durango while the Silverton Steam train rattled across the road.  All of us asked if we could take the train while we were here.  Dad said ‘maybe’, which is a pretty sure thing sometimes.

We arrived at the farm in early morning and settled down into visit mode.

T.O.M.

Across the USA (Pt.3)

April 3, 2010

We got up early, cleaned up, had breakfast in the haute cuisine establishment of “Eats” out on the highway, and puttered west towards St. Louis.  About noon, a fairly strong wind developed that held out speed down to around fifty miles per hour.  At that speed it was a judgment call as to whether you used fourth gear of third gear.  Fourth gear bogged the engine down until you eventually had to shift to third anyway.  No matter what you did, you always held the gas pedal to the floor.

In most cases, this would have been a nice thing to cruise along at forty-five or fifty but there seemed to be an awful lot of people lining up behind us.  Occasionally, my dad would drive close to the side of the road and let cars pass us.  Every time a big truck passed though we’d get a huge boost in speed from the suction created by the trailer.  My dad would slap the bus into fourth gear and let himself be dragged along the road by the draft.  Eventually, the truck would outrun us and we’d be back to forty-five in no time with irate drivers behind us.

Every time we stopped for gas we were asked the same thing:  What the heck kind of car was that?  Where do you put the gas?  Where’s the engine?  Things like that.  My dad would get creative at times and tell people that it ran on water, or that there was really no engine and we just stuck our feet through the floorboards and ran.  When he got serious though, the mileage would always impress them.  So far on our trip the lowest figure we had was in the mountains of New York where we got only 32 miles per gallon.

Eventually the wind died down and our speed picked up.  At a Western Auto my dad picked up what he called a swamp cooler.  It was supposed to fit in the window of a car and, using an evaporative process, cool the interior.  Our major problem was that we didn’t have any windows that opened up and down.  All of ours slid left to right.  He finally ended up grabbing a screwdriver and completly removed one of the side windows so that the cooler could fit in and not tip water all over the place.

He added water and once we started down the road we were amazed that it actually did work.  Naturally, everyone fought for a seat next to the cool(er) output from the device.  Mom pulled rank and got the first stint, followed by me, then the “other ranks”.  I spelled my dad (the first time this trip I’d been allowed to drive) so he could see how well the cooler worked.  He pronounced it a good idea.

I drove for about an hour or so, zooming down gentle hills and zipping up them until gravity took over to slow me once again.  I probably ticked off the drivers behind us when I did that because the only time they could pass was on the down slope – and I was getting the most our of the slope.  They had to really kick it in the butt to pass.  I waved merrily at their friendly gestures as they went by.

We took lunch at a small roadside rest stop nestled in a grove of trees.  My sisters amused themselves by feeding the squirrels that would gather looking for handouts.  They got quite pushy until the largest one of the bunch decided that “no more bread left” was not a good answer.  He ran up my sister’s leg and stared her right in the kisser chattering all the time.  She reacted badly.

Towards late afternoon we hit Saint Louis.  My dad had been trying to get there before rush hour and we thought we might have made it until he realized that we were going into the city against traffic coming out.  When we got to the center and began moving the same direction it was stop and go all the way.  Hot, sticky, not a breath of air was the order of the day and we sweltered in the heat until we reached the western outskirts.  Once we transited from US40 to US50, westbound again, the traffic thinned and my dad’s temper eased a little.  We had missed the turn and ended up in a series of one-way streets that all appeared to be going the wrong direction for us.  There was no such thing as ‘going around the block’.

We stopped at a small gas station and filled the tank, emptied our tanks, and refilled them with sodas.  The attendant told us of a great campground about twenty miles down the road so that was our goal for the day.

We arrived almost at dark and found it was next to a drive in movie.  The price for camping ($3.00) included a bench seat at the back of the theatre for campers.  It was a Disney movie but to this day I can’t remember what it was.  I fell asleep towards the end and when I woke up to the noise of rumbling exhausts I went back to the tent and crashed.

Next morning, after breakfast from a box, we headed out again.  The rain clouds had formed with huge thunderheads floating up well over forty thousand feet.  Big, black, anvil-shaped clouds that signals serious rain.  The sky got darker, the wind picked up but it was from the side now.  It would push in bursts that threw us all over the road.

We did not have radial tires on the bus.  Those were very expensive and my dad, being my dad, opted for cheaper tires called retreads.  These were supposedly sound tires that had had new treads vulcanized to them to form a nice “new” tire.  For our weight class (flyweight) they worked great.  Tubeless radial tires help to keep your vehicle running in a straight line as the sidewall flex, but normal, tubed, tires won’t.  As a result we wove from the double line to the sideline with regularity in every blast of wind.

After about an hour of this side-to-side motion, my mom said she heard a ‘rump, rump’.  My dad didn’t, and kept going.  She tried again a little more forcefully “I hear a RUMP, RUMP!”  Just as he turned to chastise her, the tire blew.  It was spectacular.  The entire right front retread peeled off the base tire with a huge BANG and shot out the back to lay smoking on the pavement.

Everyone jumped a foot as my dad eased the bus to the side of the road and onto the grass berm.  We got out and looked at the mess.  When it blew, it took the entire sidewall out right up to the bead.  Just the short distance we traveled on nothing but the rim and a little bead had scuffed the rim but hadn’t bent it.  Luckily we hadn’t hit any rocks or holes.

Our first flat for the trip.  Actually, this was a pretty good record for the bus.  We’d gone almost ten thousand miles with just one flat, but that was a slow leaker that allowed us to get off the road and take our time to fix.  This was a little more urgent.  My dad got back in and, with my guidance, pulled over under a tree so we could change it.

We unpacked the ‘way back’ until we could get to the spare mounted under the rear pad over the engine compartment.  The jack worked as it should have and we had the tire changed in about fifteen minutes.  Packing the stuff back in was tricky but we accomplished it in due time and were back on the road towards somewhere west of Wichita.

Every place we stopped, we checked for a replacement tire.  Finally, at yet another Western Auto store in Emporia, Kansas we found one.  It was a new one though, not a retread, so my dad decided to just mount it as the spare.

The further west we went the hotter it seemed to get.  The heat just made us kids more restless and argumentative.  Finally, my mom suggested we stop at a roadside rest that seemed to have river access.  We pulled in, and even before we got our of the bus we knew something was wrong.  It smelled horrible.  We cruised down the access road and when we passed the river, we saw what was causing it.  Someone had left a dead cow lying on the riverbank.  Yuk.

We went just a little farther down the road and came to a dirt road that angled down to another river that we crossed on a bridge.  Down the road we went until we were under the bridge.  It was cool in the shade.  A light breeze blowing upriver kept the bugs down to a minimum and we all soaked for a bit in the water.  Refreshed, we loaded back up and continued onward.

We found a nice motel with cabins situated around a small lake outside Newton, Kansas.  The cabins were only one bedroom so we ended up having to take two of them.  My brother and I, along with my dad, got one, and my sisters and mom got the other one.  The water was so hard that we couldn’t raise a single bubble of soap in the shower.  It tasted awful to boot.  We were completely exhausted by all the heat and lay on the bed with no covers trying to believe that the fan in the room was actually blowing cool air over us.

Tomorrow, we were excited to learn, we would be going through Dodge City.  That was worth the wait.

T.O.M.