In my early years, my world was very small. It was similar to Bill Peach’s, one of our local writers. He described his as being about five corn fields wide. Just substitute cotton fields and you’d have mine.
However, when I got a work scholarship to be one of the equipment managers for the Ole Miss football team, my horizons widened considerably. I flew, for the first time, to Miami, where we played the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl and I got my first view of the ocean.
And I got to visit other cities that are the home of other SEC teams: Lexington, Kentucky; Baton Rouge and LSU’s Tiger Stadium; New Orleans, where we played Tulane in the Sugar Bowl. There I was also escorted by older managers to the French Quarter and introduced to the Hurricanes at Pat O’Brian’s as well as to Bourbon Street for a performance by Lily Christine, “The Cat Girl,” an exotic dancer who sang and danced to the tune “Pillow Talk” as she plucked miniature pillows from inside her skimpy costume and flung them into the audience.
We were not seated close enough to get one these much sought-after souvenirs.
Then came the summer of 1952. I was 19. Many of us worked during this season to save up spending money for the next year. But with so many college and high school kids looking, a good summer job was hard to find. The summer before, I had worked on pipeline construction, but the crews had since moved on.
The spring semester was winding down and none of my queries had turned up anything. Then Calhoun, a pitcher on the baseball team, came with a proposition. He knew some boys from another college who had worked the summer before in a pea cannery in Washington.
The money was good. They’d been told that the cannery folk would like to hire other hard-working boys from Mississippi. Calhoun had written to them and they had four jobs for his car load. Did I want the last slot? I did.
The other two boys were Sam, the student manager for the baseball team, and Toc, a friend of Calhoun’s, who went to another college.
The deal was Calhoun would furnish the car with the other three buying the gas and oil. Since his current car couldn’t make that long a trip, he “upgraded” to a 1948 Pontiac that had plenty of room inside.
My parents were not too keen on my going, but I was determined to see some of the country as well as work.
We knew the date we had to be there, so we figured the distance and how long it would take us, driving night and day. We got a 48-state road map and drew a straight line between Oxford, Mississippi and Walla Walla, Washington.
The Green Giant cannery was just a few miles from there, at Waitsburg. We planned our general route, trying to avoid major cities. The interstate system was mostly still in the planning stage, so we had to use the red and blue roads.
We left early on the appointed day, pointing Chief Pontiac’s face on the hood ornament toward the West.
Sam and I drove the 12-hour (6 a.m.-6 p.m.) day shift. Calhoun and Toc took the nights. We rotated about every two hours behind the wheel. When we came to a new state, we’d get a free road map from a service station and plot our exact route across. The one in the front passenger seat was the navigator.
Calhoun kept a little bag with the gas money. We’d each put in $10 and when it got low, we’d ante up again. Gas was less than 20 cents a gallon, so you could fill up for less than $4.
The back seat and floor was the bedroom. There was a cooler in the trunk, where we kept ice and cold drinks. The ample shelf under the rear window became our pantry, where we kept snacks, canned stuff and sandwich fixings. We’d stop for one meal a day and snack the rest of the time.
We traveled light — no suitcases. Each of us had a toilet article kit and carried our spare work clothes in paper grocery bags.
After three days, we figured we were at least halfway there, so we got a motel room for the night so that we could clean up and sleep in a bed. It cost $4 — a dollar each.
The mountains were a scary drive — narrow roads and no guard rails. We drove very carefully. Then the Pontiac overheated and the radiator boiled dry.
We were right by a rushing mountain stream. Calhoun walked on the large rocks down to it and found a beat-up bucket that would hold water.
When he came back with a bucketful of ice water he said, “You’re not supposed to put cold water into a hot car. It could crack the block. But we don’t have much choice.”
The engine held together. We stopped at the next gas station and got some stuff that was supposed to clean out a radiator. It worked, and we had no more problems with it.
On June 10, we stopped at the Continental Divide and made snowballs. Since no one had brought a camera, we didn’t get any pictures.
The eastern side of the mountains had been dry and dusty. The western side was lush and green, but beautiful country on both sides.
We arrived in Waitsburg a day early — pretty good timing for a bunch of teens who’d never done anything like this before.
More to come next time.