At the request of daughter Julie, the following is my recollection of the summer of 1946…
It was the “Best of Times”
The “Worst of Times” had ended several months before with the ending of World War II, but the transition of a 100-percent war and defense economy to a civilian economy would be painfully slow. Men and women of the military were returning home and factories had to be closed to restructure themselves for production of civilian goods that had not been available for over five years. There had been no new autos, washing machines, refrigerators, etc. built since the end of 1941. Nothing but food and essentials had been available and most of those were either substitutes or synthetics. Unemployment was extremely high, and there was great labor unrest as job selection and wages had been frozen during the war and many unions were threatening strike. Shortages were the order of the day and lots of rationing of food, gas, tires, clothing remained; however ,there was expected improvement coming and a pent up demand and desire to shed the concerns of the war and return to normal times.
Amidst the confusion, I still was a somewhat rebellious teenager experiencing the usual conflict with parental rules and regulations. Older siblings were either in the Service or away at college and I was the only child remaining in our home. I felt that my parents were a little more strict than most of my friends’ parents. I am sure I made life a little more than miserable for them and perhaps that was the reason they agreed when I asked permission to work somewhere out of town during the summer following my sophomore year of high school.
As it turned out, the family of one of my friends had moved from Iowa to Oregon before his senior year and he remained in our hometown of Mount Ayr, Iowa to finish school. Our families belonged to the same church, and were good friends for many years. Don planned to join his family in Oregon upon graduation in May of 1946, and between the two of us ,we decided that hitchhiking on the “open road” would be the very best way for him to get there — and of course I was looking for an escape and might as well join him. My friend was 18, but in reality, I appeared to be the older of the two of us.
The Great Day Arrived
The last day of school in late May 1946, was met by an unseasonable cold, snowy day. That should have told us something. After receiving our final report cards, Mother reluctantly drove us to Creston to have the advantage of a slightly busier highway. This was long before Interstates The highways throughout the United States were narrow two-lane highways, and the preferred mode of travel was by train or bus. The newest vehicle on the road was a 1941 or older model except for a few WWII Jeeps converted for sale to the public. With gas rationing and only an occasional cabin camp to accommodate tourists, one would understand that there was little traffic except for locals moving from farm to town, a few salesmen, and a few local delivery trucks.
My father had written a letter of permission with a reference to his membership in the Masonic Order stating that any assistance to his son would be greatly appreciated. I dutifully placed it in my one small travel bag. After a few rides of a few miles each, the next ride would prove the wisdom of my father. We were picked up by an Iowa Highway Patrolman who seemed quite sure that we were runaways. Remembering the letter, I presented it to the officer who just happened to also be a Mason and was impressed with the letter. Nevertheless, he spoke on his radio to various authorities and after being convinced that we were “legals,” decided to transport us to the end of his assigned territory, our longest ride of the day. “Hitching” was not at that time considered as dangerous as it became by the mid-1950s. People were good, friendly and generous, and by nightfall we had reached Omaha, Nebraska. At that point we decided that we could afford a night bus ride to Cheyenne, Wyoming and not spend much more than we would at a hotel.
To our surprise upon arriving in Cheyenne, the newspaper announced that there was a nationwide rail strike and there would be no trains running within the United States. Therefore, all rail passengers were dropped at the nearest bus station which meant that the already full buses were totally overwhelmed. Long lines were already in place and the overflow had joined us as hitchhikers. We found a city bus that would take us to the edge of town where we hoped to get a ride along with at least a hundred or two others hoping for the same thing.
Someone or something was in our corner that morning as a 1936 Oldsmobile drove past many “hitchers” and stopped in front of us. The driver, about 65, motioned for us to get in. In this day and age one would well imagine the worst if this were to happen. He announced that he would be going as far as Reno, Nevada, but would stop early each day enroute. We were welcome to complete that journey with him, or we could try to hitch a quicker ride if we so wished. The well dressed and very courteous man turned out to be a well-positioned Chef in a famous San Diego, California hotel. He was traveling across the nation alone and apparently we appeared to need him at that time. Our new friend was prepared for the worst, carrying spare everything, in the event of auto trouble: extra fuel, tires, automotive tools, and whatever. In addition, he had ice chests containing real butter, real sugar, bread, lunchmeat and various condiments in the event we found no restaurants in the wild west when needed. When a food establishment appeared at a needed time, we took our own butter, sugar, etc. in with us because he did not want oleo, sugar substitutes, etc. which were the order of the day because of shortages. Destination for the first night was Rock Springs, Wyoming. This meant that we would be stopping about the middle of the afternoon. We were dropped off on the highway near a cabin camp where we could stay the night. He told us that he would be at that spot by 8 a.m. and that we could ride the next day if we did not get an earlier ride.
Of course the same conditions prevailed in Rock Springs and we gratefully accepted a ride with our new friend. As an aside event, in Rock Springs we witnessed a single coal locomotive train traveling at a high rate of speed with whistles blowing and no intent of stopping as it passed through the city. We assumed that rail traffic had resumed, only to learn that the locomotive had been stolen and for all practical purpose was a runaway train. After another day or two, President Truman seized the railways, and operated them with drafted employees or with Army personnel. Thereafter, the public transportation congestion was somewhat relieved.
Our day’s destination was to be Salt Lake City, Utah and again we were dropped off at a reasonably priced, clean tourist court, and again were told where to be if we wished to continue on with him. We were in Salt Lake by noon, and we soon decided we would just scout out the city and accept a ride with him in the morning.
Another short drive day would take us to Elko, Nevada. We drove by the Great Salt Lake and across the Great Salt Lake Desert into the Nevada deserts. This was my first trip west of Iowa and of course I was in awe of newly seen territory, but mostly of the expanse of nothingness. We rarely saw any other traffic and can’t imagine how we expected to hitchhike across that forsaken land, but fortunately we were in good hands and were never hungry or in danger. We arrived in Elko on a Sunday and elected to go to the casinos instead of church, but we had no money for that sort of thing and of course were underage. We had already made the wise choice of sticking with the sure ride to Reno rather than attempting to proceed on our own.
Our fifth day resulted in a change of fortune, bringing the kind of fear I had never known before. Well before reaching Reno, we came upon another vehicle driving very slowly along the shoulder with a flat tire almost to the point of driving on a bare wheel rim. Our benefactor, as mentioned previously, carried a supply of extra tires among other things and was of course, of a mind to lend a helping hand. The tireless vehicle was occupied by two men and a girl all about 25 to 30 years of age. Our friend inquired as to where they would be going. San Francisco was their destination and they indicated that they intended to drive straight through. Our good friend agreed to provide them with a tire if they would agree to take his two passengers to Sacramento where he had already determined would be our best route north to Oregon. They accepted and set about to mount and air the tire (everybody had a hand tire pump in those days). Our friend wished to spend a week or so in Reno. He provided us with some candy bars and snacks, addressed a couple of post cards to himself at his San Diego hotel, and instructed us to send them upon our safe arrival in Oregon. With that he bade us farewell.
The transfer was made with the instruction by the driver that the two of us were to sit in the front seat and one of the guys and the girl would occupy the back seat. These people were neither neat nor well dressed, and did not appear to be especially friendly. Shortly, I was tapped on the shoulder by the fellow in back and asked to reach under the front seat and hand him an item that I would find. Much to my surprise, the item was a revolver, the specifications of which I did not know. I had never held one in my hands before and I am sure that I was shaking and visibly frightened as I followed instructions.
There was little or no conversation on this trip. We passed through Reno, left the desert and begin climbing into the beautiful wooded mountains along the California, Nevada border in the Lake Tahoe area and famed Donner Pass. I had heard about the Donner Party from history and silently wondered if we would ever make it or also be eaten. Sometime in the mid afternoon with little or no traffic and passing through very few towns, we came upon a lonely, desolate mountain gas station and small cafe. We had gone through the snacks and were hoping we might stop for a bite to eat; however, an attendant filled us with gas and we were instructed to remain in the car with the girl. Our driver discreetly placed another pistol weapon in his pocket and entered the station and cafe. The other male positioned himself somewhere outside between the car and the station. Shortly, the driver ran from the station to the car and the other man leaped into the back seat. Off we went and I will never know exactly what took place inside. Free gas at least, I was sure of — and whatever else, I did not wish to know! Frightened beyond anything I had ever experienced, I fully expected to soon be pursued by California Highway Officers, a gun fight would ensue, and we all would be dead.
Down the mountain we went at a higher rate of speed than I was entirely comfortable with. Many years later as an over the road truck driver on splendid interstate highways in that area, I would learn that you descend the Pass for about 50 miles or so, all the while hoping your brakes won’t fail. However, as nightfall came, we were told that we would not arrive in Sacramento until around midnight. Also, they said the highway we wanted to go north on (Old U.S. 99) would go north from Roseville, not Sacramento, which was about 25 miles before you get to Sacramento and that was where they intended to let us out. I had never heard of Roseville and knew nothing of the area, so immediately began to feel that it was probably a remote area where we would surely be relieved of anything we had of value and then disposed of in an unfriendly ravine — or worse!
Indeed we did arrive around midnight. Roseville turned out to be a fair-sized town and on spotting a Greyhound Bus Station, I suggested we go there for an inhabited shelter and possibly some badly needed food. Our new friends obliged without incidence, wished us well, and Don and I heaved a great sigh of relief. Counting our depleting funds, — and good fortunes upon not being slain — we determined that we had about enough to reach Oregon via Greyhound. We didn’t have quite enough for the full trip to Corvallis, but could get within about 120 miles at Roseburg, Oregon. From there we would try to hitch the rest of the way, or if that failed, we could call for someone from his family to come and get us. Arriving in Roseburg in mid afternoon, and with more traffic and frequent towns, we quickly got a series of rides to Corvallis arriving almost in time for supper, as we called it in Iowa.
The Rest of the Summer
It seems that I have told this story through the years and remember saying that we rode with the same guy for three days from Cheyenne to Reno, but as I recalled the events, it appears that we were actually with him for the better part of four days to travel a distance of about 950 miles (Good Wife Pat and I would later make that trip many times in about 18 hours with fuel and food stops included). I regret that I am no longer able to remember his name, but I would have to say that gentleman was one of those most unforgettable characters I have ever met. I did remember the hotel where he worked and attempted to contact him after entering the Navy in 1951 while training at the Navy Training Center in San Diego; however, that attempt proved unsuccessful. Also, I will not forget the other characters either. They did us no harm, but scared the bejeesies out of us!
The remainder of the summer was spent working on a farm about five miles out of Corvallis. I bought a used bicycle for about $7.00 and biked the trip daily. My employer, Mr. Grover Smith, who could have easily doubled for actor Percy Kilbride who played ‘Pa’ in all the ‘Ma and Pa Kettle’ movies, paid me the handsome salary of 75 cents per hour and I saved at least half of it. I had a room at Mrs. Giddings’ house for $4.00 per week. We grew mostly tomatoes on the farm with a hefty supply of other vegetables, and acres and acres of English walnuts — and no restrictions on the benefits of eating those healthy food items. Grover drove me over to the ocean at Newport a couple of times on weekends. I suppose there are other stories in here somewhere but this will be enough. I met numerous good people, and at the end of summer my parents and my sister Jean, home from the University for the summer, drove to Oregon and picked me up for my return trip to Iowa. My friend and co-hitcher Don, unfortunately died many years ago at an early age, so I am unable to ask him for other memorable details.
Yeah, it was pretty darn exciting for a 16-year-old kid in 1946.