Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Lure of the Open Road

I happened across this story of two young women who, in 1944, set out on a journey to see the country. These bold young ladies travelled on bicycles, slept in barns and cemeteries and washed in streams. Taking different part time jobs along the way, they hitchhiked rides with truck drivers and worked from Louisville to New Orleans as chambermaids on a steam towboat. They then bicycled across the south to Florida and back to their home at Buffalo. With many quaint snapshot photographs, it is a charming story of a kindlier gentler America, one that was much safer then and more optimistic, even in the midst of a great war.

Willowby was our breakfast stop. At 8:00 a.m. the townspeople were preparing for the business day ahead. Brooms swept the papers fluttering to the curb. Water splashed from the window washers’ buckets and ran in little streams down to the curb. A white-aproned clerk piled pyramids of golden oranges against the window. Beneath was the freshly-painted sign, "Oranges - 5 cents." We went inside and bought the two biggest oranges we could find.
The village square was a convenient breakfast spot. We lined up the meal on a park bench. The bran flakes were dry, the oranges pithy. I chopped off another lump from the petrified sugar in the bag. It had weathered the storm, too. Then we filled our canteens at the gas station to wash cups and spoons.

Getting a lift on a chicken truck

As the sun rose, the driver left us off on Route 80, where we might catch another truck. The first one we hailed stopped and took us on to Tuskegee.
Now over 50 years later, as we read the news and watch the television reports of abductions that take place today, we wonder. Were we courageous or just naive? Or was it our outlook, our spirit, the happiness we exuded that carried us along in safety ?
We stationed ourselves at a gas pump again. This time we secured a ride headed directly to Atlanta, Georgia, with two fellows driving a chicken truck. Now we’ve had about every variety of vehicle! They tied our bikes on top of the chicken crates.

Visiting newly disabled soldiers in Georgia

Two boys met us, Felix and Larry, one in a wheelchair and the other on crutches, each minus a leg. Each had a red rose for us. I’ll never forget that. These boys escorted us around. First, we went to their ward, where all their mates had similar injuries. Most all of them lost their limbs on Anzio Beachhead invasion in Italy. In the Physical Therapy ward, they were exercising muscles so they would be conditioned to using artificial limbs. Then to the place where they made the prostheses and witnessed a fellow being fitted to an arm and hand. As we pushed the wheelchairs around, we were surprised to see the good fun and cheerfulness the boys had in spite of their life-changing experiences and challenging future ahead of them.

On The Steamer Corrigidor

There are always little feelings or sensations associated with events that help one to remember experiences more vividly. Perhaps I shall always remember the vibrations of the engines and the sound like a train riding the tracks, the smell of certain closed rooms above the hot brig, the shrill voice of Mrs. Lynch above the engine noise, and Tommy’s listless face at breakfast after only five hours sleep. And I’ll remember the luxury of taking a handful of cookies, dipping up a tall glass of milk and eating a whole cantaloupe. I’ll remember trying to understand the southern accent, chopping ice in the chill box, scrubbing black marks from the red linoleum, counting soiled linen in the lounge, and seeing the rigging bared against a sky full of stars! I’ll remember how the deck hands were always painting; the stuffed feeling around the belt after Wednesday’s and Sunday’s dinner of southern fried chicken, followed by two soup bowls of ice cream; our rush to the guard in our excitement to see anything new that happened, followed by a severe lecture from Mrs. Lynch; and the bliss of having electric fans in the summer heat. And, too, I have seen the factions and bargaining developed by the union aboard ship, heard the many tales told by Captain Stroube in the pilot house, and listened to his words of wisdom founded upon years of river boating. The ripple of a full moon’s reflection upon the Mississippi, the churn of the water by the propellers, the heat of the engine room and the sweat pouring off the men’s backs, and perhaps most of all, the sound of the throttle bells as the speed of the boat changed. I’ll remember making up sooty beds and folding black towels, putting dishes away in the wrong place, and finding a pail that doesn’t leak. I’ll remember the desolate shores and the sandbars, the tow caught there, the shanty boats and the willows. I’ll remember taking the second bell for meals and catching the beds in between. Yes, there are many things to remember. It will be impossible to forget.

The entire story, titled The Lure of the Open Road.Wartime wandering through the Eastern states by bicycle, truck, and riverboat. 1944,by Thelma Popp Jones. 2007, is here.

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