The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3, “The Restless Years” (pages 46-49) of “Surviving Victory”
In those days, Route 66 was exactly that – a route, nothing more. A collection of roads tied together by highway signs and dubbed the “Mother Road”. By the time John Steinbeck had written “Grapes of Wrath”, over two hundred thousand Okies had taken this road west to escape the despair of what the nation now knew as the “Dust Bowl”. A two lane asphalt road, it was mushy even in the relatively mild heat of a summer morning. I got another short ride and then somewhere out towards the dusty, one-horse town of Calumet, a guy driving a ’36 Ford convertible with California plates slammed on his brakes and pulled off the road when he saw my big cardboard sign reading “L.A.or Bust”. When I caught up to him he shouted,
“Do you drive?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Well then, hop in.” I did and we got back on the road.
“How far you goin’,” I asked. “All the way to LA?”
“Yep,” he answered, “right into Long Beach, but there’s a catch. I’ve got to be there by day after tomorrow …1500 miles. We can do it by taking turns driving and sleeping. Are you game?”
“What’s your name?”
“Phil,” I said. “He put out his hand.”
“I’m Mike. I’ve been on the road all night coming down from Springfield …about 10 hours and I need some sleep, lots of it…and I’ll tell you right now I’m not going to be doing much talking, so don’t even try. Is that okay with you?”
“Suits me fine,” I said, remembering the trucker that kicked me out on the side of the road for the not talking enough.
“You ready to take over then?”
“Any time,” I said. He braked to a stop and we traded places.
While Mike slept, I drove through the dust bowl towns of western Oklahoma…Lucille’s Cabins turned up in Hydro and beyond Weatherford the Plaza Motel beckoned in Elk City. By noon, we were in Sayre where the temperature, according to a big thermometer hanging on the side of a bank, was 105. This was battered Model A Ford, flat-bed truck country, driven by guys in sweat-stained straw hats and patched overalls hauling shriveled corncobs to their starving pigs. Once in a while I’d see a John Deere tractor going down a rutted side road or a scrawny horse lashed to a tree, but for most of the hundred or so miles to the Oklahoma border, there was only blowing dust, barbed-wire and peeling paint.
Somehow I expected a change of scenery when we crossed the line into Texas, but nothing much happened, except maybe I felt 50 pounds lighter. Hell, this was what I had wanted to do for years …see more of the world and, by God, here I was heading for California!
By the time we got into Shamrock, we were running low on gas, so I pulled into a Phillips 66 truck stop, filled up on 28 cent gasoline and bought a couple of jumbo hamburgers for 15 cents. We headed out of town past the U-Drop-Inn Auto Court and started picking up advertisements for Burma-Shave that were painted on six red panels stuck in the ground along the highway, about 50 feet apart. Each panel had a few words of the message in humorous doggerel. “Every Shaver/ Now Can Snore/Six More Minutes/ Than Before/ By Using/Burma Shave”…that, I remember was the first one, and then I didn’t see anymore while torrid winds took over and followed us all the way into Amarillo in the middle of the Texas panhandle. We were about 240 miles west of Oklahoma City when Mike woke up and decided to drive while I caught some zs.
Around eight o’clock that night I woke while we were going through Tucumcari …another parched town …a mile long and a block wide, where neon signs for Tee Pee Curios and the Palomino Auto Camp lit up the road with yet another flashing “Vacancy” sign out front. All the motels had vacancies. The only people I saw were lined up for a movie house or going in and out of saloons. I dozed off again and didn’t wake up until about two in the morning when we stopped for gas, food, and water at Fina Fuels next door to the Texas Ann Motel outside of Albuquerque. It had been raining hard and the ground around the gas pumps was a seething mass of salamanders. There were hundreds of them wiggling through the puddles of water and mud. You couldn’t get out of your car without squashing a half dozen under foot. Finally a couple of guys at the gas station began shoveling them into a bucket. When it was full of the writhing creatures, they pumped in gasoline, threw in a match and dumped the whole fiery, squealing mess off the bridge into Rio Grande. Like a fleet of miniature burning boats, they floated off down river. Long after they disappeared you could hear their squeaking growing fainter and fainter …a scene which would haunt me forever.