Friday, March 6, 2015

V 5 N 16 Part 2 Lawler Go West Young Man

More of John Lawlor's adventures in the great American west driving Bill Woodhouse's VW from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma to Palo Alto, California with unlicensed and inexperienced driver.  Those Aussie lads were truly resourceful.

Episode II

When Don Boshart heard of our abject failure as door-to-door Bible salesmen and of our desire to go West, he drove up to Broken Arrow in the VW, and we commenced preparation for our adventure. It’s a big, big drive from Broken Arrow, which is near Tulsa, Oklahoma, to California. And, as money was in short supply, we decided to drive non-stop to save on accommodation expenses. The odd hamburger along the way would have to suffice. We spent our final night in Broken Arrow in Denis’s bed. Yes. The three of us in a double bed. Not the first time, nor the last, for any of us.

The plan was to head down Route 66, straight across the deserts of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, through the great Rocky Mountains into California, and then north to San Francisco. We’d alternate drivers, with the first relief driver sleeping in the back seat of the VW. True, it was tight back there, and you had your knees under your chin, but compared to sharing a third of a double bed, the back seat of a VW, all to yourself, was pure luxury. The second relief driver would catch what sleep he could in the front seat.

That’s, of course, if Denis wasn’t driving. You see, Denis COULDN’T drive, and it was partly my fault. Well… I suppose it was completely my fault. Before we left Australia I suggested that I’d teach Denis to drive in my family’s one and only car: a little Mini Minor. Just as we were beginning the initial lesson, we crashed as I was driving to a quite location, and we both suffered concussion, knocked out cold, when I ran into a parked car in front of us. Remember, it was before seatbelt days. Denis apparently revived first, got out of the car, closed the door, and then passed out, falling into the gutter.

It is quite disconcerting when you return to the living and find that your training partner and friend has seemingly departed. When I opened my eyes, Denis was the proverbial “nowhere man”! Empty seat. Just as I was beginning to question my own mortality, the door opened, and people began to practice their first-aid training on me. I hadn’t noticed, but I had a spectacular cut on my head to go with the headache that I did know about. At the time of impact my head was under the dashboard looking for the “L” plates* as was Denis’s.
I tried to explain to the three amateur “surgeons” who were trying to close my head wound that I had lost something important: my passenger. He hadn’t been ejected though the windscreen, that was obvious, so where was he?? About that time Denis slowly arose from the gutter, like the rising sun, displaying his own impressive head cut. That episode had occurred about six months before we left for the United States and was Denis’s first and last driving lesson.

Boshart drove most of the first day. Sometime in early evening, when we had crossed the state line into New Mexico, I took over the driving. Although not a good driving instructor, I was a reasonably safe and reliable driver. My principal limitation was that I was unlicensed. Not having a car obviated the need for a US license, and my Australian license, which I carried for identification, had expired. I reasoned that this little deficiency should not be a problem if I abided by the local road and traffic laws and kept the car on the right-hand side of the road.

My driving stint went okay, and somewhere about midnight Denis took his turn at the wheel. The road was straight, and there was very little traffic ─ just the odd truck or two. Perfect for an unlicensed, untutored, and uninsured driver.

Getting Denis started in a car with a four-speed floor-mounted gearstick was not going to be easy. His lesson had not progressed much beyond starting the motor. The strategy was for Denis to compress the clutch pedal while Boshart, the co-pilot, moved the gearstick into first gear, and, on signal, Denis would slowly release the clutch and depress the accelerator. Once mobile, the same procedure would be repeated until the VW had reached top gear. Simple, when you think about it.

After a few false starts and several kangaroo hops (appropriate), we were on our way West, heading down the right side of the road. Boshart suggested I take the back seat and get some sleep as, he said, he was feeling fine, and I had just had a long spell at the wheel.

I have no recollection of how far we had travelled with Denis at the wheel when I next woke. In spite of the discomfort of the back seat, I must have slept a couple of hours at least. The first thing I heard was Boshart suggesting politely that Denis apply the brakes: “Denis, brakes.” But Denis’s tutorial had concentrated solely on the clutch pedal and the accelerator. As the road was both flat and straight, with virtually no traffic, we had not considered it necessary to complicate Denis’s driving instructions with a lesson on braking. The idea was to get the car moving, after all. Boshart’s next suggestion was a little more urgent: “Denis! Brakes!” No response. The third appeal was both frantic and emphatic: “Denis! The brakes!” At this point I opened my eyes. Through the window of the passenger seat I found myself staring at the underside of a huge truck. The sloping front of the VW had literally gone beneath the back of the moving truck.

I cannot recall whether Denis finally found the brake or simply took his foot off the accelerator, but, ever so slowly, the distance between the rear of the truck and the front of the VW increased. As the truck and the VW parted company, Denis uttered these memorable, nay, unforgettable words: “Boshart,” he said, “you worry too much!”

Worry we did. That was Denis’s last stint at the wheel. With still over half the distance to go, we were down to two drivers. Boshart suggested that I replace Denis so he could retire from the driving instructor role and get some shut-eye in the back seat. Denis’s sole responsibility was to keep the driver awake.

Sometime during the next night, while crossing the Arizona desert, I passed a police patrol car parked beside the highway. I was well within the speed limit and driving on the correct side of the road, so didn’t worry. But to my surprise, the patrol car pulled out onto the highway and began to follow me. There were no flashing lights or siren; he just sat about 100 yards behind. I slowed to well below the speed limit and watched the car closely in the rear vision mirror. After several miles, the red light came on ─ no siren ─ and I was directed to pull over. Two officers got out of the car. They asked me where I was going and whether I had been drinking (Drugs weren’t a problem in 1960.) So I said, “California” and “No.”
I politely asked one of the officers if something was amiss. Up to that point, they had said nothing about why I had been stopped and had not asked to see my license.

Well, yes,” he said. “You’ve been weaving all over the road.” I answered that the reason for the weaving was probably that I’d been watching the patrol car so intently in the rear vision mirror and that I couldn’t understand why they followed us for so long. It might seem strange to say it these days, but they actually accepted my explanation and suggested that tiredness might also be a problem and that we should change drivers. Just when it looked as though we would be on our way without the need to produce my dicey driver’s license, the dreaded request was made: “Could we see your driver’s license?”

But, not to worry, I had a plausible explanation that went something like this: “Well, you see, sir, I’m an Australian and have been here in the USA as a foreign student.” I had been told, I said, that an Australian license was valid to drive in the United States. I was counting on two circumstances: first, I believed that my statement was probably true, though I wasn’t absolutely certain, and second, as it was now dark, I was hoping they wouldn’t notice that my license had expired. They used a torch to examine it. The one doing the scrutiny seemed happy enough, but the second officer, looking over his shoulder, said, “Hey, I’ve seen a lot of these Aussie driving licenses. I was an M.P. (Military Police) in the Second World War and was stationed in Australia. What a great place!”

Would you believe it? It now appeared that in less than a week, a second American soldier from WWII was about to derail our summer work efforts. Of course, the next thing he said was, “This license expired some time ago.”

In view of what followed, all I can say is that I’m very grateful for the warm welcome Australia gave the Yanks in the dark days of war, when they were stationed Down Under. His advice to me after telling me my license was expired was to suggest that I should plan to have it renewed or, better still, to get an American drivers’ license when I reached California. (I did so a few weeks later.) I have to say that I doubt that would happen anywhere on earth today. Without further drama we continued on our way to Bakersfield, California, with Boshart doing the lion’s share of the driving.

It was Saturday when we arrived, and the place was awash with athletes from all over the country. Each year Bakersfield hosts a major track meet for the top athletes, and in 1960 the meet had a very high profile as it was the final track meet before the Olympic Trials. The University of Houston’s track team, which had included several Australians, was there. But the best news for us was that there were some spare beds in the motel where they were staying. In fact, three of Houston’s runners, Barrie Almond, Al Lawrence, and Pat Clohessy, had been members of Denis’s old Sydney athletic club, the Botany Harriers, and all were close friends of mine.

As well as providing a place to sleep and much needed sustenance in the form of food and liquid refreshment, the Houston track team had organized an end of season party at the motel. There were three other notable attendees at this party: Al Kirkland, Alex Henderson, and Ollan Cassell, and I should probably say a few words about each.
Al Kirkland achieved notoriety by being the first American gridiron football player to play rugby league for a first grade team, Parramatta, in the Sydney Rugby League competition in the mid 1950’s. I do remember seeing him play, and he was quite good. The photo displayed here shows Al Kirkland on the right, sitting next to Denis. Al Lawrence and Don Boshart are on Denis’s left. In the background is Barrie Almond on the left.

Alex Henderson was an Australian athlete attending another American university. He is best remembered as the runner beaten by John Landy in the Australian one mile championship in 1956, when John Landy stopped in the middle of the race to go back to help his team mate, Ron Clarke, get back onto his feet after being knocked down. Unthinkable! Landy then chased down the entire field and passed Henderson with eighty yards to go to win the race in 4:4.2. To stop in the middle of the race, go back fifteen yards, assist your team mate, and recommence the race from a standing start is energy sapping in itself, but taking into account the loss of distance and the disruption to a runner’s rhythm, the question has to be asked. What time might Landy have posted for the mile in this race if he had not stopped?

Ollan Cassell, also a member of the Houston track team, was a part Cherokee Indian and a top class 440 yards runner. Later in life, as Secretary of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, better known as the AAU, I’m sad to say that Ollan was at one period possibly the most hated man in track by both athletes and officials.

After the party at the motel…the less said about that, the better, we headed off to our assigned beds. Those of us who were lucky got a rollaway. But two had to share a double bed. The poor blokes who drew the short straws were Boshart and Henderson.
Alex Henderson, aside from being a very fine miler, was quite a shy type of fellow. Boshart was the son of a church minister.

Before they retired, they were each, independently, given a piece of advice that the person they were to share the bed with was of “dubious inclination” but would not pose a problem if they were not encouraged by being accidentally touched. I did not personally witness the consequences of this deceit, but the perpetrators, Almond and Lawrence, gave a graphic description the next morning of the two bedfellows being seen at various stages of the night clinging to their very separate edges of the mattress and facing inwards. The gap between, they said, was sufficient to drive a truck through. I have to say that Boshart deserved a better night’s rest after all the driving he’d done for three days.

The following morning, the three intrepid travellers resumed our journey in the VW to San Francisco, this time a reasonably short and drama-free hop.

Next episode: “The Tale of a Banana and a Dime”.

* Learner plates, which are to be displayed next to the license plate when a learner is at the wheel.

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