My first car was a beautiful 1950 mellow yellow Plymouth convertible. The place was San Antonio, Texas where the United States Air Force sent me for basic training. The Plymouth was less than two years old. It cost me $2,000, and I paid cash for it with money I had saved up selling cigars for my uncles and ice cream sandwiches and caramel apples at the Minnesota State Fair. (See Blog 16).
Needless to say, owning one of the only cars in my platoon made me very popular with my fellow GIs at Lackland Air Force Base. On more than one occasion I was invited to slip quietly out of the barracks after Taps (final evening bugle call) by our drill sergeant to drive him and a couple of his non-com (non-commissioned officer) buddies into San Antonio, usually to some off-limits cantina.
Though invited, I passed up a chance to enjoy the intimate company of one of the cantina’s hostesses who looked like Lina Romay. The all too vivid public health films we GIs had been shown during our first week of basic were still fresh on my mind.
During the Korean War the little Plymouth convertible and I served our country in South Texas at Laredo Air Force base on the Mexican border. See Geoff Nate’s Blog 4. I drove that Plymouth all over Texas with my top down. I drove it to New York, where I was sent on TDY (Temporary Duty) to Fort Slocum, an Army base on an island off the coast of New Rochelle less than one hour from New York City.
While in New York I was advised to take the train rather than drive into Manhattan, because parking was impossible. The one time I tried, I was stopped somewhere in Spanish Harlem by a menacing group of young men who offered to fix a small dent on my rear fender. Come to think of it, you couldn’t really call it an “offer”.
While I watched helplessly, they performed the body work right at curbside with a hammer and a can of spray paint. The whole job lasted less than ten minutes. I paid the price, which had never been discussed or agreed upon, without question. I drove off a twenty-five dollars poorer but wiser advocate of municipal transportation when visiting what they call “The Big Apple”.
From time to time I might wear my uniform into the city, because of an arrangement the USO (United Service Organization) had with the city’s theatres and concert halls. In those days unoccupied seats were made available each evening at no cost to servicemen and women in uniform shortly after the opening curtain. During my eight weeks at Fort Slocum I saw Dial M for Murder, Kiss Me Kate, Pal Joey, The Children’s Hour, Golden Boy, The Mikado, The Seven Year Itch and the Metropolitan Opera several times.
One of the highlights of my visit to New York occurred following a concert at Carnegie Hall towards the end of my TDY. She was an attractive young woman, and we met in the cocktail lounge of the Plaza Hotel. Her beautiful southern name was Anantha Jean Cobb, and she was a student at Mary Washington College for Girls in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was between semesters, and we enjoyed four or five very pleasant evenings together, thanks to the availability of my Cousin Leonard’s apartment which included access to his wardrobe. As I recall, he was in Sweden or some other place at the time on movie business.
Fredericksburg certainly wasn’t out of my way, so of course I decided to drive the yellow Plymouth back to Laredo via Mary Washington College. It was a beautiful drive, and we had a nice farewell dinner at some roadhouse on the Potomac. We said our loving goodbyes, and I dropped Anantha Jean off at her dorm around 10:00 pm. About two hours later, close to midnight, I saw a flashing light in my rear view mirror. Two uniformed police in a Petersburg, Virginia squad car pulled me over and said I was speeding, something I denied, never having seen so much as a ‘reduced speed’ sign.
They claimed I was driving 50 MPH in a 25 MPH zone. As it turned out there was a sign, however it was unlit and partially hidden behind a large bush. One of the officers who looked like Rod Steiger in “The Heat of the Night” climbed into my car, and we followed his buddy down to the Petersburg City Hall. When I complained about that hidden sign they advised me that I could plead my case when the courthouse opened three days later on Monday. I explained that I was in the Air Force on important duty and had to be in Texas by Sunday.
He suggested I post bail and arrange for a court appearance at ‘some date in the future’. Bail, he said, would be $100. I didn’t have $100 but offered to write a check, figuring I could easily stop payment.
“Cash,” he replied. “The court requires that cash is mandated for the posting of bail.”
As I recall, I had at most $30 in cash with me at the time, so, bluffing I said, “I guess I will have to come back on Monday.”
“That might work,” he replied. “What can you leave in the way of security?”
This shakedown ended only when I agreed to leave them my golf clubs, my old portable radio and a new camera, which I had purchased on 42nd Street. Of course I never returned to Petersburg, and they kept everything that I had left as bail. I wrote all kinds of letters to the Air Force, the Governor of Virginia and the Associated Press with no response.
It wasn’t until twenty years later when, as a result of hundreds of complaints, some Magazine, perhaps Life, published an expose of the Petersburg speed trap, and the American Automobile Association began encouraging travelers to avoid that town. Satisfaction for me personally? Perhaps, but I was never able to find an old Bull’s Eye putter I could love as much as the one in the golf bag I left as bail in that infamous Petersburg speed trap.
Nearing the end of my enlistment I decided to enjoy the balance of my accrued leave and take a driving trip through Mexico with my brother Gary (Gary, yes, but affectionately known and addressed by friends and family as Butsy or “Bootsie”), who had been drafted by the Army and ordered to report for active duty in a couple of months. It was a great trip. The little Plymouth took us from Laredo to Acapulco and back with only a few hiccups along the way.
The drive to Mexico City through the mountains was beautiful, but the gas stations were few and far between, so we had to top off the tank at every opportunity.
The highlight of that particular leg of the trip was coming upon a little resort in the mountains called Taninul. We were almost its only guests. We played tennis on a beautiful grass court with a human fence. Instead of the usual chain link, the court was surrounded by a dozen little boys who shagged all our miss-hits.
We explored a couple of caves at the resort, one of which was cut short when we came upon a foot-long, very menacing centipede. The other cave could only be accessed by climbing up a waterfall into a beautiful pool illuminated only by a small natural skylight. The rumor was that Pancho Villa, the famous Mexican bandit, had hidden a horde of gold somewhere in the recesses of that cave. We left Taninul the next day however, promising ourselves that we would return on another trip to recover the gold Pancho left behind.
Another stop which I chose to forget was at a place called Zimapan where we were introduced to something Mexico visitors refer to as “Montezuma’s Revenge”. Even now no one, I mean no one, visiting Mexico should drink anything except Coke, Pepsi or of course Tequila. This latter being an antidote for just about everything.
Today Acapulco is ruled by drug lords, and is number one on most travel agents’ ‘avoid’ list. However, back in the fifties it was Mexico’s premier Pacific vacation destination.
The new highway had not been finished when we decided to drive the old road from Mexico City to that resort town. Our drive from Mexico City through Cuernavaca to Taxco was easy and without incident, however somewhere about twenty miles beyond Taxco, the road started to get rough, and we were able to drive no faster than ten or fifteen miles an hour. The road was under construction, and we had to put up the Plymouth’s top, because there was dust everywhere.
We were just bumping along when we heard a dragging sound from behind the car. Investigation revealed that our muffler and tail pipe had torn loose and were beyond repair or reattaching. Nevertheless we were continuing at a snail’s pace when suddenly a little man in the traditional peon garb ran out in front of the car, banged on our hood with his machete and started yelling. Though my Spanish was fair, I couldn’t understand a word he was shouting. We were sure that if we stopped the car completely we would be overrun by bandidos.
Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion, and the whole mountainside seemed to blow up right in front of us. Rocks pummeled our car, and its canvas roof.
When the dust began to clear our little peon friend crawled out from under the Plymouth where he had taken refuge. We realized then that the little guy had saved our lives, because the road in front of us had virtually disappeared and was covered with boulders.
Then from out of the dust emerged a couple hundred little men, each of whom picked up a shovel full of dirt and rock, walked over to the edge of the road and threw it into the ravine below. They say it took ten years to build the last leg of that highway to Acapulco. My brother and I certainly knew why.
Apart from the lost muffler and a dozen or more nicks in the paint, the yellow Plymouth survived, as did the two of us. We thanked our little friend and his amigos and left them a couple six packs of lukewarm Pepsi. The road was a virtual obstacle course, but we arrived in Acapulco about three hours later.
We had a great week in that resort city. We met a couple of Pan American stewardesses with whom we shared rooms at the El Mirador Hotel. We took the girls to the bullfights and the Jai-alai matches. We danced in the sand at the Coco Bongo where we met a couple of the Jai-alai players who invited us to try our hands at the sport in the Fronton the next morning.
One of the Jai-alai managers approached my brother Gary, who was a pretty good handball player back home and suggested that he join his team as a ‘novato’ (rookie). Flattered as he was, my brother replied that he was sorry, but he was ‘currently under contract’ to the United States Army.
The trip back to Texas was relatively uneventful. I dropped Gary/Butsy, off at the airport in San Antonio, and a few months later he went on to build a story of his own in the service of his country.
Shortly after that Mexican adventure I said goodbye to the United States Air Force, an experience that I actually enjoyed, despite the challenges encountered in Blog 4, “War Stories”. The little yellow Plymouth convertible carried me back home to Minneapolis and a few months later to Los Angeles where it served me well during those Geoff Nate adventures chronicled in Blog 5, “Welcome to Showbiz”.
I sold that little beauty a few years later with 200,000 plus miles on the odometer to a nice man from East Los Angeles. They had both sprung from similar roots, and it was love at first sight.