The year 1948 was a really busy one for me. I began the year in high school in the second semester of the tenth grade, but I left school to travel with my family—stepfather, mother and sister—from Mississippi to Midland, Texas. Although dropping out was not my decision, I must honestly say that I was not too upset.
As a preteen and teenager, I was a voracious reader of adventure novels—Zane Grey was and still is one of my favorite authors. I looked forward to being in the land of wild Indians and cowboys, horses and rustlers, crooked bankers and comely maidens, cattle drives to the rail head, stampedes and shoot-outs, fast-draw sheriffs and outlaws, snake-oil peddlers and bible-thumping circuit riders—I was not obsessed with all things western, but I was an avid—okay, rabid—fan.
I spent the rest of the year, at various times traveling, living and working in Midland, Texas and El Paso, Texas. In September of that year I traveled by auto with my older brother from El Paso to New York City, with a Sunday overnight stay in jail in Valley Park, Missouri, a small city a few miles west of St. Louis—it has probably grown a lot since then. On release from jail, we paid a brief visit in St. Louis to my stepfather’s sister and her husband in an effort to borrow gas money to get to New York.
They declined to help out, saying they couldn’t be certain that we were who we said we were—some really cautious people there. We only asked for $20 (gas was twenty-six cents a gallon in 1948) but they were adamant and refused. And here I will be just as cautious as they were by offering my apologies in advance if some are offended when I say that their refusal to help two people adrift on a sea of uncertainty may have been based on the husband being of a certain ethnic persuasion—if you catch my drift. Hey, give me a bit of credit—I’ve already apologized for the slut—oops, I meant slur.
The fact that my stepfather’s sister and her husband apologized to my stepfather and my mother at a later date does little to soften their refusal to finance the remainder of our trip to New York. Twenty dollars? The couple owned and operated an upscale coffee shop in one of the finest hotels in St. Louis. They could not possibly have believed that my brother and I were anyone other than who we professed to be—I told them things about my stepfather, both pro and con, that I could only know from having lived under his rule for some seven years.
Here’s a not-so-brief discussion of our futile chase of a wife, a bus and a train enroute to New York City. While my brother was at work at the El Paso Smelting Works (we lived in one of the company houses on-site), his wife took his wallet, his car and their two children to town, ostensibly on a shopping trip. Around noon on that day, a Friday, we received a call from a parking lot attendant in downtown El Paso. He said the woman that left it there told him to call her husband to pick up the car. My brother called a taxi and asked me to go with him to pick up the car. I unwisely agreed to go—big mistake.
We retrieved the car and immediately headed east. My brother had checked the Greyhound bus schedules and said that she had probably taken the bus and we could catch her in Dallas, more than 600 miles distant. He neglected to ask me if I wanted to go with him—he simply pointed his 1942 Mercury coupe, the one with the steering wheel lock hack-sawed off and the ignition system hooked up to the fog lights—yep, it was hot wired—turn on the fog lights and the engine could be started. We left El Paso and headed for Dallas with my brother driving—I was riding shotgun.
The Greyhound had a fair start on us, but we arrived in Dallas before it did. His wife and children were not on it. My brother then checked the train schedules out of El Paso and decided that she must have taken the train to New York. He said that we could beat the train to St. Louis, so we headed for St. Louis, another 6oo miles away.
A funny thing happened to us on that leg of our journey. We were only 27 miles from St. Louis, and had our forward motion not been impeded, we would have beaten the train from El Paso. However, around noon on that Sunday in Valley Park, Missouri, a small town (then) just 27 miles west of St. Louis, we passed a drive-in restaurant where two uniformed city police officers were having lunch in their police cruiser, with an attractive young short-skirted female carhop leaning into the driver’s window. We were in slow-moving city traffic as we passed, so we had time to admire the rear view of the carhop, and that was probably a fatal mistake. The cops dismissed her and scattered gravel as they dug out in hot pursuit of us, siren blaring, red lights flashing and a bullhorn roaring Pull over! Just as in the old black-and-white Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan and James Cagney movies.
Following the stop and a few questions and answers, my brother and I were arrested, patted down and placed in the city jail. We were suspected of auto theft, and the police posed the probability that we were guilty and possibly had kidnapped and murdered the owner of the car—yes, they used those words, and repeatedly asked us what we did with the gun and where had we hidden the body of the person we murdered after stealing the car.
I hasten to add that the only thing we were guilty of was being stupid enough to first race a Greyhound bus from El Paso to Dallas, and then race a cross-country passenger train from El Paso to St. Louis, all the while driving a hot-wired car with the steering wheel lock hack-sawed off, three different sets of license plates in the trunk, no personal identification and no luggage. Add to that the fact that neither my brother nor I had a scrap of identification on us, and I had a handful of .22 caliber long-rifle cartridges in a pocket of my jeans. We were arrested on Sunday, and after our overnight jailing we were released just before noon on Monday. We were told that we could only be held 24 hours without being formally charged with a crime and booked. We were released after 23 hours in jail, with no apology offered, just an emphatic, Get out of town and don’t come back—just as in those old-time western movies.
We had valid explanations for the hot-wiring, multiple sets of license plates, no identification, no luggage and a pocketful of rifle cartridges, but the officers obviously did not believe us, and told us that none of our story could be checked on Sunday because the offices that could verify our story were closed and inquires could not be made until Monday. We asked them to call our mother in El Paso and she could verify our story. We also asked them to call the parking lot attendant, but they had no interest in calling either. No computers could be checked, of course, because computers had not yet been invented—well, invented perhaps, but none were in use at the time.
The police station boasted two cells in a metal cage, constructed with flat metal strips rather than bars, located in a back room. Apparently the two sections were bolted together after being placed in the room. Each section was approximately 6 x 10 feet, and each had a steel bunk bolted to the middle partition—just the flat knee-high steel platform—no mattress, no pillow, nothing in the way of bedding.
The only other furnishing was a ceramic toilet with no seat and no lid, filled nearly to the brim with things that defied descripti0n. My brother’s cell was similarly equipped and similarly filled to the point of overflowing. I had a faucet on my side, and early in our stay my brother asked our captors for a drink of water. One of those worthies retrieved a pint milk bottle from a pile of rubbish in a corner, passed it to me and told me to get my brother a drink. The bottle was dirty, so I filled it partially and then shook it in an effort to get it clean, then poured the contents into the toilet, and that was a huge mistake. It stirred up the contents of the toilet and unleashed odors that filled the air and our nostrils for the rest of our stay. I told my brother that I couldn’t get the bottle clean and he wisely decided that he wasn’t really thirsty after all.
The cells were separated by a metal partition—I was placed on one side of the partition and my brother was secured on the other side. We could talk but could not see each other. The room had no lighting—daytime lighting was furnished by one double-sash window on my side, with the lower sash raised and no screen—the back side of my cell was against the wall with the window. Flies, mosquitoes, sounds and odors entered with ease—sounds and odors seemed to come and go, but the flies and mosquitoes only came and never left. A single overhead naked light bulb mounted near the room’s ceiling far above the top of our cells served for night lighting—it was never turned off while we were incarcerated.
My brother and I were smokers—I had the matches and he had the cigarettes, but we were able to improvise. There were several small holes drilled through the partition, just large enough to pass a cigarette through, so he would pass me a cigarette and after lighting it, I would pass the lighted match through the hole so he could light his cigarette—we thus confirmed the adage that necessity is the mother of invention.
Late in the afternoon nearing dusk, I glanced out and saw a young boy standing outside the window and staring at me—he was probably twelve or so—I asked him if he would run an errand for me, and if he would I would reward him for it. He agreed, so I gave him fifty cents and asked him to bring back two packs of Camel cigarettes. Don’t laugh—in those days with cigarettes at eighteen cents a pack, a half-dollar would buy two packs with fourteen cents left over. With an apology in advance for using the word bastard, the little bastard took my fifty cents and never came back—hey, I said I apologized!
The cops came to us at about dark-thirty and asked what we wanted for supper, saying that sandwiches were available at a nearby restaurant. My brother and I asked for milk and two cheeseburgers each, and I must admit that the burgers were first-rate. As an aside, burger buns and burgers came in one size in those days—small—nothing even approaching the huge ones we enjoy today. We learned later that the food was not furnished by the city—our suppers were paid for with the few dollars they took when they searched us before placing us in our cells. If there was any change left over they kept it, because no money was returned to us.
There’s lots more to tell about our trip, but I’ll save it for another posting—this one has rambled on long enough. I tried to make it brief, but posting is closely akin to eating peanuts, running downhill and having sex—once started it’s hard to stop. Stay tuned for additional information regarding our jail stay, including a discussion involving a length of rubber hose.
That’s my story—partially—and I’m sticking to it!
I’ll get back to you later with more details.