By JAMES O. SOUTHWORTH - Special to The Outpost
In 1947, 17 years old, I was callow and unhappy with my life. I felt guilty about my personal life, by my lack of schooling, ashamed of our living conditions in the Beet Shack in Park City with no mother to herd me.
I had a ’33 Ford V8 coupe as I had been working on the railroad for a couple of years. The Ford had, I believe, the first V-8 motor. I didn’t like it too well, as at this time I was mostly ashamed of everything.
I had a good friend named Fred Russell who was about my age. Like me, he was a little unhappy with the life he was leading, and we talked about the brand new atomic energy plant that was hiring people at Hanford, Wash.
We decided to take my Ford and go out there and get us a good job and get rich. It was in January and Montana was colder than hell back then. We packed up what we thought we needed and put it in the rumble seat and took along an extra blanket.
This ’33 Ford had what they called a manifold heater. The heat was sort of funneled around the manifold. A little plate on the floorboard let you open or close it by sliding it up or down.
Those heaters worked good in July but left a little to be desired when it was cold. And at 20 degrees below zero, it was zilch. So Fred and I decided to take turns driving 100 miles while one of us would cover up with the blanket and then switch off and the blanket guy would have to drive 100 miles. It did work out, but it seemed a fella was always cold.
We stopped in St. Regis at a little highway restaurant to warm up and get something to eat. Jim Ed Brown was on the juke box singing “Little Jimmy Brown.” It was beautiful and sad, but we were on our way to the adventure of our 17-year-old lives.
Mullen Pass was solid ice. When we were on our way down, the little Ford would actually slide down on the wrong side of the highway on the curves, but two young guys at 17 years who were going to live forever didn’t pay it much mind. We made it through the mountains and hollered at Yakima as we went through and off through the desert sagebrush to Hanford.
We made our way to the headquarters and proudly presented ourselves to these lucky people who were going to hire two fine hands. Lo and behold, the weather was so bad that they told us that they wouldn’t be hiring anybody for about two weeks.
We checked our financial situation, and if I remember right, we had about $30 between us. This was a setback.
We didn’t have enough to get back home, so I came up with a brilliant idea. My older brother, Robert, lived in Oakland, Calif. We could go there and move in with him and perhaps get rich there. I knew Robert had all kinds of money.
So off we went down through Oregon, colder than hell. Taking turns driving, we mostly drove 24 hours a day the whole trip.
Fred was driving when we reached the California line. The sun, of which we hadn’t seen much, was out. The roadside was green and looked wonderful.
Fred said, “Let’s pull over and get some sleep.” It looked so good that we did pull over and “glub,” the Ford sank to the axles in mud. One of us had to stay with the Ford, so I hitched a ride to the next little town and hired a guy to come pull us out. It cost about $15 or $20.
But we were on our way again, perhaps a little gun shy by now. We made it into Oakland, found our way through the city and found my brother’s place.
We stayed a couple of days with him, and Fred and I could see that there wasn’t much available for us there and by now we were a little homesick. I borrowed $50 from Bob.
After we had got out of the mud on the California line, we were stopped by a Highway Patrol officer. He looked the Ford over, mumbling, “Montana license,” and someone in the past had taken the old lights off the Ford and installed sealed beam tractor lights on the front fenders.
They were really good lights, but the way they were put on, the vibration of the vehicle running would slowly push them up into the sky or way down onto the ground. And one of us would have to stop and get out and adjust them again, so we could see down the road.
The Highway Patrolman scratched his head after hearing our tale and told us, “Don’t drive this vehicle after dark in California.”
So we took off from my brother’s place in Oakland, and we were heading home. After traveling quite a while through the day, we were starting up the Sierra Nevada Mountains
It was getting to be dusk. A large highway sign warned us that to pass through these mountains, you had to have chains on. The snow was already a foot or two deep on the sides of the road. I had thrown an old pair of chains in the trunk as an afterthought. We pulled over and went to work putting these chains on.
They were old and busted here and there, but we managed to get them on, adjusted the headlights and took off up the mountain hoping to make it through Bonner Pass.
It started snowing, and the chains we had on were slapping the fenders, making the damndest noise. One of the chains flew off, but we just kept going.
This was a two-lane highway at the time, and we looked closely at the cars coming down for a patrolman. Then the other chain came off, and something told me to stop, get the chain and throw it in the trunk.
We adjusted the lights and again headed up the mountain. Sure enough, here came a Highway Patrolman down the mountain. As soon as we could, we stopped and adjusted the lights as they were in the treetops. We took off and the Highway Patrolman came up behind us with lights on.
After the usual procedure, he says, “Where are your chains?”
I said, “Oh, officer, sir, we had them on, but they came apart. I showed him the broken one that I had thrown into the trunk.
“Well,” he finally said, “you are leaving California with this pile of junk.”
And we were near the pass and the Nevada line. He said, ”Go on and don’t bring that vehicle back to California.”
“Oh, thank you, kind sir,” I said. And we were off through the pass and down the mountain, slipping and sliding. Nevada was cold and dry.
We made good time. When we got up out of Idaho Falls, the weather was getting much colder and when we reached West Yellowstone, it was near 30 below.
We were so cold that we pulled up in front of a hotel lobby. It was about 1 a.m., no attendant, real nice and warm. We settled down in a couple of plush chairs and were dozing there till about 6 a.m. We didn’t want to get arrested for vagrancy, so we went to the Ford and lo and behold, the Ford wouldn’t start.
It was the first and only time that old beat-up hummer had failed us. We talked a guy into giving us a pull and the Ford cracked right off, and down the road we went. We were only gone about seven or eight days.
Did we learn anything? Possibly.
I knew it was good to be home with my dad, brother and sisters. And my dad had gotten a little smarter, but he got real smart when I went into the service the following year.
I guess I had this itch and it wouldn’t go away: I had to go out “there.”
James O. Southworth lives in Billings and plays in the band Southbound.