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Middle West Coincidences?

Written October 4, 2004


Let us examine the curious movements of three unemployed young men — we'll call them A, B, and C — on one particular Saturday in the summer of 1963.

23-year-old A had been fired at the end of the previous week, having lasted only ten weeks at his job as a maintenance man for the Reily Coffee Company in New Orleans.  On this July 27, he and his wife traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to visit his cousin Eugene Murrett.  Murrett was training to be a Jesuit priest, and he had invited A to speak to the students about communism and the Soviet Union.  In a half-hour talk that evening, A told the students that he was against most forms of organized government.  "Capitalism doesn't work, communism doesn't work.  In the middle is socialism, and that doesn't work either."

16-year-old B had recently changed his name, adopting the surname of his stepfather — an automobile dealer.  On July 27, he was probably within 350 miles of A, having just returned to his hometown from Washington, D.C.  There, a mere three days before, he and a group of youthful compatriots had gained access to the grounds of the White House and had confronted President John F. Kennedy, actually managing to touch the President.  "I was in the front," he later admitted, "and being bigger and a bigger supporter of the President's than most of the others, I made sure I'd get to shake his hand even if he shook only two or three."

C, also age 16 (though six months younger), was also the son of an automobile dealer.  Both New Orleans and Mobile were a part of his past.  Seven summers before, he had visited both.  But in 1963 his primary target seemed to be B.  On this Saturday, he arose before dawn to begin a marathon journey by car that covered nearly 1,200 miles in the first two days.  On the second day, shortly before noon — around the time that church services were concluding — he was in B's hometown for nearly half an hour.  No evidence has been presented to indicate that the two teenagers actually met at this time, but the proximity is suggestive.

There's more.  C immediately proceeded to the town where B had spent the first seven years of his life under another name, arriving there just two hours later.

And two days after that, early on Tuesday morning, C was in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.  He meticulously noted the 7:05 AM temperature as 80º.  The data probably came from the big Hertz sign atop the Texas Schoolbook Depository.  Then he rode past the very spot that would become infamous less than four months later, through the Triple Underpass, and onto the Stemmons Freeway headed west toward Parkland Hospital.

Now the identities of these subjects can be revealed.

A was Lee Harvey Oswald.  The details are from Gerald Posner's 1993 book Case Closed.

B was Bill Clinton.  The quote is from his 2004 autobiography My Life, where he describes his visit to the Rose Garden as part of a "Boys Nation" convention.  At the time, he was a high school student in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

And C was yours truly.  As I had done four years previously on our family's 21-day vacation by car through the West, I kept a detailed record of our route, including the time we passed through each town along the way.  That's how I'm able to tell you now that we were in Hot Springs from 11:30 to 11:55 AM on Sunday, July 28.  We then took State Route 7 south to Arkadelphia (12:43 PM), and then US 67 southwest to Clinton's boyhood home of Hope (1:38).

On our 1959 trip (indicated by the green line below), we had missed a few states.  We managed to drive from Missouri to New Mexico while staying entirely within Oklahoma.  Coming back, we kept to the north of Nebraska and to the south of three other states.

My father determined that the eight states shown in yellow were the only ones of the contiguous 48 that I had not yet visited.  So he got AAA to plan a route for us (indicated by the red line) that would include them all.  He and my mother and I would cover this shorter circuit in just ten days of driving, averaging a grueling 509 miles per day.

I won't bore you with all the minute-by-minute details, but here are some highlights.

At Richwood, Ohio, the sun had already been up for 20 minutes when the three of us set out at 6:04 EST.

We paid nearly ten dollars for three country ham dinners in Bardstown, Kentucky, but we made no side trips to visit our Kentucky relatives; we had a schedule to keep.  (And a rendezvous the next day with young Bill Clinton?  No, not really.)  We stopped at the Southgate Motel in Milan, Tennessee, and were in Room 17 by 5:35 CST.

On the second day we started even earlier, at 5:27, reaching Memphis in time for a 7:00 breakfast.  We took US 70 west but missed the turn where Interstate 40 splits off, so we had to re-cross the Mississippi back to Memphis and do it over again.

DAY 1, SAT 7/27/63

   DAY 2, SUN 7/28/63

As mentioned, we crossed Arkansas on this Sunday.  We proceeded into eastern Texas, getting a room at the Tex-Ann Motel in Palestine.

The third day featured visits to two major Texas cities.  First we drove south.  Showing off my high school biology, I described the landscape as "rolling country with trees, both gymnosperm and angiosperm, growing in forests, clumps, and rows."


    DAY 4, TUE 7/30/63

DAY 3, MON 7/29/63

It was 85º when we entered Houston at 8:46.  We ate breakfast, walked around downtown, then drove to the Port of Houston and watched the activity there for awhile.  It was 96º when we left the city at 11:19, headed back north again.

At 2:19 we passed through Corsicana — just 75 miles east of Crawford and George W. Bush's future ranch.  We reached Dallas at 3:14 and were in Room 131 of the Tropicana Inn by 3:25 with much of the day still ahead of us, having driven only 431 miles.  So we spent an hour looking around the Texas State Fairgrounds, site of the Cotton Bowl, then came back and ate a late dinner around 7:45.  We sat outside at our motel's poolside patio before turning in at 9:37.

On our Triptik, AAA marked in orange our recommended route through Dallas:  down Elm Street, through the Triple Underpass, and onto the Stemmons Freeway.  I've since highlighted other landmarks in green:  Love Field (top), Parkland Memorial Hospital (next to the freeway), and the Cotton Bowl (lower right).  Our motel was near the red circle.

On Tuesday, we checked out at 6:31 and drove around Dallas, leaving downtown at 7:05 and taking the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike west to Fort Worth and breakfast.  With the temperature in the high eighties, we slanted up towards the panhandle.  I noted that we were "now in arid, rolling ranchland with eroded dry creeks and sagebrush in sandy or red soil."  The thermometer had reached 98º when we arrived in Dalhart, Texas, at 3:44 and checked into the Sands Motel.

The fifth day started at 6:28.  Cruising north on US 385 at an average speed of 72 miles per hour, in the first 33 miles we saw no other vehicles on the road.  In the next 16 miles, we saw two cars and two trucks.  By then it was 7:09 and we were in Boise City, Oklahoma, which we had last visited four years and 25 days before.

We veered to the northeast into Kansas, spending less than two hours in the southwest corner of the state (and that included stopping for breakfast, which cost us just 82 cents each).  By 8:45 MST, we were in Colorado.

    DAY 6, THU 8/1/63


DAY 5, WED 7/31/63

After a stop for watermelon in Rocky Ford, we reached Colorado Springs at 12:25.  We paid a visit to the rock formations in the Garden of the Gods and then entered the Pikes Peak Toll Road at 1:27.

The upper portion of this road is unpaved.  We had to keep the air conditioner switched off so that the car would have enough power in the thin air.  That meant that our windows were down, and the interior of the car got rather dusty.

After nearly an hour, we reached the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak at 2:22.  My father, weary from driving up the twisting road, failed to put the transmission in Park and the car lurched forward a bit, further alarming my already nervous and frazzled mother.  But, after 22 minutes atop the mountain, we were ready to head down again.

Refueling in Colorado Springs, we proceeded north to Denver, where we checked into the Valli-Hi Motor Hotel by 5:30.  We took a side trip to Boulder to eat dinner, returning at 8:30 and going to bed at 9:05.

The next day, leaving our motel before 6 AM, we drove around downtown Denver (68º) before resuming our northward trek.  We ate breakfast in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at 9 AM, then detoured to the east so that we could spend a couple of hours in Nebraska.  We were in Scottsbluff at 11:35 and back in Wyoming half an hour later (where it was 103º when we got gas in torrid Torrington).  Five hours after that, we reached the Wyoming Lodge in Sheridan.  We "cleaned up, went downtown, walked around, ate fine home-cooked type meal at the Copper Kettle, came back to motel around 8:15, took baths, watched TV, went to bed 10:00."  (This was my only reference to bathing in the entire 11 days of the log I kept.  I don't remember clearly, but once a week may have still been the norm in 1963.)

On Friday morning, we left Sheridan at 6:13 AM and crossed into Montana 24 minutes later, refueling near the Custer battlefield.  Heading east on US 10, we reached North Dakota at noon, stopping briefly at a tourist trap called Painted Canyon to look at the Badlands.  It was only 74º when we entered the state capital of Bismarck at 4:15 CST.

We checked into the Fleck House Motel, spent an hour at the zoo, looked at the Capitol building, and went downtown to eat.  There was a preseason football game on TV that evening, so we watched the College All-Stars upset the defending NFL champion Green Bay Packers, 20-17.  We didn't go to bed until 11:00.

    DAY 7, FRI 8/2/63

DAY 8, SAT 8/3/63

On Saturday morning, we didn't get on the road until 8:07 and didn't stop for breakfast until around 10 AM.  Crossing the Red River into Minnesota at 11:39, we reached St. Paul at 4:10, except daylight saving time was in effect here so it was already 5:10.  It took an hour in the big city to find lodging that suited us; we settled for the Midway Motor Hotel.  Walking around that evening, we discovered that "Sunday" newspapers were already on the streets.  Also, all the cars on the used-car lots had license plates on them; apparently, Minnesota plates stay with the car instead of with the owner.

We left St. Paul around 7:30 on Sunday morning.  At 11:16, we crossed the Mississippi River at La Crosse, Wisconsin.  After an "unsuccessful stop for cheese," we reached Madison at 1:32.  We continued east to Racine (on Lake Michigan, south of Milwaukee), arriving at 4:18 at the house of my aunt and uncle, Esther and Ralph Buckingham, pictured below.

That evening Esther and Ralph took us out in their convertible.  We visited with their friends Hiney and Ursula before returning home at 9:15 and going to bed at 11:15.

We spend all of the tenth day, Monday, in Racine.  Leaving the house at 9:30, we went to the Johnson's Wax headquarters and got in line for the 10 AM tour.

This was the first Frank Lloyd Wright building I had seen, although I was more intrigued by the attractive receptionist in the waiting room.

The company seemed more proud of showing off their new computer, with a panel full of flashing lights and a "do not touch" sign like this written in fake German.

When the tour ended at 10:45, we went to the zoo, then back to the house for lunch.

Then we took a two-hour tour of Ralph's company, Western Publishing, with its printing presses and all.  That evening, our hosts showed us some slides.

And then it was Tuesday and time to go home.

For the final 409 miles, I had to share the back seat with a rubber-tree plant that we had picked up in Wisconsin.

     DAY 9, SUN 8/4/63

   DAY 11, TUE 8/6/63

Leaving Racine at 8:25 (CDT, which was the same as our EST back in Ohio), we managed to find Wisconsin Route 20 and take it to Interstate 94, which sped us south through Chicago at 9:53.  The Northern Indiana Toll Road led to the Ohio Turnpike.  A 6-by-3-inch piece of tread rubber came off our right front tire; we changed the tire at milepost 38.7 and got under way again at 1:27.  US 25 took us from Maumee to Findlay; then it was south to Kenton.  We ate at Mt. Victory from 3:27 to 4:14 so that Mother wouldn't have to cook supper when we reached home, which we did 22 minutes later.

On the 5,086-mile trip, our Oldsmobile used 390 gallons of gasoline at an average price of 35¢.  That's 13.0 miles per gallon.  Our eight nights in motels averaged $13.69.  We ate in restaurants 18 times, with an average bill of $5.20 for three people.  Including tolls and other miscellaneous expenses, the trip cost a grand total of $357.01.

Nowadays cars get twice the gas mileage but gas costs about 5½  times as much, as do motels and meals.  So this journey would set a 2004 family back nearly $1,600, not counting the rubber-tree plant.



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