Michael James : California or Bust in a Hot Rod Ford

California AND bust: Michael’s 1940 hot rod Ford, San Jose, California, 1960. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
California or bust, 1960

I went to the junkyard and sadly looked over the remains of my beloved Ford.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | June 26, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

The night before I left for my post-high school graduation summer job at a Libby cannery in Sunnyvale, California, I went to see Psycho with my high school sweetheart. Even after a good amount of hugging and kissing goodnight I was still scared shit.

The next morning Buzz Willhauer (a fellow Downshifter Hot Rod Club member) and I leave our Connecticut homeland and head west. We roll through the exhaust-filled tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and love the raspberry ice cream at the Howard Johnson’s. We’re riding in my 1940 hot rod Ford with “California or Bust” written on the trunk. It’s very hot rolling across Ohio, Indiana, and into Illinois; no AC then and the ’53 Olds engine sends heat and fumes through the floorboards.

By late afternoon we’re at Lake Forest College for a friendly meeting with the Director of Admissions, a Mr. Gilmore. Then we head down Route 66 and cross the Mississippi at St. Louis on the old Chain of Rocks Bridge, and race ahead of the sunrise as we roll through the Ozarks, passing signs for Merrimac Caverns, and slogans on signs at regular intervals that culminate with a Burma-Shave sign. We stop now and then at Stuckey’s restaurants and Texaco gas stations.

The Ford’s been overheating. We stop at a gas station in Joplin, Missouri — home to Mickey Mantle and Langston Hughes (birthplace), and the scene of both striking miners blocking Route 66 in the ’50s and Bonnie and Clyde stick-ups in the 1930s. I’m unscrewing the radiator cap as Buzz comes bopping over with a “what’s happening?” The cap shoots off and the boiling liquid explodes, hitting Buzz in the face.

The last time I saw Buzz he was in a hospital bed all gauzed up. The hospital was cool, breezy, and white on a hot Missouri Wednesday. Time for me to go; I’ve got to go, got to get to the job my dad got me through his connects to Grandpa’s cohorts at Libby McNeil and Libby that starts on Monday morning.

I take the Will Rogers Turnpike to Oklahoma City. I remember taking a shower with my back to the wall, fists ready, the Psycho memory really with me, and I’m thinking this motel is on the same road as the Bates Motel in that scariest of flicks.

I get some work done on the Ford’s radiator, then head west, through Amarillo and the Texas panhandle and into New Mexico. I pass through a crossroads with a town of shacks, my first contact with an Indian reservation, and along the way pick up a hitchhiker, a Southern kid heading to San Diego to join the Marine Corps, something I too will do — briefly — in a couple of years.

I let him off when I turn left and head southwest for Las Cruces and Tucson. I drive through the night and I welcome the trucks, feeling a sense of camaraderie out on the lonesome highway when they are present, following them closely, letting them pull me with their draft. I like the Campbell 66 Express, with its cartoon camel, and the words “Humpin’ to Please.”

With the sun coming up on Friday morning I’m in White Sands, New Mexico, military land, with barbed wire along the sides of the road. The hot rod is overheating, and I stop at a little shack providing shelter to a lone soldier with a rifle. I ask, “How far to the next gas station?” “Eight miles over the top of the mountain.”

I fill the steaming and bubbling radiator with my last water from a five-gallon can and floor it! This car is fast and I speed across the desert and up the eastern slope. Up and over the top, the car steaming, I turn off the motor and cruise to the first gas station.

By late afternoon I’m in Tucson, meeting with the Director of Admissions at the University of Arizona. I’m flat out of money, and he cashes a check for a buck and a quarter ($125) I had received from Rodding and Restyling Magazine for a photo piece I had done on an East Braintree, Massachusetts, hot rod and custom car show.

I stop at the Tucson post office to pick up a general delivery letter from my girlfriend Susan. I read it, shed a few lonely and lack of sleep induced tears, observe the Indians hanging round, and then drive on through another night. I am mentally pushed and prodded, driven to keep driving, knowing I have to show up at the Sunnyvale cannery by Monday morning.

Saturday morning and I’m digging the scene, the vibes, at a truck stop in El Centro. I remember hearing a song I know — Gene Autry’s version of “Mexicali Rose.” The place is comfortable, nurturing, refreshing, with a parking lot full of trucks and palm trees, the chill of the night giving way to that California warmth as dawn breaks. Travelers and truckers emerge, including some Mexicans and black people. The coffee and pancakes are good.

I drive through the Southern California desert, through San Bernardino, and get to Hollywood late Saturday morning. Nobody is home at the offices of Hot Rod Magazine. I get back in the Ford along with the Downshifters Hot Rod Club scrapbook I had intended to share with anyone at this Mecca of the hot rod world.

At a garage in Riverside a fellow hot rodder helps me install his radiator in my car, with a handshake and agreement to return it once I get to Sunnyvale. I drive north on Highway 101, already infamous in my mind from the Big Bopper’s song with the line “the fool was the terror of Highway 101.”

I pick up another hitchhiker, this time a cowboy headed to a rodeo in Monterrey. I let him off near Bakersfield. Later I pick up still another hitchhiker, this time a migrant worker headed to Fresno to pick peaches.

Late at night near the cutoff to San Jose I stop to let him off. The hot rod stalls and we push it. I jump in, disengaging the clutch, putting the transmission in gear, popping the clutch to start it.

I wake up, or come to as they say. I am on the shoulder of the west side of 101. There are people around. Across the four lane highway are two cars in flames. One of them is mine. I yell out “there’s a guy in that car,” and the truck driver, who had pulled me out of the car, is holding me back and says: “If he is, he’s dead now.”

I am taken to a hospital emergency room. I learn that the migrant worker was not in the car, that the police found him up the road and got his take on the accident. I am glad he is OK, and am eternally grateful to the truck driver who happened on the scene and pulled me from the burning Ford coupe.

I am rescued and nurtured by the Jo and Burke Mathews family in Los Gatos, teachers who knew people my dad knew. I learn later through them that I was hit by a car full of teachers they knew who were returning from a wedding.

I showed up for my cannery job on Monday morning, and life’s reality gave me a lesson. Lots of people — white, Mexican, Black, and Asian — are standing in line, trying to get a job. And here comes me, a kid from Connecticut with a family connection, and I have a job waiting for me, yet another life experience teaching me about class, privilege, and the role of connections in the workings of the world.

I worked in the garbage dump, the freezing units, and other parts of the cannery in a little team that included three young guys: me, a Mexican, and a black guy, a little early-on version of the “rainbow coalition.” I lived in a rooming house in San Jose, visited San Francisco, went to the drag races, met my first Mormons, and danced my ass off to a live Ray Charles at the Pan Pacific Auditorium.

I went to the junkyard and sadly looked over the remains of my beloved Ford. The radiator was unharmed and I shipped it back to the friendly lender. All my clothes, including a madras sport jacket, had burned up; my 12-pound high school shot put and a sword I intended to use as a gearshift lever had both melted.

Quite a trip, quite a summer: I made it to California and busted. I headed back east to Lake Forest College, much closer to my squeeze at U Conn then Arizona would have been. Four years later I’ll return to California. I’ll experience another bust, that next one during the wonderful days of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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1 Response to Michael James : California or Bust in a Hot Rod Ford

  1. Anonymous says:

    Bummer about the “Forty”..
    Neat story, tho..
    Chas.

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