Antique Road Show

. . . ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die. . . . .
—Tennyson, “Ulysses” 

In the autumn of their lives—he was 65, she 60—my grandparents set off on an epic journey. 

Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, 1944

They had weathered two world wars, one Great Depression, and the daily trials of work and family in pre-electronic, not-yet-airconditioned America. They had lost their Pierce-Arrow touring car in the Depression; they had lost two of four sons in the Second World War. In that era, when men and women often seemed worn out at 50, Grandma and Grandpa Sommers had lived to an age when a slowdown was in order.

Instead, they plunged into the adventure that six decades of hard living had denied them. 

1946 Hudson Commodore. Photo by Christopher Ziemnowicz (CC BY 4.0)

They drove their Hudson sedan, a bulbous gray beast with dusty velour upholstery. It must have been about a 1946 model. I don’t know that for sure; but it had 36,410 miles on its odometer when they left their little house in the village of Knoxville, Illinois, at 7:30 am on Friday, October 7, 1949.

They were bound for California. Before coming home seven months later, they would add 8,232 miles to the Hudson’s clock.

“Is this Trip Really Necessary?”

What possessed them? Why undertake an odyssey at that stage of their life? 

For one thing, Grandpa didn’t have a job to worry about any more. When Dad got off the telephone and told Mom, “Pop’s been fired,” I cried. My four-year-old mind saw Grandpa blackened to a cinder from the flames. They had to do quite a bit of explaining before I understood that Grandpa’s boss had merely sent him home from work and told him not to come back.

Grandpa—William P. Sommers—was a piece of work. Trained as a young man in telegraphy and telephony, he had worked as a rural phone company manager for a few years, then as a railroad telegrapher and station agent many years, before settling down in Sinclair Oil’s pipeline company as a telegrapher and pumping station agent. His technical training and certain unfortunate family traits gave him a lifelong impression that he was the smartest guy in the room, and everyone else was a fool. And obviously, it was his plain duty to inform them all of that. It’s easy to imagine that he simply told his supervisor where to get off, and his supervisor in turn told him where to get off. 

Grandpa was too old to go back to work—and there was a whole world out there. During the Great War, the Chicago and Alton Railroad had sent him by rail to the Pacific Northwest. The rocky terrain he traveled through made a deep impression. I guess he had always itched to go back and see it again.

Grandma had never been anywhere outside of central Illinois. She was stolid, unromantic, matter-of-fact; whereas Grandpa was fiery, flighty, and mercurial. He must have said, “Millie, let’s go! You’ve got to see the West.” 

Test Run

A year before, in September 1948, they had made a swift dash across Iowa and Nebraska, traversed the high plains of Colorado, and ended up in the Front Range of Colorado. They had returned via Wyoming and the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. They returned home on the eighth day after they started, having logged 2,513 miles. 

            Napoleon I, miniature painting made in 1807 by Jean Baptiste Isabey. Public Domain.

Grandpa, the towering figure in any group, was living confirmation of the Napoleon hypothesis, for he stood only about five feet tall. He wore size six shoes as an adult.  I can still see him driving that huge, high-riding Hudson sedan, peering out over the high dashboard from under the upper rim of the steering wheel! I can’t really remember how he managed to get his feet all the way to the pedals, but he must have.

That earlier trip perhaps gave them the confidence for the longer jaunt they now embarked on. It seems their plan from the beginning was to drive to California and stay a good, long while with their only daughter, Mabel, her husband Robert Hiler, and their little boy, Dickie. And also, if possible, get to Seattle and spend some time with their eldest son, Edward, and his family. Whether they knew when they set out how long they would stay, I really don’t know.

All There in the Book

Fortunately for me, Grandma kept a careful log in a wire-bound stenographer’s book, and my father left that book to me. She recorded dates, odometer readings, and expenses. But when they encountered something she thought was remarkable, she remarked. 

Bagnell Dam. Photo by KTrimble, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

They drove to Peoria and followed Route 66 southwest, with some deviations. They visited relatives and friends in Springfield and Gillespie, Illinois, and in the state-named town of California, Missouri. They visited the nearby Bagnell Dam—a modern wonder built eighteen years earlier to impound the Osage River and form the Lake of the Ozarks, thus gaining both hydroelectric and recreational benefits. (Wikipedia claims it’s still there.)

They drove through Joplin, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. That night, near Sapulpa, they stayed at the Wild Horse Cabins. Ah, the romance of the West! To lifelong residents of Illinois—where the horses are all tame—what could better hint of high plains adventure? The word “cabins” may suggest a certain rusticity, and that may have been the case. But in those days, “cabins” was simply a word for inexpensive roadside lodgings, which could be quite sketchy for creature comforts. The modern motel had not been invented—neither the word nor the item itself.

Petroleum Fever

Oil derrick. Photo by Egeswender – Own work, Public Domain. 

As they drifted west, Grandma frequently noted oil derricks, drilling rigs, pumps, and refineries. That’s because Grandpa had a definite interest in oil. I suppose he figured his great natural intelligence (which was an actual fact), combined with his technical mastery of telegraphy and telephony, qualified him in the oil business. In later years, he acquired  an idée fixe that by poring over geologic maps of the western states, he could pick winners in the great wildcat game and make a fortune. He invested what must have been only small amounts of money in dozens of oil-drilling partnerships to open wells in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. My mother, who was never intimidated by the old man, used to laugh at this obsessive hobby of his. But the old man had the last laugh: His complex portfolio of oil royalties continues even now, more than sixty years later, to trickle dollars into our family’s coffers.

Rugged Travel Days

Grandma and Grandpa crossed into Arizona and she noted that they “slept in car 1st time” before driving on the next morning. Probably there was no convenient overnight  cabin near the Arizona border. Bear in mind, Dear Reader, that a long motor trip was still a big adventure in 1949. The best roads were two-lane, two-way ribbons of concrete. Other roads were more iffy. Hotels, tourist cabins, restaurants, and gas stations were strewn haphazardly about the landscape. You might find one, you might not. I’ll bet Grandpa had stowed a five-gallon can of gasoline in the trunk—just in case.

Arizona Meteor Crater. “467” by bunnygoth is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

On Friday morning, October 14—one full week into their journey—they drove by the “Immense Munition Depot” at Holbrook, Arizona, but stopped to see the Arizona Meteor Crater and its museum near Winslow. That afternoon they drove out of Williams, Arizona, at 3:00 pm, and Grandma added a plaintive note: “Decide not to visit Canyon as too late in afternoon & no good place to stay overnite, so head for Boulder Dam.” What a letdown, having traveled so far, to forgo a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Grand Canyon! But Grandma’s notes contain no hint of disappointment; just the matter-of-fact account of a decision made. Maybe the Grand Canyon was not a high priority, since it contained no oil wells.

The next day they did spend about three hours seeing the Boulder Dam, the name of which had been changed to “Hoover Dam” not too long before. “Took in free movie showing building of dam,” Grandma noted. 

Eventually, they rolled through Las Vegas, Nevada (“wonderful city”) and entered California over the Clark Mountain Pass. By the time they crossed the desert and reached  Los Angeles, they had fulfilled Bobby Troups’s 1946 hit song—having visited Kingman, Barstow, and San Bernardino. The Hudson came down with a flat tire at San Berdoo. I wish I could have seen Grandpa make change that huge tire. The little Bantam rooster must have made short work of it, by might and main, with no expletives deleted. 

They arrived in the City of Angels, where they stayed with an “Aunt Annie” for three days and also visited some cousins in Compton. On their way out of town they bought a new tire; evidently the flattened one was beyond repair.

“Open Up That Golden Gate”

They drove up the coast to San Francisco—or actually, San Bruno, a southern suburb, where Mabel and Bob Hiler lived—arriving on Thursday, October 20, the fourteenth day of their trip. They visited the Hudson Motor Company, where they got a lube job for $1.50, tires rotated for $1.00, five quarts of new oil installed for $2.25, and 6.8 gallons of gas for $1.82. All this by way of putting the car right after its long trek.

Their outward journey encompassed 2,871 miles and used 150.4 gallons of gas, an average of 19 miles per gallon. They spent $55.44 on “gas oil etc.,” $23.10 for “meals etc.,” $23.00 for “Cabins,” $24.92 for “other incidentals,” and $16.65 for the new tire. 

A harbinger of things to come: $31.71 of the automotive total was bought on a credit card, which must have been a newfangled thing. Grandma’s notes do not say which credit card it was, but this was more than eight years before the 1958 launch of BankAmericard, the first general-purpose credit card. It must have been an oil company card. It may even have been an embossed metal “Charga-Plate,” which some merchants issued to favored customers and which enabled easy recording of transactions.

Once at San Bruno, Grandma and Grandpa stayed put for several months, with Mabel and Bob Hiler and their little son, Dickie. Grandma recorded nothing about that stay—but it was not without events. 

In those days, you stayed with family. For Grandma and Grandpa to rent a hotel room, or even a “cabin,” in a town where family lived, would have been unprecedented. Still, months of their constant presence may have been trying to Mabel and Bob. And equally trying to Grandma and Grandpa. 

If my read on Grandpa’s mind is accurate, he would hardly have minded imposing on his daughter and her family. It would have been a welcome change from going to work every day, to take orders from the know-nothing young popinjay who gave him his walking papers. Mabel’s house in San Bruno was, by contrast, an adventure. It was the West.

NEXT WEEK: More adventures in the West.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

 

Grandma’s Trip Books

Mrs. Schmieden– wife of officer in W.W. I with 1 son. Husband died & [she] married a Nazi General of WW2.

“While her son was in hospital from being wounded, he was given orders to go fight Russians.

“She found that her husband had given these orders, so she left him as she was fed up with Nazis anyway.

“The Gen had been jealous of this son. He was later tried in the War Crimes Court but was exonerated.

“Her father had been a Banker & they were well to do before the War. She had English Governess etc, & never had to work etc.” 

—from Grandma Sommers’ travel notes

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

—Psalm 90:10 (King James Version)

In America today, many of us will exceed threescore and ten, or even fourscore years, in good health and strength. But we know that before long, the words of the Psalmist will be fulfilled, and we too shall fly away.

Like many other septuagenarians, I am trying to reduce, not enlarge, my collection of mementoes. Some of them, however, I just can’t part with. 

In my basement there is a box labeled with my name: It holds photos, notes, artifacts, even scraps of paper linked to people or events that linger large in my memory. I have a similar box for my parents; and one each for my uncles Stanley and Franklin, both of whom died in World War II. And there is a shoebox labeled “Old Folks,” compassing traces of earlier generations. 

Grandma’s trip books.

In the “Old Folks” box I found two spiral-bound, stenographer-style notebooks, plus a thin bundle of 4” x 7” looseleaf pages. What I did not find, yet, was time enough to go through them page by page, for they certainly are worth that kind of scrutiny. Taken together, these little books contain my Grandma Sommers’ notes from two remarkable journeys she and Grandpa took. One was a driving trip from Illinois to California and back. They left October 7, 1949, and returned May 29, 1950, after a jaunt of nearly eight months! The other journey was their only visit to Europe—from November 8, 1954 to January 28, 1955—eleven weeks and four days.

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers, c. 1955.

Today, few of us make such extended journeys. Perhaps our attention spans are shorter. But also, we lead busy lives. It’s hard to get away for more than a week or a month at a time. And travel is, relatively, less expensive now. What we don’t see this time, we can catch next time. Both of the trips recorded in Grandma’s journals were once-in-a-lifetime excursions for my grandparents. They were determined to make the most of them.

Grandma was a straightforward person. In conversation, you could be forgiven for thinking her a “ho-hum” person. But these notes show she was an astute observer, keen to see and hear everything, and keen to record the details. Unlike us, she had no frivolous and ephemeral way to do this. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram. All she could do was write notes in longhand in paper books. What worked for Julius Caesar, Marco Polo, and Meriwether Lewis, also worked for Millie Marie Gunsten Sommers.

Many of her notes were mundane. For example, from the California trip log: “Leave San Bruno – 9:30 am – 42187 [;] 6.6 gal. gas – 1.51 Castro Valley – 42213 [;] 1 qt oil – .41 . . .”

Other entries are more intriguing, like the one quoted above from the looseleaf addendum to the Europe trip book. It apparently records the results of a conversation she had with a real German woman, Frau Schmieden. Grandma’s summation of their talk contains the seeds of a big novel, maybe even a major motion picture. 

The Great Heidelberg Tun, largest wine barrel in the world. Photo by Larry Sommers.

Grandma’s Eurpean trip notes also tell of visiting Heidelberg, where they saw in Heidelberg Castle the famous Great Heidelberg Tun, the world’s largest wine barrel. “Built in 1196,” she notes. “Holds 50,000 gal. Stairs leading to top.” Imagine my surprise to learn that this German cultural icon, which I myself visited and photographed in 2015, had been on my grandparents’ itinerary sixty years earlier.

Grandma’s notebooks hold the promise of further tantalizing facts and memories. My ancestral duty to look into such things and, if possible, keep some of them alive in our communal recollection, is one of the joys of being in the “reducing” phase of life.

I’ll try to keep you posted.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

On the Acheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

Izzy Mahler was seven years old when he met George Washington. 

The old man was not tall and majestic but short and stoop-shouldered; he wore not a white wig but the white jacket of a railway porter on the Super Chief.

“I cannot tell a lie,” he said, friendly brown eyes sparkling amid the folds of his wrinkled brown face. “I been George Washington every day of my life. That other fella, the one with the cherry tree and the little hatchet, he just borrowed my name… only, he borrowed it before I got to it.” With a merry cackle, he showed Izzy his union card—evidence he was indeed “Geo. Washington.” 

Izzy’s mother had given the man a dollar at the vestibule entrance of the day coach, asked him to watch over Izzy and make sure he got off at Loseyville. 

Train 18, The Super Chief – El Capitan, east of Streator, Illinois
on January 28, 1967. A Roger Puta Photograph. Public Domain.

George Washington loomed over Izzy, swaying with the gentle rocking of the coach as the train pulled out of the Plumb station. 

“Goin’ to see Grandma and Grandpa, huh?” he asked. 

 “All week until Friday,” said Izzy, with a sigh.

“Ain’t you pleased to be seeing them?”

“Grandma, yes. Grandpa, no,” the boy replied.

George Washington raised an eyebrow.

“He’s mean,” said Izzy. “He yells at kids.”

“My daddy was like that,” replied the porter. “God rest his soul.”

“Well,” said Izzy, upping the ante, “he says naughty words, too. Words you’re not supposed to say.”

The old man nodded his gray head. “Sure do sound like my daddy.” 

Izzy was certain his Grandpa Mahler was nothing like the porter’s daddy, but he did not say so.

“Why do you go see this yellin’, cussin’ grandpa, if you don’t like him?” 

“They don’t get to see me as much as my other grandparents do,” said Izzy, “so Mom and Dad said I have to go.”

“Ah,” said the old man. 

#

Two hours later, George Washington watched from the coach steps as Izzy stepped down from the train into the waiting arms of his grandmother, a large white woman in a floral-print dress, and followed her to a gray 1948 Hudson sedan.

Like Daniel goin’ to the lion’s den,the porter thought. He did not envy Izzy the prospect of spending a week with his grandfather—leastways, not if he’s anything like old Ennis P. Washington, God rest his soul.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Memory as Fiction

The vignette above is exerpted, with slight changes, from one of my Izzy Mahler stories, “The Lion’s Den,” which won honorable mention in the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest for 2018.

In all essentials, it is taken straight from my life. I made up the part about the porter being named George Washington. 

No Risk Too Trivial

Younger readers may doubt there was ever a time when a loving mother would send her young child on a train trip all alone, would casually give him over to the care of a lowly  railroad employee, with just the added fillip of a small gratuity. But in 1952, that’s how things worked. Back then, automobiles did not have seat belts, either—and most people didn’t lock their doors most of the time. 

Now airlines have official policies and hefty fees for transporting “unaccompanied minors.” Amtrak, today’s version of passenger rail service, is even worse. It refuses to let children under age 13 travel unaccompanied, period. Our cars not only have seat belts but also shoulder harnesses and airbags—all mandated by the federal government. I can’t prove it, but I think more of us lock our doors all the time, or at least most of the time.

We may be safer, but life seems more fraught with peril. Here endeth the digression.

Black Porters

A. Philip Randolph, 1963. John Bottega, New York World-Telegram and Sun.Public Domain.

Jobs as porters or railcar attendants on passenger trains in the pre-Amtrak era were almost monopolized by African Americans. One can say they were relegated, as second-class citizens, to menial roles in the rail industry. On the other hand, those were steady jobs with some of the country’s largest employers. Moreover, they were union jobs, starting in 1925, when A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Many black families built their economic lives on railroad jobs.

Hazards of War

Helping rail passengers was far from the only contribution African Americans made to American life. Toward the end of my Izzy Mahler story, “The Lion’s Den,” George Washington the porter reveals the shrapnel scars on his legs—souvenirs of service in the First World War as a member of the 92nd Division, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 92nd was a segregated infantry division in the U.S. Army, organized late in 1917. In the Meuse-Argonne, the largest United States operation of the war, the 92nd suffered 120 killed and 1,527 wounded in action. That’s 1,647 casualties in a unit of approximately 15,000 officers and men.

When Izzy Mahler gets to his destination, the little town of Henderson Station, he spends time with his grandparents—the kindly grandmother and the abrasive grandfather. They, too, have had to cope with casualties of war. Two of their sons died as bomber pilots in the Second World War. That part of the story, too, is straight from life. My grandmother was a Gold Star Mother twice, for my uncles Stanley and Franklin.

Weaving Tales

Something as simple as a train ride can reveal who we are as individuals, as families, as a nation of people with disparate experiences but often with common purposes. I can’t speak for other authors, but when I write fiction, I can never make up something that strays far from the facts. 

While you wait with great patience for my novel Freedom’s Purchase to achieve publication, I hope you may enjoy some glimpses into the life of Izzy Mahler, a little boy of the 1950s, never far removed from the facts. You can find them herehere, and here.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author