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 Circa 1950 Jeepster

Learning to Drive

The Hard Way!
 1949 Nash - German Luger
I was out on my bike recently when I ran across the red Jeepster seen in the above photo.

I hadn't seen one of these in a long time, and the sight of this one brought back some
vivid memories of how I was forced to learn how to drive—and learn the hard way.

It was 1950 and I was hitchhiking from Fort Belvoir, Virginia to Los Angeles.
I had gotten as far as Oklahoma City.

(How I got to Oklahoma City—Another Scary Adventure)

 Route 66 Sign It was a cool afternoon when I found myself trying to thumb a ride alongside an interstate heading west out of Oklahoma City. Before long a late model Nash slowed down and pulled over.

Back at Hollywood High, affluent kids with their own cars used to say they'd "never be caught dead in a Nash."

Well, I had sort of picked up on their anti-Nash attitude, too—in a rather feeble attempt to make it seem like I knew something about cars—but I was sure glad to see this one. However, what really caught my attention was the vehicle being towed behind it—a brand new Jeepster (the Willys/Jeep Corporation's first attempt to break into the "family" car market).

The driver of the Nash was a kid about my own age wearing the uniform of a US Air Force enlisted man. He gave me a big grin as he waved for me to get in. "Hurry up," he said, "I gotta catch up with the others."

I assumed he was referring to a small convoy of cars towing other cars that had preceded him by a few minutes. After introducing ourselves, he said, "Ya know, I ain't supposed to be doing this, but I don't really care."

"Not supposed to be doing what?" I asked.

"Giving nobody a ride. But what the hell, I thought it would be nice to have somebody to talk to—so let'm bitch—I don't care."

Then he began to fill me in on the details.

Somewhere back east he had spotted a newspaper ad soliciting drivers to help return stolen and repossessed vehicles to Los Angeles. There would be no pay involved, but food and lodging would be provided along the way.

And what the drivers would get out of the deal was free transportation to LA. The drivers only had to agree to stay in line, obey all traffic laws, and not pick up any hitchhikers. He went on to explain that the man driving the lead car made his living moving vehicles back and forth across the country like this.

Now, of course, I was wondering if these "road rules" meant I was likely to get kicked out somewhere along the way and end up stranded who-knows-where in the middle of the night.

"Naw," Rob assured me. "When he sees what a nice guy you are he ain't gonna say nothin'."

Airman from Hell

But there was something about Rob that made me feel uneasy. As I was trying to figure out what it might be, he suddenly said, "Hey—you like goin' to cat houses?" When I told him I'd never been in one he started to tell me about his most recent experience. "I got a new way of dealing with whores. Take a look in that glove compartment."

I was surprised to see what appeared to be a semi-automatic pistol of some kind.

"Ain't she a beauty?" he asked, "And it's loaded."

Then he continued his story. "Y'see, I snuck that in with me—then when I was done with the bitch, I showed her the Luger and told her I wasn't payin' her nothin'. And what was she gonna do—call the cops? She was already breaking the law being a whore. Pretty slick, huh?"

Well, I didn't know what to say. But I didn't have to say anything because Rob kept talking. "The trouble with this damn convoy is it moves too slow. I gotta get to LA and this is taking forever. If anybody has a flat tire or engine trouble, we all got to wait while it gets fixed. If I could find a shortcut, I think I'd just take off and head for LA own my own. How 'bout you—wouldn't you like to get there faster?"

Dangerous Idea

"That sounds pretty risky," I told him. But before I could say more, we noticed that the convoy had slowed down and was pulling into a big truck stop.

"Looks like we're gonna stop 'n' eat," Rob said. "But when we're done here I got my own ideas. I picked up a map the last time we stopped for gas."

We got out and, along with the other two volunteer drivers, started to follow the lead man into a restaurant. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties and was kind of short and overweight—but he had an air of authority about him. Inside the restaurant he moved to a far wall and gestured to Bob.

"Hey, fly-boy—I want to talk to you!."

Rob winked at me and went over to where the man with the angry face was waiting. I couldn't hear the actual dialogue, but it was obvious Rob was being chewed out, as the other man glanced my way several times.

Finally Rob walked back and gave me another one of his rather sinister grins. "I gotta use the can," he said, "but he wants to talk to you."

The man introduced himself as Phil Grainger, and said I probably knew I shouldn't have been picked up back there. "But you seem like an all right guy, so I guess you can stay on with us—but I ain't buying your meals."

I said that was fine and thanked him for letting me stay on.

"By the way," he asked, "do you have a driver's license?" When I told him no, he said, "But you know how to drive, don't you?"

"Oh, yeah—sure," I lied. Actually I'd never been at the wheel of a car in my life, but if it made him feel better to think I had, why bother him with the truth?"

My usually divorced mom could never afford a car, but we had always lived where there were plenty of streetcars and buses. And when I couldn't come up with bus fare, I got around Hollywood on the used bicycle I'd gotten at a sheriff's auction for $5.25. And if I couldn't afford to fix a flat on the bike, my trusty roller skates could usually get me where I needed to go.

Anyway, Mr. Grainger headed for the men's room, and I walked over to where the other two drivers were sitting to introduce myself. One was a clean-cut young sailor named Steve, and the other was a big burly black man named Ben, who said he was an out-of-work longshoreman heading west to look for a job. Since Rob hadn't yet returned from the restroom, they asked me what I thought of him.

"To tell you the truth," I replied, "he scares me. Did you know he's got a gun in the car, and he claims that it's loaded?" But before they could answer, Rob joined the group—and everything got real quiet.

As we were getting ready to leave, Steve said, "Hey, Don. How'd you like to ride with me for a while?"

I looked over at Rob. He just grunted and mumbled something like, "Okay with me."

As you can imagine, I was very relieved to be riding with Steve. He seemed like a real regular guy. And as we were driving and talking he would check his side view mirror from time to time.

"Funny," he said after a while. "I don't see Rob back there. In fact, I haven't seen him for about ten minutes. What was that again about a map and a shortcut?"

"I'll bet that's what's happening," I quickly agreed. "He seemed real serious about finding a shortcut and taking off on his own."

At this Steve started leaning on his horn and flashing his lights to get Phil Grainger's attention. The big Lincoln immediately started to slow down as its driver looked for a place where we could all pull over by the side of the road.

Steve and I jumped out and ran over to tell Phil of our suspicions. Phil pulled out a map of his own and pointed to a fork in the road.

"That must be where he went. It may look like a shortcut on the map, but that road heads straight into the mountains. Well, he can't be moving too fast pulling that Jeep through those foothills. Let's go get the sneaky bastard!"

He told the other drivers to lock their vehicles, and then unhitched the car his Lincoln had been towing. We all got in, and as soon as Phil saw an opening for a U-turn his tires screeched as we headed back to the cut-off.

Although I didn't mention it to anyone at the time, I had another concern about Rob trying to get away from us—all my belongings were in a duffle-bag in the backseat of the Nash.

(Continued in next column)

 All Night Truck Stop

And a couple of other things were bothering me as well; Rob had a gun—and he said it was loaded—and he seemed just crazy enough to use it. And if we did catch him—who was going to be driving the Nash?

The Chase Was On

Anyway, we had only gone a few miles when we saw a gas station that was closing for the night.

When we told the attendant who we were looking for, he said, "Yeah, he was here a little while ago. Said his car was stuck in second gear and asked if I could fix it. I told him no, and that he'd best head for that big 24-hour truck stop back on the highway."

"Well, he just cussed and bought some gas and kept on going. But I don't think he could have gotten too far, what with pulling that other vehicle—and doing it in second gear."

So we thanked him, and resumed the chase. Well, we'd only gone a couple of miles before we spotted the Nash and the Jeepster parked—guess where—in front of a sheriff's office.

When we got inside we found a surprised Rob talking to a deputy seated at a desk.

"Oh look," he said, "here they are now. Hi, y'all. Hey, I was just telling the sheriff how I got lost and was trying to find my way back to the highway."

"Yeah, right," I said. "And did you tell him about the loaded gun in your glove compartment?"

"Gun—what gun?" asked the officer as he moved quickly from behind his desk. That's when Rob made a dash for the door. It was obvious he wanted to get to that pistol before anybody else did. And he probably would have succeeded had it not been for Ben's flying tackle that nailed him on the front steps.

"Hold him there," yelled the sheriff, as he followed me to the Nash. I opened the door and showed him the Luger in the glove compartment."

The officer scooped it up, and said, "Let's see if this fella has a permit to carry a concealed weapon while we run a check on this piece."

By now another deputy had appeared from somewhere, and was told to search Rob for any other possible concealed weapons before putting him in a cell.

When the sheriff asked Phil if he wanted to press charges, Phil replied no, as long as the sheriff had enough evidence to keep him there.

"I got to get these cars to Los Angeles," he said, "and I'm way behind schedule. So if it's okay, I'll just leave this nut with you and be on my way."

When we got back to the cars, Phil told Steve to get in the Nash and then turned to me. "Looks like you'll be driving that car as soon as we get the gear shift fixed. And don't worry about not having a license. I need a driver."

"And if you should get a ticket or something, I'll take care of everything. But you won't have any trouble because you'll be with the convoy, and, as you know, we don't do any funny driving."

Well, if Phil had realized that I knew nothing about clutches or gear shifts, he might have been less sanguine about the whole thing. So as we headed back to the truck stop I paid very close attention to how Phil did all his clutching and shifting along the way. Maybe I could just pick it up by osmosis.

Learning the Hard Way—
Your Basic Sink or Swim

Fixing the stuck shift turned out to be an easy job, and we could have resumed our driving right then. But it was late and Phil said we might as well turn in for the night. However, he said he couldn't afford any more motel bills, so we'd have to sleep in our cars.

This was okay with me because I had intended to ask Steve for some driving pointers. So he gave me about an hour's worth of impromptu shifting and clutching instruction, which made me feel somewhat less intimidated when we got ready to leave the following morning.

Well, I was glad to be at the tail end of the convoy, so I'd less likely be noticed by Phil as the Nash alternately lurched and stalled when I tried to get it out onto the highway. It was a white-knuckle struggle for several minutes, and a couple of times I was ready to give up and honk for help.

But when I finally did get it into high gear and found myself cruising rather effortlessly down the interstate, I not only felt relieved—I was actually beginning to enjoy myself. The hard part was over. Well—almost over. As it happened, there was a real scare waiting for me at the California border.

Having never been out of California before, I had no way of knowing that vehicles crossing into the state would be stopped for some kind of a fruit-related interrogation. It had something to do, I was told, with keeping pest-infested fruit out of the state.

Anyway, as we approached the check point, I had a sinking feeling when I saw uniformed officers stopping all vehicles and talking to the drivers.

Were They Asking for Drivers' Licenses?

Anyway, because we were a convoy of eight vehicles we were told to line up on the rather narrow shoulder of the road—which meant we had to park at an uncomfortably awkward angle.

That the inspector was smiling as he approached the Nash somehow didn't relieve my anxieties. But all he did was ask if I was bringing any fruit into California. When I said no, he just thanked me and moved on to the next car.

After we'd all been cleared, they brought all right-lane traffic to a halt so we could move our convoy back onto the road in one group. As the other three drivers got their vehicles back into the traffic lane, each stopped and waited for me catch up.

My Luck Had Run Out -
They Were Coming to Get Me/

But the Nash wouldn't move. No matter how hard I gunned the engine, or how carefully I let out the clutch, it refused to budge. Phil had honked a couple of times as a polite reminder for me to get moving, but I was getting a dirty look from the officer whose white-gloved hand was being held up to keep the other traffic at bay.

Only I wasn't going anywhere—and I really got scared when I saw an officer running toward me, shouting and waving frantically.

But he ran right past me, yelling, "Wait a minute!" and headed straight for the Jeepster. In the rear view mirror I could see him getting into the driver's seat and cranking hard on the steering wheel. Finally he jumped out and ran over to me with a big smile.

"The front wheels on that Jeep thing were turned sideways. That's why you couldn't move—but you're okay now." And sure enough, I was able to pull right back onto the road with no trouble at all.

Well, as we got closer to the LA megalopolis, traffic got thicker and thicker. Freeways had not yet come to Southern California, and automatic transmissions were still the exception, rather than the rule. So knowing how to clutch and shift effectively in stop-and-go traffic was an essential survival skill in those days. And I had gotten pretty good at it.

I could even make wide turns in busy intersections, keeping the Jeepster lined up behind me just the way it was supposed to be. And if I could do this well with a stick shift, imagine how I'd do with an automatic.

Of course, I still hadn't had occasion to parallel park (what with the Jeepster hitched to my rear) nor had I learned to back up with another car attached—but as long as I could keep moving forward I was doing all right. In fact, I was feeling so confident that I could hardly wait to go someplace and apply for a driver's license.

But I still had nearly three more years to go in the army—and my next opportunity at the wheel would come in Korea when they wanted me to drive a 2 ton truck which had multiple forward and reverse gears in two ranges, and required something called "double-clutching."

By comparison, driving that Nash with the attached Jeepster was a breeze.

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