Winfield and I often argued in friendly fashion as to which ride of our trip had been the most important. My choice was the golden journey with R.E. Skinner down through California’s Sacramento Valley. That was a 186 mile journey through a cornucopia of the Golden State’s agricultural wonders, climaxed by a trip to the Valley of the Moon.
Win’s choice was the 600 mile jaunt across Nebraska, to St. Joseph, Missouri, with Mr. Wilburn, climaxed by our purchase of 400 shares of gold mining stock. He felt that investment might pay off big.
Golden state, or golden stocks—it was like comparing Michigan apples and California oranges. Each had been important in its own way.
In a different way the next ride we would receive—so far as sheer down-to-earth adventure was concerned—would top them all.
We almost missed it. The turpentine industry had captured our interest so much that we forgot all about travel.
“Turpentine? Where does it come from?” Win wanted to know when a man with whom we were riding told us we’d soon be in turpentine country. “Does it grow on trees?”
“No, not quite. It doesn’t grow on trees; it comes from trees. ” With that answer, the man drove a mile or so beyond his destination, just to show us what he meant. Stopping at a forested area he had us get out and follow him into a grove of pines.
“This is where it comes from,” he explained as he pointed to the V-shaped grooves cut on each tree from which gummy turpentine sap ran out into little pails. It brought up memories of a sugar camp at home and the thrill Win and I used to have, tapping maple trees. Our host went on to explain that the pitch was collected into barrels and hauled to distilleries where it was reduced to turpentine. The residue was rosin. Later research at a library revealed so many uses for those two substances, in addition to their well-known uses in paint and varnish, that we figuratively took off our hats to those forests of pine trees.
Our accommodating “turpentine friend” went back to his destination while we lingered to take pictures of the scarred trees. We had just returned to the road when a seedy looking man, in a seedy looking Dodge roadster, stopped.
“I’ll take you sixteen miles to the next town,” was his blunt greeting.
With that, he made room for us in his car, which was half-filled with newspapers. We had ridden with our new friend for ten minutes when he said he would carry us to Mobile. That was in the next state—Alabama. We were ecstatic. At the end of another few minutes this strange new acquaintance extended the distance to Pensacola, Florida. What was going on here? Win and I didn’t comprehend. We had told him we were headed for Florida but why he kept adding to the distance he would carry us puzzled us completely. About fifteen minutes later he gave us the answer.
“Boys,” he explained, “I’m going through to Jacksonville, Florida. At least I hope to. But with this weather we’ve been having, I know I can never make it on my own. I’ve been sizing you two up. It may help you, and it will surely help me, if you’d like to go through with me all the way to Jax.”
We rode with John Fleming a total of over 600 miles. He was a newspaperman on The New Orleans Item and was headed for Jacksonville for a vacation, and to visit his wife, who worked there.
Adventure started within the hour. Rain soon prohibited driving and for what seemed an interminable time, we huddled in the leaky Dodge endeavoring to keep dry. It had no curtains for protection from the rain. Suddenly the car gave a sigh and settled down into the mud with a flat rear tire. Swathed in our ponchos we fixed it and were ready to drive when the rain ceased.
Darkness was closing in but Fleming wished to drive within striking distance of Mobile, to catch the early ferry out of there, next morning. Old-timers said it was impossible but Fleming had nerve and he had us. Slipping along on sticky clay roads, trouble was not long in coming.
The car lights played on a swirling stretch of water ahead. There must be a bridge somewhere, so Win and I took off our clothes and started to investigate. Logs and tree limbs were sweeping across the road but by holding onto each other we reached the bridge safely. The water was only knee high. Investigation showed six planks missing from the floor of the bridge. A car attempting the crossing would find itself severely embarrassed.
We located five of the planks, jammed on the bridge’s side. Then it was that the company of “Line Brothers, Engineers” was established. By the use of stones, and our own bodies awkwardly straddling planks with rushing water lapping at us, we finally pronounced the span repaired.
Fleming, standing on the shore, received our signals. He knew he had but a single chance. He must cross in one rush or his car would be stalled on the flooded road. He trusted us to do our share by holding the bridge together. In a shower of mud and water he approached, bumped across our improvised bridging and continued to the less wet shore. No sooner had Fleming passed than we let the eager river have the loose planks, as we splashed after the car.
Ah, that night of all dark nights. A blowout. By the light of burning newspapers we lay in the mud and fixed it. So meek had we become we considered ourselves lucky when a front tire blew out before the rear one was back on the rim. Lucky because our tools were already out for work. Lucky too, because a lightning bolt burst just a short distance from our car, but didn’t hurt us. The glare of the flash was blinding. The ensuing downpours were among the prime specimens of deluges we’d ever experienced.
Clay hills that would tax the capacity of any car made the old Dodge fairly tremble. In the rear of his vehicle Fleming had fifty editions of the Sunday New Orleans Item which were for advertising distribution. Win and I found a better use for them. They paved our way over the clay roads. A small hill required only the Sunday supplement plus the Line Brothers but on a long hill ten editions paved both tracks for a distance of three hundred feet.
Sometime after midnight we stopped and made a cup of coffee, again finding the Item a handy article for fuel and light. An inquiry was made at a pumping station about the roads. The directions were confused and we became lost. An hour’s run brought us to another pumping station and Win got out to inquire again. It was the same station. Nobody felt like laughing at the joke as we tried once more for the right road.
The sky paled but the beautiful southern morning and singing birds failed to cheer us. We dragged into Mobile and stayed in town only long enough to get something to ease our hunger, fix a couple of spare tires, and pick up mail at General Delivery. It was a beautiful little city, its streets arched over by gigantic live oaks, heavily draped with Spanish moss. Just too bad the weather conditions didn’t allow us to enjoy it more. The Bay Queen out of Mobile carried us ten miles over Mobile Bay. Late in the afternoon we crossed a toll bridge over the Perdido River into Florida, state number 31.
A ten mile race to catch the last ferry across Escambia Bay broke all records. The worst of this race was that in places a man had to precede the car to pick a possible road, so deep was the mud. We arrived at the shore an hour early and had time to fix another spare tire and lose our poncho, carelessly left on a bush to dry.
All night we drove. Fleming never released the wheel until the first streaks of light began to appear in the east. Then we all rolled up for a three hour nap.
Another day of engine trouble, tire trouble, and rain. We passed through Havana and Quincy, the great shade tobacco centers. Fleming wouldn’t leave the wheel. He was living on nerve, for no man could stand that continual, sleepless grind for long. We tried to entertain him but had dozed off and had been asleep for some time when he awakened us for a view of the famous Suwannee River.
We all went back to stand on the bridge for a moment. Luckily the rain had stopped and the sky had cleared. One had only to look at the tropical moonlight turning the little ripples of water into threads of silver to recall the inspiration of the old song. Fleming, with his sunken eyes and lean hungry face, leaned over the railing, humming the notes. The effect was complete.
Twice during the night, stops were made to brew coffee to keep Fleming awake. He was becoming irritable so we tried to please him in every particular. He liked his coffee just lukewarm. At our fire of wadded newspapers we dozed off for a minute and woke to find the coffee boiling but decided not to wake Fleming until his drink had cooled. It was a fight to keep awake—a fight that was lost, for an early morning car honked angrily within a few feet of where our heads lay near the wheel track. Fleming’s coffee was cold and had to be reheated but he felt much refreshed from his nap.
A sheriff blocked the entrance onto a bridge later in the day. “Where’d you get them two fellows?” he growled at Fleming. Our friend was up on the ways of southern sheriffs. He told us later that they made a business of picking up hikers and tramps and turning them over to the turpentine companies at so much per head. He also suspicioned there might have been some crime committed in the area for which all disreputable characters were being sought. In our muddy condition we fitted such a description nicely.
“These boys? Why, these two fellows work on the N. O. Item. They’re just going on a little vacation to Jax, and I thought I’d drive `em over. Pretty bad roads back of us, eh? S ‘long. ” Without giving the officer time to question further, Fleming smiled sweetly and threw the car into gear.
“Boys,” he said later, “if you ever get into trouble like that, don’t fail to wire me for help.”
Shortly after the sheriff episode, good roads greeted us and it didn’t take long to complete our amazing trip with Fleming. By noon we had reached Jacksonville, the largest city of Florida and the gateway to its great resorts. For more than 600 miles we had ridden with Fleming who, during the past eighty hours, had gotten only three and one-half hours of uninterrupted sleep. Win and I had taken a few catnaps but were thin and worn from lack of sleep and substantial food.
Muddy and bedraggled as we were, Fleming insisted we come into his wife’s apartment to meet her. She was as fine a person as he. She worked here in Florida for an insurance company. Then another amazing thing happened. After Win and I had cleaned up a bit, Mr. and Mrs. Fleming insisted that we go out for Sunday dinner with them. Then, amazing act Number Three. They would have it no other way; they drove us out to the edge of Jacksonville, our farewells being said on the highway leading south toward Miami. For a long time after returning home to Michigan we kept up a regular correspondence with the Flemings.
Walking southward along the road to Miami, Win and I were interested in just one thing. Not travel, not scenery, not catching a ride. All we were looking for was a place to curl up and sleep.
Despite the fact that the sun was still high and the mosquitoes ravenous, we slept more than around the clock, coming again to consciousness in the early morning of another day.