The Final Leg
August 3, 1923. 2:00 A.M. Win and I—along with our parents—were sound asleep in a pleasant little tourist camp just outside of Boston. Next day, as we drove into the city the shouts of a newsboy impelled us to pull over to the curb.
“Extra. Extra,” he was calling, as he held a paper high in the air.
“I wonder what’s happened?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” answered our father. He put a nickel in the newsboy’s hand and took a paper, not even waiting for his three cents in change. Great black headlines jumped out at us from the front page.
“HARDING DIES. COOLIDGE BECOMES PRESIDENT.
SWEARING-IN CEREMONY UNIQUE IN HISTORY.”
President Harding, taken ill while returning from an inspection tour of the Territory of Alaska, had been rushed to a San Francisco hospital, where he died. Completely by chance, Vice President Coolidge was on vacation at his boyhood home near the village of Plymouth, Vermont. That was just a short distance from where we were—in Boston.
Coolidge’s elderly father was a justice of the peace in his rural township. In a drama unique in American history, at two o’clock in the morning, in the parlor of a Vermont farmhouse, John C. Coolidge administered the oath of office to his son who, at that swearing-in ceremony, became the thirtieth president of the United States.
The passing of one president, and the ascension to office of another—especially under such strange circumstances, and so close to where we were at the time—colored the rest of our trip through America’s 48 states. The effects began at once.
Within fifteen minutes, we were parked by the Massachusetts State House, gazing up at it with an intensity different than the way we had looked at any of the other scores of capitol buildings on our long journey across America. In a real sense, Calvin Coolidge was now president solely because of an action he had taken in this very building before us. As governor of Massachusetts, in a bold strategy which had instantly gained the attention of the entire nation, he had put an end to the abortive Boston police strike. When the police left their posts, Governor Coolidge had called out the National Guard and issued his famous ultimatum: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
That action, and those words, made him famous. At the next Republican convention he was nominated for president and almost made it. Harding finally got the nod on the tenth ballot. Coolidge was made his running mate by unanimous vote. They won the November election. Now, just twenty-nine months later, he was president.
After meeting our parents in Frederick, Maryland—with newfound luxury in their Nash—we had driven to the naval academy in Annapolis and then on through Wilmington, Delaware, then Philadelphia, and along the Delaware River and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to Easton, Pennsylvania where we crossed into New Jersey.
Following a trip to New York City, which we had seen many times in our youth, we started on that interesting tour through one of America’s most densely populated sections. In an almost unbroken string came the Connecticut cities of Stamford, Norwalk, Bridgeport, New Haven, and New London. The steady flow of cities did not cease.
In Providence, Rhode Island we visited the capitol of the smallest state in the Union—one capitol building in which we didn’t have to shave.
And then to the tourist camp out of Boston.
We were not the only people gazing up at the Massachusetts State House with strange, mixed feelings. Scores of people were jamming the area before the building, reading the papers, talking in low voices with one another, contemplating the strange events which had suddenly taken their former governor, and Boston citizen, into the White House.
We spent the next hour or so taking in the historic sights of interest within walking distance of the Boston Common. At King’s Chapel our mother was particularly interested in locating the graves of the Winthrops, another early branch of her family.
Harding’s death didn’t have anything to do with it, but it did seem strange—as we later realized—that we spent the rest of that day in another graveyard. Driving out to nearby Concord, we hired a young boy to show us around Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. My ambition had always been to become a writer and ever since junior high school, my heroes had been four great authors buried at Sleepy Hollow. Alone, it would have been hard to find the graves I wanted to see.
Emerson’s resting place was marked by a rough field boulder, Hawthorne’s was almost obscured by bushes, Thoreau’s even less ostentatious. Louisa M. Alcott’s stone was identical with Hawthorne’s. The graves of these four great writers were all within a few feet of one another.
On our final night in Boston we enjoyed a fine theater program by the blind man, Charles Lawler, who sang the song he had composed as a down-and-outer in the slums of Manhattan, “The Sidewalks of New York.” That song later became the famous campaign war cry of another aspirant to the presidency, Al Smith. Unlike Harding and Coolidge, Al Smith didn’t make it.
Heading north next day we passed through Cambridge and saw the Washington elm where the first general took command of the Colonial army. Later he would of course become the first president of thirteen United States.
As we followed the shore line to Gloucester and then north, our thoughts were a mixture of past and present. Washington, the first president. Harding, the twenty-ninth. Coolidge, the thirtieth. This whole final portion of our trip was becoming a blend of early and modern American history.
It was hard to say which was the more refreshing, the brisk ocean breeze, or the scenes along the New England coast. Shortly before dusk New Hampshire bid us welcome. Pop chose a camp on a grassy spot near the rocky shore above the rolling ocean. A puncture had to be repaired before we headed toward Portsmouth, New Hampshire for breakfast next morning.
From Portsmouth, the drive along the ocean was extremely beautiful. Crossing the Piscataqua River, we entered Maine, our country’s farthest-east state. All along the coast there were quaint old fishing villages and wonderful glimpses of the Atlantic.
At Portland Pop turned inland through Augusta then struck into the Maine wilderness headed for Quebec, Canada. The roads became narrow and poor but it was a relief to get into the deep woods after traversing crowded New England.
In Quebec and Montreal we thought United States influences would be left behind, at least temporarily. Languagewise, they were. French signs, French conversation, French menus, French-speaking people greeted us everywhere. But every large newspaper headline, every greeting, concerned the momentous events in the United States—the deaths of Harding, the assumption of the presidency by Calvin Coolidge, a former Vermonter who had lived much of his life just 100 miles from Canada.
Win and I practiced our high school French by reading the newspapers and talking in French (or attempting to) with the people.
In Montreal, the old Nash died. The differential was shot which meant a seventy-five dollar repair bill and a couple of day’s delay. This provided more opportunities to brush up on our French, and read all the papers to keep up on the change of leadership which had just taken place in our homeland.
Late the second afternoon the Nash was repaired and we passed through the American customs at Rouse’s Point. A short run along the shores of Lake Champlain, a ferry to an island in the lake, then a toll bridge to the Vermont mainland. That island was a part of Vermont. With our arrival there, Win and I had been in every state of the Union. It seemed strange that this 48th state for us would be the home state of our new president. Although by touching Vermont we had been in every American state, Ohio would be the 48th for this trip. Although I was born there, we hadn’t visited it yet on this 48 state odyssey.
Our road traveled through Burlington and Rutland, Vermont, then back to the Empire State where we connected with a fine ribbon-like pavement leading to Glen Falls. Real pavement. How odd it seemed. Win and I could not help thinking of all the mud and gumbo we’d been through. “Good Roads Earl” must have made a lot of speeches here in New York. That night permission was obtained to camp in a farmer’s yard. A fine potato stew kept us busy for two hours as we ate and talked with the young farmer who ran the place alone, and had to milk thirteen cows twice daily, by hand.
Car trouble seemed to be riding our trail. When the gears began to grind a shudder ran down our spines—not without cause, as our car soon refused to go forward. Pop backed to the nearest garage where experts thought they had solved our problems. However, something else went wrong and five miles past Bath, New York the car stopped, this time refusing to run either forward or backward.
After hiring a tow truck Pop was nearly out of money and entirely out of patience. Half jokingly he said he’d be glad to sell the Nash for $75, if anyone was fool enough to buy it and could get it repaired. “We’ll take it,” Win said. Writing out a promissory note, the car became ours.
It took nearly a day to get the Nash going again, for which Win and I became responsible. I made a trip for parts while Win wrote diary. Everyone on the job helped to hurry it along, however, and the car, with its new owners, was again ready to head toward Michigan.
On my trip into Bath for spare parts, I heard the news about President Harding’s funeral, in his hometown of Marion, Ohio. With the car parts, I had caught a ride back out to where Win and the folks were waiting, with the broken-down Nash, close beside the Cohocton River. It was Friday, August 10.
Throughout the entire week since Harding’s death in San Francisco, we had been reading in the papers—in both English and French—about the funeral train which had steamed across the entire continent carrying the president’s body from the city by the Golden Gate back to Washington, D.C. , then back again to Marion, Ohio.
The news accounts had compared it to the Lincoln funeral train carrying the martyred president’s body back to Illinois. That was a much more profound funeral journey, or course, because Lincoln had been probably our greatest president.
But the Harding continental cortege had been more spectacular. It had covered 3,000 miles, across a nation which had tripled in population since Civil War times. In every town and city and rural hamlet, in every state through which it slowly steamed its way, people literally by the millions flanked the rail route to say farewell to their departed leader.
In imagination, Win and I were able to picture nearly every mile of the route that train had taken. In the last year we had visited most of the cities and hamlets through which the train had passed. We had ridden over, or in some cases walked across, the great trestles on which the funeral train had crossed those mighty rivers of America. We had thrilled at the mountains that train wound through, we had painted word pictures in our diary of the desert stretches, the vast fields of waving grain, the stands of tall corn, and the lonely barren expanses of prairie past which that train had traveled. Never in the history of these United States had an American president made a journey like that across this broad land. Win and I felt fortunate that we could visualize every mile of it.
Now President Harding was gone. A new leader had taken over. How much did Harding really know about this land? For that matter, how much did Coolidge know about it?
As we sat there on the banks of the Cohocton River just out of Bath, New York, Win expressed to me much the same thing I was thinking
“I just wish, for Coolidge’s sake,” he said quietly, “that we could spend a day with him, relating some of the things we’ve seen and heard and experienced first hand about this country and its people.” Little did we think that word of our experiences might reach his ear.
Our trip was nearly over. We were too eager now to do much stopping, not even making the short side trip down to Linesville, Pennsylvania, founded by our great-great-grandfather and the town where Pop and Win were born. At two o’clock in the afternoon of August 14 we crossed the line into Ohio, the state of my birth, and the 48th state on our trip. We had made good our plans of touching them all.
The Cleveland papers were still filled with stories about Harding, a native Ohioan, who had just been buried in his Buckeye State. He was the sixth American president to come from Ohio.
Reacting almost unconsciously to the state line sign, our father started singing snatches of an old song.
“Beautiful Ohio, in dreams again I see, visions of what used to be.”
“I’ve always wondered if that refers to the state, or the river,” I said, when he had ceased his refrain.
Evading my question, Win commented: “That song about the Colorado, there’s no doubt what that refers to.”
That also was one of our father’s favorites. He was a rather good singer, and at once broke out in snatches of “Where the silvery Colorado wends its way.”
For the next fifteen minutes one or the other of us, or all of us together sometimes, began a musical review of the America which Win and I had almost finished exploring.
My Old Kentucky Home. Wabash. 01′ Man River. Missouri Waltz. Sidewalks of New York. Home on the Range. And half a dozen others.
The car ate up the miles rapidly; anticipation grew by the hour. We slid the Nash to a stop beside a sign which read “Michigan State Line,” and jumped out to plant our feet on the home state soil.
Several hours later, the lights shown in Howell’s old familiar Court House as we came in from Ann Arbor on the Pinckney-Dexter road. Howell. Back home! What a feeling comes up as one returns to his hometown after a long period of absence. A feeling of pride and unbounded happiness. Of security, comfort, and peace.
Aunt Nancy and Grandma Henry welcomed us home. We quickly bathed before running out to the street looking for some of our old friends. Inside of a minute our homecoming was being celebrated with six chums.
And our folks, though they had been with us during the past few weeks, were glad we were home, too. During a period of our absence our father had been extremely ill for many weeks, at which time he lived from day to day anticipating the semi-weekly letters from his two boys. We appreciated more fully as the years rolled by, the generous unselfishness of our parents, in letting us set out on such an enormous trip.
Travel is fascinating and enjoyable but half the fun is in the return. Many a cold stormy night as we trudged through snow or rain on a deserted roadway looking for a place to roll up for the night, we had envied the happy families viewed through lighted windows. Now all this was ours.
In our 27,000 miles of roughing it, besides learning a lot of history and geography, we had also gained some fundamental teachings of life. We had learned to recognize and appreciate the value of true friendship. We had learned not to pity ourselves no matter what the difficulties; that there is almost no such thing as unbearable hardships, at least from our point of view. We had learned how to take care of ourselves.
Early in our trip we had sent back the original amount of money we had started with and now, after thirteen months of shifting for ourselves, of travel, fun, adventure, and education, we returned home with $622.00 with which to start our university training. This would help pay our college tuition for the three-andone-half years it would take to get our degrees.
Within a month after our return we were enrolled as freshmen at the University of Michigan. The memories and lessons of our big hike helped smooth the way in college. U.S. history and geography were pushovers, with the knowledge we had gained. Social studies likewise. Our year of experiences even helped us in psychology classes. And never once did we lack exciting material to write about in our rhetoric and journalism courses.
I was fortunate in being promoted to editorial writer on our university newspaper, The Michigan Daily. Once, at a large convocation of several thousand students in Hill Auditorium, the president of the university, Marion LeRoy Burton, publicly praised an editorial had written for the student paper. Burton and President Coolidge were close friends. When Coolidge had been mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts, Burton had been president of Smith College in that city. President Burton spent many weekends in the White House, no doubt helping Coolidge get started on the great task of the presidency. For The Michigan Daily I wrote editorials about America. I know President Burton read some of them. I hope he conveyed to Coolidge a few of the insights Win and I had gained from our year on the road throughout this great land.
It was difficult to settle down to real cooking and a real bed. Months after we went to Ann Arbor, we would occasionally take our blankets over to the forested banks of the Huron River to roll up under the stars for the night.
For a year we studied hard and then maps began to play a greater part in our lives. With various college chums we began to plan wild trips to the land of the midnight sun beyond the Arctic Circle and south below the Equator.
No one was surprised at the end of our sophomore year when the travel lust again took charge, on a one-year break in college routine. We headed out on foot, two brothers alone, towards Montreal and a Liverpool-bound cattle boat which was to start us on 37,000 miles of adventure through forty-four countries around the world, from Europe and northern Africa to the far tip of Australia and the South Sea Isles. But that is another story.