On the day after Thanksgiving in 1977 Kenny and I went to Cross Plains, Texas to look at a potential truck purchase to haul our equipment with. We started out from Smithwick. We were both there with our families where we were spending the holidays with our mom and dad.
Being a 3 hour trip up to the northwest we left early in the morning and arrived in Cross Plains by 8:00 AM.
We had seen an ad for this used truck dealer in a magazine. When we got there, they had a sea of trucks on the lot. We test drove several trucks. Nothing suited us. Something was wrong with ever single one.
By 11:00 AM we were back on the road. We stopped to get a bite to eat and I took the truck magazine in with me. I found the exact truck we needed. It was an absolute necessity that we go test drive it that day. We called and they told us they were closing at 3:00 PM that day, since it was a holiday weekend. It was in Lufkin, Texas. That was normally a 6 hour drive. We told them we would see them before they closed. Since that was just 4:00 hours from then we would need to step on it.
We were in my 1977 Cherokee Chief Jeep. I had bought it about 6 months earlier. For the first 4 months in the life of that vehicle, I was living in Austin and working in Houston. Our son Michael was born in May and the project started in stated in June. I didn’t want leave Madeline alone with a baby and an almost 3 year old all week, so I would stay one night at an apartment in Houston and drive to Austin the next night. Being in the summer time the days were long, therefore our workdays were very long. On the days when I made the trip back to Austin if I left there by 7:00 PM I could arrive at home by 9:00. If I drove 90 – 100 MPH the whole way that is. Then, by getting up and leaving at 4:00 AM, I could stop along the way for breakfast and still be on the job at 7:00 AM.
The nights when I stayed in Houston was when I could get my rest.
So with those trips the old Jeep had been limbered up pretty well.
Now back to the run half way across Texas. If you push an already weak car hard, long enough, something will come apart. Jeep was owned by AMC in those years. AMC was considered number 4 whenever there were The Big Four Automakers in the US. That was a stretch to even include them in any ranking. If anyone showed up in an AMC product in the 60’s, you would have been laughed out of town.
However when they acquired Jeep (a very respected brand) in 1970, it was hoped that that would propel them into contention to compete with real car companies.
I think I’d seen too many car commercials on TV about how great they were and I liked the styling of the Cherokee Chief. So that’s how I ended up driving one.
Now I’m ready talk about the trip half way across Texas.
When we had driven to within an hour of Lufkin at 100 mph plus, the old Jeep was getting tired. We stopped for gas. When we got ready to start up to leave, it wouldn’t crank. Immediately I knew what had happened. It had jumped time. Meaning when we stopped and turned off the engine it was so hot that it backfired and the already slack timing chain jumped a link. I’m not sure how I knew all that, but I was much more mechanically savvy then than I am now.
I always kept a full box of tools with me, so I unbolted the distributor, picked it up and move it one tooth forward, giving the engine some semblance of being back in time. (Ladies and some of you guys have no idea what I just said, but trust me it worked)
Kenny cranked it up and it started immediately.
Kenny had called the truck place while I was under the hood and they had agreed to wait a little while until we arrived.
We headed out for the remainder of the trip. Now the top speed was only about 75, because turning the distributor like that just got it running but now the spark was no longer combusting when the cylinder was full of the gas and oxygen vapors.
But it finally got us there, only 15 minutes late. It was just beginning to rain, but we took the truck for a spin. Something didn’t sound right about the deal and we decided to pass on buying it.
We went out to leave and the Jeep wouldn’t start. I could tell immediately what had happened. It has jumped time a second time when we cut it off upon arriving at the truck lot.
There was no advancing the distributor a second time, so I didn’t even try.
We got the truck salesman to drop us at the airport. No, not to get on an airplane and head home. We rented a car to drive back to Austin. Not just any car, but the only car they had left in the fleet that night. A Mercury Zephyr. Rather than head for Austin, we decided to go find a U-Haul place and rent a tow bar so we could go back and hook onto the jeep and tow it back to Austin.
Being tired and completely exacerbated, we didn’t even consider the weight difference between the 2 vehicles.
We caught enough of a break in the impending flood to get the 2 vehicles hooked together.
Away we went, with the Jeep in tow but with the weight difference it seemed like it wanted to be leading. We finally decided to change strategy. Kenny would drive the car and I would ride in the Jeep to do the braking and help stabilized the whipping motion. All this in a blinding rainstorm. Kenny took off driving like a crazy person. It became evident almost immediately that I wasn’t going to do this. It wasn’t safe on dry pavement, much less with it raining and Kenny driving like a bat out of Hades.
I had no contact with him. Flashing my lights didn’t do the trick. Finally I just bogged the brakes on until he couldn’t go anywhere. All this happened on a busy stretch of highway with heavy Friday night traffic.
Kenny was unwilling to go to the back car with me in the lead car. The rain let up and we learned a few new driving skills so we able to continue on as long as we kept in under 40 MPH. It was going to make for a long night but at least we knew once we got to Austin we could sleep easy.
When we got to the little town of Centerville, Texas it started to rain hard. We had had enough. It was almost midnight and we would get a room and plan a new strategy the next morning.
Arriving in Centerville late the first couple of motels we stopped at had no rooms available. Finally we made a few calls and got assurances that all motels were booked. But one person told us to head out this one highway and there would be a place there that may have one. Thinking it strange we decided to drive out there in hopes of securing a place to lay our weary bodies down.
Sure enough, just like the person had said, there was an old motel, actually it was a tourist court. Those were the style of the first roadside inn’s that started popping up after World War 2. They were individual little cabins usually built side by side separated by a shed for parking you car under. These sprang up as American became a mobile society. What many people don’t realize that Holiday Inn didn’t get started until 1952, and they lead the way to being the modern day motel chains as we know today. (That concludes the history lesson kids – but stay in your seats while I finish this story)
When we walked in the female desk clerk was somewhat surprised to see us. Two guys coming in wanting a room. Yes she had a room available. Did we want it by the hour or by the night? I told her I didn’t care how she charged us, but we’d be leaving in the morning when the sun came up.
We had expended all of our ready cash and only had credit cards. She did accept credit cards. It was a cash only place. I’m thinking this ole gal was going to have a hard time making a go of it in the motel business if she didn’t get a credit card machine.
Then I remembered that I had my paycheck in my wallet. She agreed to go next door and get it cashed for us at the big dance hall / beer joint. It was after midnight. In a few minutes she returned and gave me my change of several hundred dollars. She gave us a key but I remember when we reached our unit, the door wasn’t even locked. The place didn’t appear to be that well kept. It looked like the maids had been napping on the top of the covers but at least the beds were made up except for the bedspreads being rumpled.
The good thing is that the lighting was as poor as it was. There was an open lightbulb hanging from the ceiling in the center of bedroom and another in the bathroom.
We decided that I would shower first. I could be in and out in a flash. Not having toiletries like other places we each just used the single bar of soap to wash our bodies and our hair. I could tell that walking on the floor wasn’t going to provide for the cleanest feet to climb into bed with, so after drying off I just laid the towel down on the floor to help with my trip to the nearest bed and then lunged up onto the bed.
Kenny could figure out his own technic. I’m not sure what he did, because I was already asleep before I can remember his journey to the bed that was shoved against a wall on the other side of the room.
When we awoke the next morning, there was sunlight already illuminating the room. It was frightful. There were holes in the walls and the floor was partially rotted out.
We hurriedly dressed so we could to get out of that place and make our next move.
When we went outside we saw that the city had been busy condemning the little cabins. Out of the maybe 20 cabins that were strung together, there only 3 that hadn’t been boarded up and red stickers pasted around on them saying UNINHABITABLE – DO NOT ENTER.
We had been lucky enough to have secured one of the only rooms that was unoccupied in the old tourist courts that had become Centerville’s Bordello.
We found a place to drop off the Jeep and headed on to Austin. We sent someone back a day or so later to haul the sick Jeep back on a trailer. I wished we had left it behind in Lufkin.