The first weekend in June was devoted to our Hillcrest High School Class of ’56 30th Reunion. As they say, it was a blast from the past. When I mentioned to a number of out-of-towners that I was planning an extensive summer road trip, they all reciprocated with something on the order of, “Come on by. I’d like you to see where we live.” Well, that was just the added incentive I needed to hit the road. Let’s face it, reunions were notorious for showy face-offs. Now I had a chance to visit some ex-classmates in their natural habitats. I could hardly wait.
It was hot, steamy morning on June 29th when I untied Ol’ Blue and put the spurs to her with a 10-speed touring bike stashed inside. Astonishingly, the odometer read exactly 44,000 miles! I made an abbreviated stop at 6319 Mimosa to tell Mom I was going on an extended leave-of-absence across the western half of the country. Her customary farewell was, “Now be sure and call me every other day.”
I said goodbye to the ubiquitous cicada whose screeching noise from their fast fluttering transparent wings was a summer ritual in Texas. I headed north on U.S. 75 (North Central Expressway) through the mundane suburbs of Richardson and Plano, pinching my nose so as to impersonate Willie Nelson singing On the Road Again. I crossed the Red River and said farewell to Baja Oklahoma. The drive through the center of the Sooner State was relatively uninspiring, scenery-wise. But the voyage was a pleasant one knowing I was bound to see an old friend down the road.
I crossed the Arkansas River into central Tulsa and meandered over to 1405 S. Elwood to see my old buddy Howard Gamble whom I had known since 1969 when he moved into the house in front of my Dallas garage apartment at 2810 N. Fitzhugh. We had a super reunion of our own, sitting on the front stoop on a muggy night swapping stories and drinking quarts of ice tea. It seemed like every time I saw “Howie” he was involved in some new venture. The last time it was selling satellite dishes. Now it was “maintaining greenery” or something. He assured me that his job title was not an euphemism for mowing lawns. He was a journeyman, never having a college education. I told him that I had always admired him for his enterprising spirit, a get-up-and-go attitude (in Dallas he was in the restaurant business). My first night in Ol’ Blue was spent “on the curb”.
The next morning I perched the Minolta on the tripod, set the timer, and shot a pic of the two of us with Howie donning an unbelievably huge cowboy hat. I still have the photo – it’s a classic. Only Howie could come up with something like that. Before driving off, I wished him all the luck (God knows he deserved it).
It’s hard to believe, but I had not been in Tulsa since 1948 when the Early family moved to Dallas. I remember the pain I felt being uprooted from such an Avalon. I had many fond memories of those one and a half years in Tulsa. I thought it would be a travesty not to revisit my boyhood neighborhood. I headed south on Peoria Ave. then east a few blocks on 31st St. past the Elliot Grade School. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the softball diamond and backstop were still intact, right where I had hit a walk-off grand-slam homer. My girlfriend Jean Ann Young greeted me at home plate with a big hug and kiss. If there was ever a Walter Mitty hero, I was thatperson that day.
I continued a couple of blocks south and there on the corner of 32nd Place was the same modest one-storey redbrick house. My first impression was that it looked so small. It was a natural reaction of course, since houses and humans always appeared somewhat larger to a ten year-old tyke than to an adult. I just had to see if anyone was home. I rang the doorbell and an elderly woman (why was I not surprised?) answered the door. I blurted out, “I’m just passing through and wanted to see my old neighborhood and the house where I grew up back in 1947 and ’48. It still looks the same after all these years.” She was flabbergasted, and after recovering from her initial shock, said, “Let me give you a tour of your old home.” I rejected her offer, saying, “I’m sorry, but I’ve had enough nostalgia for the day. Thank you for your time.” Wow, another blast from the past.
I headed north on U.S. 169 into Kansas, having time to recall all the indelible memories of the best years of my life. It was a time to relish the aroma of burning autumn leaves (before the EPA deemed it an air pollutant), smell a summer’s rain on hot asphalt, play fantasy street hockey games on roller skates with broom sticks and a mayonnaise jar lid, race down the hill on a homemade soap box cart, skate over to Jean Ann’s house with a bag of chocolate kisses, and be a proud member of The Cub Scouts of America. It just didn’t get any better than that.
I approached a small town which had a billboard proclaiming, “Welcome to Chanute – Proud Home of 10,506 People.” Only in Kansas, home to sunflowers, corn, and cattle. It was a pleasant, leisurely drive through the small burgs of America’s heartland, and while anticipating my arrival in the big city, I started singing to myself the lyrics of Going to Kansas City, Kansas City Here I Come. After 475 miles I finally had to merge with an interstate, I-35. Paralleling the highway were a bunch of mainline tracks with not one, not two, but three back-to-back Santa Fe freights rolling west out of K.C. It was quite a sight!
After calling Dottie Argo, the first of a chain of ex-classmates I hoped to visit, I made my way over to their upscale, Nottingham Estates in Overland Park, a southwest suburb of Kansas City. The temperature had dropped significantly, so I was looking forward to a pleasant night in Ol’Blue – somewhere. I had a fun time with Dottie, who incidentally was a close friend of my senior class sweetheart Joyce Streidl. Her hubby Charles was a most informative fellow, explaining the unique geographical layout of the city. First of all, there was Kansas City proper (including the downtown area) south of the Missouri River. Then there was North Kansas City, MO (north of the river), and finally, there was Kansas City, KS. Charles said in jest that each sector would have nothing to do with the other two. It sounded like a gerrymandering nightmare. My guests allowed me the comfort of a cool night’s sleep in their driveway in Ol’ Blue.
I enjoyed a complimentary farewell breakfast with the McCrarys, thanked them for another fun reunion within a month, and took off for parts unknown (well, sort of). I was certain I wanted to head east, so I found my way to I-70, slipping by a picturesque downtown K.C. (replete with hills and trees) and passed the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex with Arrowhead Stadium and the Royals Ballpark as the prominent edifices. It was quite impressive, but it seemed a shame they weren’t built in the downtown area like so many in other Big League cities. The only view from the stands was the constant flow of traffic on I-70.
One mission of this trip was to see how many miles I could drive avoiding the inane interstates. So I exited I-70 at my first chance onto State Hwy 291 that led me to eastbound U.S. 24. I was finally extricating myself from the metro mess. But K.C. still lingered on my mind as I mimed the lyrics to Kansas City Lights, Shine on Me Tonightfollowed with Things Are Looking Up in Kansas Cityfrom the classic 1955 musical Oklahoma!and Goin’ to Kansas City, Kansas City Here I Come. K.C. sure had inherited its share of memorable tunes.