Monday, April 18, 2005

SEARCY ’46-‘56 Part 02

Chapter One

Tom Pry

The Path from C to A

Chicago is roughly 600 miles from here. Even without expressway from Newport north until you can finally cut over to I-55, if you feel like pushing it a bit, you can easily drive it in a 10-12 hour day. It wasn’t that easy then, because US highways went smack dab through the middle of every town along the way, and were mostly two-lane, at that.

Yep, in 1946, only the directions were simple: US66 from Chicago to St. Louis, US67 to the middle of Searcy. When you get to the park, turn right and follow State 36 out of town a-ways. Then turn right again and go to the end of the road. There’s your house, along with the “148 acres of rocks” (as my grandfather characterized it) on which it sat (now the site of the rather tony Hillcrest Subdivision).

Let me see if I can give you the reality of the trip that my grandfather, Tom Ripley Edwards, my baby (and only) sister, “Cookie,” my maternal step-grandmother, Billie (in reality, the only grandmother I’d ever known, the two having gotten married the year I was born, 1938), plus her mother, Granma Charles, embarked on less than a year after the end of World War II.

There was the car, one of the last Chevys built before the war had broken out. Came complete with AM radio. Billie drove that, the rest of us kind of rotating through as the truck seat got a bit stiff for us.

The truck? Another Chevrolet -- hardly a surprise, considering Grandad had been a highly respected mechanic at Chicago’s largest Chevy dealer until the urge to “retire to the country” bit him -- what he described as a “ton-and-a-half on a two-ton frame.” One of the first built after the war, it had a four-speed transmission and, hot damn!, an 86.5 horsepower engine.

Tom & Billie Edwards (in the 70s) Posted by Hello

It was a humdinger, let me tell you. I took my driver’s test on it at fourteen in 1952 and, to this day, I think the only reason the examiner passed me was the fear that he’d have to drive it back should he flunk me.

Anyway, it was a platform truck with stakes around it, and it was packed to the gills, to overflowing had it not been for the tarpaulin holding it all together. In that truck was everything needed to set us up in housekeeping except for clothing and toiletries: those kind of stuffed the nooks-and-crannies of the car not otherwise occupied by people.

The highways .. there are still some souvenirs of pre-and-postwar highways around where you can see them, although you probably don’t recognize them as such. Example one: the White River Bridge on US64 just west of Augusta. High tech for that era. Most people are like my wife where that bridge is concerned: they cringe at the thought of riding across it, let alone driving themselves over it. For those unfamiliar with this area, that bridge was BARELY two lanes wide, arched high enough to allow clearance room for the steamboats that, by that time, could no longer navigate the silt-laden river. Folks, that was the norm for highways then, semi’s and all. (Latecomers to this saga: that bridge has finally, mercifully, been replaced since I began writing this thing).

Don’t believe it? Let me give you Example two: Davis. That’s the curving road that comes off East Race to define one edge of Berryhill Park, runs past the White County Fairgrounds, meanders over the Little Red River and, finally, crosses over 367, meanders besides the river for a bit before running through Judsonia (yes, Virginia, there really IS a town by that name) before once more merging into 367.

I hate to break it to you, but that narrow road was US67, our entryway to Searcy that early summer in 1946. Coming from the north, you came into town at that point, drove down Race to Main, turned left on Main, and followed that to what is now Lincoln, where it turned right and kind of headed for Little Rock (now you know why Gum Springs Road is subtitled 267). Even in 1956, that latter stretch of road was known, simply, as “the old highway,” since it wasn’t until the early 50s that the “new” US67 (now old 367, running from Bald Knob to an ignominious end at Huckleberry’s Catfish House) opened.

Footnote: that stretch of “the old highway” was the scene of an impromptu dance party, by headlights, and with music broadcast from Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee, synched on several car radios: that was the night the SHS class of ‘56 graduated, and I don’t remember a single car coming by.

Maybe because it was two o’clock in the morning.

But there was no party going on when we rolled into Searcy that night in 1946. The old joke about rolling up the sidewalks at sundown seemed to fit what we could see of the town to a T. If it hadn’t been for the constant procession of trucks rolling through (with the occasional punctuation of an 80-miles-an-hour Missouri Pacific bus), I’m not sure we’d have seen any life at all. Heaven knows, we had precious little left in us. We’d spent the night before just outside St. Louis in one of those newfangled “tourist cabins,” all of us crammed into one room with two beds. The first Holiday Inn was still in the dreaming stages of its creator and, when the first one opened in Memphis six years later, the concept became an instant hit, for what is to me obvious reasons.

When you think of Heaven and Holiday Inn in the same mental breath, you can just imagine what those tourist cabins -- the ritzier ones were “motor hotels,” hence the word “motels” -- must’ve been like.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).


Post a Comment

<< Home