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From Tennessee to California

In the summer of 1978 I lived in a small old room at the rear of a dreary house in north Sacramento, one of the worst parts of the Golden State’s capital city. Fortunately, I didn’t know I’d have to stay there several more years until a modest inheritance temporarily rescued me, and was delighted by the chance to briefly escape the minimum wages and editorial harassment I endured in my part-time job as a newspaper correspondent and do something most people never will: fly from California to Tennessee and load a rental truck with oak and drive back to California and unload the wood. My parents and an aunt and uncle offered me two hundred dollars and expenses for this task and declined my counteroffer of four hundred bucks.

I paid my landlord to feed Alaric and Hercules, my father and son German Shepherds, drove to the airport, caught a flight to Los Angeles and from there took off for Nashville. In the air above the United States, from a window seat, I looked down on the vast landscape, and thought about the deserts, mountains and plains, and the rivers and lakes great and small, and imagined the August heat below and places then being lashed by wind and rain, and envisioned millions of sons and daughters of immigrants from everywhere, and the newer immigrants themselves, an array of races, ethnicities, accents and philosophies, all being homogenized, at least in part, by television and radio and malls and fast food restaurants. I was flying over America for a few hours of fantasy – a journey that took the pioneers weeks or months if they made it – and anxious for several days of return driving that would yield some of the real sights and smells of the nation.

After landing in Nashville, the country music capital, I rented a car and drove northwest to Clarksville, near the Kentucky border, and stayed that night with some of my uncle’s relatives, whom I’d seen in California in 1970 but wouldn’t have recognized them nor they me, such are the mandates of biology and time. In the morning I turned in the car and was driven to a U-Haul rental dealer that supposedly had reserved its most spacious truck, the renowned eighteen-ton model.

“It’s not here, buddy,” said the short muscular man who worked there.

“Where is it?”

“On the way.”

“How long?”

He didn’t answer and only occasionally grunted, as he moved greasy equipment around the facility, during the hour I waited for the eighteen-ton truck, which upon its grand arrival resembled an enormous tin shack on wheels. Even then, on what was now a hot and humid morning, the dimwitted punk ignored me until I walked in front of him, and he said, “Hey, buddy.” Eventually, I signed all the papers, got in the truck, which lacked air conditioning and a radio, pushed and pulled the long gear shift on the floor, grinding the gears, and slowly began to move west through stunningly green hills and across the wide-as-a-lake Cumberland River, toward Dover, where the Tennessee oak awaited.

When I arrived at the home on acreage lush with trees and unending green growth, I heard crickets in the surrounding hills, crickets loud on a murky late morning. A man then came out, and I thought I was looking at the face of my uncle, who’d tricked me and flown from California to his native town to supervise the loading. I told the man this.

“Didn’t look as much alike when we were younger,” he said. He and my uncle were in their sixties.

The man pointed where to back up my big truck, and he and his son and I began to load stacks of Tennessee oak, which would be used to make rustic cabinets and tables and other furniture. As we worked and got wetter in a Southern sauna, the man, who stood in back of the truck and received the wood, periodically drawled to his son, “Here, boy, hey, here.” The lad had just finished high school with a perfect A average, his father noted, and would soon be enrolling at nearby Austin Peay University. After discussing education and basketball, in a mysterious segue we moved into mortality, and the father concluded, “None of us is guaranteed tomorrow.”

I knew I was going to live forever, driving west across another river larger than many California lakes, but I hadn’t studied my map closely enough, because, indeed, I was crossing Kentucky Lake, which is just above the enormous Tennessee River. Why quibble? There’s a lot of blue water and glowing hills and trees in the region. I aimed the eighteen-ton truck southwest toward Memphis, determined to stay on Highway 79 and avoid the freeway. In addition to rolling scenery enhanced by ivy growing wild all over, I was pleased by the sign greeting those entering Humboldt: “Home of Doug Atkins.” I remembered big Doug as number 81 who played defensive end for the Chicago Bears, the Monsters of the Midway who wore black jerseys at home and on a frigid 1963 day won the NFL championship. According to my notes there were several Doug Atkins signs around 1978 Humboldt. Why so much enthusiasm for a man then age forty-eight who was almost ten years retired? People don’t forget a local guy who’s six-foot-eight and two hundred seventy pounds, a conference high jump champion at the University of Tennessee, an eight-time all star defensive end in the NFL, and a player described by some of the greatest of that era as a nasty and freakishly athletic fellow who enjoyed verbally and physically abusing his opponents and who sometimes either threw blockers at quarterbacks or jumped over blockers to land on quarterbacks. This resume earned Doug Atkins a ticket to the NFL Hall of Fame and the eternal appreciation of his townsfolk.

The governor on the eighteen-ton truck limited its top speed to sixty-two miles per hour, under perfect conditions, but I couldn’t surpass ten up hills, even after downshifting, and sometimes was distracted by the wood shifting in back and veered a little into the oncoming lane and drew some horn blasts and also felt uncomfortable forcing lines of cars to crawl behind me. I suppressed concerns by inhaling hot green weed, a practice I now condemn whether or not behind a wheel. Just outside Memphis there was a large brick 7-11 store, unlike anything out West, and in minutes I was entering Elvis’ town. He was just one-year dead that month and I wanted to pay respects but had to wait since darkness approached and on the radio I heard there was an eight p.m. curfew due to a strike and the National Guard would be out and ready to shoot. Cruising Memphis at night in a lumbering truck wouldn’t have been cool, anyway, so I pulled into a motel that looked okay and paid about twenty dollars for a room that offered a door difficult to open, a hardened dog turd clinging to the carpet near the door, peeling wallpaper, a window that had been pried, a bathroom where the shower had been removed and only a bathtub remained next to an empty towel rack. Fine. I used the sheets.

In the morning I considered looking for the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, but had only a road atlas without a detailed Memphis map so decided, in a pre-internet age, to drive to Graceland, whose white columns gleamed on high ground inside the fence. Outside, a carnival atmosphere prevailed amid parking attendants and souvenir hawkers. Enough. I moved west and from Interstate 40 failed to see much development, if any, along or even back from the shores of the mighty Mississippi River.

I drove into Arkansas, before I knew about William Jefferson Clinton, who in a few months would become the nation’s youngest governor at age thirty-two. During the following decade I occasionally saw his name in the news but never on TV until his ponderous speech, at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, that induced sleep and thus prevented me from hearing conventioneers cheer when the garrulous governor announced he would soon quit talking. On this day in 1978 I appreciated the green landscape and thick pine trees, rounder on top than pines in California.

Reaching Little Rock, I gazed at the beautiful Arkansas River, backed in places by bluffs and hills. Further west I periodically stopped to chat with locals along scenic Highways 10 and 109, which run south of and parallel to Interstate 40, near the Ouachita National Forest, and enjoyed more soothing accents, part Southern and rural Arkansas, a local twang formed amid pristine hills where one point is highest in the state at more than two thousand feet. I spent the night in Fort Smith, regretting I wouldn’t be able to head north to see the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Into eastern Oklahoma I plowed the next day, surprised by abundant trees and green landscape but expecting the dry and brown expanse that soon appeared. Reaching Oklahoma City in the center of the state I eyed a vast prairie interrupted by skyscrapers that seemed to belong in another world. The place I needed to see was about fifteen minutes south in Norman, home of Oklahoma University and its renowned football team. The stadium where the Boomer Sooners make their explosive entrances was visible from the road, and I felt the energy of national champions from the 1950’s under Bud Wilkinson and the titlists led by Barry Switzer in the 1970’s. The wishbone offense, glorifying the run and ignoring the pass as something for effete West Coast teams, was then ascendant on the field. But many years later, in the first decade of this century, corrupt college football authorities, addicted to bowl money and envious of the Golden State’s wealth and beauty, voted for good but not great Oklahoma teams offering pro offenses and under-qualified defenses, to play in four BCS – Bull C. Shit – title games. Three of those teams were measurably inferior to the University of Southern California, which twice had to play elsewhere for less. When USC and Oklahoma did meet for the title in January 2005, the Trojans annihilated the Sooners fifty-five to nineteen.

In 1978 I circled Binger on my map, committed to another back road, Highway 152 south of and parallel to Interstate 40, and as I drove west noted red soil and oil wells in the middle of farmland or next to houses. Entering Binger I slowed the truck to ten miles an hour to look at the windy, dusty town of less than a thousand where Johnny Bench grew up. On my left I noticed a baseball diamond and jerked the lumbering tin truck hard that way and pulled near the field. The bazooka-arm catcher of the Cincinnati Reds, the home run hitter, most valuable player, and World Series champ must have played on this spot as a kid. Maybe right here he discovered each of his powerful hands could hold six baseballs. Try that.

I walked into town and started stopping people and saying, “Excuse me. Did you know Johnny Bench?”

A middle-aged lady told me, “It wasn’t just Johnny Bench that was good. Four very good players are now dead. Two died in a bus accident when Johnny was a senior, and two later died in cars.”

A man added, “I think some of the other guys were better than Bench. They just didn’t get the breaks he did.”

I didn’t know what prompted these astonishing statements about young Johnny, who’d left town for the big time more than a decade earlier, but decided not to say, “Come on, folks. Johnny Bench hit forty-five home runs at age twenty-two and became the youngest MVP ever. Don’t tell me you had other guys that good.”

Late that afternoon I arrived in Erick, just east of the Texas border, a town so small the high school had only seventy students and played eight-man football. As the team practiced, I walked into the gym and shot baskets for about a half hour and then ran wind sprints on the football field, a respectable distance from the team. After practice I shot with one of the players and beat him HOR to HORSE, missing three of his made shots to his five of mine. I slurped cold water from the fountain and then greeted the blond, crew-cut football coach, who carried about two hundred forty fairly-firm pounds on his six-foot-three frame, and told him a little about myself, and he replied that they played six-player basketball and had won the 1976 Class B track title. As I prepared to leave, he said, “If you come this way again, stop in and see us.”

I spent the night nearby and next morning chugged west into the Texas Panhandle, which resembled the lunar landscape. I certainly got a long look. Moving straight into a thirty-mile-an-hour wind, my governor-regulated truck often topped out at forty miles an hour, which is damn slow on a dreary long stretch on a hot day in an un-airconditioned vehicle lacking a radio. I needed a fantasy when I pulled into an Amarillo gas station, and after filling up I asked a couple of local guys, “What kind of action you got around here.”

“The Paramount disco has women who’ll go home with you,” he said.

I thought this would be my only lifetime exposure to Amarillo, but fate pulled me back in 1992 when I tried to reconcile with a girlfriend who’d delighted me in 1988 Sacramento before my drinking ruined everything and she retreated to Mexico. A few years later she called and asked if I was still drinking. I said I was trying to quit, and that’s about as useful as a bank robber who’s striving to stop. In truth, by 1992 I was drinking less frequently but in greater quantity than ever, and though we reunited with a spontaneous bang in Amarillo and had two weeks of fun and intimacy, I was often the wreck all drunks are, and haven’t seen her since that summer though I several times tried to smooth over something that can’t be because it’s gone.

That day in August 1978 I made it to Tucumcari, a small town in eastern New Mexico. My notes state, and I recall, that the community boasted “impressive facilities” for a place that size: there were a five-diamond baseball complex, four with lights, and a high school football stadium with lights and surrounded by an expensive rubberized all-weather track. The commercial area ran along flat ground next to hills in which nested many fine homes. In my motel on the main drag, a Vietnamese family owned the restaurant, and four beautiful sisters worked as waitresses and hostesses, and three unseen brothers toiled as cooks.

“How long have you been in the United States?” I asked my waitress.

“Three years,” she said. That meant they got out right after the Americans, who, because of the delusion that monolithic communism existed, killed a couple of million Southeast Asians, dropped more bombs on that agrarian country than were used in all of Europe during World War Two, and lost fifty-thousand American dead and many more maimed physically and mentally.

“Why did you move way out here to Tucumcari?”

“Because we were sponsored by a family from here.”

“How do you like it?”

“I love it,” she said in excellent English. “I go to Amarillo and Albuquerque on lots of vacations.”

The following day, in the blistering mountains of Albuquerque, I ceased feeling like a sightseer when something started clanging on Interstate 40 under my truck, and I lost control of the vehicle, braked hard, and hung on as the autonomous vehicle lurched left across traffic into a field. I don’t know if some people had cell phones in 1978 but I certainly didn’t and had to hike to a restaurant and use a pay phone to call the local U-Haul people who came out and told me the drive shaft was broken. They replaced the shaft and said not to worry but I was leery since the truck growled and squealed underneath, and I must have been too shaken to either write down or remember the town where I slept that night but wasn’t so forlorn I forgot to note that “many attractive Indian women” lived there, in a town “built like Tucumcari (with) nice homes on hillsides.”

Moving ever westward through rain in eastern Arizona, I wished I could’ve stopped in the Petrified forest, and then was surprised to rise from a desert into cool green mountains before arriving in Flagstaff. Thereafter, I returned to the desert through which Interstate 40 runs to Needles, perhaps the most infamously hot and dreary community in California. Barstow was an upgrade, and just before sunset I checked into a local hotel. That night a television station ran the career highlights of world welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas of Mexico, a brutal puncher who’d turned pro at the preposterous age of thirteen, won the title at eighteen, and would soon fight top contender Pete Ranzany in my hometown Sacramento. From the motel I that night called a couple of friends and assured them that Ranzany would destroy Cuevas. We agreed to bet heavily. The following month, outdoors at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, Pete Ranzany pummeled Pipino Cuevas in the first round, thrilling local fans – I was there with the people I’d called – and forgetting the champ had a sledgehammer left hook. In the second round Cuevas battered Ranzany around the ring, floored him twice, and ended the fight.

After my stay in Barstow I drove west by the high-desert town of Mojave and then on into Bakersfield, where I had stopped only once, briefly, in 1970. Most people, when asked if they’ve been to Bakersfield, say, “No, but I’ve been through it.” I was fractionally ahead of them, and now, after more than nineteen years of residence in the place Buck Owens lived and where oil, agriculture, conservative politics, and bible-quoting reign, I’m a veteran outsider.

In August 1978 I headed north on Highway 99 and drove about three hundred miles to Sacramento and then another twenty-five on Interstate 80 east to Loomis, where my parents and aunt and uncle lived. In the dry California heat my stepfather raised the back door of the truck and rebuked me for returning with such a small load but, after unloading the wood – unloading is always much easier than loading – he seemed pleased with the stacks. And I am too, looking in my dining room at hand-painted tile embedded in a low, long, and heavy shelf made of beautiful Tennessee oak.

This entry was posted in Albuquerque, Amarillo, Arizona, Arkansas, Asia, Bakersfield, Barry Switzer, Baseball, Basketball, Buck Owens, Cars & Driving, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dogs, Doug Atkins, Elvis Presley, Football, George Thomas Clark, Johnny Bench, Memphis, Nashville, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pete Ranzany, Pipino Cuevas, Rivers, Sacramento, Southeast Asia, Tennessee, Texas, Travel, Vietnam.