IN MY PUBLISHED MEMOIRS, I relive a road trip in the spring of 1970, when Dave Bowen, a fraternity brother, and I, took a spring trip centered around delivering two spanking new ambulances to a small town in Arkansas.
This cross-country trip had returned to my conscience during Christmas holiday likely because I read two classic novels about the south - To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee and A Painted House, by John Grisham. I thoroughly enjoyed the stories and the vivid accounts of the deep south during the mid-twentieth century which rekindled my own memories that have lasted a lifetime.
The ambulances had been fabricated in a small factory in Troy, Michigan. The owner was best friends with my dad and he always had vehicles in the queue to be delivered somewhere around the country. These shiny ambulances had taken me on priceless adventures during college breaks. Hitchhiking was popular then and was often the only means to get back home. Can you even imagine? Miami and Key West had been previous destinations for me, but I had never traveled into the deep south; and my limited knowledge of the region came mostly from the weekly headlines in the 1960s centered around racial segregation and hurricanes and tornadoes that seemed to plague the region.
It sounded like a fun adventure for two 20-year-olds. Can you imagine combining a spring vacation and being paid to drive? We studied maps of the region that we obtained from AAA and began to calculate distances between cities to develop some continuity to our itinerary. It was going to be a week-long expedition that had serious gaps and brought with it my mother’s gentle words, “I don’t believe it is particularly well thought out.”
The ambulances were to be delivered to a Chevrolet dealer in McGehee, Arkansas. The owner happened to also be the mayor of the town. After all the paperwork was signed, we would be hitchhiking to Mobile to retrieve a new Volvo 144 for Dave’s parents that came all the way from Sweden. We would be driving it back to Milwaukee to Dave's parent's home. His uncle was the first Volvo dealer outside of New York located on the gulf coast of Alabama. In a nutshell, this was the overview of our mission.
We left Detroit in late March and drove all night through fog, snow, and mountain mist and arrived in Arkansas. There was a pay phone at the rest stop just over the Mississippi River, and as directed I dialed a phone number where a genuinely nice man with a deep southern accent answered...
From the Hip & Heart, Chapter 13
“Welcome to Arkansas” were Bud LeFave's first words over the phone. It was a resonate voice like that of a Hollywood actor combined with inflections of a Tennessee molasses-hauler.
“I’ll meet you boys at the dealership right off Highway 65 in about twenty minutes.”
He advised us to just pull in the front lot, and because it was Sunday, we would be the only game in town and we could get the transfer done quickly.
You would have thought Dave and I had delivered two of the finest gifts from the factories in Detroit. In hindsight, Bud probably had been fighting funding in his city council meetings and these two gems were the outcome of a year of political wrangling that had taken place under his watch.
Dave and I hopped out of our respective vehicles to shake hands. Mr. LeFave welcomed us to Arkansas and to his town of McGehee. He noted that he was so glad we had arrived on a Sunday so he could devote time away from his business duties at the dealership. We were equally pleased because we heard that Sunday was church day in the middle of the “Bible-Belt” and we'd be lucky to find anybody to meet us. This caution had been our only warning from my parents about our planned journey when we left their driveway on Saturday afternoon for our fifteen-hour drive.
Bud remarked, “Had you been here yesterday, it would have been hell greeting you.”
He explained that the nice weather had brought in the customers.
“We were busy and sold a dozen cars and trucks. It was crazy.”
He examined the ambulances with their large rack of red lights and sirens and emergency decals. He walked around both vans quickly inspecting them to make sure that nothing had been damaged on the County’s newest assets, delivered 900 miles from the north. Most of the expense of the conversion was on the inside of the vans, but he didn’t even peak inside the vehicles.
We presented the documents that needed his signature and I explained to Dave, showing my seniority and acquired skills, how to get the three signatures and keep the one copy to return to Automotive Conversion for proof of delivery. Bud was like most businessmen I knew; he just signed all the paperwork as if he knew what was contained in the written text. He was much more interested in “chatting it up” with us.
"Where are you boys headed?”
I took the lead and stated that we needed to get to Mobile as we were on our spring break from college and would be picking up a new Volvo to deliver back to Wisconsin to Dave’s family. I stammered a bit in my story then announced, “We are on an adventure and thought that we would hitchhike along the Mississippi and end up in Mobile for our next assignment.”
He then said, “Why, bless your heart.”
I found out quite later in life that this was a common southern expression meaning that we were clueless, with no offense intended. He did not respond and moved us quickly to our next step in being welcomed to Arkansas.
“You boys will first come to my home for Sunday supper with my family.”
After a brief pause he added, “I am not a fan of you boys hitchhiking.” He did not explain his lack of support or why he was so reticent?
We proceeded to hop into his Suburban, a huge vehicle with lots of steel, rubber, and rows of seats. We had driven all night and sported a few whiskers and felt that a home cooked meal was a great idea. Dave and I smiled at each other with the thought of being placed under this man’s gracious wings.
The short drive was uneventful, and we just chatted about our schooling and interests and how we also were related to car dealers. We were searching for common threads. We arrived at his house within five minutes in his rural neighborhood.
Spring had come to Arkansas. I bet they were a full month ahead of Michigan with their trees in full leaf and spring flowers and perennials all in bloom. The warm weather was welcomed after a cool night of rain and fog in the mountains. The scents of chemicals and fertilizer filled the air likely applied earlier in the day on the emerging corn and soybean plants around Bud’s house. The home was a sand-colored brick and contained several large shrubs around the foundation of the house, perhaps Holly and Azaleas? The yard was very nicely maintained. The Zoyzia lawn was still tan from winter dormancy with hints of green just starting to show in spots.
After parking the Suburban in the driveway, we entered Bud’s garage and walked into the house and immediately found ourselves in the middle of the kitchen greeting three women at various counter tops. We were introduced as the, "boys that brought the new ambulances down from the north." They acted as if we were long lost relatives. They were wearing their finest Sunday dresses under their kitchen aprons. I remember shaking their hands as they curtsied in their own kitchen. A southern habit, I surmised.
The collection of aromas from the kitchen matched nothing I had ever experienced, even during the holidays in Michigan. I could see pie and cake on top of a server in the adjoining room and empty serving dishes ready to be filled with the offerings from the pots on the stove top where steam carried familiar smells of potatoes, vegetables, and gravy. There were some unique aromas too that were unfamiliar to my senses, but they all smelled wonderful suggesting that we would be fed extremely well and quite soon. Mrs. LeFave handed us wash cloths and towels and scooted us into a bathroom down a hallway to freshen-up to prepare to meet her children and the rest of the family and friends.
It was an Arkansas Sunday family celebration for sure.
Dave and I emerged from the bathroom. We both had shaved and washed up and laughed quietly behind the closed door at the sequence of events that placed us at the Mayor’s house for Sunday dinner. How funny was that? Such an adventure we were on.
Heading to the family room we met the entire family, there must have been a dozen in total. Dave and I showed well, except for our long hair. We were gracious, as were they. Bud’s youngest son had a small flash camera that he was carrying in his hands and I caught his eye several times as we exchanged little smiles. We were both playing face games, sharing exaggerated expressions intermingled into the room’s discussion about comparing life in Arkansas and Michigan. He was a cute little boy but you could tell he was a hellion in tennis shoes. After about six shots with his camera squarely aimed at Dave and me, I asked him, “Why all the photos?”
“Ever hear of Show and Tell?” Clearly spoken in a southern accent.
“Sure,” I responded thinking back on my grade school experience, just fifteen years earlier.
The group laughed and thought that was curious. The attention of the room shifted to our developing conversation and then the “bomb” made a direct hit.
“I have to bring something into class this week. I will show them pictures of you two. I’ve never been with damn Yankee’s before.”
And brief silence.
This represented for the little tyke his last words of the afternoon. This was a major faux pas. I knew it immediately. Bud moved with authority and speed that I was surprised he had in him, the speed that is. I bet he was nearing fifty-years of age. If asses and elbows describes a rapid retreat helped by his father, it is likely the best image as the boy was led from the family room down the hallway to the back of the house. I assumed he would go without the benefit of Sunday dinner.
This was a major social breach.
All recovered nicely and we collected to what would be a wonderful dinner. Grace was given by Bud, now in a very calm and reverent state. In the blessing we were welcomed under God’s eyes and grace. He also got in the County’s appreciation for the delivery of the two new ambulances. I recall that the food was spectacular, and that Grandma LeFave had made the biscuits and was praised by all at the table for her skills in the kitchen. I ate three biscuits and learned to use a wooden honey dipper to slowly release the sweet nectar onto my biscuits.
The conversation was very complimentary of Grandma’s baking skills and she was so proud to be recognized by nearly every family member. We got the picture at the dinner table - keep Grandma happy, she likely owned the car dealership and was a good cook.
After our most appreciative thank you and goodbyes to the entire family, which did not include his little boy, we hopped back in the big Suburban. We learned immediately that Bud had made reservations on a bus in Greenville Mississippi that would take us into Mobile Alabama. It was about a forty-mile trip from his home back across the Mississippi to Greenville. We chatted about so many things. He again apologized for his little one, now remarking candidly that he was simply echoing what he hears every day from his surroundings.
Bud surprised us with his disclosures. He explained that hitchhiking the back roads of Mississippi and Alabama were dangerous for three reasons: we were college students, we had long hair, and we were from the north. The order did not matter. He explained that those were three enormous strikes against us with the bigotry that manifested itself in the small towns in the deep South.
He admonished us for our naivety, and asked us if our parents knew our itinerary? I answered resoundingly, “Sort of.” Thinking back, Dave and I were a bit sketchy to both our parents as we laid out the trip and though they were excited that we were excited, we suspected that the 350-mile gap from our two delivery jobs may have gone in a low disclosure mode as we prepped for the trip. I realize today that adults never want to know too much, anyway.
“Boys, I didn’t go to college but have worked hard and have had some nice breaks along my way.” He explained that he had many more worldly experiences than 99% of his neighbors, and wondered out loud that we surely must have read about the problems in the south?
“ What are they teaching you in your college? There is an awful tension and too many outsiders are trying to tell us how to live. It doesn’t work.”
He went on, “Most of my neighbors are four generations removed from the Civil War, now compound this with the northern controlled federal government’s building high rise homes in the cities for the negroes.”
He particularly espoused the belief that ‘urban renewal’ would destroy the family structure of the American negro. All the “Northern do-gooders” solutions are far worse than the perceived curse.
We were driving a rural route to Greenville and he was pointing out wooden shacks, gardens, donkeys, and dark figures off on the horizons in both Arkansas and Mississippi as we peered out the windows of the Suburban taking in all his words.
Bud continued, “These people are solid citizens, these are their homes, and they are happy and a great people. You can’t develop high rises and stuff them in and hope that providing government welfare will ever help the American Negro. It just doesn’t work like that.”
He warned, “Once we get the Vietnam war over with there will be hell to pay in our cities, you watch.”
The frustration that Bud demonstrated during the forty-five-minute drive was our price for his hospitality. In his fifty years he had learned much, and he had something to say and used us to get some issues off his chest.
We were twenty-year-old's with lots of promise and little insight. No college classes we had taken could replace the history lesson and perspective that this man was giving us. This was the deep South, and their voices and points of view were not a favorite of the national media outlets. The contrasts were incredible. We focused on Bud as if he were lecturing in a classroom. We truly listened.
I was thoroughly impressed and thankful that our ambulances found such a man. I was in conflict because he loved a way of life and he was not a bigot, yet he was. This was adding more confusion in my attempt to define my world, but he too was struggling with changes that were all around us.