By Jeremiah Reardon
Texas and the Southwest always held a special place among my childhood fantasies. It’s where the buffalo roamed and the skies were not cloudy all day. Scenes of desert and cactus stirred empathy for my cowboy-heroes. At school, Texas stood out as that huge state on the colorful map that the teacher would unwind from its case attached to the ceiling. It sat atop Mexico where people spoke a different language and wore ponchos and sombreros.
My younger brother Francis and I drove through the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts the summer of ’69, a time popularized in song by Bryan Adams. We yearned to see first-hand how people lived far from cities. Drafted by the Army in 1966, Fran had already lived there when stationed at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas, for Advanced Infantry Training in preparation for duty in Viet Nam. In ’69 Fran completed his first year of college at Philadelphia’s Temple University. A new graduate of the University of Maryland, I’d been accepted to study law at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
For cheap transportation, we applied at Auto Driveaway in Philadelphia. Assigned a convertible Jaguar XKE for delivery to Los Angeles, we made a refundable $50 deposit. We put the pedal to the metal on U.S. 1 Bypass to check it out. Much as we loved the thought of driving a sports car, it burned oil, leaving a telltale trail of smoke in its wake. Bummer! We brought it back.
Told by the agency to pick up a Dodge Charger in New Jersey, the sight of the white mid-size V-8 with two doors thrilled us. “That’s the car for us, Francis!”
“Yeah, man!” he agreed, hurrying to jump in the driver seat before the owners changed their minds. Perfect for a cross-country trip by a couple of wild and crazy guys, we’d only pay for gas and oil all the way to Scottsdale, Arizona.
At the wheel with the wind in my hair, I drove switchback curves in the afternoon as sunlight filtered through tall trees where the Pennsylvania Turnpike hugged the Allegheny Mountains. Caught off guard listening to the Beatles, I shouted, “Shit!” Flashing lights played in the rearview mirror. “Everything OK here?” the Statie in a broad brimmed hat asked once we’d pulled over.
“Uh, yessir,” I replied.
“It sure looked like you were in a hurry,” he said. “License and insurance card, please, young man.”
With a warm $15 ticket sitting in the glove compartment, we continued north of Pittsburgh and into Ohio. Fran drove armored personnel carriers with his buddy Dave DiPierro in Viet Nam. Recently married, he and his bride welcomed us to Shaker Heights, an attractive neighborhood of single homes east of Cleveland.
A tight fit pulling into his old garage caused me to scratch a flake of white paint from the passenger side. Sizing up the damage, Fran said, “No biggie. Don’t worry about it.”
“Good deal, Bro. Thanks!” I trusted his judgement when it came to car repairs.
After a couple of days with the newlyweds, including visits to Lake Erie and the art museum, we set out for Oak Ridge in the Tennessee hills to visit Pam Merritt. I attended high school in Washington, D. C. with her older brother Keith. The year before I had attended her Arlington, Virginia wedding to Bob Nestor. They both worked for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Their ranch home perched on a slope planted with pine trees. Sunlight poured through a window and made Pam’s freckles and blonde highlights stand out. She had an idea. “You’ll be going to El Paso. My brother Robert is stationed there. Why don’t you look him up at Fort Bliss?”
“That’s a great idea, Pam,” I replied. “I met him at your wedding.”
In the evening, Bob snapped a photo of us seated on the living room sofa looking through pictures. Saying goodbye to the fair-haired love birds the next day, we drove to Nashville where I spotted a Lee Jeans factory from the highway. Needing a new pair of shorts, I borrowed scissors to cut the leg bottoms off the jeans to the dismay of the salesclerk.
Downtown at Vanderbilt University we joined a pickup basketball game. This became our routine to satisfy Fran’s passion for the game. The past school year at Temple he’d played on its freshmen basketball team. His ball sat in the car’s trunk for moments like this. We shared details of our journey with the players, one of whom offered Southern hospitality and use of his dorm room that night.
That evening we checked out the Grand Old Opry, famous for its TV broadcast live on Saturdays. Surprised to see it closed, a passerby told us where to hear country-western music. Heading back from this suburban venue, we passed a demolition derby. Floodlights pierced the cloudless sky on a sultry evening. We paid for bleacher seats and joined families and couples on a date who cheered for a favorite driver.
Cars with white numbers on their side raced around the figure-8 course, with crashes blocking other cars which tried to detour around the wreckage. “What the hell? This is insane!” Fran shouted in disbelief. And to think only a year ago this guy hauled troops while dodging road mines and enemy gunfire! I thought it great fun, but it kept him on edge.
Thanking our new friend in the morning, we pulled out of town for New Orleans. By afternoon we gawked at Lake Pontchartrain, crossing its twenty-four-mile bridge with low-rise concrete barriers separating us from its lapping waves. We parked at Tulane University where we again played ball and found a place to crash that night.
First, we took a St. Charles Street trolley downtown. We arrived in the French Quarter at sunset on Bourbon Street to join crowds and hawkers on the sidewalk and admired pastel-painted rowhouses decorated with iron balconies and railings.
Standing in a restaurant garden featuring a rock band, we chugged beers along with a crowd which ogled the topless go-go dancer on the bandstand. “She’s from Philly,” Fran declared. “Look! She’s doing the Bristol Stomp!” Later we chatted with the slight blonde and met her boyfriend who, sure enough, were from Philadelphia.
Another club featured a scantily clad woman seductively seated on a swing taking her out the window and above the sidewalk. Finally, at a crowded spot we found a booth in the back. I fell for our beautiful waitress bringing us beers and offered her my love beads worn over a black-wool vest knitted by a friend. Fran laughed, “So, now she’s gonna remember you, Jerry? Ha! Ha!”
As our trolley made its way back to Tulane, I thought about Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The manic scene in the Quarter that evening didn’t measure up to the play’s emotion but still it’d been an eye-opener. We looked forward to sharing its highlights with the guys in the dormitory.
We departed first thing in the morning and drove the interstate to Texas. Lunch hour heat soared in backed-up traffic amid concrete highways and towering overpasses in Houston. I recalled one of Dad’s stories. “Fran, remember Dad saying he once lived in Houston?”
“A little, remind me.” he replied, keeping an eye out for a faster lane.
“He came here with a friend from New York City. They both got jobs at oil companies and studied nights at South Texas School of Law for the bar exam,” I explained.
“He dated a woman he’d met at church. Eventually, he passed the bar exam. But after six months or so he became homesick and returned to New York. ‘My friend stayed and became a millionaire in oil law,’ he told us.”
“Ha! Just think,” Fran said, “we could’ve been Texans instead of New Yorkers. Yeehaw!”
“Fran, speaking of dating, I saw a nice looking blonde from the window of Dolores’ new place. She told me she’s a classmate at Penn. You oughta check her out when you get back.” Our sister graduated from Cheney State (PA) College in record time, three years, and she’d just begun the urban secondary education program at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Hmm, OK, if you say so, Jerry.”
San Antonio and Texas hill country served as a welcome change after the concrete sprawl and high rises of Houston. After gassing up at a truck stop, we ate steaks and slept in the car parked in the shade. West Texas desert and mountain ranges under a hot sun lay ahead. We got up after sunset. With I-10 connecting to Arizona, we’d drive nights the rest of the way.
Small deer and large jack rabbits populated the highway. Their eyes reflected car headlights, always on a curve it seemed to me, who drove too fast. Fortunately, I didn’t run over any of the suicidal critters who kept us company.
We recalled Pam’s suggestion and exited I-10 at the sign for Fort Bliss just as the sun brought El Paso and Juarez, Mexico into view. At the gate we inquired for Captain Merritt. “He’s on field maneuvers with his unit, sir,” the Army MP told us. “He’ll be gone the rest of the week.”
Disappointed to have missed Robert, we headed for Texas Western University (University of Texas at El Paso, today). Students directed us to a tan-colored stucco residence-hall with large windows where we could shower and sleep after we’d played basketball with them outdoors.
With the lights of El Paso and Mexico fading in the rearview mirror, we paralleled the Rio Grande into New Mexico. I-10 shifted west at Las Cruces. With only light from the stars filling the void, our headlights shone on a hitchhiker. A young guy with long hair, he dashed to our car. Making room for him amidst food, clothing and the basketball, he slouched into a corner and gave his name as Ray. “I have an apartment in Tucson which you’re welcomed to use,” he offered. A Pima Indian, he told us that he grew up on the reservation south of Phoenix. We thanked him for his generous offer.
Tucson appeared in the distance as the sun rose above the desert studded with human shaped cactus. Exiting miles before downtown, we took a gravel farm road. Our Native American friend’s humble home was the size of a large garage. Shade trees surrounded it. Fran and I grabbed our sleeping bags out of the trunk and entered a studio space with a few pieces of furniture. We quickly fell into a deep sleep on the floor.
Bang! Bang! Bang! The front door shook just a few feet from us. Ray jumped from his bed. He opened the door to angry shouts. Fran and I raised our heads in consternation. “If you don’t have your rent, I want you out of here, now!” the red-faced landlord declared once Ray opened the door.
Well, our luck had ended. Ray already said he couldn’t help with gas money. “OK,” he agreed. “Just give me a minute. I’ll pack my things.”
With his worldly possessions in a grocery bag, Fran and I took Ray downtown to the Greyhound station. “Thanks Franny and Jerry,” he said, “I’ll be getting back to the rez real soon.” Within a couple of block we discovered Ray’s bag. Damn! The bus had left. Checking inside, he’d only packed a few pieces of clothes and a toothbrush which we discarded. Ray’d be home in a couple of hours; we needed to find a place to crash.
We visited a University of Arizona fraternity house. Bob, a thin guy wearing glasses greeted us. “Hey, a Viet Nam vet! No kidding,” he said to Fran. “My friend Dennis is, too. He’d love to meetcha.” On the way over, Bob told us he came from Buffalo, a fellow New Yorker. “He’s a great guy, Dennis. He’ll probably let you stay, tonight.”
Dennis St. Germaine, a heavy-set guy with a beard, lived in his grandmother’s vacation trailer near the campus. She ran the family business in Odessa, Texas, the Permian Basin Pipe Fitting and Valve Company. His black BMW motorcycle with saddlebags stood at the door. Just as Bob predicted, he offered to put us up for the night. We passed joints and drank cold beers. Our bullshit session resembled a scene in the tragic Peter Fonda flick, Easy Rider, outrageous yarns linked with incredible coincidences.
In the morning we tossed our sleeping bags into the car’s trunk. “Thanks, Dennis, for letting us stay. I’ll come by to see you in a couple of weeks,” I told him, as I had plans to find work before school started in September.
“Nice meeting you guys! Yeah, Jerry, see you when you get back.”
We drove the remaining two hours to Phoenix and stopped at a carwash. We had the car looking as good as eight days earlier in Jersey.
When we pulled up to the owner’s home in swanky Scottsdale, the middle-aged guy gave the car a once-over. “What’s this?” he cried, pointing at the missing speck of white paint on the passenger side I chipped off in Ohio. Damn!
“Ah, it just needs a bit of paint,” Fran replied in a calm voice. “Do you have any? I’ll take care of it.”
After a pregnant pause, the owner grudgingly relented, “Don’t worry. I’ll fix it.” Whew! That was close, I thought, happy with Fran’s quick thinking.
After paying us the $100 delivery fee and returning our $50 deposit, he gave us a ride over to Arizona State University in Tempe. “Thank you, sir,” we said as we got out of the car with our bags.
We discovered all night ball courts had a meter you’d drop a quarter into a slot to keep the lights on. Cool! We quit just before midnight and accepted the offer of another player to crash at his place.
“Thanks for letting us stay, man,” we said to our new friend as we set out in the morning to find the interstate entrance. Fran and I hitched rides out of the city and into a broiling desert to reach Los Angeles. To keep from being sunburned, we took turns hitching. The lucky one would stretch out in the shade under Fran’s camouflage-green poncho, draped over scrub brush, with its corners tied.
Our best ride took us from the desert to the city. A guy and his girlfriend had pulled over for us and waited as we untied the poncho. He jumped out to open the trunk for our bags. Happy to be in LA we all got out to say goodbye. “What happened to my clothes?” the young woman wailed. In his haste to make space for the bags a few hours earlier, her boyfriend had tipped the spare battery. Acid dripped from it onto her scattered clothing and nylon underwear. With apologies to the unhappy couple, we eased away from the drama.
We arrived downtown before sunrise and camped out at a bus stop before service resumed. I visited LA the previous year when my buddy and I had arrived for Easter weekend from the Peace Corps training center near San Diego. We stayed with my mother’s sister, Veronica Henry, in Santa Monica. Her TV-star daughter, Emmaline, treated us to lunch on Sunday at a seafront Marina Del Rey restaurant.
While Fran stretched out on the bench, I went for a walk. “Jerry! Where’ve you been?” Fran sounded alarmed once I’d returned.
“What do you mean? Just down the street to take a walk,” I said, puzzled by his demeanor.
“A cop came by and searched me, he replied. “Said he’d never seen a basketball packed in a duffle bag before!” We laughed at that. Then it was my turn to be alarmed.
“Shit, Franny! Should I get rid of my pot?” I had stashed a baggie in my pack.
“Are you nuts?” my smart-ass brother replied. “After bringing it all this way, hell no!”
A city bus materialized out of the morning fog to stop for us. In another hour, we knocked on the door of Danny Griffith’s bungalow in Pasadena. We’d been friends since 1954, living on the same block in Chillum, MD and attending Catholic grade school together. Dan had served in the Army in Korea. Now, he attended Pasadena Community College.
We hung out with him, his wife Sharon, his sister Maureen, and their friends. After a couple of weeks, Fran had found a room at a University of California Los Angeles fraternity and worked at an airport facility in El Segundo to which he rode on his bike.
I hitched back to Tucson, five-hundred-miles east on the interstate to the welcoming city set off by shimmering lights. Dennis, a University of Arizona journalism major who worked on the Druid Free Press, an underground newspaper, greeted me at the trailer.
He and I became roomies along with his buddy, Ed Chamberlain, a tile-layer who had served in the Navy. We shared a one-story twin house with a basement, rare for Tucson. Located at East Broadway and Cherry, stadium lights a few blocks north would come on for night games played by the U of A Wildcats football team which flooded the neighborhood.
I got a job in the law school’s basement library where I rearranged books in newly expanded stacks. After work, I’d ride Dennis’ 3-speed bike home and marvel at how quickly clouds blocked the sun over the Tucson Mountains. Within minutes they’d release a downpour soaking me through. Once it stopped and the sun shone, my clothes dried in minutes. Ah! the desert has a special place in my heart.
On our journey Francis and I learned how the Southwest offered opportunities to the adventurous seeking a laidback lifestyle. Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas all became home and places of employment for me over the 70’s and 80’s, and a source of fond memories today. Truly God’s Country, it’s a place I love.
Our big brother John intercepted my traffic ticket when it came in the mail at our home in Primos, Delaware County, PA. Without a word to our parents, he mailed off a $15 check to the state police for which I later repaid John. Thanks, Johnny!
Pam Nestor met my niece Genevieve and her husband Thomas Vehige in her hometown Savannah, Georgia. Genevieve and Thomas came from the Family Mission Company in Abbeville, Louisiana, in January 2018 to attend a Catholic spiritual renewal program. Genevieve introduced herself to Pam who replied, “Are you by any chance related to Jerry Reardon from Washington, D. C.?”
“Yes!” Genevieve exclaimed, “That’s my uncle!” Small world. Within a couple of months Genevieve received a note from Pam along with her photo on Page 1. Thank you, Pam!
Francis returned to Temple University for his sophomore year at the end of August. He had answered a post on a UCLA ride board by a young man headed to New York in a Volkswagen. I had returned to Los Angeles for a quick visit and took the rear seat. Pulling into Las Vegas, we played the slots and ate ninety-nine cent meals. In the dawn we parted company and I hitched back to Tucson. Ah! How I loved traveling in the desert.
Francis met the blonde I had mentioned to him in Houston once he returned home. Our sister Dolores served as Hill Hall Resident Manager at the University of Pennsylvania. She threw a party there for classmates. She invited Fran who met Nancy Nicholson, from Atlanta. Two years later they married with me as his best man.
Jeremiah Reardon is a resident of Cuenca.