Thanksgiving 1965

As some of you read in my Wednesday Facebook entry, my Thanksgiving holiday did not begin well:

Not a good start to the holiday: spent 8 hrs in the ER with my wife who had a touch of pneumonia, then a bad reaction to an antibiotic; the doctors had to scramble to find a replacement that wouldn’t turn her purple; they did, but I waited another hour in the pharmacy to get it (their computers crashed).

On Thanksgiving day, I put the local fire department and EMTs on alert in case dinner preps went awry as my grandson and I tackled the job while my wife rested. All considered, it was a successful effort and no emergency services were required. We dropped the turkey on the floor only once.

But in the middle of the muddle, the ER doctor, a nice young lady, called to say she’d like to see my wife, Chris, back in the ER. Apparently the lab had found some nasty bacteria doing the backstroke in one of her blood samples. A second sample, however, was free of any “wee beasties.” But just to err on the side of caution, the doc wanted to pump a 55-gallon drum of antibiotics into Chris.

So, after dinner, back we went. This time our visit lasted just 3 hours. Today, Chris is home resting and doing better. And once again I have dodged Black Friday.

But the whole affair stirred memories of another Thanksgiving holiday that was a point-way-off-the-curve, 40 years ago.

I was a young 2nd lieutenant in the Air Force. I had orders to Vietnam and was driving solo cross-country from South Carolina to Oregon to spend time with my family in Portland before departing for Southeast Asia.

On Thanksgiving day, I was wending my way through the corn fields of central Illinois, tracking along back roads in my little red Triumph, a TR4. (For you non-aficionados of autos, the TR4 was a popular British sports car of the time.) Farm reports and country music on the radio kept me company.

Near noon I spotted a roadside diner that was open and pulled in for my Thanksgiving feast. It wasn’t much: pressed turkey and cold stuffing. But it gave me a chance to relax and mull a few things over.

As a sat alone, I wondered whether little guys in cone-head hats would try to blow me up in Vietnam; whether my girl friend would be waiting for me when I got back from overseas; and whether the remainder of my journey to Oregon would be as uneventful as it had been so far.

The answer to all three questions, it turned out, was no. But this is a tale only about the third question.

The day after Thanksgiving, I was headed west on I-80 parallel to the Platte River in Nebraska. A cold front swept in and I found myself engulfed in wet snow squalls.

The roads turned slushy but remained drivable. The little TR did fine except when I tried to pass 18-wheelers. The big trucks hurled buckets of slush onto my windshield, and the Triumph’s flimsy wipers proved about as effective at removing the icy mess as a popsicle stick might in trying to clean an oil slick. So I’d pray, jam the accelerator to the floor, close my eyes and pass.

I made it to Cheyenne, then set out across southern Wyoming the following day. I could have remained on I-80 into Salt Lake City, then turned north toward Pocatello, Idaho, my fourth night’s destination. But my roadmap dangled an enticing alternative in front of me: a short cut across southwestern Wyoming into southeastern Idaho. I stopped at a gas station and asked if the road were passable. Yes, I was told. So off I went. Bad choice.

The road was indeed passable, but layered in hard-packed snow, and I wasn’t yet an experienced icy-road driver. That would come later, after 20 years of New England winters. But in Wyoming, that Saturday after Thanksgiving, my novice skills showed. I down-shifted on a particularly greasy stretch of highway, threw the car into a spin and landed in a snow-filled drainage ditch.

The TR entombed itself up to its fenders in high-country powder. I got out, surveyed the situation and decided I was not only in deep snow, but in deep doo-doo, too. Nobody around. And cell phones were still decades in the future.

But after 15 minutes or so, a rancher happened upon the scene. Looking back, how bizarre it must have appeared to him: a little red sports car hibernating in roadside snow, a guy in a buzz-cut standing helplessly beside it. Anyhow, he stopped, leaned out the window of his pickup and said, “Need some help?”

“No,” I answered, “I thought I’d just hang around until April. I’m sure things will thaw out by then.” No, of course, I didn’t say that, although a smart-aleck character in one of my novels might have.

In fact, I was truly grateful for the man’s help. He tied a rope onto the Triumph’s bumper and hauled it out. I would have offered to buy the guy a beer, but hadn’t seen a tavern in over 50 miles

Later in the day, the car fishtailed again, but this time I kept it on the road. And drove even more slowly. By then I was convinced I’d never get out of Wyoming alive, let alone Vietnam. It was well after dark before the lights of Pocatello hove into view and I knew I was saved.

The remainder of the trip was far less exciting. But the Thanksgiving holiday of 1965 is one I’ll always remember. Along with this year’s.

Photo: A 1965 Triumph TR4
The car in the photo is identical to the one I drove cross-country from South Carolina to Oregon in 1965 during the Thanksgiving holiday.


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