Almost broke, I’d arrived in St. Augustine needing work. I’d spent the summer of 1951 zigzagging north to south but generally eastward, aiming to drive my 1931 Model A Ford coupe through 48 states (all there were, then!) before we fetched up in Ithaca to take up studies at Cornell.
I worked my way from California, aiming for a few days’ work here and there that would earn a $100 grubstake to fuel me and the car through another few weeks and states. My first work stop was to thin pears in an Oregon orchard.
I easily found the street corner in town where men looking for day work stood in the pre-dawn stillness; farmers came, looked us over, spoke to a few and had the chosen sit in the back of their pickups. I was an oddball in an assemblage of middle-aged men, some nursing hangovers. The second farmer took a chance on me and let me follow the pickup loaded with another half-dozen.
It was easy work: The bees had pollinated too many of his huge orchard’s blossoms, and some of the tiny fruit had to be thumbed off. He showed me the art (the men were all veterans) and watched a few minutes to be sure I wasn’t going to overdo, then left me. He let me sleep in a barn, and after three days I was on my way again.
My next work, picking cherries in Utah, was close to disaster. This time my fellow workers were women and even children, most of them wetback Mexicans. We climbed into trees with baskets slung around necks, instructed emphatically to pick by the stems. When we took basketfuls to be weighed and recorded, our handiwork was examined carefully: If there were more than a few stemless cherries, we earned half as much per pound.
My co-workers, even though twice as fast, were never so penalized; experienced, they never pulled cherries off their stems. I too often did. I couldn’t make my hands pick right—so I almost never had a full-rate basket. After two days, although well short of my target $100, I gave up and moved on.
Minnesota was more successful: A pea cannery, most of whose workers were teen-agers from the town. The work was easy, mostly monitoring machines and conveyor belts, so there was time to make friends. And bonus: I was invited to bunk in a barracks with a crew of Jamaicans who got up in the dark, breakfasted on eggs kept overnight in a steam table, and were out in the fields early enough to have wagonloads of peapods at the factory when we canners started work.
Back in late afternoon, the Jamaicans played cricket with loud gusto. I persuaded an older man to give me lessons in patois, which helped me make a new set of short-term friends. Then on Sunday my factory pals invited me to a lakeside picnic. My strongest memory is of their envy at my travels. We were less than ten miles from the Iowa border, where I was headed next. “Wow!” several said. “You’re going to Iowa?” None of them, in that long-ago insular era, had ever crossed that border.
Somewhere in Nebraska I stumbled into a one-man job unloading a railroad car of hundred-pound sacks of flour, a backbreaking day. Then, emboldened by the ease of finding—and doing—seasonal factory work, I tried at a tomato-and-ketchup cannery when I reached Illinois. What was available turned out to be the very hot work of stoking the coal-fired boilers that ran the place, while my much-older supervisor smoked his pipe. I hardly saw a tomato in three days, but I made my grubstake and moved on.
And then my luck ran out. A dock strike on the entire Gulf Coast had rippled through the Southern economy; demand for transient labor had evaporated. I soldiered on, offering myself for all manner of jobs and being routinely turned away—trying not to be discouraged, hoping Florida would be different.
It was not, so far. I invested in a city map and spent an hour trying to memorize it before applying for a taxi job, but they saw through me. I drove to an out-of-town dairy pursuing an advertised milking job, but it was already filled.
I would have to tap my reserve: Ten-dollar payments from the Newark Sunday News for articles about my travels, sent each week to my parents’ home in Akron, Ohio.
At a pay phone outside a suburban restaurant I put in a collect call to both parents. Dad wasn’t home yet, so Mom declined the call; the operator let me hear her suggest that I try again in an hour.
I went back to the car, opened the trunk for my supplies, and sat on the bumper to make a sandwich: from a nearly-empty jar of Skippy peanut butter and a huge, almost-new jar of store-brand grape jelly.
And I dropped the jelly.
The jar broke neatly, spreading a blob on the pavement that look salvageable. I reached into the trunk for a plastic bowl and began spooning jelly off the street.
I was interrupted by a chorus of giggles. Three young women, hardly older than I, had seen my catastrophe, and thought my effort to salvage some jelly was hilarious. When I looked up, though, their smiles turned to sympathetic grimaces and expressions of regret.
I should explain that I—or at least my Model A—was colorful. I’d painted it bright blue, with its name, The Strugglebuggy, prominent on both doors. I had a simple luggage rack over the roof, its front and rear faces emblazoned with 48 States or Bust! And on the trunk lid I had an outline map of those states, each one painted solid as I reached it.
I gave up on the jelly—I couldn’t seem to get much without including road grime—and explained my travels, with the trunk map as guide. After a pleasant few minutes, they went on their way, and I sat down again on the bumper to see about my sandwich.
I’d hardly gotten started when I heard the tap-tap-tap of heels on the sidewalk, and one of the three appeared before me. “Put all that away,” she commanded. “We’re taking you to dinner.”
I needed no coaxing. I washed up in the restaurant men’s room and joined them for a glass of wine and the best dinner I’d had since leaving California. They were “office girls” who’d hardly been out of St. Augustine; they were fascinated by, and envious of, my travels. I probably did most of the talking.
It was well more than an hour before we parted company and I went back to the outdoor pay phone to call the folks. Dad was home, and we had a long conversation.
Had I completed that call earlier, I’d have had difficulty disguising the fact that I was more than a little lonely and depressed. But after that dinner, I was back on top of the world, optimism restored, confident I could make all 48 states and not bust.
Dad went out that night and did whatever one did back then to send my newspaper earnings—$80, I think—to the Western Union office in St. Augustine. I slung a hammock in an out-of-the-way corner of some park for a good night’s sleep. In late morning I found the telegraph office, collected my money, and started north to visit a classmate in Birmingham and then wander north along the Eastern Seaboard and the Appalachian states.
I found another job somewhere along the way, made Maine number 48, and doubled back to Ithaca in time to start classes. It was one of my best summers in a long life—and dinner with three “office girls” was surely the best night of the whole expedition.
Published by Sheepshead Review, the literary magazine of the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, online on September 4, 2021