Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Skippy's Excellent Cross-Country Adventure


By Skip Sheffield

I never had a close relationship with my father. You could say I had no relationship.

In a perverse way this was a good thing. The great gift my father gave me was the gift of freedom to make my own decisions, and face the consequences good or bad. If the question was something risky or dangerous, I always went to my dad first. If it involved money, he invariably said “If you want it, you pay for it.”

I started making money on my own at age six with a lemonade stand on the boardwalk in New Jersey. By age 11, I graduated to babysitting, which proved to be lucrative. At age 12 I began delivering newspapers -- and ended up spending my entire adult life working in the newspaper business.

Our family visited Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the summer of 1956 for a family reunion. I was enchanted. The sheer splendor of the Grand Tetons was dazzling. The rush of the crystal-clean, ice-cold Snake River; the rustic charm of downtown Jackson and the rugged life of real cowboys all made an indelible imprint. I vowed one day to return.

By the summer of my 13th year I had saved enough money to finance the month-long, nearly 6,000-mile journey, by rail and bus. A child’s round-trip ticket was only $140 and change. I figured $100 would be enough for expenses, because there would be none once I reached my Uncle Jack Huyler’s Rocking H Ranch.

Dad was impressed at my ambition. He even took my part over my mother’s misgivings, and in all fairness the USA was a safer place in 1961 than it is now. Rail was probably the safest mode of transportation for a 13-year-old boy on his own.

I learned straightaway that people tended to be protective of me -- especially the train personnel. Such a trip could not be made today, as it involved four different rail lines, some of which no longer have passenger service or are out of business altogether. In its heyday the Florida East Coast Railway was a lovely way to make the Florida leg of the trip. Less lovely and much longer was the rival Seaboard Air Line, which took an inland route from West Palm Beach via Tampa.

The first day was uneventful until our arrival in Jacksonville, where I had to transfer to the Atlantic Coast Line. A young man had gotten stumblingly drunk in the lounge car and toppled out the door to the tracks, breaking his leg. It was dark by the time the ACL leg began. A young, black woman and her young children boarded the train somewhere in Georgia. A girl age seven or eight settled in the seat next to me.

I have never been good at falling asleep on moving conveyances in awkward positions, so my first night was pretty much sleepless. By dawn’s early light I smelled something unpleasant. The little girl had urinated in her sleep, soaking the seat. I had the sinking feeling that perhaps I had made a foolish, terrible choice. I spoke to a porter, and he said I could ride in the club car.

A family must have noticed my discomfort. It was a husband and wife with a boy a little younger than me -- and a beautiful daughter. She was 21, I learned, because she told me. When I told her I was 13, she replied, “If was 13 again, I could go for you.” Like magic the miserable night was forgotten. The family taught me how to play gin rummy, and I was invited to breakfast and dinner the next day.

Our next destination was Carbondale, Illinois, where there was a layover and a change to the Illinois Central. There was a young Army guy at the station, toting a duffel bag. He asked me where my family was and I told him back in Florida. I explained my quest and he was suitably impressed. He said since we had time to kill, would I like something to eat.

Sure, I said. There was a place named Flo’s CafĂ© nearby. He told me to order anything, so I ordered a T-bone steak.

The soldier got off at St. Louis, where there was an even longer (8-hour) layover for the Union Pacific westbound. I started to head out of the huge Union Station when a porter called out and asked where I was going. I told him I wanted to explore a little while waiting for my train. He pleaded with me to stay in the station and not venture out, particularly after dark.

“This is a bad part of town,” he admonished. I was not a fearful kid, but I wasn’t stupid and so heeded his advice.

The Union Pacific was a big step up over the previous three railways. The cars were newer and cleaner, and had several Vista Dome observation cars as well as a dining car and club car. For various delays the train was behind schedule. By the time we got to Rock Springs, Wyoming, we were too late for me to catch the only bus north to Jackson Hole. I shared my plight with the station master, and he suggested I check in the Park Hotel, which was less than a block away.

The hotel was a grand old, red brick structure that had seen better days, but it still was better than anything else in that dreary and dangerous coal-mining town. I told the desk clerk I wanted the cheapest room, and I went through the now-familiar litany of my trip. The clerk said OK that will be $3.75. The bathroom is down the hall he added, and oh kid, whatever you do, don’t leave the hotel after sundown.

I befriended another family at the Park and again got treated to dinner in the hotel. I felt like a real man of the world checking out of the hotel in the morning with my little suitcase. The bus finally arrived. It was no Greyhound Sceni-Cruiser. It was a battered old Flixible from the 1950s.

For the first time on the trip, and owing to bus fumes and winding roads, I felt nauseous The trip seemed to take forever. The bus could only do about 50 mph flat-out and less on the inclines. Jackson Hole is a mountain valley more than a mile above sea level at its lowest part.

Uncle Jack and Aunt Margaret met me in downtown Jackson. I told Uncle Jack about the Park Hotel and he said good choice.

Rock Springs is one of the roughest towns in America,” he said.

I was assigned a bunk in the “Kids’ Cabin” at the ranch. I was the youngest of five or six guys, all friends of my cousin John Huyler, who was 16. Three years is a big difference when you are 16. I could tell the guys weren’t crazy about having a 13-year-old punk around.

It was hay harvest time. Rocking H ranch still had cattle and a barn full of horses. Because I was the smallest and weakest of the males, Uncle Jack assigned me to drive the hay wagon. The vehicle was a Ford J-8 tractor, vintage 1948. It had a four-speed transmission with a first year so low you could climb mountains with it. I had never driven a stick shift or any real vehicle, for that matter. I learned to avoid the “granny gear” after I dumped the boys and the hay a couple times by letting out the clutch too quickly. This did not endear me to the gang, but it was a valuable learning experience. I have never driven a vehicle as difficult to operate as that old Ford.

The guys liked to brag about romantic exploits; I made the mistake of making some snide remark about “getting something” and got the cold shoulder of disdain instantly. In turn, I realized I would never belong in the guys’ inner circle, so I began to hang out with Cousin Steve, three years younger than me. Steve was a favorite of his grandmother, the matriarch of the ranch. Steve wasn’t much into horses or cowboy stuff. He was fascinated with rocks and had a little polishing machine that he would use followed by spending hours studying the colorful stones.

At the beginning of my visit I had been assigned a horse, a gentle brown mare, I grew to love and trust that horse. When Cousin John suggested I might want to ride bareback, I grabbed the opportunity. I think the horse appreciated not having the heavy western saddle, or the straps cinched around her.

John noticed my progress. He said the real test of human and horse is to ride without bit or bridle -- just a rope halter. I found the horse was happy to be rid of the cold steel bit and the leather reigns to yank her head about.

There was a reason John suggested riding bareback without bit or bridle. That is how he and the other guys took their horses swimming. I was overjoyed to accept their invitation to go swimming with the horses. It is a unique sensation for human and horse, and quite enjoyable for both on a hot summer’s day.

Uncle Jack is a great believer in spurring people on to ever greater challenges. As an early birthday present, he bought me mountain-climbing lessons. I never had the urge to scale a mountain, and from Boy Scouts I knew I was pretty lousy at knot-tying, something essential when your life depends on it.

Cousin John and his friends were nuts about mountain-climbing. They would tie amazingly complex knots with speed and ease. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or look like a chicken, so I accepted the lesson and hoped for the best.

A day of Climbing 101 climaxes with belaying off a cliff. This means jumping off backward and controlling the release of a rope encircling your waist. I took the proverbial leap of faith and lo and behold it felt great. I think my stock went up considerably amongst the other boys. It was a fitting end to a three-week stay.

After the long bus ride back to Rock Springs I boarded the Union Pacific without delay. In Denver a girl near my age boarded the train. Yes, she was attractive, and yes, she noticed me.

When she went to the Vista Dome car to view the scenery, I boldly asked if the seat next to her was taken. She said no and I introduced myself.

I learned her name was Donna and she was bound for Kansas City, Missouri, where her family lived. When it came time for dinner we went to the dining car together. When night fell we went back to the observation car, bathed in the soft light of a billion stars.

We talked all night and began holding hands, then kissing a bit. I had always liked girls, but nothing like this had ever happened before. In that short space of time I got an inkling of what it was like to really fall for someone.

The next day we pulled into Kansas City and Donna and I said our farewells. She was crying and so was I. We exchanged addresses and I wrote to her, but I never heard from her again.

The rest of the trip was a boring blur, ending at the FEC Railway station in Boca Raton. My family greeted me like a returning hero, and I felt like one.

I entered ninth grade with a new level of confidence and savoire faire. Ninth grade was a triumph from beginning to end, academically and socially. The day I turned 14 I took and passed my restricted driver’s test and much to my mother’s distress, bought a used mo-ped. A new era of freedom had begun. I thank dad very belatedly for giving me permission.

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