Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Great White Whale

By Daddy X

In 1970 a friend back east telephoned Momma and I, then living in San Francisco, saying he’d just rented an 18th century farmhouse in Bucks County Pennsylvania, out in the country near my home town. Would we like to come and live in another communal situation?

San Fran had been good to us for over a year and a half. We had our own place, I had a job downtown, and Momma’s health had somewhat improved thanks to the medical care at UC hospital. We probably wouldn’t have considered the move, but my boss at a major retailer was being investigated at the time for embezzlement and theft. Between the two of us, we’d relieved an international conglomerate of $20,000 worth of merchandise in my four months working there. I’d recently driven the guy, his wife and two kids, across the state line into Nevada. It was as good a time as any to get out of town, so we decided to sell everything we owned at yet another moving sale. Early on, Momma and I did that sort of thing regularly.

We flew back to an idyllic scene in the Delaware Valley near Carversville, Pa., living with two other guys—both rock musicians—and their rotating girlfriends in a historic Revolutionary War area. Washington had crossed the Delaware to engage in the Battle of Trenton, the acknowledged turning point in that famous rebellion, only a few miles away.

We didn’t own a car when we arrived, so transportation became tops on the list of things to do with our limited funds—before the stash got frittered away.

One day, driving around, I spotted a 1948 Chevy five-window pick-up truck for sale, newly painted white. The massive black diamond plate front bumper, 18 inches high, boasted three hard rubber projections. A description on the windshield stated the 6-cylinder engine was recently rebuilt, and that the beast had been used for years to push crippled vehicles around a mechanic’s lot.   

What’s this? Only $225? I’ll take it! The perfect vehicle to make a living with! At first, I was tempted to paint across that wide-ass bumper, in large white letters: “AIN’T GOT NO INSURANCE”, then thought again in a rare fit of pragmatism.

For months, I ran an ad in the local paper for ‘light hauling’, generating enough cash with the Great White Whale to keep Momma and I in rent and victuals, with the help of an ever-morphing succession of wandering hippies, musicians and various other questionable actors who shucked and jived through the farm that summer. Many of them never were very successful, and didn’t need much to get by either. My friends’ band, The Little Flowers, hadn’t had a steady gig since their year and a half run at the Night Owl in Greenwich Village. Back in the mid-60’s they’d opened for virtually every group to come through that venue.

Visitors who had made good and showed up at the farm, situated right between New York and Philadelphia, were folks from The Allman Brothers, The Doors, Tom Rush, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs’ entourage, Youngbloods, many of their roadies, groupies and inevitable and incestuous hangers-on.

After we got thrown out of that place, we moved across the river to another farmhouse, this time in Flemington, New Jersey. That’s another story. But suffice to say the first time it snowed laid the groundwork for a planned u-turn back to San Fran for Momma and me. It doesn’t snow here.

Good old California. We had the Great White Whale to get us back. It was a really dependable vehicle. Even in the cold and wet of the eastern winter, it started every time. That’s saying a lot for a six-volt electrical system. The three-quarter ton Chevy carried a wide bed and rode high above 17-inch wheels. Big industrial tires. The newly restored bench seat was a comfort, as was the knowledge that in low-low gear, I could pop the clutch (without pressing on the gas) and not stall the motor. The powerful monster would grind on and on.  

In my great wisdom, I charted a “southern route’ to avoid frigid February on Rt. 80, across the northern part of the country, through places like Denver in the Colorado Rockies. Hell, they call it the friggin mile-high city for chrissakes! No sir. We’ll take the southern route, thank you.

Despite what we’d heard about the south and what had happened to the Easy Rider guys. Get some kicks! Go across on Route 66. We may have been too smart for ourselves. In both Tennessee and New Mexico, the temps fell below zero F. overnight.  

There were luxuries the White Whale didn’t have. For one, it didn’t have a heater, radio, or a working gas gauge. Nor did the odometer register miles traveled. You sort of had to guess how much gas you had. We worked out a system where we’d fill up every three hours, no matter what the terrain or distance traveled. The vacuum-operated windshield wipers were somewhat less than efficient, and we managed to keep them going with sheer will. That and trying to de-ice the windshield by concentrating the combined heat from our co-joined minds. (That actually did work, I must say, even as skeptical as I can be of spectral folly. Some things we experience cannot be denied.) Our gallon jug of water froze.  The cat we’d brought along for the ride almost ditched our sorry asses, and for a time, we thought she had, but we found her up in the springs of that new bench seat. Momma’s feet still give her trouble from frostbite she incurred on that trip.

Due to the fact that the gearing in the Whale was so low, it topped out at 45 miles per hour. We’d be violating many states’ minimum speed laws on freeways, so we decided to avoid such thoroughfares for country roads whenever we could. It was still possible back then; I don’t know about now. Because Momma was in poor health for so long, she no longer drove, so the entire job would be up to me. 

Contrary to our predispositions regarding the south, we encountered wonderful people on the road, despite our appearance. Here we were, two sorry-ass long-haired hippies, far from home, freezing, our knuckles red, stiff and sore. Waitresses at truck stops offered coffee refills and called us ‘sweetie’. In Little Rock, Arkansas—an infamous symbol of civil unrest at the time—a gas station attendant gave us each an old pair of work gloves. 

For the entire drive I swallowed women’s menstrual pills, things called Dapersils, given to housewives of the era for relief from monthlies. First you were slammed with a combo of Milltown, an early, crude tranquilizer—mixed with some kind of heavy speed. Once taken, if the recipient could hold his/her shit together and not go unconscious from the Milltown, along would come this welling amphetamine rush that’d take over for five or six hours or so to keep a person wide awake. Ahem ... or so. Of course, these doses and effects could be adjusted to the rate warranted. For the entire trip I maintained a well-adjusted warp rate, perfect for the job.

And what a job it came to be, like a Zen exercise. I wound up driving the width of this country solo, accomplishing the job in three shots. I drove 36 hours, slept 12, another 36, slept another12, then 18 hours. I hallucinated deer, reptiles, Elvis Presley, and assorted spacey critters on roads across West Virginia, Arkansas and Oklahoma. I slammed the brakes to a screeching halt one dawn on a freeway winding through Albuquerque to avoid crashing into a stalled blue and white 59 Buick convertible (top down) that wasn’t really there. Albuquerque turned out to be a good time for one of those 12-hour naps. ;>)

Three thousand miles I drove and drove the Great White Whale, until she blew a head gasket somewhere below Paso Robles, about 200 miles south of our destination. That meant if I turned the key off, chances were the motor wouldn’t build the compression to start again. We limped into SF feeling like the Joads, busted head gasket blasting like she had no muffler, everything we owned stuffed behind us under the living room rug.

When we look back at such behavior, it can seem to convey a certain frivolity, a sense of ‘it don’t matter to me’ syndrome, perhaps an echo of the times. But if not for that voyage of apparent disregard for creature comforts, Momma X may not have rejoined with the U.C. California medical system.  In time they saved both our lives.

At least the Dapersils lasted. Got us here, partnered with that Great White Whale.




  1. The Hippy Grapes of Wrath by Daddy X

    This whole adventure sounds like an Arlo Guthrie talking blues tune a la "Alice's Restaurant". Brings back many memories.

    I wonder if young people ever go on great cross country treks any more.

    Thanks for sharing yours. It was a fun little ride.

    1. Thanks, Spencer!

      We wouldn't have admitted to being hippies back then. We always thought hippies were too naive, but we did fit right in. :>)

      BTW- That little pic if what I imagine is your beard looks just like mime after I've just trimmed it.

    2. Yes, great men travel in tight circles. Or loose ones. It's a return to innocence. I wore facial hair all through the 60's. It wasn't white then. I grew it out last year for the Novembeard thing when guys are supposed to show awareness for prostate cancer. My boys like it, so does my wife. I think it makes me look like a much classier homeless guy.

    3. Awesome story, as usual, Daddy!

      In 2006, I took 14 days to drive across country, traveling from Boston to Seattle and stopping in many odd places along the way, many of which I had read about in books. (Decorah, Iowa, for example, because of Poe Ballantine's Things I Like About America). I can attest that Blue Highway travel is still possible.

      A year later, while working on my graduate thesis, I spent nine days driving from Florida to Boston, stopping to visit researchers along the way (including one at Virginia Tech, mere months before the tragic shooting there—I'll never forget that the researcher I visited, who was killed in the shooting, suggested we take a scenic walk around the campus before I left because who knew if we'd get the chance to do it again. I'm glad I took him up on it).

      I love the old state roads people used to take down to Florida for Spring Break, and I love the crumbling towns they pass through, even though I feel a bit guilty for loving that aura of decay when I know it's made of pain.

      I'd like another Blue Highway trip soon.

    4. How terrible about your friend. So sorry.

      But I am glad that the concept of the classic 'road trip' is still in play. My 20 year old nephew just went on a summer tour of the western states with his pals and had a great time. Even when Momma and I got older, we liked to take road trips, up to three or four weeks out there on our own. We wouldn't take out any reservations or make other commitments, relying on getting rooms as we may. We carried a tent if a room wasn't possible for some reason, but I can't recall actually having to use it if we didn't want to. The road trip represents the ultimate in freedom in that way. If we liked something about an area, such as good fishing or hiking possibilities we'd stay a few days, then move on when ready.

    5. Thanks for the kind words about my friend—I almost left that part out, but it's so connected in my mind to that trip I couldn't bear to.

      But yes, as you say, I love the freedom of road trips. The weird discoveries are the best part—I've wound up in towns I never thought I'd visit, captivated.

  2. What a ride! Ever think about who should play you and Momma in the movie? (But first you need to write the book.)

    1. Well, this could be a draft of one chapter, at least! Maybe someday....sigh....

      Thanx, Sacchi

  3. I agree. That's a great story about trips, on several levels.

  4. Fabulous tale, extremely well told.

    Made me think of some of my road trips, though they were never in such desperate circumstances.

    Within the first six months we were together, my DH and I drove from the east coast to the west coast - and back. Those were the days!

    1. Actually, we never thought of ourselves as desperate, just a'movin' on...

  5. I've never done that EC WC thing and wish now I had (in my youth) Excellent story Daddy - bio coming?

    1. Perhaps will do a memoir someday. Scary, considering all the research I'd have to do.
      Lots of brain cells in a battered condition.


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