Back in early 1958, while serving my sixth year in the Air Force, I made my first coast-to-coast drive across the nation from Connecticut to California. Destination: Tachikawa Airbase, Japan. I won’t say that it was a terrible drive, but it was a far cry from what anyone would see today.
Starting early one morning in New London, I jumped into a brand new – and dirt cheap – Renault 4CV, a sub-compact even smaller than the VW bug, but with a water-cooled engine. I had purchased it with a three- year tour in Japan in mind, having been warned about narrow and often unpaved dirt roads by men who had been there.
Driving south through Connecticut, mostly on the 45 mph Merritt Parkway, I entered New York. Making a quick jaunt westward across a small slice of New York on a four-lane road, I then spent an easy day on the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio turnpikes, all of which were ideal driving. After 10 relaxed hours behind the wheel, I stopped at a motel, ate, watched TV, and went to bed.
Filled with confidence as I finished breakfast the next morning, I cranked up my tiny Renault, which was so small, by the way, that I could actually lift the front end of it. As I began the drive that second morning I felt certain I would cut several days off the 13 days the Air Force had given me to make the drive across the country. However, the struggle through Indiana and Illinois quickly put a crimp in that idea.
Oy! What a royal pain in the yingyang! Time after time the speed limit went from 55 to 45, from 45 to 35, and from 35 to 25 as I crept through the traffic in some small town; after which it reversed the process to get back to 55 for a few miles, only to repeat the whole thing over again, and again, and again, and ...
Then I turned south and passed through Missouri and Arkansas on a couple of narrow twisted state roads, stopped at Sheppard AFB, Texas, to spend a day resting with friends, jumped in the Renault, headed west, and drove westward on I do not know how many narrow, curving, poorly paved state roads from there across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, to the California border.
After that came a trip over the Sierras where I enjoyed several half hour naps as road workers dynamited something up ahead. Then down into the Central Valley of California I rolled, and up to Oakland, where I put my little Renault aboard a ship. Finally, there came a bus trip to Travis AFB, and a long flight to Japan via Anchorage, which gave me some time to recover from a very lousy drive.
However, just three years after that in late 1961, when Lolly and I made the same trip, there were times when I could hardly believe the changes, especially in Southern California, where I swear they had chopped the tops off the mountains and tossed them in the valleys to level things off. And there were plenty of other places where the road had improved in ways that I found genuinely hard to believe.
All those improvements – and many, many more – didn’t just happen by accident, and I am not kidding when I say that reading about the who, how, and why of it is downright fun.
Let’s do that next week, OK?