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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Frank Recollections of Da Nang


October 24, 2017

Frank,

Thought I would write some more of my recollections from Da Nang.  But first please indulge me while I provide a little background about how I ended up there.  I did enjoy reading your brief personal history.

I got married just the month before entering the USAF on the delayed enlistment program.  Graduated in 1965 from high school in the small northeastern Oklahoma town of Chelsea.  Attended college that fall with a student deferment but rarely studied.  The second semester after first semester grades were released I lost the student deferment and was reclassified to 1-A.  In Oklahoma after you were ordered to report for the military physical you could expect to be drafted the following month.  I rode the bus to Oklahoma City in July, 1966 for the physical.  In the mean time my parents and younger sister had moved to Lindsborg, Kansas, a small Swedish heritage town in the center of the state.   So I quit my job in the parts department of a Tulsa Chevrolet dealer and moved to Lindsborg.  Had been hearing commercials on the radio about the USAF, “Find your place on the aerospace team”, so I visited the Air Force recruiter in nearby Salina, a significant small city and the county seat of Saline County.  The recruiter gave me a catalog listing all the possible careers available to an enlistee.  Based on my aptitude test scores I was only eligible for Mechanical and Administrative positions and definitely not electronics or the other area which I can’t recall at this time. 

I knew I didn’t want to be drafted and certainly didn’t want to go to Vietnam; grizzly reports of which were on TV and in the papers daily.  So I studied the available careers for which I was qualified and imagining for each whether it would be needed in Vietnam.  I chose Supply Services Specialist, a career that would have the individual working in one of three areas: Clothing Store, Base Laundry, or the Base Commissary (grocery store or warehouse).  It worked!  In August, 1966 I enlisted with a date to report at Kansas City, Missouri in mid-October.  As a result, my home of record all during my time in the Air Force was Lindsborg, Kansas, even though I had only briefly lived there and didn’t want to be known as someone from Kansas.  I was born and raised in Oklahoma and was a big OU Sooner football fan.

I married my girlfriend in Tulsa in September, 1966.

I was assigned directly from basic training to an OJT position in the commissary at Vandenberg AFB near Lompoc, CA.  We arrived at Vandenberg in December, 1966 and found an apartment in Lompoc.  Also took a part time job at the Union 76 service station at Vandenberg Village about halfway between Lompoc and the base. Some of the guys I worked with at Vandenberg had been there since basic training and were about to finish their four year enlistments.  I expected to spend the remainder of my time at Vandenberg.  In March, 1967, our son was born at the base hospital.

But in less than a year, the decision was made to eliminate the military positions and replace us with Civil Service employees.  I had to choose a different career.  That is how I ended up at the Fuel Systems School at Chanute AFB in Rantoul, Illinois during that very cold winter.  We were there during the time of the infamous Dallas vs. Green Bay “Ice Bowl” game in Green Bay a couple hundred miles further north.  We rented an apartment in the upstairs of an old house on the alley behind a fast food place a few blocks north of the base along the highway and main north-south drag a couple blocks south of the Rantoul business district.  Was there from November, 1967 to February, 1968.  From Chanute I was assigned to Kelly AFB in San Antonio, next door to Lackland AFB.  We rented a small house just beyond the north perimeter of Kelly.  I was part of a B-52 Worldwide Mobility Squadron but went to work each day with civilians at the huge hanger where the B-52s were dismantled and overhauled periodically.  I had to get inoculations so that I could go to any place in the world on short notice.  But after only a couple months there, I got my orders for Da Nang.  The group I was supposed to be assigned to had been moved to Udorn, Thailand.  It took six months for that error to be corrected and is why twelve of us were sent to Udorn in December, 1968.

 Because of all these early changes, I was very slow to get promoted.  My records from Kelly were slow to get to Da Nang and I was only able to take the Level 5 test shortly before I was moved to Thailand.  Once in Thailand, again the records were slowed and I arrived at George AFB in June, 1969 still a two stripe airman.  But I soon got the third stripe and a year later, a couple months before discharge made Staff Sergeant.  Sounds familiar, huh?

While back in Oklahoma on leave before heading for Vietnam, I was hanging out with some high school buddies when we learned that our close friend, George Allison, had been killed in Vietnam.  He had stubbornly refused opportunities join the Oklahoma National Guard or “dodge the draft” like I had done by joining the Air Force.  He was drafted and sent to Vietnam as a medic.  A truck in which he was riding encountered a mine.

I flew out of Tulsa to LAX on May 31, 1968.  Along with some other airmen, caught a helicopter taxi to Norton AFB in San Bernardino.  From there, after a security process reminiscent of a scene from the movie Stripes, I got on a Flying Tiger 707 converted to passenger service and packed with men from every branch of service.  It was a miserable flight for me.  Lots of guys smoking, playing cards, and talking loud and aggressively.  We stopped in Honolulu for fuel just before sunset.  Got a great view of the island and deplaned long enough to walk through the airport and view the street outside before heading on to Guam.  Were delayed in Guam for two or three hours in middle of the night due to some maintenance issue.  On to Da Nang we had crossed the International Date Line so that I got there on the morning of June 2, 1968.  I was unaware at the time that the plane had parked just a short distance from the hanger where our fuel systems shop was located.  I recall the heat, and the smells and sights of the local people at the airport terminal.  Seemed to take forever to process through the office at the Da Nang AB center in that area where the indoor movie theater and midnight chow were located.  I had never felt the sun so hot.  It seemed to burn right through my shirt. 

Finally, in the afternoon, I was dropped off at the barracks.  Don’t recall exactly how I arrived there.  But I do recall walking through the front door on the ground floor carrying my heavy duffle bag as I walked halfway down the length of the corridor bordered by small cubicles, each created between steel framed bunk beds and two metal lockers.  Ceiling fans hung from the rafters above the corridor barely stirring the humid air.  I recall the place seeming rather dark.  Sand bags along the outside of the walls blocked some light and what little breeze may have seeped through the wire mesh and gaps between the slanted boards of the exterior walls.

And so it was at this point I was introduced to Frank Saure, a member of the Fuel Systems shop.  I remember you telling me your name and making it easy to remember how to pronounce it; “Hi, my name is Saure, you know, just like it sounds, Sorry.  And you can take the top bunk.”  I remained in that cubicle for a month or so before moving across the corridor.  Think I got the lower bunk over there after a small black guy from New York City moved on, perhaps back to the states.  That city guy and I got acquainted and enjoyed an interesting afternoon one day when we were both off work and he shared a cold bottle of chardonnay with me.  I had never drank wine before so it hit me pretty good.  A nice memory of good conversation and cultural exchange.  I had just turned 21 in May before coming to Vietnam.

I believe that Jay McDonald, Tommy Stacy, and Zumbrum all lived there on the same floor of that barracks.  Also thinking about another guy from Mississippi who seemed to be close with Tommy Stacy.  His last name may have been Coons.  He was a smaller guy, about my size while Stacy was a taller and bigger guy.  Sometime later, Stacy and Zumbrum, not sure who else moved to a different barracks across on the other side of our compound beyond the chow hall.  Not sure why they moved but do remember the group of people in that barracks hosted a big cookout.  Think there may have been more of our Fuel Systems group in that barracks.  I have some video of that cookout.  Also seems that a rocket hit either their barracks or the one next door.  Maybe some injured but none of our Fuel Systems guys.

At some point I moved upstairs in our barracks. Not sure why.  May have been due to my cubbie having the habit of eating sardines right out of the can in the cubicle.  Later, I moved back downstairs to same cubicle.  When our shop was moved to the new location we would walk along the perimeter road to the shop which was also along that road.  Along the perimeter near our barracks were a communications tower and a shack where some telecomm people operated a radio over which military personnel could place a call back to the states.  I never did but some of our group did.  Think they had to sign up or wait in line.  But, again, that scene offered us some great humor material.  That is something I remember and appreciated about you.  You had a great sense of humor.  Anyway, in order to talk to someone back home you would have to say “over” after speaking in order to allow the other party to respond.  For some reason we had a lot of laughs just saying “What the F**K? Over!” 

At the new shop some of the guys built tables and benches for us.  I remember we spent a lot of time playing cards at those tables.  Seems the tables were picnic style tables and were covered in black vinyl fabric.  Favorite card game was Hearts?

Also near that new shop was a truck trailer that functioned as a convenience store.  Big wooden steps on each end of one side of the trailer provided access to the entrance and exit.  Inside were several products.  My favorite was the ice cream items.

During rocket attacks while we were at the first shop in the big hanger, I recall rushing out to the bunker, and how the smell of the dirt floor mingled with cigarette smoke.  Also remember an older Sergeant who was balding and smoked a pipe.  Mostly recall the aroma of his pipe and the time when we were working on the fuel tanks in the floors of some helicopters that were parked across the tarmac not far from the hanger.  The mosquitoes seemed to be attracted to the fuel puddles in the open tanks and would swarm around them.

After a while in the barracks we would no longer run to the bunker during rocket attacks but just sit on the floor of the cubicle knowing we had protection on the sides and taking our chances on a direct hit.  The experience of being exposed to those conditions helped to change my outlook on life in many ways.

I was very happy to fly out of Da Nang on a C-130 to Tan Son Nhut AB at Saigon where we spent the night before flying off to Bangkok the next evening.  The sardine eating guy and I met up at a snack bar and caught a bus to downtown Saigon where we visited the USO and called home before catching a bus back to the base.  We flew out of Tan Son Nhut after dark on a commercial 727 jet.  It’s hard to describe the relief and happy feeling I experienced as the lights of Saigon faded into darkness.  After a night in Bangkok, the 12 of us flew on a C-130 to Udorn AB in the north not far from Laos.  Udorn was so different from Da Nang.  Beer was 10 cents at the pool where we could sit at a table under a canopy and eat hotdogs.  There was a nice airman’s club, a library, outdoor movie, and hobby shop.  But I never found the kind of camaraderie and group identity there that had been my experience at Da Nang. 

At Udorn there were a couple of guys who had been my instructors in Fuel Systems School at Chanute  Think their names were Battles and Likes.  Battles also showed up at George but was in a different squadron.  Could they have been instructors when you and Jay were in tech school?

After less than a month in the desert near Victorville, my wife took our son and went back to Oklahoma.  We were divorced in 1970 about six months before my discharge.  After they went back to Oklahoma, I gave up the duplex apartment and moved into a barracks on base.  That barracks was across the street north of the airman’s club snack bar and just east of the CQ office.  When not working, most nights I would go to The Hanger Inn, a bar and pizza place in Adelanto.  Had a couple of guys from my squadron that I hung out with  at times.  I spent time at the Branding Iron dance hall in Apple Valley and at several other places in the area.  But San Bernardino and Riverside were better for weekend outings.

After discharge, I lived in Independence, Kansas.  In 1972, I met my current wife, Judy, while living with my sister in Kansas and going back to college.  Judy and I were married in 1973 and have two children.  After college, we worked for the same pipeline company in Independence where both our families lived.

In 1991, we were transferred to Houston and bought a house in a northern suburb.  We have been in same house ever since.  I retired in 2013.

Thanks for reading.  Your additional filling in the blanks and sharing Da Nang or other stories would be welcomed if you care to write them.

James Middleton


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Julio’s

Julio’s 

Just a neighborhood bar and grill most days
A Mexican place at the end of a strip center.

The typical place you might find anywhere 
Nestled across a parking lot from Home Depot.

With a dining area spacious and colorful
Windows there offering a view into the bar.

A small bar with an isle between stools and tables
Quite adequate on ordinary days of the week.

But Friday nights the little bar is packed with people
Karaoke folks wall to wall laughing and singing.

Dustin mans the KJ console taking singer requests
From the diverse crowd of karaoke enthusiasts. 

Music, the universal language, acts to form bonds
Easily making friends of strangers amid the confines.

Familiar faces week to week exchange compliments
Singing along to deliver happy applause at the end. 

Just another neighborhood bar transformed each time
Into a tiny forum where music and camaraderie reign. 

Julio’s, the fun place to sing on Friday night
For those who enjoy some cozy mingling. 


Friday, October 13, 2017

Deward and Pauline’s

Sitting in a Denny’s late at night
Hash browns, eggs, biscuits and gravy.
Thinking back to the best and worst of times
Coffee hot and appetite strong.

Familiar scenes of Deward and Pauline’s. 
As with everything from those days, they’re gone.

Too old to tango; not too old to sing
I’ll bring them back again
When the bars close and the music stops.

Singing back down that highway
Going home from Deward and Pauline’s.

James Middleton

10/13/2017

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hit and Run!


Have you experienced a hit and run vehicle accident?  I know many of you have.  And like other crimes of theft and aggression, it left me dazed.  Although I was not injured physically, I admit I was shook up.  Fortunately, my son Jon was nearby and drove over to a Taco Bell parking lot where I had gone to collect my thoughts.  His advice and expert sleuthing techniques provided the perfect antidote to the mental anguish and trauma I experienced by seeing my recently restored Acura sedan damaged by a troubled young man.

About an hour after I said goodbye to Jon at Taco Bell, he texted me the driver’s name, address, date of birth, and criminal history.  The driver had recently been released from prison.  Based on what we know today about sentencing for possession and other non-violent crimes, I hesitate to brand the driver as a horrible person, although he may be. 

Following is the personal therapeutic technique I adopted into the late hours of Tuesday/Wednesday of this week.  I initially started writing the following letter to the driver not knowing what I would demand or threaten.  Ultimately I decided not to reveal my identity.  Why open a can of worms or trouble?  Perhaps better to say, as Judy stated during my late night tribulation, “I know who you are and I saw what you did”.

Here is an edited version of what I mailed for $1.19 postage to the owner/driver/who knows:



June 20, 2017



Dear Hit and Run Driver,

(actually addressed to the registered person/address)



This evening, as I was leaving The Pines at Woodcreek apartment complex about 6:47 PM, I drove across southbound lanes into the center turning area of Aldine Westfield Road preparing to go north on Aldine Westfield.  Before crossing the southbound lanes, I had looked to my left at the oncoming traffic heading south toward me on Aldine Westfield and knew I had adequate time to cross to the middle of the road and wait there beyond the southbound lanes for a gap in the northbound traffic.  Suddenly, I felt and heard a loud crash.  I knew the white car I had seen traveling south in the inside lane had struck the rear end of my green 2002 Acura 3.2 TL Type-S vehicle.

I looked to the south and saw that white four door sedan slowing and hoped the driver would stop or circle back to exchange information.  The driver then activated the car’s emergency flashers and sped off continuing south on Aldine Westfield.  I sat and watched as the car disappeared in traffic to the south.  I waited for a while wondering what to do.  After a couple minutes, I drove directly across the road into the driveway of a large business facility there and parked not far from the road hoping the driver of the white sedan would return.

I got out and took some photos of the damage to my car.  Soon a Hispanic male in a black Ford F-150 truck drove into the parking lot of the business and parked in a space about 100 feet away.  He got out and walked toward me with a cell phone in his hand.  He seemed friendly; not threatening.  He showed me a picture on his phone of the white sedan that had struck the back end of my car.  In his photo, damage to the left front fender of the white sedan could be seen and the Texas license plate number XXX-### was clearly visible.  Also obvious in the photo was the Ford sedan driving recklessly through the intersection of Aldine Westfield and East Richey Road against traffic lights, weaving behind a left turning tanker truck and in front of an oncoming white pickup that was attempting a left turn.  The unknown Hispanic male shared the photo with me and described how he had witnessed the incident.  He had been following the white sedan and noted it was traveling aggressively, the driver not paying attention as he clipped the rear of my Acura.  The Hispanic man followed the white Ford four door sedan to where it ran the lights of the intersection at Richey Road, nearly causing another accident.  At that point he had captured the photo of the white sedan on his cell phone.  The Hispanic male then said goodbye to me, returned to his truck and drove off.

A security guard for the company on whose driveway I was parked came to me on a golf cart and told me I would have to leave.  So I went to the nearby Taco Bell parking lot and called 911.  As a result, two Harris County Sheriff cars arrived at Taco Bell about 7:30 PM.  They ran the license plate number and confirmed it was assigned to a white four door sedan registered to someone on the east side of Houston.  No other details of that information were shared with me.

The deputies found I had only liability coverage on my vehicle and discussed the issues I might face in filing an accident report.  I thanked them and went on my way.

My vehicle is important to me.  I bought it about 16 years ago.  After I and other family members had driven it 175,000 miles, it was in pretty bad shape.  Over the past 18 months, I have worked on the vehicle, replacing many damaged parts, performing engine, transmission, and interior repairs, and sanding its surfaces by hand to prep it for paint.  Finally I had it painted and have been very proud to own it.  This car is my primary transportation.

I don’t know you but believe you were either the driver of the white Ford sedan or know who the driver was.  As one person to another, I am sharing this information with you in a non-threatening spirit.  I have no intention of suing or seeking any legal or other aggressive action.

I have not had a repair estimate yet but am very familiar with the components of my vehicle.  At the very minimum it will need a bumper cover, license plate, tag light, wiring harness, straightening of the stainless Tanabe exhaust, adjustment of left rear panel, trunk lid, and right rear panel.  Painting of those affected body components will be required.

I am not interested in hearing from you or getting anything from you.  I do hope you will think about how your actions affect others.  Further, I hope that for your sake and the happiness of your loved ones that you will seek help or get close to someone or something that will bring safety and stability to your life.

Sincerely,

The 70 Year Old Vietnam Veteran Driver of the Green Acura sedan.


Conclusion:
Wednesday, June 21, 2017, the first day of summer with a tropical storm brewing in the Gulf, I set out for a body shop in north Harris County where I had received some good work done in the past.  Unfortunately the place was no longer in business.  And the place in Conroe where the excellent painting of the Acura had been done last year was no longer in business.  So I drove back up Kuykendall Road toward The Woodlands to Caliber Collision where I had previously had some insurance repairs done.  There my long term contact, Ramone, took a look at my sad old Acura and offered some sage advice.  Because I had done so much work on the car myself, he recommended a couple of independent shops that are privately owned and are not bound by the restrictions placed on shops like Caliber that deal with the major auto insurance companies. 

Ramone’s first referral was a muffler shop.  During restoration, I had installed an expensive exhaust system on the Acura.  The right side muffler had been pushed to the side resulting in a bent pipe that needed to be straightened.  Ramone said they always take their customer’s cars to Busy Bee Muffler on FM 2920 and charge a markup over what Busy Bee charges.  I went there and made an appointment for next day to get that thing straightened.

Ramone also mentioned some good online places where I might purchase an after-market bumper cover.  Online I found a place where I can get a pre-painted bumper cover to match the Noble Green Pearl paint of the Acura. 

Wednesday evening, I removed the damaged bumper cover, and spliced the wiring for the license plate light.  It works!  Used some “balin” wire to attach the license plate to the ugly actual, and usually unseen, bumper to be legal until I receive and install the new bumper cover.  After removal of the damaged bumper cover the alignment of the rear panels and the trunk lid seem to be pretty good.  One remaining problem will be a crease on the back side of the trunk lid.  After buffing it out, the crease became even more apparent.  I had hoped it would not be significant but it is clearly visible.

Enough of my whining.  Perhaps my therapy will soon be complete.







Monday, April 17, 2017

Summer of 1963


Recently, I drove to Kansas to bring two of my grandkids here to The Woodlands for their 2017 Spring Break.  After taking them home a week later, I enjoyed listening to some great old songs on SiriusXM Satellite Radio as I drove back to Texas alone in the Hyundai Sonata.  A couple of the songs brought back meaningful memories of the summer of 1963.  Those songs were Candy Girl by The Four Seasons and Surfer Girl by The Beach Boys. 

Returning home, I fell back into my usual routine which includes frequent evenings out in front of my garage on the driveway listening to music from my iTunes playlists on the ION Bluetooth speaker.  Those two songs kept coming back to mind and I found myself thinking about that summer and the artists who had produced the music.  The only song in my collection from either group was Surfer Girl.  So I went to iTunes and acquired albums by each group.  While listening to the albums I surfed the internet, reading about the history of the people who created the music.  I was mostly interested in The Beach Boys.  Judy and I enjoyed the movie Love and Mercy, a couple years ago.  That movie stirred my interest in Brian and the group.  Since then I had been fascinated by his voice and tragically lost opportunities.

But getting back to 1963, in those days I only heard those two songs on AM radio stations in my 1953 Ford until a surprising opportunity came my way late in the summer of that year.  The year was a very impactful year in my life.  Turning sixteen years old in May, I got my driver’s license after taking the Rupert Cross Driver’s Ed class and completing the practical exam without alarming the OHP examiner too much.  With the license in hand, I approached the local Chevy dealer about a part-time job.  Of course nepotism played an important role in my getting the interview and the job.  Mr. Boyd Perkins was the owner of the dealership and the employer of my dad, Everett Middleton, the number one mechanic in the shop at Perkin’s Chevrolet.  And it didn’t hurt my chances that one of my best friends, Ernest Boyd Perkins, was the owner’s son.  As a result of my being employed there, it wasn’t long before Ernie began working alongside me although he was only fifteen years old and couldn’t drive (legally).

As the school year ended, the Chelsea High School baseball team was making a run in the State baseball playoffs.  At the dealership, a radio was tuned in to the broadcast of each playoff game.  We listened intently while washing cars and doing oil changes and lube work.  Ernie, along with a few other younger teenage boys were riding around town on the suddenly popular Honda 50cc motorcycles.  In fact, I think it was Larry Morgan who actually had the much more powerful 90cc version.  I had wanted a motor scooter or motorcycle since 1957 when some of my Roosevelt Grade School buddies began riding the Cushman Highlander and Cushman Eagle in my former home town of Henryetta, about 100 miles south of Chelsea.  But those were things we could not afford nor which my dad would approve of.

Ernie and I worked on customer’s cars but it was washing the used cars that took up more of our time.  The used car lot was several blocks away from the “downtown” location of the dealership.  So Ernie and I would ferry the cars back and forth between the dealership and the lot.  It was this practice that soon planted a seed of adventure in our minds.  I would like to say that it was Ernie who hatched the plan but I can’t honestly say that for sure.  Somehow we got the idea to leave certain interesting cars unlocked with the keys under the driver’s side floor mat.  At night, we would let a couple of our friends in on the “secret” and they would join us on a classic joy ride.  Chelsea was a quiet town with only one police officer on duty at night, so we enjoyed the pretentious thrill of danger and excitement by sneaking cars off the lot and spinning around the back streets of town.  Soon, we were taking two cars and drag racing them through the quarter mile strip west of town.  One station wagon and a pickup truck became our favorites.  The station wagon was a 1958 Pontiac with a 370 cubic inch V-8 and a four barrel carburetor.  The engine was rated around 285 horsepower, quite a lot at that time.  But soon, the decision was made to move the car lot across Highway 66 to the east side of that four-lane road, the main highway through town.  The assignment was given to Ernie and me to move the cars and the office furniture and equipment to the new site.  That Pontiac station wagon was a good vehicle to use in moving the office files, car keys, etc. to the new location. 

It was about this time, on a beautiful morning in June, that we were at the dealership washing the dust off the new cars lined up along the west side of the building facing Highway 28 (Vine Street).  At the very south end of this lineup of new cars was a white 1963 Impala Super Sport, parked in the very prominent spot so that it could also be seen from the main street of town, Sixth Street.  And soon came two cute girls walking along the sidewalk.  We didn’t recognize them.  But they were friendly and soon we were talking to them and learned they were from Redondo Beach, California, in town to visit relatives.  There was something very different about these girls.  Most noticeable was their California accent.  Definitely different than what we were accustomed to in Oklahoma.  And what a coincidence, they were cousins of our school friends, the Martin twins.  After lingering a while to talk, they went on their way while Ernie and I turned our attention back to work. 

Later that afternoon, Ernie’s mom, Mattie, who ran the office, came out to the shop and told us that somebody had a flat tire out on Highway 28 and needed us to go out there and put the spare tire on for them.  What a coincidence, the people had the flat right in front of the Martin twin’s house.  So Ernie and I jumped into the Pontiac station wagon and drove out north on the highway toward the location about five miles northwest of town.  I was driving and the station wagon was still loaded with as much of the used car lot office stuff as we could get into it.  When we arrived at the Martin’s place there was no car with a flat tire.  But those two California girls were there.  The girls claimed that the folks with the flat had changed it themselves and had already gone on their way.  I have always wondered if there ever was anyone with a flat tire at all.  But it was ok with Ernie and me.  We took a little time to talk to the girls before heading back to town.  As I was backing out of their driveway and onto the highway, I had to wait for a slow moving black 1950 Chevrolet sedan to pass by heading toward Chelsea.  I waved to the girls as I threw the shifting lever down to drive and floored it.  As usual, the nearly bald tires on the Pontiac squealed on the pavement as we sped off. 

Very soon I was behind that black Chevy and looking for a chance to pass as soon as we got through the winding portion of the highway that took us over a couple of hills.  Coming out of the last curve the way ahead was clear so I floored the Pontiac and laughed as we passed the elderly man at the wheel of the old sedan.  A couple of miles further as we were approaching Larry Delozier’s place, there was a loud pop and suddenly the car swerved a little to the right.  Blowout!  Whatever training or good sense I may have had before evaporated and I instinctively applied the brakes.  A very big mistake.  The vehicle suddenly began to skid with the right rear of the station wagon coming around to my right.  It was at this point that I experienced one of those rare moments that I had heard talked about before but never imagined I would face.  It was the “life flashing before my eyes” experience.  I could see the embankment on the northeast corner of the T intersection directly in front of our path.  I yelled to Ernie to get down as I gripped the bottom half of the steering wheel from beneath and pulled myself as hard against the seat as I could.  Seatbelts?  No.  Seatbelts had not yet become standard and were rare in those days. 

So it was in those few seconds as we slid across the highway toward the embankment that, in my mind, I saw a series of scenes from my life.  Time seemed to move in slow-motion.  What a terrifying feeling of helplessness.  And suddenly the Pontiac slammed into the embankment and flipped over onto its top.  Ernie and I were upside down looking at each other and amazed that we were still alive.  We scrambled out Ernie’s side through the window, finding ourselves in Gene Parks’ pasture.  The station wagon was upside down on top of his barbed wire fence.   We climbed over the fence and ran across the road, concerned the vehicle might catch fire.  The wheels were still turning and fluids were leaking out of the engine compartment, gasoline pouring out of the gas tank.  In the dirt and the grass along the embankment was strewn much of the content of the used car lot office; so many car keys.  It was then that the old man in the black sedan pulled alongside us and asked, “You boys need a ride”?

We sheepishly got into the car and checked ourselves over as he drove the last mile or so to Perkins Chevrolet.  I had a chipped thumbnail and minor scratches; Ernie, about the same.  We couldn’t believe our good fortune but now came the time to face our dads.  The old man let us out on the street and we walked across Highway 28 through the big open door of the shop.  Ernie went through the showroom toward his dad’s office while I walked over to where my dad was working on a car.  From that point things happened very quickly.  Mr. Perkins came walking briskly into the shop with Ernie right behind him.  Boyd told Everett to take the wrecker out to the accident location and bring that station wagon back to the dealership lot immediately.  Then he told Ernie and me to come with him back to his office. 

Boyd Perkins was a tall angular man with wavy gray hair.  Although his career before acquiring the dealership a few years earlier had been that of a skilled machinist, he had a distinguished look about him and an impressive gift for speaking.  I often thought of him resembling Jimmy Stewart or such a person as that. 

On the walk from the shop past the parts counter and back to his office, I tried to prepare myself for the meanest, most humiliating chewing out of my life.  The cost of the vehicle and all the office stuff weighed on my mind as we entered the office and Mr. Perkins closed the door behind us, motioning for us to take a seat as he made his way around behind his desk and sat down in a large brown leather chair.  All I could do was stare at the bright red model of a Corvette setting on his desk as I awaited his words.  “Boys”, he began, “The most important thing of all is that you were not hurt.  That Pontiac station wagon means nothing compared to how important you both are to Everett and me and your mothers.”  I’m sure he said a lot more than that but as far as he was concerned there was no punishment or financial obligations to be considered.  That was it. 

Ernie and his mom drove out to the site and searched the dirt around the area for car keys and any other items that could be recovered.  Soon dad was back with the totaled out station wagon which he parked across the alley north of the shop where such vehicles were kept awaiting insurance claims or other disposition.  As for me, there was a disabled car on the other side of town so my dad told me to take the wrecker over there and install a new battery in it for a customer.  I was still shaking when I climbed into that 1950 something Chevrolet two ton wrecker and started it up.  It was a reassuring feeling to drive along the city streets slow and careful in that big solid stable vehicle.  I knew I was lucky to be alive and vowed to myself to never again touch the brakes when a tire blows out.

During the time that summer while the wrecked Pontiac sat across the alley, the police chief questioned Ernie unofficially about the accident and wondered why it was never reported to the Highway Patrol.  He accused Ernie of being the driver.  No official person ever asked me about the accident or who was driving.  How do you spell “white privilege”?

The Pontiac ended up in a salvage yard in Tulsa on Pine Street.  Occasionally Ernie and I would stop by the salvage and stare through the fence at the crumpled up remains of that hot rod station wagon and question how we survived it.

And so that summer the California girls, Becky and Bobbie, stayed at their grandmother’s house in Chelsea for what seemed like a few weeks.  And during that time they became a part of my group of friends.  Becky was a year older than me and Bobbie a year younger.  Becky and I became constant companions during their time in Chelsea.  That was a soothing time for me as my first real girlfriend had broken up with me the previous fall and I was having a hard time getting over it.  When the girls returned to California with their family, several of us guys in town experienced some moments of anguish, missing these two girls who were just a little “different”.  Becky and I became great pen pals and over the next couple of years wrote each other often.  She wrote about days at the beach and about the popular songs and groups of the day.  Through her letters, I was able to get a sense of what it might be like to be a part of the surfing beach scene on the West Coast.  She called me a couple of times.  Something rare and expensive in those days, at least in my world.  She also returned to Chelsea a couple of times over the next year or two.  A very nice and innocent memory.

Later in the summer, we were surprised to learn that someone had begun the process to purchase the Perkins Chevrolet dealership.  I don’t remember the name of the man who wanted to acquire it but he was a wholesale car dealer from Tulsa.  The man was a very outgoing, a free wheeler sort of guy accustomed to high volume trading in the wholesale business.  The process of becoming an authorized Chevrolet Dealer was quite involved and required a period of time to submit all the documentation and eventually obtain approval.  But that didn’t pose any concern for this guy.  And as he surveyed the situation there at the dealership, he somehow decided I would be helpful in his Tulsa wholesale and personal asset disposition process. 

The first assignment he had for me was to go with him to a house on east Admiral in Tulsa, almost to Catoosa.  There he had a beautiful 1962 Impala Super Sport which he wanted me to drive to a dealer in Shawnee, Oklahoma.  The house seemed to be one that he owned of had some sort of interest in.  It was an older looking ranch type of property with a barn and some horses out back.  So on that hot sunny afternoon in the summer of 1963, I drove off from Tulsa down the Turner Turnpike in that fine automobile, air conditioner cold, and the radio tuned in to every station I could find playing the popular songs of the day. 

What a contrast to the wet, greasy, sweating conditions of the previous couple of months.  I had never driven the Turner Turnpike and never been free behind the wheel of a car like this one I was driving.  For me, music has held a very powerful role in my life.  Music permeates the deepest recesses of who I am.  So driving down the turnpike that day, one of the most played songs on the radio was Surfer Girl.  For so many reasons Surfer Girl touched me and made that whole day a prominent memory that is as real today as it was in 1963.  And Candy Girl, with its heartfelt tune and lyrics, really grabbed me that day.  Who needs to work when I can just drive this incredible car with the radio playing and my romantic heart loving it all so much?

Taking the exit at Chandler, I made my way south down to Shawnee with its prominent grain elevators and signs touting Shawnee’s Best flour.  I hated to think what kind of car I would be driving back to Chelsea.  Nothing could match this Super Sport with its bucket seats, center console, and floor shift automatic.  But to my happy surprise, the guy at the Shawnee lot had a 1961 Pontiac Ventura coupe ready for me to drive back.  Not quite as impressive as the Super Sport but a truly cool car and way beyond anything I thought I would have been driving a couple months ago as crawled out of that Pontiac station wagon wreckage.

As it turned out, the man was never approved by General Motors to own the dealership.  But my brief time as his courier and handy man helped to make my summer a time I often think about.  He must have thought I was older than I was for he never hesitated to send me off by myself to retrieve vehicles at various locations.  On one Saturday that summer he sent me to one of his ranch style locations on north Mingo or Garnett in Tulsa to get a large stake bed farm truck that I was familiar with from prior visits there.  Driving that Chevy wrecker from the dealership, I hooked up to the truck and towed it to another ranch type property north of Chelsea.  The truck I was towing was a little too heavy for the wrecker so that the front wheels of the wrecker barely touched the pavement at times.  I remember the wrecker tires squealing on the hot pavement in Claremore as I tried to stop at a main intersection there.  And so it happened that summer in 1963 before my dad left the Chevy dealership and began operating ByPass Texaco on Route 66 in Chelsea. 

There is something transformative in music.  Nowadays when I sit out in front of my garage and listen to the Beach Boys or Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, I take a mental trip back in time and remember how I felt that day in the summer of 1963 driving the Turner Turnpike and feeling on top of the world for a few hours.  A great escape.

James Middleton

April 17, 2017