We Were Nuts in the 50’s!

I finally graduated from high school in 1954 as intense partying left me a few a credits short in 1953. Drugs weren’t the cause, unless you count Olympia beer as a drug. I also can’t use wild sex parties as an excuse; I didn’t attend any, dang it. Along with intense partying, I was also working to feed my car habit. Gasoline had risen to almost 30 cents a gallon so I worked a series of gas station jobs; pumping gas, washing windshields, fixing flats and greasing zerks. I even hand washed cars to earn gas money.

Of course, we held drag races. Any road that had a straight stretch and little traffic was our drag strip. The Triple X Drive Inn in Renton, WA. The place we hung out on Friday and Saturday nights was the scene of many challenges. Once agreed, we usually drove south to a little used narrow two-lane road that connected the East and West Valley Highways. The starter’s car would drive down the road, measuring a ¼ mile distance, turn around and prepare to signal. The two contestants would line up side by side and on the third blink of the starter’s headlights, take off. The starter’s car would then back off the road, becoming the finish line. Since my ’51 Mercury was so slow, I was usually the Starter. If the loser appeared pretty slow, I would challenge him to a race. We had some exciting times and fortunately, the only injuries were to our egos.

We did that a bunch. I left a party in White Center one night, so drunk I could barely stand. I was wearing my high school sweater with a stubby beer bottle in each pocket when I staggered to my car. Two policemen stopped me before I could open the door and asked me what I was doing out so late. This was a rough place and because I was just a drunk, they told me to go home. One night, we held a beer drinking party behind the Catholic Church in Tukwila. About 6 cars with radios tuned to the same station, all of us sitting on hoods and fenders, smoking and drinking beer. We were just getting started when a patrol car pulled in. “Everybody get in your cars and follow me!” We dutifully followed the patrol car until it stopped. “Everybody throw the beer in the ditch.” We did. “Now go home.” We figured the Priest called the cops and told them to remove us from the parking lot but let us go. Can you imagine that happening today?

Some of the cars we drove would be condemned today. Many had mechanical brakes, similar to wagons and stagecoaches of over 100 years ago. Tires were usually bald. I bought many tires from the dump, “Your choice, and 10 cents.” They always had a hole (that’s why they were so cheap) that I patched with whatever would fit into the casing. Unbalanced? Yep, don’t go very fast or you’ll dance off the road. Power steering? No. Power brakes? No again. Automatic transmissions? They were only on newer, unaffordable cars. The price of my cars during the early 50’s ranged from a low $12.50 for a ’35 Ford, $25 for a ’25 Model T Ford to a high $265 for a ’40 Dodge. I bought a bunch of cars between those sums. I didn’t get a smooth, quiet and safe car until I went to work at The Boeing Company after I finished high school. I borrowed $500 to buy it as I had a paycheck every other week so I could make payments. It was a powerful 1950 Ford sedan, and it still didn’t have power steering or power brakes. Only the big expensive cars had those.

Girls? The hormones were raging but gasoline and oil fumes must have dulled them, at least in my case. Some of my friends weren’t as lucky, marrying too young thanks to pregnancies. We all did ‘the right thing’ in those days. I did have a few close calls but managed to leave the Seattle area when I went into the U.S. Air Force.

I drove my ’51 Mercury from Seattle to Eglin AFB near Pensacola, Florida in the winter of 1956. It didn’t occur to me that one could stay at a motel for very little money (remember Motel 6? $6 per night, Super 8, $8 per night), so I drove straight through, sleeping on the front seat when I grew sleepy. The Merc cruised comfortably at 80 mph, even though there were no freeways.

Once there, I had very little money so spent most of my time polishing the car, practicing my horn and playing golf. When I received orders to go to Libya, I was more than ready for a change in scenery but I had to sell my wonderful Mercury.

I spent several days at an AF base outside of Charlestown, South Carolina waiting for a flight to Libya. One night, a big band played at the service club. All black musicians, they played Basie and Ellington like it should be played. After they were through, I spoke to several trumpet players, students at the local university. They invited me to a jam session on the following evening. They gave me directions for catching a bus, where to get off and where to find the nightclub. So I boarded the city bus and asked the driver to let me off where they had told me.

“Are you sure you want off there?” he asked. When I said yes, he shrugged and said: “That’s a rough place. We don’t run a bus in there; good luck!”

I had to walk about 8 blocks to the nightclub and it was dark. There was a streetlight at each corner and a group of black men under each one. I made it to the club, carrying my big trombone case, without incident. I couldn’t imagine doing that today. Once in the very crowded club, I became aware that I was the only white face there. A trio was playing so I got as close to them as I could and people squeezed together at a booth so I could sit down. I saw no sign of the guys who had invited me. It was a bit awkward…. Eventually they showed up and I got my horn out and joined them in the jam session. Did I say I had no money? I had no money so they bought me a drink. Afterwards, they offered to drive me back to the base so we piled into an old Dodge and started out. They stopped for gas and all pitched in their pocket change to buy enough to get me there. At the base, they got lost and ended up driving down the runway but they found their way off before the military police caught them. What a night! What friendly folks, and this was in 1957, before the Freedom Riders and civil unrest in the South exploded.

The next morning, I boarded a MATS flight to Libya, stopping in the Azores for fuel. When I stepped from the plane at Wheelus AFB in Libya, the heated air, filled with the strong odor of dung almost knocked me over. Within days, I never smelled it again for the 2-½ years I was there. I had become acclimatized. My wild and crazy times reduced as I entered adulthood, working as a touring musician in the Mediterranean area. I had survived! But the ‘50’s weren’t over’ it was 1958.

After 2 ½ years touring Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Crete and Germany, I was sent back to the United States for discharge. The 50’s were over! I had survived!