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Got My Kicks on Route 66

Much has been written about Route 66. That iconic shield with the double 6 marks the most famous of American highways. It had its origins in the twenties, and eventually extended from Chicago to LA, but the original road has been almost completely swallowed up by the Interstate System. It exists now only in patches, and is usually referred to as Historic Route 66. Yet, thousands of people continue to render homage to the old road in a pilgrimage along its path from the Midwest to the West Coast, from its beginning on Jackson Boulevard in Chicago, past the famous Dixie Truck Stop in Illinois (the world’s first), the March Arch Rainbow Bridge in Kansas, Tee Pee Curios in Tucumcari, N.M. the series of ten half-buried Cadillacs in Texas, the Painted Desert in Arizona, and so on, finishing up at the Pacific Ocean on Santa Monica Pier near Los Angeles. Thus, Route 66 began in the City of Big Shoulders, turned its back to the snooty East with its early history and megalopolises, and with a nod to that famous phrase, went West and took us young men with it. And now, with over 14 million Google links, its place in American history is assured.

I first began dreaming about Route 66 in Chicago in the late forties when I was about 6 and my family had a visit from Uncle George and Aunt Edna. They were living in LA and had driven out to see us in their brand-new ’47 Ford. I still have a photo of them taken with the family in front of our bungalow near 80th and Damen, our pasty-white Chicago faces in sharp contrast to the tanned and slick look of our California visitors. What’s more, Uncle George worked in the movies, and even though I think he was only a prop man, that didn’t matter. All I knew was that we were at one end of Route 66, so close to the Stockyards that you could smell them when the wind was right, and George and Edna lived in some sunny paradise that smelled of orange blossoms, on the opposite end of that road, in a place where movies were made and dreams came true.

The year following their visit we moved out of Chicago to a western suburb, and now I was even closer to that fabled road. It actually formed the southern border of our village, though there was an unincorporated area in between. But, now adventures were at our grasp, and because our tightassed town was officially “dry,” the first time I bought beer was with a fake ID in the Welcome Inn out on Route 66. I was only fifteen, and the card said I was 23, but the nice lady did not give a damn, and I walked out with a big, brown bag containing six cold, sweating quarts of Drewerys—enough to get me and my buddy shitfaced. The first whorehouse I ever visited was out that way, too, on a branch road off 66, in an ungodly town called Godley. If you Google it you’ll see that it’s still famous for having harbored that glorious institution for many decades. We knew about it because my friend’s grandfather went there when HE was a kid. I was only 15 on that first time as well; things happened fast on Route 66, you see. I’ll never forget that warm, lovely young woman’s welcoming words to me as she stretched out naked on her comfy little bed: “Come to Mama.” Of course, I’m opposed to the exploitation of women through prostitution, but . . ..

Yet, horrible things also happened on Route 66, such diabolical things that some felt that the famous shield lacked a third 6.  Underage girls were violated on side roads by drunken, horny, underage boys, and two friends ran away and were never heard from again. Other friends died out there in horrific car crashes—I lost three in one wreck, gobbled up from behind one night by a roaring semi while they were passed out drunk at a stoplight that had turned green. Apparently, they’d pulled out of a tavern and had been driving without lights. I, myself, came very close to being killed on 66.  It was a rainy day in October 1957, and I was driving around with my friend Falke after high school, drinking a few quarts of Bullfrog. I’d only known him a week as he entered the school year late, having just been released from the St. Charles home for delinquents. It was a very unusual step for our upper-middle class public school to take in someone like that, and he arrived with the reputation of being a real tough guy. In his first few days he spun many stories about the daily fist fights he’d survived while “inside,” and those who didn’t scorn him ate it up in awe.

He lived out near the Woodbine restaurant on 66 and as we approached a wide curve near his turnoff in my ‘53 Ford V-8, dual carbs roaring, twin pipes popping, and flat out at 110 mph as was usually the case on Route 66, I stupidly said “I like to spin,” and gave the wheel a jerk. It was an eight-lane highway at that point, and the car immediately did a 180° on the wet pavement and headed out into the four oncoming lanes. Glancing back, all I could see was the horrified expression on the face of the trucker who was driving the 18-wheeler bearing down on us, I swear to the Void we were THAT close. He missed my rear fender by only inches as we continued on backwards until we hit the berm on the opposite side of the road, facing in the wrong direction. I almost shit my pants and, in fact, Falke pissed his. His embarrassment finally overcame his shock when, as I dropped him off at home, he looked down at the dark stain on his pants, then at me, and said: “Johnny Boy, let’s never mention this.” And I hadn’t, until this day.  By the way, my ‘53 Ford, which my dad had bought for me that year for my sixteenth birthday—the day I passed my driver’s test— lasted only a few weeks after the Falke incident. I totaled it one day in town when, as I was cornering and trying to keep the beer can in my lap from spilling, I ran it into a telephone pole.  Dad wouldn’t buy me another one. And, he died a few months later.

Of the millions who roamed up and down Route 66, some were good and some were bad. From Steinbeck’s fictional Tom Joad, representing thousands of real-life, beaten-down Dust Bowlers escaping to the greenery of California to try to feed their families, to the infamous Richard Speck, incarcerated in another famous stop on the Road–Stateville Prison near Joliet. Speck murdered eight student nurses on one horrific night in Chicago back in 1966.  Some years ago I saw an interview with him in prison, surreptitiously filmed by another inmate. He was dressed in women’s panties and his bare torso sported an enormous pair of breasts.  Apparently, he was able to get hold of female hormones.  At one point he was being sodomized by a fellow inmate. He laughed and joked and said “If they only knew how much fun I’m havin’ they’d turn me loose.” He died of natural causes in 1991 after living behind bars for 25 years just off Route 66.  Of course, I’m opposed to the death penalty,

but . . .

In any case, the reader will divine that my acquaintances in those teenage years, though not at the level of Speck, were not altar boy material either. But I did have one dear friend from fourth grade on, Fitch, who was not just my best buddy but my intellectual mentor as well, and I can clearly recall the day in 1957 when he told me I absolutely had to get a copy of this great, new book called On the Road, which was available in a bookshop in a neighboring town.

I borrowed my older brother’s car and rushed off and bought the book, and this man Kerouac became our Hero of Heroes.  He knew the Road; he WAS the Road. Kerouac’s travelling buddy was Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in the novel), so Fitch became my Dean Moriarty and I became his, and Route 66 took on a whole new meaning as it was traced out in Kerouac’s novel. In the new “beat” mode we changed from drinking beer to wine, not the sophisticated Bordeaux variety, but the sweetened, alcohol enhanced piss they sold mainly to bums—Thunderbird, Ripple, and Twister. The names tell it all.

The following year I hitchhiked the length of Route 66 for the first of three times. Just 17 years old, I said farewell to my worried, widowed mother, and Fitch gave me a ride out to a spot near Joliet. He couldn’t make this trip, so we said an emotional goodbye, he turned around, and I started walking backwards with my thumb out. Then, IT came over me like a wave: for the first time in my life I felt Freedom, I mean really FREE, and if the metaphor “Life is a Road” is trite, it’s also true. I had a vague Idea of a destination that day, just as we all realize vaguely that someday we’ll die, but I had no clear idea how or when I was going to get there, which car or truck would stop, who’d be behind the wheel, or how far I would go. These are only things I learned as I went along, and knew in retrospect, like life.

I had many memorable moments on that first trip, but one image that remains as vivid as the day I saw it—though I don’t remember if it was in Oklahoma, Texas or Arizona—was a chain gang of prisoners repairing the highway. What stayed with me was the look on their faces as the car crept through the work zone, expressions that went from curiosity, to jealousy, to hate, to despair. Chained to a spot, they were insuring others the freedom of the open road.

That open road brought another tragedy into my life, this time involving Fitch. My “Moriarty” made his last trip out to the coast on Route 66 about 4 years after my first excursion. Fitch had fallen in with some very wealthy friends, one of whom was the scion of a family who had founded a scurrilous right-wing publishing house. This guy talked my friend into accompanying him in a brand-new Corvette to LA where he was to catch a cruise liner to Hong Kong. During the three months he was to be gone, he offered Fitch the use of the Corvette. How could he refuse? But, knowing how we abused alcohol in those days, this was tantamount to handing a loaded revolver to a toddler. Fitch dropped him off and proceeded up to Washington State to visit his uncle. A month or so later he drove the Corvette off a mountain.  They didn’t find his body for two weeks. I organized the pall bearers. Fitch had gone off the road both figuratively and literally.  He might have recovered in time from the metaphorical sense, but there was no coming back from that crushed Corvette.  Though almost fifty years have gone by since then, I still dream about him from time to time. Of course, I’ve never been gay, but . . . .

Well, you can’t talk about Route 66 without mentioning its raison d’être—the cars and trucks that plied the highway in an almost continuous caravan. Kerouac, and especially Cassady were obsessed with cars, and this comes through in their writings. The trucks were mobile jobs, and in a mobile society like America, they were kings of the highway. It was fairly rare to get picked up by a trucker—insurance issues—but when it did happen it was a real treat. These were the true denizens of the Road, and I never met one who didn’t have an inexhaustible repertoire of stories—probably mostly untrue or at least highly exaggerated—with which to entertain his guest in the passenger seat. Seated high above the streaming cars, with the roar of the motor, the whine of the wheels, and the gnashing of interminable gear changes, you had to shout to communicate in those old trucks, but that was half the fun.

Cars were another thing. It’s amazing how these devices have appropriated our money, time and territory like some famished monster, and almost without our realizing it. As a child, I remember looking down the length of 80th street of a morning, and not spotting one single car as far as I could see. Today, try to find a parking space in the same area. And, if you are lucky enough to find one, you’re going to have to hold up a whole bunch of traffic to squeeze into it. The realization of how we’ve been submerged in the car culture came to me some years ago when I was visiting family near San Francisco.  First was the fact that in this upper middle class Bay Area town there were no sidewalks. No one was ever expected to walk anywhere. I pushed my mother to Mass in her wheelchair down a main street with a solid line of cars parked along the curb and NO SIDEWALK.

Then there was the fact that the main highway linking the southern bay towns to the city was bumper-to-bumper all the time. I don’t mean just rush hour.  Be it three p.m., three a.m., or any other time, the traffic was jammed up for miles. And, finally, I had a surreal moment one day when walking to the library I stopped to cross El Camino Real at a red light. There were eight lanes of traffic at that point, four in each direction. As far as the eye could see both left and right, maybe for a mile or more, the cars were backed up. Add to this colorful river of glass and metal the fact that this area was popular with car dealerships. On both sides of the road, in both directions, vast inventories of cars, new and used, were displayed, maybe fifteen or twenty deep.  And so the river became a sea. To quote Ginsberg: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”  Indeed, where will it end, this obsession with the “machine”?  (That was my mother’s generation’s word for “car,” and I guess that dates me more than the grey hair—or what’s left of it.)

To sum it up I guess you could say that for me it was a coming of age on that Road, and on another westward passage some years after that initial expedition I eventually ended up in San Francisco just when the Beat Generation was giving birth to the Hippies. Being introduced to LSD in those years, and other, related adventures, I believe, opened me up to different possibilities and liberated me once and for all from the small-minded Republicanism of my family and the shackles of a Catholic grammar school education.  Of course, drugs can be dangerous, but . . . .

In 1972 my hippie wife and I moved permanently to France to escape Nixon’s America.  But Kerouac and the Road stayed with me and along with Burroughs and Ginsberg became part of my doctoral thesis and an important element in my teaching curriculum in several French universities.  I’m retired now, living in an old farmhouse, raising sheep in the southwest near Roquefort.  Our nearest neighbor is a mile away, back in the hills.  When he told me one day that the narrow road that passes in front of our property, originally built by the Romans, was rebuilt by German prisoners, my thoughts immediately went back to the chain gang on that first hitchhiking trip to California, swinging their sledgehammers on the same road where I had found freedom.  Now I’m quite distant in time and place from that concrete ribbon that stretched across the US, but there, indeed, was where the dreaming began, long ago, far away, on the Road, on hallowed Route 66.

 

John Long is author of Drugs and the ‘Beats’: The Role of Drugs in the Lives and Writings of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg’, and three novels in the “Johnny” series.  He can be contacted at www.johnlong.com

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