My Trip Across America

In 1976, I graduated from US Navy Lab School in Oakland, CA. This story, although it may be filled with some “holes” of memory, recounts my journey from Oakland, CA to Blytheville, AR, and then on to my final destination of Charleston, SC, a trip of more than 3000 miles. Luckily, any details which may be inaccurate, missing or just plain wrong can be verified by a couple of my classmates and/or teachers that I have reconnected with recently. As I tell the story, any details I’m not sure of, I’ll tag it with (pending verification). With that said, let me tell you about my convoluted, and I do mean convoluted trip from coast to coast. This adventure really begins the night before I left on this epic trip.

In February 1976, a group of 11 students graduated from the US Navy Basic Laboratory School. The day after graduation, the entire class would either be headed home for leave or to their next duty station. However, the night of graduation our group had a farewell party, I believe we held the party at one of my classmates 2nd floor apartment, Neil Peterson (pending verification). So besides most of the students from our class at the party, our instructor (a Chief) from the classroom instruction, and our hematology instructor from the Hospital were there (pending verification), not too mention lots of other people that I didn’t even know…it was definitely a large party. At one point, I believe there were so many people in the apartment that there was some “humorous” concern about the safety of the floor. I remember at the party we played a game where everyone sat in a circle and recited a phrase (forgot the phrase)…if you got it wrong, you took a shot of booze or something. The party ended late. VERY LATE. I know most of us got little if any sleep before leaving Oakland the next morning.

The PLAN was that four of us students would leave early the next day. Rich Padilla was going directly to his next duty station in Florida. Rick Torrez was headed home in Kaufman, TX for leave before he reported to his next duty station. Paul Wolf and his wife Cheryl (also in the Navy) were headed to their home in Oklahoma before reporting to their duty station. And then there was ME, I was going home to Blytheville to see my wife and daughter which I hadn’t seen in over 7 months and then we would travel from Blytheville with my family to Charleston, SC. We had 3 vehicles for the four of us to make this trip. We all left together as a caravan or group, but had made plans if we got separated that we would meet up at the Kaufman County sign in Kaufman, TX. We would be taking the southern route since it was February and were afraid of snow or ice taking a more direct route.

That morning we left Oakland on the first leg of the trip, I rode with Rich Padilla in his new 1975 MGB. Rick Torrez was driving his 1974 Chevy Vega, and Paul Wolf and his wife Cheryl were driving a truck with a large camper that had sleeping quarters in the back and they were also traveling with their dog (a german shepherd named Suzy). As I said before, we were all pretty hung over, so I just rode with Rich for the first 8-10 hours and then I was gonna hop in the camper and get some sleep before my turn to drive later that night. When I finally got into the camper to get some sleep…I really wasn’t sleepy anymore and just sat back and relaxed, but did not sleep.

Down the road and late in the afternoon, we finally stopped and I got out of the camper (no sleep still) and I swapped places with Rick Torrez in his Chevy Vega. I drove the Vega and I guess this is when the German Shepherd Suzy got in to ride. I remember being very tired and thinking later that night that soon I would again get to ride in the camper and get some sleep. At some point later that night I was getting very sleepy, and our caravan had separated slightly.  I think it was just me (in the Vega) and Rich (in his MGB) that stopped at a gas station and I must have misunderstood what Rich was telling me, because after gassing up I drove down the interstate about 20 miles before I realized the other two vehicles were no where around.  I pulled over to the side of the interstate thinking I was ahead of them and I waited for what seemed like 15-30 minutes, but they never went by me. I was pretty worried because all of my clothes, and more importantly my billfold was in Rich’s MGB. It was just ME and SUZY. I think I had about $10 in my pocket.

When I finally figured out they were ahead of me and not behind me I started driving like hell to catch them, I was tired and scared. About every 15-20 miles I would pull into a service station and ask if a truck with a camper or a MGB had gassed up recently. NOPE.  Finally, at one of the stops, I called Mom and told her I was on my way home, but that I was down to my last $10 and my billfold was in another guys car. I let her know that I might need her to wire me some money if I ran out during the trip, and asked her to stay close to the phone.

I continued driving and as it got later and later, I was getting more tired. I had taken some “white pills” to keep me alert, but they were doing a marginal job at keeping me awake. I remember VIVIDLY driving through the loneliness of New Mexico in the dark early hours and seeing shooting stars all over the place in the sky. At one point, I must have fell asleep at the wheel and when I woke up my eyes were focused on the lines in the center of the road…I thought it was a brick wall and screamed like a banshee rooster. Immediately, Suzy the dog jumped up from sleeping in the front seat and just looked at me like I was crazy (I probably was). I was severely fatigued and it had been close to 40 hours with no sleep. I started conversing with Suzy the dog…anything to try and stay awake.

Eventually, I caught up to the truck and camper. I pulled them over and asked where Rich (his MGB with my clothes and billfold). They had no idea and they were thinking he was with me. We switched drivers again and now Rick got back in his Vega, and I got back in the camper. We kept on driving towards Texas until we finally made it to the Kaufman County sign in Texas. Rich was not there though. We had no idea if he was behind us or in front of us. The plan had been that once we arrived in Kaufman, TX (Rick’s hometown), I was gonna hop into Rich’s MGB and continue on to my home in Blytheville, AR. We waited about 30 minutes at the Kaufman County sign and then decided just to go directly to Rick Torrez’s house a few miles away. Sure enough Rich was already there waiting on us.

Rich planned on staying with Rick for a couple of days and then would make his way up to Blytheville to pick up his MGB before heading on to his duty station in Florida. After we pulled up at Rick’s house, I hopped right in the little MGB very tired, but also awake enough to make it the last 500 miles to my house. It was the hardest 500 miles I had ever driven.

During the day, I would nod off and on and I tried every thing to stay awake. As I got closer to home, it was dusk in Memphis, TN (only 70 miles from home) it became almost impossible to keep that tiny car in the middle of my lane, it should have been easy. I could feel my car swerving like I was a drunk driver (I guess I was as dangerous as one) and I was even hallucinating that Suzy was sitting next to me (she was in Texas with her owner, Rick). I would look over to my right and there was ole Suzy just sitting there looking at me. I would rub my eyes and she would be gone. I eventually succumbed to the notion there really wasn’t a dog in the seat next to me, but still talked to her.

I don’t know how I made it home safely, but I did. That night after we went to bed, my wife said in the middle of the night, I just sat up in bed and started talking to “Rich” who was standing in the corner of the room (he wasn’t). It took me several days to “get right” with my thoughts and sleep patterns.

I was on a 10 day leave before having to report to Charleston. After being home for about 5 days…I loaded up a large U-haul truck and completed the 3045 mile journey to Charleston, SC, my last duty station.

Seriously, the entire drive from Oakland, CA to my home in Blytheville, AR was an ordeal. I don’t think I could have driven another 50 miles that last day. Luckily, the rest of the trip from Blytheville to Charleston was pretty uneventful.

(NOTE: All of the people mentioned in this article are still alive and doing well except for the Chief, our classroom instructor. I have been able to find all of the people above and will update this story with any corrections or alternate memories).

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