In the year Bob Bartlett was born, the German army had overrun Belgium and invaded France.
I am not talking about 1940, but of the first time it happened, in 1915. Four years later, in 1919, as the world was terrified by a catastrophe more lethal than the Great War — the worldwide flu pandemic — his wife, Delores, was born.
Today, the 97-year-old retired accountant and his 93-year-old wife, both active and totally “with it,” live in Tierrasanta and are engaged in suburban block-party stuff with middle-aged neighbors who could easily be their grandchildren.
He is a spry, wiry man who belies his years, but in a long-ago day, he was a kid embarking on a trip that today could be compared with — well, not really anything.
In the summer of 1922, four years after he lost the boy’s mother to the flu, Bartlett’s 43-year-old father, Ernest, packed up 7-year-old Bob and his 11-year-old brother and started east from San Diego, headed for Massachusetts by automobile. The reason was the widower’s desire to give his boys the family structure that their grandparents could provide. So, he quit his job as a draftsman and headed east into — literally — a trackless wilderness across the southwest desert.
This was not a joy ride; you could almost call it foolhardy. Their chances of driving all the way powered by a small engine only a few years off the tinkerer’s bench were about the same as if they tried it on horseback. Without extra oil and many gallons of water, both for radiator and humans, the three could easily — almost surely — die in the desert.
The father had first loaded up and started off in a Chevrolet, but got only to La Mesa when the axle broke. A savvy mechanic there said they could only make it if they bought a Ford, which Ernest did, a used 1918 Model T touring car with four doors and a cloth top.
The Model T, or Tin Lizzie, was inexpensive and the most popular car in the world, by far. It had a simple, crude four-cylinder gasoline engine that generated 20 horsepower and could putt-putt to a top speed of about 40 mph downhill with a tail wind. It achieved gas mileage at a max of about 20 mpg and had a 10-gallon tank. It was started by a hand crank that could break an arm or wrist if the car backfired.
There was no gas pedal; the throttle was operated by a hand control. The car had two forward gears and a reverse. The brakes were mechanical and the windshield was made of non-safety window glass.
After buying the Ford, they started again in July. When they reached Holtville, Ernest asked a service station attendant where Yuma was. The man waved his arm in a generally easterly direction, and said, “About 40 miles that way.”
“That way” was empty desert with no road and tire-tracks heading in every direction. Bartlett’s father decided the best way to Yuma was to follow telephone wires as directly as they could. Forty miles doesn’t sound like much, but in the middle of nowhere, even four miles can quake the strongest knees.
The desert across the Imperial Valley and western Arizona in July is not recommended for humans. Even scorpions get a travel advisory. Bartlett says they saw only a couple of other vehicles along the way. He vaguely remembers traveling on the old plank road that traversed a few miles of the worst sand dunes.
He was introduced to the hot sand in an abrupt way. “It was 115 degrees. We had black leather seats, a black metal running board and the sand was scorching. I jumped barefooted into the sand up to my ankles, and you can imagine how painful that was. I scrambled back onto the blistering running board, and then sat on the seat which by that time seemed even hotter.”
The front seat of the Model T was only about 3½ feet wide, but it had been modified with a backward hinge, and all three slept on it in the cab. Cozy, if not for sharp elbows.
The car was loaded down with boxes and bundles in every bare space on the frame and inside. A wooden box attached to the fender held their food, and the sides folded down into a table, chuck wagon style.
In going up a mountain grade, they would sometimes travel backward because reverse gear had more power. The narrow, primitive tires constantly blew out, and they would have to stop, jack up the car, and fix the inner tube with a patch kit.
“Every town had a campground under some trees and with a stone fireplace for a fire pit. We would stop there overnight because motels didn’t exist at that time,” Bartlett says. In each small town, they would replenish supplies and fill the gas tank. Every transaction was in cash; MasterCard was decades distant.
Until they reached the gravel roads of the East (the only paved roads were through the center of towns and in cities), all the roads were dirt with poor and uneven grading. The effect was washboard surfaces, which made teeth chatter like an Arctic winter. Even so, it was preferable to the tire traps of sand and heavy rain, which could turn roads into mud pudding.
Often, the narrow wheels would glide into ruts in the road and would ride there because the ruts were worn deep in the exact path that every car took. “We would drive that way for miles. If another car approached, one or the other had to pull out because cars from both directions were using the same ruts,” Bartlett says.
If the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, they had to hitch a ride to the next town and find a mechanic who would return with them to fix the car. The mechanics of the day were all self-taught local men who had a gift for machinery and who became skilled working on the simple cars of the day.
No matter the stress encountered, Bartlett says the strongest oath his father ever uttered was, “Confound it.”
The Bartletts made the trip from San Diego to Springfield, Mass., in two months, averaging about 50 miles per day. When they reached New York state, Bartlett remembers the astonishment of a pedestrian when told they had come all the way from California by auto.
When we consider that Bartlett’s father was not an experienced mechanic, nor a particularly good one, to which Bartlett attests, it seems a little foolhardy to embark with two children, and driving a rickety machine with horsepower fit for a riding lawn mower.
It wasn’t the Wild West any longer. No raiding Apaches or squinteyed highwaymen threatened from the hills, but the dangers of thousands of square miles of unsettled open space hovered like a patient reptile.
However, it was a time of tough individualists, of make-do and figger-it-out. Back then, deserts of all kinds were a fact of life that men and women had to cross when they wanted to get to the other side, and couldn’t rely on others to get them there.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Bartlett’s odyssey is that he can talk about an adventure of almost a century ago as clearly as though it were yesterday.
In one corner of his mind, perhaps it is.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].
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