October 8, 2011
An adventure while TDY from Orlando to Holloman to fire test missiles in early 1959.
Sembach AB – 38th TMW
Grünstadt – Site III “Plank Owner”
A True Adventure with a “Hundred-Dollar Car”
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studebaker for more history on this interesting company. But the Big Three companies did what big companies do, and by the late 1950’s little Studebaker was going under. Surviving Studebakers were soon all orphans.
My only experience with one of these “which way is it going?” oddities came in 1959.
Our missile unit was then in crew training with the brand-new “Mace” missile at Orlando Florida, and from Orlando were on an extended temporary duty to the Holloman AFB, NM; making live launches at the White Sands Missile Range.
As with most new systems, the Mace was having lots of growing pains and delays. (My recollection is that the missile design was actually sound enough, but the system included an overly ambitious program of complicated automatic test equipment full of vacuum tubes and mechanical stepper switches, in an era of pre-solid-state electronics.
In many ways, the technology was too advanced for its time. The automated system was really too smart for its own good! This forced delays, so that about half-way through our TDY, higher authority decided to send the crews back to Orlando while the problems was reviewed. However, a shortage of airlift and/or funds prevented everybody from going home. In typical Air Force fashion it was decided to have the bachelors stay behind and the married guys go home. Fair enough, really. Thus, we low-ranking bachelors were stuck out in the desert without wheels and with not much to do. Except that Scott Chandler was married but also unfortunately a lieutenant with too little seniority.
The transportation problem was solved when Scotty and George Burker jointly bought their hundred-dollar (really!) Studebaker. Besides giving us “wheels” to run around the huge base; it even allowed this Saturday adventure up into the nearby mountains to an Apache Indian reservation.
For a hundred buck car, it was very satisfactory little set of wheels. Like all Studies, it got great gas mileage. In fact, almost better gas mileage than oil mileage. In those days when people joked about clunker cars they said the rule was to tell the station attendant “fill up the oil and check the gas”. (No self-pump in those days.) But this “Studie” was the first car that I’d ever seen that really burned oil so badly that it really was necessary to “fill up the oil and check the gas”!
It used so much oil, in fact, that George had acquired a five gallon drum to carry oil in the trunk …..and used it regularly to service the engine by means of a big funnel, also kept in the trunk. The five gallon can was itself refilled surreptitiously through the good graces of motor pool sergeant in charge of the missile ground equipment maintenance shop, with USED oil drained from our unique FWD (Four Wheel Drive) MM1 truck engines! (George’s thinking was that, if an engine uses THAT much oil, why bother with NEW oil since it’s only passing through quickly anyway, and for sure why PAY good money for oil if there was a free substitute?)
So, there we were, in the flat Tularosa Basin on sprawling Holloman Air Force Base, at the edge of two hundred seventy five square MILES of oddly-white desert sand dunes. (Better known on maps as the White Sands National Monument, the stuff is not “sand” at all, but rather powdery, almost pure gypsum …the same stuff from which “drywall” …aka “gypsum board”, “wallboard”, and “plasterboard” …is made.)
The only real historical landmark of consequence in the area was a marker some eighty miles north at the extreme end of the test range across the desert, located on a strange slab of instant glass, marking Trinity Site …..ground zero of the world’s very first nuclear explosion, the “Trinity Shot” of 1945; an genie-out-of-the-bottle test whose echoes still reverberate. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_(nuclear_test)%20 ) And we weren’t at Holloman on one of the two days a year that the site is open to the curious.
Thus the hiatus in testing gave us a lot of time with not much to do. So one Saturday, George, Scotty, and I decided to check out the adjacent mountain range we’d admired from the valley. At least, it had to be cooler up there.
The heavily forested Sacramento Mountains were beckoning to us to come visit!
Being young and adventurous (aka, “stupid”), we didn’t even think twice before driving the wheezing old Studie out Holloman’s gate, through nearby Alamogordo, and up and up and up Highway 82 to Cloudcroft, which at 8,668’ above sea level is a place of summertime respite from the heat, and in winter a popular ski resort.
Perhaps it was the thin air at that altitude that affected our judgment. Feeling ever more adventurous, at Cloudcroft we left the security of the highway for a long side trip ….almost twenty miles ….down an unmarked gravel side road north through the Apache Indian reservation. The old car is REALLY wheezing now!
We were so taken by all this western beauty that we even stopped to get out, to take in the solitude of the Mother Nature’s beauty.
A half-century of time has since robbed the color from these faded old slides before they were digitized; it really was a pretty scene.
Ever-optimistic New Yorker George, at left above, doesn’t seem worried, though I suspect that the sum total of his knowledge of “Injuns” had likely come, like Scotty and myself, from watching Tom Mix and Gene Autry at the Bijou on Saturday mornings.
On the other hand, Scotty looks a bit apprehensive, as if he was expecting an Apache attack at any moment.
Me? I was likely wondering if that hundred-dollar special was going to start again! We didn’t have to be concerned about coverage on our cell phones; we didn’t have cell phones because it would be decades before they would even be invented…..
The sun gets lower and lower. We hadn’t seen another soul since we left the highway, and wouldn’t until we got to Mescalero. At least, we didn’t see anybody, but Scotty opined that didn’t mean that we weren’t being watched! A vivid imagination was at work….
The sun was already behind the mountains by the time we reached the Apache village of Mescalero on US 70. It was much too late to reverse course back to Cloudcroft, so we decide to take US 70 down the mountains to the valley, and then US 54 to Alamogordo and on to Holloman. By the time we had started down the mountain, it was quite dark.
The memory of plunging down that mountain road in the dark and in that Hundred Dollar Special is etched in my mind vividly. We had a wall of rock on one side and “nothingness” on the other. I’m in the back seat, worrying a bit about the brakes which were somewhat suspect. Scotty is riding shotgun. George is driving. We see the lights of another car winding around the curves coming toward us. George presses the headlight dimmer ….the old-fashioned button-switch-on-the-floor kind ….with his left foot to dim the lights. But the lights don’t go to “low beam” ….THEY GO OUT! Now it’s REALLY black, as we hurtle down an unseen twisting and turning mountain highway in the oh-God-is-it-dark!
George doesn’t need advice or encouragement from either Scotty or myself: he is already doing a tap dance on the dimmer switch. In fact, he’s pounding it so fast that it sounds like the taps of a Spanish Flamenco dancer’s shoes! It was only a moment but seemed like eternity before the lights came back on ….but I’ll never forget that eternity….
Oh, the adventures of youth! There IS a God who watches over fools….
As this is written (2010), George is hale and hearty, living in the northern ‘burbs of New York City. Sadly Scotty passed away a few years ago from complications of diabetes.