Uncle Sam’s Travel

At the end of spring quarter, each Navy student had three weeks to report to his summer training cruise in Norfolk, Virginia. From Oregon that is about 3,000 miles one-way. We were all offered the usual assortment of travel options at government expense. We could request travel vouchers for train or bus transportation, while flying was not an option. The military services used only public transportation or reimbursement for travel by private car when authorized. Minimum cost to the government was a requirement.

As poor students we discussed the many options, and in the process calculated how much we would receive traveling by car. Round trip from Corvallis to Norfolk was about 6,000 miles. Travel reimbursement at 5 cents a mile would be $300 per person. None of us had a car. As we all needed to go, we figured that four in a car would generate $1200. This was all potential money, as we would travel at our own expense, then be reimbursed when the trip was completed. With this sum we could buy a used car, pay the operating costs, and have some spending money left over at the end of the trip. In the business school this was called an economy of scale. It seemed a reasonable plan, so four of us agreed to pursue the adventure. The group included Jim Todd, Jim Grimm, Jack Thomas, and me. We were all in the same pledge class at the Sig Ep house.

Todd offered to look for an appropriate used car. In a short time he identified a 1939 Plymouth sedan in good condition with high but reasonable mileage. As this was 1951, the car was only 12 years old. For $350 dollars we were in business, and still had $850 remaining. We estimated operating expenses at $100 maximum. If all worked out as planned, we would have $750 left over at the end of the trip to divide among ourselves. In addition we would still own the car, which we could use, or sell as we saw fit. The plan was set, travel dates established, and we all went home to prepare for our first summer cruise. As I lived in Kansas, I rode the train back home where they were to pick me up in two weeks.


During this era the only interstate highways were a stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and a second from Chicago to New York called the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Most of the other U.S. highways were two-lane roads, which followed the section lines from town to town. A cross-country trip required a lot of city driving with open intersections, stop signs and stoplights. It was a ponderous ordeal for which the Navy said 350 miles a day was enough. Three thousand miles at 40 miles an hour would require 75 hours, a little over three straight days for a one-way trip driving 24 hours a day. Reasonable young persons might figure driving 12 or 15 hours. The group opted to drive continuously, day and night, across the entire country.

An important advantage of this plan was to avoid some of the summer heat. Without air conditioning, the traveling could be miserable during daylight hours. Cars at the time were notorious for running hot when driven steadily at highway speeds, when loaded, or going up hill. We were planning to do all three. Traveling at night provided a break from the heat and avoided the daytime traffic in the towns along the way. The plan also allowed half of the travel to be performed at night when the car would run cooler. With four of us, we could switch drivers as needed.

On departure day the Oregon three left on schedule, and planned to arrive in western Kansas around noon the following day. Their selected route went through eastern Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. At Cheyenne they leave the mountains behind, and follow the foothills to Denver. Beyond Denver it is all high plains with rolling hills and prairie. I packed my bags in preparation for their timely arrival. At noon they had not arrived. As they were on the road it was not likely they would call. Long distance calls often took as long as the drive for short distances. The only option was to wait. I waited, while visions of doom or major car repairs were rampant.

Six hours later they arrived appearing haggard and worn. Their story was interesting, though not unexpected for a group unfamiliar with roads in the prairie. They had left Oregon early in the morning and had driven all day, changing drivers as needed. Everything was working like a clock. Late that evening they turned south at Cheyenne and drove through Denver toward Limon right on schedule. At Limon they were to make the final highway change onto U.S. 24 into Kansas. It was now 4:00 in the morning. They had been on the road more than a full day. Todd was driving while the other two were sleeping like babies.

Just west of Limon was a modern interchange which merged slowly from one highway to another. Todd took the first turn identified as U.S. 24. He continued driving through towns and countryside until the natives began to stir. Just before dawn he was concerned that the road was particularly hilly, even mountainous. He said to his buddies I didn’t know there were mountains in Kansas. They agreed, and stopped to assess the situation. They were on the right highway, U.S. 24, but they were traveling west, and had driven back up into the mountains well beyond Colorado Springs. This side trip in the dark took them 300 miles out of the way and accounted perfectly for the six-hour delay. It was one of the few times that any travelers had seen the Kansas mountains.

The balance of the trip was surprisingly without incident. The car ran perfectly. The weather was tolerable. The group was congenial. We were all reimbursed for travel as expected, and pocketed the extra money as a bonus for our courage. Todd became attached to the car and negotiated to buy our shares for a reasonable price, giving each of us a little added bonus. We figured it was exactly the way Uncle Sam would want us to travel, – haggard and worn.

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