Ancient memories (Part I)

By Saul Landau
In April 1951, Harry Truman grew concerned that escalation of U.S. military operations in Korea could draw in Soviet armed forces. Moscow already supplied weapons and fighter planes to North Korea with Soviet pilots. General Douglas MacArthur publicly proposed sending U.S. troops across the Yalu River (dividing North Korea and China) to pursue North Korean and Chinese forces. On April 11, Truman fired MacArthur from his commands in Korea and Japan — arguably the most politically unpopular decision in U.S. presidential history.
I attended MacArthur’s homecoming welcome in New York City. With thousands of others I cheered, without knowing why — except he was a general who wanted to fight and got canned by a gutless president.
By the summer, as Truman’s approval ratings plummeted, my friend Harvey and I stuck out our thumbs and headed west. Two 15-year-olds en route to California to find gold — a euphemism for adventure and excitement! The guys on the block (Anderson Avenue between 166 and 167 Street near Yankee Stadium) bet on everything. The block’s bookie, who later became a lawyer, took odds at ten to one against us. He calculated that if we’d make it to California, he’d clean up. Harvey and I emitted pure confidence. I hoped he actually felt it. Each of us had $40.
With borrowed road maps from my cousin’s car — few car owners in the southwest Bronx in those days — we plotted our route. I assured my parents I’d call my uncle in Los Angeles on arrival. My mother wept. “Call collect, every night,” she begged. My grandmother hugged me and slipped me $20 — which brought my total to $40. My father scowled: “If you leave, don’t come back.”
My father’s threats ringing in my ears, the next day I stoically stood with Harvey on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the ramp for several hours where the first kind driver had dropped us. By late afternoon, a trucker hauled us further southwest — in the general direction of California. The Turnpike was an exception, with its four, smooth, boring lanes, bereft of the ubiquitous Burma Shave signs.
When you drive
No ifs or buts
Drive like everyone
Else is Nuts
Burma Shave
Riding mostly on two lane highways, we listened to country music on car radios of now antique Nash Ramblers and arcane De Sotos. In between, news casters offered reports of bloody battles in Korea — where Harvey and I claimed we wanted to be, if only we were three years older.
We slept in fleabags in downtowns in states we knew only from maps ($5 a night for a double bed); ate at greasy burger joints ($1.50- $2 a meal) and I called home, collect, to hear my mother’s sighs of relief and the beginnings of her sobs as I said goodbye. Teenage boys know how to make their parents suffer.
A middle aged trucker insisted we accompany him to a prayer meeting in a tent near Enid, Oklahoma. Neither of us had been inside a Christian Church, no less one with a makeshift canvas roof. People whooped it up in strange-sounding languages. But they seemed to be having a terrific time. The trucker smiled when asked about the language. “Tongues,” he said. “God’s language.” He dropped us later next to a Burma Shave sign.
The place to pass
On curves
You know
Is only at
A beauty show
Near the Oklahoma-Texas border a woman with a bunch of young kids picked us up, heard our story about hitching to California, laughed, took us home to a ram shackle ranch and fed us tasteless ham sandwiches on mushy white bread. We ate. “The Lord will protect you,” she said.
“From vomiting and diarrhea,” quipped Harvey.
Her living room sported a photo of her husband, “fighting in Korea,” she said with a bitter smile. Harvey and I assured her we would be there next year to help him. We lied about our ages.
During the summer of 1951, U.S. bombers pulverized North Korea while simultaneously the U.S. government and its South Korean ally opened peace negotiations at Kaeson with China and North Korea. The radio reported that during these peace negotiations the U.S.-led forces tried to recapture as much of Korea as possible so they would not lose territory in case an agreement was reached. The Chinese and North Koreans had the same idea.
Throughout the war we heard radio reporters talk of battles at Bloody Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, Old Baldy and White Horse without having any notion where these places were or why anyone was fighting. Harvey and I chanted “Sound off” — the battle marching cadence from “Battleground” (the 1949 film about the pride and dignity of U.S. troops in Europe). We tromped down sparsely traveled roads barking the military mantra, “Jodie was there when you left, you’re right” — as close as we’d get to heroically defending our nation’s honor or whatever that war was about. (A week later, my Communist Uncle Max in Los Angeles gave us lectures about such notions.)
Harvey and I didn’t try to understand the Korean War or anything outside our goal of reaching California. A truck driver dropped us in Amarillo, Texas, and we calculated we’d made it half way. We wandered into a downtown bowling alley, talked the owner into hiring us as pin setters (for 10 cents a line) for the night (he needed us) and even negotiated a place to sleep over the alley — for $2.
Flush with our earnings — $6.30 — we jauntily headed for the west-bound highway, where a cop stopped us. “Couple of boys from Jew York taking a look at the way the rest of us live,” he said with a friendly southern smile. “Well, I’ll show you how folks live on the edge of town.” As we rode through Amarillo in the back of his squad car, he asked: “Do your Mammy and Pappy know you’re out here?”
“Of course,” we harmonized.
He smiled in disbelief and dropped us on a remote black top where houses thinned and weeds grew thick.
“Keep walking,” he said smiling.” I’ll be back to check,” he promised.
The sun slapped us in the neck, hunger and thirst gnawed at our guts. We walked — and sweated — and chanted: “Your baby was lonely — as lonely as could be … Until Jodie provided company! Left… Right”
The cop returned twice, flashed us a shit-eating grin and drove off. Hours later, dehydrated and cranky, we somehow attracted a man in a convertible to stop. Within minutes, he offered us liquor from a flask hidden under his seat. Naturally, we accepted. By the time we got to West Texas — a million miles? — the three of us were drunk. The driver, an ex-rodeo cowboy, drove his car into a fence. We walked away. He slept or was knocked out. The nearby Burma Shave sign read:
A guy
Who drives
A car wide open
Is not
He’s just hopin’
An old farmer picked us up and smoked our cigarettes all the way to Tucumcari, New Mexico. Breakfast in a Mexican restaurant for 50 cents each, scalding our mouths on a scalding July morning! I mentioned to Harvey that my relatives had discussed a new film, called “Salt of the Earth” — about some miners who went on strike, I told him, somewhere in New Mexico. After drinking water in a vain attempt to quench our oral cavity fires, a meticulously dressed middle aged man in a new Ford gave us a ride. He warned us against getting any dirt on his new car. “No eating or drinking in this vehicle,” he dictated.
He dropped us in Albuquerque (less than 100,000 people then; more than half a million now). He drove steadily, without stopping. He played country music and switched stations when news came on. From the back seat, I noticed Harvey’s back tighten. He seemed super-tense for the hour-long drive. The car owner whistled along with the radio songs.
I waved good bye. Harvey spat. “The fucker rubbed my leg the whole time. I wanted to kill him”
“And?” I asked.
“I thought he might be packing a gun.”
In the evening we arrived in Winslow, Arizona. Just as we got dropped off and rearranged our primitive back packs and stuckout our thumbs, a sheriff picked us up for “hitchhiking” and locked us in a cellwith scary looking — to 15 year olds — Mexican and Indian men. After all, the only Mexicans and Indians we’d seen had been in Hollywood movies!
“I’m putting you in here for your own protection,” he assured us. Luckily, most of the men were too drunk to notice us.
Outside the cell area a sheriff’s guard listened to country music at high volume. The newscaster interrupted on the hour to report intense fighting to take some hill in Korea. I fell asleep trying to imagine myself clutching an M1 in my skinny, teenage arms in the midst of the battle.
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His films are available at