It was the summer of ’67 after my first year of college. My buddies, Keith and Paul recruited me for a summer sales job. “Had I lost my mind?” That’s what I expected my father to say. Dad didn’t say what he was probably thinking. I gave Mom and Dad my best sales pitch. …Unlimited income potential, endless opportunities! They seemed to stifle their enthusiasm well. With their blessing, I had the opportunity to succeed or fail. My spirits were high as we set out from college on a warm June day, bound for Nashville, Tennessee. We travelled through southern Illinois in Keith’s trusty black and white ’58 Ford sedan. Warm air buffeted through the open windows and smelled of dried river bottom mud. At Cairo we crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. Somewhere past Jackson, Tennessee we picked up Interstate 40 eastbound.
Things were all hunky-dory until about one hundred miles from Nashville. At that point, the fuel gauge needle pointed below one-quarter full. We immediately engaged in spirited debate. College students weren’t known for good judgement. How much money did we have? More than enough to buy a tank of gas at thirty cents a gallon. Maybe the gauge was wrong? Why not just press on? Did we even need to refuel? Maybe we could coast to our destination? My opinion, offered freely, was to stop and refuel. Why take a chance? I was quickly overruled. “These cars still had two or three gallons when on empty.” They could write that on our tombstones when they found our decomposed bodies on the side of the road. Another forty miles went by and the old Ford sputtered to an abrupt stop.
Cars and trucks whizzed by at seventy-five miles per hour. …Another discussion. Who was going for gas? The only fair way was to draw straws. Naturally, I got the short straw. Was there no justice? Why couldn’t the risk takers get the gas? It was their idea. It was a hot, humid, miserable walk. A mile and a half up the road an old green and white ’54 Chevy screeched to a stop. The driver called out, “Hey, y’all run out of gas?” I was thinking, No, I walk this highway every Sunday afternoon for my health! Instead, I answered, “Yeah, a ways back.” “Hop in, I’ll give you a ride.” “There’s a Chevron station three miles down the road.” I didn’t have anything to lose at that point. He was a chubby, red-faced fellow that liked his liquor. Today was no exception. The smell of booze was overpowering. I wasn’t looking to be buddy-buddy with him, just wanted some gas. I let him keep the deposit. Some of the guys didn’t like it–they owed me for my trouble.
All was forgotten as we arrived at our destination. Our home away from home was a vacant girl’s dorm at a local university. We were indoctrinated on positive thinking and sales techniques. One of the suggested techniques was to entertain people. By week’s end, I knew I could conquer the world. …My sample case and order forms at my side. Surely everyone would be interested in bible and medical dictionaries? If not, there was my stand-by–the family bible. …Explain the benefits, cover durable, easy to clean, family heirloom. Chattanooga, Tennessee was my sales territory. I couldn’t wait. My adventure continued the following Sunday. Where would we stay? There were four of us–none of us had much money.
Our plan of action was to attend evening services at a local church. Maybe someone would come to our aid after hearing our plight. We found a large Methodist church on the north side of town. After the service, a nice lady offered an apartment in the older part of the city. It was reasonable, so we agreed to rent it. It was a large two-story house converted into apartments. Our apartment was on the second floor. There were two beds and a naugahyde sofa. College kids weren’t particular, so we slept on mattress covers. We didn’t have electricity. An extension cord powered our only lamp and toaster. Working seventy-two hours per week, we wouldn’t be there much. Sundays were reserved for sales meetings. The place was hot and stuffy–smelled like stale cigarette smoke.
My part of town was called East Ridge. The other guys went across the state line to Georgia. I knocked on doors. Not many people would talk to me–especially at seven in the morning. Sometimes I knocked on twenty doors before being invited in. The words of my trainer came back to haunt me. “Clown around, entertain people, jump over hedges.” It was so blasted hot and humid, I didn’t feel much like clowning around. The pattern continued for two weeks. Some people slammed doors in my face. The only bright spots were lonely people who took pity on me. One woman invited me in for sandwiches and lemonade. An elderly couple gave me ice cream. Thank God for lonely senior citizens. I took advantage of opportunities.
In my first two weeks, I sold a bible dictionary and a medical dictionary. My commission was about ten dollars. It took two weeks to receive a commission check. The other guys were in a sales slump. The third week would be tough. We had one loaf of white bread, some butter and a half-pint of milk. It was hard to work on an empty stomach. Sunday’s sales meeting in Marietta, Georgia was a welcomed break. Maybe they’d have refreshments? Traffic thickened as we approached the city. One of the guys suggested a rousing game of “Chinese Fire Drill” to pass the time. At each traffic light we disembarked from the car, ran around it a few times, got back in before the light changed.
This continued through several intersections without incident. An alert city patrolman got wise to our ruse. He pulled in behind with red lights on. He looked the car over and walked up to the driver. This was ’67, era of racial unrest, Vietnam war demonstrations, and we were out-of-state college students. How would this end? “What in the world are you fellas up to?” “Y’all trying to cause trouble?” “No Sir.” We answered in unison. Charles, our driver and co-conspirator, attempted an explanation. The officer didn’t buy any of it. “You’re disrupting traffic and causing a public nuisance.” That sounded serious. “You got your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance?” The officer found everything in order. “Y’all from Illinois, (emphasized noise)?” “Yes Sir.” We answered. “We’re on our way to a sales meeting at one of the local Baptist churches.” “Get to where you’re going and don’t cause any more trouble.”
Mid-week I ran into my toughest customer–someone bent on making my life miserable. He was a former Chattanooga police chief. He was about to demonstrate his authority. “Who are you?” “What are you doing here?” “If you walk up on my front porch you’re trespassing.” Why the hostility? I explained I was a college student selling bible and medical dictionaries. “You got a peddler’s license?” I didn’t know what one was, much less have one. He explained that he’d been the police chief and quoted the ordinance, chapter and verse. My rebellious nature wanted to lash out, “used to be, didn’t mean now.” Good sense came to the rescue. He probably had influential friends. “I ought to have your ass hauled to jail.” That got my full attention. “Now, get out of this neighborhood.” Where was the wellspring of Christian charity? It dried up, blew away like desert sand, replaced by steely eyed stare and square-jawed hostility. I got defensive at that point. “I didn’t mean any harm, just trying to make money for college.” “And furthermore, why don’t you go back where you came from and get a real job.” Peddler’s licenses were thirty dollars each. I had three dollars in my wallet.
The next two days were spent repairing my shattered ego and wounded pride. Like a wounded animal, I found a shady wooded spot near the interstate. There wasn’t time for self-pity. Something the old man said stuck with me. There were easier ways to make money. Manual labor looked good in comparison. An honest days work traded for a decent wage. Now, that was something I knew how to do. My adventure away from home was over. I called home collect to tell about my decision. At the next Sunday’s sales meeting it was my turn to speak. It had to be positive without revealing my plans. “I had a rough week.” “That’s in the past.” “Next week is going to be much better!” There was a round of applause. I was happy too–because I was going home!
Dad was parked in front of the apartment when we returned. I don’t know how many hours he’d been there with my brother. It was dark and after eight o’clock. We headed home early the next morning. Our truck stop breakfast was one of the best in memory. It was good to be home. In a couple of weeks I had a good job with respectable wages. My failed venture was never again mentioned. …No “I told you so’s.” My parents knew I’d learned a valuable lesson. I never again wanted anything to do with door-to-door selling. There are still reminders. A generation later, on a cold wintry morning, I attempted to jump-start my college age daughter’s car. It cranked, but failed to start, because it was completely out of gas. To this day, I never let my car get below one-quarter full.