Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Western Union & A Near Death Experience

Wallace A. Johnson MBA
Apollo Project Test Pilot
CDR Spaceship DEWAJ
Senior Navigator Test Pilot

As you know, through the help of Mr. Taylor, I was able to get my hands on a bicycle. I got my Western Union uniform, including the leather puttees that all messengers wore in those days, and went to work.

I was 14 at the time, and I can assure you, I knew the city of Houston like the back of my hand. Besides that, the main office I worked out of had large maps and street address locators which were available to us. If we were given a telegram to deliver, we would punch a time clock and the location of the address would be identified by concentric circles with the main office at the center. Each band was identified in alphabetical order with so many minutes allocated for the delivery of the telegram dependent on what alphabetical letter the address was located. With all good luck locating your party, and depending on just how hard you “pumped” to get there and back, it wasn’t uncommon to get back to the office with some time to spare. I was determined to be the fastest deliverer of telegrams in that office. In no time, I showed my employer that I could be depended on to deliver my telegrams with speed and punctuality.

There are kinds of tricks one learns fast when one is working on a job. As you become familiar, you learn those things that work and those don’t work as well. Being young, and energetic, I was determined to learn fast, and I did. For instance, since time was of the essence in the delivery system, you were constantly aware of the time which you were allocated for the particular run you were on. The idea was to punch that time clock when you returned with time to spare. If you were given 30 minutes from stamping out to stamping in, you did everything you could to beat the clock. That messenger boy who slowly built up those precious minutes by getting back sooner than expected, was looked upon with favor. I was one of them. However, let me tell you how I did it.

Western Union had a policy that everyone had to comply with, without exception. Under no circumstances were messengers allowed to hitch a ride, by grabbing the side or rear flatbed of a truck for instance, and getting a “free ride” as it were. Besides the fact that it was against the law, it was dangerous as well. The bicycle I had chosen at the police station to start my job with, had handle bars that were long and beautiful, sticking out to each side like the horns on a Texas longhorn steer. That meant that I had to carefully calculate how much space I had to weave in and out of traffic when I was in a hurry. Naturally, in no time I was doing maneuvers with that bicycle like a pro, and in the interest of maintaining my reputation for being the messenger boy who was delivering telegrams faster than anyone else, I started getting careless.

Let me digress for a moment, when my father was running the Texaco filling station he owned in Houston Texas, a motorcycle police officer would stop by and have a coke to refresh himself. He was a friendly guy, who would always answer the questions put to him by those youngsters who are naturally drawn to the persona an officer of the law presents, especially if he rides a motorcycle. We would ask questions about his Harley Davidson, what it was like to chase someone at breakneck speeds if they were trying to elude him, and he would tell us of some recent episode about just that. As kids we stood in awe at this local hero and I remember telling him that someday I would own my own motorcycle, because they always intrigued me. Realizing what I had said might come to pass, he proceeded to tell us all that motorcycles were OK, but that they were dangerous. The problem he said, was, that the more you ride them, the more familiar you are with them and the more you think you can do with them, and so you start throwing them around doing foolish things. The next thing you know, they are throwing you, and you are in deep trouble. It was just a passing remark on his part, but I never forgot what he said nor did I forget the name on his name badge, it was the same as mine, W. Johnson. A week later I learned that he had been killed riding his motorcycle while rounding a curve. I don’t know under what circumstances he died. Did he try to throw his Harley around just one more time and the monster he was riding rebelled and threw him instead with its subsequent tragic ending? I never found out, all I know is I never bought my own motorcycle. In subsequent events in my life, and remembering his admonition, I have often wondered if Officer Johnson ever looked down on me and worried about me and my main fascination with airplanes.

Back to Western Union, since everything revolved around time, you tried to deliver your messages in as short a time period as possible, and being young and reckless, I found myself setting aside the Western Union rule against hitching a ride. After all, by grabbing a truck’s side, you could be pulled along at speeds in excess of anything you could do by pedaling. So I found myself breaking the law and hitching a ride. I get cold chills recollecting what happened one afternoon when I grabbed the end of a flatbed truck.

As I said before, my handle bars extended quite a way out to each side and if you hitch a ride you hold on with the left hand and the right hand is controlling the handle bars. Extending further out than our current handle bars do, you have to make sure that they don’t come in contact with the truck bed which puts you in an awkward position as you are pulled along.

Under normal circumstances when the truck you are hitching on gets to a certain speed limit, good judgment and innate intelligence tell you when to let go. For some reason I found myself not letting go, not only that, I could see the face of the truck driver in the rear view mirror looking back at me and laughing as he had slowly increased his speed past the point of no return. Now I was going at a speed where I was afraid to let go and he knew it. I was hoping traffic or a light would force him to slow down, but instead fate was against me, and the longer I held on the more he increased his speed. I realized I was in a dangerous situation, if I didn’t let go, I was going to get killed for sure, and I was scared to death. I summoned all the courage in me and decided to let go hoping that I would be able to get my left arm back to the handle bar so as to control my bicycle. The Gods were with me that day, and after stopping for a short while, I realized how close I came to getting into real trouble. There is a theory that says that there is no such thing as reality, but only perception. Like the cat with nine lifes, for all I know I could have been killed, but I perceived otherwise and carried on. I know one thing for sure, I was scared to death and back.

I never hitched a ride again ever, but the time for me to deliver a telegram took just a little more time than my overall averages indicated I should take, and my boss never new why and I wasn’t about to tell him.


At 23 November, 2006, Blogger ednurs said...

What a grand story.. you were lucky to survive to fly. Can't wait for more...Happy Thanksgiving.

At 23 November, 2006, Blogger ednurs said...

What a grand story.. you were lucky to survive to fly. Can't wait for more...Happy Thanksgiving.

At 24 November, 2006, Blogger Wallace Johnson MBA Senior Navigator said...

Dear ednurs,
Thank you for reading my entries. You and Rabbit are the only one who seem to be reading them. I will be adding more later. My entries are supposed to be about how my Spaceship DEWAJ A "Daring Enterprise With A Journey" came to be launched, so I have a long way to go yet. At my age 81, and fighting the big "C", I hope I have enough time to finish.

At 27 November, 2006, Blogger Hose Dragger said...

You are mistaken good sir. There are quite a few of us reading these wonderful stories, just not very many people comment on sites. I myself am a student of the men and women that lived during the period of time you have as well as a WWII history buff and fascinated with the early space program. While my grandfather on my mother's side died when I was 6 weeks old, and my family was never one to speak of their experiences, I missed out on hearing just these types of stories and I thank you so much for sharing them with us. Please, keep going. you do have a loyal and growing and appreciative fan club.

At 27 November, 2006, Blogger Wallace Johnson MBA Senior Navigator said...

Dear Hose Dragger,
I get the feeling from your ID that you are a fireman. Wonder if I'm right?
I want to thank you for your kind words and comments on my blog. I had no idea anyone was reading my entries. You, Rabitt, and Ednur have given me that needed boost to continue on, and so I will. Since you three were the only comments entered, I assumed you were the only readers and that there were no others.
So far, I have tried to stay in a chronological order time wise, making my entries more of a diary or journal.
I have spoken of the difficult times, giving the impression that all was sadness with no joy at all. Actually, I experienced a lot of laughter as a young boy growing up, its just that the sadness and the strife was overwhelming at times and those memories linger on. I'll try not to be so morbid.
I promise to keep making entries as time goes on.


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