John Wayne and I

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When the Union Pacific Railroad was finally completed on May 10,1869, it was a cause for great celebration. A very good source describing the somewhat hilarious ceremony may be found here, but a segment from that source follows as a background for my own story:

A railroad linking America’s east and west coasts had been a dream almost since the steam locomotive made its first appearance in the early 1830s. The need for such a link was dramatized by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 that brought thousands to the West Coast. At that time only two routes to the West were available: by wagon across the plains or by ship around South America. Traveling either of these could take four months or more to complete.

Although everyone thought a transcontinental railroad was a good idea, deep disagreement arose over its path. The Northern states favored a northern route while the Southern states pushed for a southern route. This log jam was broken in 1861 with the secession of the Southern states from the Union that allowed Congress to select a route running through Nebraska to California.

Construction of the railroad presented a daunting task requiring the laying of over 2000 miles of track that stretched through some the most forbidding landscape on the continent. Tunnels would have to be blasted out of the mountains, rivers bridged and wilderness tamed. Two railroad companies took up the challenge. The Union Pacific began laying track from Omaha to the west while the Central Pacific headed east from Sacramento.

Progress was slow initially, but the pace quickened with the end of the Civil War. Finally the two sets of railroad tracks were joined and the continent united with elaborate ceremony at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869. The impact was immediate and dramatic. Travel time between America’s east and west coasts was reduced from months to less than a week.

The ceremony at Promontory culminated with Governor Stanford of California (representing the Central Pacific Railroad) and Thomas Durant (president of the Union Pacific Railroad) taking turns pounding a Golden Spike into the final tie that united the railroad’s east and west sections. As the spike was struck, telegraph signals simultaneously alerted San Francisco and New York City, igniting a celebratory cacophony of tolling bells and cannon fire in each city.
“It was a very hilarious occasion; everybody had all they wanted to drink…”
http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/goldenspike.htm

It will probably come as no surprise that in 1969 it was decided to have a huge ceremony honoring the 100th anniversary of the “Wedding of the Rails” in Utah. To that end, two trains set out—one from the easternmost point of the track and the other from the westernmost point. These trains were destined to meet at the original point of their joining, but since they were filled with dignitaries, they made numerous stops along the way with celebrations at each point where they stopped.

In 1969, I was attending university in Laramie, Wyoming. It was announced that John Wayne and Glen Campbell would be on one of the trains and that they would do a whistle stop where they would both say a few words before continuing on to the ceremony. Now it just so happened that this event coincided with Sigma Chi Derby Days—an annual event that consisted of a number of challenges whereby campus groups could assemble points. What the prize was I can’t remember, but I do remember that one of the contests was to gain the signature of the most famous person, and I happened to know that John Wayne himself had been a Sigma Chi. If I could somehow gain his signature, we would have it made in the shade for that particular challenge.

And so on the prescribed day, we were off, fully laden, with five of us filling the seats of my little red Ford Galaxy. How we would get close enough to the train to gain the autograph, I did not know, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

There was, as may be expected, a huge crowd at the Laramie train station, and we waited in anticipation for the train. Finally, it came up, sounding its whistle, flags waving. Several men came out to a small stage that had been constructed just in front of the train. Finally, Glen Campbell came out, but no John Wayne. We were puzzled when the speeches started without him. What could have happened to John Wayne? Finally, I was hit with one of those instant inspirations often depicted by a light bulb going off over someone’s head in cartoon bubbles.

“I bet he got off the train to fly back to California!” No one disagreed and it was my car, so off we sped to the airport, which was several miles outside of town. We drove well over the speed limit down the two-lane nearly carless road. As we approached the airport, we could see no larger planes loading, but there was one smaller private plane. We went speeding up to the airport. “I’ll go see what’s going on with that small plane,” I told my friends, springing from the door almost as soon as the car had come to a screeching halt. I went running out onto the field—not hard to do in a small airport in those years before airport security­—and ran smack dab into a man who was walking toward the plane from the opposite direction. “Well, whoa, there, little lady. Where ya goin?” said the brick wall I’d just run into.

“I’m trying to find John Wayne. Do you know if he might be in that plane?” I asked.

“Nope, I’m pretty sure he’s not,” said the man, “because he’s standing right here!”

I looked up—way up—and sure enough. There he was with his hands still on my forearms where he had caught me just before I ran into him broadside!

Yes. It was a surreal experience. And it was even more surreal when I explained about the points and he said, “Well, would it give ya more points if instead of delivering my autograph you could deliver me?” I said it sure would, and we had reached my car and my somewhat astonished friends had piled four in the back for him to climb into the front seat with me when a harried looking man came running out from the landing field shouting, “John, John! What are you doing?”

Long story short, John Wayne did not come back to campus with us. His manager managed to persuade him it was not in his best interests given that something in California was important enough to warrant his immediate return. But, I did get his signature and no, I did not turn it in for Sigma Chi Derby Days. To this day, it resides in a square of a memory box—one of the kind popular in the sixties and seventies that is made out of an old newspaper print box—and as proof, I include a picture below.

And yes, of course John Wayne was three sheets to the wind, for in keeping with the original rail-joining ceremony, “It was a very hilarious occasion; everybody had all they wanted to drink…”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/whoa/

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For another great story about how Garry Armstrong met John Wayne, go here: http://teepee12.com/2016/01/08/the-duke-and-garry-a-pilgrims-tale-garry-armstrong/

The Prompt:  What’s the most surreal experience you’ve ever had?

My earlier post wouldn’t pingback to the Daily Prompt site, so I had to repost.  Here are comments from that earlier post:

lifelessons
grieflessons.wordpress.com
jubob2@hotmail.com
189.169.119.208

This seems to be a day for synchronicities. Did you read Mark Aldrich’s piece? Today is also my best friend’s birthday and I need to call her as well. Your mentioning your birthday reminded me of hers, so the chain goes on. Thanks for your kind words, Anton.

Mark Aldrich
thegadabouttown.wordpress.com
markaldrich68@hotmail.com
68.174.46.193

I wonder why that did not ping properly.

That is a treasure of a story.

Anton Wills-Eve
antonwillseve.com
willseve@aol.com
78.144.91.230

Judy you should have been a journalist! One of the best and most interesting posts I’ve ever read.Well done, but tell me, how did you know May 10 was my birthday? Seriously, it is. Anton. 🙂

21 thoughts on “John Wayne and I

  1. Anton Wills-Eve

    yes I read Mark’s piece and was facinated by it. I shall drop him a comment but there was a third odd coincidence concerning his post on Sviatoslav Richter and his centenary two days ago. I didn’t know his birthday but have always been a great fan, God must have invented classical piano music, and on that exact day I happened to listen to my recoding of him of playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, one of the jewels of my music collection which I had not heard for at least five years! And on the subject of coincidences – surreal or spiritual- have you read my blog “The night my mother met a saint in her pyjamas”? How do you explain Pope John being canonised on her birthday? It’s a wonderful world. Saludos Anton

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  2. Pingback: Daily Prompt; Whoa! | tnkerr-Writing Prompts and Practice

  3. Garry Armstrong

    Well, Judy, I’ve finally read your John Wayne story and absolutely LOVE it! It certainly has more of a personal touch than mine does. I didn’t even get an autograph (nor a personal picture) because a) I was awe struck despite my status as a well known reporter and b) I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask a crew member to take a picture.
    I’ll write my Wayne piece later today or tomorrow. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. lifelessons Post author

      It was one of those times when one has a flash of inspiration and then is stunned when they are correct!! It seems surreal to me now and can’t quite believe that it really happened. One of the girls with me has since passed away and I’ve lost contact with the rest. So I have only my own sterling memory and the signed card to testify in my behalf!! Luckily I’ve told the story enough times over the years that I’m pretty sure the details are correct. I’m not positive he called me “Little Lady,” but I’ve heard him use that title so many times that I’ve decided he should have said it even if he didn’t! Ha. I often wonder what would have happened if his manager or agent or whoever it was that came and pulled him out of my car hadn’t arrived in time.

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      1. Garry Armstrong

        Judy, as I’ve said repeatedly about these celeb things, it’s almost always about opportunity and timing. Your bumping into Duke and blurting out the question, is priceless. It was probably so natural and refreshing that HE enjoyed the moment.
        I just finished my Wayne piece. Marilyn will edit and add some pictures before posting. Thanks for the inspiration. I feel like I’ve put in a full day’s work. Ben, our host and old pal, just told me with a smile, “The check’s in the mail”.
        Hugs,
        Garry

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        1. lifelessons Post author

          Want a recommendation? One of the best docented tours I ever had was at Frank Lloyd Wright’s house, Taliesen West in Scottsdale. It was a fascinating tour, even if one isn’t a huge fan of the man himself. The second best tour was at Hemingway’s former house in Cuba, but that’s a bit far afield for you at the moment. The Biltmore Hotel–also his design–was interesting but no docent to give the juicy life details.

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  4. Pingback: My answers to Nosy Questions #2 | lifelessons – a blog by Judy Dykstra-Brown

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