Once Upon a Time in Findlay, Ohio

by John Delach

Part One: The Plan

The year was 1969. Two other twenty-something colleagues, brothers Bob and Roger B. and I had a light-bulb moment: “How long would it take to make a car trip along the Interstate Highways that follow the perimeters of the USA at the legal speed limits stopping only for fuel, food and to freshen up?” (Alaska and Hawaii need not apply)

What-if, indeed! Instead of returning to a netherworld, we began figuring out the what-ifs and a plan began to form.

Our timing was favorable. Most of the perimeter interstates: I-5, I-10, I-90 and I-95 were nearly complete. The price of gasoline was relatively cheap, and the speed limits were set at 65 and 70 in most rural areas and in a few at 80. Findlay was a perfect place to acquire sponsors. First things, first, we needed the right type of automobile. Since our journey would be one of endurance rather than speed, we decided on a large, comfortable vehicle. By coincidence we were all Pontiac men, and each had recently purchased a new car from, Jim Herrin, our local dealer.

Mr. Herrin caught our enthusiasm and convinced his regional manager to lend us a 1969 Executive Safari Station Wagon 400, a 4,636 pound beast that normally sat eight. One problem though, was its range. Even with its 20-gallon fuel tank, given the Safari’s MPG of 13.4 for highway driving, its range was only between 245 and 290 miles for time-consuming fill-ups.

We three adventurers worked for Marathon Oil Company at its national headquarters in downtown Findlay. Our pitch to management was well-received. Marathon, then considered to be a regional operator, was looking to expand its brand and hasten the development of their own credit card.

As our plan took shape, Cooper Tire Company, also domiciled in Findlay, came on board as a sponsor fitting the Safari with top-of-the-line tires.

We didn’t plan to use the third rear-facing seat in the station wagon during this trip so Bob, who was a car buff and excellent mechanic, ameliorated  the driving range limitation by installing a second 20-gallon tank in this seat’s foot well. The tank was connected by a hose with a pump to transfer gasoline on the fly. We installed a plywood floor behind the front seat for a padded sleeping area, an electric camper fridge that plugged into the cigarette lighter socket and a porta-potty for “urgent and unscheduled necessities.” We even rigged a makeshift café curtain to afford a degree of privacy

Paper maps and atlases were used to identify routes and planned stopping points. Bob acquired a ship-to-shore radio-telephone, a God-send in this era before the concept of cellular phones even existed. Crude, by today’s standards, the originating party called a special operator who connected the call to the desired phone number. Only one party could speak at a time and the conversation was open to any third party listening on a shortwave radio.

But the device enabled us to call ahead to our planned service stops to give our ETA, a list of what supplies, food, or other things we needed and approximately how much fuel we expected to pump on board. The radio-phone also allowed us to remain in contact with family, friends, and our buddies at Marathon. (Having the phone came in handy when we were travelling in the humid air along I-10 near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Our windshield began to fog up on the inside. Befuddled, we called an engineer back in Findlay who worked us through how to clear it.)

Before we left, other Marathon engineers gave us advise that included a mind trick to maximize our miles per gallon. “Before you step on the accelerator imagine that there is an egg under it. You don’t want to crush the egg so you can only ease the accelerator down each time you begin and when you want to speed up.”

As the trip progressed, WFIN, the local radio station, became aware of our endeavor leading us to call in status reports to the station’s morning drive-time show.

We did not realize that our lack of movement and activity would affect us, but our food consumption diminished as the trip progressed. We wore loose fitting clothing, tee shirts and sweatpants. Our company doctor suggested we wear athletic socks under sandals to reduce foot perspiration and swelling. (I still wear sandals this way. Before you say it looks dorky, try it first.)

The Imperial House Motel, located next to the interchange of I-75 and Route 157 was the ideal spot to begin and end our journey. We picked May 30 to accommodate me as I was getting married two Saturdays later. We hoped that a starting time of 9am would put us in New York City sometime on Sunday morning to avoid heavy traffic.

(To be continued)