When I was a kid, I thought Highway 11 was my way “out,” and I was leaving even if I had to run myself out of town. In my mind, if you followed it south, you ended up in New Orleans, and if you followed it north, you ended up in New York City. I later learned that the southern terminus was actually Lake Pontchartrain and that, headed north, it stopped at the Canadian border, completely bypassing the Big Apple.
No matter, I worked in a highway-side gas station, or “filling station” as we called them back in the day, during high school, and this gave me both a feel for the traffic and a sense of the highway’s connection to a world beyond my own. Every afternoon, about 5 p.m. for example, the big trucks would start passing by, headed north, carrying giant loads of pine stumps to be processed into turpentine at the Hercules plant in Hattiesburg. Routinely, it seemed, one would pull into the station with a flat tire to be repaired, and it would almost always be on an inside back tandem wheel. Magically, all of the older, full-time guys would disappear, and I would be left to change the tire. I doubt that would pass muster with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, people today.
I don’t know if you ever jacked up a fully loaded stump truck, removed, repaired, and reinstalled a flat tire when you were 15 years old, but it will definitely give you an attitude. I worried more about the rim of the wheel blowing off when I aired it back up than anything else. They go straight up and will take your head off if you aren’t careful. My theme song at the time was Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” with its lyrics of “Workin’ in the fillin’ station; too many tasks; wipe the windo’; check the tires; check the oil; dollar gas; too much monkey business, too much monkey business for me to be involved in.”
My daddy had told me about New York City. He was a real raconteur, and many of his stories were Highway 11 related. When he was a young man, for example, he had helped in its construction through Lamar County, behind the wheel of a chain-driven Mack dump truck, which frequently “threw its chain” like a bicycle. He also worked on the construction of the bridge across Lake Pontchartrain. When he had to “go,” there were no restrooms or port-a-potties on the lake, and he had to sit on an open-ended nail keg to keep from getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.
In his later years, he drove a trailer truck for the Movie Star Company, which had women’s lingerie manufacturing plants all over south Mississippi, delivering the finished products to New York City once a week for distribution. He liked to tell of the time he was on 11, coming down a mountain outside Roanoke, Virginia, and a wheel came off his trailer. He looked out his window, saw it passing him by, and watched it crash into a building far below. I always regarded this latter story suspiciously, however, because I couldn’t see how the tire could go faster than the truck was going.
I probably got good vibrations about New Orleans listening to the gas station radio playing ads on a continuous loop for the amusement park at Pontchartrain Beach: “At the beach, at the beach, at Pontchartrain Beach. You’ll have fun, you’ll have fun, every day of the week. You’ll love the thrilling rides, laugh ‘till you split your sides, that’s Pontchartrain Beach.” That was on WNOE, the radio station owned by James A. Noe, a former governor of Louisiana. There was apparently a time in Louisiana politics when, in order to be governor, you either had to own your own radio station or at least be a singer like Jimmy Davis with your own hit song (“You Are My Sunshine”). One of these guys, or maybe both, might have been the inspiration for the “governor” character in the movie, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Highway 11 actually intersects with Highway 90 in east New Orleans and runs north 1,645 miles, through 10 states, to Rouses Point, New York, where it crosses the border into Canada and becomes Quebec Route 223. Of this, 170 miles are in Mississippi, running from near Nicholson in the south to Cuba, Alabama. Between here and Canada, it tracks through the dead center of such cities as Birmingham, Knoxville, Hagerstown, Scranton and Syracuse. In my traveling years, I could identify all of these cities by their Greyhound bus stations. It was at the Chattanooga bus station, about 1960, that I first heard “Green Onions,” by Booker T and the MGs. It’s funny what you remember.
When you talk highways in the United States, two important dates come to mind: 1925 and 1956. In 1925, the Joint Board on Interstate Highways, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommended that a national system of numbering highways be established. The guidelines they established have basically been followed ever since: generally, most north to south highways are odd numbered (11, 61, etc.), with the lowest numbers in the east and the highest in the west. Similarly, east to west highways are typically even numbered (84, 98, 90, etc.), with the lowest numbers in the north and the highest in the south. Highways with three numbers are often spurs off the main roads. There are often exceptions, of course. By the way, if you follow Highway 84, up at Laurel, all the way west until it ends, you will be in Colorado. I did it one summer.
In 1956, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was authorized. An interstate highway system had been proposed much earlier, but President Eisenhower, after seeing the efficiency of the German autobahns during World War II, was instrumental in passing the final legislation. “Interstate,” of course, means “between states,” and “intrastate” means “within states.” I say this because I have history students who don’t know that immigrant means “one who comes into the country,” and “emigrant” means “one who leaves the country.”
While Highway 11 never had the cachet of Route 66 (the “Mother Road”) or even Highway 61 in Mississippi (the “Blues Highway”), it still had a unique personality all its own. For me, the mood was set just this side of Pontchartrain by the familiar outpost of the famous White Kitchen restaurant with its iconic electric sign depicting an Indian warrior, clad in a loin cloth, sending out neon smoke signals into the night sky.
Closer to home, I remember the billboard put up in the late 1950s by the segregationist Citizen’s Council, about where the Sullivan-Kilrain truck stop is today, supposedly showing definitive proof that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist sympathizer. I’m not sure the word “Photoshopped,” had been invented at that time, but the picture on the billboard was obviously phony.
Highway 11 did play a part in both the social and economic history of America. From the 1920s through the 1950s, it was a major conduit for the “Black Diaspora,” with tens of thousands of African American citizens following it north for more opportunity and a better life. At the same time, northern industrialists, attracted by cheap, non-unionized white labor, followed it south, encouraged to build minimum-wage factories in so-called “right to work” states like Mississippi. My own mama toiled at a sewing machine in such a plant for 30 years, and I don’t think she ever got a raise and certainly never had “benefits.”
On a more benign note, the Burma Shave signs advertising men’s shaving creaming were always present. Known as “motion-graphic” signs, they consisted of four to six roadside signs, placed a hundred yards or so apart, with each sign presenting part of a pithy message. The last sign always said simply “Burma Shave.” Here are some of my favorites:
• “School houses / take it slow / let the little / shavers grow / Burma Shave.”
• “Within this vale / of toil / and sin / your head grows bald /But not your chin! / Burma Shave.”
• “The monkey took / one look at Jim / and threw the peanut / back at him / he needed / Burma Shave!”
Other than it taking forever to drive through Birmingham, and that there were two Highway 11s between Knoxville and Bristol, Tennessee, because the citizens along each route both wanted to be on the “main” highway, another thing I remember about old 11 is that it went right across the rock formation known as the “Natural Bridge” in Virginia. It was once owned by Thomas Jefferson and was surveyed by George Washington. In fact, you can see the initials, “G.W.” carved in the rock underneath the bridge, supposedly put there by Washington himself about 1750.
Over my lifetime, I’ve run most of the main highways in the United States. I enjoyed the scenery, of course, but what I remember most are the times and locations where my car broke down. There was the time I was running Route 66, just outside Tucumcari, New Mexico, headed to Boston, in the 1956 Cadillac Coupe de Ville I had just rebuilt in the hobby shop at Naval Station, Long Beach, California, when I heard this terrible noise. I thought I had fried the engine for sure. Luckily, it turned out to be only a loose exhaust manifold. I bought that car down in Tijuana, just up the street from the restaurant that claims it invented the Caesar salad. I later sold it to send my boy to junior college.
Then there was the time the radiator blew on my Triumph early one Sunday morning, just outside of Fort Stockton, Texas, after that long, hot haul from San Antonio to El Paso. A nice Hispanic gentleman opened up his shop after church and welded it back together for me. And I’ll never forget when I burned a piston in my Volkswagen beetle during a rainstorm on the New Jersey Turnpike outside Jersey City. I was picked up and given a ride by a “made man,” a “wise guy,” a member of the Mafia, right out of central casting for the Sopranos. I figured I was dead meat, or robbed, for sure, but he was very nice and helpful. And so it goes.
When I finally left home in 1959, in a Greyhound bus, headed for the armed forces induction station in Jackson, Highway 11 was still the main north/south artery for central Mississippi. When I came back in 1996, it had been replaced by Interstate 59 and was only a shadow of its former self. For many cities, it was “Main Street,” but now it’s just the “business route,” or the back way into the forgotten part of town.
But don’t be fooled: late at night, standing by 11, if you listen hard enough, and you catch the wind just right, you can almost hear the low throbbing of the Hudson Hornets, the Oldsmobile 88s, and the popping of the Jake brakes of the Diamond Ts and Reos as they all slow for that next turn off in the darkness. Listen and remember.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby, a resident of Oak Grove, is a retired Navy captain. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.