The following is the complete tale of a 17-year-old boy’s cross-country trip to California taken with his high school buddies in the summer of 1958. The, story, by Stan Kornafel, was told to Managing Editor David Bjorkgren and appeared as a 6-part series in the NEWS of Delaware County.
When it started, all they had was an idea, their wits, and some raffle tickets.
When they were done, they had taken the trip of a lifetime, a defining moment in their lives in that summer of 1958.
For four boys, it was to become known as the Amazing Journey of the Chester Eagles Boys Club.
Meet Bill, Dave, Tom, and Stanley. (You’ll meet Larry a little later). It was graduation time at St. James Catholic High School and they wanted to go out in style.
“We wanted to do something stupidly big,” says Stanley Kornafel, a Ridley resident. “We were 17. None of us had a car.”
So what to do? Yeah, they could do day trips, an overnighter, borrow dad’s car and drive to New Jersey or New York. But it didn’t quite hit the mark.
They began to think bigger. A trip to Colorado would be nice. Maybe do some fishing, or mountain climbing. Bill thought he’d like to see Vegas.
By the end of February it was getting closer to graduation and still no destination. Then they had it. Why not go to California? “That’s only a skip and a jump from Colorado,” Kornafel points out.
Destination solved. But how to get there? Besides no car, there was no money. A train, a bus, a plane just wasn’t going to cut it.
“We had to get a car,” Kornafel says, adding, “Our parents were absolutely against the whole idea.”
What happened next happened in a frenzy. “We worked odd jobs, delivering newspapers, soda fountain jerks. They volunteered for extra paper routes, extra hours in the store,” anything to earn some money.
They picked up trash. They put an ad in the Chester Times and hired themselves out as handymen. No job was too small.
“Everything became automatic. There was nothing else.”
Then, while trying to come up with funds for the car, disaster struck. Tom’s father had a heart attack. Tom was already dealing with his sick mom and knew by May that he would not be making this trip.
But the three remaining boys pressed on in their quest for a car. They stumbled across a 1948 Nash Ambassador, a four-door sedan already 10 years old. One of the guys turned to the others and remarked, “it looks like a giant turtle.”
“You’ll never make it out of Pennsylvania,” someone in school told them.
They nicknamed the car ‘Nashie.’
The guy was asking $500. They had $300, but he wouldn’t budge on the price. So close, but no matter how hard they worked, they just couldn’t raise what they needed to buy the car and take the trip.
One day after school, Stan got an idea.
“We could sell raffle tickets to raise money for our trip.”
No one had ever run a raffle before and the others argued against the idea. But a printer for whom David worked agreed to print up the tickets and only charge them for the cost of the paper. The seemingly impossible started to seem less so.
“We got the tickets, but we didn’t have a prize,“ Kornafel says. Then Bill’s mom, a shopper, came to the rescue. She helped them find a deal on a table model radio.
Having no idea what they were doing, and not even being certain that what they were doing was legal, they hit the streets looking for customers. They spread out on the south end of Chester, desperately trying to get people to part with 25 cents for a ticket, five for a dollar.
The four boys weren’t having much luck selling their raffle tickets to fund their cross-country trip to California, even with a lucrative prize of a table top radio.
Then they come to the house of a “huge black guy,” a football player and track and field athlete who had to duck when he answered the door so he wouldn’t hit his head.
“As it turned out, he was a salesman. He gave us a lot of hints on how to move the tickets,” Kornafel recalls.
So the tickets started to sell. Things were looking up. If only they had stayed away from one particular house in Sun Village.
A woman answered the door while her husband sat reading the newspaper.
“We backed up because we thought he pulled a gun. He was the chief of police for Sun Village,” Kornafel says.
The chief was skeptical and demanded that he see the prize before he let them sell any more tickets.
“If we didn’t come back with the radio, we would be arrested for theft. He wanted to know our names, addresses, phone numbers,” Kornafel recalls.
Serious threats, but as the boys reached the door to leave, the chief asked them how many tickets they had and gave them some money.
“I’m not buying tickets. I’m contributing,” the chief told them.
They put all the sold tickets in the back of a jacket, tied the jacket, then drew out five, then three, then one ticket. They had a winner.
They also had a combined total of $900, enough to buy the car and finance the trip.
But the trip still wouldn’t be possible without a fourth passenger to help with expenses and driving. They needed to replace Tom.
“We advertised in the papers, printed up flyers and hung them around the school,” Kornafel says.
And they found Larry, from Brookhaven. Larry was a big boy, on the football team.
“We talked to his family. That was a big scene,” Kornafel recalls.
Turns out Larry was going to college in California and his mother knew people in California that he could stay with, so it seemed like a good fit if Larry wanted to join them on their journey west.
The only glitch came when Larry and his parents initially thought “Nashie” was a girl traveling with them. They forbid him to make the trip.
Things changed when Larry realized Nashie was the car they would be traveling in.
“The first words out of his mouth were ‘You’re not going in that are you?’ We told him to apologize to Nashie and the rest became history,” Kornafel says.
Larry added to the trip fund the money he would have spent on bus fare and became an associate.
“He really wanted to be part of the crew. It became a real, tight bond,” Kornafel says.
They had the crew. They had the car. They had some money. Now they needed an itinerary. It was difficult to plan because the guys wanted to go to so many places.
Then there was all the stuff for the trip. How could the Nash carry it all?
“We had so much stuff from picking trash and what we could scrounge from our families. The car just wouldn’t hold it all.”
They had extra tires, 3- to 5-gallon cans of oil, sleeping bags, an ice chest, two cases of beer.
“By the time we got done [loading) the car was sitting on its frame,” Kornafel remembers.
So they started to cut down on everything. No suits. They would bring detergent and wash their socks. A rack for the roof of the car would help, but how do you fit a flat rack on an oval roof?
“Bill’s mom had a bedspring. It was the exact size of the roof. Uncle Henry, who had been in the war, provided a war surplus tarp. It was weatherproof. It covered everything.”
And so they were off on a road trip to California.
No one counted on endless rain.
“From Ohio to Missouri the rain never stopped. It was supposed to be a happy trip but it just rained and rained.”
The boys remained cooped up in the car as they drove through flooded areas, with a reduced speed as low as 15 mph in some places.
They reached a major milestone in their journey west as they crossed the big Mississippi into St. Louis. But there was no joy in the experience. By then, they had been sleeping in the car next to tires and oil cans, “nothing to see, nothing to talk about, just days in the car.”
Arriving at Hotel Warwick in St. Lois was like stepping into paradise.
“Forget it. Chandeliers from the ceilings, rose water, table cloths.”
They talked to the clerk about getting a room, but rates were pretty expensive.
“The clerk knew about the rain but said there was nothing he could do about the prices.”
They started to leave, but stopped when the manager asked to talk with them. They told their story and, at one point, he went out to look at the car.
After that, “he gave us a real break in the price and a big discount on the restaurant in the hotel,” Kornafel says.
It had been diner food on the road so far. This time, they decided to have one big meal together, a celebration, since they wouldn’t be seeing each other again after this trip.
The dining room was “extraordinary.” Classical music played. “They had goblets, the whole works. Bill wanted to eat with silverware,” he says.
They were in the company of dignitaries and politicians, all in black ties and tux. The boys were in sports coats and not looking their best after the weather they had just driven through. But it didn’t matter.
“We had a hell of a celebration. Then the guys looked at the bill and we almost threw up.”
But good fortune continued to smile down on them. Thanks to a generous hotel manager and maitre’d , their bill at this lavish restaurant was in their price range.
“They had knocked off the price of dessert, than cut the bill by 60 percent,” Kornafel recalls.
Back on the road, they traveled through an authentic mining town, then found themselves near Stanton, Missouri, where they came across a place decorated with American flags, about the size of a miniature playhouse.
“We thought it was a vegetable stand, but the guy had turned it into a fireworks stand. There were torpedoes, bombs, blockbusters.
“We decided to buy some,” but had no idea what they were going to do with them.
They found a 20-foot mound of dirt off to the side of the road.
“Bill and Larry started shooting roman candles, firecrackers. One of the roman candles went off close to a car on the road. It pulled over and the driver pulled out a .36 and pointed it at them.
“He thought we were shooting at him. We were too close to the road. Lesson learned.”
On the outskirts of Oklahoma City, they found Stockyard City, a giant shopping center with a humongous football-field-sized restaurant and, strangely enough, a lot of visitors from the east coast.
They made it to Alburquergue, New Mexico where the people were “very friendly.”
“One place had an original old covered wagon with a cook and we had lunch out on the praire, with cows and horses, steak, beans and potatoes,” Kornafel recalls. “Flagstaff beer, by the way, is a good beer.”
As they neared Las Vegas, a motorcycle policeman flagged them down. With the mud and rain it was hard to recognize the car.
“We were getting ready for a brawl,” figuring police wouldn’t take too kindly to kids traveling alone heading to Las Vegas. The police lieutenant checked their licenses and finally called their parents. He let them go with a warning that they would be in big trouble if they were caught gambling.
“Bill thought they were going to kick us out of town, but he helped us find a reasonable place to stay.” And so, with a police escort that included lights and sirens, they were checked into the Hoseanda.
“There were cow girls with hats and boots, all shooting guns off,” he recalls.
The manager didn’t believe their story about how they organized their trip to California.
“He has to see the car, than he cuts us a break on a large room at a very reduced rate.”
They ended up playing blackjack as much as they could at nights, “six hours at the black jack table. Nobody got busted.”
There was a woman.
A woman, who looked to be in her 40s, comes walking over wearing a diamond ring. “The woman could see I was winning. She moved her chair over and started a conversation.” That was when Dave came over. He looked underage and that put an end to the conversation.
After getting themselves kicked out of Las Vegas, they made their way into California and arrived in Granada Hills to drop Larry off with the family where he would be staying while attending college.
They stayed two-and-a-half days, than the three remaining boys continued their trip, leaving Larry behind.
The night before they left they found a Mexican-American joint. They decided to have a couple of drinks to toast Tom’s absence and Larry’s departure.
“The place was swinging. Word got out about us being from Pennsylvania”.
There were people from the Midwest, the East Coast. People were dancing and the place started to heat up.
“I got involved with a woman whose husband was right there. He broke us up before there was any trouble,” Kornafel says. “I was in love.”
Leaving Granada Hills, they decided to check out the LA freeway.
“We got pulled over for going too slow.”
One of them had a brother at a Jesuit seminary in California so they worked out a plan to stay there for three days. “We played cards and got an introduction to religion. We wanted to experience everything.”
Having made it to California, their western journey now arced east. It was near Reno when they were stopped again by police.
“They got us out of the car and said we were under arrest. The way they said it provoked us.” In front of the police car was a jail cell on top of a truck. A judge comes out.
“The sheriff was bringing people over. Casino people were yelling ‘Lynch them.’ Turns out they were part of an elaborate fund-raising event. “If we made a donation to the J.C.s, they would let us go.”
They continued east and made it as far as Wallas, Kansas. “The car was giving off sounds we hadn’t heard before.” Finally, the timing chain went.
“Wallas was where old Nellie died. Bill got out and shot her, kicked the door.”
A man bought the car for $5, than gave them another $15 for the sleeping bags and the cooler.
They made it to a neaerby freight terminal in Sharon Springs but now they stranded.Their only option: Go back to Rt. 40 and hitchhike.
Stranded in Kansas, hitchhiking seemed to be the only option home for the boys.
There was this freight yard and freight trains have a caboose, if they could only get on board.
“They said we can’t ride the rail. But we talked to an old railroad man. He tells us about a hobo camp.
“We let him know what we’re doing and what happened with the car. With his instructions we decided to hop the freight.”
They hide in the bushes as a small, working freight train, an old steamer, approaches.
“The engine stops almost in front of us. We could see the brakeman.”
There was a big blast of steam off to the side and black smoke. The wheels started to grind. The trainman they had talked to in the freight yard yells, “good luck, guys. “
But there’s nothing to jump on to. “Dave and Bill are on the railing of the cars.” Stanley tried to grab the caboose. “There’s no place for me to jump on.”
The train picked up speed.
“I couldn’t get on at the back of the stairs. I grabbed on to a fence.”
Stanely, who used to do some running, had torn some ligaments in the past. Now he’s concerned that his feet and legs won’t be up to the task of getting on board the train.
Dave and Bill have made it to the top. The train keeps picking up speed, doing maybe 15 to 20 mph.
“I stumbled one time and ran. Eventually the guys on top, they grab my belt and pants so I can sit, then, to get me to the top they pulled and pushed. If I had fallen that would have been it.”
Having successfully hopped the freight, they decided that was the best way to get home.
Things were going well until the tornado.
“We got caught in a freight yard. A tornado hits. We didn’t know a tornado was coming.
Someone had told them about an open box car and they were waiting to hop on when the tornado hits the train yard.
“Debris was flying all over the place. All hell was breaking loose. It lifted Dave off the ground. I was holding on to Bill. The next morning, one car was standing upright in a tree.”
They survived the tornado and ended up looking for an open box car in a freight yard in Kansas City. The train comes. No open box car.
“The only thing left was the tanker car.” They jumped on. “This train is picking up speed. We sit down and we’re holding on.” So far the train was only doing 30 mph. What if the train picked up speed and was doing 60?
“We were holding on to each other and we were so scared. There was no where to go.”
This time somebody saw them. “They stopped the train. State police showed up with shot guns and rifles and arrested us.”
The police chief didn’t believe a word they said about their trip to California. “They thought we were escaped convicts out of Leavenworth.”
The boys were put in a jail cell, but a call to their parents confirmed their story. They were released and put up in a hotel with the stern warning, “Stay away from all railroad property.”
Now there was nothing left but to hitchhike home. Around Columbus, Ohio, they ran out of money. Once again, they’re picked up by the police.
“By now, we’re starving. We haven’t eaten in days, no showers, shaving, clothes.”
The police got them to a phone booth where they wired home for money. The three of them grabbed a bus that took them to Philadelphia. They had to transfer to another bus, but in their condition, they weren’t allowed on. “We found out what park benches were like.”
By now they were tired of being pushed around. They had a ticket to ride and they weren’t taking no for an answer.
“The driver comes back with a guard, a superintendent.” Finally, they reach an accommodation. “They put us on the bus as far back as possible.”
One last ride and at long last, they were home, their journey at an end.
“Dave’s mom was out on the porch waiting. Then did we get an ear job, but we were back in one piece.”