Wrong Turn at Pismo Beach

In the 1950s, my brother and I saw a Looney Tunes cartoon on TV featuring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. In the video, Elmer, wielding his trusty (“twusty,” that is) double-barreled shotgun, chased the rascally rabbit until Bugs escaped by jumping down into his rabbit hole. 
Bugs began burrowing furiously, and in the next several frames visible from a distant view, his burrowing trail could be seen going around the Earth. Then, in a closeup shot, Bugs sticks his head out of his burrow and is surrounded by Asian-looking people wearing conical-shaped hats, and says, “I must have taken a wrong turn at Pismo Beach.”
At the time, I had no idea that Pismo Beach was a real place in California, but years later “a wrong turn at Pismo Beach” became my catchphrase for every mistake I made. If an event didn’t turn out as I expected—I must have made a wrong turn at Pismo Beach. But in the summer of 1967, it was a wrong turn at Miami Beach that caused problems for me.
Although my family lived in Willow Springs in the 1960s, 600 miles from the nearest seaport, my stepfather, George Rothwell, earned a living as a merchant seaman. It wasn’t unusual for him to be gone for three to six months a year traveling to exotic countries like India or Egypt. 
After each trip, he returned home with exciting tales of casbahs and strange food. He often brought jewelry, crafted by foreign artisans, to my mother. For me, it was always a foreign language newspaper that appeared to be written in gibberish, which I couldn’t read. His trips, nevertheless, sounded glamorous to me—I suspect it wasn’t. 
In 1967, with George’s planning and direction, I was on track to acquire a merchant seaman’s license and have my own seafaring adventure. The amount of money I would earn as a deck hand on a merchant vessel would pay for a year of college.
Obtaining a merchant seaman’s certificate, which allowed one to depart the country and work on a merchant ship, came with a few hurtles to clear. As prerequisite to applying, someone with my lack of knowledge, skill, or nautical ability needed a letter from a merchant marine shipping company stating my services were needed.
 After sailing multiple times for a particular company, George managed to get the company to issue the required letter. With my letter in hand, I traveled to the Coast Guard office in St. Louis to apply for a merchant seaman’s certificate. In addition to the application form, I had to sign a lengthy document, under the penalty of perjury, that I had never been a member of the Communist Party or scores of other subversive organizations listed on the form, few of which I recognized. 
Because the whole process seemed so official, it concerned me a bit that I might have missed some group on the subversive organization list, and FBI agents might track me down later. The issuing coast guard official added to my angst telling me how hard it was to obtain a merchant seaman’s card and that I should guard it carefully.
Just because I had a license didn’t ensure that I would get assigned to a ship. My mother told me George had arranged for a case of Cutty Sark scotch to be delivered to a certain port official in Houston, Texas, to get me aboard a ship. 
According to the plan, when I finished my sophomore year at Mizzou, I was to fly to Houston, Texas, rent a sleeping room, and then go to the seaman’s union hall and ask for a Mr. “Jones,” who would get me on a ship. It was a reasonable plan . . . until I made a route deviation.
Shortly, before heading to Texas, I had a conversation with my freshman year dormitory roommate, Lynn Spence (WSHS, 1964). Lynn had moved to Florida to pursue a career in aviation, and on semester break, I flew to Miami to visit him. In those days, flying standby with a student discount was relatively cheap, and with a free place to stay, it was an affordable trip.
During our conversation, Lynn suggested it would be a good time to visit Florida again and hangout with him and the new friends I had met that spring. A tempting offer indeed, but I explained my funds were limited, and that I only had enough money to fly to Houston. 
If Lynn hadn’t become a pilot, he would have been excellent in sales. In fact, he won the title of Willamizzou Supersalesman as a senior. Always logical and persuasive, he suggested if I had enough money to fly to Houston that I had enough to fly to Florida, and that he would loan me the money to fly from Miami to Houston. Moreover, I could pay him back at the end of the summer from all the money I would make as a merchant seaman.
I agreed to fly to Florida. After all, I reasoned, what could a few days hurt? I never advised my mother of this change of plans. As far as she knew, when I left Willow, I was on my way to Texas. George was on a voyage to India, so he was unaware.
Initially, my sojourn to Florida proved to be as much fun as my previous visit, sightseeing and swimming in the ocean, until my absentmindedness crashed the party. Returning from the beach one evening with Lynn and other friends, I realized my billfold was missing, with all my money—and my merchant seaman’s card. 
To this day, I cringe when I recall the sinking feeling that hit me. A feeling of abject fear. What would I tell my mother and George? 
I must have taken a wrong turn at Pismo Miami Beach.
To be continued.

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

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