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Jewish World Review May 27, 1999 /12 Sivan 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Pressed between
wooden covers, the
summer of her life

(JWR) ---- (
SOME DAYS, the mundane was made to sound spectacular:

"We had already gotten away from paved highways. These roads were gravel. A winding road led to Verdure (Utah). We had thought of spending the night there, but no rooms were available in the whole town. The gas station attendant called every place he could think of, but no luck.

"A new school was being constructed and all the homes that could have taken someone in for the night ordinarily were now full up. He informed us our best bet was to go on to Blanding, which was 25 miles further on our route. All of us were very tired, but we pressed on hoping we would find a bed to rest our weary bones. . . .

"Blanding proved to be one of those small towns that rolls up the sidewalks when it gets dark. A few street lights flickered here and there, and in the entire town we saw two homes that had lights burning. We stopped at a large place that had a tourist sign, but no one answered the door bell. We then went to one of the homes that did have a light to inquire where we might be able to roost. He told us of a place about two blocks from there. . . .

"Johnnie walked up to the door expectantly. A woman answered the door and to the blunt question `Do you have a place for four people to sleep?' he heard the unbelievable answer of `YES.' We were out of the car like a shot. . . ."

Some days, the spectacular was made to sound mundane:

"Leaving Boulder City we headed for Las Vegas. It was dark by the time we reached it. . . . We drove down the main street, observing all the stores and shops. We parked at the Town Square, which was filled and over-flowing with `bums.' This wide-open town interested us, so we had to investigate. Every store and shop had gambling devices -- from one slot machine to a whole gambling establishment. . . ."

The summer was 1941; the author was Agnes Frese. If you read the previous column, you know about her: She was a young woman in her 20s in 1941, who with her friend Jeanne Ogilvie wanted to see the country. The two of them responded to a one-sentence classified advertisement in the Sunday Chicago Tribune: "Will take two passengers to Los Angeles starting August 30th." The ad had been placed by a man named John Anderson; the women invited him over for dessert, satisfied themselves that he was a gentleman, and, with Anderson's friend Danny Rutledge, set off for Los Angeles by car.

The Great Depression was finally over, the U.S. entry into World War II was still months away, and they wanted to see America town by town. How do we know about all of this? Because when Agnes Frese died at the age of 84 recently -- living by herself in an apartment in Virginia Beach, Va. -- she left behind an old wooden-covered photo album: her journal of the trip.

"Breakfast at the King Fong Cafe in North Platte (Neb.), and then we were on our merry way. Straight roads along the Union Pacific. . . . One of the principal crops through this section of Nebraska was sugar beets. Danny pulled a big one. . . ." The black-and-white snapshots in the album were carefully placed on construction-paper pages 58 years ago, little black triangular picture-holders pasted neatly to do their jobs; the clippings from local papers bore places of honor; always, Agnes Frese's narrative was typed perfectly on onionskin paper. Some of the towns you can no longer find on maps; they're gone. The country has changed -- Las Vegas that summer before the war was not yet what it would become: "We parked at the Town Square. . . ."

The drama of the story is in its lack of drama; the permanence of the tale is in its fleeting telling. Once, a long time ago, in a country without interstate highways or jet airplanes, four people set out to see what they would see. When they finally returned to Chicago, "Jeanne was the first to leave us. Full of stories to tell -- and an empty apartment to greet her."

It seems to have been the time of their lives. Agnes Frese's grandson, Rich Corzatt, who inherited the photo album, says that as far as he knows the four travelers all went their separate ways. He has no idea what happened to the other three; his grandmother Agnes married a man several years later, and they remained wed for more than 40 years, until his death. She never showed her husband the photo album; she kept it hidden. Sometimes a woman needs to portion off a part of her heart for . herself. . .

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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