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ND Road Trip reunion: 50 years later

There will be thousands of USC fans descending upon northwest Indiana this weekend for the USC vs Notre Dame game, and that will include 3 Trojans who are celebrating the 50th anniversary of a memorable trip they took in 1967 as USC students. Read below for an account of that trip from Bob Padgett:

On Wednesday October 11, 1967, a Beta fraternity member we knew named Frank “Dusty” Rhodes called us (Bob Best, Dan Scott and me) and offered to fly us to the SC-ND game in a rather beaten up four seat Beechcraft Debonair that he had rented for the weekend. He would charge us each $75 round trip. We had no game tickets, and the game was, as always, sold out long before that time. We had no lodging, and we barely knew Rhodes. We would be leaving in about 40 hours from then. So of course we said “YES!” Dan Scott was a USC yell leader at the time, complete with proper outfit, so he would likely be able to enter the stadium by wearing his yell leader outfit. Hmmm, that seemed like “the ticket”, to coin a phrase. We quickly began to scour for yell leader outfits owned by guys who were not going to the game. Since we were due to depart in a day and a half, we had to hustle. I found my fraternity brother Jeff Herten, a yell leader who was not going to South Bend, and Best and Rhodes found yell leader outfit donors as well, so we secured the uniforms (hopefully soon to be game tickets) and off we went. It never occurred to us that, perhaps, we should wonder why none of “The Duster’s” own Beta fraternity brothers had accepted his offer of such cheap transport to and from the game. Later, we would find out.

But we met at Bob Hope Burbank Airport at 0600 Friday. Off we went. The plane was not pressurized, Rhodes was not instrument-rated, and he was literally “winging it” with a patchwork flight plan. That all meant nothing to me/us at the time. I did not understand the definitions of those terms, and did not care. I just wanted to go to South Bend to see the Trojans play, and have an adventure doing so. Rhodes estimated that it would take 16-18 hours to get to Chicago, and then we had arranged to land at an airport called Palwaukee Regional (now called Chicago Executive). We had arranged to stay with Dan Scott’s aunt and uncle in Lake Forest, Illinois, somewhere north of Chicago. These were just names to us, but it all sounded exotic.

I sat “right seat” first, but we rotated. The pilot is always left seat, and I learned to follow vectors and some leveling techniques. This was the first time I had ever flown in a private plane. We first landed for fuel in Flagstaff, as our range was about 500 miles. I remember that we flew over Kansas City when there was a game of some sort at Arrowhead Stadium. Full and LIT UP! Anyway, we finally got to the vicinity of Chicago O’Hare Airport a little after midnight. Our airplane was too small to be allowed to land at O’Hare, thus “Palwaukee Airport” was our destination. The O’Hare air traffic controllers vectored us into the vicinity of Palwaukee, then washed their hands of us. We tried to roust someone controlling that much smaller airport, but we found bupkis. Turns out the airport was closed. We started eyeballing for a runway, as we were a little low on fuel. We finally spotted one, but a fairly intense wind was blowing crossway across the runway. A bit too much wind for us to take a chance on using it. A gust of wind that puts the plane in the field next to the runway and/or flips it can ruin your whole day, they tell me. There was a runway perpendicular to the first one we saw that would allow us to land upwind, the desirable direction, but its landing lights were off. We had no choice; it was time to descend. So we landed successfully and started to taxi over to a building where we saw some lights. We were suddenly surrounded by some U.S. Naval personnel. We had landed by mistake in a Naval Airfield. That was a much less intense era as far as security goes, but these Navy guys seemed very happy to fight the early morning boredom they faced nightly by grilling and harassing some college kids from California. Especially USC kids in this Notre Dame-friendly locale. There was one alarming note about our un-lit runway that we had used, with no prior contact with ground personnel. The reason the landing lights were off was that this runway was damaged and under repair. We could have hit a chuckhole or an area under repair or a pile of excavated material and flipped the craft. The Navy guys laid that finger-in-our-faces story on us over and over. I am not sure what THEY would have done if our places had been reversed, but I did not ask. We just wanted them to let us go. Which they finally did, at about 4 AM. Since we had to be in Chicago at 7 AM to catch the train to South Bend, we would be short of time no matter what we did. But we needed to get our luggage stored and put on our “game tickets” (a.k.a. yell leader outfits). Our Naval airfield was only about 3 miles from Palwaukee Airport, as it turned out. Dan Scott relates that the Navy guys somehow discovered that one of our dual ignition magnetos had failed. Yikes! We wanted to taxi on city streets to Palwaukee, but the Navy guys frowned on that idea and would not open the gate for us. So we took off and finally landed at Palwaukee by ourselves, as the control tower was still closed. Highly illegal but not a cause for major concern. Then we rousted Dan’s aunt and uncle out of bed to bring us to their home in Lake Forest. A quick change of clothes into our “game tickets”, a little Grape Nuts-and-milk treat, and we were off to the train station in Chicago.

We were the subject of all sorts of questions from SC fans on the train heading to South Bend, such as “what is your favorite cheer?”, “how long have you been a yell leader?”, etc. We all proved adept at “invention speak”. Rather than explaining the reality of our circumstances, we would just make stuff up. Dan Scott, of course, could tell the truth and give his imagination a rest. On the train, I met Ed Vierheilig, the former USC Fraternity Row candidate designate who had run against my dad for SC student body president back in 1949. I do not know whether he thought I knew the circumstances of the scandal-plagued election that was first awarded to him, then reversed when the massive cheating of his campaign was revealed. But he did not want to talk with me for whatever reason. Later in my life, when I was researching the events of the 1949 election, when my dad became the first non fraternity student body president SC ever elected, Ed Vierheilig literally refused to talk with me at all.

But onward to Notre Dame. I remember the headline of the Chicago Tribune that day; “OJ (ORANGE JUICE) LEADS SC TODAY AGAINST ND”. The name “Orenthal James” was not yet known around the country, as he was four games into his USC career. We arrived at the Notre Dame stadium and began looking for the players’ entrance. We just decided to act like we owned the place. We found what appeared to be the proper entrance in the very antiquated Knute Rockne-era stadium on the South Bend campus. We strode on in, waved at “the guy with the clipboard” and kept walking. “HEY”, he said. We stopped and waited for his next gambit. “Who are you guys?” Pretty obvious, we thought, but we innocently responded “The SC yell squad”. His next response was a jaw dropper. “They’re already inside!” My quick response; “Well, we’re the auxiliary squad”. The guy said “OK, stay right there and I’ll sort this thing out”. Fortunately for us, he parked us in the tunnel between himself and the field, and when he got busy with other concerns, after a few minutes we quietly slipped into the stadium. There were no around-the-neck or wrist credentials in those days, so we were good-to-go. The bulk of the real yell squad members knew what our scam was, but they let it go. We roamed the sidelines and got to be “up close and personal” with the action on the field.

Underdog SC fell behind in the first half, but “The Juice’ cranked out three second half TDs to lead to an SC 24-7 win. Linebacker Adrian Young from Dublin, Ireland, via La Mirada, had four (count ‘em, 4) picks of 7 total interceptions off Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty. This was SC’s first win in South Bend since 1939, so a 28 year winless drought came to an end that day. We finally got back to Chicago late, and headed for our first pillow time in a couple of days.

The next morning, we headed back to Palwaukee Airport for the return flight. There could not be any drama that could match the outbound flight from Los Angeles, right? Well, yes, it turns out that there could be, and there was. The weather was bad, close to zero visibility. Tough for an instrument-rated pilot to operate in, to say nothing of our pilot, the non-instrument-rated “Duster”. So we went into a local bar to knock back some cold ones, watch some NFL football, and wait for the weather to improve. Hours later, the temperature had cooled to near freezing, and it was raining buckets, but it was time to head out regardless of the weather locally. We had classes to attend on Monday, and we had already blown off the previous Friday’s classes while making our way to the Midwest. We tried to wipe any ice that might have formed off the leading edges of the wings with our hands, and we jumped aboard to head west sometime in the mid afternoon. Dan Scott was first in the right seat, and had the one flashlight aimed at the leading edge of the right wing, eyeballing for ice forming. Ice interfering with air flow over the wings can also ruin your whole day. When we finally got to the Rockies again, we landed in Pueblo, Colorado, to fuel up. Best and Scott jumped in the back and were quiet except for snoring, with the Duster and me forward.

About midnight, Dusty, with eyes heavy lidded, voice muffled, looked at me and said “I gotta get some sleep!” At which point his head dropped to the side in solid slumber, and I was suddenly the only person awake in that craft. Damn! I swallowed hard and took a look at the instruments and dials, trying to remember what was what. We had climbed to clear the Rockies, and the air was thin in that unpressurized aircraft. I knew the “rub” would occur when the vector on the screen would disappear and I had to choose another vector. I had no clue as to which of the various options was best, on the straightest line to home, with the strongest signal, etc. Or how to initiate radio contact with the ground without making it obvious that a neophyte was flying the plane, which would surely draw FAA scrutiny on the Duster. And pretty quickly I felt like joining my compatriots in slumber. I was damn tired myself! I fought to stay awake, not always successfully. I learned a lesson in physics; which was the reality of the three dimensions of travel in space versus the standard two dimensions of land based travel. Meaning that, when you are driving and you start to “nod out”, your car might move right or left. Or, hopefully, continue straight. But when you are piloting an airplane and fall asleep, the aircraft may move right, left, or DOWN! When I would lose the battle with slumber, what would happen next would typically be a nosedive, which would shake me into a state of confused wakefulness. My first reaction on awakening would be to try to make sense of the strange panoply of dials that were in front of me. This “dashboard” did not resemble my Chevy Impala. Oh, yeah, I would finally remember that I was in an airplane, not a four wheeler. None of these nosedives rousted the pilot, the somnolent Mr. Rhodes. At one point, I found myself seeming to be watching Jimmy Stewart in The Spirit of St. Louis, the movie about Charles Lindbergh’s first-ever air crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in May of 1927. I seemed to see Lindbergh plummeting to Earth, a scene portrayed in the film. I awoke to find our Beechcraft doing a real life “plummet to Earth”, and I had to quickly pull up on the control stick to “level the ship”, so to speak. And still the Three Sleeping Beauties continued their individual “Z-fests”. It seemed like forever before Dusty finally rousted himself and took over the piloting of the craft toward home. I was off track a bit, but the thing was still airborne and we were still breathing. And we had not had an “up close and personal” encounter with a mountain, Rocky or otherwise. We finally landed back at Burbank well after dawn, and went about our business in returning to the U of So Cal after an epic journey. Just over 72 hours of travel, but a lot packed into those hours.

We finally learned why none of Frank “Dusty” Rhodes’ Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers were willing to journey with him to that 1967 Notre Dame game in South Bend, or any other destination. The description that they used to refer to his flying reputation was “Fly and die with the Duster!” As a 50 year anniversary of this adventure approaches in October of 2017, I am working the two other remaining participants, Bob Best and Dan Scott, to re-create our adventure on the occasion of the 2017 USC-Notre Dame game in South Bend. Frank “Dusty” Rhodes died in 1996, and Bob and Dan responded negatively when I pitched the idea of a REAL re-creation of the trip by flying in a four seater prop plane. But, in some fashion, I want to get a “re-do” on this one. All except the yell leaders’outfits as admission tickets…

– Bob Padgett

O.J. Simpson headed to end zone with Best and Padgett (in yell leader uniforms) chasing down the sidelines