THE IDLE AMERICAN: Tomorrows and yesterdays

In his 40-year career as a National Weather Service meteorologist, he spent most of his time predicting the near future. As a retiree, he’s studying “the far back,” immersed now in learning of a much-ballyhooed highway a century ago.

Genesis of the latter, for Fort Worth’s Dan Smith, began with a bike ride on abandoned pavement between Aledo and Weatherford and discovery of an old “Bankhead Highway” street sign.

His head swimming with questions, Smith began his research, fascinated by one Asa Rountree, an Alabaman. Rountree pushed for construction of the nation’s first coast-to-coast, all-weather highway. By both “hook” and “crook,” he slithered into gatherings he organized in many states. He managed to “keep the pot bubbling” for a southern highway from Washington, D. C., to San Diego, California.

With buddies in D. C. and community leaders along the proposed road who didn’t want to be left out, Rountree survived schemes that often promoted the highway, but always fattened his personal coffers.

Riding the coattails of Alabama Senator John H. Bankhead — author of 1916 legislation promoting “good roads” — Rountree was relentless and tireless. He promoted good roads when many thought they could “make do” with trails, since few folks owned automobiles, anyway.

Opponents pointed out that even Henry Ford opposed federal involvement in road construction. Adversaries never “ponied up” to the idea that mountains of moolah should be expended to benefit postal delivery, the military and bicyclists.

A newspaperman, Rountree was undaunted; he knew how to draw a crowd.

At the 1919 gathering to promote what later would be called the “Broadway of America,” 2,000 people gathered in Mineral Wells. This meeting provided a big “push” for Texas’ 900-mile stretch of the 3,000-mile route. (Much of the Texas portion of the Bankhead now constitutes parts of Interstate Highways 10, 20 and 30.)

At the time, country roads morphed into “highways” when they were even slightly improved from dirt. The addition of gravel was an upgrade, since for many miles in West Texas, asphalt and concrete would not be used in Bankhead highway construction until the 1930s. Back then, the usual width was eight feet.

A Floridian, Smith is a graduate of Florida State University. Even as a 7th grader, he was fascinated by the weather. As a high school student in Miami, he always managed to undertake science projects involving the weather.

He credits mentors — as well as great strides in weather forecasting technology — for his ongoing keen interest in meteorology.

When he contacted Washington figures concerning the early national highway system, Smith was sent a box with hundreds of documents. He seemed to have an “interest shift,” from the weather out there to construction of a historic highway “back there.”

Now, he welcomes opportunities to speak at civic clubs, churches, universities, museums and other venues. He’s a fan of town and county museums, having spoken at many of them. He considers the W. K. Gordon Center, near Thurber, as one of the best. He describes these museums as “jewels in the necklace of what was once the Bankhead highway.”

In 2013, he published The Bankhead Highway in Texas. It has been heralded for its authenticity and old maps, as well as substantial humor, some likely unintended.

When assigned to the National Weather Service in Birmingham, he forecast the first snow storm he had ever seen. He remembers colorful descriptions of tornados. One excited woman said, “It ‘flang’ pigs out of that truck, and they went flip/flopping through the air.” One guy exclaimed, “If a tornado hits Tuscaloosa, look out Birmingham!”

I’ll be privileged to hear Smith when he addresses senior adults at our church. We’ll learn more about the highway that used to be.

He’ll speak of tourist courts and service station billboards bragging about “comfortable restrooms for women.”

Oh, well. At least there was no issue about which comfort stations should be used by whom.