When Alvin Straight decided he was going to visit his brother in Wisconsin in the summer of 1994, he wasn’t looking to be famous or get a bunch of money for telling the story. Henry Straight was 80 years old and had just suffered a stroke. The two men hadn’t spoken in years, and younger brother Alvin didn’t know how much time he had to get there.
The problem was, Alvin Straight suffered from diabetes, emphysema and poor eyesight. His vision was so poor, in fact, that he could no longer hold a driver’s license. He didn’t trust anyone he knew to drive him to see his brother, so he took a page from fellow veteran and country singer George Jones’ playbook: He grabbed the keys to his riding lawn mower and headed out.
By the time all was said and done, Straight would make national news, the estranged brothers would be reunited, and his trip would be recreated in a 1999 movie that is still one of the greatest road-trip movies ever made.
Let’s be clear about a few things: Alvin Straight wasn’t crazy or impulsive. He was an Army veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, so he knew a thing or two about adequate preparation. Straight gave his old Airens lawn tractor a tuneup first, then he loaded supplies and camping gear onto a trailer hitch.
When he finally set out from Laurens, Iowa, on July 5, he waved goodbye to his family and drove 25 miles before the Airens gave up on him. Assuming he was moving at the mower’s top speed, it was a waste of three hours. He had to be towed home, but Straight didn’t give up. He went and bought a 1966 John Deere 110 and set out again. This time, he made it 34 miles to West Bend before breaking down.
Undaunted, he paid for the parts he needed to fix the old Deere and camped out on a well-wisher’s lawn. When it was ready to hit the road, the repaired mower worked like a charm. For hours a day, Straight drove his mower on the shoulder of the Iowa highway. At night, he set up camp on the shoulder. He cooked, ate and slept in the trailer before picking up for the next day’s journey.
But the new parts weren’t the only hiccup in his plan. By the time he arrived in Charles City, Iowa, some 133 miles from Laurens, Straight ran out of money. Still undaunted, he just camped out until his next Social Security check came in. He also got to drop in on one of his seven children, who happened to live in Charles City. It was about halfway to his destination.
Straight continued on his journey from there, continuing on Iowa’s highway 18 and crossing into Wisconsin over the Mississippi River at Marquette. On Aug. 15, 1994, the John Deere broke down once more, when Alvin was just two miles from Henry’s house. It was only then that Straight would accept help when a local farmer helped him push the mower the rest of the way.
The entire 240-mile trip took six weeks. Alvin stayed with Henry and his fifth wife for a few weeks as Henry slowly recovered from his stroke. The brothers reconciled in that time and were even seen driving to the local bars -- on a riding mower. Henry would eventually move from Wisconsin to Iowa to be closer to Alvin.
It’s unclear what happened to the 1966 John Deere mower, as Straight accepted a ride home to Iowa from his nephew. A Texas-based businessman who owned a lawn and farm equipment company heard about Straight’s story and gifted the old veteran a new John Deere mower. But he wasn’t the only one who heard the story.
When word about Straight’s trip became widely known, Hollywood came calling. Filmmaker David Lynch recreated the journey in “The Straight Story,” starring Richard Farnsworth (“The Natural”), Sissy Spacek (“Carrie”) and Harry Dean Stanton (“Alien”). The only interview Alvin would give was to talk radio’s Paul Harvey.
Alvin Straight died on Nov. 9, 1996, at the age of 76. Following the hearse in his funeral procession was a trailer carrying his newest lawn mower.
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