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A Pivot for Going Anywhere Else in the World
All night, radio signals from a rock station in Fort Wayne grew clearer. Super stations barely penetrated the hills around Binghamton, sometimes curling on a clear night all the way from Syracuse or Buffalo. But Fort Wayne came in with confidence and assurance, all was well, rock and roll forever. I must have dozed. I wasn’t dizzy from twenty-four hours wide awake, so the background universe must have leaked through enough to keep me sane. Mostly, though, the night was spent talking with the guy in a blue pickup who spotted me waiting under the light outside Erie, an optimistic thumb aimed at him. He wasn’t much older than me and was happy to have company while driving home overnight. We shared cigarettes from separate packs, lighting two at a time from the plug under the dash, which sprung audibly when its resistor grew hot enough to slightly illuminate the front seat in yellow tinted red.
“That’s quite a trip for a guy your age,” Scott, the driver of the pickup, thought aloud. “How long do you expect to take, like a week or something?”
“Three days, I think. That’s what the bus takes. As long as I can get rides, it should be about the same.”
“Speaking of that, why not take the bus?”
“Not enough money, and I didn’t want to wait.”
“The Navy has a special deal,” I explained. “Sign up on your seventeenth birthday, and you get out on your thirty-ninth, retired before you’re forty. My birthday’s coming up in three weeks, and I was just wasting my time back home.”
“My brother did it a few years ago. He’s gone all over the place on an aircraft carrier. They said they’d try to get me on the same ship as he’s on.”
“Recruiters, you know,” Scott cautioned, “they bullshit to get you to sign. I wouldn’t bet my life on bunking with your brother.”
“Probably not,” I agreed. “The recruiter probably was shitting me, but I want to go anyway. And I want to see my mother. I haven’t seen her in ten years.”
“For ten years you haven’t seen your mother? Really?”
“We talked on the phone. My parents broke up when I was almost seven…”
I left out the vacuum, the four year gap from the moment we saw her run down the stairs and the unexpected phone calls that raised the broken limbs of our past out of the casts in which we hid them. Every bone had set in its own, idiosyncratic way. No harmony of interest or affection was possible.
Most people I knew, from school teachers to pals on the street, drifted away from conversations about Mom. Some didn’t know what to say safely; others were turned off by news from the other side of the tracks. Mothers leaving their children, if they existed at all, weren’t visible. Single dads? Only on TV. Only widowers. You had Fred MacMurray and three good looking, well-behaved boys and no scars. For me, it was embarrassing too — in public. Everyone else had a mother, didn’t they? How weird was it to get along in a motherless preserve? In private, it was just discouraging, an ongoing accident showing no signs of losing momentum.
“Some gifts just keep on giving,” I told Val. “My family situation was a terrible thing to grow up with, but it made me who I am. It forced me to bring out some tools I’d probably have ignored.”
“Among other things…”
“I know, I know,” I interrupted her. “It also damaged other people.”
“You came on like a small tidal wave packing sharp objects and blunt instruments. You left scars…”
“But I learned.”
“True, and now you can teach…”
Back outside Fort Wayne, Indiana, that morning, Scott dropped me off near a diner where I got breakfast before he drove on home. He waved, a lit cigarette in his hand, through the passenger window.
“Good luck, man!”
“You, too. Thanks for the ride!”
I was vaguely disappointed. Fierce storms forecast over a radio parked on a shelf above the cash register in the diner did not blacken the horizon as my progress carried me across Indiana to a congested suburb south of Chicago by mid-afternoon. Horrors the mass media used to scare us then were simpler. Stories about tornadoes ripping Midwest towns into nightmarish shreds lit my imagination. I hoped my adventure might include a close up look, a blast like the Wizard of Oz, but the opposite happened.
When you’re bumming rides for a long distance like that, you just keep going, no value in pausing, and I was going nearly as far as you could go and stay within our country’s borders. So far, I’d seen three states I knew only from reading, the startling way the sun rises without hills and how much darker the soil is in the tilled fields of Indiana. I learned what it was like speeding through the night in new territory, making an abrupt stranger a friend.
At an intersection with so many signs it seemed like a pivot for going anywhere else in the world, I picked a prime spot on the far side of the traffic light, giving drivers a long look at me, and resumed thumbing. After about ten minutes, a car going so slowly I couldn’t tell if it stopped or was about to collapse into a heap halted beside me.
An old man gazed out, not a promising sign. Old men seldom picked up hitchhikers because they’d been warned about how dangerous we were, teenagers just waiting to take advantage of their weakened bodies to get their money.
His lips moved on the other side of the closed window, and I thought he said, “Get in.”
Opening the passenger door slowly, I was prepared to jump back if he accelerated. Once I’d gotten my thumb stuck in the door of a car that was driving away, my closest dance with death so far.
“How far you going?” he asked.
“I’m going to see my mother.”
He gripped the wheel.
“I can take you as far as Arkansas,” he offered.
Arkansas was due south, not west.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said anyway, on impulse.
“Milton,” the old man said, extending his hand.
Cars had begun to pile up behind us. Milton was oblivious to their honking.
“Nice to meet you.”
Although Milton got his car moving again, progress was hard to observe. Parked cars edged slowly behind us, Milton focused exclusively on the road in front of him. Other cars, a few with irritated boys my age, passed on the left. One guy gave me the finger as if I was somehow responsible for Milton’s tortoise-like pace.
With only a guess at how far away Arkansas was, at our current speed, I estimated our time of arrival as just before Christmas. Milton’s diligence in ignoring other drivers who thought he might have been stuck in a drawn out stop was, admittedly, impressive, but I began to feel like I was in a time capsule scheduled for reopening in a hundred years.
“Do you know how to drive?” Milton asked, surprising me because I thought he’d forgotten I was in the car.
Without due diligence to degrees of knowing, I honestly answered, “Yes,” thinking he was about to engage in an analysis of how poorly others pulled it off. Every driver believes, at least openly, that no one else drives as well as he or she does. It’s a conviction more universal than faith in God.
“Do you have a license?”
“Yes,” I lied, determined not to be shunted aside as a lesser authority.
I had driven, first in junk cars my friend Billy’s father let us swerve around a muddy field behind his house. I discovered how much bigger a car is when its steering wheel is in your hands. Then, once I got my learner’s permit, now expired, there was a single driving lesson my brother volunteered, during which he emphasized the importance of being a “courteous driver.” Otherwise, my father’s reluctance to let a fourth son abuse his car and limit his own access to it retarded my progress.
Time remained for dodging self-inflicted risk, but when Milton asked me to take control of his car as we approached Route 66, which I knew only from a Rolling Stones record, I agreed without hesitation. I can’t explain why I did that. So, I concluded it was just in the cards.
At sixteen, I was not encumbered by thoughtful practices. It’s impossible to recall any mental processes or risk analysis coalescing into this risky scenario. All I remember is saying, “Okay,” and walking around to the driver’s side in misty disbelief while Milton slide over to refill my place on the bench seat.
“You can’t really say I, this I, was running the show there,” I told Val. “It was sort of like autopilot. You know, take me there, ‘beam me up, Scotty.’ I did it, though. The evidence is, I’m still alive and unbroken.”
“Yes, you are,” Val agreed.
“I’d never driven over thirty miles an hour, and there I was, sixteen years old, no license, no experience with this car at all, whipping along down Route 66 at twice that speed. Still feels like make-believe.”
“It wasn’t, though. You did it, right?”
“So, who was the angel here, Val? Milton? Or did I have one on my shoulder ready to take the wheel if necessary?”
“Maybe both,” she laughed. “Maybe more.”
Milton’s single contribution to my driving education was a gentle warning when I drifted too close to the cars I was passing.
“Yes, Val, I was passing cars. No timid shit for me.”
“Getting a little close there,” Milton noted.
I noticed that a strange sort of tropism arose whenever I passed a car, my vehicle predictably gliding right without conscious input from me. Maybe Milton’s car, out for a stretch, sought companionship. Anyway, aware of this urge to merge, I defended us from nature’s pull the rest of way to St. Louis.
“Let’s stop for a coffee,” Milton suggested.
On an afternoon marked by things I would never do again, I exited at a roadside bar and followed my new friend inside. Amused and probably a little alarmed at seeing a kid my age hop up on a stool with an ancient remnant of a disappearing past, the bartender served us instant coffees on the beer stained counter.
“Anything else, gents?”
“No, we’re okay,” Milton assured him.
We both lit cigarettes from our packs. Milton left his out beside his coffee cup, which made me wonder how long he expected to stay. By the time we returned to the road, I realized, it was the men’s room that he wanted. The coffee was a courtesy.
“These’ll kill me,” he said.
“The smokes. I already lost one lung.”
Milton’s chest was concave, but no more than other old men I’d seen. I hadn’t guessed there was a hollow chamber, broken ribs falling in on it.
“The wife too,” he added.
“Your wife had her lung removed?”
“No, no, the cancer got her first. She’s gone, just this last year.”
“You miss her, I guess.”
“We were married forty-one years. I haven’t figured out how to sleep alone. Nothing emptier than an empty house.”
Back on Route 66, Milton told me he was going to Hot Springs for the summer, hoping his health might be restored. I let that go because I’d never heard about the curative powers of natural springs, having attended modern schools.
“Have you seen my cigarettes?” he asked.
“No. Maybe you left them back on the bar. Do you still have your lighter?”
Milton felt around his hollow chest and his pants pockets.
“Damn,” he said. “Heck, they probably won’t let me smoke down in Hot Springs, anyway.”
“Want one of mine?”
“Sure. Can’t live forever, can we?”
“Not as far as anyone can tell, so far,” I agreed.
Night filled in the landscape before we crossed the inky Mississippi into St. Louis. I’d mastered turning on the headlights and clicking the high beam with my left foot, but after a few hours on the highway, I was hypnotized.
“Better watch there,” Milton advised.
“You just drove through two red lights.”
“Two, right off the bridge. Lucky there were no other cars or police to catch you.”
“Lucky,” I agreed, blinking.
Paying attention at intersections now, I followed Milton’s directions to a set of cabins for rent where he put us both up for the night. I was so exhausted, I fell asleep without depositing a memory of laying down on the cot on which I woke up refreshed, songbirds and early traffic squaring up at the window.
Still early, most of Missouri asleep, Milton took the wheel back and found a restaurant for breakfast.
“Sure you can’t go a little farther?”
We were a thousand miles from anyone I knew, other than Milton who seemed capable of becoming unknowable in an instant.
“I need to get to California. I’m kind of out my way already.”
“I appreciate your help. Here, for your efforts.”
He slid some folded over bills across the table.
“For driving. It’s work you should get paid for.”
I picked up what turned out to be fifteen dollars and put it in my pocket. Now I had even more money than I started with. Years later, I realized I hadn’t been paid. Helped, instead, by a stranger.
“Do you think you might come back this way?”
“Yes,” Milton said.
“I doubt it. I’ll be in the Navy in a few weeks.”
“If you do, I’ll pay you again to drive me back. Here’s the telephone number in Hot Springs.”
In the reflective act of getting older, I regretted how easily one-timers slipped out of my life, but what was missed took time to dent the surface. I don’t know if Milton returned to his home in Chicago. I don’t even know if he made it the rest of the way to Hot Springs.
When my stay with Mom in California ended, I still had his telephone number. It was too soon to go get him and drive to Chicago and too far out of my way.
Milton left me off on a corner in Kirkwood on a beautiful, cloudless morning and drove away slowly as I waited for my next ride.
Sundays are awful for hitchhiking. Or, they were then, I should say, since nobody hitchhikes anymore. I felt grateful for nice weather at the leafy street corner. I daydreamed about the dilemma I had to work through a few years earlier, after Dad transferred us to the musically enthusiastic Methodist church out on a country crossroads. Settled in the backseat with my brothers for the ride, I looked out a rain streaked window and wondered why, if it was God’s day, He let the weather be so bad, an ugly chill seasoning the rain, removing baseball and anything else that was fun.
Shouldn’t His day always be sunny and warm?
And why should any carful of people be so quiet, curling along a country road between round foothills on the way to church?
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