|Traveling With Strangers
© Copyright 2003 by Bob Gray
Okay, so we weren’t that bright. We picked up a hitch-hiker, and let him drive. By himself. And, surprise, surprise, he took off in our car like a scalded goat. With our brand new CB.
In December of 1978 my wife, Marie, and I loaded up a trailer and two vehicles and set off for our new home in Texas. I’d just sold my business, so we weren’t in any real hurry, a good thing as it turned out. I was driving the Bronco, pulling the trailer, and she was driving the Skylark. We had new, hand-held, 40 channel CBs to stay in touch. The Bronco was new, and the Buick, although a few years old, ran perfectly. Except the heater didn’t work. Living in south Florida, that hadn’t been a problem.
But as we headed north and joined I-10 near Tallahassee, we began to realize that a thousand miles without heat might mean collecting on Marie’s life insurance much sooner than actuarial tables had led us to believe. We began looking for a hitchhiker. Yeah, yeah, I know, now.
We passed a couple, but they weren’t prospects. A guy and a woman, both looking beaten within an inch of the marble monoliths. Each seemingly carrying more on their backs than we had in the trailer. We wanted a single guy or woman, no animals. We passed a single man, but his roadside stumbling and weaving would inevitably lead to replacing the upholstery. So, no. Finally, maybe a hundred miles from Mobile, Alabama, Marie flashed her brake lights, and there ahead was a young guy, fairly clean. Well, fairly.
I stopped and picked him up in the Bronco, and spent the few miles to the next café/gas station getting to know him a little. We bought him lunch. His name was Inchon - the result, he said, of a standing argument between his mom and dad over which was worse - the Korean War or giving birth. He was a personable youngster, only 22, and as I said, fairly clean. He’d been hitchhiking for three days already, sleeping in gas station toilet stalls to avoid freezing, on his way to California from North Carolina.
He agreed to drive the Buick, telling us that the lack of heat was nothing to what he’d been putting up with - standing on the roadside, a frozen thumb stuck out, being slapped by slush and snow and freezing blasts of wind from passing vehicles. We showed him how to use the new CB, told him they were only good up to about two miles - so stay close, and gave him the keys.
He got in, turned the engine over, and was out of sight before Marie and I even got in the truck. She immediately called him, and he answered. She asked him to slow enough for us to catch up without speeding. He said sure. We drove ten miles, twenty, no sign of him. After the first few, Marie was back on the CB, trying to raise him. Nothing. We drove into the snow.
After about twenty miles, we thought maybe we should consider he’d stolen the car. But we didn’t really believe it (or want to), and kept driving. At that time, much of I-10 was not the controlled-access it is now - where you drive for days without ever seeing a store or gas station unless you take an exit and drive for an hour hoping to find what you need. Then, a short ramp, usually less than a block long (and immediately following an immense billboard listing all the delights available), led you right to the places you want and need when driving cross-country.
We began looking over each place we passed. Maybe twenty miles later, we spotted the car in a parking lot, and turned in. And there he was, inside a café, drinking coffee. He had the CB next to him.
When he saw us he got a big grin, and greeted us like long lost friends he’d flogged the area searching for. His first words were, “Man, glad you guys showed up. I can’t pay for this coffee and they won’t let me leave. I’ve been calling you guys every two minutes for a half hour now. What happened to ya’?”
Marie and I looked at each other. “Show me,” I said. “Show me how you’ve been trying to call.”
Inchon pushed the transmitter button, said, “Hello, hello.” Then he looked at the channel readout and changed the station from 1 to 2, said, “Hello, hello.” Changed the channel readout to 3, said it again.
“Don’t you remember the procedure?” I asked. “Our channel is 18. If that one’s busy, go to 28. And if that one is busy, 38.”
“Oh, shit,” says Inchon. “See, I started on 18, heard someone talking that wasn’t you, went to the next one. That was 19. I forgot about 28. But then I heard these truckers talking on 19, and I just forgot to turn it back for like ten or twenty miles. Man, you should hear what those guys say on there.”
“I see,” I said. I didn’t, but I’d told that lie lots of times in my life. “Okay, so what are you doing here?”
“Figured you’d come along eventually and spot the car. I was freezing, and this place was nearest to the road.”
We paid for his coffee, and got a thermos to go. We gave it to him, reset his CB channel to 18, and said, “Okay, for the next hundred miles, you stay within sight of the truck.”
“No problem. And thanks for the coffee.” He went out, got in the car, and was out of sight before we got to the café door.
Marie was yelling into the CB by the time her rump came to rest on the car seat. Inchon answered right away. He was laughing. “Just kidding, you guys. I’m parked up here half a mile. Come on, I’ll wait.” And he was.
I told Marie, “You know, this guy is probably how our kids are gonna grow up.”
“Like hell,” she said. “If we haven’t drilled a better idea of life and how to live it into our children way before they’re his age, I’ll kill ‘em while they sleep myself.”
“I know you’re not going to like this, sweetie pie, but I was hitchhiking across country when I was 18. Loved almost every minute of it - except for the queers”
“Yeah, you probably even liked the queers,” she laughed.
“Well, it was kind of flattering,” I said, “but it’s also a little frightening. One night I had to get out of this guys’ car ‘cause he kept grabbing my groin. January in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina. Man, it was cold. I had to sleep in a ditch to get out of the wind. Temperature dropped below freezing during the night and I froze to the bottom. Finally had to shuck my coat and pants in the snow to get out. Thought I would die that morning. Besides freezing my sperm banks, I just knew another groin grabber was gonna happen by with three bulldogs and a body- builder.”
“If it was that cold they would have probably thought you were a girl anyway,” she teased. “I’ve seen you naked in a cold shower, you know.”
“Ya’ know something? I realize you already don’t like the guy, but Inchon’s actually fairly bright,” I said. We were talking when I first picked him up, and he came up with one of those insights you just don’t expect from a guy who looks and acts like he does.”
“What’s that,” Marie said, “picking his nose inhibits his breathing?”
“Ha! No, really. I thought this was pretty good for a young guy. He said that you can tell all about a place by the kind of toilet paper they have in the bathroom. Now think about it. It’s true. If they have that narrow paper that hasn’t been perforated, pretty much everything about the place is crap. He said to think about it this way: If they won’t spring for the extra two cents a roll for decent toilet paper, how often you think they change the oil in the deep fryer? Or, how much soap goes into the mix if and when they wash the sheets?”
“Not bad, I guess. But then you guys spend a lot more time thinking about your anus than women do.”
“Oh, please. The night we spent in that crappy motel with the toilet paper made in Bosnia by WeCrushGlass/Wipes, Inc? You nearly cried the second time you used it. Hell, you made me go out to the trailer and dig out our own stuff. And remember how you were afraid to touch the bedspread? I mean, I think he’s come up with a winner.”
“Look. Just keep Tom Wolfe up there in sight this time. If he takes off again, we’re gonna need several rolls of the stuff just to mop up the blood. His or mine, somebody’s gonna bleed.”
We drove in tandem without trouble through Mississippi and Louisiana. But, a hundred miles out of Houston, Inch disappeared again. We started the search. No luck. Twenty miles from Houston, he passed us, waved, slowed down and got behind us. No apology this time. “I stopped off to see a girl I know,” he said when we’d parked at the next café, “in Pasadena, a few miles back. Figured it was my last chance, and I didn’t think you’d be up for it if I asked. I know you guys are heading north from Houston, so I figured I’d have better luck trying to get a long haul ride from here than inside the city limits. Hey, thanks for the ride.”
We gave him the thermos full of coffee and five bucks.
As we drove away, he waved, and started doing jumping-jacks beside the
road. It would be five more days before we unloaded the car and found
he sold the spare, the jack, and a small tool kit. Ah, the joy of
traveling with strangers.
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