Florida Redemption

Jack Karolewski

© Copyright 2020 by Jack Karolewski

Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash
                                  Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash

It was a cold, snowy, miserable March in 1972. I was attending Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL. This college town is located about 65 miles west of Chicago, out among vast flat farmlands. Its historic claim to fame is the patented invention of barbed wire by a local, Joseph Glidden, in 1874. DeKalb is also known for its hybrid corn, whose universally-recognized logo is a golden ear of corn with two flying wings. All I wanted to do that gray and windy day was to fly down to sunny, warm Florida over our two-week Spring Break – specifically to see for myself the supposed non-stop college kid party scene in Ft. Lauderdale. But because I lacked anywhere near the airline fare, my trip would have to consist solely of hitch-hiking. I roughly planned on taking Interstate 65, then I-75, and finally I-95 which hugged Florida’s eastern shore. I filled my aluminum-framed green Kelty backpack with assorted cold and warm weather clothes, a towel, some toiletries, a plastic water bottle, a sleeping bag, a few snacks, and some free gasoline station road maps. I had $50 in cash, which my 20-year-old brain thought was enough.

In those days, hitch-hiking was still common, but it was now beginning to wane from its popular heyday during the free-loving Hippy/Flower Power Movement of the late 60’s. Still, I figured it was a safe and reliable mode of transportation for impoverished young students such as myself. What could possibly go wrong?

At the time, I was living in a rented house near campus with five other guys and four gals -- our “Glidden Gang commune", as we liked to call ourselves, because the house was located off of Glidden Avenue. It was a large, two-story white frame house, with five bedrooms and three bathrooms. One of the women, Marty, was in the kitchen doing her rotation of dish-washing. It was just after breakfast. I told her of my travel plan, and that I would try to be back sometime before Easter, which was April 2nd. She wished me a good trip, and said she would let the others know that I had gone South, for everyone else was either out or on their way home for the holiday.

I walked to the main road out of town -- Lincoln Highway -- and put out my thumb. Quickly, I was offered a ride all of the way to Chicago, which I saw as a good omen. I asked to be dropped off near an interstate clover-leaf, and before long I got a lift to I-65 after about an hour freezing by the side of the road. Illinois state troopers didn’t bother hassling hitch-hikers as long as you stayed on the entrance ramps. Soon, after a few different rides with mostly families in station wagons, I had completely traversed Indiana, and was now over the border of Kentucky at Louisville. I had to briefly connect to I-64 to merge with I-75 here.

It was getting dark by now, when an old, 2-door dark green Ford Thunderbird pulled up. The driver must have weighed 300 pounds. I smelled that he had been drinking. He was a smoker too. I thought about refusing his ride, but I figured I would take it just a short way to get into better position for a long haul lift which would let me safely fall asleep for the night. The weather was still chilly, but it was getting better. No more snow!

We made the usual small talk, but then he suddenly put his hand on my left leg. This was unexpected and frightening. I quickly moved my leg away. I then asked to be let out at the next interchange. I grabbed my pack, thanked him for the ride and automatically shook his hand, but I really should have skipped that last polite gesture. He looked sad and hurt. Very creepy. I was so relieved to be out of there.

Fortunately, my next ride was just the opposite: a safe, friendly group of five hippies – three gals and two guys -- around my own age in a kind of old camper vehicle, with a mattress set up in back to stretch out on. They had upbeat, popular music on their sound system, and offered me various snacks to eat. I shared some of my food too, and I told them about my previous ride experience. They were sympathetic to my scare. “Always need to be alert when you’re on the road,” they cautioned. “There are a lot of weirdos out there!” After more conversation, I told them I had to get some sleep, and they were fine with my request. They turned down the music while we drove southeast into the night through Tennessee and Georgia. I had a nightmare about the Louisville man.

When I awoke, we had stopped for gasoline somewhere in Georgia, and my group asked if I could chip in ten dollars for gas. I happily complied. They were going all the way down to Florida too, so I could continue to ride with them. Good luck for me, and a good ten-dollar investment! The weather was continually turning milder, and the sun came out. Its warmth striking my face through the window was an eager tonic.

About two hours later, right outside of Valdosta, GA, huge thunderstorms suddenly erupted. It poured like a monsoon, and traffic on I-75 was surprised by the heavy rain and tried to slow down on the slick and flooded pavement. Then it happened: a chain-reaction car crash! Our driver slammed on the brakes, but it was too late. We were going about 45 m.p.h. then, and we smashed into the car in front of us as several cars in front of us likewise collided into each other. A moment later in our shock, we in turn were rear-ended, and our rear window shattered. Glass shards filled our vehicle interior. The rain storm passed and the sun quickly returned. It was actually hot and humid outside when we climbed out of our wrecked vehicle, shaken but unhurt. The old camper car was totaled. We heard sirens from police cars and ambulances. There were injuries in other cars. I went back to our wreck and grabbed my backpack, which was now bent and torn. My road friends conversed for a few minutes in private, then told me that they would just abandon their vehicle there rather than have to pay for a tow truck, do a police report, etc. They each picked up their belongings and stuck out their thumbs. I did the same, as we said good-bye. I was on my own again.

I eventually got a ride from a middle-aged salesman who wanted to discuss the “generation gap”, and why young people were challenging The Establishment, and why we needed to win the Vietnam War. I listened more than talked, as we crossed over into Florida. After the salesman dropped me off, a Florida highway patrolman pulled up and asked to see my identification, how much money I had, what I was doing, where I was going, and so on. I was not long-haired or bearded, but I needed a shave and a shower. He told me that Florida routinely arrested hitch-hikers, but he would let me go if, when he came back in an hour, I was gone. I prayed for a quick ride!

I was picked up by two men in a beat-up, dark 4-door Chevy. They were both sloppily dressed and unshaven and had bad teeth. I got in the back seat with my busted backpack. They said they had to exit off of I-75 for a while. I was starting to get that creepy feeling again in the pit of my stomach as we got on a secondary county road. We exchanged some small talk, then I was alarmed when the man in the driver’s seat said, “Show it to him.” The man on the front passenger side reached under his seat and pulled out a nickel-plated revolver. He casually pointed it at me. “Don’t worry, it ain’t loaded…yet,” he laughed. The driver laughed too. By now it was getting dark, and we were driving through some swampland, by all my reckoning somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I was completely panicked. I tried to carry on a more normal conversation by changing the subject away from that gun and by trying to keep my voice calm.

The Chevy abruptly pulled over to the side of the road. The two men said, “Wait here,” indicating that I should stay in the car. There was no- where for me to run, so I sat tight. I could hear them whispering to each other and looking over in my direction for a few minutes. One seemed to want to do something, but the other didn’t and he seemed to win out. Then they came back to me and announced, “OK, you can get out now, and don’t forget to take your pack. We have to turn back, so you’ll have to wait here to get another ride. See ya later, buddy!” They got in the car and sped away back in the direction we came from. I was alone in a swampland in the dark, smelling fetid vegetation in the humid, still air, listening to croaking frogs and wondering if alligators attacked lone hitch-hikers in the moonlight…

I was seriously fearful now. What if they came back and killed me? Why was this happening to me? Then I heard a pick-up truck with a bad muffler coming towards me. Would this ride be good or another disaster? The truck slowed down and my heart sank. It was two very drunk teenaged boys on a joyride in the middle of the night. When they got close enough, I could hear their country and western music blaring from their radio. One boy threw an empty beer bottle at my head – just missing me in the inky darkness -- and they both laughed and spun the truck around and peeled out. I was alone again with my fear. I was too shaken up to sleep, so I sat down and ate some food and then hung my head and prayed. There were no more rides until morning. Eventually, a farmer picked me up and got me back to I-75, and another ride took me the rest of the way on I-95 to Ft. Lauderdale. By this point I was exhausted and starving for a real meal. I had made it to the warmth I had sought and the beaches and the palm trees and the salty Atlantic, but there was no real joy inside. Ft. Lauderdale was swarming with police cars and police patrols, trying to keep the thousands of college kids under control. It was pandemonium! Not what I expected at all. I walked until I found a public restroom off the beach where I gave myself a wash and shampoo in the sink after changing into shorts. Then I spied a Denny’s restaurant and had a huge platter of food which somewhat restored my spirits. It was hot and I was already getting sunburned in the tropical sun. My pale winter skin felt flushed, but I wanted to swim in the ocean in my shorts so I did. The water was strangely warm, unlike the cold fresh- water lakes in the Midwest. The beach sands burned my feet and shade was hard to come by. Finally I found a grove of bushes near a smelly public restroom. I climbed a chain-link fence into the grove and hid there until dark. I unrolled my sleeping bag and had yet another fitful sleep that night – especially after I heard policemen walking around nearby, arguing with and threatening small college crowds, actually arresting some for public intoxication.

The next morning I went back to Denny’s for breakfast. Stopping first in their bathroom, I was disturbed by my badly sun-burnt face reflection in the mirror. My primary motivation after having gotten all of the way here was now just to get back home. But how? And did I have enough money?

For three more nights I returned to my concealed bush-lair to rest. By now, my severe sunburn was starting to peel, and I badly needed a shave. I tried to stay clean with soap and fresh water. I found a beach rise-off shower down the street and used it each day. During daylight hours, I tried to stay out of the sun as much as possible. I thought about the best options for returning to Illinois. I had about $20 left. I struck up casual conversations with other college students, sharing tips and advice. I met other hitch-hikers my age too, from other parts of the U.S., and we traded road stories. But I avoided the rough-looking, older, homeless lone men who hung around my area. They survived by panhandling, picking useful items out of garbage cans, and looking for edible food refuse in dumpsters behind restaurants when the police were out of sight.

With my facial stubble, peeling skin, and less-than-clean clothes, was I starting to look like them? I used the public restroom near the beach and carefully shaved, using my bar soap and my safety razor. Then I washed my hair in the sink and combed it neatly. It was time to get out of here!

I gathered up my gear and started walking north out of town. After an hour, I stopped at a Union 76 gas station and started asking the customers one-at-a-time for a free ride. No takers. After another hour or so, I was starting to get worried. Would I be stuck here?

It was then that I noticed that a nice, shiny tan Jaguar had been parked under the shade of some trees at the far corner of the gas station lot. There was a man sitting inside, but neither he or his car had moved all during the time I was there. On a whim I slowly walked over. The driver side window was cranked down. The driver was wearing a white, long-sleeved shirt and grey slacks. He had a gold-colored wristwatch and a gold (I presumed) wedding ring. He was fair-haired -- thinning on top -- and looked to be in his mid-30's. He resembled the actor-singer Noel Harrison, son of the famous Rex Harrison.

I shyly greeted the man and asked if he was willing to give me ride north. He said he would like to, but his car was out of gas and he didn't have any cash. He was trying to get to West Palm Beach to close a big real estate deal. He was from London -- his first time in America -- and he had underestimated the amount of dollars that he needed, and although he had some British pounds, no one would accept them. It was Sunday and all the banks were closed until tomorrow. If he could get to a Barclay's bank on Monday morning, he could get a cash wire-transfer from his London home office. Then he extended his hand and said, "By the way, my name's David Clark."

I introduced myself and we both smiled and shook hands. Then he said that he had an idea. If I had some money for gas and for a meal, we could fuel up and drive to West Palm Beach and wait until the Barclay's opened at 9 a.m. in the morning. Then he would reimburse me my money. At first I was suspicious with his suggestion. I would only get a few miles north at the waste of most of a day. I told David that I needed to get back to Illinois as soon as possible.

"Well, in that case, don't worry. We'll go to the bank first, then I'll drive you to the West Palm Beach Airport and buy you a one-way plane ticket back to Chicago. Now, how's that?", he offered.

This was either the biggest con I ever heard, or the luckiest thing that ever happened to me! It was a huge risk...but I agreed. I took out my $20, and David used half of that for gasoline. The rest we would use for dinner, after which I would likely be broke.

David headed us out on I-95. The Jaguar had leather seats and David was sporting some kind of light cologne. Could I trust him? Would he try to grab my leg like the Louisville man? Could he be some kind of kidnapper or murderer? I forced myself to relax and think more positive thoughts.

We wheeled into West Palm Beach at around 5 p.m. It was time to look for a place to eat. We found a Best Western motel that had an adjacent restaurant. We looked over the menu after being seated. We had to order what we could afford, so we both had club sandwiches, french fries, and iced tea. We talked while eating, he about his family (a wife and two daughters) and their life in London, and I about life at college. He asked about student protests in America and said that similar activities were happening among the young in England. After settling the bill and leaving a tip, we had 58 cents left.

We stopped at a gas station for directions to the bank. When we got to the Barclay's, David parked the car in a far corner of its lot behind the building. Hopefully the police wouldn't notice us and think we were bank robbers. Then, both being exhausted, we each tilted our bucket seats backward and tried to sleep. At first, this was rather awkward -- two adult men, largely strangers, basically sleeping next to each other. But soon sleep took over. We woke with the dawn, sore-muscled and stiff. We got out and stretched. I had noticed a Dunkin' Donut shop a few blocks away on our drive in the previous evening, so I told David to wait with the car while I discovered what 58 cents would get us. I returned about 45 minutes later with one frosted donut and a medium cup of coffee with cream and sugar. We split this meager breakfast while waiting for the bank to open.

At 9 a.m. sharp, David grabbed his briefcase and entered the bank while I waited outside by the car. It was already starting to get hot and humid. After about 30 minutes, David came out with a big grin, waving a small wad of greenbacks gleefully. "Next stop," he triumphantly proclaimed, "the airport!" He told me that after giving me my ticket and dropping me off, he would find the closest motel to shower and change clothes before heading on to lunch and his real estate appointment.

We went into the airport lobby together and walked up to the Eastern Airlines ticket counter. The next available flight to Chicago was the following morning at 9:30 a.m. David paid cash for my ticket, then turned and handed it to me, put out his hand and said, "Good luck, Jack, and thanks" as he hurried out the door. Still in a state of disbelief at my incredible good fortune, I weakly asked the ticket agent, "Are you sure this is a real ticket?" She laughed and said yes it was.

I had a day and a night to kill, and the wolf of hunger set itself upon me. I had a pauper's 8 cents to my name. I noticed that there was a restaurant located in the far corner of the airport lobby. I walked over with my broken and torn backpack. I asked the waitress quietly if I could wash dishes or do anything else in exchange for a meal. She called for the manager, who was also the owner. His name was Charlie. I told him my story. He looked me hard in the eyes for a long moment. "OK," he said, “I'll give you a chance. Order what you want off the menu, eat up, and then we'll see what kind of jobs we can find for you around here."

I quickly ordered a large bowl of chili with crackers and a large, fresh-squeezed glass of Florida orange juice. When the waitress, Elaine ( who was also Charlie's wife) saw that I was still hungry, she added a large slice of peach pie and some chocolate chip cookies to my feast with a smile.

Charlie basically serviced all of the big airliners that landed and took off here, between running his restaurant. He stocked the planes with pre-made meals and beverages from another nearby facility, and also cleaned out the toilets and trash on each plane. These would be my duties for the day, because his normal helper had called in sick at the last minute. Charlie drove a specialized truck that lifted itself upward so as to be level with the back service doors of each aircraft. The truck was fitted with racks, carts, and shelves to hold our supplies. The job had to be done fast -- about 20 minutes per plane -- while the newly landed aircraft was being fueled for its next flight. Sometimes the planes came in one right after the other. Other times, Charlie and I rested for a half hour or so, and drank frosty cans of soda to rehydrate ourselves in the steamy heat, and munched candy bars while we talked about this and that. I could tell he liked me, and he said I was a good worker.

When day was done, I was awarded a free dinner, so after cleaning up, I sat down at the counter and chose fried chicken, mashed potatoes, salad with Thousand Island dressing, rolls & butter, iced tea, and butter pecan ice cream. I was stuffed but satisfied as I chatted with Elaine. She said I could later unroll my sleeping bag in the back stock room and bed down there for the night. Then she and Charlie turned out the lights, locked up, and went home. I was really pooped and fell right asleep.

Morning came fast, bright and sunny. Elaine and Charlie came in to get the breakfast shift up and running with their black fry cook, Johnny. He smiled at me and said, "You look like a scrambled eggs and bacon kind of boy. How 'bout it?" I got a big platter of just that , with hash browns and toast with grape jelly and a large orange juice.

My 9:30 a.m. flight was almost ready to go, so it was time for good-byes. Charlie and Elaine both shook my hand and wished me a great life. Then Charlie opened his wallet and gave me $15. "I know our agreement was just for meals, but you worked so hard that I feel you earned this too," he said and smiled. Johnny waved so long from his cook's station. Elaine gave me a hug, and said I reminded her of their son when he was my age. He had been killed in Vietnam three years earlier.

When my Eastern Airlines flight landed at O'Hare, the weather in Chicago was about twenty degrees warmer, and all the snow had turned to slush. I had been gone for ten days. It was March 29th. I took a series of city buses to the Loop downtown, then headed over to the Greyhound bus station. I bought a ticket for DeKalb. Almost home! I slept on the bus.

When I walked in the door of the Glidden House, everyone was still gone except Marty, who ironically was washing dishes yet again. She welcomed me home with a big hug, asked me how the trip went, and remarked at my red sun-burned face. I recounted my adventures for about twenty minutes.Then she offered to sew the large rip in my backpack after I straightened its bent aluminum frame.

I took a long, hot shower and changed clothes. Then I sat down and wrote a letter to Charlie and Elaine, thanking them again and telling them I got home safely.

And that was the last time I ever hitch-hiked.

I grew up on Chicago's South Side, and moved to Davis, California in 1988 with my wife, Alice, who is now a retired radiologist.

Our outstanding daughter, Jennifer ("Jen") was born in 1993. She graduated from Cal Tech, and is now completing her doctorate in Chemical Oceanography at M.I.T.

I attended Northern Illinois University, where I earned an undergraduate degree in Education, and two graduate degrees in History. I retired from a thirty-year teaching career in 2005. Since then, I have been enjoying a second, part-time career as a reference librarian and an active community volunteer at six different venues. I also run a library book club and movie club.

I have visited 114 foreign countries so far, as well as all fifty states. I am keenly interested in reading, writing, movies, music, art, history, travel, photography, comparative religions, hiking, bicycling, nature, collecting, and museums.

Any questions or comments are always welcomed: explorerjack8138@gmail.com

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