Doing What Everyone Knows Can't Be Done

Guardian Angels Along The Way, Part One

David Stone
Guardian Angels Along The Way, Part One

Not quite 17 in the spring of 1965, I’m foolish enough to believe I can do what every adult knows isn’t possible. Maybe guardian angels silently, invisibly, let me know they were coming along, that they’d look out for me. Maybe.

 

Before They Told Me Guardian Angels Were Nonsense

Impulsive, willful, determined, I’ve already run away from home and quit school in frustration, but hitchhiking 3,000 miles to California, with less than $15 in my pocket, seems crazy, like jumping in a vat of melted chocolate and expecting only flavor.

The farthest I’ve ever been from home was a twenty mile drive into Pennsylvania. Packed shoulder to shoulder in Dad's car with my brothers and sister, we rode off to visit the farm where he grew up and Grandma lived her entire adult life.

We’re not, as a family, infected with white line fever. We stay home. Except for me and Mom, who I haven't touched or even seen in ten years.

Dramas tossing my father into the pool as the world's first ever Single Dad, at least as far as we knew, aren't important here, other than that they left me, a committed Mama's boy, alienated at home and inspired to bridge the 3,000 mile gap between me and Mom in California.

So, emboldened with the magnificent sum of $15 Mom sent in installments and a rarely used suitcase I tugged out from under abandoned debris in our attic, off I go on a bright and sunny spring day.

Sort of. First, there’s Joyce.

Bad Judgment, No Penalty

Setting out to cross America — with a detour.

Yes,  Mom had the spectacular bad judgment to encourage a sixteen year old to hitchhike from New York to California alone, with very little cash. To be consistent, I start out with a dollop of my own foolishness.

In other words, Joyce. 

Circumstances being what they were, I wonder if Joyce was one of my guardian angels or was planted by them as an anchor linking me to stability and recklessness in a single package.

Under such deliberations are great philosophies born, but not yet.

In May, 1965, Joyce is the only girl with a genuinely bad reputation I know well, but for the life of me, I don't understand why, as my final act in Binghamton, I arrange to meet up with her before leaving town. I talk her into skipping school.

What Joyce and I do is embarrassing, but I’ll tell it anyway. We share a breakfast of bacon, eggs over easy and toast, which I pay for out my $15 stash. Then, standing outside the Queen Elizabeth Diner, we kiss goodbye. 

Then, I walk through the busy downtown streets to a highway where I can start thumbing for rides.

Some Lothario. 

With My Guardian Angels On The Open Road

Stretching out.

Had I thought about what I was doing, I probably wouldn't be doing it, but what enables me is a happily unexamined life supported by unwavering confidence, absent facts, that I can get to California by thumb, starting out almost broke. 

And, of course, I do. With help.

I forgot to mention this: I left home without expecting help from anyone, except the $15 I got from Mom and the generosity of strangers picking me up on the way. I don’t know a single soul, relative or friend, between the suburbs of Binghamton and San Pedro, California.

And I don’t know anyone who’s done this before, alone or with company.

Now, with just $12 lining my pockets, I park my tattered suitcase on the shoulder of the Vestal Parkway and stick out my thumb. 

It’s midday. Sunny. Traffic’s steady. Officially discouraged, hitchhiking’s not unusual. It’s how I got around, most of the time.

My first ride slows to stop on the soft shoulder after 10 minutes. I toss my suitcase in the backseat.

I can’t believe my luck when the guy picking me up says he’s going to Chicago. My calculations are way off. Chicago, I believe, is halfway to California.

With this kind of luck, I might get there in just a couple of days. Before my money runs out.

Only after an hour or so of blissful riding through the small towns and leafy countryside along Route 17 do I discover that the guy said, "Chautauqua," the little village near Jamestown where Lucille Ball grew up.

Really, I don't care where I Love Lucy took root, but I’m resilient.

It’s still rush hour when I catch a lift from Chautauqua to a trucks top outside Erie, Pennsylvania.

Erie might as well be Istanbul, that’s how far I am past anywhere I've ever been.

Storms On The Horizon, Rain That Never Fell/Rolling into the Midwest, Guided By Angels

Standing under an isolated light opposite that truck stop, I should be alarmed or, at least, a little frightened.

It’s full dark now, 10:00 o'clock. Big rigs hurl gusts of wind in my face. Guardian angels whisper. I’m not shaken at all.

In fact, I’m up. My family must've noticed me missing by now. It’s exhilarating to be free.

I catch a ride, a good one. A guy only  a few years older than me drives us all the way across Ohio to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in a pickup truck.

As dark encloses, then melts the countryside, I doze off and on to rock music on a station growing clearer as we get closer to Fort Wayne. 

We talk a little. I tell him what I’m up and he’s impressed.

Sharing the drive with a companion helps him stay awake while the rest of the world sleeps. 

On my first morning of liberation, he drops me off at a roadside diner where I buy my standard bacon and eggs and consult my map.

Planning my trip, I chose Route 6 because it runs straight as an imperfect arrow from Pennsylvania to California. Route 6 beckons twenty feet away, past the row of parked cars in front of this diner.

Storm warnings are being announced repeatedly on the radio. Tornadoes, they say, are coming with a cold front that afternoon, all over the Midwest.

I’, more excited than scared. I've never seen a tornado, except for that gut-wrenching scene in The Wizard of Oz where a twister tears up the fields, approaching the farm. 

Necessary Fictions, My Guardian Angels Get Me To Lie A Little

But I don't see tornadoes, not even thunderstorms, yet I did hitch my way into a whole new adventure.

Thank you for Edward and the others that follow.

After hitchhiking into congested suburbs south of Chicago, I’m picked up by an elderly man trying to find his way out of town in a Buick. Although I’m thrilled to be picked up by anyone, this ride’s the first in which I embarrassed to be seen riding shotgun.

The trouble is that traffic in the town where Edward picks me up overwhelms his driving skills.

He takes a defensive crouch behind his steering wheel — which looks too big for him — and further aligns his perceived security by driving as slowly as possible without stalling and hovering over the white line between two lanes.

Kids my age and adults honk furiously as they maneuver around us. I try looking innocent, but it’s impossible. They probably think I’m Edward's idiot grandson or teenage buddy. I appreciated the ride,  but I’m eager for it to end.

It eats up a lot of time for the short distance we coast through.

After a few miserable blocks, Edward asks, "Do you know how to drive?"

Thinking he wants to confirm his expertise under these conditions, I say, "Yes."

"Do you have a license?"

Here's where, for no reason whatsoever, I lie.

“Yes."

When I ask myself what I expect to gain by saying that, I find no honest answer. I really don't know the answer. It’s an impulse, one of those out of nowhere things. 

Nor does any insight fill my vision when I wonder why I next accept his proposal that I drive him, in his ponderous Buick, south toward his destination in Arkansas.

I'll be straight with you. I've driven precisely once in my life, in a lesson with my brother, Ted, after getting my learner’s permit. Which now has expired from lack of activity.

I’ve never driven on anything but a city street while Ted instructed me about courtesy and how to make turns without crashing Dad's car into a variety of available animate and inanimate objects.

And I have no confidence in my skills at driving on a highway. None. How could I?

Even so, I’m shortly at the helm of Edward's Buick, doing 60 on Route 66.

Yes, along with common sense, I abandoned by Route 6 plan. I don’t have the slightest idea where 66 goes, except for the unknown cities the song.

Guardian Angels With A Twist

Edward, I learn as we speed south through Illinois, is making his way to Hot Springs, to a spa. A widower, he’s going for a restorative summer after having his cancerous lung removed.

Edward isn't the last person recovering from cancer surgery I'll meet who returns to smoking tobacco, but he’s the only one expressing no regrets. Big Tobacco's arguments that the connections hadn't been proven aren’t wasted on him.

And that, readers, is the only bad thing I can say about Edward.

Like Joyce, the girl I left behind, more or less, he shows up along my road with a purpose. And he shows up precisely when I need him, just as he needs me.

Sharing packs of cigarettes and a pair of bar stools when an amused bartender at a restaurant on the highway agrees to serve us coffee, Edward and I spend the afternoon together, talking nonstop about our lives and the world passing by us.

Every once in a while, he has to caution me not to wander too close to passing vehicles as automobile-tropism draws me out of my lane.

But nothing else requires his guidance until we cross the Mississippi River bridge into St. Louis.

It’s here, hypnotized by hours of highway driving, that I drive straight through a red light at my first intersection on the far side of the Mississippi. Fortunately, there’s no other traffic to smash into nor any cop to make sure I never do it again.

It’s night, by now, and Edward cautions me to be more careful as we roll through Saint Louis, looking for a place to stop for the night. 

Without asking, he arranges for me to share a room with him in a roadside cottage where we both sleep like logs.

In the morning, he buys me breakfast and pays me $15 for driving as far as Saint Louis.

Before we part, he writes down an address where I could contact him in Hot Springs, in case I come back this way. I know I won’t and that never see him again, but I take the paper anyway.

I’m too young to understand how extraordinary Edward's coming into my life, just then, is. Without him, I'd be broke, tired and hungry, hitching somewhere in Iowa, instead of on a full stomach, 15 fresh dollars in my pocket, on a Sunday morning on a pleasant  corner in Kirkwood, Missouri.

And Edward, he'd either be inching his way along Route 66, irritating driver after driver, or arranging for his car to be pried off some lamp post.

Maybe there aren't any guardian angels, but some fates had coalesced in both our favors.

If Life Is a River, There Must Be Rapids

Sunday Drivers Slowly Crossing Kansas 

Sundays are lousy days for hitchhiking, wisdom you’ll be happier about if you never to have to test for accuracy.

Drivers are fewer, and they don’t pay attention to vagrants begging free rides, that's a rule of thumb. (Sorry.)

I spend a whole day getting across the rest of Kansas, an astonishingly flat and repetitive place where optical illusions that make people lost in the Sahara think they see water are introduced to me.

I smell the stockyards in Wichita, walk a block on Wyatt Earp Boulevard and lose my only sweater, forgetting it in the backseat of a station wagon in Kansas City.

And I’m thoroughly felt up by a cranky guy, after dark, who claims he’s making sure I’m not carrying a weapon. He makes very sure.

Night’s the worst time to be out on the road, and it isn't lost on me that I’m not within a thousand miles of anyone I know, except Edward. But again, I’m not worried.

I’m cold, though, as I face my first night without my powder blue sweater. My discomfort doesn't last long, however, as — once again — I’m rescued.

One More Helpful Stranger

A good start across Kansas

Outside Salina, after being dropped off by the feely fella, I get picked up by a guy who offers a bed to sleep in for the night and, blessings from above, a chance to rinse off filth from numerous states off in his bathtub.

Bob’s a jet fighter pilot, one of the few remaining at Schilling Air Force Base before it’s shut down. Two pilot roommates had been assigned to a base in Germany.

He’s worried, he tells me, that he’ll soon be shifted to the brewing trouble spot in Southeast Asia.

But that’s far from my mind as I clean up and call Mom for the first time, collect — of course — and update her on my progress.

She’s thrilled I've gotten so far in only a couple of days.

"We were looking at a map and wondering, just a little while ago."

Refreshed from a good night's sleep and  breakfast at Bob's table, I set out across the flatlands toward Colorado.

Behind Bars But Moving On

The Road Turns In Colorado

Two things stand out on a day that ends with my being taken into custody by the Colorado Highway Patrol.

The first is, I see the Rocky Mountains lifting up from the flat plains. The guy I’m riding points them out. They look like thunderheads on the horizon, not hills.

The other’s how very dark and quiet it is on the corner where he drops me off on a road that curls under the base of Pike's Peak. Veteran hitchhiker that I am, I know I'll get a ride farther into the pass. I just don’t know when.

My next ride’s not exactly as expected. After about 45 minutes in the gathering cold, sitting on my suitcase under the only streetlight since Pueblo, I manage to snag a ride with my thumb, but when the cherry lights ignited the car's top, I realize I landed the Colorado Highway Patrol.

After a conversation in which I’m asked, not just about my destination, but also whether I "always wear blue socks," I’m escorted into the back seat of the patrol car.

"We can't let you hitchhike in Colorado, and it’s along walk from here to Utah."one of the officers explains.

My map tells me that’s true.

The blue socks thing? 

I explain, "My father gave me six pairs for Christmas," and later learn they’re on the lookout for AWOL Air Force recruits. Apparently, blue socks are part of the uniform.

The cops drove me through the dark to Cañon City, the city lock up, where I get to tell my story in detail. The sergeant in charge can easily ship me back to Dad, my legal guardian. Instead, he calls Mom in California.

The sergeant repeats the news that it’s "a long walk to Utah from here" and makes a deal with Mom to get bus fare wired by morning.

Three big things happen fast. I ride in a very cool, well-outfitted Highway Patrol car, experience Western Union for the first time and spent my first the night in a cell.

(It’s my only night ever in a cell, but you don't have to know that.)

Not locked in, since I’ underage, I sleep soundly on a cot behind an open door with bars and a lock like I've seen in western movies.

I wake up to the sweetest air I've ever inhaled, fresh off mountains towering on all sides. The next shift sergeant gives me a cup of fresh coffee and directions to the Western Union.

I pass nearly a full day waiting for my bus, wandering around this beautiful little town on a slope, the majestic Rockies rising in every direction.

Do you get the idea that this wasn't just dumb luck? I do, years later when all this connected with other patterns.

What other call miracles happened routinely.

Angels Everywhere, and You Can Hug Them

In my mother's arms.

For the next 24 hours, I ride in the back of Trailways bus, making friends with an older man who rides most all the way with me, swapping stories, of which he has many more than me.

The mountains, salt flats and endless deserts convince me I've been rescued from a harrowing experience, making my way across.

But who knows? With friends like mine along for the ride, it’s not so bad.

In Oakland where my mother promised she'll meet me at the terminal, uncertain of when I'll arrive, she’s driven down for every arriving bus until mine finally released me, tired, dirty and on Cloud Nine in California.

If you've never been a kid who missed his mother for ten years, you’ll never understand what it’s like.

Say, landing on the moon, winning the lottery and falling in love all at once might be close it’s like to hug my Mom again.

There she is. In a leather motorcycle jacket, taking a second look to be sure it’s me she’s about to smother in her arms.

And One More Thing About Guardian Angels

One more thing…

I attribute some of what happened to my own youthful gullibility.

At sixteen, I hadn't been told about all those things you can't do enough times to be informed of what’s not possible. This left doors wide open.

I just wasn't educated enough to understand my limits, and so, I ignored them.

A couple of months later, long story, I came back to Binghamton, this time by bus all the way.

Among the great experiences I brought back were those showing me that I had companions, what many call guardian angels, tagging along.

It seemed natural to me then. Coincidence was expected. It’s what happened. And nobody had yet told me I was wrong to believe in the unbelievable.

For that reason, I wasn't all that surprised when, after two months away, I walked out of the Binghamton bus terminal on a warm summer afternoon and almost immediately ran into, guess who…?

Joyce, the girl with the reputation who'd seen me off. That coincidence began another story altogether.

And so on and on…

David Stone

Find all my books on my Amazon Author Page

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