1964 was a big year in my life. I rode the USNS Breckinridge troop ship back from Korea with 2000 other GIs coming home, separated from the army late in June. Hung around Portales, New Mexico for a while, applied to join the Peace Corps, then hitch-hiked to New York to pass the time until I heard from the Peace Corps.
Beatniks hadn’t yet been displaced by hippies and Greenwich Village was jam-packed with thousands of us implying we were beatniks but carefully not saying so. Hanging around coffee shops writing poetry, playing chess, saying momentous deep-thinking things back and forth to one another. Listening to folk singers.
Being rocked back on our heels in mock, simulated shock and disgust when wheat-straw blondes from Westchester down for the weekend to be beatniks, too, refused our advances. “WHAT? You don’t believe in FREE LOVE?”
Which, surprisingly, almost always worked. Provided you’d done a convincing enough job trickling out the bona fides of being a REAL beatnik. And wouldn’t even think of hopping in the sack with someone so uncool she didn’t even believe in free love. Even if she did iron her long hair out straight.
So after I hopped the freight to go back to New Mexico, got thrown in jail in Rochester for taking the wrong train, The Hitch-Hiking Hoodoos, got released to hitch home, things stayed eventful for a while.
A guy from Buffalo picked me up on the Interstate, older guy in his 30s. When I got in I threw the pillow-case with my belongings into the back seat. “I don’t know why I picked you up,” he glanced at me with disgust. “I never pick up hitch hikers.”
Over the next few miles he questioned me about who I was, where I was from, what I was doing hitching, what I’d do when I arrived, and I explained it all in loving detail.
“Well, I’ve never had any trouble with a hitch hiker the few times I’ve picked them up. But if I do ever get killed by a hitcher it will probably be some half-baked kid who doesn’t know what he wants in life.” He thought about it a minute. “But I don’t have to worry about you. You threw your gun into the back seat in that pillow case when you got in.”
We talked a lot over the highway between Rochester and Buffalo. Enough so he didn’t take the Buffalo exit and carried me down to where a tollway squeezed the traffic going south to Cincinnati, Ohio. He pulled up beside a car with a family in it, man, woman and a couple of kids. Motioned for them to roll down the passenger-side window.
“Are you going on through Cincinnati? I’ve carried this guy all the way from Rochester and he’s okay. He’s going to New Mexico. But I’d like to get him a ride past Cincinnati. He’ll never get through that town walking.”
The couple said they were just going to Cincinnati, but we were all watching the traffic edge forward to the toll gates. “We’d better take him anyway. He might not get another ride.”
The Buffalo guy was right, but it began the next phase of a long story. Guess I’d best hold it for another day.