Biff America: Free ride, food and advice (column)
The “Good old days” weren’t so great in a lot of ways, but at least many of us were not afraid to get into a vehicle with strangers.
Even as a man approaching middle … alright … elderly age, I still hitch hike. Usually this entails my mate and I starting a backcountry ski from a mountain pass, then ending up near the bottom of that pass. I will then jettison my gear and wife and hitchhike alone back to the truck.
Hitchhiking (we called it “thumbing”) was a viable form of transportation beginning at about age 10. I’d thumb to Little League games, home from school and to downtown Brockton to go to Saturday matinees. I actually remember a few times thumbing on dates.
In my late-teens and 20s I hitched across the country east/west, north/south a few times.
When thumbing I always had a few rules. I’d stand up straight at a place where someone could safely pull over. I would place my bag in front of me so drivers could see I was traveling light. I’d take off sunglasses and ball cap so my face was visible, and I’d smile.
You literally have to make a good impression at 70 miles per hour.
It was late ’70s, and I was standing on the highway just east of Reno. I was returning home to Colorado after visiting a girlfriend in Berkeley. I had made fairly good time but it was getting toward twilight. I was following all my rules: good posture, placement, traveling light. As always, I had a razor in my sock (just in case) and a notebook in my pocket (because Jack Kerouac did) and offered a smile visible at high speeds. Generally new or expensive cars, trucks or RVs didn’t stop, but older, more middle/working class vehicles did.
To my surprise a shiny new van pulled over.
Behind the wheel was an older guy — about my age now — and the van was buffed out and packed.
Once settled in, my first words would usually be “thanks for stopping, it was getting hot, cold, windy, dark, etc. out there.” My host interrupted me with, “It’s hot out there, want a soda? There’s a cooler behind your seat with soda and sandwiches.”
I grabbed a Coke and I checked out his load — nice luggage and boxes labeled, stereo, TV, dishes, etc.
“Are you moving somewhere?”
I forget his name so I will call him Bob because it is easy to type. Bob drove his van and I ate his food while he told me his story.
He grew up in a small town in Iowa and joined the Navy during WWII because he was going to get drafted and had never seen the ocean. He glossed over his war years, my guess was they were either boring or painful. He was discharged in the bay area and made it his home. He married, and if his wrist watch, van and belongings were any indication, did well. He never mentioned children but did say his wife was an artist.
He did mention golf, tennis, sailing and a home in Hawaii.
Several years before, not long after his wife passed away, he returned to his hometown for a high school reunion. He became reacquainted with Cora, his high school sweetheart who was also widowed. He described their relationship in the ensuing 10 years as “pen pals” with phone calls.
Bob had recently sold his homes and decided to move back to his Iowa hometown. I asked him if he would miss California and Hawaii and he said, “I’ve seen lots of oceans now” (I know he said that because I wrote it down).
We drove through the night. Bob had told his story and I told mine. Being in my mid-20s my story was shorter and less compelling, but Bob listened well. We stopped for dinner and Bob insisted on paying.
He dropped me off in Cheyenne where I headed south. He pulled off to the side of the road and reached into his pants. He asked, “Can I show you something?” After the long ride, free food and great story, I felt I owed him so I said, “Sure.” He pulled a small black box out of his pocket. Inside was a huge diamond — as big as a pea. “As soon as I get to Iowa I’m going to ask Cora to marry me.”
I thanked Bob, wished him luck and suggested he not show that rock to any other hitchhikers. He wished me luck and told me to be safe and take chances. I remember that because I wrote that down, too. It wasn’t until years later that I got his meaning…….
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores or http://shop.holpublications.com/products/biff-america-mind-body-soul
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