by Charles C. Cole
My first day at a new job, forty miles down the Pacific Coast Highway, I almost didn’t make it. This was the job that was going to get me in the door, working with computers, or so I hoped, thanks to a friend of a friend from my days in the Air Force.
But the water pump in my vintage 1967 Mustang had failed. I’d foolishly disassembled the engine the night before, trying to impress my car-averse roommate and save money. The effort was my first major do-it-yourself auto repair, a significant step up from changing oil and replacing headlamps. I’d started late. As dusk enveloped the yard, I couldn’t recall how to put everything back together.
So, with limited options the next morning, I decided to hitchhike. Conveniently, I lived just blocks from the on-ramp. After fifteen minutes of ignorable business casual, I was forced to run back to my apartment and put on my best suit and tie. A businessman, dressed similarly, picked me up immediately.
* * *
I’m not saying hitching is for everybody. As a father of three today, I discourage my kids from reckless pursuits. But when I was young and single, rescuing “stranded” pedestrians was an easy way to be charitable at a time when I had little.
In high school, I was en route for a college interview in Boston, an urban way station between my Maine family and my New Jersey family. Just before the Exit 8 tollbooth, I picked up this shaggy, good-vibe fellow standing in the spitting snow who generously shared homemade turkey sandwiches, classic Thanksgiving leftovers provided by a sentimental mother for her visiting youngest.
The “baby of the family,” ironically named Chick, hung out in a neighborhood bar while I sat through an introductory group overview. We rendezvoused at my car an hour later, where I politely declined sharing a flask of alcohol. I escorted Chick all the way to New Jersey, 8 hours in all, a far more engaging trip than driving alone.
* * *
Chick was downright meditative compared to Robby. I met Robby after visiting my sister in Denver, when I was entering the quiet corridor back to Colorado Springs, where I was stationed in the Air Force. I picked up this twenty-something boy who was as hyper as a puppy greeting unexpected company. He was candid enough to tell me he’d just gotten out of prison for trashing an ex-girlfriend’s apartment.
“Nothing was broken, but it sure was a mess,” he said, turning away. “Jealousy will do that to you.”
Robby had a guitar, a big smile, and a heartbreakingly earnest desire to be famous. When I pulled over to refuel, he asked — blurted — for permission to drive for a while. I let him. He stayed in the slow lane, with the window open and singing unfamiliar country western tunes. I rode over thirty miles out of my way — on a sixty-mile round trip — to Pueblo, just to make his night. I gave him twenty dollars, my unsolicited payment for the entertainment, for incidentals.
* * *
The craziest ride, though, was with a bunch of ROTC guys in a blizzard near Heartbreak Hill, heading west of Boston. The college-age soldiers in training held onto my back bumper — their idea — while awkwardly surfing on Boston College cafeteria trays through the deep snow on unplowed Commonwealth Avenue. Thankfully, nobody was injured. I probably took them less than a mile, going very slowly at that. Honestly, as a then ex-military guy myself, I genuinely felt like I was “giving back” to my brother servicemen.
* * *
There were other brief acquaintances, like two women with a baby and a German shepherd, trying to get away from a bad relationship, so they said. I never ask for life stories, but some people were just dying to share. My back seat had been temporarily removed to transport a ficus tree, but they didn’t care. The circumstance actually led to more room for their long-legged dog.
Outside a busy truck stop, I wished everyone well, feeling like I was assisting humanity, a little more tangibly than when I had been a volunteer phone operator for a domestic abuse hotline in the Philippines.
* * *
I’m sure there were potential dangers, like the uncomfortably quiet fellow I picked up east of Pittsburgh around dawn — he was not a morning person — who kept his eyes closed the whole ride, until I asked him for a third time where he wanted to be dropped off and he snapped, yelling, “Why doesn’t everyone just get off my case?”
His cryptic destination ended up being a quiet place where the railroad crossed the road, no house or store in sight. Once he was out of the car, I think we both felt more at ease.
“It’s not you,” he said. “I just hate life right now.”
“Good luck with everything,” I said. He shook his head, as if he was refusing my offer or knew his future better than I did. I tried a more philosophical approach. “Remember: what goes around comes around.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he said.
* * *
At the end of my first day, my new boss was impressed that I’d taken the initiative to hitch, with my whole hitchhiking philosophy. He respected me, as if I spent weekends building wheelchairs for paralyzed gang members. Nobody offered me a ride home, but my coworkers seemed genuinely compassionate as I walked out to the on-ramp.
As for my comparatively simple car, after hitching home, I found a neighbor with a similar model only a couple blocks away who graciously allowed me, a stranger, to video-record the engine under his hood. He didn’t even leave his front porch to supervise me; classic Mustang owners seem to inherently trust each other, but that’s another story. I jogged back to my place and reassembled my car with renewed confidence.
That was the last time I hitched. In a way, it led to my career. Thanks to everyone, drivers and riders, who briefly let me into their lives along the way.
Copyright © 2013 by Charles C. Cole