My sign turns heads. Some cars slow, most pass but all read.
Boldface caps spaced wide on thick gray poster board that won’t bend in wind, backed by a flat board long enough to hoist sign higher than head. Legible for eyes approaching fast, or stopped at a traffic light with me standing half a football field ahead on right.
Planning this NJ-to-CA hitch during three months of training at Memphis, I knew to keep words short and few, letters thick and black. I’d seen hitchers holding a shred of cardboard scrawled with blue ballpoint cursive—chicken scratch no taller than address on postcard. Only a vehicle stopped for red abreast of hitcher could read it, much less eyes approaching at 60 mph.
Also crucial: I’m clean-cut to the max. Unlike scruffy hitchers who sit on curbs with bent elbows, thumbs barely up, like it’s unhip to rise when seeking aid. Not me: standing at parade rest, short hair parted left and combed flat with white sidewalls, pale oxford shirt tucked in, belted dark chinos, thin black necktie, shined boots. Wholesome, like a TV son of Ward and June Cleaver. . . more so: Wally and Beaver didn’t wear neckties.
But I see it on passing faces: my plight compels yet conflicts. Women, especially, look torn. They want to help but have been warned about hitchhikers. Or are against a war they’d abet by helping me get to it.
I’d not planned for that. Dissent hadn’t reached my NJ burg when I left for boot camp. What had was news that high school classmate Ron DiOrio was KIA. An Army draftee, he was twenty when killed by “multiple fragmentation wounds” three months after arrival. War lost its abstraction with Ronny’s page-one item in the Camden Courier Post. I searched back issues of NatGeo to locate Vietnam on maps, three weeks before leaving for Parris Island.
Still, so far I’m having luck getting rides with military veterans, and from women who have male kin serving. Patience helps, a virtue lauded by nuns during daily catechism. “The twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit are charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity.”
Vehicles from whose drivers I seek charity come in clumps, sequenced by traffic lights. I lower my thumb while awaiting the next bunch but hold the sign high so the farsighted can read while awaiting green. Keen for cars before enlisting, I know the make and model of most coming at me. Ten minutes earlier I’d seen an unreal 1950 Ford coupé approach slowly, but it passed. Driven by a white-haired woman who looked angry.
What caught my eye was the mint condition of the Ford’s original metallic green paint, flawless chrome, and wheels looking unused to mud or even rain. As though it spends all but an hour of every other day in garage, covered with sheet (laundered monthly), and is driven kindly.
She stayed in the right lane, moving slower than the posted speed. But the mint coupé passed me by, as do many dozens of vehicles before one finally stops. That’s okay: summer is ally as patience is virtue. Sleep under highway overpass or in moving vehicles. Meet kind people whose name I won’t learn while riding a few miles with them.
Earth and sky dazzle. A horizon-to-horizon view of battleship cotton clouds sailing north reminds of why I nixed common sense. To be here, to do. . . exactly this. Truth be told, hearing cicadas drone, geckos chirp, and even tires whine while awaiting samaritans is why I didn’t go Greyhound. “To see the land,” I say when benefactors ask.
Have allotted eleven days for this journey even though I know coast-to-coast, it can be driven in five. Extra days to savor come what may.
Lo and behold, the mint Ford approaches again, at the rear of the next clump, its right turn signal flashing. I lower my thumb when the coupé leaves concrete for the road’s blacktop shoulder, stopping 20 yards short of me. Its driver, angry on her first pass, smiles as I walk to the passenger side. I admire her pluck, but am unsure if she’ll offer a ride, or maybe a warning of some sort.
“Thank you for stopping, ma’am,” I say, bending at knees to look through the open passenger window and return her smile—without moving to enter.
“You are welcome, but I can take you only seven miles before I turn off.”
“That’s fine. Every bit helps.”
I don’t reach for the door handle until she leans toward its inside latch. I open it, enter gingerly, place the placard top-down on my right, plop ditty bag on lap.
The Ford is as mint inside as out, containing naught but what had been factory installed. Neither rosary nor foam dice hang from its mirror, and the odometer begins with two zeroes. Its back seat is empty but I’ll bet there’s a sack of groceries in its trunk, properly lashed. Windshield is pock-free and engine purrs.
“This is the most sensible Ford I’ve ever seen,” I say.
“Sensible? What in goodness name do you mean?” she says.
“It’s clean, uncluttered and. . . appreciated.”
“My neighbors would say it’s because I’m a Quaker. We tend to be plain.”
Quaker, I think to myself, trying to place it relative to catechism.
“Are you familiar with Quakers?” she says while changing gears. Her eyes don’t leave the road while driving nor do mine while replying.
“I’m Catholic, so the nuns didn’t teach us much about other religions. Wasn’t Ben Franklin a Quaker. . . no, not him. It’s that statue atop city hall in Philly. . . William Penn? He was a Quaker, right?”
“Indeed he was, and Pennsylvania is named after him. . . .Are you Irish?”
“Yes, ma’am. How’d you know?”
“You’re Catholic and going to war. One plus one.”
Dad doesn’t fit her equation, but I’ll not dispute a samaritan.
“I’m Joe, and thank you for giving me a ride,” I say, surprised I volunteered my name.
“You’re welcome, Joe. I’m Elsie. How long have you been hitchhiking?”
“Since Monday morning.”
Elsie seems tall because she’s lean, yet her eyes aren’t much above the old Ford’s huge steering wheel. She wears a long indigo skirt, sensible gray shirt and reminds me of Katherine Hepburn with thick white hair. As I guessed, she drives thirty-five on a road marked for forty, hands at eight and two o’clock on wheel.
“I see by your sign you’re bound for Vietnam.”
“Yes, ma’am. One of many.”
“How do your parents feel about that?”
“Uh, a year ago Mom thought the service would be good for me. I was working as a hospital janitor; she thought it a dead-end job. A military career would earn me a pension and I’d only be forty at retirement.”
Elsie doesn’t reply.
“When the war got hot,” I say, “Mom became less keen I enlist.”
“I can well imagine.”
“She arranged for us to go before the draft board, for an exemption. Got a note from a doctor saying I have a heart murmur.”
“I’m not sure. . . never been sick. I think Mom arranged it with a doctor she knows from the restaurant where she works. It’s across the street from city hall, so she waits on many lawyers, judges, doctors, police. . . also recruiters.”
“The draft board turned you down, I gather.”
“Yes. Many were there for the same reason. The board gave us five minutes; Mom did the talking. I think they see many with heart murmurs,” I say, smiling.
“I’m sure they do,” Elsie says but doesn’t seem amused.
Chat makes seven miles whiz by, even below the speed limit. As Elsie pulls over I’m ready to exit quickly, but she surprises: my plight seems to bring out the best in people.
“Tell you what, Joe. If you tell me more about yourself and your family, I’ll treat you to lunch at the best home-cooking spot in this county.”
“Uh, well, ma’am. . .”
“. . . Elsie, I’ve been making good time so I’d be glad to join you—if you let me buy.”
“Nonsense. You save for monsoons ahead.”
I don’t yet know what a monsoon is, but am shy to ask.
Elsie turns right at a crossroad. After a half mile we arrive at what looks like someone’s two-story home. As we exit her Ford I see a small sign next to the polished wood stairs we climb to enter the front door. This being only my second trip west of Philly, I don’t know what “bed and breakfast” means.
The first came a year after high school. Irish-Catholic guys like me—blue collar, no college, no future—wind up in bars, as Dad before me and his before him. How else to weather NJ’s dreary winters? Date a Catholic, wed, reproduce, get a mortgage, be normal. A neighborhood pal who shared my fate felt likewise, so we drove my Chevy to California, parts via Route 66. Till then I’d not been north of Hartford, south of Baltimore, or west of Philly.
“Kat!” Elsie calls out on opening the home’s right door, the upper half of which is thick polished glass backed by a lace curtain. A woman responds from another room and soon enters the hallway leading to the door we’d entered. She seems younger than Mom.
“This is my daughter, Katrina. Kat, this is Joe. He’s a marine who’s hitchhiking to Vietnam. I thought we’d give him a good feed to bolster him for what lies ahead.”
“Howdy, Joe,” she says as we shake hands. “Set your bag here and come back to the kitchen.”
Kat doesn’t seem surprised Elsie has brought a stranger unannounced. From a female-dominant family, I feel at home with both.
“Can you hitchhike across the Pacific?” Kat says.
“No, ma’am. Government transport starts from California.”
When pal and I drove NJ to CA two years prior, we’d picked up a few solo hitchers. Each admired my Chevy (’57 black coupé, naugahyde, Hurst shifter) yet, surprising myself, I envied them their (what to call it?). . . adventure. They were traveling West, so was I; I was driving my car, they were begging for rides. Yet I envied them? Shouldn’t it have been the other way round? Didn’t make sense.
I asked one young hitcher where he stayed at night. Approaching a flyover road, as we went under it he pointed to the concrete ledge beneath where flyover meets hill, he said, “Up there.” I don’t understand why, but that moment swayed me to hitch. Skip Greyhound. See the land.
Marines at Memphis who knew of my scheme advised against it: It will take far longer than you think, plus too many pervs on the road. “You’ll be AWOL,” they warned.
Yet here I am, hitching three thousand miles with orders to war and a firm deadline to reach Camp Pendleton. Regimented since age seven by infallible nuns and now the hard-ass Corps, I hitch because I’m drawn to. . . what? Uncertainty? Risk? Choice?
I still don’t know. The only bohemian influence I’d experienced was Maynard G. Krebs’ beatnik character on the Dobie Gillis TV show. Hadn’t yet heard of Kerouac, who likely was on my religion’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum of banned authors, along with Voltaire, Rosseau, Descartes, Milton, Locke, Copernicus, Galilei, Pascal, Gibbon, Spinoza.
Whatever the inspiration, the samaritans I’m meeting are indelible. “Lunch was hours ago but Kat is always prepared to fatten guests.”
“I don’t eat much, ma’am, so please don’t go to trouble.”
We aren’t seated long at the large white enamel-top table before Kat is placing before us mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, buttered corn, crisp biscuits to die for, and slices of cold ham topped with warm pineapple sauce.
“Milk or ice tea, Joe?” Elsie says.
“Milk is fine, thank you.”
Elsie dines a bit with me although I think she does so to put me at ease.
“Wish I could say I taught Kat all she knows about cooking, but her skills far exceed mine.”
“Nonsense,” Kat says. “Living up to Mom’s standards is how I became interested in cooking. It runs in our family.”
“The pineapple-with-raisins sauce is entirely Kat’s creation, Joe,” Elsie says. “I learned it from her, among other things.”
“This is only the second time I’ve tried ham with pineapple sauce,” I say, “and yours is better by far, Kat. I was at Memphis for training as a jet-engine mechanic. All trainees must serve two weeks on mess duty, dawn to dusk, seven days weekly.”
“I’ve heard horror stories about mess duty from friends who were in the Navy,” Kat says.
“One day after lunch,” I continue, “they marched my barracks to the base infirmary to have hands checked for cuts or sores that would keep us from kitchen work. As we shuffled past a corpsman with our hands out, he checks both sides of mine and says, ‘Pus discharge around his fingernails. Disqualified. Step out of line.’
“What he saw,” I say, “were the remains of pineapple sauce I’d had for lunch. Was so good over ham, my fingers got messed.”
“Hah! I hope my sauce brings you such good luck,” Kat says. Her smile makes me feel like I’m with kin.
Elsie tells me of two local men who’d gone to Vietnam: one was KIA, the other’s still there.
“Did your father want you to join the Marines, Joe?” Kat asks from across the kitchen, where she’s dicing celery atop a thick-legged wood chopping block. She isn’t as lean as Elsie but is no less direct.
“Uh. . . he deserted us years ago,” I say, opting for the truth instead of another venial sin. No need to lie here.
“He was a draft dodger during World War II. Said only dummies get drafted and the dumbest of all enlist.”
Elsie glances at Kat like I’d said something wrong. “What did the nuns tell you about Quakers, Joe?” Elsie says.
“Uh, nothing I recall. Christians who aren’t Catholic are Protestants, so I’d guess Quakers are Protestant.”
I don’t add nuns had said all Protestants are heretics bound for Hell everlasting.
“One thing about Quakers, Joe, we believe all conflict can be solved without violence. Wars shouldn’t happen.”
On my way to one and a recipient of their kindness, I have no reply.
“Do you know what a conscientious objector is, Joe?” Kat says.
Elsie explains. “Boys—I mean, young men—can declare themselves to be conscientious objectors to the concept of war or the need to bear arms. If the government accepts their status, they cannot be made to fight.”
I don’t speak what comes to mind: Dad’s conscience wasn’t why he dodged World War II. I enlisted to atone for him.
Elsie and Kat see I have no response, and I’ve ceased eating.
“Until what time each day do you hitchhike, Joe?” Kat says.
“I hope to hitch through the night and sleep in the cars of people who give me rides, if they don’t mind.”
“Goodness,” Kat says, “what’s your hurry?”
“I have nine days till I’m due at a base in California. It’s plenty of time but so far it seems better to push till I see how the rides go. Will switch to Greyhound if I bog down.”
“Well, young man,” Elsie says, “you’re certainly welcome to say the night here at Kat’s Bed and Breakfast. Then get an early start in the morning.”
Kat agrees, putting me on the spot.
“It’s very kind of you both, but I can’t relax till I get half the distance covered. Then I’ll know if this hitchhike plan is sound or crazy.”
They don’t press their kind offer, instead asking me about my family as I finish a grand meal. Driving me back to the highway, Elsie confirms she keeps her mint Ford in a garage each night.
“Indeed I do. And I’ve rigged a reel to lower a blanket over most of it when parked.”
“Thought so,” I say.
At my drop-off point, I thank Elsie sincerely for her and Kat’s hospitality, feeling like I’m leaving kin.
“It was our pleasure, Joseph, if I may call you that. I would add what I’d guess your Mom has told you or will before you leave: Don’t volunteer for anything!”
“Yes, ma’am. Joining the wartime Marines was enough volunteering.”
After Elsie pulls away I assess my location. I walk fifty yards west of a stoplight to give drivers time to read my sign, and space for them to change lanes toward me.
Again, the change from moving with a samaritan to standing still for rejections is a jolt. Face east, beg with thumb and sign, stare at rejectors.
Fifteen minutes go by. Passersby gawk but no takers. It’s near 6 p.m. Most are on their way home and wary of a hitchhiker at dusk. Hope a long-distance traveler will rescue me before dark.
An eighteen-wheeler begins coming my way when the light turns green. Two men in the cabin and likely no room for me, so I look past the truck to cars in its wake. Hoping for another Elsie or Navy chief or the Nash man or Pontiac women.
The truck draws near, whining as driver upshifts. I’m looking past it at a Buick whose male driver is eyeing me when I notice a quick movement from the truck’s passenger side window. I look up to see the green glint of an empty Coke bottle cartwheeling toward me, albeit ten feet to my right. Hurler hadn’t allowed for the truck’s speed.
“Gonna die, GI!” he shouts through cupped hands as the rig passes.
I turn to look after the truck and from both sides of its cabin erect forearms flip me the finger. Had it been a beer can he’d heaved I could’ve racked it up to the effects of booze. From a family impacted by “the drink,” I know about such. But I can’t fathom the intent of the bottle-tosser’s words.
I know from the draft board’s crowded office that many weren’t keen to go to war, but assumed all would if their claims were nixed. So why venom from those truckers, I wonder, watching as smoke bursts from the cabin-top exhaust pipes mirror gear shifts.
Twenty and new to the world at large, I have no response for any offended by the sight of me, my sign and journey or its cause. I don’t yet know enough to be angered by their anger at me, whatever its source.
None of the cars behind the truck stopped, likely scared off by the thrown bottle. I stand wondering if I should find a motel and call it a day as hurled objects will be harder to dodge at night. I scan the road ahead for motel signs and think I see one far on the left but am not sure as I can’t read its unlit sign.
When I turn to scan east for a motel, Elsie’s Ford is stopped on shoulder thirty yards away, its passenger door open wide. Her look is angry, which tells me she’d seen the truckers’ message.
Elsie waves me aboard.
“You shouldn’t be on the road at night, especially with lunkheads like those about. Please stay at Kat’s tonight. Get a fresh start in the morning, after a solid breakfast.”
I yield. As Elsie drives us toward Kat’s I have to ask. “What was that about? Are those truckers conscientious objectors?”
“Heavens, no! They’re urban rednecks. Blowhards who’d nuke other nations yet avoid military service because they’d be in harm’s way. Your sign offends their hypocrisy.”
I don’t respond, lost in thought about high school classmate Ronny DiOrio, who’d left for war last year in September and was KIA before Christmas. Versus my father, who’d dodged what Ronny embraced.
Even when with us, Dad was scheming to go.
We lived near Camden, on the west side of south Jersey, across the Delaware River from his kin in row-house Philly. The difference between Dad and his elder brother Patty was pick your poison: Dad deserted regularly but didn’t hit wife or kids; Patty didn’t desert but on Friday and Saturday nights he’d come home drunk and keen to beat wife, blaming her for his failed dreams.
Their seven kids dreaded Patty’s return from bars because of his inevitable violence—yet wanted him to stay. I dreaded Dad’s return from inevitable desertions—and wanted him to stay gone. They chose Greyhound, I hitched.
It took three hours to drive to the seashore on NJ’s east coast, before turnpikes brought Atlantic City and Wildwood closer. Until casinos, few went to NJ’s dreary resort towns in winter, so we got to “the shore” but once per summer, if then. It was a thrill as the flat we rented had low ceilings, roaches swarming from eatery below, and no hope of ever affording aircon. Just a box fan jammed into a bedroom window, its noisy blades flickering a street lamp’s invading beam on muggy nights as we lay sweating.
When we had a car (an old Studebaker or Dodge), Dad would vanish with it and a paycheck for a binge. When money was gone he’d sell the heap to afford more absence.
A drive to Wildwood was as far as he’d take us and that but once, when I was in second grade. It was on a Sunday, Mom’s day off from her waitress job. On the way, my sisters and I played games in the rear seat of our bulbous old Dodge. We’d compete to be the first to spot a drive-in theater’s screen or a cemetery. Naught else to do on the drive via back roads. Still, it was a family outing akin to those enjoyed by Ozzie and Harriet’s TV kids.
“Guess how many dead people are buried in that cemetery,” Dad said while driving, glancing in the rear-view mirror at me.
“Huh?” I said, dumfounded by the thought of counting headstones from our moving heap. “I give up. How many?”
“All of them!” Dad, Mom and my sisters sang in reply as Joey-boy sat bamboozled. Our competition didn’t end with graveyards.
“I see the ocean!”
“I saw it first!” we’d squeal while rounding a road bend. All had eyes peeled since the scent of salt air had roused us.
We couldn’t afford parking lots, so we’d cruise Wildwood’s side streets for a slot. If we weren’t already wearing bathing suits, we’d change in the heap. Old cars had lots of space, although Mom would scan first for cruising cop cars.
We scrambled from Dodge, walked beneath the boardwalk and out onto the hot sand, spread a blanket, plopped down our tote bag and ran squealing for the surf.
My memory of the day becomes vivid: Mom, sister Eileen and I are returning from surf to blanket. For some reason Mom has left sister Norah with Dad, still in his street clothes, on the blanket.
“Where’s your father?” Mom asks Norah in an alarmed voice.
“He went to buy cigarettes,” she says.
“CHRIST!” Mom says in a tone that snaps my young mind to attention. I’d barely begun rubbing with towel when Mom barks orders.
“All of you put your shoes on and follow me. NOW!” she says, cramming items into our plastic beach bag.
“But we just got here!” I whine.
“DO AS I SAY!”
We scurry like crabs across the sand, towels around still-dripping swimsuits. Hadn’t been there long enough to eat, much less walk the boardwalk. Dad left to get ciggies, presumably at a shop up on the boardwalk—but we’re running under it toward our heap, three blocks over. I’d whine more but had learned Mom’s anger was not to be challenged.
Dad’s duty to wife and kids ended when he delivered us to a beach. He might return from the nearest bar in a few hours to fetch us home, or he might not surface for days or weeks. He figured we’d get home by Greyhound or Trailways.
Desertions were Dad’s most reliable trait.
He’d leave our flat to buy cigarettes, and be gone for months. No need to pack because, as I’d learned three years after his final exit, my bigamist father had another set of clothes with his second family in a neighboring state.
A half-sister from there had called when—as fate would have it—she and I both happened to be home alone on an indelible Saturday. A few months younger than me (fourteen), she already distrusted her father, thinking her mom too forgiving of his repeated desertions. She’d found our phone number in trousers he’d left in a closet, and called to test her suspicion. At first I thought she was one of my sisters’ friends, me their target of a phone joke. Wariness soon eased; we talked for an hour.
She described her father’s nightly bar boozing, periodic desertions, unannounced returns sans explanation or apology, work for a few months, then gone again—mirroring our life. Marriage (even two) hadn’t nullified his right to spend evenings (and paycheck) at bars. It was what real men did.
Once over the shock of receiving such a call from out of the blue, my half-sister and I swapped physical descriptions of him—to confirm or dismiss our shared horror. Same name, height, build, hair, and idiosyncrasies, including him lying abed in naught but shabby briefs, reading horse-race rag, arm wrapped overhead to tweak the opposite ear.
He’d go from us to them and vice versa. No need to discard either family—unless one acquired value worth stealing. Nor need he use aliases for marriage licenses in those pre-computer days. As long as both wives remained trussed by taboo and waitress work to support three kids each, he could come and go at his leisure. Monogamy, like military service, was for dummies.
Both wives were working-class Irish-Catholic, so periodic desertions were a lesser evil for them than the permanent stigma of divorce. Dad farmed their shame, knowing wives and kids would lie (“he’s away on a business trip”) rather than reveal his treachery.
My namesake saw wife and kids as ball and chain, so he’d split with paycheck and pawnable items in hope of growing it via racetrack winnings. He kept returning not because he missed us but to replenish stay-away money. He gambled not to share hoped-for winnings with family (ours or theirs), but to escape both.
He was born and raised Catholic, but I can’t recall Dad ever attending Sunday Mass, much less Saturday Confession. Irreligious, yet he exploited taboo to his advantage. In bed, he’d remind Mom the church forbade birth control. “Come on, kid,” he’d say, “loosen up.” Patty’s seven kids made Dad feel paltry with only three (with Mom).
Only once did Dad explain his entitlement, after coming home boozed on a school night when I was in third grade. To escape Mom’s living-room rant, he walked to the bedroom, sat on my cot’s edge, giving me a back rub.
“Joey, there’s God the Father and God the Son, but there ain’t no God the Mother. He made Eve from Adam’s spare rib to serve Adam.”
Seeking counsel from parish clergy, Monsignor Fartney told Mom Dad fled because of abuse from her. “For your soul’s sake,” his nibs advised, “you must serve your husband’s needs. Better drunk than gone.”
Choose your poison, Mom: drunk or gone, desertions or beatings.
We approach our heap from behind on passenger side as Dad’s left arm reaches from within to close driver-side door. To stop him from pulling away, Mom heaves beach blanket over windshield as kids scramble into back seat. Dad sighs, looking out driver’s window at missed opportunity as Mom gets in, voicing a primal scream that scared me.
I’d heard her yell often on nights when he’d come home from bars, the stink of beer, ciggies and urine on him, face red, eyes watery, Mom waiting like Vesuvius. But her Wildwood scream was different. Until then I’d never seen Mom vulnerable, like he’d pushed her to wit’s end. I was scared for her.
Young as I was, that day changed me. Two months prior, I’d finished third grade. By sixth grade and many desertions later, I hoped Dad would stay gone. My logic was simple: he didn’t want to be with us, plus we four were happier without him. Trauma arrived with him, so I hoped he’d not come back.
I didn’t quite want him to go because it would violate the Fourth Commandment. But when he chose to leave, increasingly I wanted him to stay gone. It went against what I was being taught in daily catechism classes—but I didn’t care. Nor did I confess my hope as sin, much less to clergy who’d blame Eve for Adam’s treachery.
Standing again along a ramp up to the road west. Sign up, thumb out, seeking another ride toward war.
Twenty hours with Elsie and Kat, yet I’m only seven miles closer. Well fed, well rested and smiling in their wake—yet Elsie has muddied my waters. If Dad and those bottle-hurling truckers are draft-dodgers, are not conscientious objectors likewise? Do they oppose all wars, or just the one for which they’d be drafted? Using such logic on myself: how conscientious was my heart murmur?
Food for thought while awaiting samaritans.
I don’t wave thumb, shake sign, or grin. Deadpan, honed since day one of first grade, after a nun face-whacked me for an unauthorized smile. Stare at oncoming windshields, implying I know drivers realize they should stop.
They have seconds to decide.