Wednesday, June 13, 2012
  Tom Conroy #7: Captain Trips
More hitchhiking memories from Tom Conroy...

Going Down the Road

by Tom Conroy

This is back when I was a teenager living in Arizona. I was 16 and had already dropped out of high school. Actually, they politely asked me to leave. I was so far behind in my grades that I would not graduate until I was 23. This was my first real long trip on the road.

I was coming back from San Diego to Tucson. I was hitching with a cardboard box filled with about 150 old comic books all wrapped in plastic. It was night, and I was in El Centro when a car pulled over. The car jumped the curb, crossed the sidewalk, and when it came to a stop, it was sitting on the grass in a small park. Being that I was young and dumb, I actually got in the car. The driver was a drunk Mexican, and the floor was covered with booze bottles. He told me he also was going to Tucson and off we went.

It was after a couple of miles that I realized I had just made a grave mistake. We were on a four-lane highway with a guardrail down the middle. About 25 miles ahead of us was the small town of Holtville. These four lanes of traffic bottlenecked into two lanes and then crossed over a bridge just before going into town. Now this guy was swerving all over the road and would slow to five mph and then back to 40 mph. A couple times I grabbed the wheel and brought the car back on the road. I knew this guy wasn't going to get across that bridge. I had slept under the bridge with the bullfrogs on the trip into San Diego. The drop-off was at least 60 feet. I told him I wanted to visit my grandmother, so he should let me off on this side of the bridge. He stops, and I get out. I'm standing there watching him go across. I couldn't fucking believe it. The guy went in a perfect straight line with no swerving. He gets on the other side, makes a left turn and drives through town.

A few minutes later the next car to come along gives me a ride. When I get in, the guy says, "Hey, kid. What happened? You’re as pale as a ghost." While we were cruising through to town, I tell him what happened.

A couple miles on the other side of town we come up behind the drunk. He is swerving all over the road, and the guy I'm with makes an instant U-turn back into town. He tells me he is an ex-cop, and he starts doing an SOS with his car horn. Beep, beep beep. Three beeps and then a pause. He tells me if there is a cop out there, he will hear us. Beep, beep, beep, as we go shooting through town. Sure enough, on the other side of town, a cop is standing there waving us down. He pulls up and yells, "Drunk driver. Follow us." We go zooming back through town again. The cop is behind us with all his lights blazing away. It seemed like forever before we caught up with the drunk. All of a sudden we see a huge dirt cloud, and we slow down and stop. Chunks of dirt are still falling down and landing on our car. The drunk guy’s car is on its side about 60 feet off the road. The wheels are still spinning. It must have flipped at least once. All we can see is the bottom of the car and this big dust cloud.

The cop runs up to the car. He shines his flashlight into the front windshield. Then he climbs up on the car and shines the light into the two side windows. I don't know what he saw, but by the look on his face it wasn't very nice. The cop asked us questions, and we talked to him for about five minutes, both of us telling our stories. He thanked us and then said, "I'm sure glad it happened here. We got a bus full of kids coming back from a game." We drove off into the night. About half an hour later we passed the school bus on its way into town.

In the summer of 1961, when I was 18, I had talked Roger Brand into hitching back with me to New York City. We hitched from Pinole, California, down to LA to visit with Joel Beck. Joel was staying at the YMCA in Glendale and could only have one person stay in his room at night. That's where Roger stayed. I stayed in my sleeping bag under the front steps of the Y for a couple nights until somebody ratted me out. Big boss man told me I couldn't sleep there, so I searched for another place to go beddy-bye. Around the corner there is a big fancy church with a nice churchyard. In the yard are four big cement benches. They were just the right size, and at night I would crawl under one of the benches with my sleeping bag and go to sleep.

I awoke one morning with another one of those "Oh, shit" moments. The first thing I see is the back of a woman's legs. She is in stockings and high heel shoes and is about three feet from my nose. Then it hits me. It's Sunday morning, and all the people are hanging out in the churchyard after services. All I'm thinking is, "Now what do I do?" After a minute or so the woman walks away, and I decide it is time for me to get out of there. I crawl out from under the bench dragging my sleeping bag behind me. I don't even look at anybody as I walk through a crowd of at least 25 people with my head hanging down. There is this uncanny dead silence as I walk over to the sidewalk. I roll up the sleeping bag and just keep going. I don't even look back. It was the most embarrassed I had ever been.

When on the road just finding a place to sleep can be an adventure. A couple years later I was heading East on old Route 66. I was at this tourist trap in New Mexico. The place was all fixed up to look like the street of an old Western town. They had a stagecoach out in front that would give the tourists a ride. It took them around a quarter-mile circle and then brought them back to the front. Across the highway were a bunch of old buckboards and wagons. I'm there late one night and decide the best place to sleep was inside an old covered wagon. Not bad. It was nice and cozy.

I woke up in the morning when I heard people outside the wagon talking. I stuck my head out and scared the shit out of two little kids and their father. Daddy was taking photos of little Johnny and Suzy standing next to the wagon. This is when I first had long hair and a beard. I freaked the shit out of all three of them. The kids were yelling and screaming and daddy grabbed them and ran across the highway. They jumped in their car and locked the doors.

I'm heading East on Route 66 and this guy picks me up somewhere outside of LA and gives me a ride to Barstow. He was driving this big fancy new car. Maybe a Lincoln or Cadillac. A real nice car. He was about ten years older than me and talked about how he had hitched around the country when he was my age. How when he ran out of money he would get some two-bit job for a couple weeks. Then take off again when he had a few bucks saved up. He said he traveled with the wind for four or five years and had a great time. Then he got married and had kids. Now he had a good job and was making lots of money. We swapped road stories until he dropped me off. He even took me a few extra miles out of town and left me at a good place for hitching.

It was now nighttime, and the place had a lot of good lights and a place to eat. When I got out of the car he offered me some money. He took a $20 bill out of his wallet, and when I reached in through the open window he grabbed my hand. He started crying like a baby. He said, "Hey, kid. Don't let them do to you what they did to me. Keep traveling. Don't sell out. Stay free as long as you can. The only time I was really happy was when I was on the road. The one thing you can't buy is freedom." Then he drove off into the night. A weird feeling came over me. Like I had just received some kind of sacred knowledge from a holy man. I ate good all the way to New York.

What I liked about the road was the people you would meet. A lot were guys who had hitched around during the Depression and also combat veterans from World War II and Korea. One vet picked me up in Missouri. He had hitched around after the war because he said he "couldn't go home". He was bored. This was the guy who had been at Camp Roberts when my dad had died saving a bunch of guys that were drowning during a training exercise. They were caught on barbed wire under the water. He asked, "Was that your dad who was on the baseball team?" When I said, "Yes", he said he was there that day. The first thing he did when I got in the car was he bought me a meal. Afterwards he gave me a couple bucks. He said he does that with everybody he gives a ride to because he remembers all the times he went hungry. This guy repaired vacuum cleaners for a couple of motel chains and traveled though about six or seven states.

Another veteran was a guy who traveled around inspecting and repairing billboards for a billboard company. The same story I heard so many times before. "After the war I found it hard to settle down. I bummed around for years. Now I'm getting paid to bum around."

This was another trip to see Roger Brand. I was still 18. Walking across a freight yard in New Jersey I saw a piece of steel on the ground. The voice in my head told me to take it with me. It was about an inch wide, a 1/4-inch thick and about a foot long. I was carrying a small canvas overnight bag and put it on top between the two handles.

A couple of days later I'm on Highway 40 in Indiana. It's about nine at night, and I'm by this gas station and restaurant. The place is well lit and was a perfect place for hitching. This lady come out of the cafe and brings me a slice of pie. She tells me she has a boy who is also out hitchhiking around the country. She was the night manager. She tells me if I want more pie or coffee, just come on in. No charge. "I hope somebody out there will feed my boy if he gets hungry." Wow. Another encounter with an Earth Angel.

A few minutes after eating the pie I get a ride. The guy tells me he is going to St. Louis to visit an old Army buddy. He gives me a bullshit story about him being an auto mechanic and a racecar driver in the Indy 500. I knew it was all BS because his car was too clean. I never ever knew a mechanic who drove around in a clean car. Even to this day any mechanic I know has his car filled with junk. He says, "When me and my buddy were in the Army we shared everything. You know what I mean. Even when we slept in a foxhole together, we shared everything. You know what I mean. He was the best buddy a guy could have. You know what I mean. We still share things together. You know what I mean." After about a half an hour of you know what I mean stories there was a few minutes of silence. Then out of the blue he says, "When was the last time you got your nuts off?" He reaches over and grabs my crotch. I leaned down and picked up the piece of steel. I hit him on the hand so hard I even hurt my leg. He lets out a yell and slams on the brakes. He starts screaming, "Get out of my car. Get out." I grab my bag and bedroll and bail out. He almost drove the car off the road when he made a U-turn to go back.

I am now out in the middle of nowhere. It is wet and drizzling. I hardly had any shoulder to stand on and any time a truck would go by I got hit with spray and almost blown into the ditch. What a mess. I walked for hours hoping to find a bridge to get under. Nothing. I got hungry and tried to eat some corn from a cornfield. Gag. Yuk. All I kept thinking about was that lady with the slices of pie I could be eating. Way down the road I saw a light. When I finally got there it was a gas station. It was closed. I went to sleep sitting on the toilet in the men's room. All night long a dog barked. This was a bad ride.

A few days later I'm out in Wyoming on Highway 30. I'm a little ways out of town when a cowboy and his girlfriend go by in a pick-up truck. When he passes me he honks his horn and flips me the bone. I also flip him the bone. He hits the brakes and backs up to where I'm standing. I grab my bag so it doesn't get run over. He and the girl get out of the truck, and he starts cussing me. Then he punches me so hard I fall back into the bed of the truck. The steel bar slides across the bed and stops in the corner. He starts to climb into the truck. I jump up and grab the steel bar. Ka-boom. I hit him over the head with it. He just stops. He freezes. He steps back and pushes his hat up. He says, "Get out of my truck." I grab my bag and get out. He and the girl get back in the truck and drive away. I'm standing there scratching my head, wondering what the fuck just happened.

A year or so later I was 100% into the beatnik thing. At this time I had long hair and beard. It was 1962 and the start of winter. I'm hitching from New York to Frisco with my girlfriend Donna. She was a real looker. We brought her cat with us in a cat carrier. It is nighttime, and we are in Indiana on Highway 40 and had just eaten some shitty 15-cent hamburgers. We were both wearing two old Army P coats with hoods. A car pulls over, and we get in. Our plan was for Donna to always get in the back. The guy tells us he is going to St Louis to see an old Army buddy. He also tells us he is a race car driver in the Indy 500. He starts talking about how him and his buddy would share everything. "You know what I mean."

My ears are starting to curl, and I'm thinking, "Oh, shit. Not again." At this point, Donna says something and then lets down her hood. She shakes out her long brown hair. The guy says, "Oh. She’s a girl. I thought you were two guys." There wasn't much conversation after that. On the other side of the highway, we saw a guy hitching in an Air Force uniform. At the next town he pulls over to get gas. I see a two-inch scar on his right hand as he fills the tank. I tell Donna this is where the ride ends. She says, "He's going to St Louis." I said "No way. He's turning around. I'll explain to you later." That's just what he did. I forgot the excuse he used. I know he wanted to pick up the Air Force guy so he could tell him all about his old Army buddy. You know what I mean.

Images and text © 2012 Tom Conroy

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Great stories! I hitchhiked cross country twice but don't think I can remember events with as much detail as Tom does.
Good that you kept a diary of your adventures on the road, I wish I had done that too.
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