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When My Guardian Angels Helped Me
The Road Goes On
Before They Told Me That Guardian Angels Were Nonsense
Not quite 17 in the spring of 1965, I was foolish enough to believe I could do something that every adult already knew was impossible.
Or, maybe my guardian angels had silently, invisibly, let me know they'd come along and look out for me.
Impulsive, willful, determined, I'd already run away once or twice and had quit school in frustration, but looking back, my decision to hitchhike to California, starting out with less than $15, seems crazy like jumping in a vat of melted chocolate and expecting only the flavor.
The farthest I'd ever been from our home in Upstate New York was on the twenty mile drive into Pennsylvania when, packed in Dad's car with my brothers and sister, we went to visit the family farm where he grew up and where Grandma lived her entire adult life.
We were not, as as family, infected with white line fever. We stayed home. Except, now, for me and for Mom, my destination, who I hadn't seen in ten years.
The dramas that led to my father's being the world's first ever Single Dad, at least as far as we knew, aren't important here, other than that they left me, a committed mamma's boy, alienated at home and easily inspired to bridge the 3,000 mile gap between me and Mom in California.
So, emboldened with the magnificent sum of $15 Mom sent in installments and a rarely used suitcase I tugged out from under abandoned debris in our attic, off I went on a bright and sunny spring day.
Sort of. First, there was Joyce.
This Story and the Rest of It in a Novel
On a summer night on a country road, Peter McCarthy learns something about not being afraid, and he takes you along the road, through many turns and twists, to a fateful departure in San Francisco, ten years later.
Bad Judgment, But No Penalty
Setting Out Across America
You may have noticed that my mother had the spectacular bad judgment to encourage a sixteen year old to hitchhike from New York to California alone, with very little cash. To be consistent, I began with a dollop of foolishness all my own.
This had to do with Joyce. The circumstances being what they eventually were, I have to wonder if Joyce was one of my guardian angels or was just planted by them as kind of an anchor point linking me to stability and recklessness in a single package.
Under such deliberations are great philosophies born, but not yet.
In May, 1965, Joyce was the only girl with a genuinely bad reputation I knew well, but for the life of me, I still don't understand why, as my final act in Binghamton, I arranged for her to meet me before I left. I even persuaded her to skip school to do it.
It embarrasses me to tell you what Joyce and I did, but I will anyway. Joyce and I had breakfast, which I paid for out my $15 stash, and then, standing outside the Queen Elizabeth Diner, we shared a sidewalk kiss before I walked across downtown to start hitching.
Some Lothario. You can begin to see how I earned my reputation as being a "good guy" with girls.
Was this something my guardian angels were hoping to teach me? Maybe, but they had a lot more planned.
With My Guardian Angels On The Open Road
Had I thought much about what I was doing, I probably wouldn't have done it, but I then had a happily unexamined life. I believe the reason was my unwavering confidence, absent facts, that I could get to California by thumb, starting out almost broke. And, of course, I did.
I forgot to mention this: I left home without any expectation of help from anyone, except the $15 I got from Mom and the generosity of strangers willing to respond positively to my extended thumb. I didn’t know a single soul, relative or friend, between Binghamton and San Pedro, California.
Now, with closer to $12 lining my pockets, I parked my tattered suitcase on the shoulder of the Vestal Parkway and started thumbing at midday. Although discouraged, hitchhiking was a lot more prevalent in those days. I caught my first ride within 10 minutes.
I couldn’t believe my luck when the young guy who picked me up said he was going to "Chicago." Even though my calculations were way off, Chicago, I believed, was halfway to California.
With this kind of luck, I might get there in just a couple of days. Before my money ran out.
Only after an hour or so of blissful riding through the small towns and leafy countryside along Route 17 did I discover that the guy had said, "Chautauqua," the little village near Jamestown where Lucille Ball grew up.
Really, I didn't care where I Love Lucy took root, but I was resilient.
It was still rush hour when I caught the first of my rides that took me from Chautauqua to a truck stop outside Erie, Pennsylvania.
Erie might as well have been Istanbul, I was so far beyond anywhere I'd ever been.
Storms On The Horizon, Rain That Never Fell
Rolling into the Midwest, Guided By Angels
Standing under a tall light along the road opposite that truck stop, I probably should have been alarmed or, at least, a little frightened.
It was 10:00 o'clock. Big rigs were hurling gusts of wind in my face as they raced by. Guardian angels were whispering in my ear probably, but I wasn't shaken at all.
Actually, I was sort of up. My family must've noticed me missing by now, an exhilarating thought.
Of course, since you're reading this about 50 years later, you already know I caught a ride. And it was a good one. A guy in a pickup truck drove me all the way across Ohio to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
All that night, my first ever completely on my own, I dozed off and on as one of those pioneering rock stations kept coming in clearer as we drew closer to Fort Wayne. We talked a little. I told the driver what I was doing and was pleased to see he was impressed.
He was also happy to have a companion to help him stay awake during the long hours of darkness. On my first morning of liberation, he dropped me off at a roadside diner where I bought breakfast and consulted my map.
Route 6 was the one I'd chosen, for no other reason than its running straight as an imperfect arrow from Pennsylvania to California.
It was there that I heard storm warnings being announced on the radio. Tornadoes, they said, were likely that afternoon all over the Midwest.
I was more excited than scared. I'd never seen a tornado, except for that gut-wrencher in The Wizard of Oz.
Small Town America
Maybe My Guardian Angels Got Me To Lie A Little
I didn't see any tornadoes that day, not even a thunderstorm, but I did hitch my way into one of the most interesting, unexpected adventures of my life.
Thank you, Guardian Angels, for sending Edward and the others that followed.
After hitching into congested suburbs south of Chicago, I got picked up by an elderly man trying to find his way out of town in a Buick, if I remember the model correctly. Although I was delighted to be picked up by anyone, that ride with Edward was the first in which I can ever remember being embarrassed after having gotten in.
The trouble was that the traffic in the town where he picked me up overwhelmed his driving skills.
Edward took a defensive crouch over his steering wheel - which looked too big for him - and further aligned his security by driving as slowly as possible without stalling. Hovering over the white line between two lanes.
Kids my age and adults honked furiously as they maneuvered around us. I tried to look innocent, but they probably thought I was Edward's idiot grandson or teenage buddy. I don't know, but while I appreciated the ride, I was eager for it to end.
It ate up a lot of time for the short distance we chugged along.
After a few miserable blocks, Edward asked, "Do you know how to drive?"
Thinking he wanted to confirm his expertise under these conditions, I said, "Yes."
"Do you have a license?"
Here's where, for no reason whatsoever, I lied.
"Yes," I said.
When I ask myself what I expected to gain by saying that, I find no honest answer. I really don't know. It was an impulse, one of those out of nowhere things. Nor does any insight fill my vision when I wonder why I next accepted his proposal to drive him south toward his destination in Arkansas.
I'll be straight with you. I'd driven precisely once in my life, in a lesson with my brother, Ted, after getting my learner’s permit. Which now had expired.
I had never driven on anything but a city street while Ted instructed me about courtesy and how to make turns without crashing Dad's car into a variety of available animate and inanimate objects.
And I had no confidence in my skills at driving on a highway. None. How would I have gotten any?
Even so, I was shortly at the helm of Edward's Ford, doing 60 on Route 66.
Guardian Angels With A Twist
Edward, I learned as we sped south through Illinois, was making his way to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to a spa. A recent widower, he was going for a restorative summer after having his cancerous lung removed.
Edward wasn't the last person recovering from cancer surgery I'd know who returned to cigarette smoking, but he was the only one who expressed no regrets. Big Tobacco's arguments that the connections hadn't been proven were not wasted on him.
And that, readers, is the only bad thing I can say about Edward.
Like Joyce, the girl I left behind, more or less, he seemed to show up along my road with a purpose. And he showed up precisely when I needed him, just as he needed me.
Sharing packs of cigarettes and a pair of bar stools when an amused bartender agreed to serve us coffee, Edward and I spent the afternoon together, talking nonstop about our lives and the world passing by us.
Every once in a while, he had to caution me not to wander too close to passing vehicles as automobile-tropism seemed to draw me out of my lane.
But nothing else required his guidance until we crossed the Mississippi River bridge into St. Louis.
It was there, hypnotized by hours of highway driving, that I went straight through the red light at my first intersection in Saint Louis. Fortunately, there was no other traffic around to smash into nor any cop to make sure I never did it again.
It was dark, by now, and Edward cautioned me to be more careful as we rolled through Saint Louis, looking for a place to stop for the night. Without asking, he arranged for me to share a room with him in a roadside cottage where we both slept like logs.
In the morning, he also bought me breakfast and did something I never expected. He paid me $15 for driving as far as Saint Louis.
Before we parted, he wrote down where I could contact him in Hot Springs, in case I was coming back this way around the time he needed to return. I knew I wasn't and would never see him again, but I took the paper anyway.
I was too young to understand how extraordinary Edward's coming into my life, just then, was. Without him, I'd be broke, tired and hungry, hitching somewhere in Iowa, instead of on a full stomach, 15 fresh dollars in my pocket, on a Sunday morning on a corner in Kirkwood, Missouri.
And Edward, he'd either be inching his way along Route 66, irritating driver after driver, or arranging for his car to be pried off some lamp post he hit.
Maybe there aren't any guardian angels, but the fates had certainly coalesced in both our favors.
If Life Is a River, There Must Be Rapids
Slowly crossing Kansas
Sundays are lousy days for hitchhiking, wisdom you will be happy never to have to put to use.
Drivers are fewer and not paying attention to vagrants on Sundays, that's a rule of thumb. (Sorry.)
I spent all day getting across the rest of Kansas, an astonishingly flat and repetitive place where the sort of optical illusions that make people lost in the Sahara think they see water were introduced to me.
I got to smell the stockyards in Wichita, set foot on Wyatt Earp Boulevard and lost my sweater by leaving it in the backseat of a station wagon in Kansas City.
And I got thoroughly felt up by a cranky guy, after dark, who claimed he wanted to be sure I wasn't carrying a weapon. Believe me, he made sure.
Night is the worst time to be out on the road, and it wasn't lost on me that, that night, I wasn't within a thousand miles of anyone I knew, except Edward. But again, I wasn't worried.
I was a little cold, though, as I faced my first night without my powder blue sweater. My discomfort didn't last long, however, as - once again - I was unexpectedly rescued.
Guardian Angels & One More Helpful Stranger
A good start across Kansas
Outside Salina, after being dropped off by the feely fella, I was picked up by a guy who gave me a place to stay for the night and, blessings from above, a chance to rinse the dirt gathered from numerous states off myself in his bathtub.
Bob was a jet fighter pilot, one of the few remaining at Schilling Air Force Base as it was being shut down. He'd had two other pilot roommates who had already been assigned to a base in Germany.
He was concerned, he confided, that he’d soon be shifted to the brewing trouble spot in Southeast Asia.
But that was far from my mind as I cleaned up and had a chance to call Mom for the first time, collect - of course, and let her know what my progress was.
She was thrilled I'd gotten so far in only a couple of days.
"We were looking at a map and wondering, just a little while ago."
The other part of the "we" was Judy. Mom had taken the trouble to fix me up with a potential girlfriend.
Refreshed from a good night's sleep and a breakfast at Bob's table, I set out across the flatlands toward Colorado.
Behind Bars But Moving On
The Road Turns In Colorado
Only two things stick with me from that day, up to the time when I was apprehended by the Colorado Highway Patrol.
The first was the first time I saw The Rocky Mountains lifting up from the flat plains. The guy I was riding with had to point them out. They looked like thunderheads on the horizon.
The other thing I remember was how very dark and quiet it was on the corner where he dropped me off on a road curving around the base of Pike's Peak. Veteran hitchhiker that I was, I knew I'd eventually get a ride farther into the pass. I just didn’t know when.
My ride, though, was not exactly what I expected. After about 45 minutes in the gathering cold, sitting on my suitcase under the only streetlight since Pueblo, I managed to snag a ride with my thumb. When the flashing lights ignited the car's top, I realized I'd attracted the Colorado Highway Patrol.
After a brief conversation in which I was asked, not just about my destination, but also whether I "always wear blue socks," I was escorted into the back seat of the patrol car.
"We can't let you hitchhike in Colorado, and it’s along walk from here to Utah."one of the officers explained.
My map told me that was true.
Oh, the blue socks thing? After I told them that "My father gave me six pairs for Christmas," I realized they were looking for AWOL Air Force recruits. Apparently, blue socks were part of the uniform.
The Highway Patrol cops took me to the city lock up in Canon City, where I got to tell my story in detail. The sergeant in charge could as easily have shipped me back to Dad, my legal guardian. Instead, he got Mom on the phone in California.
The sergeant repeated the news that it was "a long walk to Utah" and made a deal with Mom to get bus fare wired to Western Union the next morning.
So, three big things happened fast. I got to ride in a very cool, well-outfitted Highway Patrol car, experience Western Union for the first time and spent my first the night in a cell.
(It was my only night ever in a cell, but you don't have to know that.)
Not locked up, since I was underage, I slept soundly on a cot behind an open door with bars and a lock like I'd seen in all those western movies.
I still remember waking up to the sweetest, cool mountain air I've ever inhaled. The next shift sergeant gave me a cup of fresh coffee and directions to the Western Union.
I spent that day, waiting for my bus, wandering around this beautiful little town on a slope, the majestic Rockies rising in every direction.
Do you get the idea that this wasn't just dumb luck? I did, but that was years later when I saw all this connected with patterns in my life.
What you call miracles have happened to me routinely.
Angels Are Everywhere, and You Can Hug Some of Them
In my mother's arms.
For the next 24 hours, I rode in the back seat of Trailways bus, making friends with an older man who rode almost all the way with me, swapping stories, of which he had many more than I did.
The mountains, salt flats and endless deserts convinced me I'd been rescued from what may have been a harrowing experience as I made my way across.
But who knows? With friends like mine along for the ride, it might not have been too bad.
At the station in Oakland where my mother said she'd meet me, uncertain of when I'd arrive, she had driven down for every arriving bus until mine finally left me, tired, dirty and on Cloud Nine in California.
If you've never been a kid who missed his mother for ten years, you will never understand what it was like.
Say, landing on the moon, winning the lottery and falling in love all at once might be close to what it was like to hug my Mom again.
There she was. In a leather motorcycle jacket. Taking a second look to be sure it was me she was about to smother in her arms.
Do guardian angels involve themselves in our lives?
And One More Thing About Guardian Angels
A long distance point of view
One more thing. I attribute some of what happened to my own youthful gullibility.
I hadn't yet heard about what I shouldn't and couldn't do enough times or been clearly informed of what wasn't possible. This left the doors wide open.
I just wasn't well-educated enough to understand my limits, and so, I ignored them.
A couple of months later, long story, I came back to Binghamton, this time by bus all the way.
Among the great experiences I brought back were the ones that showed me that I had companions, probably what most call guardian angels, tagging along.
It seemed natural to me then. Coincidence was expected. It was what happened. And nobody had yet told me I was wrong to believe in the unbelievable.
For that reason, I wasn't all that surprised when, after two months away, I walked out of the Binghamton bus terminal on a warm summer afternoon and almost immediately ran into, guess who?
Joyce, the girl with the reputation who'd seen me off. That coincidence began another story altogether.
And so on and on.
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© 2014 David Stone