Spring Break 1969
A little way past Globe, Gypsy pulled into the scant parking lot of a ramshackle truck stop that was open despite the fact that it was nearly three in the morning, the parking lot was empty, and we hadn’t seen a single truck since leaving I-10. It wasn’t really a truck stop but a diner in dire need of paint with a couple of diesel and gas pumps out front. Gypsy took us inside and introduced us to the waitress, who gave a desultory nod. We went back outside, and Gypsy parted company with us, vanishing like an enigma into the desert night.
We stood out on the pavement about a hundred feet beyond the diner for over an hour, and not a single truck came down the road from either direction. Nor were there any cars. I wondered what kept the diner open all night. Then a truck pulled up. The driver got out and went inside. He came out half an hour later and ignored us as he pulled out of the parking lot, and drove off.
A little while later, another truck came and went. And another. Okay, there were trucks, but they sure weren’t picking us up.
At last, a car pulled into the parking lot and a big Jewish kid about our age got out. We knew he was Jewish because of the black yarmulke he wore. He barely had the door shut before we were next to him.
“Hey,” Glen said. “Would you give us a ride out of here?”
The kid, who looked pretty straight, wasn’t too excited about having a couple of raggedy freaks hit him up for a ride in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.
“I’m only going about twenty miles up this road before I turn off,” he said, hoping to dissuade us, but hell, that was twenty miles farther on.
“That’s good,” I said. “We’ve been stuck here for hours. We’re just trying to get back to school.” I added this last to let him know we weren’t a threat to him, since he was probably a student himself going home for spring break.
“Okay,” he said. “Get in. I have to use the rest room. I’ll be out in a few minutes. Be careful of the strawberry plants. They’re for my mom.”
We got in the car, and sure enough, half the floor in the back was covered with little plastic planters sprouting tiny seedlings. The driver came out a couple of minutes later, and we left the truck stop behind. About twenty miles farther on, he stopped at a nondescript side road.
“This is where I turn,” he said, obviously glad to get rid of us.
We got out, and he turned onto the side road and was gone. I didn’t know it then, but there’s nothing up that way for more than a hundred miles but Indian reservation—kind of a strange place for a Jewish kid to grow up.
Dawn was beginning to light the sky, and a scattered handful of cars and pickup trucks were drifting up and down the road, but none of the ones going our direction stopped. Then, just after the sun peeped over the desert landscape, a pickup truck, it’s bed filled with roped-down mattresses, pulled up beside us.
“Hop in, boys,” said the fortyish, friendly faced man behind the wheel, and we did.
“Where you boys headed?”
“Back to Houston,” I said.
“Well, I’m just going to Safford, but I’ll take you that far.”
Our driver turned out to be a really nice and generous fellow. He got the basic outline of our journey, and said he admired us for being so adventurous. He didn’t live in Safford, but he owned a motel there, and he was taking the load of mattresses to the motel. The motel was on the leading edge of town, and about an hour later, he pulled into the parking lot. We got out, thanked him, and started to walk back up to the highway, but he stopped us.
“You boys must be hungry. Come on in. I’ll stake you to a meal.”
He took us inside, told the waitress to give us anything we wanted on the house, then left to unload the mattresses.
We ate. And ate some more. We hadn’t had a real meal since dinner at Glen’s aunt’s house four days earlier. Toward the end of the meal, the motel owner came in, sat down with us, and had some coffee.
“If you boys are still in town tonight, come on back here and I’ll give you a room for the night free of charge.”
We thanked him but said we’d probably be back in Texas, at least, by nightfall.
Maybe he knew something we didn’t.
At about eight o’clock, we left the motel, walked about a hundred yards down the highway, and stuck out our thumbs.
By eleven, every yahoo in town had driven by us at least twice, gawking, and many three or four times. Some of them shouted insults and obscenities, some threw beer cans at us, and a few swerved dangerously close. The winners were three teenage girls in a pickup. They came by us four times, and each time, they’d slow down like they were going to pick us up, then they’d peel out, laughing wildly at their clever joke and waving gaily out of the windows. Their fourth time around, they threw a Coke can at us. I guess they were too young to drink beer.
By 1 pm, we were thoroughly tired of being the main attraction on the drag, and we certainly weren’t having any luck catching a ride. Figuring it was because we were on the highway leading into town, we decided to go to the outbound side of town where we might have better luck—anybody going our way would be leaving this unfriendly place.
It took us thirty or forty minutes to walk from one side of Safford to the other. Along the way, we could see the stark, grim walls of a prison looming over the landscape. It was one of the biggest employers in town. Later we learned that David Harris was incarcerated there, probably at that very moment. Harris, who was then married to the folk singer Joan Baez, was the counterculture’s most famous antiwar protester, having gone to prison rather than fight unjustly in Vietnam. I wish I’d known at the time—it would have set just the right mood to appreciate Safford. As if the girls in the pickup and the rest of the yahoos hadn’t done that already.
The other side of Safford was a lot quieter. Here, the highway wound out of the city instead of arrowing straight in, and there were some trees. We stopped just up the road from a little burger shack that was set up near a small train yard where half a dozen boxcars sat on a siding. We were there for several hours, and although no one gave us a ride, no one came by to harass or throw beer cans at us, either.
At about five, a VW Beetle stopped. Inside were three hippieish kids about our age—a boy, who was driving, and two girls.
“You trying to get out of town?” the guy asked. There was something about the way he said it that relayed hidden information. Maybe it wasn’t a question.
“Yeah,” we replied in a tone that indicated understanding.
“We live here, so we can’t take you far,” the boy said. “But there’s a rest stop about twenty miles out. Maybe you’ll have better luck out there.”
“Anything’s better than this,” we said, squeezing into the back.
The driver, like us, was a college freshman, and he’d come home for spring break. He was friends with the two girls, who were sisters, one a high school senior and the other a junior. The girls’ parents had come to Safford a couple of years earlier to teach Spanish in the high school, but their jobs had been terminated because they were too liberal. The family was moving at the end of the school year. They all hated Safford, and Glen and I readily sympathized.
They dropped us off at the rest stop, wished us good luck, and headed back to town.
We'd thought anything would be better than Safford, but we weren’t so sure now that we were here. The rest stop consisted of a wide place on the shoulder and a rusted, gut-shot, fifty-five-gallon drum containing about fifty-six gallons of rotting garbage. All around us stretched flat desert, with distant mountains humping the horizons. If it had been midday, it would have been a frying pan. Now, though, with the sun going down and a cold wind sweeping across the plains, it was turning into an icebox.
And in the couple of hours we stood there, the cars and pickups that passed were all obviously locals. Maybe they were checking up on us. It didn’t look like anybody going any distance was leaving Safford tonight.
Glen and I discussed our options. We could stand here and freeze our asses off waiting all night for a ride, or we could, somehow, get back to Safford to the burger stand. We could eat a burger and then spend the night in a boxcar. We even toyed with the idea of trying to hop a freight going east. The latter was Glen’s idea, but the colder it got, the more I took him seriously. By seven, we’d moved to the other side of the highway, heading back into Safford.
Astrophysicists have, during the last few decades, discovered that black holes—places that suck up everything, including light, space, and time—may be scattered throughout the universe. It’s absolutely true, and there is such a place right here on Earth, and it’s called Safford, Arizona. We’d struggled like hell to get out of this singular burg with its maximum security prison holding those who couldn’t escape the system, and literally hundreds of cars and trucks had passed us as we tried to free ourselves from its warping gravitation. Yet we were there on the other side of the road for less than five minutes when the first vehicle that came by stopped. Safford was easy to fall into, but getting out of it would require a major alteration of the laws of physics.
We ran up to the vehicle and got on.
I say on, not in. It was a dune buggy with only two bucket seats, and those were occupied: one by the man who was driving and the other by his woman passenger. They were coming back to town after a day of fun in the sun, tearing up desert dunes. Glen and I perched on the back of the frame, whipped by the freezing wind, clinging to the cold metal with one hand and our gym bags with the other, trying to keep our flapping clothes from getting caught in the engine's whirring pulley or fan blade, and watching the road whiz about two feet beneath us at sixty or seventy miles per hour.
The dune buggy people let us off at the burger shack, which was, to our consternation, now closed. So much for dinner. And the boxcars were all locked up. Without enthusiasm, we resumed our position beside the road at the very spot where the freaks in the VW had picked us up three hours earlier.
About twenty minutes later, the same VW with the same three occupants pulled up beside us.
“What happened?” the driver asked.
We told them we’d been cold, hungry, and thirsty and had come back to eat, but the burger shack was closed.
“Get in,” said the older girl. “We’ll take you home with us.”
“Won’t your parents get mad?” I asked.
“Naw. We told them about you, and they were concerned. They sent us out to check on you. It’ll be all right.”
And it was. Their parents hated Safford, too. They welcomed us, fixed us dinner, dragged out sleeping bags so we could spend the night, and generally made us feel right at home. After we ate, the boy, the two girls, Glen, and I squeezed back into the VW, and we drove out into the country. The boy stopped near an irrigated field of short, green grass that must have covered two thousand acres. I guess it was part of a grass farm. We walked out into the middle, lay on the downy turf, and watched the incredibly spangled sky. Everyone knows how clear and beautiful the desert night sky is. Everyone, that is, except the population of Safford. Too bad they never look up to consider the wonder of existence. But they were too busy harassing innocent people who were different and running their federal penitentiary where they locked up those same different people. The only time they stopped to wonder was when they wondered what those stinking damn hippies were doing out there on their damn road.
But the night sky was gorgeously mysterious and our newfound friends companionable, and the grim realities of Safford seemed light years away.
The next morning, the girls’ mom fixed us a hearty breakfast, shoved big sack lunches into our hands, and sent us off with her daughters and the boy, back out to the rest stop.
“We’ll check on you,” she promised. “If you’re still there tonight, we’ll bring you back here.”
Our friends let us off and chugged back to town. I don’t remember the names of the boy or the younger girl, but the older girl’s name was Molly. She and I wrote to each other a few times during the next year or so, but we eventually lost touch.
Glen and I were set for another long wait at the rest stop, but only half an hour went by before a car stopped to give us a ride. I hopped into the front seat, Glen into the back, and Safford soon disappeared into the past. Our friends may not have altered the laws of physics, but at least they’d broken Safford’s black-hole spell and helped set us free.
The guy driving was about thirty-five. He said he worked at a small airport, and he gestured vaguely to the desert north of the highway. We hadn’t been in the car ten minutes before his right hand crabbed across the seat and started trying to grope my thigh. I wasn’t interested and shove it off. It came back, and I shoved it off and put my gym bag in my lap. He stopped the car.
“This is where I turn,” he said, though there wasn’t an intersection in sight.
I didn’t care, and we got out, though Glen was puzzled by it all until I told him. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for our next ride, and it was a good one—a young married couple going all the way to El Paso. They were nice enough to take us completely through the city before dropping us off on I-10.
Back on I-10, back in Texas, with a straight shot home.
Yep, we’d had those thoughts before.
A couple of hours later, just after dusk, a big, new American station wagon with two guys inside stopped to give us a ride. The man behind the wheel couldn’t have been more incongruous for the archetypal family machine he drove. He was a big guy—large and beefy without being fat—in his late twenties. His coarse black hair was edging over his ears, but it was raggedy, as if it was growing out from a crew cut. His coarse beard hadn’t seen a razor in four or five days. He wore military fatigues, but the shirt’s sleeves had been cut off, and it was unbuttoned. Around his neck on a thick gold chain hung a heavy and incredibly ostentatious ersatz gold peace symbol about five inches in diameter. It lay on his hairy chest like some kind of talisman. Military and arcane tattoos colored his shoulders and forearms, and scuffed black military boots completed a spectacle that was altogether imposing and a bit intimidating. But he smiled when we got in, and said loudly, “How’s it going? How far you wanna ride? I'm goin' all the way.”
The passenger was another freak hitchhiker like Glen and me. The driver had picked him up just west of El Paso, and he was headed for somewhere on the East Coast.
The driver had been in the U.S. Marines until about a week earlier, when he’d mustered out. He said he’d done three tours in Vietnam, and though there was nothing to prove this true, we didn’t doubt him. He was wild and a bit crazy, like a beast kept caged too long and bursting with energy to be free. Or a beast totally unused to cages who now saw one at the end of the trail.
The car wasn’t his—it belonged to some upper-middle-class family that had moved from LA to Atlanta, and he’d contracted to drive it to Atlanta for them. He’d left LA only that morning, which meant he was really pushing it to have made El Paso by dusk. And the car wasn’t the only thing that was speeding. He had a bottle of amphetamines to keep him alert, energetic, and driven.
And talkative. He drove and rapped about how cruddy the military was and how terrible and craven officers were, and how being in Vietnam had been good and bad and scary and satisfying, all at the same time. He talked about the weirdness of being immersed in such a totally different culture and how the Vietnamese people were as sophisticated as they were barbaric, as sly as they were courageous. And he told us, but didn’t dwell on, some of the terrible things he’d seen and done. He spoke with great rapidity, in great detail, and with total conviction, and the three of us sat and listened and tried to remain as calm as possible.
Remaining calm in a car pushing better than 120 at night isn’t easy, particularly when the driver has been through hell and has accumulated a certain contempt for human life, especially his own, and was steadily popping speed. The fact that large sections of I-10 were under construction and he had to veer off onto treacherous dirt-road detours didn’t phase him a bit. Or slow him down. At one of these detours, the pavement dipped abruptly to the dirt road, and for a moment, the heavy station wagon was airborne before it crunched back onto the road, lurching and swaying dangerously.
“Guess I’d better take it easy,” the driver commented with a mordant chuckle. He let off the gas, but we were going so fast that the station wagon decelerated for several seconds before the speedometer needle separated itself from the peg at 120 and descended to 110. He deemed that speed sufficiently reduced to make it safely through the rest of the detour.
Not too far west of San Antonio, the driver caught sight of a sign that pointed the way to a nearby town, and he whipped the station wagon, squealing, onto the exit ramp. The town was Johnson City. He said he just had to see the town of the great president who’d made him go to war.
Personally, I wasn’t anxious to leave I-10. Too many potentially ugly things had happened during the last week, and most of them had occurred off the interstate. Nor was I interested in meeting face-to-face the sort of redneck cowboys who had chased us across northwest Texas. But I didn’t suggest to Glen that we ask the driver to let us out. I suppose by this time I was ready to accept whatever fate had in store. Maybe we’d met a certain amount of danger on this trip, but the fact was it had passed us by, leaving us unscarred although more aware. Also, the driver promised to take us all the way home—if we survived the ride.
And truthfully, I was fascinated by the driver. He was an extremely dangerous individual—tough, experienced in life-and-death situations, and seething with obvious if suppressed violence. Clearly he had killed people—maybe a lot of people. Yet none of his violence and aggression were ever, even for an instant, directed toward his three passengers. I think we, as hippies, represented to him the real thing he’d been fighting for—not mom and apple pie and the military-industrial complex but people who saw a better world in which individual freedom and lack of violence were the norm. He desperately wanted to identify with that world—that’s why he wore the peace symbol and had torn the sleeves off his fatigues—though he knew he’d seen too much of the wrong kind of life to ever be a hippie or even espouse the hippie philosophy. He was kind of like Billy Jack, seeing the idealistic truth in peaceful coexistence but too aware that violence is the real way of the world and too prone to violence himself to turn the other cheek.
In Johnson City, he stopped for gas at a redneck truck stop. I think he intentionally picked the worst one he could find. Glen and I weren’t too happy since the midnight chase across West Texas was sharp in our memories. Not that anyone would be able to catch up with this driver if he didn’t want them to—no sane person would drive like he did. But the problem was that he probably would let them catch up with them just to get into a ruckus. And now the rednecks who might cause us problems weren’t across the road or in pursuing vehicles—they were right there in the truck stop, and we were about to enter the lion’s den. Even the other freak was hesitant.
Maybe our driver sensed our reluctance. As he got out, he said jovially, “Come on in, guys. I’m buying.”
What else could we do? We were all hungry, thirsty, and needed the rest room, so we followed the driver inside.
The tension inside was thick enough that movement was almost like swimming. Then one of the rednecks sitting on a stool at the counter turned and made a loud and somewhat threatening comment about it being time “to kick some dirty hippie ass.”
With an almost instantaneous and predatory movement, our driver stepped uncomfortably close to the redneck—so close that the man couldn’t turn on his stool without bumping into him.
“You want to kick some ass?” the driver asked in a voice gone flat and totally devoid of emotion, staring straight into the redneck's eyes. There was no anger, no fear, no tension—only the question.
But it wasn’t his voice that I really noticed. Like I said, he was a big guy and pretty imposing looking, but where he’d shown us only joviality and camaraderie, he now literally radiated menace. I’d never felt such a thing before and only rarely since, but I knew in that instance and without a shadow of a doubt that our friendly driver really had killed men who were trying to kill him. He’d looked them in the eyes and taken their lives, and he didn’t care if he did it again. He’d been trained well and steeped in the mysteries of dealing death, and all he needed to ply his trade was the flimsiest excuse from some idiot in Johnson City. I knew that if the guy on the stool and the other rednecks in the place tried to brace him, he’d walk away, but they wouldn’t.
Apparently, they realized it, too, for the one who’d spoken shut up and sullenly turned back to his beer, and the others there followed suit. The tension in the room didn’t lighten, but suddenly it felt like we were in a protective bubble that nothing could penetrate. The thing was, our driver was the nightmare of their war against the Commies come home and shoved in their faces. He was the soldier they could never be and would always fear. They didn't like him or the situation one damn bit, but there was nothing they could do because, unlike his passengers, he wasn't a very young and inexperienced guy. He was a maiming and killing kind of guy.
We used the restroom, got our supplies, and the driver unhurriedly paid for them and the gas. As soon as we were back in the car, the driver’s demeanor shifted back to his jovial mode just as quickly as it had flared into the dangerous. He laughed as he pulled off, asking, “Did you see that stupid asshole’s face?”
We laughed, too, because we had, though I think we were all a bit more wary of our driver now that we’d seen his scarier side. But that side never surfaced again, and when, at daybreak, we arrived in Houston, he took us straight to the dorms. We told him that he and the other freak were welcome to spend the night and get some sleep, but he just pulled out his bottle of speed, popped a couple of more pills, and said, naw, he was anxious to get to Atlanta. Then the station wagon squealed out of the parking lot and disappeared up the street.
Glen and I turned, and there before us, lit by the late morning light, was our dorm. It looked no different than it had when we left nine days earlier, but somehow it didn’t seem entirely real. Something had changed. We picked up our bags, went inside, and trudged up to our room.