Transconning the USA in 1968
It was late June 1968, this guy was passing out loaves of bread. I grabbed one and began munching as I walked along the street in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. A short job had yielded me a little bit of money and I was weighing things up. The hippie movement had lost the plot and was disintegrating into chaos. A thought entered my mind about the point of it all - there was none. Kesey had rightly buried the movement some months after the 1967 Monterrey fiasco.
Halfway through the loaf I stood alone on a side street wondering what to do. A Molotav Cocktail suddenly exploded about 60 yards away. The heat of the blast hit me and my mind was made up. First buried - now cremated, I'm gone. Returning to my little apartment, I threw one change of clothes into a small backpack, tossed the keys on the bed, left the door open and walked out. It was time to hit the road.
Some hundreds of miles south, Route 66 was beckoning. Here I was in San Francisco, on the run up to the Golden Gate Bridge, with my thumb out and a few dollars in my pocket. A visit to some relatives in Whittier (Orange County) to bid farewell, plus another to a barber for a shave and hair cut, then started across the LA area. I had gotten out of the Air Force in May, now (7 weeks later), was setting out on a transcontinental journey and, quite honestly, didn't have much of a clue.
By the next day I stood in the heat of the desert. It had been a cool night with a lot of dew, spent below an overpass. I had been moving for 2 days without any sleep. As the sun rose I walked out into the desert sand and stood amazed. For the next hour or so all kinds of little flowers began emerging, the dew had put enough moisture into the ground and a blaze of color began happening. It was an incredible sight. By 9am the flowers were nearly all gone, the temperature soaring into the 100's.
Walking back to the freeway entrance I got a ride from a water truck. Back then that was how small holdings and others got their water (the Mojave is not a kind desert). The driver dropped me off after the exit and I wandered around to the entrance, just as this old beat up Rambler came by, looking like a disaster on wheels.
"Where ya goin' ?" A grizzled old guy with a mariners hat, sat in the drivers seat. There was no passenger seat or air conditioning. I said I was heading to New York via Route 66. He wasn't going that way, but to Las Vegas to visit a friend, how about me driving, he'd pay me a 100 bucks - yeah okay. I could link up to 66 in Arizona.
He said his name was Salty Brown and that he was in the Merchant Marine. This character was something else. He killed a bottle of wine, slept and I drove. We arrived in Vegas and Salty pointed me to where he wanted to stop. The Rambler was a total mess, Salty was even worse - yet the parking attendant almost bowed to him as we left the car, ignoring everyone else. I was a bit puzzled by this.
There was this Casino and hotel, his friend lived up top in the penthouse. He rang him, but the friend said he wasn't up to meeting new people right then and offered his apologies. Salty stuffed the hundred bucks in my pocket, shook my hand vigorously, slapped me on the back and wished me well. I learned later, in England, who he really was when my Dad opened Who's Who and showed me. Salty was a very eccentric billionaire who loved the sea. Rough, ready, tough as nails, drank like a fish and wasn't afraid to mix it up if needed. I actually liked the guy, we got along quite well in the short time of that journey.
A meal and freshen up, then back on the road. A semi-truck stopped and I got out in Kingman, Arizona. By now I was very tired. Standing next to a traffic lite and the box that controlled it. A rythmic clicking was heard inside the box and I nearly fell asleep on my feet. This cop pulls up and says I can't sleep on traffic light boxes or hitch-hike in Kingman. I muttered something along the lines of, 'so what the hell can you do here then?' He wasn't particularly pleased with that and decided to arrest me for vagrancy, I showed him my money. Then he reckoned he'd arrest me on general principles. I said I didn't have any and that did it. Off I went to jail.
Once there the policeman realized he had not asked for ID. So I pulled out my Air Force Discharge papers. Total change happened. "Oh, you're a veteran, I'm really sorry. Wait here and I'll get you a ride". He did too - all the way to Kansas City, Missouri with three Navy guys on leave. Off we went, down Route 66, swapping around to drive the car, pedal to the metal - non stop. 24 hours later I was dropped off in KC at a gas station. On the way we had stopped for breakfast, in the Texas Panhandle, at this diner that had the biggest and best hotcakes on the planet.
The gas station manager, drove me to his house where his wife cooked me a meal. Then out to a truck stop and he found me a ride. What a ride that was. The rig was full of frozen chickens from Springdale, Arkansas and going to Fargo, North Dakota. For the uninitiated, North Dakota is hundreds of miles out of my way. I wanted to go to Chicago then onto Indiana to visit my Grandparents. The truck ride was long, very long. At one stage this massive thunder storm was ahead of us, I had never seen a storm of this size before. It was horizon to horizon. The driver turned left (that's going back West) to try and skirt this thing. That took nearly 7 hours. Finally we arrive in Fargo, I helped unload the truck and he gave me 10 bucks. He'd already paid for all my meals and got himself fined for driving by the Sheriff's house in a town that semi-trucks weren't supposed to go through - especially at 3 o'clock in the morning! Here I was, another 60 hours without sleep (keeping the driver awake). This was getting to be a habit.
When I was a little kid, living in Northeast Indiana, one of our neighbors and close friends there had retired and were now living in Nevis, Minnesota. I had to go through the state to get back on route, so visited them. His name was Frosty and he now ran a small bait farm. I stayed a few days with them, they were like family to me. We went fishing in the lake where I caught my first and only Snapping Turtle. Obviously not a meal, it got thrown back in the water. Refreshed, fed and happy, I set out a few days later for the Windy City. What I did not know, was that I was being pursued.
The thumb went out again and another long distance ride happened, I fell asleep and woke up in Wisconsin. Things were all a bit of a haze. I'd never been to Wisconsin before, but the truck driver had to stop. Because it was late Friday and trucks were banned from traveling through the state on weekends. Fortunately it was at a truck stop and another ride, in a car, soon came by. There were several as I hopped across the state and the last one dropped me off in South Chicago.
I walked toward what appeared to be a freeway in the far distance, then saw this bar that had Soul Food. Went in had a beer and ate my fill, while talking with the locals there and had a few laughs. Upon leaving and probably only about 50 feet from the bar door, this car stops. The driver held out his police badge and ordered me in the car. I asked why and he pulls a gun to reinforce his command. I noticed the guys from the bar all coming out to see what the fuss was about. Then told the cop that I just had a great meal with these fellows and we were friends, plus they would not take very kindly to him pointing a gun at me. I said where I was going and that I'd would walk to the traffic light where he was to give me a ride to the freeway. He did and apologized. It appears I was the only white man in several square miles and he thought I would be in trouble from the locals - the reality was the exact opposite.
In North Indiana, I was dropped off at a roadside bar/diner/whorehouse in the middle of nowhere. Following my meal, I asked how far anyone was driving to. This guy walks out from the back, big grin on his face and tucking his shirt in. He was a salesman bound for Angola and would get me near to the farm, that was good enough for me. A few hours later I walked down the road to my Grandpa's farm as darkness descended.
Muscles and a guitarThroughout my life there has only been one place that remained, a small farm in North East, Indiana. My Dad, from the age of 12, had grown up there. Grandpa taught me to put a worm on a hook, drive a little Fordson tractor at age 4, milk a cow, look after the chickens and other farm stuff. He was always an encouragement to me and along with Grandma the only stable factor in my young life. He'd looked after us while my father was heading up some Intel Op in Korea and passed away about a decade after my trip.
For a month I stayed on the farm, working in a factory in nearby Auburn. Boxing up lids for 55 gallon oil drums. I was fed a massive farm breakfast, huge lunch and great dinner for 25 days. I also put on 25 pounds of solid muscle (it felt great to get back in shape again).
A trip to Fort Wayne saw me buy a jacket and probably the best quitar I have ever played ($26 - a Martin reject with only 1 tiny little scratch on the front). It was on my back as I stood near the Toll Road hitching a ride. I love long distance rides, they save tons of hassle and this one was going all the way to .... Baltimore . I was still being pursued.
Before I left San Francisco I had gone out to the coast and put my feet in the Pacific Ocean. Now here I was at the Atlantic. Three thousand odd miles later, wondering what would be the next deal to take place. Rather than hitch a ride, I had enough money to grab a Greyhound Bus to New York. Watching with interest, these women out scrubbing white marble steps in front of joined together houses, as we sped by. I was the only passenger on the bus.
A year and a half earlier I had tried to reach the UK to visit my parents. I was stuck at McGuire AFB, hoping to get a flight across the pond. During the time there I visited New York City. My first glimpse was this dark forboding place that looked like one of those evil cities in science fiction movies. Summer of 1968, it hadn't changed.
New York was a grimy place. The term concrete jungle must have originated there. Greyhound bus stations have never been known for their architectural excellence, far from it and Port Authority did not let the side down. What hit me in the face was the expense of the city. I needed a job and fast as well as somewhere to stay for a while. Wandering along West 42nd Street I passed the McGraw Hill building: walked in, wearing my backpack and asked for a job. Lo and behold they needed a janitor. Now a place to bunk up. Further down the street toward the docks everything got really grim. There was this incredibly dingy hotel, oh well, a roof is a roof. This place was almost pure skid row, but dirt cheap and, oddly enough, clean.
The pursuer catches upUnbeknown to me I had crossed the continent being followed. I had no idea back then what was going to happen. I was just prey and the predator finally caught me. The job in Indiana had not only got me back in shape but also toughened me up. Had I been in less better condition, I would not be here to write this today. I had been chased by the Hong Kong flu (33,800 died in the USA). People were keeling over dead in the streets of New York. When it hit me I headed for the nearest hospital.
The hallways were littered with corpses, I had to step over them. Doctors and nurses laying dead in the wards along with everyone else. Finally I found a doctor. He was the only one left alive in the building. I saw his face, burning up from the flu, as was mine. He pulled two bottles from a cabinet. One was for me, the other for him. Instructions - if I make it back to the hotel, climb in bed, unscrew the cap, drink the entire bottle and put my head on the pillow. One of two things will happen. You'll wake up in four days and live or you will not and die. We both left the building. Four days later I woke up, I don't know if the docter survived. The clerk in the hotel said half the people there had died. I went back to work, found a scale and weighed myself. I'd lost a lot of weight, but lived. Decades later in England I also survived the Shanghai Flu Epidemic (only just - I had convulsions, my temperature was 105 degrees). I reckon if I can survive the Hong Kong and Shanghai flu's, I can probably survive anything. I have no idea at all what was in that bottle.
Onward and eastwardAfter the bug, I only worked for about a month at McGraw's. The move was inspired by the crappy little hotel. One night I was woken up by a woman screaming. The next thing I knew this fat, naked whore runs into my room (I'd forgotten to lock the door), jumps into my bed screaming her head off. She was followed by this drunk, bald headed guy, swearing and swinging his fists. The hotel clerk ran up and grabbed him, called the cops and off he went. I found the whore's clothes, she got dressed and I walked her back to 7th Avenue and turned her loose. That was it, I needed a new and quieter place to bed up and found a residential men's hotel up Broadway. Also an agency job at the Ford Foundation. I was running a Mimeograph copying machine for in-house publications and proof reading. My hands were continually stained whilst working on that job. I also decided that I hate big cities.
It was now November, my room was way up top of this hotel and all of Broadway would amplify itself into a crescendo of noise from: cars, trucks, music and buses - when the window was open. Like this drunken bagpipe player walking alone, down the middle of Broadway, at 2 o'clock in the morning on Thanksgiving Day. This place is crazy. To get relief I would take the subway downtown and grab the Staten Island Ferry for a bit of peace and quiet. A round trip cost me 30 Cents total. Other times it was Greenwich Village. Folk singers, jazz and the like. East Side Park wasn't too bad either. I found the cheap places to get good food and have bit of enjoyment to keep me sane.
Once I visited Harlem. Everyone said, "You musn't go to Harlem." That was like telling a bee to avoid flowers, they had Soul Food in Harlem and I liked Soul Food. At first I had a few glares, then found me a bunch of food and stood outside eating it with my hands. This guy heads towards me, looking just a little bit fierce, switchblade in hand. I offered him some of what I was eating. He didn't know what to do with that and closed his knife. We stood there chatting and eating. I was accepted and upon leaving people waved me goodbye and said come back again. So much for other peoples instructions.
The Atlantic calledA short while later, my father rang to say he'd booked me a flight on PanAM to London. I had been on the road for 6 months. From sunny, warm, Southern California to the bitter cold, winter snow of a miserable New York City. From beautiful wide open spaces to a canyon of skyscrapers claiming to be civilization. I'd met a variety of characters, ridden in just about every kind of vehicle you can imagine, seen the biggest rainstorm of my life and caught a Snapping Turtle.
I arrived at London's Heathrow on the 21st of December, 1968.
Jun 09, 2017