I always considered hitchhiking the next best thing to riding the rails, only a bit more reliable. The first time I hitchhiked was when I was a big teenage kid. I still remember sporting the uniform of the day for tuff guys – my black engineer boots with blue dungarees, and a blue bomber jacket that must have had a hundred zippers. With my slicked-back hair, a blue bomber jacket, and engineer boots’ I thought I was a cool customer. The year was 1959, and it was a relatively safe period, in a relatively safe community. I was traveling on Route 95, going from New Rochelle to Heathcote in Westchester County, New York. I had heard about hitchhiking from the big kids, and thought it was the coolest, most adventurous thing a kid could do. I had also heard that when my old man was my age, he had run away from home, and hitchhiked down to Florida from New York. Perhaps he wasn’t the greatest role model in the world, but in my world, he was cool, and cool was king.
I wasted no time after the last line was made fast on the Seamaster; I thanked the captain, and told Lenny adios, put my sea bag on my shoulder and walked to the closest highway. Once in Seattle from Petersburg Alaska, it took six rides for me to get from Seattle to the San Francisco Bay area, and of the six, I only remember two, due to their uniqueness. The first unique ride was from an older gentleman dressed in farmer’s gear, in a pickup truck, on a late afternoon in Oregon. He stopped, said, “Where you going son?” I got in, and after fifteen minutes heading south through endless flat farmland, he looked in my direction. "It’s getting late, how would you like to spend the night at my house with the family?" Doing a quick two-second scan of my situation and options, I replied, “Yes, sure, that would be great, I would appreciate it." On both sides of the interstate highway were mile after mile of hay, uncut, cut, raked, baled, and stacked. We drove another five miles, took an exit, and we were on a rural secondary road deep in farm country. All I really knew about the driver was that his name was Tobias, he was a family man, and had a working farm. "Well, here we are, Ted, it ain’t much, but it’s home,” as he pulled his pickup truck into a dirt driveway that went up to a large house with a barn in the background, and several smaller outbuildings and sheds. Tobias introduced me to his wife and two younger daughters, and dinner was a plain home-cooked wholesome meal. After the evening meal, for a brief time the subject turned to politics, and then the remainder of the evening was spent discussing religion. Talking about religion never bothered me, but these people seemed to be completely focused on their own point of view, and didn’t allow room for controversy or another’s opinion. We were now in the family sitting room, having coffee and fresh apple pie, and I was getting an instruction on the works and deeds of the Lord and the power of prayer. In addition to their proselytizing, brother Tobias and his wife were also going out of their way to make sure I chatted with their daughters, and I had the distinct impression that there was an intended set-up in their hospitality agenda. Somewhere between the black coffee, the apple pie à la mode, and the religious brochures, I wanted to say, "You know, you people are so nice and gracious, but I really think I must be going; I have to be on my way.” … but I didn’t. How could I? I was in the middle of nowhere, with no other place to stay, and the sun had set. So I sat there and listened to their bible-touting preaching, moralizing, and sermonizing until my eyes glazed over, and I fell asleep. A tap on my shoulder alerted me to the fact I was in a strange house with some very strange people, and Brother Tobias led me to a back room of the house, where I got a night’s sleep. When I awoke to breakfast, and another day of preachment about the goodness of the Lord and his righteous teachings, I decided I had had enough! I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, but Brother Tobias and his brood had a heart-wrenching story that they wanted me to hear...and so it went: The previous year, their little son of four, Ezekiel, had died. I was shocked and saddened that these nice, poor people, albeit simple in the head with religion, should have gone through the terrible loss of such a young child. Brother Tobias continued the story – Ezekiel had been admitted to the local hospital with severe headaches, and the doctors advised Tobias and his wife Mary that an operation would be the only thing that would save their son’s life. They told the doctors and hospital staff that they could take care of Ezekiel and they brought him home. Tobias and Mary didn’t get into details, but the gist of the story was that an exploratory operation had to be done immediately. They told me they were horrified that a doctor would suggest a thing so violent as an operation be done to their only son, and that the Lord would protect little Ezekiel, and they had nothing to fear. And if, God forbid, he should get worse and die, then it was God’s will. They would not give consent, and forbade the doctors to operate.” Two days later the little boy was found dead in his bedroom. Now mind you, all the time I was being told this story, they were giving me brochures, quoting articles, giving me instructions, and maps of how to get to their local congregation. “You mean you actually let your son die, when there was modern medicine, and a doctor not more than five miles away?” They answered reverently, “Yes, it was God’s will.” And, in a polite way, I retorted, "You people should be arrested and brought up on criminal charges, and made to pay for your self-righteous religious stupidity.” Well, I might not have put it exactly like that, but I let it be known that I didn’t agree, and I would be taking the next stagecoach out of there. With the family preaching non-stop, and Cupid in the wings, in the form of Brother Tobias’s two ugly daughters, I felt trapped, and couldn’t wait to get on the road again with sea bag in hand, and thumb in the air. Naming yourself and family members after seventh-century Hebrew prophets is weird, but to let your own children die because of religious faith was beyond me, and I had to go. I thanked them for their hospitality and insanity, and was back on highway five hitchhiking south to the Bay area. As I stood in the morning Oregon sun anticipating my ride, I couldn’t get over the spiritual connection I was having. I knew right then and there that there was a God, and he let me escape from those idiots without harm. I got a couple of short uneventful rides, which was fine with me, as my head was still reeling from the crazy whacked-out bunch of religious dingbats I had just dealt with. It was somewhere in Northern California that I got my second memorable ride. I had been standing for twenty minutes on an open stretch of highway, and I was hoping for a ride that would at least put me near a motel if I couldn’t make it all the way into the Bay area. Trying to looking as calm and non-threatening as possible, I waited with my thumb out. The traffic was sparse, but steady, and then, in the distance, at a high rate of speed, I saw an approaching car through the hot emission vapor that hovered above the roadway in the late-afternoon heat. At first, it was a white blur, and then it turned into an expensive shiny white luxury car. The car braked, slowed down, passed me by twenty-five feet, screeched to a stop, burned rubber in reverse, and backed up to where I stood. The driver yelled through the open passenger window, “Hey, kid, you want a ride, or what the f---?”
It was a sparkling white Cadillac Eldorado alright, and little did I know, the guy behind the wheel was drunk as a hoot owl. The smell of burnt rubber was in the air, along with a hint of alcohol, as I ran up to the car door with sea bag in hand. "You bet I do!" I opened the door, got a whiff of stale booze and, without knowing his level of sobriety, took a gamble and jumped in. As I got in the front passenger seat, I was hit by the second wave of alcohol. Without a “where you going?” “How you doing?” or “what’s your name”? He belched out, “Alrighty then, let’s get a move on”, and slammed his foot to the floor, as though he was trying to crush the accelerator. Before I knew it, I was hurtling down highway five with this wing nut doing ninety miles an hour. Any thoughts of trying to reason with him went out the window along with his empty beer can. At that point, I figured I was in for a wild ride, and would have to hang on as best I could. Instinctively, the first thing I did was reach around for something to anchor my ass to the seat. And before he could say, “Where you going, kid?” I had my seatbelt fastened, and my eye on the oncoming traffic. The driver was at that stage of drinking where he was lonely, and wanted someone to talk to; and tag, I was it. He went through his life story, and by the time we got to Sacramento we were up to his high school days. That led us to an arranged marriage, a screwed-up military career, a college dropout, a job selling shoes, and finally a glamorous job selling new Cadillac’s. I was now getting the picture. I was driving south with the world’s biggest loser, and he was giving me advice. He told me he had a few days off, figured he would drive to Lake Tahoe, or Reno; unwind, and get a taste of the high life. “Why Reno or Tahoe? Oh, man, if I had a car like this, and two days off, I would be going to Las Vegas! That’s where all the action is. Reno is nothing but a bunch of hillbillies that have come out of the woods trying to act like big city folks." He looked over at me with an unsteady grin. "I never looked at it that way. Maybe you have something there, partner." Then, reaching under his seat, he pulled out a paper bag, took a swig, and gestured to me. “Here you go. What’d you say your name was? And where you been? Here, take a swing of old Jack.” As much as I wanted to have a slug, the jug and he looked like trouble, so I told him a little story. At first I was going to relate my fishing saga to him, but went in another direction instead. "Look, I have to level with you, I would love to take a sip of that joy juice you have there, but I am on a series of medications for my exposure to nuclear material, and if I drink any alcohol I’ll become violently ill, and go into convulsions.” He turned his head, and gave me a look, and then he took a short swig, looked at me very seriously, and laughed, “Get the heck outta here!” "No kidding, it’s not the sort of thing I would joke about. Strontium 90, you ever hear of the stuff?" "Can’t say that I have, where did you get it? "At the Lawrence Livermore lab, and it’s lethal!” “What in the hell were you doing there in the first place?” “Ah well, I was going out with this girl, and her dad was a nuclear physicist there, and we thought it would be cool to do the wild thing in the reactor room while her old man was in a conference.” He took another swig from the paper bag and belched, before saying “You’re messing with me, aren’t you?” “Heck no, it’s for real!” “Well heck, is it contagious?” “Heck, I don’t know, but someone told me it’s got a half-life of 28 years, and not many people have been exposed to it.” That sounds pretty wild, where the hell is that bottle anyway?" I’m not sure if he really understood my bulls***, or he just didn’t care, but it seemed to work, and he stopped bugging me about drinking. He untwisted the top of his jug and took another gulp. “You know, I never really did consider Las Vegas". “Well, my friend, you should, cause your turnoff to Tahoe and Reno is miles back, and you’re on your way to Vegas. Have you ever been to Vegas?” "No." "Are you serious?” “Yeah, I would know if I’d been there.” Oh man, you’d have a great time, it’s the experience of a lifetime! Women everywhere, cheap food, and free booze if you’re gambling, and it’s wicked!” "You know, you’re right! That’s what I need, screw Lake Tahoe and that biggest little city bulls*** in Reno. We’re going to Las Vegas!” I did not want to go to Vegas, but I also knew that reasoning with a drunk behind the wheel of a high-powered luxury car wasn’t a risk I wanted to take, so I would wait for the right opportunity, and bail. The opportunity came, and I said, “Well, it’s not too late right now, since you’re only in Sacramento.” He let out a confederate war-hoop, “Yahooooo! You’re all right, kid. That’s it, we’re going to Vegas!” He swerved to the right, and in an instant, we were on another freeway. I could see that he was getting low on gas, and he kept babbling about his ex-wife, and how the world had done him wrong. And I kept thinking, "Where are the cops, why hasn’t the California Highway Patrol nailed this guy yet? And then he started in, “Yeah, I’m having the best month ever, I got fourteen Cads over the curb this month, and we still got some month left. See this car here? Well, I got it as a spiff to drive for a week, for selling the most cars yesterday. “That sounds great!” “Yeah, not bad, a hat trick.” “A hat trick, what’s that?” “You don’t know what a hat trick is? Oh man, come on, get with it, maybe you need a little pick-me-up or something. You want a beer, maybe a slugga whiskey or vodka?” “No, I’m good.” “A hat trick, you know…magic, a magic trick. I pulled three deals out of the hat." Then he screeched, "Sh**t, f**k, p**s, and corruption! That’s a freak’n cop behind us, isn’t it?" I turned around, almost snapped my neck, and sure as God made little green apples, it was a copper. "Heck, there’s a CHP on our tail with its lights flashing." For a second I thought, “I hope this clown doesn’t think he can outrun a sober cop in a high-performance patrol car; a cop who has other friends with fast cars, and helicopters, and shotguns.” I was also beginning to understand the downside of hitchhiking; my mind flashed forward, and there in front of me was a judge saying. “And you mean to tell this court, Mr. Soderberg, that you were hitchhiking, and you knowingly got into a brand new Cadillac with a man who was drunk, and led the CHP on a cross- country chase, endangering the lives of thousands of people – and you’re trying to tell this court that you are innocent?" Then in my momentary daydream, I heard the driver slur, “What do you think, you want to outrun the man? This car can do one hundred twenty, no problem.” “Outrun the man? I got to tell you, I really don’t think that’s a good idea in this area.” “Why’s that – what’s so special about here?” “Well, for one thing, we’re too close to Sacramento, and you know, there are way too many cops in Sacramento for you to be getting involved in a high-speed chase, or any type of getaway for that matter.…” “Well, you got any ideas? Cause I’m running out of road room.” “I got to tell you, I think the party is over. Maybe we should pull over?" He slammed his fist on the dash with his beer can and half the contents flew up on the inside of the windshield. Then, looking whipped and gassed, with a burp and a yelp: "Yeah, I guess you’re right… But you know what; maybe they just want to pass?” "Pass? I really doubt they want to pass when you’re already doing eighty-five. How about slowing down a little?" “That’s a good idea.” And without further argument, he pulled over to the right, and slowed to a mere seventy-five. The sirens were wailing, as he braked hard, and we came to an abrupt stop. The force of the deceleration let loose two beer bottles, along with a large empty bottle of Mountain red wine, and assorted empty beer cans and junk rolled forward from under the seat and came to a rest at our feet. He looked down at the mess. "S***! You want to kick that crap back under the seat; we don’t want to get pinched for empty booze containers, do we?" “We, what do you mean, we?!” I turned toward the rear of the car. I could see California’s finest were just getting out of their car, and I looked at my driving companion. He was slumped over the wheel either passed out dead drunk, or dead. I yelled at him repeatedly to wake up; he made a few groans and that was it. We were then in San Rafael, and I was ten minutes from being home. Interestingly enough, we came to rest on the soft shoulder of the southbound lane opposite the San Rafael Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and to make the end of my road trip even more interesting, I heard one of the officers say, “Well it looks like this guy might not be sharing the same cell as Angela Davis, but he’ll at least be in the same building. As it turned out, he was indeed passed out drunk, ejected from the car, chucked into the back of the cruiser, and his new white shiny Cadillac was towed away and impounded. Fortunately for me, the California Highway Patrol could see the truth in my story, and once again, I was looking for a freeway on-ramp to continue my journey. I couldn’t wait to get home.