Hermosa Beach

Here’s another one of my hitchin’ stories. This one took place about a year after my encounter with Harry. If you haven’t read about Harry, you can do so here. This adventure is a bit more lighthearted than Harry’s, but I still manage to screw things up.

I’d been travelin’ up and down California for about six months when I thought I’d check out the action on the beaches. You know, Huntington, Redondo, Manhattan Beach … the usual. It wasn’t long before I caught sight of the surfers. Man, to this eighteen-year-old boy, surfin’ looked really cool. I wanted to try it in the worse way, so I got myself a job washin’ dishes at a local hash house. I was sleepin’ in alleyways and under lifeguard stands because I was workin’ for a board and didn’t want to waste money on rent. And before I knew it, I was able to quit that job because I had earned enough for a second-hand surfboard.

This was in 1968, and a short board was anything under ten feet. I got me a Hobie, 9’6″. It was a beauty. I even painted the bottom in an American flag motif. I think I was protesting the Vietnam War or something. Today, I’m not sure why I did it. Maybe the surf was flat that day and I had nothing better to do.

I bought the board from a shop on Hermosa Beach, so naturally I stayed in the neighborhood. How far could one go with a surfboard and no car? It was summertime, and sleeping on the beach was no problem except when it rained. But it didn’t rain that often. I would surf all day, and then seek out dinner by going to the back door of restaurants and asking if I could work for a meal.

One of the most memorable and gratifying of my “back-door” escapades was the time I went to a class joint and gave my usual spiel. The chef lets me in, walks me over to a table in the kitchen, and says, “Don’t worry about nothin’. Just sit here and I’ll feed you.”

Just as I was putting the first succulent morsel of his fine cuisine into my mouth, this woman walks in from the dining room, sees me, and says, “What’s he doing in here? Get him out!”

It turned out she was the owner. Well, my friend the chef said, “When a man comes to my kitchen hungry, I am gonna feed him. Now get the hell outta here!” She went back into the dining room without saying another word. Ya gotta love a guy like that! Anyway, back to my story.

I had it worked out with one of the lifeguards to watch my board on the few occasions I left the beach. Surfin’ does work up one’s appetite. So I’d meander up to the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) every once in a while to see what I could promote—food-wise. On the day in question, I was attracted by loud music blaring out of a pair of speakers placed in front of a waterbed store. It was Canned Heat’s Going Up The Country.

I was standing there, just killing time until the song was over, when this dude walked up and said, “I dig this song too.” He was my age, had blond hair, and was kinda thin. His name was Pete. We got to talking and then he said, “Wanna blow a joint?” Now, did you ever hear of a kid in 1968 who didn’t want to blow a joint? At least that was the case with the people I ran with. Few as they were.

Pete took me to the house that he shared with his sister. It was only a few feet from the beach and it was painted green. That much I remember. I also remember his sister; she was a year or two younger than me, beautiful and unattached, which did me no good whatsoever. I was too shy in those days to open my mouth around girls.

The short of it is, I was invited to move in halfway through the first joint. After a few weeks of living with Pete and his sister, he and I started talking about how we could make real money. We thought that if we went down to Tijuana, copped a pound of primo Mexican Gold, brought it back to Hermosa Beach and sold it by the ounce, we’d be rich. Not to mention all the “free” pot we could have! So guess what we did? If your guess is that we hitchhiked to Tijuana to buy a pound of pot and then walk it across the U.S. border – give yourself a cigar. That’s exactly what we set out to do. But things didn’t work out quite as we had planned.

On the way down, we got picked up by these two guys who were going to Tijuana to cop “Reds” and “Greens.” Downers … not my type of high at all. I was pretty square in those days. Sure, I smoked pot, popped a little acid, shot a little acid, shot a little speed, did some mescaline (both organic and synthetic), and a few other illicit drugs that occasionally came my way (no heroin though). So, I was as pure as the driven snow where drugs were concerned.

Anyway, these guys were hip. They pulled off the road before we got to the border and showed us how they were going to smuggle the shit in once they copped it. They were going to hide the stuff under the carburetor on their car engine. We thought we had met two certified geniuses. They drove us into Mexico, and there we split up. Each pair of guys out to make their own score. The only difference being those guys knew what they were doing.

Pete and I asked around and found a guy who said he could get us a pound of marijuana, no problem. He took us to the seediest whorehouse I’d ever seen. And that’s saying something. As he was bringing us in the back door, who the hell do you think we met coming out of the place? You got it! The two geniuses. They were holding two big, fat, brown bottles of pills. There had to be at least a thousand pills per bottle. They stopped to show us their score. Then one of them said, “Hey, you guys want some Reds?”

“Sure. Why not?”

They opened one of the bottles and gave us each a handful of pills, which we quickly put in our pockets. This scene was keenly observed by our “connection.” And as you’ll see in a moment, that plays a big part in this sordid tale.

Our connection was holding the door of the whorehouse wide open, smiling and beckoning us to enter, as the spider did the fly. Right then and there I should have smelled a rat. He was practically grinning. He had one gold tooth in the front of his mouth, shining brightly in the Mexican sun. It made him look like that bandit in the Humphrey Bogart movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. That’s the one where a bunch of bandits are pretending to be the police and Bogie asks to see their badges. The head bandit says, “Badges? We don’t need no steekin’ badges!” Our guy looked just like that bandit. Except he wore no sombrero.

Once inside the whorehouse, we were escorted down a long, poorly lit corridor with rooms on both sides. Because it was the middle of the afternoon and there were no customers, every door to every room was wide open. I’m being generous when I call them rooms. They were just big enough to hold a single bed. And on each bed sat a roll of toilet paper.

This is where the fun really begins. It’s all been peaches and cream up to now. We got about halfway down the corridor when our connection stopped in his tracks and asked to see our money. You know, just to make sure we were legit. And being the complete dumb asses we were, we showed him the money.

That’s when a door off to the side flew open and three guys rushed us. Before either Pete or I knew what was happening, we found ourselves pressed up against a wall with knives at our throats. These new guys were talkin’ Spanish about a mile a minute. I couldn’t understand a damn word they said. But I kinda got the feelin’ they wanted our money.

So, we obligingly gave up the cash. We couldn’t do it fast enough.

While we were being robbed, our seedy connection kept on smiling, showing off his one gold tooth – the son-of-a-bitch! Then he said something in Spanish. The next thing we knew, the thieves were rooting around in our pockets. It’s kind of hard to hold a knife to someone’s throat and simultaneously go through their pockets. Try it some time, and you’ll see what I mean. But those guys were good at it. They probably had had a lot of practice.

My personal bandit, and by that I mean the one holding the knife to my throat, as opposed to Pete’s personal bandit who was holding a knife to his throat, pulled out my reds. He then showed his find to our supposed connection, who intoned, “Sí, sí.”

What the hell am I doing in a whorehouse in Tijuana in the middle of the afternoon, being robbed by a character out of a Humphrey Bogart movie? is what I desperately wanted to know.

Did I say that the fun started when those guys put knives to our throats? Well, if I did, I was mistaken. Now the real fun began. Pete had gone through everything I had gone through. His bandit was now holding his reds.

Before I go any further – for all you non-junkies out there – two of those reds would have put you to sleep for at least twelve hours; three, and you could kiss an entire twenty-four hours good-bye. Four . . . you’re talking about a trip to the emergency room. You get my drift? I don’t know how many Pete had shoved down his throat, but I got six! Then they threw us out onto the street. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on but, over the years, my feeble mind has kind of pieced things together.

I believe their thinking was: 1) We would OD on the streets of Tijuana and they’d be rid of us, or 2) We would be picked up by the police on a public whatever-you-call-it-when-you’re-really-stoned-on-reds charge. They had little fear we would go to the police on our own volition. What the hell were we going to say? “Excuse me, sir, but I tried to buy drugs in your country, and I was robbed.” I don’t think so, and our bandit friends knew so. Anyway, they probably had the police in their hip pockets. Mexico is one of the most corrupt countries in the world when it comes to the police. And Tijuana was—and probably still is—the most corrupt city in all of Mexico.

Well, whatever their plan was, we fooled ’em. We didn’t pass out until we were back in the good old U S of A … barely. This is no exaggeration. We were only two steps across the border and into this country with its wonderful jails, as opposed to Mexico’s shitty jails, when I keeled over, flat on my face. Don’t ask me about Pete, I was out for the count.

Can you imagine the police of today finding a comatose eighteen-year-old boy on the street and taking him to jail? I mean, really! But that is what the San Diego County Deputy Sheriffs did. I probably wasn’t actually comatose, but I have no recollection of being arrested. I was in their goddamn jail for two days before I fully regained consciousness. The only saving grace as far as I was concerned was that when I woke up, I found Pete in the same cell with me. He told me he had awakened about an hour before I did.

There we were, two would-be drug kingpins, on the second tier of the cellblock, down the row, in the last cell, against the far wall. The coppers wanted to get us for being under the influence of dangerous drugs. But to do so, they needed a urine sample. I was escorted downstairs, handed a cup, and told to go into the open cell in front of me and pee into said cup.

This next part, I swear, is the God’s honest truth. When I walked into the cell, there was a puddle of piss on the floor. I knew what it was because of its fragrant aroma. I don’t know about most of you, but when I first come out of a coma, I just can’t piss. Maybe it’s because my body was in the process of shutting down. You know, some people call it dying. Well, whatever the cause, I just could not pee that night. And believe me, I tried!

When the copper came to take my sample, I told him I just couldn’t go. At about that time, he saw the puddle on the floor and accused me of being the culprit. Who me? I’ve never peed on a floor in my life. Well, at least not recently.

Because the cops thought me a wise-ass, I was unceremoniously thrown back into our cell. By the way, we were not given a phone call, or arraigned within the time limit prescribed by the Constitution. Of course, at eighteen years of age, I was not yet the constitutional scholar that I am today, so I kept my big yap shut.

To pass the time while awaiting our day in court, Pete and I made a chess set out of torn paper bits. We were lucky; somehow, we came into possession of a pencil, which meant we could identify the pieces. You know, “P” for pawn, “Q” for queen, etc. But we didn’t have a board, so we had to imagine the squares. Three days of that shit, and I haven’t been right since.

We were finally brought before a judge. Looking down at us, I guess he saw a couple of stupid kids. After all, the charge was only a misdemeanor, so he gave us OR. Which meant your Own Recognizance, which meant no bail need be posted. They’d trust you to come back for your day in court.

Without further ado, Pete and I found ourselves out on the street once again.

Pete said to me, “So, what now?”

I said to Pete: “It was a pleasure meeting you, but I’m taking off. When you get home, tell your sister that I was secretly in love with her. Then sell my board and keep the money. I’m heading as far away from here as I can get. I’m thinkin’ of dropping by and seeing my folks back in Miami. I’ve been gone almost two years now, and even though I call on occasion, I haven’t seen them in all that time. I want to thank you for putting me up. And you take care of yourself.” We shook hands and walked off in opposite directions. That was the last time I ever saw ol’ Pete.

I wanted out of California. But I had a court date and was not supposed to leave the state. I was afraid that if I got stopped while hitchin’ on my way out, I’d be hauled back as a “flight risk.” Cops were always checking me out in those days and running my ID to see if I was wanted anywhere. I now realize it was highly unlikely that I’d have had any trouble, given the charge was only a misdemeanor. About six months later, I was back in California, hitchin’ and a cop ran my ID. It came back clean. So, I guess I wasn’t wanted anywhere, including San Diego.

Sorry, I seemed to have digressed. Back to the story:

I didn’t want my mother to know of my criminal behavior, so I called an uncle who wired me money for a bus ticket to Miami.

In a few hours, I had collected the money, bought my ticket, and was on a bus heading for home sweet home. When we pulled out of San Diego, the bus driver announced that we would arrive in Miami at approximately 7:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, which meant that the trip would take three and a half days. After two hours on the damn bus, I was ready to climb the walls, if indeed buses have walls.

I got off at the first stop after we crossed into Arizona. The hell with the ticket, the hell with a refund; just let me off this damn torture machine. I then walked a block from the bus depot and stuck out my thumb.

The first ride I got was from a nice old man in his 50s. He was going all the way to Miami. I had it made. But then he took out his 8-track tape collection of country and western music. After an hour of that, I made an excuse and got out of the car, telling him I was going to stay over in Phoenix, or some such crap. But what’s funny is that soon thereafter (a year or two), I found myself going to the free concerts George Jones and Tammy Wynette held at their farm/ranch outside of Tampa, Florida. By then, I had learned to appreciate that type of music.

Twelve hours after leaving the nice old man, I was outside a small town in the Texas panhandle. It was one o’clock in the morning and I was wearing a shit-eatin’ grin, hoping my pearly whites would show in the glare of oncoming headlights. I was tired, but because I had left California straight from jail, I didn’t have my bedroll. And I was not about to lie down in the wet grass on the side of the highway no matter how tired I was. I would just have to cadge my sleep in the cars that picked me up. That is, if the driver wasn’t looking for conversation. If that were the case, then I’d be nodding in agreement with whatever he was saying, instead of nodding off to sleep. When they picked you up for conversation, you better damn well talk or you’d soon find yourself out on the side of the road once again.

As I stood there in the chilly desert air, shivering in my light California attire, a car approached. It was a station wagon. (I know some of you younger cats are sayin’, “What the hell is a station wagon?” Ask your grandparents!) The car stopped and within it was not the solitary, lonely traveler I had expected. Instead, there were five people: two men in the front seat with a woman between them, and a man and a woman in the back seat.

The right back door flew open, which in hitchhiking parlance means, “Get your ass in here.” As I happened to have been fluent in Hitchhikese, I jumped in as the girl by the door slid over to make room for me. Without a word from any of the occupants, but with many giggles and sideway glances at Yours Truly, we were off in a cloud of dust and a squeal of tires. After a moment or two, the male passenger in the front seat turned to me and said, “Where ya headed?”

I answered as the honest person I was back in those days. “Miami.” It was at that point I was informed that I was riding in a stolen car.

A minute later, we entered the town proper and the driver swung a wicked hard right onto a side street, then proceeded down every back alleyway that the town afforded. I should have demanded to be let out the moment I learned I was riding in a stolen car. But I instinctively knew that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I practiced in my mind what I would say to the local law when we were stopped. Sir, I am only a poor hitchhiker who is trying to get home to his dying mother. These criminals picked me up back there outside of town. You can see by my ID that I don’t live in these parts. I thought, “Yeah, that oughta work.” But as it turned out, I never had the chance to use my spiel.

After being taken on a tour of what seemed like the entire town, the driver got back on the main road, but this time he was going in the opposite direction, back to where we had come from. It was time to speak up and let my desires be known.

“How about letting me off here? I’m going the other way.”

This time it was the driver who spoke up. “Sorry, kid, but you see them lights coming up fast behind us? Well, they belong to the sheriff. But don’t you worry none, I kin outrun him.”

As it turned out, the idiot who was driving—a product of inbreeding, no doubt—could not outrun the sheriff. He could only run the car off the road and into a cornfield. The car made it only a few feet into the field when it got stuck in the dirt. Three of the four doors swung open and everyone but me and the woman sitting next to me bailed. I mean, they took off running for the hills … fast!

The woman asked, “Ain’t you runnin’?”

“No,” said I. “I’ll just explain to the cop how I came to be here.”

“Ain’t gonna do you no good. This here’s the sheriff’s car, and he ain’t gonna take kindly to anyone he finds sitting in it.”

With those few words of comfort, she slid over toward the open door and abandoned the sinking ship, disappearing into the corn. It took me about one second to decide my course of action. I did my own fade into the corn.

Being a bit smarter than the average idiot, I didn’t go in too far, just a few feet. Then ran parallel to the road, in the direction the sheriff was coming from. My plan was to get behind him. I figured he’d roll onto the field close to his precious car. Then he would search the corn for the miscreants who had had the audacity to steal his beautiful 1964 Dodge Valiant station wagon. And for one of the few times in my life, I was right. He drove right up to the Valiant, got out of his cruiser, and with a quick glance at his baby to make sure she was undamaged, he took off after the car thieves.

That’s when I left the safety of the cornfield, crossed the road, and stuck out my thumb. Surprisingly enough, I got a ride within minutes. A day and a half later, I was in Miami. The time was 6:30 on Monday night. After all that, I had beaten the bus by twelve and a half hours.

He Let Go a Laugh

Those of you who have read my “official” bio know that I left home at an early age seeking adventure. And I had some luck in finding it. I’ve written about those adventures in these very pages. But now, I have a new one for you. I haven’t told it before because I get emotional when I think about it.

It was 1967, and at the tender age of seventeen, I was away from home for the first time. Home was Miami, Florida. During summer vacation between my junior and senior year in high school, I decided I wanted to see the world – or at least that part of the world bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on the North American continent.

So, I stuck out my thumb to see where it would take me. As it turned out, it took me to many magical places and a few really scary places, but ultimately my thumb took me to a land of discovery. I met people from all walks of life. I spent time on Indian reservations, in hippie communes, riding the rails with hobos, in different jails jammed in with good and bad people. I hustled food at back doors of restaurants. I spent time with one or two millionaires;  one nice lady living on the Upper East Side of New York City comes to mind.

I had planned on being gone for only the summer, but it would be many years before I saw home again. In the lonely night, out on the side of the road, I’d gaze at the countless stars in the heavens as I waited to be picked up by my new best friend – my best friend as long as the ride lasted. I’d sleep on the side of that same road when too tired to go on. I froze standing in waist-deep snow in the Rocky Mountains. I surfed along the southern coast of California. I was robbed and thrown in jail in Mexico. I was banned from entering Canada, but snuck in anyway, hiding in plain sight in a carload of young Canadian women returning home after a night of drinking in America.

I picked blueberries at the Bay of Fundy, then got drunk on Moosehead Ale in a basement with an old-fashioned player piano. I was fed by more kind people than I can remember. I was once taken to a party where I drank wine and discussed the meaning of life with Andy Warhol. I slept in a warehouse in San Francisco where the Grateful Dead rehearsed. I did peyote with an apprentice Apache holy man in Arizona. I was chased through a fog-laden swamp by a mad man with a knife at three o’clock in the morning. I was shown more kindness than I deserved. I forged friendships that will last centuries even though I’ll never see those people again. I was bold. I cowered in fear. I walked in happiness. I ran with humanity writ large on that never-ending road. I came of age while still wet behind the ears.

So many memories.

But today I’m going to tell you about a special memory.

I was headed west, trying to make California. This was in the days before the interstate highway system was up and running. I was coming down from Chicago on Route 66. Just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, I got dumped on the side of the road out in the middle of nowhere. The guy I had been riding with was headed home. Home being a ranch down some godforsaken country road.

The only thing visible was an A & W Root Beer drive-in joint. You know, the kind they had back in the ’50s, carhops and all. What it was doing out there in the middle of nowhere, I have no idea. Maybe because it was on Highway 66, which, at that time, was a main road.

I was thirsty and the thought of a big frosted glass of root beer was something I could wrap my head around. But I had no money. In fact, I hadn’t eaten in about twelve hours, so I was also feeling a mite peckish.

Traffic was light, so I figured I’d take a break from hitchin’ and see what I could scrounge up over at the root beer place. Maybe someone would take pity on me and buy me a meal. If not, maybe I could wash a few dishes in exchange for a hamburger. Thus fortified, I’d get back on the road.

Well, no one offered to buy me a hamburger, and when I knocked on the back door and asked if I could do some work for a meal, I was told to hit the road, Jack. I took no offense and didn’t sweat it. I knew there would be a meal down the road, somewhere. There always was.

Seeing as how I was already behind the restaurant, I decided to kill a little time until the burning sun settled a bit in the west and things cooled down before I went back to hitchin’. I sat down in the shade of the building on an overturned plastic milk crate, blue in color it was. I was contemplating the enticing smell of cooked meat coming from the kitchen when someone said, “You hungry, kid?”

I looked over by the dumpster and saw an old man. He was bone thin. His dirty, raggedy clothes hung on him like they were two sizes too big. They weren’t, he was just so thin. On a second pass, I saw he wasn’t as old as I first thought. I later learned he was only forty-seven. But he did look a lot older. He was pulling something out of the dumpster.

“Well, kid, I asked you, are you hungry? You sure look like you’re hungry.”

I thought I’d hit it lucky. Here was a guy who was gonna buy me a hamburger. Thank you, Jesus! He kicked over a milk crate, sat down next to me, and rummaged around in the white paper bag he had taken from the dumpster. “There’s good pickins hereabouts and I don’t mind sharing with the less fortunate of God’s children.” He brought out a half-eaten hamburger and held it in my direction.

I was hungry, but not that hungry. “Um, no thank you, sir. I just ate,” I lied.

He shrugged and took a bite of the thing. With a full mouth, he asked, “What’s your name, kid?”

“They call me Billy.”

So there we sat, saying nothing. Out there in the Arizona desert, behind a hamburger joint. An old man and a kid. When he had finished his half a hamburger, I asked him his name.

“Harry,” was all he said. There were still some fries in the bag he was working on and they had all of his attention. When the last fry was only a memory, he wiped his hands on the bag and crumpled it up. He tried for a three pointer from where he sat, but the bag missed the dumpster by a mile. He laughed and got up and put the bag where it belonged before sitting back down.

So, there we sat, again saying nothing. I was starting to feel uncomfortable and was about to get up and leave when the back door flew open. The woman who had slammed the door in my face earlier screamed, “You bums get outta here before I call the police on you!”

The guy said, “That’s our cue. Let’s hit the pavement, kid.”

I wished he’d stop calling me kid.

As we walked back down to the highway, he asked where I was headed.

“I’m going to California. Where are you headed?”

“The same. You hitchin’?” he asked.

“It’s the only way I know how to get there,” I answered.

He smiled a sad smile before he said, “Those days are over for me. Ain’t nobody gonna pick me up, lookin’ the way I do. When I first hit the road – probably before you were even born – I did a lot of hitchin’. It was easy back then. The war had just ended and everybody loved everybody. The whole dang country was one big happy family.”

When we got to the side of the highway, I hesitated. I didn’t want to stick out my thumb with him standing there. He was right. No one was going to stop for an old dirty bum like him. A young clean-cut kid like me, yes … but him, no. But then I noticed something special about him. I had finally looked him in the eyes and saw the clearest, bluest eyes I think I ever did see. They were kind eyes, knowing eyes. There was a twinkle in them that bespoke mischief, that bespoke a depth of knowledge, that spoke of things I could only hope to know.

I can’t explain it, but all of a sudden, I wanted to travel a few miles with this man. This man I had just met. His clothes were old and grimy, but he was clean. He didn’t smell bad. He was probably cleaner than I was. We could hitch together. It would take longer for two people to get a ride, but a ride would eventually come. They always did.

“You wanna hitch together for a while?” I asked.

He looked surprised. “Mighty nice of you to ask, but I got my own way of getting around. You ever hop a freight?”

I hadn’t, but I’d always wanted to. I had romanticized jumping on a freight train and letting it take me to wherever it was headed. “No, sir, I haven’t. Don’t really know how I’d go about it. A few weeks back, up in Peoria, I came across an idle train and climbed into an open boxcar. It was funny … I sat there for two hours and that damn train never moved an inch. I finally gave up and went back to the road and stuck out my thumb.”

He pointed across the street. We were standing on sort of a rise. That’s where the road was, but down in a little valley, about two miles away, there stood one of the longest freight trains I ever saw just hanging out there in the middle of the desert. “You see that?” he said. “That’s what I’m taking out to the land of sunshine and oranges. And it’s gonna be leaving soon, so I best be on my way. It was nice meeting you, kid.”

I let him take a few steps, then said, “Mind if I tag along?”

He stopped in his tracks and turned to me. With a smile that almost knocked me down, he said, “I’d consider it an honor, Bill.”

At least he didn’t call me kid.

That’s how I came to know Harry. Now I’m gonna tell you how he changed my life forever. How he showed me the Way, the Tao. Because of Harry, I don’t think I’ve had more than a few moments – total – of anxiety or sadness in the last half century. I’m not counting the times I’ve been in love, because being in love will always throw you a curve. But my life in general has been one of contentment, peace, and happiness. It didn’t matter if I was rich (which I later became) or poor (which I became subsequent to being rich) or middle of the road (which I am now), I never lost my pivot. All thanks to Harry. We caught that train and many more. We traveled together for five months before we split up.

Harry’s story came to me in bits and pieces as we sat in hobo jungles, as we rode the rails. As we walked in the rain, as we worked side by side digging ditches as day laborers. As we stole coins from fountains so we could buy a can of tuna fish to make it through one more day. As we bailed hay on remote farms. As we picked oranges in solemn and capacious groves. As we crisscrossed this great big land of ours.

I’ll tell it in the first person … as I heard it. Harry was a teacher alright and God bless him.

Harry speaking:

“I had just turned twenty-one when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. I was driving a truck back then, saving up to get married. Her name was June and I sure was in love with her. But my country needed me, so we decided to put off getting married until I came home.

“I was down to the recruitment center bright and early the next morning, along with about a thousand other guys. The line snaked all the way around the block and then some. I ended up in the infantry. I don’t really talk about the war all that much. We did what we had to do and that was it. Some of us made it back in one piece and some didn’t. I never allowed myself to get close to any of the guys because you never knew who’d stll be around the next day.

“But I will tell you this much, Bill. The single biggest thing I ever did in my life was having a small part in liberating Dachau. You know, the concentration camp. The camp was bad enough, but a half mile from the camp, we came upon a slew of railroad cars standing locked and idle. Even before we busted open the doors, we knew what we’d find inside.

“The cars had been built to take German troops to the front. They were designed to carry forty men. But inside each car we discovered hundreds of dead Jews. Hundreds! We later found out they had been locked in those cars for three weeks with no food or water. I can still smell the stench of dead flesh to this day.

“After seeing that, it would be an understatement to say we weren’t feeling too kindly towards the members of the SS we had captured. Our officers looked the other way when a few of us put forty-five of the SS motherfuckers up against a wall and made short work of them.

“It was a little after that, that I got my ‘Dear John’ letter. June had met some guy with a college deferment. She said by the time I received the letter they’d already be married, so there would be no sense in my writing back. I gotta tell you, I took it hard. But what are ya going to do?

“After VE Day, they sent us home on those overcrowded troop ships. There was hardly enough room to sit down. But we didn’t care. We were going home. I was a bit apprehensive. I had no family waiting for me, and without the thought of marrying June, I didn’t know what I’d do.

“Feeling inadequate (because of June and her college man), I tried college under the GI Bill, but that didn’t work out. And after what I’d seen in Europe, I couldn’t go back to driving a truck. Besides, I was having trouble sleeping and living day to day. So, one day, I up and said, ‘The hell with it’ and hit the road. Like you’re doing, Bill. That was about eighteen years ago and I haven’t stopped ramblin’ since. At first I always thought things would be better in the next town, the next city, down the road, over the horizon … anywhere but where I was at. It took me a few years to figure out that any happiness to be had, had to come from within me. Not from something outside me.

“That revelation set me free. Until recently, until I became so disreputable looking, I would interact with those people I met along the road. People like you, Bill. I’ve talked with people from all walks of life. I’ve gotten to know some of them quite well. I knew of their fears, their loves, their likes, their hopes and dreams. Everyone has dreams. Except maybe me, at this stage of my life. And I’m sure a kid like you has more dreams than I can imagine. But my point is, I’ve learnt something from everyone I met. If they were good people, I learned goodness from them. If they were bad people, I learned how not to be. But at the same time, I always tried to see a flicker of goodness even in the worst of ’em. And most of the time I do. I think if I had it to do over again with those SS guards I might even see some good in them. I’m sure they loved their wives and children and love is always good.

“What you gotta know, Bill, I’m as free as the breeze, and so are you … right now. But if you’re not careful, it may not last. Material things don’t matter. The only thing that matters is your state of mind. Fighting and clawing for more and more is bad for your soul, bad for your inner self. Look at me. I’ve got nothing. I’ve seen evil up close. I’ve seen the worse – the very worse – one human being can do to another human being. I eat out of trash cans. In winter I’m constantly cold. I’m hungry more often than not. People look at me and turn away, embarrassed by my poverty. But I’ll tell you this, I consider myself the richest man on Earth. Howard Hughes, on his best day, can’t buy what I have.

“You know what will give you true happiness? Doing for others. Not that you have to go big and start a soup kitchen or anything like that. Although that wouldn’t be bad. Small kindnesses add up. I know you have no coin on you now. But later in life you most likely will. When you see a man with his hand out, dip into your pocket. Not for change, but for something heavy. Why not blow his mind. Isn’t that what you kids are saying nowadays? Why not blow his mind and turn over a twenty. And don’t hesitate because he might spend it on booze. If he does, it’s because he needs it. Who are we to judge a man’s needs.

“That short time I was in college, I didn’t learn much. But I did pick up a book once that I found on a bus bench and it kinda opened my eyes about things. It was called the Tao Te Ching, meaning ‘The Way of Integrity’. It’s supposed to be the Chinese Bible. Anyway, I read it and that led me to another book called the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu Bible. In English that means The Song of God. My two big take-a-ways from those books were: ‘Always without desire be.’ And that death is like our soul shedding an old overcoat, namely our body. After a while, after we’ve had a little rest and time to reflect on our recent life, we’ll come back to Earth with a new body and we’ll get going on a whole new adventure, a new life.

“So, I guess because of those two books, I ain’t got much desire for material things and I got no fear of death. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking how could two lousy books change me so much? Well, it wasn’t just the books. It was what I had seen overseas. And what I’ve seen during my years on the road. You’ll understand what I’m talking about if you spend any time at all out here meeting people, like I have. Because the more people you meet, the more you’ll see God. God’s in all of us. Look at the mess I am. But God’s light shines from my eyes just like His light shines from your eyes, Bill.”

• • • • •

Hey, it’s me again … Billy. Harry told me some more things, but what I wrote above covers the important stuff. As I’ve said, I hung with Harry for five months. And what I want to say is that Harry wasn’t all words. He also walked the walk. I can’t tell you how many times I saw him give the last of his food to someone as hungry as he was. How he reached into his pocket and gave up his last dollar to someone he felt needed it more than he did.

Harry was getting weaker by the day, but wouldn’t tell me what was wrong with him. Finally, he got so weak we had to get off the road. We were in Texas at the time.

In the 1930s, during the depression, every town and city had a hobo jungle, usually on its outskirts. However, by the late ’60s, there weren’t that many left. But Harry knew them all and we’d camp in one if we found ourselves anywhere in the vicinity. So that’s where we headed, to the one just outside of Lubbock.

There weren’t that many hobos around anymore, so we had the place to ourselves. I got Harry situated and then hitched into town to buy some supplies. Luckily for us, we had a few bucks. We had just worked two days for a rancher outside of Norman, Oklahoma. By then, I was taking care of Harry. I did all the work while he sat in the shade of an old oak tree. I never let on to the rancher that Harry was too sick to work. I just had to work doubly hard and collect the pay for the both of us.

I picked up a loaf of bread, a pack of baloney, a gallon of water, and a fifth of bourbon. Hanging with Harry had taught me that we didn’t need much more than that.

When I got back to the camp, Harry was in bad shape. He couldn’t even eat anything. I asked him what was wrong but he just smiled at me. That pissed me off. I demanded he tell me what the hell was wrong with him. It was then that he finally fessed up.

“Well, partner, I reckon it’s my time. I didn’t tell you, but I have a cancer. It’s in my pancreas. Just before we met up, I went to the VA Hospital in St. Louis. They gave me the good news. Said I had six months to live. Looks like they hit it right on the money.”

I was beside myself. I jumped up and said, “I’m gonna find a phone and call for an ambulance! You sit tight until I get back.”

Harry weakly held up his right hand. “Please sit down for a moment. There’s something I want to say.”

“Just say it because I gotta get going.”

Harry shook his head. “Please, Bill, sit down. This is important.”

I started to argue with him, but the look in his eyes changed my mind real fast. I sat down in front of him and said, “Okay, Harry. What is it?” I was short with him and instantly regretted it.

He had been sitting on a log, but now he slid to the ground and leaned his back against it. He then looked me directly in the eyes and said, “You know, travelin’ around with you these last few months has been the best time of my life. I knew I was dying and even though I don’t fear death, I was a little nervous that I would have to go it alone. Then you came along.”

“Harry. This is stupid. We have to get you to a hospital.”

“No we don’t, Bill. I don’t want to die in a damn hospital. Look about you. There’s green trees here, and soon the stars will be out. I wanna die looking at God’s beautiful creation. What’s in a hospital but four white walls and a ceiling that keeps me from seeing the stars. My time has run out as it does for all men. I’ll just be shedding an old overcoat for a body of light. The pain will be gone and I’ll be hopping a train to a new location. But this time I’ll be riding in a Pullman Car with red velvet seats and sipping fine, imported champagne. But I’m worried about you, Bill. How are you gonna take it?”

I had calmed down some. He was making sense about the hospital and all. But I didn’t want to lose him. He was my best friend. We had been through so much together and he had taught me so much. I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I started to cry.

“I don’t want to lose you,” I sobbed.

Harry patted my shoulder and let me cry out. When I had myself under control, he said, “Believe me, I know how you feel. But I gotta go. The pain has become unbearable. I’m gonna miss you, too. But we’ll see each other again. You’re young. I’ll probably be back with a new body before you know it. I’m sure we’ll know each other if we meet up. Keep checking people’s eyes. You’ll know me. Now down to business. I can feel the time is close. Have you ever seen a dead man before?”

I almost started crying again, but I bucked up and said, “No, I haven’t.”

He laughed and said, “Well, it’s about time you did. Dying is part of life and if you’re afraid of dying, then you’re afraid of life. If you don’t mind, I’d like it if you stayed with me until it’s over. Then I want you to get up and just walk away. Leave my body where it lies. It won’t mean anything to you and even less to me. Can you do that for me?”

By then, I had gotten my emotions under control. If that’s what he wanted. If that was his dying wish, then I’d be strong.

“Sure, Harry. Whatever you say.”

“Good. Did you get the bourbon like I asked?”

“Yup. Got it right here.”

“Well, break it out. Let’s do some serious drinking.”

We sat there passing the bottle back and forth. There was no more talk of death. We reminisced and took turns bringing up different “situations” we had gotten ourselves into and how we had to high step to get out of those same situations. With every pass of the bottle, Harry’s smile grew. I thought I was helping him face death. But I later realized he was doing it all for me.

I brought up the time we got drunk in a small town and had to spend the night in jail where we met quite a character. The old bird told the funniest stories. I had just finished repeating one of his stories when Harry let go a laugh … and died. There was one swig left. I hefted the bottle and said, “Here’s to you, Harry. Thanks for everything.”

I downed the last of the booze, rose on unsteady legs, and walked to the highway not shedding a tear. I stuck out my thumb and hitched into a new life. One without Harry.