Howdy, folks. I’m here with another one of my hitchin’ adventures. I’ve written about this one back a few years ago, but I’ve cut out all the superfluous words and the hyperbole in this version. Just the unadorned facts this time ’round.
Before we get started, I got something to say. When reading these stories, you may think these adventures happened all the time while I was on the road. Well, that’s not true. I was on the road five years and most of it was pretty mundane. Just moving around and meeting new people. Things did happen, but not every event was a full story’s worth. Like the time I was kidnapped by a woman because she was tired of being lonely. When I “escaped” from her, I ran into the heir of the Coca-Cola fortune. He had rebelled from his wealth and privilege and bought an old school bus. He was travelling around the country with a bunch of hippie friends. I sat up front with him as he drove and listened as he told me of his life before dropping out. He had been a world traveler and had some good stories of his own. I sometimes think of him and wonder if he ever dropped back in. So you see, while things were always interesting, they were seldom dire.
Now, on to my story:
I was standing on the side of a lonely road, wet and cold, when the car stopped fifty feet ahead of me. The fog was so thick the car itself was not visible, only its red taillights. This was in the panhandle of Florida in 1967. The time was three in the morning, and I was hitchhiking home on a deserted two-lane that ran through a swamp.
When comfortably ensconced in the passenger seat, the driver told me to call him Teddy Bear. Because of the low visibility, we were going about thirty miles per hour, and Teddy Bear was in an expansive and talkative mood. He told me in great detail of his job as an ambulance driver. He especially enjoyed picking up and transporting dead bodies. As we traveled the winding road, I learned of the joys of being in close proximity to the dead. He spoke of his fascination with death and dead bodies. I nodded in agreement with whatever he was saying. I was not about to be put back out into that inhospitable climate for being an inattentive guest. I had been let off from my last ride five hours earlier, and in those five long hours, I had not seen a single soul until Teddy Bear came creeping along.
Fifteen minutes into our time together, he slowed the car down even more than was necessary, given the conditions. It was about then he said, “You know, I could kill you, throw your body out into the swamp, and nobody would ever find you.” Having said that, he reached under the seat and came up with the largest damn hunting knife I ever did see—before or since!
When you’re in a car traveling ten miles an hour, it does not seem like you’re going very fast. However, if you try to exit a vehicle while going at that rate of speed, it’s a whole different story. I grabbed the door handle and yanked on it as though my life depended on it. I meant to put my right foot onto the pavement, followed by my left … and then run like hell. But that’s not what happened. My feet got tangled and I found myself falling. I had just enough time to get my hands out in front of me before my face met the asphalt.
As I lay prostrate on the ground, all I could see were the red taillights slowly receding into the fog. Then my heart jumped straight into my mouth. The brake lights came on! Then, to make matters worse, the white backup lights came on immediately thereafter. I jumped up and took off in the opposite direction. When I was a good ways down the road, I thought it might be safe to stop for a moment and see if I was being pursued. I turned to see those goddamn taillights still coming my way. They might as well have been the angry red eyes of a demon for the fear I felt.
I then became cognizant of my folly. Staying on the road had been a mistake, a big mistake. He could follow me at his leisure. There sure wasn’t any other traffic around to impede whatever he had in mind. Was he toying with me? Had he done this before? Did he indeed throw dead bodies into the swamp, never to be seen again?
There was only one thing to do; get off the road and into the swamp. When you’re running for your life, you don’t sweat the little things – such as snakes and alligators. I turned and ran for the tree line, which lay about fifty feet from the road. I could not see the trees, but I knew they were there, having seen them earlier in the night before the fog thickened.
A few feet in, I stepped into a foot of water. My initial reaction was to stop and take a step back. But as I did so, the car pulled level with my position. This propelled me onward. The only problem with this strategy was the noise I was making as I splashed through the water. But I kept moving.
I finally reached the tree line and stopped and listened. From the sound of his splashing, he was close on my heels. Suddenly, there was dead silence. Even the frogs had stopped their raucous croaking. I held my breath. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I was the only person for a hundred miles. Then it started. Out of the dense fog, I heard a chant that almost made me cry. “Hey chick, chick, chickie. Hey chick, chick, chickie. Come to Teddy Bear.”
My God! If things weren’t creepy enough already.
I dared not move a muscle. Then I caught a break. I could hear he was moving away. Without making a sound, I ventured a peek from behind a tree. It was the first time I had seen him since leaping from the car. His white ambulance driver’s uniform was glistening-wet from the tiny water droplets hanging in the air, making it semi-luminous. He was still too close for me to make a run for it. He might hear me. I was not about to budge unless it became absolutely necessary. I watched in fear as the ethereal figure became an iridescent blur, fading into the inclement mist.
When I thought it safe, I started off in the opposite direction. I had to move slowly so as not to make any noise. It was slow going, but I seemed to be making progress when all of a sudden I heard him coming up fast behind me. I reacted like an animal pursued and blindly ran farther into the swamp.
As I frantically blundered about, I noticed that the water was getting deeper. I pivoted, hoping to find shallow water again. But there he was, not ten feet away. His face indistinct in the fog. However, there was no mistaking the menace in his voice as he said, “Hey, Chickie, I’ve been looking for ya.”
He was still holding the knife.
At that point, I just gave up. What was the use? Then, any doubt that he was playing with me, as a cat plays with a mouse, was put to rest when he took one step back and said, “You’ve got two minutes, Chickie. I suggest you use ’em.”
I turned and ran. I ran pell-mell deeper and deeper into the swamp. I was petrified. I was scared to death. I only wanted to live to see my mother again. I was praying like I had never prayed before when my foot caught on a root and I pitched headfirst into that dank, pestilential water. As I started to get up, my right hand touched something. It was a 2″ x 4″, about four feet in length, just floating there in the middle of a swamp! Thinking it might come in handy, I took hold of it and quickly continued on my journey of fear.
A minute later, I heard my pursuer not too far away. I froze in my tracks, not wanting to make a sound. He was getting closer, but I stood motionless, afraid he would hear me if I so much as breathed.
I then noticed two trees not far away. One had a trunk large enough to hide behind with room to spare. The other one was only half the size. I was about to get behind the larger of the two when the thought struck me that maybe I should get behind the smaller tree. It wasn’t as obvious a hiding place as the other one.
I was no sooner in place, shaking and breathing hard, when I saw the faint outline of his white jumpsuit. He was moving slowly, his attention focused on the larger tree. As he approached, I quietly hefted the 2″ x 4″ and planted my feet as best I could in the muddy bottom of the swamp.
He came closer, then hesitated. He was sure I was behind that tree, and he was going to have some fun with me. He wanted to prolong my terror. He started moving again and came to within three feet of where I was hiding, his back towards me. It was now or never. I aimed for his head, but missed and hit his shoulder instead. His scream reverberated throughout the cold damp night, muted somewhat by the fog. I swung again. This time I connected with his head. He stood for a moment, dazed, then collapsed. I dropped my weapon and ran.
I made my way out of the swamp and emerged onto the road only a few yards from his car. Thank the Lord, the keys were in the ignition. I slipped into the driver’s seat, started the engine, and accelerated away from that accursed place as fast as I could. The fog be damned!
I drove until I saw the lights of a truck stop up ahead. I parked the car around back, leaving the keys in it. I found a water spigot and washed up. It was summertime and the Florida night was warm; my clothes would dry quickly.
I walked among the parked trucks and asked the first driver I saw if he was going south. He said he was, but first he was going to get himself some coffee and a sandwich. If I was still around when he came out, he’d give me a ride. I waited. He got me to within fifty miles of Miami. The next ride dropped me off a few blocks from my mother’s house.
To this day, I do not know if I killed him or not. Sometimes, late at night when I can’t sleep, I think of that night and pray I did not take a life. At other times, thinking he must have been a serial killer – and if not for me, he would have killed again – I think I might have done the right thing.