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.

Weird Stuff

Note: Here’s another snippet of my youth. I don’t know why I’m writing so much about myself these days. Perhaps all those people who have, throughout the years, told me it wasn’t all about me were wrong. Maybe it is all about me. If not, I gotta get back to writing fiction. I’m feeling a need for a spurned lover to take his revenge. In the meantime, here’s a story that is true down to its last word.

*****

How to convey something that I know, down to my very soul, to be true? How to put into words something that no one is gonna believe? How indeed?

I reckon I’ll get right to it and see what happens, see who believes what.

I’m out hitchin’. I’m twenty years old. I’m a robust young man in the prime of his life. It’s early morning. The sun has just cleared the horizon to the east, and I’m heading west on Interstate 80, a brand new super highway. I’m on my way to San Francisco, the year is 1970. As I write this, I don’t remember where I slept the previous night. Probably in some bushes off the side of the road, snug in my sleeping bag.

I’ve been eating, at least as well as one can while on the road. Perhaps my last meal was the night before. Perhaps it was only an hour earlier. I can’t remember, but I do know that I am not hungry. There are two of us in the car, me and the guy that picked me up that morning. We’re shooting the shit as the vast, flat lands of Nebraska speed by.

The guy tells me he’s getting off at the next exit and that it’s out in the middle of nowhere. He suggests I get out at a rest area that’s coming up ahead. There’s nothing there yet … no restrooms, no nothing; the road is too new. But if someone pulls in there, my chances of getting a long haul would be a lot better than if I stood at the entrance ramp outside of Nowhere Town. I agree and my host pulls into the rest area and lets me out.

I look around. The land sure is flat. I can see for miles and miles, all the way to the horizon, so far away. Then I notice there is one thing at that rest stop: A small plaque telling me that particular portion of Interstate 80 was built on the old Oregon Trail. Big deal. I had never heard of the Oregon Trail.

This sucks. No one is pulling into the damn rest stop. I’ll never get to San Francisco. Only one thing to do, get back out to the highway and stick out my thumb. It’s about a hundred-yard walk, so I heft my bedroll and start walking. I’ll have a ride in a few minutes. Maybe if I’m lucky, the guy will offer to buy me lunch.

But then something funny happens. One minute I’m filled with vim and vigor and the next, I’m getting really tired. Funny, but not worrisome. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Get out to the highway. That’s where the cars are, that’s where your next ride awaits you.

With each step, I’m slowing down. It gets to where it takes all my willpower to take one lousy step. My feet weigh a ton each. My bedroll weighs two tons if it weighs an ounce. I’m almost to the highway. Gotta get there. Standing here ain’t gonna get me anywhere.

But it’s no use. I’ve come to the end of the line. I couldn’t take another step if my life depended on it. I just want to collapse. It takes all my strength just to keep upright. My feet are mired in the asphalt—cemented in place. I feel my soul wanting to leave my body. I won’t be heavy any longer. What a weird thing to think.

Just then a car pulls up next to me. It’s coming from the rest area. The passenger window is down. The driver leans over and offers a ride. I want the ride, but I can’t move. But if I don’t move, I know I’m going to die. How do I know that? With my last bit of energy, my last ounce of strength, I reach out and open the car door. But that’s it. I’ve got nothing left. The only thing I can do is fall into the passenger seat. The guy doesn’t wait until I’m all the way in before he accelerates. It’s a good thing that he did. It closes the door for me. I sure as hell couldn’t do it.

He wants to know where I’m headed. I answer in a weak whisper. It’s all that I can manage.

The guy’s really moving. The land is flat and there are no other cars around. We’re tearing up miles. But the funny thing is, the more miles we tear up, the farther I get from the rest area, the stronger I get. My strength is returning. Four minutes and five miles later, I’m restored. I’m once again a strapping, youthful guy with his whole life ahead of him. I don’t know why I think that, but I do.

I put the whole thing out of my mind. Never to think of it again. It was just something that happened. I’m looking forward to my sojourn on the West Coast. I love hitchin’ up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. I always meet interesting people who take me into their lives for a few minutes, a few hours, or even for a few days. Whatever.

Fast forward twenty-seven years.

I’m now middle aged, forty-seven years old. Out of nowhere, I start having this recurring dream. In it, I’m on the plains of America. The sky is blue, very blue. The sun is warm, it’s summertime. Things are quiet. I hear not a sound. I stand behind a covered wagon, I’m at the tailgate. I’m feeling weak, very weak. It takes all my willpower, all my energy, just to keep standing upright. My folks and my sister are at the front of the wagon. They are dead. We tried to cross the continent on our own. We did not provision properly. We ran out of food, I think. The details are murky. Maybe something else killed my family. I don’t know. All I know is that they are dead and I’m dying. I want to bury my family, I should bury them. But I just can’t. I’m standing, holding on to the tailgate for support. But not for long. In a few seconds, I’m going to fall to the ground and die. I don’t think I am scared. The last thing I see in that life is the rough, grey, weathered wood of the tailgate and the tall, brown grass of the prairie as it comes up to meet my face.

The dream comes again and again and again. Then, one time, for the first time, I look around in the dream. I look behind me. I see the prairie. It hasn’t changed. And I know, with a calm certainty, that I am standing on the exact spot where I stood rooted to the ground on that day in 1970. It’s the same damn place. The exact same place! The same two square feet of earth—just different times.

After that … after I came to understand what had happened to me as a twenty-year-old kid, back when I was on the road … the dream has never returned.