Thursday, March 15, 2007

21.) The Hitchhiking Years: Homeward Bound

So here's the situation. I had been out on the road for over a month all over the States when somewhere in Arizona, the trip changed. Maybe it was when the guy tried to run me over, but I don't think that was it. I had just reached the burnout stage. You know hitchhiking is completely different from getting in your own car and driving somewhere. There's much more suspense and thinking that goes into it. For one thing there's a theoretical chance that you will never get a ride again, and a lot of it is finding your way out of situations where you get stuck. Plus you are constantly on high alert dealing with a stream of people, many wonderful, but some not. Then there's the exposure to the elements. It was tiring hard work, and I was becoming worn down.

There are many books about wild road trips - demented jaunts that young people go on - but it's different when every mile is improvised. The incredible thing about my first long solo journey around America was that just as I started to get a little shaky mentally, the road chimed right in with a dramatic finish of its own.

It was as if the biggest themes of the times would all interact for one last statement, and life took on a symbolic tone. What was happening to me seemed to encapsulate what was happening to the country: There was the establishment with their war, and there was the counter-culture with its insanely reckless lifestyle. My last jaunt from Arizona back to Massachusetts would feature a giant collision between these two worlds, and it was something to behold.

The big yellow Ryder truck pulled over with a young black man behind the wheel. It was immediately obvious that this guy was great. I mean he was as cool as Jimi Hendrix, and looked a little like him, only more cheerful, handsome, and full of life. I'll call him Jimi just to make it easier.

There had been a contract for some serious electronic equipment for the US military, and the supplier had screwed it up. Jimi's company was contacted to do a rush order to provide the equipment, and Jimi had worked on it. He was very proud of his skills manufacturing the stuff - he talked a lot about how the military needed soldering iron work that was just so. That part was fine, but then when the order was done they had to rush it to St. Louis from California. If not exactly St. Louis, it was someplace near there - I remember that. The drag for him was that his boss was making him drive the rental truck and he was not into it at all. It was not his job.

I perked up. Here I was just trying to get home and I'm riding with a guy going that far? Plus he was great company - just really cool as if the ghost of Jimi Hendrix was out driving around. So this sounded like a terrific break, except for one minor inconvenience: My little appointment to register for the draft. It had to happen that day, but fate would play along. Jimi had already said that he had to stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico to do something, so that's how we left it. That's where I'd say goodbye and go sign up for Uncle Sam.

By the time we made it there, we were having a great time: Lots of laughs, lots of talk about music, drugs, women, and life. Just in case, we made an arrangement to remember which exit we took, and he said he would drive by there on the way out of town. If I was there, he would pick me back up again. So this was cool but my mood became increasingly tense as I was dreading registering for the draft. I had put it off for as long as possible, but there I was in downtown Albuquerque, heading in to sign up.

The man at the window was not impressed with me, my haircut, my backpack or anything at all. He certainly wasn't going for my story about being from Saudi Arabia. See, there was a draft board - or at least this is what I was told - for the children of Americans living overseas. I think it was called Draft Board 100. Diplomats' kids, etc...would be on it and there was no chance of getting selected. We did have at least one young man I knew from our little town who was killed in Vietnam, but he might have even enlisted or been drafted in the States. They could make you register where you were going to school, or at least try.

The beautiful thing about my situation was that I was out of school and I didn't know where I would be going to college. This old guy pressed me hard to come up with an address here in the States, but the fact was I was a resident of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Now I could have given the farm address in Massachusetts, but that would have been going out of my way to try and get myself killed and I wasn't going to do that. This was not my war.

The old man at the window got more and more agitated, checking my passport and grilling me on the school situation. "What do you mean you graduated early?" That kind of thing. It was exhausting, but I held my ground and when the form was complete it showed my true residence in Arabia. I don't know where these papers went but I never heard another thing about it again.

You might say, how can you be so critical of Dick Cheney when you yourself avoided the war in Vietnam? First, my complaint with Cheney is that he sent so many other young people to die in Iraq, when he himself got out of military service. I wouldn't do that. Second, I didn't get a deferment or anything - nobody else had to go in my place.

I admit I felt guilty about it still. I could have given the farm address and been a lot more available. However, as luck would have it, my year was the last where the draft lottery took place. My number was 69 - that's how much of a fighter I was. And here's the crucial point: Nobody was drafted from my year. By the time we made it to 19, that had stopped. So as usual, I had lucked out, and what little guilt I could have had if someone else was sent instead of me, was not founded on reality. I'm in the clear on this. Besides I was born and raised in Dhahran and that was my residence, so I didn't lie about anything. God, Vietnam sucked. Imagine growing up thinking you could be whisked away to die for that?

This process was exhausting, but I felt somewhat victorious as I left the office in downtown Albuquerque. The old guy had laid quite a head trip on me, but I didn't back down. I began walking and hitching to the same exit where I came in. I hadn't been there 15 minutes when the yellow truck rolled into view. The ghost of Jimi Hendrix was back, I had my ride to Missouri, and some true craziness was about to begin.


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