22.) The Hitchhiking Years: Taking the Wheel
I was homeward bound. The only official business of the trip had been to register for the draft, and the stop in New Mexico had taken care of that. My plan to see some of America and have adventures had gone well, but I was tired. That's why I was now content to hitchhike for distance, rather than to stop here and there.
In my fading state, the ride with Jimi Hendrix's ghost seemed perfect. Arizona to Missouri? That's a long way. The only question left unanswered was whether there'd be some kind of symbolic conclusion to my trip - something that would encapsulate all that was going on in the United States in that long-ago year of 1972. The answer is yes, and it would occur just past St. Louis after the marathon ride in the Ryder truck.
Not that the driver was really a ghost - he was very much alive, but looked a lot like Hendrix. The guy, whom I'll also call Jimi, was as cool as can be. He was young, happy, and full of life. But he was also sort of concerned about his position in our society, especially driving a rental truck across such places as Texas.
You know, I once wrote comedy for Jimmy Walker who starred in the "Good Times" TV show and whose signature phrase was "Dyn-o-mite!" It was interesting to feel the difference in the premises between him and some of my other clients. What does it imply when you say, "A black man is walking down the street in America", compared to "A man is walking down the street in America"? There's a difference, wouldn't you agree? I mean, as a comedy writer I felt it. If you are black in America you are already in a little trouble. That's what I sensed writing jokes years later for Jimmy Walker.
Back to the story: The guy in the Ryder rental truck was a little concerned and he was also irritated because this was not his job. His job was to assemble electronic equipment, but they had a rush order for the military and he was elected by his boss to drive it as fast as possible from Southern California to someplace near St Louis. I can't remember exactly where.
He obviously enjoyed talking and was bored with the drive, but that wasn't the reason he stopped for a hitchhiker. I could tell he was worried about the trip. It was clear he wanted someone else in the cab with him when he drove across the northern part of Texas, and through Oklahoma. I'm not talking about paranoia here - just concern.
Meanwhile, I was going through some paranoia of my own. I couldn't stop thinking about registering for the draft back in New Mexico, imagining how things could go wrong with signing up the way I had.
Of course, it was 1972, and there was also reckless behavior with drugs. Jimi took out a clear jar and in it were a bunch of different colored pills and 5 or 6 joints. We smoked a joint and settled in for the long journey ahead.
After several hours, Jimi said, "Can you drive?" I had a license but at the time, I couldn't handle manual transmissions - I couldn't shift gears. We were in a real situation though. I don't know if Jimi had popped some pills or what, but he was fading out and we needed to keep going. A plan was devised after some discussion. Jimi would have the truck moving at around 60 miles-an-hour in 4th gear, and he would lean way forward. I would slide over, grab the wheel, put my foot on the gas and he would slide to the passenger side. I knew enough to stop the truck, so as long as I didn't have to shift gears we were okay. There was one scary wobble, but it worked. Within minutes of taking the wheel, I looked over and Jimi was out. As we used to say back then, he had crashed.
So there I was, behind the wheel of a large rental truck full of electronic equipment for the military, bombing along across the Southwest, and I was stoned. It certainly symbolized something about our chances of winning in Vietnam. It was also irresponsible, and that definitely symbolized how life could be back then.
This part of the journey went on for two days. We crashed in a motel somewhere, and started off the next morning. It was all about getting down the road, and the switch where I would take the wheel became routine. I would tell him when we needed to stop for gas, and he would take the wheel back and do all the gear shifting. Then out on the freeway, we would switch again. Frankly, after riding all that way around America in the passenger seat, I enjoyed driving the truck - even if I didn't know how.
Jimi spent the bulk of the trip resting comfortably, occasionally popping a pill, or sharing a joint. We would have made Dr. Hunter S. Thompson proud. Incidentally, parts of Texas were so flat that I imagined the cows sticking out from the side of the planet. There was much conversation and many laughs.
By now I had learned how to push in the clutch to help slow down, and I was changing lanes and feeling pretty confident. I drove hundreds of miles without ever shifting a single gear, and this was how it would stay till the night we got to Oklahoma City.
First, let's get the obvious image out of the way, and believe me, I thought of it, too, years later when the bombing happened there. We were driving a big yellow Ryder truck like the one Timothy McVeigh drove. Maybe the point of that little historical coincidence, is to remind us that these were different times. 1972 was a very serious year because of Vietnam, but with all that's happened since, it seems almost innocent now.
Anyway, it was dark, and I was hauling along, just trying to get through Oklahoma City. All of a sudden there was a construction project dead ahead, and the freeway went to one lane. I yelled to Jimi who was out of it, but there wasn't time to switch back. I decided we had to bail out. When he finally woke up, we were rocketing up an exit ramp, and I was just trying to get the truck stopped. We came to a halt at a stop sign, and this is where I would have given Jimi the wheel back. Unfortunately, we couldn't make the switch.
Sitting right there was a squad car, and the cop was looking right at me. It was time to learn to drive a stick shift - and I mean fast. Jimi really was as cool as Hendrix, but I could tell he was rattled now. This was the scenario he had imagined: Getting busted - a black man with drugs in Oklahoma. He hurriedly described what to do. I pushed in the clutch, keeping my foot on the break so the giant truck didn't start rolling backward. He put the stick into first gear, and said, "Okay, let out the clutch nice and slow."
The truck began rolling forward, then the trouble started. We did the inevitable first time move where the truck shudders and almost stalls, jumping ahead in violent starts so you could hear the load in the back moving around - all this with a cop staring right at us. But then it started rolling smoothly, and we were in first gear. Now, the real question: Would the cop respond to this display of screwed-up driving? We rolled by him and he just stayed there. Whew!!!
We didn't bother trying another gear change, we just kept it in first till we could pull over and he could take the wheel. We were a little freaked out, but we were going to be okay. I always thought this was one of the big symbolic, close calls of the trip. At least, I thought that till I got to St. Louis.