Ancient memories (Part 4)
By Saul Landau
Harvey and I bought cowboy hats for $3 each and tried to pose in them. A young trucker with a tattoo of a hula dancer on his forearm and a shaggy mustache that curled downward took us from Utah almost to the Wyoming border. He told us war stories -- from Korea where he served from Fall 1950 until his medical discharge in April 1951 -- and we ate them up. “You know what I missed more than anything else while I was over there?”
We waited for his answer. “Pussy, that’s what.” He showed us his left arm, down which ran an ugly red scar from shoulder to elbow on his un-tattooed arm. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he laughed. “Piece of shrapnel practically tore it off.”
“Did you like shoot anyone, you know, kill any enemy soldiers?” Harvey inquired.
“I shot at some, but hell I don’t know if I hit anyone. You know when you’re in a shooting fight you shit and piss your pants and fire your rifle at anything or nothing and just try not to die from being scared,” he laughed.
He pulled into a truck stop and told us to wait for him if we felt like, but he had something to do. With a big grin on his face he climbed into the cab of another truck. A few other drivers were congregating around it, talking and laughing. Harvey and I got closer, trying to eavesdrop. Our trucker emerged some ten minutes later, zipping his fly.
“You boys want to wait in line and get yourself some instant relief?” he asked as another driver waved a friendly greeting to him. I’ll wait for you,” he assured us as he climbed into the cab.
Harvey and I stared at each other. “Yes,” we wanted to scream. But fear overwhelmed desire. “Best blowjob this side of Texas,” he advertised, as he led us into the café. He didn’t press the issue, thankfully. I tried to visualize the experience as I ate my burger.
The driver thankfully shifted subjects. “I’ll take you as far as Laramie where I gotta drop something off and pick something up and then I’m heading south to eat rattlesnake in Oklahoma. We hunt sidewinders this time of year and then we cook ‘em. Snake meat tastes better than chicken and almost as good as you know what.”
Damn it, I thought to myself, why don’t I just say yes! But I didn’t.
Harvey and I looked at the trucker in awe. A man who hunted rattlesnakes had tasted the absolutely forbidden fruit, and he also knew the names of cattle -- “shorthorns are good for steaks and Holsteins give lotsa milk.” We drove through Elk River. “Come October me and my little brother might come up here and shoot some of them big fellers.”
The Bronx teenagers had acquired a combat hero -- not like my cousin, Melvin, who served in World War II in the Quartermaster Corps after his father and other relatives did politicking and pay offs. The trucker, “Little George,” -- he was at least six feet tall -- integrated sex casually into his life -- not like the older guys on the block who made up wild stories that we sort of believed and pursued college careers like accounting, dentistry and law. Little George exuded confidence in his words and body posture.
We took his phone number (he lived near Odessa, Texas, “where they’ve got a gallon or two of oil and some refineries to make it into gasoline”) and he took ours and we shook hands.
Within the hour, a middle aged man (maybe 42 or 43) in a Packard picked us up and lectured us for twenty minutes on the dangers of hitchhiking. “I’m tired,” he said when we pulled out of Cheyenne. “Here, take the wheel for a while.” I slid into the driver’s seat, put the car in gear (luckily it was automatic) and drove for several hundred miles, slightly scraping the fender of his car while pulling up to a gas pump. “It’s OK,” he said. “Just be careful pulling out.”
I had never driven before and Harvey shook his head at me in disgust and awe at the same time. The man talked about his World War II experiences in New Guinea. “Not all that much fun being in the army,” he concluded. “Got myself a case of foot rot, a case of malaria and a case of clap. That’s what I got out of being in the army. But what the hell! There was a job to be done and we had to do it.”
Harvey then volunteered. “He wants to enlist.”
The man shook his head affirmatively. “Good for you, son! I like to hear that young people are still willing to hear the call of duty.” He snoozed. I drove.
“I’m not going to enlist,” I whispered to Harvey, keeping my eyes fixed on the two lane road and my hands nervously clutching the wheel.
“Huh?” he replied. “Your commy Uncle talked you out of it? Maybe you’ll enlist in the Russian army?”
“Seriously,” I told him, “I’ve thought it over. You want to graduate and make money. I want to go to college.”
“Good idea,” the snoozing man said, without opening his eyes.
For the remaining five days we got short rides, with long waits. My thrill over driving a car abated as we marveled at the endless miles of corn in Iowa, held our noses as we passed the hog farms and slept one night in a cemetery near Davenport. “No one will bother us here except for the ghosts,” Harvey announced. “You scared?”
“Not me,” I lied.
“I’m going to lie here and dream about getting laid,” Harvey announced. “That way, my mind won’t go near the whole subject of, you know, like supernatural shit.”
The evening seemed to take a month. “I’m taking business math in the fall,” Harvey declared.
“I’m doing trig,” I replied.
“What good is that? You can’t use it for anything.”
I had no answer.
“If you’re not going into the Service, what’re you going to do?”
“Shit, I have no idea,” I confessed. “Let’s talk about something else.” We had found a newspaper showing the standings. The Dodgers were 12 games ahead of the Giants in the National League. Harvey was a Dodger fan; I loved the Giants.
We argued over the relative virtues of Willie Mays and Duke Snider, the centerfielders for the Giants and Dodgers, and finally Harvey gave me 50 to one odds against the Giants winning -- one dollar to his 50. We shook hands, but neither of us slept well in the silence of the graveyard. “Ghosts are bullshit,” we assured each other several times, but we felt relieved when the caretaker rousted us with a shout after dawn.
In Davenport we gaped at the blue collar workers heading to factories. We walked across a bridge crossing the Mississippi River from Davenport to Rock Island Illinois, looked at the boats in the muddy water and felt homesick, dirty and tired.
We caught rides, napped and spent our money on cheap hamburgers and cokes. We decided to fast so we could have enough money to have at least one good meal before getting home. By the time we got dropped off by a silent old man in a 1946 Chevy in Vandalia, Ohio, we had $3 between us.
Harvey announced: “I’m hungry. Let’s find someplace where we can both eat for a buck, maybe some truck stop where we can get a ride also.”
I wanted to call home and ask my mother to wire us $20. I wanted to sleep in my own bed and eat a Nathan’s hot dog and a bowl of greasy French fries smothered in ketchup. But I maintained my façade.
We waited for hours. I put on what I considered was my most alluring expression, showing I needed pity and help and was totally unthreatening. A truck slowed and the truck pulled to a stop about 100 yards ahead. Harvey and I ran with desperation and climbed into the welcoming open door of the cab. A smiling black face on a large body greeted us. We smiled back, pretending all was well and off we drove, toward Pennsylvania.
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. You can purchase his films on DVD from roundworldproductions.com.
Ancient memories (Part 1)
Ancient memories (Part 2)
Altering our narrow view of the world
Ancient memories (Part 3)
Enlist and die as young as possible, I was advised