THE FIRST TEN MILES by Peter Nolan Smith 

Early on a warm May morning my friend AK, a blonde BU co-ed, and I traveled by the trolley to Jamaica Plains, where we were picking up a 1973 Ford Torino station wagon to transport cross-country. Upon our arrival at the address, the middle-aged owner descended the tenement’s steps to the sidewalk. He tapped at his watch. It was 9:10.

“You’re ten minutes late.” His erect posture was topped by a porcupine buzz-cut and the creases of his chino trousers and white tee-shirt had been ironed to a razor sharpness. Everything about him shouted ex-Marine.

“Sorry.” It was my standard answer to men of his age and conviction.

A blonde woman sat on the porch of the three-story apartment building. The black dress bore a testimony to a lingering period of mourning. I bowed my head in respect for her loss.

“I suppose ten is better than twenty. The name’s Jake Moore.” The forty year-old seized my hand with a strong grip and looked at my shoulder-length hair. AK’s was in a pony tail. Pam wore hers long and free.

“Please to meet you.” I released his hand and introduced us by name. AK let me do the talking. Jake and I shared the same Boston accent. The piano player came from Long Island and Red Sox fans hated New York.

“My grandmother lived not far from here on St. Joseph’s Street.”


“From the West. Nana spoke Gaelic.” My grandmother had sailed over from Galway at the age of 14.

“Mine came over in the Year of the Pig.” Our shared heritage erased the negativity of my longhair.

“My Nana arrived in the year of the Crow.” Whenever that was my grandmother wouldn’t say. “That the car?”

I glanced at the off-white station wagon with black and gold California plates. The chrome details were polished to a high sheen and the fake wooden paneling was unblemished by dings. The spacious back could sleep two with the passenger seats folded down. I wanted it to be mine for the next week.

“It’s not just any car. This is 1967 Ford Torino with a 428 FE V8 and a three-speed automatic. I was lucky to get the last Cobra-Jet engines from Ford.” His face glowed in appreciation of the Ford.
“Isn’t that the same engine Steve McQueen drove in BULLITT?” AK interjected to show that he wasn’t a mute.
“That engine was a 390 for a Mustang GT, which had a much lighter chassis than the Torino.” Jake launched into a minute-long monologue about the Torino’s selling points. Most of them dealt with speed. “This baby can do a quarter-mile in 14 seconds.”
“Cool.” I nodded my head with appreciation. My only car had been a 1964 VW bug which I shared with my older brother. Its top speed downhill with a tailwind topped out at 85.
“I had hoped for someone more like me to drive the car, but there’s not many of me around Boston these years.” Jake searched our eyes for signs of drug use.
“More than you think.” South Boston still supplied the Marines with warm bodies.
“I suppose you protested against the War.” The statement was more an accusation than a question.
“Not in the beginning. When I was 17, I tried to enlist to get out of my town, but my mother wouldn’t sign the papers.” She had thrown them in the trash.
“And at 18 you were a hippie?” We were traitors in the eyes of most of the Silent Majority.
“Something like that.” An older friend had returned from Viet-Nam, extolling Muhammad Ali’s creed that no VC had killed anyone in the USA. I lost the urge to leave my home and I grew my hair long in less than six months.
“There’s a lot of ‘something like that’ going around.” His voice was tinged with sadness. Too many lives had been lost overseas for either of us to claim victory over the other and our opposing camps had reached a truce determined by exhaustion. Jake held out his hand. “Let me see your driver’s licenses.”
AK and Pam gave him their out-of-state driver’s licenses. Mine had been issued for a Boston address. There was no way for him to check our driving records. Last year I had been arrested after a high-speed chase from Pam’s college in my VW.
“Well, the faces match the photos.” Jake handed back the IDs. “We drove out here for a family visit. My wife can’t bear the thought of driving through those corn fields again.”
“It is a long ride.” The distance from coast to coast was almost 3000 miles.
“You ever driven cross-country before?”
“I’ve not driven, but I hitchhiked back and forth twice. The first time was in 1972. A Super Bee picked us up in Iowa. The driver did 100 or better most of the way to Reno. I think coast to coast it took us about fifty hours.”
Jake, Pam, and AK dismissed my claim with matching smirks.
“Fifty hours sounds fast, but it ends up averaging 60mph.” Jake walked over to his car.
“We didn’t stop much.” An explanation about how the driver had been high on methedrine and how I had steered from the passenger seat whenever Lucky’s head hit the steering wheel have further tested their gullibility for the truth.
“When I was stationed in Key West I used to hitch to Boston. Everyone who picked me up had a different story, almost like they were trying to change their lives, if only for a ride. That’s the beauty of the open road. You can become someone new different with a new name and a new past. You get out of the car and stand on the road with your thumb out. Alone you go back to who you are. There is no escaping the future of yourself.”
Jake’s unexpected insight humbled my youthful arrogance of my previous superficial judgment, for his words had constructed a link between college students, hoboes, tramps, soldiers, beatniks, runaways, and hippies following the same path for decades.
“No one believes my story about making the trip in fifty hours.”
“All stories are true, if interesting.” Jake clapped my shoulder and I gave him a smile. The War in Vietnam was coming to an end and we had lost our hatchets instead of burying them. “Hitchhiking’s a great way to travel. People have been traveling that way since Jonah rode in the whale.”
“That’s a big fish story.”
“Like I said, all stories are true if interesting.” Jake didn’t want me to forget that line. “As for driving cross country in fifty hours this time, I’d appreciate if you take it a little easier on my car.
“Not easy to drive fast in America now.” Congress had established a national speed limit this year.
“This idiots in government think driving 55 will save gas and free us from the Arabs. There’s no shortage of gas.” Jake’s face was turning red with anger about this law. “But you be careful on the road. Nothing the state troopers like better than arresting hippies for driving 60.”
“Thanks for the warning.” A station wagon was good camouflage for passage through the Midwest. “We’ll keep it to 55. I’m sure your car gets better mileage at that speed.”
“Why are you going to the coast?” His eyes shifted to our blonde companion. Pam was a vision of Woodstock beauty in a paisley dress clinging to her breasts. She wasn’t wearing a bra.
I never stared at Pam, since she was my ex-girlfriend college roommate. The Buffalo native had deserted me last summer for her high school sweetheart without an explanation and I hoped on this trip that Pam might tell me the why Jackie had left me.
“I’m meeting my boyfriend. Harry’s an intern in Mendocino. I’ll be working at the same hospital this summer.” The nursing student sounded like a normal person, because aside from her flower power clothing Pam was the classic American girl next door. “We met in high school.”
“You’re high school sweethearts same as my wife and me.” Jake looked over his shoulder to the woman in black. “Somerville High School. Class of 1950.”
“I just graduated from college with a degree in economics.” I volunteered this information to change the subject. My high school sweetheart married my friend. Happy and Kyla had two kids. Everyone in my hometown said that they were the ideal family.
“What about a job?” Jake asked, as if had served his twenty and out without counting days or years.
“I drove taxi to pay for college.” I had spent more hours behind the wheel than in the classes and my rank had languished at the bottom hundred of a class of two thousand. At my graduation party AK had joked that my diploma should have read ‘sin laude’ or without praise.
My father hadn’t appreciated the Long Islander’s humor, yet my mother had beamed with pride at the graduation ceremony. She considered education a precious gift and my meagre achievement had protected me from the Draft for four years.
“Anyone can drive taxi. What about a real job?”
“I plan on a serious job after I see the Rockies and Big Sur.” My father had disapproved on this trip. He believed in work, family, and country.
“A holiday before the long grind. I did my thirty years and out. You have a good forty ahead of you.” Jake was living off his military pension.
“Yes.” 65 was mandatory retirement age. I would be working well into the next century, but not this summer and I said, “We appreciate your letting us take your car.”
“It’s a big engine and guzzles gas, so I’m giving you an extra $100 for the trip, but I want you to fill the tank up every time the gas gauge hits half and only use the highest octane from Sunoco.” He held out the keys.
“Yes, sir.” I smiled to Pam and AK. We were minutes away from hitting the road. “We’ll see you in six days.”
“Make it seven. I don’t need you breaking your old record.” Jake and I signed the matching contracts from the drive-away company. “Have a good trip and drive safe.”
“I’ll make sure they take care of your car.” Pam put her bags in the car and positioned herself in the rear. She rolled down the window, ready for the wind in her hair.
“You do that, Pam.” His eyes studied her face for a few seconds, as if she might be someone else. To me she looked like the singer from The Band Named Smith.
“See you in Lodi.” Pam’s major was nursing and bed manners were her strong point. She had a nice way with older men.
I tossed my canvas bag in the back and sat behind the wheel. AK was my co-pilot. I reversed out of his driveway, then shifted the transmission into Drive to head toward Brighton, where where we would pick up the Mass Pike at the Charles River.
“For a second I didn’t think Jake was going to give us the car.” AK pulled out a map of the USA.
“It was never in doubt.” I drove around Jamaica Pond in the slow lane.
“What? With your admission to being a traitor.”
“I was telling him the truth, besides Pam had him wrapped around her little finger.”
“The power of feminine wile.” Pam smiled at me in the rearview mirror.
“Something never to be underestimated.”
“This is a nice car. It even smells new.” Pam came from the suburbs. She liked things clean.
“Jake is in love with his car.”
“It’s a man thing. Sometimes I think my boyfriend loves his car more than me.” Carol was checking her reflection in the window. She tied a scarf around her head to keep her hair from flying in the wind.
“What kind of car does he drive?” AK asked with the sly interest of a jealous suitor.
“A 1974 Mustang II.” She wasn’t proud of this. “It’s red.”
“Nice.” Ford had dumped a Pinto engine into the classic Mustang to sacrifice power for fuel efficiency. “He drive it cross country?”
“No, he put it on a train and flew to pick it up in San Francisco.”
“Good thinking.” AK rolled his eyes. His Pontiac Firebird was fast, but its low mileage and bald tires were two reasons that we were driving Jake’s Torino.
“I wish we were that smart.” I remembered that I didn’t like Harry and his choice of cars reinforced my disdain.
“Are you making fun of Harry?”
“Not at all. I don’t have a car or a girlfriend to love.”
“Funny.” She didn’t mean it and I cringed at such a bad start to a long trip.
“Sorry.” I was good at saying that and kept to the local speed limit along Storrow Drive. AK was carrying weed and the # 1 rule of reefer was to only break one law at a time.
“Wonder what Jake listened to on the radio.” AK pushed a button and both of us were surprised to hear Wildman Steve cuing up the # 1 record in America. The Hues Corporation had scored a huge crossover hit with ROCK THE BOAT. AK’s fingers crawled over an imaginary keyboard. For a long-haired white boy from Levittown he had a lot of soul.
Five minutes later I turned off Storrow Drive onto Cambridge Street. The sun flashed off the Charles River. The clear sky was a good omen for our journey.
A bearded hitchhiker stood at the entrance to the Mass Pike. I veered over to the breakdown lane and braked a hundred feet before the toll booth.
“What are you doing?” Pam asked with alarm. “You don’t know this person. He could be an ax murderer.”
“I’ve hitchhiked everywhere in the States and I never ran into an ax murderer.” The ragged hippie was waiting by the passenger door. The scent of patchouli seeped through the closed windows. He was older than I thought and I was having second thoughts about him, but I believed in Karma.
“Next week I’ll be hitchhiking down the coast of California. If I don’t pick up hitchhikers now, then I will be stranded in Big Sur for days.”
“I’m not happy about this.” Pam slid over to the driver’s side. “If he starts anything, I expect you to take care of it.”
“I promise I will.” I unlocked the rear door.
“Thanks for stopping. The name is Bill. I’m heading to Alabama.” A thick Southern accent slithered from chapped lips.
“We can drop you at Sturbridge. We’re going to California.”
“Damn, California, always wanted to see the weirdos out there.” He was no hippie. “I’m meeting up with a carnival for the summer. We travel from Virginia Beach to Texas and up into the wheat fields. I specialize in bumper cars. How people drive them says a lot about them.”
“How so?” AK had to ask.
“Cautious people play it safe. Aggressive people go for head-ons. You look like the in-between people.” He was talking to me. “In-between people get sandwiched by aggressive people. They don’t stand a chance in life.”
Bill had been in the car for less than three minutes and I was already regretting having stopped for him. He filled the sullen silence between AK, Pam, and me with a rattling monologue about the life on the road; the loose women, the drunken fights, and towns without names.
Bill’s only adjective was ‘fucking’ and ‘fuck’ was his most favorite verb. Pam sighed loudly and he laughed, “Sorry, Sunshine, if I offend you. I was brought up twenty miles past the wrong side of the tracks.
I turned up the radio.
“Why you listening to this disco crap?” Bill barked, while AK and I were grooving to the HOLLYWOOD SWINGING by Kool and the Gang.
“Disco crap?” I glared at him in the rearview mirror. His face was swollen from years of drinking and his nose had been flattened by lefts and rights.
“Yeah, I hate disco.”
“This isn’t disco.” The song was a big hit at the 1270, where gay boys loved dancing with straight boys and the deejay spun the best dance records in Boston. “Kool and the Gang are a thousand times more hip than that BAND ON THE RUN bullshit by that loser Paul McCarthy.”
“Loser? The Beatles are the best band in the world.” Bill was on edge.

“I’ll handle this.” AK had a much cooler head and I shut my mouth rather than lose my temper.
“What makes you an expert?”
“I’m at Berkelee Music School.” AK was also auditioning for a gig as a keyboard player for an R & B band. The brothers from Jump Street wanted a white guy in the group to deal with the honkie club owners. I had called him the ‘token whitey’. He didn’t think that was funny, but it evened us for his crack about my ‘sin laude’ status.
“So you go to school?”
“One thing I learned was that there are all kinds of music. HEY JUDE might be the best song of all time for white people, but it’s nothing in comparison to SEX MACHINE by Sly Stone.”
“Or KUNG FU FIGHTING.” I checked the speedometer. We were going 75. No one else on the highway was close to that speed and I slowed down to the new limit, which felt 15 mph in a Model T. “Or SOUL MAKOSSA. You have to open your ears or else you close your heart.”
“That’s the kind of music they play in fag bars.” The word ‘fag’ was said with hatred.
I stomped on the brakes in time to pull over at an exit.
Fags were not strangers. The neighbor across the street from my parents was a homosexual. He let us swim in his pool. My youngest brother showed his tendencies by stripping my sisters’ Ken doll and not Barbie.
“Why you stopping?” Bill leaned forward with menace.
“Why?” The car’s owner had a buzz-cut. Bill had long-hair. Jake was more us than our passenger.
I turned around in the bucket seat and revved the big V8 with menace. The Torino was still in drive.
“I’ll tell you why. Jack Kerouac wrote in ON THE ROAD that the biggest challenge for a hitchhiker was proving that the driver didn’t make a mistake picking him up and I have to admit I made a mistake with you. Now get out of the car and I mean now.”
“He really means it.” AK had seen me fight on more than one occasion.There was always a breaking point and Bill was five feet over that line.
“This isn’t Sturbridge.” He hesitated opening the door.
“Doesn’t matter to me. I don’t like queer bashers.”
“I knew it the second I got in the car.” “I knew it the second I got in the car.” Bill opened the door and pointed a finger at us.
“Knew what?” I had to ask.
“That you two pansies were queers.” His sneer had been practiced on hundreds of young men who weren’t hurting anyone.
“Even if I was, I wouldn’t fuck you with an elephant’s dick.”
“You fucking fag.” He started for me and Pam shrieked with the shrillness of the music from the bathroom murder scene from Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. AK leaped out of the car and grabbed Jim by the back of his neck. He mightn’t have been a fighter, but the pianist manhandled the roustabout like a mahout hooking an elephant and flung our passenger across the shoulder of the highway.
Bill tumbled down the embankment and AK chucked the vagrant’s bag over the slope. A luck toss hit the rising Jim in the shoulder. He resumed his fall down the gully.
“Let’s go.” AK jumped in the front, checking his hands.
My right foot hit the gas and the Torino accelerated from a standing stop. Bill was spun out of the back seat and Pam shut the back door and then leaned over the seat to examine AK’s knuckles.
“Nothing’s broken.”
“I’m not much of a fighter.”
“Unlike some people we know. I hope you learned your lesson.” She folded her arms across her chest. “He had his hands all over me.”
“Sorry.” I checked the rearview mirror.
Pam’s eyes met mine.
No straight man will understand the everyday terror of being a woman or homosexual and the blonde smiled at me. She was happy that Bill had hit the dirt hard.
“Let’s pretend it didn’t happen.” She tilted her head to the side. Blonde hair covered one side of her face and she pushed the strands behind her ears. The twenty-year old nursing student tapped my shoulder and said, “No more hitchhikers.”
“Your wish is my command.” I gripped the wheel and AK turned up the volume. WILD was playing James Brown’s PAYBACK PART 2. The Godfather of Soul had a wicked rhythm section.
AK and I exchanged a shrug. She was right about hitchhikers, but then women were right about everything and men were always wrong.
We crossed over the Charles River and I slowed to pick up a toll ticket at the Route 128 toll booth. I thanked the attendant and laid a light foot on the gas.
A warm wind gushed through the open windows. The traffic on the Interstate was rolling at 60. The Torino had a full tank. The station wagon overtook a procession of slower cars. It was good to be on the road.
Three days from now was my birthday and I was going to be 22. I stepped on the accelerator. Once the speedometer hit 100 AK looked at me and I maintained my foot’s pressure on the gas. At this speed the other cars on the road were standing still, but none of them were heading to California.
We had a long way to go.

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