May 24, 1974 was a warm morning in Boston. A pale blue swathed the sky from east to west. It was a good day to start a long trip.
My friend AK, a blonde nursing school co-ed, and I traveled by the trolley to Jamaica Plains. We got off at Boynton Street and walked down to number 166. A middle-aged man stepped onto the sidewalk and tapped his watch.
It was 9:10.
“You’re ten minutes late.” A porcupine buzz-cut topped his erect posture and his chino trousers had been ironed to a razor sharpness. The startling whiteness of his tee-shirt 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. Her black dress testified to a lingering period of mourning. I bowed my head in respect for her loss. She bit her lower lip and dropped her gaze to the folded hands on her lap.
“I suppose ten is better than twenty. The name’s Jake Moore.” The forty year-old seized my hand.
“Please to meet you.” I met his firm grip with strength.
“So you’re my driving team.” His steely eyes studied my shoulder-length hair, then regarded AK’s pony tail, and warmed to Pam’s free-flowing blonde locks.
“That’s us.” I released his hand and introduced us by name.
AK let me do the talking.
Jake and I spoke with 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.” Nana had passed away in 1968. I missed her beef stew on cold nights.
“From the West. Nana spoke Gaelic.” My grandmother had sailed over from Galway at the age of 14. “She came off the ship and lose her shoe. Nana said she came to America like Cinderella, but she ended up working as a maid in a Marblehead mansion.”
“Better than a potato patch in the Connemara. Mine came over in the Year of the Pig.” Our shared heritage erased some of the gap between our haircuts.
“My Nana arrived in the year of the Crow whenever that was.” It had something to do with Chinese Astrology.
“Those women liked keeping a secret.”
“That they did.” Jake looked over to the driveway. “That’s 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 and it was going to be ours for the next week, if Jake gave his OK.
“Looks like a good ride.”
“It’s not just any car.” He walked over to the station wagon with a content glow on his face. “This is 1967 Ford Torino with a 428 FE V8 and a three-speed automatic. I was lucky to get one of the last Cobra-Jet engines.”
“Wasn’t the same engine in Steve McQueen’s ride in BULLITT?” AK interjected to demonstrate his knowledge of cars.
“Ford designed that 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 was a 1964 VW bug. Its top speed was 85.”
“85?” Jake scoffed my claim.
“Downhill with a tailwind in the White Mountains.”
“You know telling someone about your speeding isn’t the best way to get them to give you a car.”
“I guess not.”
“I’ll make sure that he keeps it down.” Pam shook her head.
She thought I had a big mouth. She wasn’t all that wrong.
“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.” His statement was more an accusation than a question.
“When I was 17, I tried to enlist in the Marines to get out of my town, but my mother wouldn’t sign the papers.” My mother was a devout Catholic and hated communism, but she had loved me too much to allow my fighting overseas in a deadly war. “She threw them in the trash.”
“And at 18 you were a hippie?” Long hairs were traitors in the eyes of the Silent Majority.
“Something like that.”
An older friend had returned from Viet-Nam in 1968, extolling Muhammad Ali’s creed that no VC had killed anyone in the USA and my hair grew down to my shoulders in less than six months.
“There’s a lot of ‘something like that’ going around.” Sadness tinged his words and Jake held out his hand.
His fingers twitched a request. “Let me see your driver’s licenses.”
AK and Pam gave him their out-of-state driving permits. Mine had been issued for a Boston address. Last autumn I had been arrested after a high-speed chase in a VW from Pam’s college, but that information was only available downtown at the Department of Motor Vehicle on Causeway Street.
“Well, the faces match the photos.” Jake returned the IDs. “We drove out here for a family visit. My wife can’t bear driving through those corn fields again.”
“It is a long ride.” The distance from coast to coast was almost 3000 miles.
“You ever gone 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 drove 100 or better most of the way to Reno. The trip from Boston to San Francisco took me and my friend about fifty hours.”
Pam and AK dismissed this claim with matching smirks.
“Fifty hours sounds fast, but it ends up averaging 60mph.” Jake stepped away from his car.
“We didn’t stop much. The driver was in a hurry to reach LA.” I had nothing to gain from an explanation about steering from the passenger seat whenever Lucky nodded out from his Methedrine jag.
“When I was stationed in Key West I used to hitchhike to Boston. Everyone who picked me up told a different story, almost like they were trying to change their lives, if only for the time I was in their car ride and that’s the beauty of the open road. You become someone different with a new name and a new past. You get out of the car and stand on the road with your thumb out, you go back to who you are. There is no escaping the future of you.”
Jake’s unexpected insight humbled my youthful arrogance, because his words constructed a link between college students, hoboes, tramps, soldiers, beatniks, runaways, and hippies traveling the same paths across America.
“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. As for driving cross country in fifty hours this time, I’d appreciate if you take it a little easier on my car.”
“Driving fast in America is against the law now.” Congress had established a national speed limit earlier in the year.
“These idiots in government think driving 55 will save gas and free us from the Arabs. There’s no shortage of gas.” Jake’s face turned red with anger. “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 provided 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 driving cross country?” Jake asked Pam.
“The farthest west I’ve ever been is Buffalo to visit my college roommate and I’ve always wanted to see the West.” The blonde in her breast-clinging paisley dress was a vision of Woodstock beauty. Like most girls her age she wasn’t wearing a bra.
“Then you’re in for a treat; the Great Plains, the Rockies, the high deserts, the Sierras, and then California.” Jake had been on the road before and more than once. “And all the people. All different. All Americans.”
“Seeing America.” Pam added to her credibility as the girl next door by saying, “My fiancée is doing his internship at a hospital north of San Francisco, and I’ll be working at the same hospital this summer. Harry and I met in high school.”
“You’re high school sweethearts like my wife and me.” Jake regarded the woman in black. Her eyes remained fixed on her hands. “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 had married my friend. Kyla had give Happy two kids. Everyone in my hometown said that they were the ideal family.
“What about a job?” Jake asked, as if had served his stretch in the military without counting days or years.
“I drove taxi to pay for college.” Four to five nights a week had taken their toll on my grades. “I probably spent too many hours behind the wheel. I ended up at the bottom of my class.”
“His diploma read ‘sin laude’.” AK added with a smile. He had told the same joke at my graduation party
My father hadn’t appreciated the Long Islander’s humor, yet my mother had beamed with pride after the graduation ceremony. Her mother had not finished grammar school back in the Connemara.
“You graduated and that’s what’s important.” Jake ignored AK’s dig.
As a fellow Hibernian the ex-soldier admired a lengthy education. Both our grandmothers had probably not finished grammar school under the British.
“Anyone can drive taxi. What about a real job?”
“I’m starting a teaching job at South Boston High School in the fall.” It was actually a substitute teacher position. I had taken no education classes in college, but a friend of my older brother had been elected onto the Boston School Committee and my position had been a reward for working on his campaign.
“I’d rather face a banzai charge than a class filled with teenagers.” Jake shivered in shudders.
“Yeah, when AK’s friend invited us out to Encinitas for the summer, I figured to take one long last beach vacation.” 65 was mandatory retirement age for a teacher. I would be working well into the next century, but this summer was dedicated to sea and sun south of LA. “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. They had hit the Top Forty with BABY IT’S YOU.
“See you in Lodi.” Pam’s major was nursing and bed manners were her strong point in TLC.
I tossed my canvas bag in the back and sat behind the wheel. AK was my co-pilot. I reversed out of the driveway, then shifted the transmission into Drive. I beeped the horn and headed onto the Jamaica Way headed toward Brighton, 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 unfolded 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 was in love with his car.” AK had the same feeling for his Firebird.
“It’s a man thing. Sometimes I think my boyfriend loves his car more than me.” Pam checked her reflection in the window and tied a scarf around her head to keep her hair from getting snarled 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 sounded disappointed of this. “It’s red.”
“Nice.” I didn’t mean it. 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 stepping on her toes so early on a long trip.
# 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 America’s # 1 hit. 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 longhair was waiting by the passenger door. The scent of damp earth seeped through the closed windows. He was older than I thought and I was having second thoughts about him, but karma overruled my apprehension.
“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 Mississippi-bound.” He was weathered by the road and a thick Southern accent slithered from his chapped lips.
“We can drop you at Sturbridge. We’re going to California.” I had friends from the South. They were good people.
“Damn, California, always wanted to see the fucking weirdos out there.” He was no hippie. “I’m joining a fucking carnival for the summer. We travel from Biloxi 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 fucking head-ons. You look like in-between people.”
His barbed comments were aimed at me. “In-between people get sandwiched by aggressive people. They don’t stand a fucking chance in life.”
Bill had been in the car for less than three minutes and I was already regretting having stopped for him. I slowed down to hear him fill the sullen silence between AK, Pam, and me with a rattling monologue about the life on the road.
“I spent the winter in a fucking logging town. Them damned Yankees don’t give a fuck for crackers like me, but at least I have my fucking front teeth. Last night I was in a bar on the river. They had a live band.” His hands draped over the seat. The knuckles were scuffed with scabs. “The pansy-assed guitarist wouldn’t play FREEBIRD, but played fucking Neil Young. I taught him the chords later. Fucking Yankees.”
Pam sighed loudly in disapproval of his favorite adjective and he laughed, “Sorry, Sunshine, if I offend you. I was brought up twenty miles past the fucking wrong side of the tracks.”
I turned up the radio for HOLLYWOOD SWINGING by Kool and the Gang.
“Why you listening to this fucking disco shine crap?” Bill barked over my shoulder.
“Fucking disco shine crap?” I glared at him in the rearview mirror. His face was swollen from hard drinking and his nose had been flattened by well-earned lefts and rights.
“Yeah, I hate fucking 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 fucking best band in the world.” Bill looked like he hadn’t slept much in the last few days and he smelled like a disinterred corpse.
“I’ll handle this.” AK had a much cooler head and I shut my mouth rather than lose my temper. Bill was a human like the rest of us. Maybe he was a little more unlucky than us, but the same flesh and blood.
“What makes you an fucking expert, Jew Boy?”
“What? You’re not a Jew? I can them as I see fucking them. Sorry, I don’t mean fucking nothing by it.”
“I’m at Berkelee Music School.” AK was also auditioning for a gig as a keyboard player for an all-black R & B band from Roxbury. Jump Street wanted a white guy in the group to deal with Boston’s 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 fucking school for music?”
“Yeah, and the one thing I learned was that there are all kinds of music. HEY JUDE might be the best song for white people, but it’s nothing in comparison to SEX MACHINE by Sly Stone.”
“Or KUNG FU FIGHTING.” I checked the speedometer. The needle was wavering on 75 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 fucking music they play in fag bars.” The word ‘fag’ carried a long-seeded hatred.
I stomped on the brakes in time to pull over to the breakdown lane. The bridge across the Charles River was another hundred years ahead. Cars whizzed by switching lanes for 128 North or South.
Fags were not strangers. The neighbor across the street from my parents was a homosexual. Arthur 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. 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.”
“He really means it.” AK had seen me fight on more than one occasion.
“This isn’t fucking Sturbridge.” He hesitated opening the door.
“Doesn’t matter to me. I don’t like queer bashers.” We hadn’t even reached 128.
“I fucking 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 the obvious.
“That you two were fucking queers.” His accusation had been launched at 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. I blocked his hands and AK leaped out of the car and grabbed Jim’s jacket.
The pianist mightn’t have been a fighter, but he manhandled the roustabout out of the car like a mahout hooking an elephant and flung our passenger across the breakdown lane.
Bill tumbled down the embankment and AK chucked the vagrant’s bag over the slope. A lucky toss hit the rising Jim in the shoulder and our evicted passenger completed his descent down the gully.
“Go.” AK jumped in the front, checking his hands.
My right foot hit the gas and the Torino accelerated from a standing stop. Pam shut the back door and then leaned over the seat to examine AK’s knuckles.
“I’m not much of a fighter.”
“Unlike some people we know.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Well, 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, 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 the twenty-year old nursing student pushed the strands behind her ears. “No more hitchhikers. This isn’t ON THE ROAD. And one more thing?”
“Could we keep the use of ‘fucking’ to a minimum?”
“Your wish is my command.” I gripped the wheel and AK turned up the volume. The radio station 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 ticket at the toll booth. I thanked the attendant and laid a light foot on the gas.
A warm wind gushed through the 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.
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 pressure on the gas. At this speed the other cars on the road were standing still, but none of them were heading to California and it was a long way to the Pacific.