FragLit

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Travel Fragments

Fall 2007 :: Archived Issue

2007 :: Issue 1/Fall :: Travel Fragments

People on the Road

Kimble James Greenwood

July 1975

After sitting an hour in East Texas, I was picked up by three long-hairs and a dog (a short hair) in a Volkswagen bus. The only normal one was the driver, for which, I guess, I am grateful. Sitting next to the driver was an Alice-Cooper school of make-up reject. Dark splotches of dirt, grease, or paint dripped from around his eyes, outlined his lips. He wasn’t too bright. The two times we stopped, he stood in front of the bus and pissed on the front wheels. The guy beside me in the back was the most vocal of them all, talking non-stop, to the dog. Not once in the hour I was beside him did he acknowledge my presence with a single word. He was penciling in remarkably accurate botanical studies of flowers on graph paper held by a clip-board, from memory. The dog’s name was Trollop.

::

In the Texan desert I was picked up by a four-year enlisted man going to Fort Bragg where he was stationed. He said he’d been in two years, was still a PFC, and had just gone AWOL. He explained to me the circumstances. He believed that his company was “the worst bunch of fuck-ups in the Army.” All they did, he said, was sit around and drink beer. There was nothing else to do.

“What did they do when they caught you going AWOL?”

“Nothing. You see, I was the only one in my company who went AWOL in the month of February. My company commander didn’t want it on his record, so he just wrote it off.”

Later on he told me of being assigned duty to the Vietnamese refugee camp in the Ozarks. “I was flown up there in this two-man helicopter. I’m telling ya, all the way up there the guy couldn’t have been more than a couple-a feet above the tops of those trees. He saw some people down on the road fixing a flat tire, so turned to me and grinned and said, ‘Watch this’ and then swooped down on them. Shit! He almost hit the roof of the car. The people were all screaming and hitting the dirt. Later on we saw a water skier, so he swooped down about a foot off the water, flying right along beside him. The guy freaked out.

“He was a good pilot though. He must have been fifty or sixty; flew in World War II and everything. He told me he always flew low like that. ‘Ain’t no fun flying high.’”

::

I had traveled all the way from Lafayette, Louisiana, where my sister lives, to northern Arkansas in a day, waiting no more than fifteen minutes between rides. Got a ride with two blacks, an old man and a young man, who gave me a beer and sped along the Mississippi highway at ninety miles an hour. The younger of the men held a CB radio in his hand and spent the entire time trying to drum up conversation with truck drivers.

“Come in northbound. Come in northbound. North on 55, north on 55. Come in good buddy.”

We pass a lumber truck. “Where you goin’ with all that lumber good buddy?” he says into the microphone. Nothing. Static.

We pass a gravel truck. “Where you goin’ with all that gravel good buddy?” Static. A muffled voice. “Can’t read ya good buddy. Come in again good buddy.” Nothing.

::

I stand by a motel on the edge of a little town in northern Arkansas, waiting for eleven o’clock at night to call my friend in Texas to get the verdict on the film I’d developed there—good or bad? A couple of kids spy me and come on over and start talking. One of them is ten years old, sports glasses, wears no shoes or shirt and is smoking. “Smoked since oz two.” The other one is nine. I share the sack lunch my sister prepared me that morning. We chat. They talk in heavy accents. They’re brothers, from a family of twelve.

“Do you like living around here?”

“Nah,” they say in chorus.

“Why not?”

“Cuz airs too many niggers,” the ten-year-old says.

“And what is it you don’t like about ‘niggers’?”

“It’s jus’ ‘at they think thair better’n us.”

“They all think thair so good,” says the other one.

“Oh,” I smile.

::

The guy who drives me to Chicago had just come from Memphis where he had lined up a job. He had lived in Chicago his entire life and was delighted to finally be getting out of it. “The only thing I like in Chicago is my chick and my dog.” All the way there he throws out little digs.

A hundred-and-forty miles from the city he says, “See? You can see the orange smoke in the distance.” I peer hard over the farmed landscape and see only the white puffy clouds in the blue. Seventy miles away he says, “There! You can smell it now.” I smell only the gas fumes of the car and the seemingly infinite fields of corn we’re passing. Once in the metropolis I am delighting in a summer rainstorm as my Chicago friend is smiling bitterly at his city.

“I’ll tell you,” he says, “if you want to stay alive in Chicago remember two things.”

I’m all ears.

“Never call anyone a nigger, and don’t hassle or talk back to the cops.”

I laugh out loud at the anti-climax and say, “That’s something to remember any place.”

“I guess it is,” he admits a little ruefully.

August 9, 1975
Trattenbach, Austria

I was walking out of Vienna in nearly deserted streets past sunset. Suddenly dark thunderclouds covered the sky. Wind raced through the streets swirling dead leaves, newspapers and dust. In a moment all was black and still. I was mesmerized with the magic, holding my breath, waiting for the sparkly colors suggesting some sorcerer’s return. Then, with bright lightning and deafening thunder, the rain was hurled into the streets. I stood in the doorway of a closed toyshop for shelter, enchanted.

The rain continued as I became increasingly aware that I needed to piss. When the agony became unbearable, I found a nearby alley covered overhead from the rain, pulled out my peter and relieved myself in the street, thinking ‘this won’t hurt anyone. No one will know. For all appearances it’s rainwater.’ At that moment an exceptionally strong gust of wind ripped my hat from my head and flung it down—you guessed it—into a puddle of suspiciously yellow-colored rainwater. I stood stunned, open-mouthed, rarely seeing so clear a case of instant karma. Then picking up my dripping hat, I stumbled back to my protected doorway, laughing so hard I could hardly walk.

Later that evening I am crouched in a doorway on the south-western limits of Vienna. Massive stone fronts of imposing old housing complexes. Wide, deserted, stone streets. Yellow streetlights illuminating the steady rain. I’m singing softly to myself. And then, tottering down the sidewalk coming near me I spot a man, nearly bald but only in his thirties. When he’s abreast my refuge from the rain, he sees me and comes over to crouch with me. He’s obviously drunk, but all the more friendly for that. He unlooses a string of German, none of which I can follow, but I nod and play along; drunks are usually looking for an ear, not another mouth. But when he eventually demands my participation, I beg incomprehension, telling him, auf Deutsch, that I am from Amerika.

“Amerika?!” he asks, as if stunned. And then, “Frank Sinatra!”

I nod; he’s got the nationality right.

“Frankie Sinatra,” he grins, “He’s my boy!”

I nod again. He seems so happy with the fact.

“You sing Frankie?”

I nod my head no. And then remember the one Sinatra song I love. I start singing, “Full moon, and empty arms…” Unfortunately, that’s the only line I can recall. But it pleases my drunk, and he starts singing, “Full moon and empty arms…” along with me. Together we croon “Full moon and empty arms…,” two lone figures, a drunk and an alien, on the streets at night in a steady rain. Sweet melancholy. After several minutes of this, he gets up, waves me adieu, and continues down the street.

An hour later, the rain has abated enough that I continue walking, looking for a place to spend the night. In the darkness beyond the last of the suburban lights, I find what looks like a gas station under construction; its garage is intact, and there is an unlocked door that gives me ingress. I find some cardboard, lay out my sleeping bag, and prop up a loose door to hide me from the doorway, should anyone enter. I drop off to sleep.

Not much later I hear the door of the garage open. I’m instantly awake and watching. But the door that hides me also hides me from seeing who is at the door. I hear a shuffling of feet coming toward me, and then there above me looms a dark figure: wolfman!

“Was tust du hier?” he rumbles. What are you doing here?

Ich schlafe hier heute abend,” I meekly reply. I’m sleeping here tonight.

He grunts, for this was apparently his idea as well. He wraps himself in his dirty coat and then plops down on the cement right beside me! I realize it isn’t wolfman, just another drunk with a whiskered face. Thus began one of my more charming nights in Europa.

The drunk was so close to me I could kiss him. His breath permeated the air with the peculiar chime-stale smell of dead wine. I felt him tugging at my sleeping bag, trying to pull it over him, with me in it. So I shouted, “Hey!” and he desisted, mumbling a mouthful of swallowed German curses. I lay there feeling bitter and guilty, thinking, “This is probably Christ, here to test me.”

I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. My drunk was soon fast asleep, however, snoring so loudly with grunts, gasps, wheezes and belches that the cavernous room reverberated with noise. Every hour or so he would have a horrific coughing attack, choking on phlegm, gurgling in suffocation. Every other hour he would yell out several verses of some nightmare, waking me with a start, but consoling me that, at least, I must have been sleeping.

He left early in the morning, six o’clock by my watch. I fastened my eyes on him, smiled serenely, twisted my eyebrows and inquired, “Schlaffen Sie gut?” Did you sleep well?

Nein!” he bellowed, and then, mumbling some other phrases, wandered out the door.

August 1975

South of Salzburg, Austria I was picked up by a young man who spoke English fluently—colorful and delightful, he wore a red bandana around his neck, a gleam of energy and mischievousness in his eye, a ready grin. All in all, a poet and a wastrel.

We got talking immediately and became deep in humorous argument over Wittgenstein. He cited Wittgenstein’s “That which can not be said must be shown” in opposition to my citation of Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language imply the limits of my world,” (both of us using the original German). I said the statements were not contrary to each other. He said language was not a limit to thinking. I recited the famous Eskimo 30-words-for-snow example. That held him for awhile but then he claimed that he didn’t think in words, he thought in pictures. “When I see a cow,” he pointed to a cow in passing, “I don’t think ‘cow’.” I granted him this, but pointed out the difference between perceiving and thinking. “The mind may perceive in images, but thought, by definition, requires words.” This went on for awhile, neither of us making noticeable headway.

We were having a great time though, and such beautiful scenery—mountains and greenery. We talked of Hitler and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and “The Sound of Music.” I told him he must be a poet. He laughed and said, “No, I only enjoy thinking.” What a confession, I thought, in a world where most people try to avoid it.

He said he had learned his English in America where he had lived two years with an American girlfriend. I asked him what he thought of American girls in contrast with European girls. He laughed and said that there’s a well-known joke which aptly answers the question, albeit stereotypically. And then he told me: “A young Frenchman was relaxing on a deserted beach when suddenly he heard cries for help. He looked out to the ocean and perceived a girl drowning. So he dashed into the surf, swam out to her and drug her back to shore. Alas, though he tried artificial respiration, it appeared that he was too late, the girl was dead. So he left her there and went into a nearby town to fetch assistance. Coming back, he found another Frenchman screwing the girl. ‘What are you doing man?! That girl is dead!’ ‘Sacre bleu!’ exclaimed the other Frenchman, jumping up, ‘I thought she was an American.’”

I laughed uproariously. The fine young gentleman drove me to Salzburg’s youth hostel near the old town. As I left the car, I recommended Kosinski’s Steps for him to read, which he dutifully wrote down. I thanked him profusely for the ride and he told me it was a pleasure having me in his car.

September 27, 1977
State College, Pennsylvania

I was sitting in a park in Allentown yesterday, waiting for the Chamber of Commerce to open in order to procure a map, my first morning back in Amerika. A sixty-year-old city works employee of Greek descent came to cut the lawn, but saw me sitting there in the sun and came over and sat with me awhile, talking nonstop.

The fact around which he became gradually centered was that in 1934, in the heart of the depression, despite his parents’ vain attempts to accumulate money for his college education, he passed from high school into work—where he has been for forty-three years.

“I’m healthy. I eat well—not the junk you can buy at McDonald’s, but real, substantial, Greek meals. I’m not crippled. So what can I say? I’m too strong to put a gun to my head. And when you’re healthy, who can put a gun to their head? But to get back to the point, and not to keep repeating myself, in 1934 when I couldn’t go to college, because of the reasons we’ve been talking about, and I don’t mean to make excuses, but that decided what I am. I missed whatever chances I had to become successful.”

“You don’t sound very satisfied with your life.”

“No, I’m not. I have to mow this grass. I don’t mind. But it’s a physical task. And when I mow the grass I can think. And you know what I think about? Let me tell you. It’s a terrible thing—and I mean, what can be a terrible thing when you’re healthy, you’re not crippled?—but it’s a terrible thing to look back on your life and to see that you have failed. It’s a terrible thing—and I don’t mean to repeat myself, but I want you to know—it’s a terrible thing to live, knowing that your life has amounted to nothing.…”

September 28, 1977

I’m walking along the Susquehanna river, full nearly to flooding with the week of solid rain. I get a ride with a Christian, a man whose years of heavy drinking and alcoholism was changed nearly overnight through the intervention of Jesus Christ—the story of which was written up and printed, becoming one of those little pocket testaments one sees and receives on the streets. He gave me one from the stash he kept in his glove compartment and let me off.

Soon enough I was picked up by George, a man proudly claiming to be an atheist. (“To claim you’re an atheist, you know, is to claim you know God doesn’t exist.…” He caught the drift and, after expounding a bit, amended the term to “agnostic.”) This man was fluid! He spoke in a hard, clear, intelligent, booming voice. Turns out he was a professor of economics and a dairy farmer. I mentioned something about realizing I was twenty-four and had never milked a cow; I felt the lack profoundly. Resignedly he offered, “Well, I’ll take you home then and you can squeeze the cow’s teats, but you’ll probably just get kicked. It takes several weeks to learn properly.”

He talked on. He was tired of teaching. In the sixties things were great.

“Why?”

“Because they would argue with me then!”

He wanted to devote more time to farming.

“Are you satisfied with your life?”

“Hell no!” Pleased with his polemic. “Oh I know, I have no right to be dissatisfied. I’m wealthier than most, in a wealthy country. I’ve got all the material benefits anyone could want.”

“Then why?”

“I want more.”

“More what?”

“Land! Cattle!”

I laugh; I wasn’t expecting that kind of more. He says he sold $100,000 worth of milk last year; his cattle ate $30,000 worth of feed.

His home sits in a valley surrounded by forested hills, interlarded with little roads, fields of corn, streams. His home is a big, white, stone house, plain but beautiful. He brings me in to meet his wife, “Bird.” We all sit in the kitchen and listen to him tutor Liz in economics—a friend of the family, a student at Penn State. The sun gets low and sinks. He drives Liz and I around to his second farm. Liz teases that she’s never seen him in a suit and tie, his present get-up. We pass a couple of deer grazing beside a corn field. We pass an Amish farm and schoolhouse, a little white thing in the middle of a green pasture, wisps of fog collecting around it.

Back home Bird makes dinner for us, all of it from the farm: tomatoes, squash, green beans and steak. “This is Carl,” they say, eating the steak, “he’s much better than Max.”

He never did let me milk a cow.

October 1, 1977
Volney, VA

Around two in the afternoon I was picked up by David, a well-spoken man of 33, driving a Volkswagen with Ontario license plates, looking like a cross between a stereotypical Mountie and Abe Lincoln. His specialty was stone-masonry, a skill he’d learned in southern France.

He told me of his attempts to get a job in Texas, finally forced to hire on with a brick-laying gang. Too insistent on his own kind of quality, he couldn’t get along. “I didn’t like them and they didn’t like me. They wanted to get the bricks straight; they wanted everything straight. I just couldn’t do it—not as fast as they wanted me to.” So when he was fired he worked with a crew putting stone facade on houses. But, again, he couldn’t get along. “When I put on stone I’m always thinking, always measuring up. I’ll put in a stone and then back away and walk around to see if it’s right. And I will go to the stone pile and look around for the right stone, choosing every one individually to make sure it compliments the whole. But these stone gangs, they just slap them up there.” Nirvana soon enough came his way, however, when he was hired by a millionaire to build a castle-home in Austin. That’s where he was headed.

October 1978

I was walking out on an onramp in Albuquerque when a car full of laughing youth passed me, swerving, as one of them rolled down the window and hurled a joint at me, yelling, “Here you go man!” or something like that, and sped off. I smiled, shook my head, stepped over the joint, and continued walking.

I’m sitting in the back of the Culpepper County Cattle Co. bar-and-restaurant on the east side of Gallup. I’ve elected to stay here, break my $50 to watch the Dodgers in the World Series at 6:00. They have a big screen. I haven’t eaten all day. Just had three beers, courtesy of Willie, a black man who had just returned to Albuquerque from Hartford, Connecticut where he attended the funeral of his father this morning. Some 135 miles here, traveling at an average of 80 miles-an-hour, he bemoaned the loss of his “daddy” and the deep hurt inside him unable to come out through tears. “I’ve never driven a car without my daddy alive,” he said at one point.

July 1983

I was picked up around sunset in the Malheur river valley in Oregon by Greg, driving a remarkably intact 1962, turquoise, Volkswagen bug—his pride and joy. 24 years old, powerfully built, a native of the Oregon coast, a drummer, and one of the breed of truly open, friendly, nice guys, whose lack of guile became increasingly surprising.

“Wow!” he says. “Far out! You’re the first hitchhiker I’ve seen all day! I’m sure glad you’re here.”

In Ontario, Idaho, around midnight, we see another “hitchhiker”: a bare-chested, barefooted man in his fifties, sitting in the middle of the street with two toy Conestoga covered wagons about him, one of them broken.

“Goin’ to Boise? Great! We’ll pick ya up. Sure thing,” says Greg to himself, to me, to the car; then asks, “We have room don’t we?”

Other than the little bug having no backseat, and presently filled with all my stuff, Greg’s stuff and a dog—sure, we had room.

“I don’t know,” I say, putting worry and caution into my voice. “He looks a little strange.…”

Greg reluctantly agrees, passes him, is silent awhile, and then says, “Now I’ll be feeling guilty all the way to Boise. I should have picked him up.”

::

Six hours in Salina, Utah, that accursed town. Standing in a wind storm. Finally picked up by Mike—42 years old, black hair, a funny, friendly little character driving a semi. Born and raised in England. Moved here in 1960 when he was eighteen. Lived on the east coast. Has a bachelor’s degree in communications and history, a master’s degree in journalism. But he enjoys trucking, enjoys wandering. He plots his routes on little roads, abstaining from the freeways whenever possible. His current dream is to buy a jeep and travel around the world with his lady friend. “Alice Springs, Australia!” he exults. “Can you imagine drinking beer in Alice Springs? Out in the middle of nowhere, 150 miles of desert on either side. That would really be great.”

::

I was picked up in Crescent Junction, Utah by Paul, a craftsman of textured stained glass, living in Moab. A Charles Bukowski face, deviating only in the red beard he sported, but otherwise just as ravaged and pockmarked. He even had a similar kind of growl. We talk about Art and business—discovering we are both alumni of Dixon Jr. High school in Provo. He lived awhile with his “Mormon grandmother, that bitch! She was the meanest lady I’ve ever known. She was so mean she wouldn’t let me use her as a reference, a resident of the town, so I could get a public library card.”

We’re driving along. Suddenly he turns off on an exit explaining, “I hope you don’t mind this. This is something I like to do when driving a long tedious stretch through the desert.” What’s he going to do? I’m grinning in spite of myself—though a little apprehensive. We’re racing off and up the offramp at fifty miles an hour.

“I call it ‘Shooting the exit’. I only do it on exits I can see clearly both ways.”

Sure enough. He shoots through the stop sign at the end of the offramp, across the crossroad, and onto the onramp on the other side. He looks over at me. “It gets your heart beating a little faster doesn’t it?” I had to admit that it did, “Damn. That’s a first!” He grinned and offered me a beer. How sweet it was.



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