I hitched lifts with college students from Brooklyn, then a diesel driver, and then two farmers who drove a vintage ‘57 maroon and white Buick with round silver louvers on the front fenders. One farmer was old, and the other was his son. They wore cliché’d bib overalls and brogans, their ball caps dramatic with sweat stains where the bills met the crowns. They drawled at me about my part in the war. My San Diego Marine Corps universe was so far from their macadamed straight-road, white fence, perfectly-painted-red-barn world that I felt like an illegal alien.
My parting with the girl in Iowa City still rankled like wheat straw beneath my collar. I couldn’t help thinking if I’d articulated my feelings about concentration camp Jews and freedom-fighter Black folk better, she might have invited me in her knickers.
Later, a man picked me up on his way home from work and ranted about hippies and long-hairs. I kept my tongue shut up in my mouth. He dropped me in front of the Camdenton, Missouri football field and I paced and stomped in the approaching dark as Friday night gridiron crowds rooted for their teams. The sounds rose from the stadium like flocks of starlings and came at me like pain out of separate speakers, the sound waves a half beat out of time.
I was picked up by a short-legged man who had a problem with anyone who passed him, so we sped and caromed through the twilight Ozark landscape. I kept slamming my foot down on an imaginary brake every time he scared the hell out of me, which seemed like every five minutes. He was headed to Kingman, Arizona and wanted me to go along, and said he hadn’t slept in the last three days. Leery, I got off at Springfield and found a pay phone and called Wayne’s grandfather.
He told me Wayne had ventured to Iowa City in search of me. We’d passed on the road. He said for me to find my way to Branson and he’d give me a bed, beer and hot chow. I walked all the way across Springfield in my Dingos, blisters soring up and ouching at me. On the south end of town I found a National Cemetery and against my better intuition rolled out my bag. I figured no one alive would come in there and bother me. The night was crystal and chilly. I slept with my boots on. The stars hung in the sky as if they might come down in one vast drapery of dust. A sickle-shaped moon hung over the tree line on the other side of the highway. I actually slept, the local haints deciding I wasn’t worth scaring. But my dreams were invaded by the night cries of that Iowa City girl and the emaciated grimaces of Jews in Buchenwald jammed into death barracks, their faces like the skull symbols on pirate pennants. Scenes of Little Rock, Arkansas Blacks being fire-hosed and attacked by Alsatian kill dogs crammed in between. I awoke shivering from the cold dew that soaked my bed gear. I watched the sun come up over a ground fog, water dripping off everything.
I stood out on the road to Branson and stuck my thumb out. The first car that came down the road was a ‘66 white and turquoise Ford Fairlane. It sounded like a rocket freighting into the perimeter of a combat post. About the time it roared parallel with me, the driver laid on the brakes and the smell of smoking tires singed the inside of my nose. Three men wearing big black cowboy hats stared at me. The one in the back seat opened the door and his long, Levi-ed leg, shod with a black riding-heeled boot, stepped out. He drawled, “Want a lift?”
I nodded and got in. The stench of old whiskey permeated the interior, and each man stunk of a long night ‘s worth of cigarettes. They called me Boy. The first time wasn’t so bad. They talked about roping steers and riding broncs and dogging bulls. They called me Boy again. I said, “How old’re you fellers?” They were nineteen and twenty, not as old as I. They said they were on the way back to work. They asked me, “Where you going, Boy?” That word, boy, started to prick me in the back of the neck. I wondered what would happen if I had to throw hands with one of them, or all of them, if it came to that. When I told them my short version of who, what and where, they started on about the war, how bad it was. One of them said, “You’re pretty stupid, hunh, Boy, for ending up over there doing the rich man’s calling?” He was the one in the back seat next to me. He owned one of those noses that looked like a hatchet head, but thin and weak-boned. I figured I’d bust his nose and that would take care of him. They were doing over one-twenty an hour as they laughed. One of them laughed about the girls they’d been trading off with all night. But they just couldn’t talk about it, they had to scream.
The one in the front passenger seat would be the biggest problem. He sat so he could watch me. He was doing the bulk of the talking, calling me Boy. If I had to, I’d gouge one of his eyes out. I acted like I couldn’t hear what he was saying and leaned close to see if there was a weapon on the front seat. I didn’t see one. The driver would be easy. In eight seconds I could choke him to death or reach around and stick my fingers in his eyes. We came to a junction and they told me, “Git out.” Then they headed west to work, and I stuck my thumb out again, glad to be shed of them and the trouble that was coming.
I was still seething when a rusted old ‘56 GMC pickup with stock racks on the bed pulled up. An old cow and two white goats stood in the bed. A man and woman sat in the front. She rolled down the window and smiled, “Where you headed?”
She opened the door, slid into the middle of the seat and said, “Get in.”
I climbed in. They were old, in their fifties most likely. He wore a big brown cowboy hat.
“We’re going to Branson, too,” she said.
He said “Where you from?”
“I’m in the Marine Corps in San Diego.”
She laughed and slapped the man on the arm. “See Jake, I told you he was a Marine.”
She had a lot of silver in her teeth as she grinned at me. “Our son is in Vietnam right now.”
I wanted to say, “I’m sorry for that,” but just nodded. Iowa City girl’s face kept slipping into my thoughts.
The rest of the time, they ignored me, or maybe I ignored them. They seemed pleasant folk and talked a lot about southwestern Missouri, about Arkansas just across the border, the changing leaves, the cattle market, the garden she needed to harvest so she could put up okra and green tomatoes. I thought about the attack Alsatians in Little Rock. My hosts giggled a lot and she crooned off-key to a couple of Ferlin Husky songs playing on the tinny-toned radio. I thought about Buchenwald.
In Branson they took me to a Richfield station that had a pay phone. They waved as they pulled out. The cow and the goats had to set their hooves at a different cant to keep from being spilled onto the floor of the pickup bed.
I phoned Wayne’s grandfather and thought about the girl in Iowa City.