I have twice lived in a divided country. The first time it still had American kindness and we could still talk.
The Vietnam War had divided my country in 1968. I was hitchhiking because I wanted to abandon all of that, and be together with American strangers and their kindness, which was how we defined ourselves. I wanted to believe.
I got rides from both sides.
A senior Marine officer in a convertible had taken me into the PX at Parris Island to buy tax-free cigarettes. The marching soldiers on both sides of his car stopped to salute his license tags when he brought me in and then returned me to the highway.
It was a kindness he offered to me.
I had changed my mind late that summer. I had made it to California, but decided to head back to be with my father in Easton, Maryland for his birthday at the end of August.
The Democratic Convention in Chicago would be happening in about week. Violence was predicted.
Because it had been impulsive and I had started late, I tried to hop an eastbound freight train in Cheyenne, but I got caught and was mercifully dumped back on Interstate 80 East by a gruff but kind state cop who told me to disappear in 30 minutes because he was coming back.
Within 15 minutes, I got a ride from a boy dressed as a rhinestone cowboy in a white convertible with the top down and Iowa tags. He was heading east to Fort Dodge. He was going home to see his father. This was good. It would be a 660 mile ride so I would make up lost time and we were going to get to know each other.
He told me he had spent two years in Vietnam and was a war hero. He told me he had spent a year in Wyoming herding cattle. He told me that the night before, he had been in Las Vegas with girls in the front seat and girls in the backseat and had won big at the slots and had decided he wanted to see his father back in Fort Dodge. We drove nonstop all afternoon and all night laughing, smoking and talking. From the start, we liked each other.
We were Americans and therefore brothers by accident.
When he pulled over for gas, he bought me cigarettes, a can opener, and a can of peaches. It was a kindness he had offered to me.
As we rolled down the highway, I forked out the peaches and drank the sweet syrup. He told me about his life in Vietnam and the year he spent out on the western ranch, and how much he loved his father.
As we turned off the interstate and entered Fort Dodge dawn was breaking and, as the sun was coming up, he parked the car in front of a broken house in need of paint and shutter repair. The front door was unlocked and two of the windows in the front of the house were broken.
When we entered the house, there were slats missing on the staircase going up to the second floor. Beer cans littered the floor and overflowed out of a trashcan next to the refrigerator.
Before the boy went to wake up his father, he opened the refrigerator and handed me a beer. Then he took two more and excitedly bounded up the staircase.
There was loud coughing from upstairs and after a while the boy and his father came down. The old man was weak and had phlegm in his lungs. He didn’t look like he was long for the world.
I wanted to leave them alone so father and son could be together. I asked if I could take a bath upstairs. They said no and pointed at a wash tub, tilted against the stove. I was told there was no hot water but I could heat water on the stove and mix it with tap water and bathe while we drank breakfast.
So I did.
I was happy in my warm and soapy water thinking about how soon I would have a “dishpan body” as I sat in a washtub in the dawn drinking beer.
It was clear the boy and his father loved just being together. They joked, laughed, and chided each other as if they were long-lost friends.
After about a half an hour into my bath and after more breakfast beer, there was a knock on the door and two police officers entered the unlocked door without permission.
I obviously was in a considerably compromised position, but the officers paid no attention to me.
Chaos broke out. The car I had been riding in apparently had been purchased about a week ago with stolen money. Both the father and the son were confessing to the police officers to save the other. The officers arrested the boy, handcuffed him, and took him away in a squad car. The father burst into tears and told me the story.
The boy had just been released after seven years in prison for smoking marijuana. He had not served in Vietnam or been a cowboy, but he had won big in Las Vegas with money his father had given him. The boy had come home to give his father money to pay off the used car his father had bought for him.
After his father had given the car to his son, he had ordered him to leave and go west to start a new life. He instructed the boy to not come back but his son could not resist sharing his good fortune. They had only each other in this world.
The old man continued to drink beer, cough and smoke cigarettes at the kitchen table. The more he told his son’s story the more he drank and the more he cried. Somewhere around noon, he took off for the police station on foot in an effort to do what he could for his son.
I had not slept since before Cheyenne so, when he left, I put my duffel bag under my head and I curled up on the floor and slept for a while. I woke up late in the afternoon. The father had still not returned, so I threw the knapsack over my shoulder and headed out to try to catch a ride.
There was a United States post office hub in Fort Dodge, so I hung around there until I got a postal driver to let me ride shotgun to the mail district in South Chicago. As I was let out, I got cat calls from some of the postal workers who were waiting to punch the clock to begin their shift. Mayor Richard Daley was fighting the demonstrators outside of the convention.
From Chicago, I got short rides through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and then across the Bay Bridge on to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. My last ride was from a tow truck driver, who had never left the Eastern shore, and never been on a boat.
During those last short rides, I kept thinking about how different we all were, but how we could talk and share our lives, and how each person had enriched mine.
That is America to me. That is what will make us great again.
I got to Easton on my father’s birthday, and the prodigal son was welcomed home yet again.