Years ago, I met a boy who never once told me the truth but had the heart of a saint.
Back in August 1968, outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, I was hitchhiking east when a state trooper pulled up next to me. He told me that he was going down the highway for 15 minutes, then turning around, and if I wasn’t gone by the time he came back he was going to lock me up in Cheyenne “until I got a court date.“
This was serious.
As the officer’s taillights disappeared down Interstate 80, I turned around to face the empty road and stuck out my thumb.
I needed a miracle.
As the first car approached, I knelt by the side of the roadway with my hands pressed together simulating prayer.
That car, an old white Ford convertible, was driven by a boy who appeared to be in his mid-20s. He wore a huge cowboy hat, and rhinestones from his shirt collar to his new boots. The boy pulled over and waved for me to get in.
As I thanked him and started to explain my predicament, he laughed and waved off any further conversation. He told me not to worry because he would be driving all night to see his father in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
First car? This guy? It was a miracle… but it gets better.
Next, he asked me if I was hungry. I laughed and nodded yes, and he reached under his seat to hand me a can of peaches, a can opener, and a plastic fork.
He was clearly showing off. You could tell by the grand gestures of his performance and his broad grin. He was having fun.
After I finished the peaches and drained the can of its last sweet syrup, I settled into the ride as he started to talk. He told me that he had been a foreman for the last several years at a ranch, and the night before in Reno, he had girls in the front and back seats of this very car because he had won money in the slots.
As we drove deeper into the night he told me that before he had been a cowboy he had been a soldier of fortune, and had parachuted into Nicaragua as an agent for the CIA.
His stories were endless and detailed, full of life and love and compassion for those he had worked with, and for the women he had been fortunate to love, as well as those who had broken his heart but had been kind enough to have loved him back for a while.
He was a natural storyteller and the more we relaxed together and talked, the more I liked him for his joy.
Slightly before dawn, when we turned off the Interstate and headed up toward Fort Dodge, he offered a surprising apology: “My old man never amounted to much. He was a postal worker. He drank himself out of the job but he’s always been there for me. He is sick now. I never knew my mom. She left him, but my father, he always has been there for me.”
As the light brought color into the outskirts of Fort Dodge, we turned onto a street of freestanding houses in an empty neighborhood with untended lawns, litter on the streets, and an occasional abandoned car.
The door to his father’s house was open and the window next to the front door was broken. As we entered, I looked to the right. There was a kitchen with a table and two chairs. To the left was a living room with no furniture. Straight ahead was a staircase with a simple railing and some of the slats missing, which led to a second floor. There were crushed beer cans on the floor and heaping ashtrays on the countertop by the sink.
The boy headed upstairs to go wake up his father. Moments later, there was some heavy coughing from upstairs and muffled voices. There was the sound of crying, raised voices, but also laughter.
After several minutes, an old man slowly navigated the steps and stopped to catch his breath when he reach the bottom step.
The old man apologized for the state of the house and immediately went the the old ice box. He got three beers and proceeded to handed them out. Apparently, these were breakfast beers.
Oddly, the whole house seemed to be filled with love and I felt welcome.
As the sun came up, the two were lost in each other’s company, and so I timidly asked if I might be allowed to take a shower since I had been on the road for several days. The old man responded “Sure!” He lit a cigarette and pointed at a wash tub leaning against the kitchen wall. He told me to fill it with hot water from the sink and handed me a big jug of dish washing detergent.
I felt that I could not refuse the kindness. I filled the tub with warm water and detergent, stripped naked, and started to take a bath. The boy and his father paid no attention as they laughed and talked and smoked.
Almost immediately the police arrived, knocked on the unlocked door, then entered. They arrested the boy, put him in handcuffs and shoved him through the door toward the squad car out front. The old man burst into tears. With a beer still in hand, he begged them to release his son as the officers pushed the boy down the walkway and put him in the back seat. The officers never spoke to the pleading old man except to say. ”If you touch me, I will take you in too.”
During the entire arrest the police paid no attention to me at all as I sat naked in a wash tub and tried to surround myself with heaps of bubbles.
When the old man returned from the street, he explained through his tears that a week ago his son had finally been released on parole from a Kansas prison. He had been thrown out of school several years before, and had been convicted as an adult for smoking marijuana near the school yard. He wasn’t a bad kid. Just a free spirit from the wrong side of town.
His father had gotten the old convertible for him and told him he could never outlive his past in Kansas. He told him to go west and “disappear” and never come back again.
The boy had initially agreed, but he had told his father upstairs that he had become homesick for the old man and he was afraid he would die and the boy would never see his father again.
Everything the boy had told me for the last 12 hours riding through the night was a lie, and also a life he would never have the chance to live.
The old man said he and his son had talked every week during the boy’s incarceration and the boy had told him he read all the books and magazines and newspapers he could find in prison.
After the old man had fortified his courage with a few more beers, he marched out the front door and headed toward the police station, which was apparently several miles away.
Alone in the empty house, I dried off with paper towels, slept a little on the living room floor, then in mid afternoon, hitchhiked to a postal delivery hub. I got a ride from a man driving a Mail truck headed east toward Chicago. He told me he’d gotten married the day before, and had been up all night. When the driver started to hallucinate dogs running across the Interstate, I volunteered to drive so he could sleep. We switched seats without stopping.
As dawn arrived, with the sleeping driver by my side, I thought about the boy and wondered why he would lie to me all night about a life he never lived, then take me to his home where his lies surely would be revealed.
Maybe it was to show he had a kind heart and a moral code, despite his life. Maybe he just gave up and didn’t care. As the sun was coming up in the cab of that mail truck, I realized that I had never asked his name, nor had he asked me mine.
Years later, it occurred to me that no matter how hard I might try, I would never be able find that boy again.
I still think of him often. He was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He has appeared in my poems and plays as a reminder that we really are what we do, not what we say.