(As I was rummaging through my files for blog ideas, this little story jumped up and started pestering me. Stories, you know, get mean if they’re not told. I wrote these words a few years ago, but the events took place almost a half century ago when I was a 17-year old vagabond, hitchiking aimlessly across Florida. The rain was pelting down, and I was sick, shaking, feverishly sick when I staggered into a small motel lobby and asked the woman behind the counter if I could sleep for a few hours for five dollars, the only money I had. She took my fiver and led me to a room.)
I had to pee. Forcing my gummy eyelids open, I discovered it was daytime. The sun was shining through the jalousie windows and onto my face. Motel room. Still sick. Still alive. Still had to pee.
Gathered myself together, got to my feet. Whoa, too fast.
What’s that smell? Oh. Me.
Turned on the shower. Peed. Scrubbed myself with the bar of motel soap. No little bottles of shampoo in those days. Washed my hair with the soap in the hard, limey water. Scrubbed my tongue and teeth with the wash cloth. Better than nothing.
At least the motel lady let me sleep through the night. Five bucks went a long way in 1965.
Where are my clothes? I remembered dropping them in a sopping wet pile on the floor.
My clothes, washed, pressed, were hanging on the back of the door. The motel lady had thrown my one disreputable sock away and substituted in its place a pair of used, but clean men’s socks. My boots and belt were dry. How? I got dressed in the clean, warm clothes and ventured out into the new day.
The storm had passed. From the feel of the air I could tell it was early morning. I went into the office and found the motel lady behind the counter. She gave me a sardonic greeting, probably along the lines of “Well, look who finally woke up.” I thanked her for letting me stay through the night and for cleaning my clothes. She waved it off. I asked how she was able to dry my boots and belt in just a few hours. She laughed.
“This is the morning of the second day. You’ve been asleep for two nights and a day. I kept checking on you to make sure you hadn’t died. You didn’t. Just left you alone.”
Have you ever had one of those moments when you know that you have just been washed in grace? Tears welled up in my eyes and I couldn’t swallow. I tried to speak.
“Aw, zip it up. Your trousers, too, while you’re at it. Get on across the street to Dottie’s. She’s still serving breakfast. Tell her to put it on your tab.”
“Breakfast comes with the room. All you can eat.”
I tried to express my gratitude, but like most seventeen-year olds, I wasn’t very good at it.
She asked where I was going.
Good question. I hadn’t made a plan. The family of a high school friend had a house somewhere down in Bradenton, south of Clearwater. Or I could head up north where I had some family in the Carolinas, a much longer trip with no money, but I was pretty sure they would let me stay for a while.
“North, I guess. I got some folks up north.”
Then you better get going. It’s a long way up north.
I tried to give her hug, but she was on the other side of the counter. Awkward, heartfelt, seventeen. She shooed me out of the office. I didn’t even think to ask her name.
I ate as much of Dottie’s southern-style breakfast as I could stuff into my mouth without getting sick. Three helpings of grits with red-eye gravy. I thanked the waitress, embarrassed that I didn’t have as much as a penny for a tip, and walked out on to the street.
I stuck out my thumb.
It was pretty easy for a teenager to hitchhike in those days. I worked my way across centralFloridawithout further mis-adventures.
Somewhere around Daytona Beach a man picked me up and said he was heading to St. Augustine. He was nice, maybe too nice. Uh oh. I was instantly on guard. Just before we got to St. Augustine, as it was getting dark, he said he had to make a short “side trip” to see some friends and maybe they would invite us to dinner.
OK, friends, stop worrying. This is going to turn out fine.
He bought some beverages and then drove us back several miles into the pine woods until we came to a house . . . well, a shack. I had yet to see the movie Deliverance, but if you want to imagine a banjo playing, you can set the appropriate mood. A backwoods family of about ten people lived there. We were, indeed, invited to supper.
One fellow asked me if I knew how to skin a snake? I thought it was something sexual, but, no he meant exactly that, taking the skin off a rattler. So you can eat it. He was just being polite, so I helped. By the way, nail the rattler’s head to a tree, cut around the neck, and jerk the skin off with a pair of pliers. In case you’re interested.
Dinner was wild meat. Wild meat! One of the most memorable meals I ever had. Along with the ubiquitous hushpuppies and collard greens, the women served anything and everything the men had managed to shoot or trap. The rattler was deep fried with deep fried squirrel, deep fried possum, deep fried dove, and other delectables I didn’t recognize, also deep fried. In lard. Scrumptious!
Dinner over, we took our leave and finished the drive toSt. Augustine. My benefactor, whose name I have also forgotten, damn, begin to talk seriously about the rest of my trip. He said he didn’t like the idea of me trying to hitch through Jacksonville at night, a rough town then, just as it is today, but he especially didn’t like the idea of me trying to tackle to stretch between Jacksonville and Brunswick, Georgia where I was going to pick up Highway 17, the coastal route north. That piece of road is dark, empty, and cautiously creeps through some of the worst swamps and marshes in south Georgia.
He decided he was going to drive me all the way to Brunswick, a trip of about 3 hours. I protested, but feebly, because I really wanted the ride. That matter settled, we continued north through Jay Ville, our conversation growing deeper and more profound. We talked about a lot of good stuff. After a while I dozed off while he drove. When I woke up, he was pulling up to the bus station in downtown Brunswick,Georgia. It was the middle of the night.
We got out of his car. He came around to my side and pulled out a twenty dollar bill, a lot more money in those days, maybe enough for a bus ticket all the way to North Carolina. Again I protested, making noises about repaying him somehow. This is what he said to me, an exact quote, I never forgot:
“Someday, when you get all this behind you, and get your feet on the ground, you’re going to meet someone who needs a hand. Help that fellow out, and that’s all you ever need to do to repay me. Just pass it along. You understand? Just pass it along.”
I promised I would repay him many times over. He drove away.
Twenty bucks. Wait for the bus station to open in the morning, and ride as far as twenty bucks would take me . . . hungry? Use the money for food and keep taking my chances on the road?
I headed for a truck stop down the road.
Shook out my hand.
Got my thumb ready.
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