Monday, September 30, 2013

To Hawaii by Thumb

It was going to be easy we thought; hitchhike to San Diego and then find a ship to work on that would take us to Hawaii where Denny’s brother lived. Screw the cold and snow, to hell with our psychotic families and two faced friends, we were off to never never land by thumb power.

Neither of us had a car at that point. I’d exploded mine, blowing out my engine seals by dropping the clutch at full rpm a moment after I’d started the car. It was an angry response to my mother’s intimating my current girlfriend was a whore, and it drained the oil so fast that I made it about 2 miles before the engine simply seized up forever.

Denny’s Dodge Hemi had its own little tragedy, its leaky carb finally starting the car ablaze directly across the street from a fire station. Once we’d lifted the hood to try and put the flames out, a truck from Engine Company #9 had already driven the 50 yards from its classy little brick building to the intersection where Denny had tried to burn rubber and instead made charcoal of his wiring. A few squirts from a foam can delivered by a gleeful fireman and we were extinguished but immobile, and had to push the huge muscle car the 4 blocks to his father’s house. The $250.00 invoice from the Minneapolis fire department just added insult to injury, and also fuel to the flame of our wanderlust.

Creatures of impulse, we’d hemmed and hawed for a month before one night we’d talked ourselves into acting foolish enough to test the waters, and without anything more than the clothes on our backs and a few dollars between us, we stood shoulder to shoulder on Interstate 35w in blowing sleet, thumbs waving and teeth chattering. It’d be warm where we were going so we figured, and thank God for that fantasy or we’d never have left in that miserable weather.

It was only a few minutes before we’d gotten our first ride, a shuttle that would take us only fifteen miles or so, but well into the cusp of the point of no return. We’d crossed the river, the demarcation point between Minneapolis and the rest of the world, and turning back now would not only be a blow to our egos, but a real pain in the ass.

Then as fate would have it our savior slid to a stop just ahead of us, his Oldsmobile 442 sliding left to right in the now accumulating snow. It was a white two door, a real muscle car made primarily for high schoolers, surfers and businessmen in full mid-life crisis. Once inside its steamy interior, the beginning of our trip took on a whole new cast; one beyond adventure into the realm of the bizarre and perhaps even white collar criminal.

The guy driving was an all too friendly sort; chatty and happy and suspicious by default. He looked to be a carpenter or machinist, a pretty boy type with white T-shirt, Marlboro reds box rolled into one sleeve, and a pompadour haircut complete with a duck tail betraying his probable age...which would be only a few years older than us.

He started whining about his car within 5 minutes of plucking us off the freeway; his engine blew oil, his rocker panels were already rusting, and there ahead of us was what ticked him off the most. There was a serious crack in the windshield that ran the entire width of the car; the kind that was so wide that it whistled as the 70 mile per hour breeze forced its way across the dashboard.

He'd had an accident he'd said, and the frame was bent though the insurance company denied his claim. The proof was in the window, the car so twisted that he'd already gone through one windshield and was on his second replacement...and still State Farm wouldn't be convinced to just total the car and pay him to buy a new one.

I was quietly plugged into the back seat as Denny, the passive aggressive alpha of our team chatted the ears off our host, agreeing that Detroit sucked at building cars with all the vulgarity he could muster. Mister driver was pleased at Denny’s attitude and suddenly was struck by a fabulous idea, a wholly creative scheme that I can’t imagine he’d not been thinking about for months if not his entire life.

It seems he lived in a trailer park at the last vestige of civilization line; beyond his tin and pressboard home were the corn and dairy farms of central Minnesota, and a straight, concrete shot to the Iowa border and beyond. There was only one stop sign on 35w from Duluth through Texas to the sea, and we’d already passed it a few miles back.

The pitch was meant to entice us no doubt, the ease of the drive, the comfort of the enclosed space, the heater vigilantly keeping the hypothermia from our young bones. It was a great picture and I began to wonder how lucky we could be that this guy wanted to drive us all the way to Texas or something. I say or something because I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was trying to say, and by the look on Denny’s face in the front seat, he didn’t get it either.

Eventually he made his intentions clear as the space between the bars in a jail cell window. He’d drop himself off on the freeway near his home, climb the embankment and hop the fence, and hurry his t-shirted carcass up his rotting stairs and into his single wide trailer, where he’d get a good long night’s sleep before calling his license plate number into the police as a stolen vehicle.

By that time he said, we should be well into South Dakota or if we’re real good, even into Wyoming or Nebraska. There’s no way, he surmised, that a national alert would be put out for a junky car like his, so it’d be clear sailin’ all the way to the west. Then came the kicker; we were to drive it into a Utah desert area and light it afire, leaving no fingerprints for our sake, and totaling the vehicle for his. He’d get his insurance money, we’d only have a state or two to go....what the hell could be a better arrangement than that?

I was barely 16 years old and while I’d seen my share of craziness, I’d never witnessed a more idiotic ruse. But damn me, I was tied to my mentor, the good mister Greenteeth, and he was laughing and nodding like Santa after the elves surprised him with a cookie and milk party. He was all for it and for me to refuse was to put my manhood on the line.

It’d be warm I guessed, and we’d get out of snow country quicker. The sleet had turned entirely to snow by this point and the wind was whipping it into a true late season blizzard; the vision of us standing on the freeway once again, walking backward in salty, grey slush with our thumbs and middle fingers alternating each time another asshole passed by us without even honking, made my mind up for me. I nodded my reluctant agreement and the deal with the devil was done.

It was funny watching the devil run up a snow covered embankment in penny loafers, jeans and a white “t”. The doofus had gone to a party and to be unique, had gone without a coat. April is one of those transition months in the northland and while it had been near 60 degrees and sunny during the daytime, the minute my friend and I had hit the highway and set out for Waikiki an Alberta clipper had reared its ugly head and burrowed through the summer skies to remind us that its cruelty knew no bounds....and there were six more weeks of winter according to the groundhog.

He jumped the fence in one of those “escape the cops” moves, and then turned back to us for an “I’m OK” wave goodnight. Denny was at the wheel as if there was any other option, and he flicked the lights on and off, honked the horn as thanks for the gift of  stolen transportation and floored the beast, nearly doing a donut in the middle of the freeway before getting his track and settling in at 10 miles an hour over the limit.

We didn’t talk much in that first couple hundred miles. I’m guessing he had as many doubt as I. What if the guy had a beer or two before bed and suddenly thought about what a pain it’d be screwing around until he had a check for his vehicle? He could come up with a thousand reasons to turn us in prematurely, assuming he wasn’t just a guy who hated bikers and after seeing our cuttoff jackets had decided to scam us into cutting our own throats.

It’s funny in retrospect, but being a small time hood makes one think they are much more knowledgeable about law enforcement than one would be if they simply finished high school and ate their vegetables like mom told them to. We began to estimate how long a statewide APB would take to radio ahead, as if we’d had a clue as to whether APB was even the proper term or just another television hype. But we settled on a number of hours nevertheless, both of us showing our bravado to the other by lying through our teeth well enough to convince even ourselves of our wisdom.

Then we determined what a five state timetable would look like and as Iowa was within the “five state area”, how fast we’d need to drive to beat the alarm to the Nebraska border. It wasn’t looking good, we were incredibly nervous and increasingly agitated; but the blizzard was keeping either of us from giving up the chase and the late hour was making traffic so thin that there was no way we’d have survived in any case.

Just outside Mason City we pulled into a truck stop for coffee and a second thought. I can’t imagine what the waitresses and few truckers randomly strewed about thought as these two teenage leather clad baby bikers strolled into the room, peering over their shoulders every few seconds in search of errant Highway Patrol uniforms.

We sat there for a half hour contemplating our fate, and the best we could come up with was to leave the car in the lot and hitchhike out, dishonoring our promises certainly, but with luck, keeping ourselves from the juvenile impound.

Four AM and a howling wind to keep us company, we slouched together at highway’s edge in wait for the friendly truckers who were just dreaming of having passengers to keep them awake. Four thirty AM and we were once again climbing into our jail cell proxy, driving for warmer climes, hoping to cross one more border before the sun rose on our car owner friend and his call to the coppers.

We found Omaha just as the sky opened up and the yellow blue dawnlight danced off the newfallen snowpack. It was all we could take, we’d lost our nerve in spite of the cold and damp and the city we’d never seen before. Pulling off the freeway, we drove a few blocks until noticing a three story parking garage near a hospital. With the idea that long term parking must be fairly common for inpatients, we took our ticket to raise the drawbridge, and drove into a convenient, higher floor space, then pushed into a dark and dreary corner so as to draw the least amount of attention over the longest time period.

As we walked down the freeway entrance ramp to take to the thumb once more, we laughed aloud at the fantasy of mister driver sir receiving a call from his insurance company after going without a car for a few weeks. And as he was rubbing his hands together in glee, finally a wealthy man who’s rid himself of his biggest financial nemesis, the agent would tell him that it’s his lucky day; that his car’s been found intact and no worse, nor better for the wear, and they’d be driving it upstate over the course of the next week or so.

It was a cruel selection we’d made; we’d surely be punished someday for our bad judgment. But in the meantime we’d picked up a ride within a few minutes that would take us to Lincoln, and all thoughts about the car that wouldn’t die vanished as easily as the miles we’d traveled. The guy should have known better, there’s no honor amongst thieves; not even thieves in bad guy clothing. Never trust a teen to do the right thing.

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