At dawn we made for the highway again, hoping to get picked up by some local farmer on his way to the big city over the hill. We couldn't have been hitching for 5 minutes when a four door "sled" pulled to the side of the road and the passenger door whipped open.
For some reason I was awarded the front seat; maybe Denny needed a nap and thought the driver would want stay awake company. Whatever the case I was happy to be riding shotgun for a change and settled in for the last stretch with a sleepy grin on my face.
He was an Englishman by his accent (or maybe just an old fashioned Noreasterner), and the image of Edward Everett Horton, an early 40's character actor and one of the most colorful voices on the planet then and now. Edward was the voice of Fractured Fairy Tales on Rocky and Bullwinkle and a man I'd have given my left arm to meet if for no other reason than to hear him say my name.
Our driver wasn't Mr. Horton of course, just a salesman driving cross country to sell some widget or another. But I told him of my image and he seemed quite pleased by the
comparison. For the next few hours as we drove over the stark, boulder strewn mountains that keeps the Pacific surf from pounding at the border of New Mexico, he and I talked about English film and the actors that had entertained us both, from Burton to Gielgud, from Peter O'Toole to David Niven and Peter Sellers.
He'd even been acquainted with the "Goon Show", a radio show popular in the 50's in Britain that starred Michael Bentine, Sellers, Spike Milligan and a guy named Harry Secombe; the forerunner to Monty Python and a hilarious cynical comedy of the incredibly dry persuasion. My father had played an old recording of the show for me and I'd fallen in love with it, though I was sure he and I would be the only Americans that gave a rip.
It was fascinating to meet someone who knew all the films I did, who laughed at the same odd material, who found the same historical characters to be just as entertaining as I. It
was a blast to ride that last few hundred miles increasingly backlit by the western high desert dawn, chatting with a stranger as if we'd known each other a lifetime; and as if he and I were the same age and not some 40 years apart by my best guess. As silly as it might seem, it was one of the highlights of the trip.
There was a park in the center of downtown San Diego my new friend dropped us at, Prospect park as I remember, not that it matters. Denny had slept the few hours I'd chatted so I punched him to his senses and dragged him from his bed before waving goodbye to my temporary kindred soul.
We'd made it, Dago at last; and what we would need to do next was all in the hands of my partner as I had no idea how one would apply to work as a merchant marine aboard a seagoing freighter just long enough to pay passage to Hawaii. But Denny had sworn it was possible...easy as pie actually; and as we made ourselves comfortable amongst the students and homeless and dope dealers and businessmen whizzing through this single
square block of grass in a sea of concrete and tar, I asked if we had time for me to beg a meal and spare change from my uncle who lived somewhere in town.
Not a problem he said, so I found one of my last dimes and plugged a pay phone, dialed the number I'd written on the inside of my jean jacket and waited out a few rings before having the second conversation of my life with my father's brother Bob.
He didn't seem amused once his wife had handed him the phone, it took a few minutes before he'd even figured out who I was. But when I heard Virginia in the background asking him if it was "Ronnie?...it must be Ronnie?", I knew I was only a few hours from bath and breakfast.
He wanted to know where I was and was disappointed once I'd told him. "Stay there and don't take anything from anyone" he said; "In fact, don't talk to anyone either" he added before informing me he was on his way to pick me up.
I was relieved. The few partial meals we'd had on the road had only made me sick and I was so sleepy that I had to keep from turning my head too fast or risk losing my balance. Bob and Virginia, though they didn't really have a clue who I was, would surely feed and pamper us, at least so the extended family's unwritten obligation rulebook states clearly on its first page.
Naturally my knowledge of the rest of the contents of that book was limited, I wasn't old enough to understand that no one really gives a shit about "should be" when "I don't wanna" is so much easier to believe in. So I wasn't all that surprised when my favorite uncle walked up to us and our homeless friends on our parkbench, and after eyeing us up and down told me that because of some emergency thing that had just come up he could only take me for the moment; "there's only room for one anyway and"......
I don't remember the excuses listed. I do remember I was a little stunned as I remembered having announced that I was not in town alone and that if that wasn't ok, I'd understand. But life is full of well-meaning people that ignore everything you say and do whatever they please, so I had to decide in a hurry whether to go along or decline with apologies.
Denny huffed his disapproval but waved me on after we'd made arrangements to meet a few hours later near the zoo, the exact time to be signaled by his calling me once he was in place. I somewhat reluctantly hopped into my uncle's vintage pickup and we set out for Chula Vista. Unca Bob got me started telling him about my travels, and for the hour's ride I never shuttup; a good thing since he was not the talkative type.
I was so excited to see his wife, his home and his refrigerator that it never even occurred to me I hadn't bathed in two days, was wearing the same clothes I'd had on nearly a week and was dressed as a gang member with little patches adorning my jacket that intimated a generally vulgar distaste for everything his world was founded on.
I was a punk, though a related punk, and in retrospect I'm a little amazed he even let me into his house as his relationship with my father and even his parents was nearly nonexistent. Perhaps he'd called my dad immediately after hanging up with me, and the two of them had worked out the plot that would spell my doom. In any case, his wife ignored my outlaw biker accoutrements and served me a lovely hot meal with all the coffee I could drink, never once mentioning my aroma.
We talked for an hour or better and as it turns out, Virginia was my blabbermouth equal, a strange and wondrous discovery that someone in my own family could best me at topical chit chat. But at that moment I was so exhausted that just keeping up was wearing me down, and I became so droopy that my hosts demanded that I shower and then lay down for a nap during the couple hours I had left.
I couldn't argue, I barely made it from the bath to the kids bedroom before I'd passed out with the promise that the moment Denny called in his location, they'd wake me up and drive me to meet him.
When he called I can't be certain; I slept for somewhere approaching 14 hours and was so incredibly groggy once I'd awoken that I could even get properly angry. I didn't know what to say; my uncle was at work and Virginia was tending to her two babies. God only knew where Denny was at that moment, but I had the vague idea he was truly pissed no matter where.
I made a lousy biker, I couldn't even swear at the woman much less break a beer bottle and threaten to cut her unless she drove me to the harbor to search for my friend.
(Before you get all excited, be aware I'd never do anything like that but I had to feel badly for not having it in me as that was what outlaw bikerdom was all about.)
I delivered my disappointment over eggs and bacon cooked to order, but rather than demanding I played the heavy sigh and "aww geez" card, hoping that I'd manipulate my aunt into taking me for a long sightseeing ride.
My plan worked though the whole idea was moronic on its face. She may or may not have understood my purpose as we cruised across the Coronado Bridge and along the downtown harbor shore, but on her own she drove us to Balboa park and the Zoo where she dropped me off saying she had a few errands to do and giving me two hours to wander.
It was laughable that in a city of 600,000 I'd just happen to spot my friend wandering down some street, but it was even funnier to think that he'd still be shucking around Balboa Park 12 hours after being told that I'd decided to go home.
Yup, that was the story. When Denny called for me to meet him my own relatives told him that I'd decided to blow him off and not even have the courtesy to tell him so myself.
I did a lot of soul searching in that two hours, trying to figure out what would be the right thing to do as if I'd had more than one choice. It was all so complicated now; and all because I'd just wanted to leech off people that I barely knew, who I'd felt were obliged to care for me and whoever I'd brought along.
I wandered through the entire zoo without seeing a thing, and never really came into a conscious existence until I'd found a street of little buildings that housed interesting little research libraries; at least that's how I remember them as I was truly fascinated by their architecture and landscaping and less by what was inside their mostly brick walls.
It was there my mind did that logic thing, when it suddenly snapped that my moment was gone, my trip over and my friend was certainly harboring a grudge but was hopefully on his way to Honolulu on a garbage scow or whaling trawler as I sat there. There was little use pining over a lost cause, the jig was up and I may as well just take advantage of the sights and sounds of Califuckingfornia and deal with what happened at a later date, at home where I had all the time in the world to ponder my fate.
I slipped my sleeveless Levi jacket off my beer and blood stained leather and rolled it into a ball. I was at the moment done being an outlaw, and would switch gears to become a dutiful son and nephew; if nothing else, pouring on the charm and creative entertainment to pay at least a portion of my freight. I had no cash and no friend to back me up, it was time to begin a real relationship with a family I'd never known and hopefully it would take care of my inevitable journey home. I'd had enough of hitchhiking for a while.
It was a grand next few days, just sitting on their stoop was an experience, breathing in the Southern California air and watching the palms and lantana waft in the breeze. It had been a hell of a life so far, and the week past had taught me like no high school ever could. There were reams of lessons in that few days that have served me well for these decades since, not the least of which is to know when to cut your emotional losses and move on to regroup at a later time.
Another set of relations, my father's sister, her husband and 3 kids had driven from Phoenix at my father's behest, an attempt to keep costs to a minimum as flights from San Diego are nearly twice as expensive as those from Arizona. We all did the family reunion thing for a weekend and then I was chauffeured to Aunt Joanne's home in Glendale. It was a fun trip back, unlike the one I'd made to get there.
We stopped in Yuma for lunch and I had my first shredded meat taco, a thing of beauty as I had only seen hamburger tacos and never knew the taste of green chile sauce. A little thing for sure, but as I remember it still, it obviously made quite an impression.
Another few days in Phoenix and I'd made new friends of my formerly faceless relatives; it was an amazing feeling to be accepted for no reason but my name. I felt like a stray cat pulled into a cat lovers home, well fed and scratched under the chin until my hair was standing on end; and to be honest, I never wanted to leave.
But there was a plane ticket waiting, the leash that yanked me back to reality and an angry but silent father who drove me to his home and told me to set up my things in the basement.
I didn't see Denny for many months after, no doubt both of us were wary of dealing with our screw up and our friendship was more co-dependent that honest, so it was hardly a problem to stay apart. Once we'd finally run into each other, he bragged endlessly about having found a boat to work on, but then changing his mind for some unexplained reason and setting out for home on a thumb and a prayer; broke, cold and starving.
As it turns out, he called home and had his mother wire money Western Union, then took a bus home and conjured the lie he'd use to make himself look the hero to our mutual acquaintances. Another lesson learned, but a good one.
I have to admit, it was an amazingly dangerous thing to do, bad enough without enough money or warm clothing and particularly while flaunting our baddass costumes. But dammit, since I lived to tell the tale and no worse for the wear, I wouldn't take back a moment of that experience. It was two of the coolest weeks I've lived and it's only a shame that times have changed so much in that short time that hitchhiking has become impossible. It's the only way to see America, unless you're talkin' motorcycles of course. That's another dozen stories altogether.