In a way, it seems like only yesterday, but in reality, it was 16,425 yesterdays when I got out of the army. I had a vague idea that I wanted to go back to college and study art, but I wasn’t sure where, exactly, and, at any rate, I was in no particular hurry. I thought after three years, one month and five days in the army, I deserved to grow my hair long and not shave and maybe even do something a little wild and crazy. At least for a while.
I was leaving my old life in Lawton, Oklahoma behind– saying goodbye to Joe and Jewel, the nice old childless farm couple who had rented me a room in their house for a dollar a day and fed me breakfast on Sunday mornings and then drove me to a little Baptist church in Lawton, Oklahoma in a vain attempt to save my immortal soul.
I was leaving all that and driving into my new life in California.
I packed my ‘62 Chevy with what few belongings I had, not much more than a suitcase full of civilian clothes. I was headed West, to The Haight, in San Francisco, where I knew absolutely no one, and liked it that way. I was young and foolish, with money in my pocket.
A bad combination.
The only thing I knew about San Francisco was what I had heard in a song: That it was full of “gentle people with flowers in their hair”, free spirits and free love. That sounded like as good a place as any, and probably better than most, to restart my life.
On a trailer made by a big, strong, tough Native American in Marfa, Texas, from a truck bumper and the front axle and spoke wheels of a Model A Ford, I towed a 1967 Triumph motorcycle. I imagined it would be fun to ride on the steep hills in “Frisco”. It was two o’clock, on a nice Spring afternoon, with a clear blue sky and I was feeling good about my prospects for the future.
As I was saying goodbye and thanking Joe and Jewel, who had treated me like their son, and whom I knew I would never see again, their phone rang.
It was another serviceman, an enlisted man I had only known for a couple of months. It seems that he and his wife had decided to split up and he wanted to know whether, “since I was headed to California, anyway, did I have room in my car for his wife, Bunny, and their one-month old baby.” I don’t recall that he explained it, exactly, but presumably they knew someone there and she and the baby would be able to stay with them. The whole situation seemed kind of weird, and so sad, that I didn’t think I could say no.
Twenty minutes later, he arrived at the house, and after a tearful goodbye, she and the baby got out of his car and into mine. Once again, he expressed his appreciation as I impatiently listened and tried to look sympathetic. But, after thirty-seven months in the service, I had finally become a free man and all I really wanted to do was get the Hell out of Dodge.
His wife and the baby were on the front seat of my car. My new freedom had lasted only the twenty minutes it took him to drive to my place.
I drove to the corner, turned left, passed the big open field with the gently-rolling hills, where I used to jump my motorcycle, while pretending to be Steve McQueen, tuned left again, and headed west with a young woman and a month-old baby riding shotgun. There wasn’t much conversation. What could I say? It didn’t seem right to be asking her too many questions.
In only a few minutes I had left behind forever, the army, Joe and Jewel, their little dog, Pepper, the Baptist Church, and the gas stations and cheap motels on the outskirts of town.
We were driving due west on Highway 62, at a steady 55 on a two-lane road with the setting sun streaming in through the front windshield.
I looked over at Bunny.
Her face was turned away. The yellow-orange sunlight momentarily caught a tear as it rolled down her cheek and dropped into the purple shadows on her baby’s forehead.
To lighten the pall, I turned on the radio right smack-dab in the middle of a sad Country and Western song about a train. Bunny began sobbing quietly.
I turned the radio back off.
We drove on for another twenty-five or thirty miles all three of us lost in our own thoughts.
There wasn’t much traffic on the road. I looked over at her again. At least she had stopped crying. I felt bad for this young woman, who was going away with nothing but a small suitcase and an even smaller baby. I felt bad for her little baby, who would now have to grow up without a father. I felt bad for my friend who was going to have to soldier on in life without his wife and child. I didn’t know how I could make the situation better. I really didn’t think there was anything I could do about it. So I just kept driving and tried not to think about it. But that was impossible.
It was beginning to get dark. I saw a gas station up ahead on the right. I checked the gas gauge. It was down to a quarter of a tank. I pulled in, got out, got the key to the restroom from the attendant, asked him to fill it up, and went into the bathroom, leaving Bunny and the baby sitting on the red vinyl front seat of my car.
When I came out of the restroom, after taking my first leak as a civilian, I was surprised to see Bunny standing in the gas station office. She was cradling the baby in her arms and holding the phone out toward me. She said she had her husband, Don, on the phone.
He wanted to talk to me.
He told me he was “very sorry” but he now realized he had made a “terrible mistake” and would I please “bring her back”.
We had only gone about fifty miles. I readily agreed to his request, relieved that my newfound life, that of an aimless drifter, was now suddenly imbued with purpose and meaning.
I paid the attendant in cash, pulled the car back out onto the highway, did a U-turn and headed back to Lawton.