My 21st summer on the planet, I spent my time hitchhiking back and forth across the North American continent. I had just graduated from college. There was nothing I had to do and nowhere I had to be. Fall would be soon enough to ponder existential questions of life’s purpose and gainful employment. June was in my soul and the open road – or more precisely, the interstate – beckoned.
Of course, my parents were beside themselves. I get it now. I probably got it then, too, but back then it didn’t matter. That was at least part of the point of my going. On some inchoate level, I knew that this was a rite of passage, an initiation of sorts. And in any initiation worth its salt, mom and dad have to be left behind.
I wanted to have "experiences." I was lucky with the weather. It hardly rained at all when I was on the highway and it never did when I was sleeping out in the open. I could have left my poncho at home. I was lucky with the people, too. Mostly. Almost everyone I met was congenial. Those with wheels or shelter were accommodating and hospitable. Everyday gave me important lessons on the kindness of strangers. And politeness.
There was a thief, though. I hooked up with him and his girlfriend (in the 70s sense of "hooking up," not the new millennium sense) somewhere around Utah and we traveled together for a couple of days, hitching through Nevada, and then over the Donner Pass into California. Obviously, I didn’t know he was a thief at first, but after we reached San Francisco, I had occasion to rearrange our respective backpacks in the trunk of our current driver’s car and my Swiss Army knife fell out of his pack! That’s odd, I thought. How did it get THERE? Then a light dawned. Upon examining my own pack, I discovered several t-shirts and other small items were missing. Upon examining his, I discovered where they were. Fortunately, I was alone at the time, so there was no need for a direct confrontation. I retrieved most of my things and unceremoniously took my leave. Such is the ephemerality of friendships of the road. It was an important lesson on the unkindness of strangers. And rudeness. Theft is rude.
I had a lot of experiences that summer, but the one that rises now to the surface of my mind is the night I spent at the youth hostel in Banff National Park. The summer was ending and I was heading back east across Alberta toward Ohio and home. Crashing for the night at the hostel were young people from all over the world. I remember music, talk, a lot of friendly international rivalry – and some not so friendly.
A bunch of us were playing chess. In those days, I was a fair to middling player. Not great, but not terrible. However there was a German guy among us who was pretty good and he whupped my butt. In his next match, he whupped the butt of a Dutch guy who was none too pleased about it and took it personally. The Dutch guy began to ridicule the German’s English, going on and on about how thick the German’s accent was and how hard he was to understand. He knew what he was doing. He’d found a soft spot, as it were, between his opponent’s ribs and he shoved the knife in. Talk about a sore loser. I’d never seen anything – apart from sibling torture – like it. His comments were nasty and vicious.
And they weren’t true. The German indeed spoke with a heavy dialect, but he was perfectly comprehensible. It didn’t matter though. When the Dutch guy said what he said, first the German looked dumbstruck and then his face lost all its happiness and blossomed into pain. Here was something more than unkindness and rudeness. Here was cruelty of the first order.
It teed me off.
"You think you don’t have an accent?" I said to the Dutch guy. "Yours is just as thick as his! And I’m the English speaker here, so I’m the one who knows. And you’re just pissed that he’s a German and you’re Dutch and that he’s a better chess player than you. World War II was 30 years ago. Get over it!"
And that was pretty much it. The Dutch guy didn’t have any answer to that, though I didn’t like the way his eyes narrowed at me. Pretty soon afterwards it was lights out, and we all curled up in our various sleeping bags and probably went to sleep.
The next day we all went our separate ways. The German was going off with some people to swim in some clear mountain lake someplace. He invited me to go along, but I was anxious to get back on the highway. I could have easily gone with them. The middle of the Canadian wilderness isn’t known for its heavy traffic flow. I stood by the side of that lonely road for so long, I could feel the moss starting to grow on my north side.
At last, an old repainted milk van appeared in the distance grinding along. HIPPIES! I thought hopefully. It looked like that kind of truck. I bet there are hippies inside. Hippies stop for hitchhikers. Though hippieless, the van did indeed stop for me. And when the back door slid open, whom should I see beckoning me to climb in but the German guy – now my German friend.
"I told them to stop for you," he said smiling. "I told them you were a good guy."
And here for me was an important lesson on kindness giving rise to kindness.
And a lesson in luck. I’ve always been glad it wasn’t the Dutch guy in the back of the van.