Back in the day when a man in uniform could thumb a ride anywhere:
That heavy snow we just had on Easter Sunday reminded me of another spring holiday snow storm. That one was on Holy Saturday many years ago.
I was heading home from Ft. Bragg to spend a week with my folks. One of guy in the outfit had posted he was going to Chicago. Another trooper and myself answered the post.
I had the backseat all to myself. The two Chicago boys took turns driving and keeping each other awake. I was sleeping good when they started raising their voices above the music on the radio. It took me a bit to realize they were arguing over who came from the toughest neighborhood in the city. The stories grew larger and larger; by the time they left me off at the highway that bypassed Chicago, you would think they both were remnants of Al Capone’s mob.
Next ride got me though Madison, WI.. That’s when the snow started. It was the wet, slushy snow that often makes April the ‘cruelest month’. Luckily a car stopped before I got too wet. The driver was about 30, nice smile, friendly voice. Seeing I was shivering, he turned the heater on high in spite of the fact he was wearing a black turtle-neck sweater. He asked where I was heading and when I told him, he apologized because he was only going a little past Tomah.
Usually the price you pay for hitching a ride is you have to listen to the driver talking, telling you things he would not tell to many other people; but you were a stranger and his story would go no further. Kind of like a confession. But not this driver. He got more out of me than I was use to telling anyone.
I started to doze off so I suggested that he could turn the heat down. He did so with pleasure, beads of sweat were on his forehead. But it didn’t help me much. The slip-slapping of the wiper blades sang me back to sleep.
I woke in a hurry when he started swearing. The blades were losing the battle with the snow but not enough that I see we were in trouble. The car was heading for one ditch and then he swung it back towards the other. It was facing the opposite direction when he finally got it under control enough to pull onto the shoulder. He made the Sign of the Cross and took some very deep breathes.
I cut loose. I called him names that would make a paratrooper blush. And I finished by yelling, ‘You dumb @#@%$#@, I know I told you I was in a hurry, hoping to go to Easter Mass with my folks; but I ain’t that much of a hurry to get killed trying to do it.’
Apology time for both of us.
‘I got thinking about tomorrow,’ he said, ‘And didn’t realize I was going too fast for the conditions. Thank God, there wasn’t any other cars around.’
‘Yeah, thank God! Well,’ I said in a softer voice, ‘It happens. I shouldn’t have had no call to swear at you like that.’ The last thing I wanted was to have him give me the boot in that snowstorm.
He laughed as he pulled a pulled a Uey and back on track. ‘Don’t sweat it, Don. I’m the padre at Camp McCoy up ahead. Heard a lot worse, believe me.’
‘Oh, no!’ I said, ‘You’re a priest! Jeez…Boy, now I really got to get home in time to go to Confession.’
Well,’ he said, ‘I can take some pressure off you.’ He reached under the front seat and pulled out a stole. ‘Always keep one handy in case of an emergency.’ He placed it around his neck. He must have read my mind. ‘Don’t worry’, he said, ‘A car is as good as a confessional.’
I hesitated at first and then begun, ‘Bless me, Father…’ After the first few words, the rest came easy.’
I hoped he wasn’t the kind of priest that closed his eyes when he was hearing a confession.
So, riding in a car, in the middle of a snow storm, going to Confession. A first and only time for me.
The padre left me off at the entrance to Camp McCoy. Nice bench, a sheltered roof. First car stopped. A top of the line Chevy convertible. The driver was a little older than me. Big man, but soft features. I had to do a double take when I saw his backseat. There were boxes of LP records, a stereo phonograph, TV set, a few books and lots of magazines on the floor, Down Beat’s, Playboy’s, probably a Penthouse or two hiding in the stack . He took a nice homburg hat off the seat, flipped it in the back and invited me in.
After trading names and where-you’re-goings, the driver took over the conversation. His name was Paul and he was going back home, which was only a few miles from my home. He had spent the last three years working in Milwaukee. He said the pay wasn’t bad but he hated every minute of working in that office and living in that city; especially after he got a “Dear Paul’ letter from his girlfriend, who had vowed she would wait for him to get established and then they would get married. He didn’t have a job waiting for him, but he was sure he’d find one in the Twin Cities. In the meantime he could live with his folks…And maybe look up some girls he went to school with.
Fancy car, nice clothes, and I imagined he had quite a few romantic albums in his collection would help him find a new girlfriend, fast. Until then, there was always his collection of Playboys, if he managed to hide them from his mother.
His blues story was boring; but I did like the part about him driving me right to my parents’ home, so I made like a bartender expecting a nice tip does and pretended to listen intently. The snow was getting heavier. Instead of driving out of it, it seemed to be we were driving into the heart of it.
I was sure happy when we came over the hill and could see the river and the Hudson Bridge that crossed into Minnesota in the distance. Home was the next stop. Again, I was wrong. As soon as we got got into the river valley, Paul pulled off into the main street of downtown Hudson.
‘I have to buy a new tie for tomorrow,’ he explained, as he got into the jam of cars doing last minute shopping. ‘All mine need dry cleaning.’
Yeah, good luck finding a place to park, I thought to myself.
No problem for Paul. He just double parked in front of a very busy department store. ‘Drive around,’ he said, as he reached for his hat, ‘Meet you back here in a half hour.’ He opened the door and got out. I slide into the driver’s seat and pulled out before one of those irate horn-blowers behind me decided to get really mad.
I turned around the block and headed back to the truck stop we had passed on the highway. Switched on the radio and settled back and enjoyed driving this fine automobile. Sure beat the Jeep I drove back at Bragg. My first inclination when I parked in the big lot, was to go inside and get a cup of coffee; but I had second thoughts about leaving the car unoccupied with a back seat full of expensive goods.
And then it dawned on me. Now, to say I was tempted would be pushing, but I sure was doing some day dreaming.
That damn Paul! That damn stupid Paul! Handing over his fancy car loaded with thousands of dollars of things that anyone could fence. I thought how this kind of money compared to Army pay. I watched the cars heading east and thought how close I could get to Chicago by the time he got tired of waiting and decided to call the cops on me. I thought about those two would-be gangsters I could look up… But like I said, it was a day dream, a would-be author’s kicking around ideas for a story. I wasn’t stupid and I sure wasn’t a thief.
I timed it as close as a half hour as I could. I had no more stopped in front of the store when Paul came running out and jumped in the passenger seat. The chorus of horns started up again. I pulled away as soon as Paul closed the car door and headed back to the highway.
‘Not much of a selection,’ he said, ‘But I got one I liked anyway.’ He pulled out a tie out of one bag and showed me.
I stopped the car just before pulling out on the highway. I turned to him and cut loose with the same kind of language I had used on the priest.
I told him he was a @##@$$#@# fool to turn his life savings to a perfect stranger. How did he know I wouldn’t just up and steal the car and everything in it. How did he know…
He gave me a smile and a doughnut he pulled from a second bag. ‘It’s Easter Time, Don. Nobody steals at Easter.’
The doughnut was good. His logic was…
I drove to my folk’s home and Paul and I wished each other a Happy Easter. It was still snowing as I ran into the house. Went right in because that was back in the day we left our door unlocked and nobody ever stole anything… especially at Easter Time.
I would like to wish everybody Happy Holidays in this time of Holy Days for all. Belated or predated. In sunshine or snow.
(Happy Easter Day)
May we all celebrate the Holy Days of April in the way we use to. Please stay safe. Obey the rules. Remember the lives you may save maybe the lives of those you love the most.