In a blog post titled Speeding last week I wrote that when I was stationed at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York during my Army days, my parents lived in Toledo, Ohio, and at least once a month during our slow time when we were not training cadets, I would jump in my car on Friday afternoon, drive 575 miles to Toledo, hang out all weekend, then drive back Sunday night, arriving in time to go on duty Monday morning. That brought back a couple of memories, and I thought I would share one with you today.
When I was a teenager and young adult, back in the 1960s and 70s, hitchhiking was commonplace and nobody gave it much thought. If you wanted to get across town or across the country, all you had to do was stick out your thumb, and sooner or later somebody would come along and give you a ride. I actually hitchhiked from West Point to Toledo and back a couple of times myself before I bought a car. And I always gave hitchhikers a ride, especially those in uniform.
One snowy winter night I was heading east across Pennsylvania, back to the base, when my headlights picked up the shape of somebody walking along the shoulder of Interstate 80. He wasn’t hitchhiking, but as I passed I slowed down because it was a long ways from anywhere and it was cold out there. I asked the elderly African American gentleman if he wanted a ride, and he said he didn’t want to trouble me, but he sure would appreciate it if I didn’t mind. I told him to get in, and he introduced himself as Walter. I asked him where he was going, and he said to New York City, which was at least 300 miles away.
Walter was shivering, so I turned the heat up high and asked him why he was out on the highway in such bad weather. He told me that his son had put him in a nursing home in Cleveland, and he hated it there and they didn’t treat him right, so he ran away. He told me he was going to his daughter’s house in New York because he knew that she would take care of him. I asked why he didn’t go to his son’s house, and he said his daughter-in-law didn’t much care for him, and he didn’t like her much either.
This was before the days of cell phones and I probably should have found someplace to stop and call the authorities, but I felt sorry for Walter as he told me about how his wife and he had been married for over 60 years before she died, and how lonely he was in that nursing home where nobody ever came to visit him. I told him New York City was a big place and asked if he knew where his daughter lived there, and he pulled out an envelope with her address on it. Then he offered to share an apple with me, the only thing he had to eat.
Normally I would get off the interstate at Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and take US Highway 209 north through the Delaware Water Gap and into New York, which put me a short distance from West Point. It was longer to go all the way to New York City and then another 50 miles or so to West Point, but I sure couldn’t leave Walter out there on that highway all by himself. And he made it plain he’d rather die than go back to that nursing home, so we went to the Big Apple.
By the time we got to New York I had become quite fond of the old gentleman as he told me stories about growing up in Mississippi during the bad days as he called them, and how as a young man he and his new bride had come north, where he got a job working at a factory in Cleveland. Walter said he had tried to join the Army during World War II, but by then he was in his 40s and had a family so they turned him down. He had lost a son in Korea, and another baby had died when it was tiny, but he had a son and daughter who were doing good for themselves, even if the son had stuck him in that darned old nursing home and never came by to visit.
It was the wee hours of the morning when we found his daughter’s home, and Walter was sleeping in the passenger seat of my Mustang. I rang the bell, not sure how those folks would react to a strange young white man knocking on their door while the rest of the world was asleep. But when I told them who I was and who I had with me, they were overjoyed. Apparently, Walter had been missing for two days and they were frantic. We got him inside and then I had to leave because if I didn’t, I was going to be late for formation that morning. But they took my name and address, and his daughter promised me that Walter would not be going back to any nursing home.
A few weeks later, I was in the barracks doing some paperwork when one of my men came in and said, “Sarge, there’s somebody here to see you,” and it was Walter, along with his daughter and son-in-law and three grandchildren. They thanked me for taking care of him and insisted on taking me to dinner. We had a nice visit, and a couple of times after that, I would go down to New York City and stop and pay my respects to Walter and his family. A year or so later I got a letter from his daughter telling me that Walter had passed away in his sleep, surrounded by family instead of strangers in some darned nursing home. Rest in peace, my friend.
Tomorrow I’ll tell you about another encounter with a hitchhiker that didn’t turn out as planned.
Thought For The Day – Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle. ― Benjamin Franklin