It was sometime in the 1960s (I forget just what year). It was in the fall and I had some time off from school and was out on one of my sprees looking for old phonograph records. I was with my friend Art and we were stuck in Chicago and it was starting to get a little cold. We had gotten to the point where we were starting to wear out our welcome by the folks we were staying with and we really wanted to get down farther south where hopefully it was warmer and the old record picking was a little better. We were in a club making inquiries about hitching a ride south when someone suggested we might go out to the airport and see if we could air-hitch a ride. Lots of well-off folks were flying south that time of year and maybe someone would give us a lift either all or part of the way. Well, after hitting all the small Chicago airports we didn’t have much luck so we got out our thumbs and headed for Route 66. Art was of the petty-bourgeoise school of hitchhikers who think if you dress like Joe College and act real polite that will draw folks, who, as they’ll tell you, don’t often pick up hitchhikers. The proletarian school of hitchhikers on the other hand holds that folks who don’t often pick up hitchhikers aren’t going very far anyway and are mostly a pain in the ass. People who ordinarily pick up hitchhikers are usually going a long way and are better company.
So the empirical test was coming right up. Art and I stood there with our best-dressed look and a corny sign that said “New Orleans or Bust” and almost right away a car stopped. Well it turned out they had stopped to eat lunch but they took us to St. Louis anyway and gave both of us a sandwich. In St Louis we decided to try plane hopping again and almost right a way we got a ride with a couple who were flying to Houston for a Sunday barbecue. The man looked like Rock Hudson and his wife sort of like Pat Nixon.
Art was sitting quietly next to me in the plane for about an hour when he leaned over to me and said, “Lou, I think I’m gonna be sick.” He asked Pat if they had any motion sickness pills and she told him that it was usually just them and “we never get sick, better open up a throw pillow.” Art tried but couldn’t make it. He dropped the pillow and pulled his shirt open. I just looked the other way as Pat and Rock pulled their air vents open amid Art’s apologizing and heaving.
“It’s still a long way to Houston,” Rock said. “I guess we better let you boys down somewhere. If you stay up here you’ll be sick all the way to Houston”.
Art looked worried. I was worried. Art kept apologizing to Mrs. Nixon, but she kept quiet. He landed on a ranch airstrip in the middle of the brown desert. “We’re sorry boys, but we’re in a hurry.” He sounded pretty annoyed. “There’s a telephone in the hanger. We’re late. Sorry.” Mrs. Nixon said, “Sorry.” The plane took off and we were alone.
The sky was perfectly clear and blue and it was hot. Art washed himself off at the pump just inside the hanger and I tried the phone. It didn’t work. There was what appeared to be a cabin off in the distance. Art rested awhile and then we began to walk. On the way to the cabin we crossed a dirt road and flagged down a car and asked the man driving it if he could take us to the nearest town. He said, “I just came from there; you boys’ll have to make it on your own.” Then he drove off. We walked to a cabin, which turned out to be about two miles off. There were five broken down cars sittin’ in the front yard all of them rusting as we watched. The man in the cabin told us “the nearest town is Corsicana. I walk there a couple of times a week. I’d drive you there ’ceptin’ none of those cars is workin’ just now.” He didn’t have a phone either. “We saw you land. Wish I could help” His wife and seven or so kids looked at us as we started off walking again.
We came on a old red barn and spotted a black man leaning over a trough-like basin drinking water. As soon as we told him our story he began to apologize. “I don’t know how I missed seeing you land. I musta been in the barn. I don’t hear so good you know.” He looked as if he was in a terrible fix. “Come on. You fellas get in the truck. I’ll take you into town, but we got to hurry, ’cause I got to be back here when the master gets back.”
I gave Art a quick glance to see if he had heard the word “master.” I could tell he had.
The old slave (by all indications that’s what he was) drove us quickly and fearfully into the town of Corsicana, Texas. The pick up truck bounced and rattled so much we could hardly hear what he was saying, but we could hear the refrain, “Us little men got to stick together.”
He dropped us off at a gas station, muttering that he “better hurry back before the master gets there.”
I stood at the corner with my “New Orleans or Bust” sign. Art lay in the nearby grass, too weak to stand. We must have made one hell of an impression on the town. People pointed and laughed as they drove past. Although the sign marked us as collegiate, we looked for the most part like bums that had just been in a brawl.
A police car drove by very slowly and parked. The officers stared at us for a time and then approached and asked, “You boys is strangers in this town? I knew I should say, “Yes, sir,” but I was afraid my voice would crack and the cop would think I was putting him on. “You boys is going to have to come with us.”
“We thought hitch hiking was allowed, sir.”
“I said you boys is going to have to come with us. That your stuff there?” He nodded at our valises. When we got to the car I asked, “But officer, what did we do?” He answered, “Get in the car,” in a terrifyingly soft voice.
While they were emptying our pockets at the police station, I asked, “Are we going to be allowed to make any phone calls?” The cop behind the desk shook his head no. “We’re supposed to be allowed three calls.” He just shook his head. When he got to our draft cards, he looked up and demanded. “Which one of you is from San Diego?” I nodded. “You from Chicago?” he asked Art. “Yes, sir”. We tried to explain about how we got to Corsicana, but they laughed and wouldn’t let us finish. They led us to a cell. “You boys is gonna stay here.” Six or seven prisoners were there to greet us but didn’t. The cell was as hot as urine and smelled like it. Art lay down on the mattress, breathing heavily, while I paced the cell. The jail was actually one big room, partitioned by bars into cells. Our cell had a mattress and a filthy toilet with a basin of drinking water next to it on the floor. I noticed the wall was covered with roaches and a particularly ugly one crawled out of the mattress when Art lay down. I noticed Art’s arms were covered with big pink blotches as a bright light shined down on us. Art asked if they ever turned it off and a heavy black man in the cell next to us replied, “Nope, these lights is always on. What are you in for?” I replied, “I don’t know. We were just standing by the side of the road and they brought us in here.”
“Well, I guess you boys will have to see the judge.” Is he here tomorrow?” I asked. “Nope, he don’t come til a week from Tuesday,” he replied as he walked back to his mattress and lay down.
Art was complaining about the lights and about being hungry. The man in the cell on the other side of us informed him that meals were only served twice a day morning and night and that was it, and they never turn off the lights and they never open a window and that was it. He reflected on that for a few moments. “They got me in here for the fourth time this year now. They don’t like me in this town.”
I sank down on the floor and lay there feeling terrible for a few hours, thinking and knotting my fingers. It got dark outside but the cell remained as light and as hot as ever. I lay on the floor with my eyes shut. When I opened them the heavy set black man was at the bars again. He looked like he wanted to talk. “Don’t you worry. They bringin’ in guys like you now and then. You gotta be real nice with them. Plead. Beg ’em. And look real sick. Maybe they let’s you out. Can’t tell.
Several hours later a cop came by to poke around in a desk and make some phone calls. When he was about to leave, I jumped up to the bars and said, “My friend’s very sick.” “We can’t let you boys out,” he said. Art scrambled up from his mattress and showed the cop his arms and shoulders covered with blotches. “I’ll die if I have to stay here all night,” he whined. I think he meant it. We begged and pleaded while the black man stood tense faced and the cop alternately laughed and scowled. Finally he decided to open our cell door and let us sit in a chair. I looked at the big wall clock. We had been begging for 15 minutes.
Now, we begged before five or six cops. We said we hadn’t done anything, that we hadn’t meant to do anything, that we were sorry for what we’d done. They had us tell our story over and over again. After 40 minutes of this they went out to have a conference. The black man’s face had relaxed. He was smiling. The cops returned and led us upstairs. We started walking down a long corridor. I got a sudden vision of being led to the gas chamber, and almost bolted. The sight of a drinking fountain broke my fantasy. I asked timidly if we could please have a drink. They laughed and granted us permission to drink water.
We were taken into a room and seated before a man operating a teletype machine. They told us we were being investigated. We said nothing to that. They told us there was a bus for San Antonio at 12:02. We said nothing for a long time. Finally Art asked quietly if we could please take that bus. One cop gave us a long, grave speech about how they had our names and descriptions and if there was any record on us we would be arrested again. We swore that we had done nothing and that we were sorry. Another cop said, “You boys still got eight hours before we can finish checking you out” We pleaded again. The cops all laughed and said we didn’t look as if we could hurt anybody. We agreed fervently.
They marched us down stairs, gave us back our belongings, and told us, “The bus leaves in ten minutes. Don’t come back to Corsicana.”
We picked up our bags, thanked them, and left vowing, under our breaths, that it wouldn’t be hard to comply with their request. It’s often run through my mind, however, that not being able to check out that town more thoroughly we probably missed some nice old time records.