Fifty-Four Hours* by
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Richard owned a Volvo, one of those 1950s jobs with a rounded back that looked like a ’48 Ford only smaller. Once the tour ended, people scattered. He and I teamed up to drive the Volvo back to San Francisco. I was thrilled. Richard had become a model for me, colorful, articulate, in charge of his destiny. Tired of touring and the New York winter, we both wanted out. We piled into that car with our battered luggage, guitars, a box of contraband Cuban cigars, and a bottle full of black beauties. Eager to hit the road, we threaded our way through uptown traffic on the West Side Highway and headed for the Holland Tunnel.

Excerpted from Rocked in Time, a work in progress.

Through the wet snow, I spotted two hitchhikers walking in the trafficked slush toward the entrance to the tunnel. It was a stupid place to hitch from and we knew nobody would pick them up, so we stopped. They were young and grateful and had no idea what they were facing. We let them crawl into the back seat where they arranged themselves around our jackets and discarded coffee cups. The trunk was full of gear and musical instruments, so they had to hold their suitcases on their laps. And that was how they rode across America, crammed into the back seat of that Volvo. Their enthusiasm rose and fell, and the exhausted boys grew silent as Richard and I careened westward, cranked on speed, gasoline, chocolate, and coffee.

We’d made it out of Jersey and crossed most of Pennsylvania before we had to stop for gas. Richard disappeared into a phone booth. The two hitchhikers stretched their cramped limbs while the attendant filled the tank, checked the oil, and cleaned the salt off the windshield. Up to then, the trip had been a tour de force. The weather was for shit — rain, snow, and sleet slathered across much of the east and Midwest, the highway flicking from Eisenhower’s smooth, broad six-lane interstate to the narrow two-way concrete ribbon with a suicide lane, but the Volvo kept humming, and we were making wicked good time. Through Ohio, the hitchhikers lapsed into forced hibernation. Up front, Richard and I popped a black beauty apiece and rocked out to the radio while we chewed through the cigars.

In Iowa, where you begin to feel like you’re making progress, before Nebraska’s desolation bums you out, Richard began to get antsy. “Look for the Ames exit,” he kept repeating. “The Ames exit. Did we miss it?”

We’d done a show in Ames, at the University of Iowa, but I saw no reason to sightsee. The speed had worn off and it felt like we’d been on the road forever.

“We’re gonna stop here for a little while,” Richard said.

“What? Here? Why?”

The hitchhikers stirred.

“There’s somebody I gotta see.”

“Who.” I was annoyed. We were on a roll.

“Remember Kim?”

“No. Who’s Kim?”

“When we did the show.”

“Here?”

“Yeah. Where else?”

“How the hell would I know, Richard? Maybe there’s somebody you could see back home instead.”

“I want to say ‘hello.’”

“Uh huh. Or hey, I got a good idea.”

“What.”

“Maybe you fucked somebody in Texas. We could hang a left and head south to ol’ El Paso, eat some barbecue, learn a couple of cowboy songs…”

I heard a groan from our back seat captives.

“Just kidding, guys. Come on, Richard,” I said. “It’s cold and dark out here. Cut the crap.”

“I won’t be long. I promised her I’d stop.”

“And she’ll die if you don’t.”

Richard drove on, silent, determined, preoccupied. We zigged and zagged, looking for an address on Maple Avenue or Elm Street. One of those tree boulevards.

“There it is!” He shut off the car and reached for the keys.

I grabbed his wrist. “Oh no, you don’t,” I said. “You want us to freeze to death?”

“Hey, I won’t be long.”

“Asshole!”

“Honest.”

The way I said “asshole” reminded me of that night in Detroit when I’d mistreated the curious girl with no name and unceremoniously dropped her off outside her apartment. “Asshole,” was all she had said. Was this karma? Payback for my cavalier indifference toward that Detroit girl?

I started the Volvo. “Sorry, guys,” I said. “His car. His fucking world.”

“His fucking world,” one of the back seat boys said.

“Yeah,” I said. “His fucking world.” I pulled my jacket over my chest and shoulders and put my feet on the driver’s seat.

The stopover did nothing for our hitchhikers. Their suitcases remained on their laps, their knees had become frozen into 90-degree elbows of galvanized pipe that ensured that no blood reached their feet or returned to the warmth and comfort of hearts and lungs.

I endured the humiliation of waiting outside while my brother in art and politics indulged himself. We had not been invited in. When I could stand the mortification no longer, I left our whimpering hitchhikers to stretch in the cold night air and went to fetch Richard.

An irritated young woman in bunny slippers and fuzzy pajamas opened the door. She was incredulous that Richard had left people freezing in the car. “They’re in there,” she said, jerking a thumb toward the bathroom. “I can’t believe he did that,” she muttered as she shuffled back to her bedroom.

I rapped on the door. “Come on, Richard,” I hollered. “Let’s get outta here. We’re freezing to death out there.”

He was actually angry. Son of a bitch.

“Hi, I’m Kim.” She held out her hand. Small, dark, round, bright brown eyes snapping. She, too, was incredulous. “You actually left people out there in the cold? So we could do this?”

I looked past them. They had been fucking on a bath towel in a narrow corridor between the bathtub and a toilet.

What an idiot, I thought later, after I stopped bragging about the near record-breaking 3000-mile marathon. On and off the partially constructed freeway, it took us 54 hours coast-to-coast. With a stopover so Richard — or should I call him Dick — could get laid. I was scattered for weeks afterward. Everybody took the holidays off, but I had nowhere to go. I had gotten rid of the truck before the tour. Sold it for junk. I had watched it fade into the wrecking yard, its apple-green TRUCK shouting to the world even as death approached in the gleaming jaws of a wrecking yard metal press.

* * *

*Excerpted from a work in progress.

Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Wow! Great story of humanity (or lack thereof) on and off a cross country drive, full of exquisite details (I take no offense by your treatment of that Detroit girl so long ago; it wasn’t me). Karma’s a bitch. Highways and byways, indeed. You saw them all, even while you and your fellow travelers froze your asses off in Ames so Richard could get laid.

    The coda to the story; being at loose ends, having sold your truck for junk, is the perfect metaphor for your life at that moment and a mournful ending to a rich tale.

    • Thanks, Betsy. It’s fictional memoir (this chapter happened pretty much like this) and has been a difficult story to tell. I’m trying to describe the sexism and misogyny that coexisted with the political ‘right-on’ battles of the times, and how the women began to take a stand while [some] men, like the protagonist, tried to ‘get it.’ And thanks for noting the coda. You described its intent perfectly.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    What a description of the road trip from hell, especially for those poor hitchhikers. I really enjoyed your vivid descriptions of Richard and his thoughtless encounter, literally leaving everyone else out in the cold.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    So glad I wasn’t part of that journey! But I have been on some crazy cross-country trips, with non-stop driving (no one would actually stop and pay for a motel of course) and some random passengers, hard to believe in retrospect. It probably seems like people are just making up the stories (okay, yours is “fictional memoir”), but truly life can be stranger than fiction. Loved the snow coming at the windshield–been there!

    • Yeah, Khati, I wouldn’t have wanted to be on that trip either except to be driving or riding shotgun. Laurie described it aptly below as ‘the road trip from hell,’ which I thought was accurate. Although this post is excerpted from a novel set in the radical theater scene circa 1966-70, that trip actually happened, including the 54-hour drive-a-thon. Those poor hitchhikers. And the snow, at one point, when we were crossing the Great Salt Flats in Utah, we were on an older, pre-Interstate section and it was snowing so heavily that we just had telephone poles to guide us. We couldn’t stop or we would have stalled. I recall the flat whiteness of the featureless landscape, our tire tracks in the rear-view mirror, and an overwhelming mixture of glee and exhaustion. Wheee!

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    I totally believe that trip happened, embellished or not! It’s a wonder we all survived.

  5. Suzy says:

    Wonderful chapter from a book all Retrospecters will clearly have to read when it is published. It may be fictional memoir (love that term!), but this portion has the ring of truth, and you admit as much in your comments to Betsy and Khati. I would love to hear the story from the POV of the hitchhikers, but I don’t imagine you kept in touch with them.

    Amusingly, Urban Dictionary defines black beauties as “the myriad of amphetamine combo pills that your hippie parents abused when they were young.”

    • Thanks, Suzy. Yeah, fictional memoir, a devilish oxymoron on purpose and yes, this frenzied crossing really did happen. I hope the hitchhikers survived into the following week. I don’t how they could have, given that their legs had been frozen into a permanent seated position. Love the Urban Dictionary definition and one wonders just what ‘combos’ lurked inside!

  6. Thanx for sharing more of your adventurous life. Charles, and pity on those poor hitchhikers in the back seat!

    On a youthful cross-county drive I once made I had some far tamer adventures – I stripped the gears on our mustang, we were hit with a mattress that flew off the roof on the car in front of us, and that’s when we listened to a lot of Dave von Ronk!

    • Flying mattresses. Doncha just hate it when that happens! A good choice for a road trip, Dave Van R. Cocaine run all ’round your brain? Tell old Bill when he gets home to leave those downtown girls alone. And I guess that poor Mustang musta been a good ole wagon, Dana but you done broke it down! It’s a long way from coast to coast, isn’t it!

  7. Indeed a long trip Charles, and 50 (gulp) years ago, so am sure I’ve forgotten more than I remember, but we surely had the gears fixed and he must have done the rest of the driving.

    I did count a lot of cows, and It was the 60s so the grass wasn’t just in the fields..

  8. Who knows, we made do with what we had!

    C, forgive this belated appreciation for Bowl Full of Nails, and your wonderful storytelling, taking me places I’ve never been, bravo!

    • To belabor the point, authentic hippies wouldn’t have noticed a cow in the stash or, if the stashed cow was discovered, you would have been happy to share.

      Gratified that you read A Bowl Full of Nails. Ecstatic that it took you to unfamiliar places!

  9. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Charles, and terrifically told. You really captured, rather than romanticized, the experience. (And I, too, often thought those Volvos looked like ’48 Fords.) And, as much as Dick sounds like a dick, I gotta believe that a lot of guys are quietly thinking, “Yeah; I would have stopped for that, too.” (Though I think most of us would have been thoughtful enough not to make our car companions wait outside in the cold.)

    • Thanks, John. In retrospect, the experience was not romantic, but at the time, despite my pal’s libidinous behavior, it was a romantic and exhilarating drive, especially when we realized we were gonna make it back to San Francisco in record time! I did emphasize the Iowa stopover from the narrator’s POV because, (1) the narrator is, well, the narrator, and (2) to build a longer line in the novel involving the education of a young male chauvinist pig ;-)! Race and gender, race and gender.

  10. Better to be freezing your asses in the cold than stuck in a car trying to catch some hours of sleep in an Arkansas summer, when it was too hot to leave the windows rolled up, and the huge mosquitoes were waiting to swoop in if you left them open even a crack. (IN other words, thanks for stimulating my own recollections of past road trip challenges.)
    Very evocative tale of the times. Amazing that you all made it to your destination together after that unfortunate side trip. I liked your idea of heading down to El Paso.

  11. Dave Ventre says:

    Thia made me sad for how relatively dull my life has been. It also made me thankful for how relatively dull my life has been.

    • I’m still laughing, Dave. Very VERY out loud! What a GREAT response. Dare I say it was the best of times and the worst of times? It was an intense time, an exciting time. Thank the goddesses I was young. I’m finishing up a novel that covers those theater days. Just got final edits back. More insanity. Still laughing!

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