Two rides in three hours get me 47 miles closer. I never decline, no matter how short the lift offered. One is from an on-duty cop. A few minutes prior his black and white passed in the far lane of the three-lane highway where I stand, right arm extended with thumb out at eye level and max-readable sign held high in left hand.
For some reason he’s U-turned and is coming my way again. This isn’t the interstate so I’m allowed to hitch here. Maybe this county has additional regs for hitchers.
He approaches via lane nearest me. No siren or flashing light. I know it’s the same cop because I saw him glancing at me when he passed in the far lane, unable to change lanes then amid traffic.
He doesn’t pull onto the asphalt shoulder where I’m standing, as he would to write me a ticket. He stops next to me and motions with right hand that I get in his Ford.
I do but don’t place boarded sign top down on my right as I usually would in a samaritan’s vehicle. Not sure what he has in mind. Perhaps a warning then he’ll have me get out.
He’s a trim black guy with thick wrists like Hank Aaron. He’s not smiling, which has me guessing he’s a war vet. Veterans who didn’t get to war are more jovial right off the bat as I enter their vehicles. War vets are taut, especially young ones not far removed from it.
My plight seems to draw them.
“You hitching ’cause you don’t have money for a bus?” he says, accelerating into traffic.
“No, sir. I have enough for Greyhound but I wanna see the land.”
He glances at his side and rearview mirrors before replying, as though gauging.
“You sleep outdoors as well?”
He’s not smiling but is a tad less stone-faced than when his black and white approached.
“Yes, sir. That or else sleep in the cars giving me rides, if they don’t mind.”
My guess is he’s not gonna write me a ticket.
“What’s your deadline for reporting to Camp Pendleton?”
Him knowing my destination has me thinking he’s a marine. His youth and intensity bring to mind the three DIs of my training platoon at Parris Island. All had recently returned from the war to which most of their recruits would be going. They were rough on us yet, after the first three weeks of shock and awe, I sensed a zeal to prepare us for the “meat grinder” they’d survived.
“By the eighth, sir. I’ve allowed extra days even though I know it can be driven in five.”
He uses the two-way radio to update his dispatcher. Code numbers I don’t fathom, so I wonder if he’s taking me to a police station. Then again, I doubt he doubts I am who my sign says I am. My appearance leaves no room for doubt.
Short hair parted left and combed flat with white sidewalls. Belted dark chinos, spit-shined black GI boots. Button-down collar yellow oxford shirt tucked in. Thin black necktie. No tie clip ’cause that seems too formal. My ditty bag is military green, ‘USMC’ embroidered with shiny gold thread in large letters on both sides. Clean-cut in PX-bought clothes to ease drivers’ fear of hitchers.
“Why the Marines?”
As I gather words he adds, “You gonna be the next John Wayne?”
I know most civilians think it’s nuts to join the Marines when there’s a war on. But I also know from having talked with recruiters before enlisting that only the USMC offered what I thought I wanted.
“No, sir. I don’t have college. Only the Marines offered a chance to go to flight school without a college degree. The draft board was breathing down my neck, so I joined the Corps.”
“Fly what? Jet fighters then become an astronaut?” he says with a slight grin.
Already I’m blushing.
“I didn’t score high enough on the flight-school test they gave at Parris Island anyway,” I say. “Normal math I can do but algebra and geometry were inscrutable in high school.”
“Inscrutable. . .” he says, smiling at last.
“Just as well,” he adds as smile fades. “You would’ve wound up in choppers rather than jets, and probably as door-gunner rather than pilot. . . .Chopper crews don’t last long.”
He’s been to where I’m bound.
His intensity as we speak, him more than me, is like other war vets who’ve given me rides. Like them he takes me farther than he has time for. The politics of the war to which I’m ordered matter not a whit to them. They’re keen to help me get to where I’m ordered—and give advice.
I didn’t have war vets in mind when scheming this hitch while at jet-mech school in Memphis. They hadn’t occurred to me because I have no experience with war vets, Dad having been an unapologetic draft-dodger during his war. My target audience is drivers of vehicles approaching at 60 mph. They have but seconds to read and decide so I’d best make my pitch legible.
Tall thick black all-cap letters printed on thick grey poster board that won’t bend in wind, backed by a flat board long enough to hold sign higher than the top of my gourd.
I’d seen scruffy hitchers sitting on curbs with thumb out, holding a scrap of box cardboard on which they’d chicken-scratched their pitch with ballpoint pen. Except for cars stopped at a red light, no way anyone could read their pitch approaching at 60 mph. That plus who’d help a guy who doesn’t stand when asking a favor of passersby?
“Did your parents balk at you enlisting?”
Most samaritans ask that.
“Mom liked that I could retire in twenty years with a military pension.”
“Right,” he says with a half grin. He’s more at ease now, right hand on steering wheel and left forearm on door’s armrest. Traffic has thinned and he’s doing 60, heading west.
“She changed after my high-school classmate got KIA. After that she kept saying, ‘Don’t volunteer for anything’.”
“. . .What’s your MOS?”
“Sixty three eighteen—jet engine mech.”
“A winger, eh? That’s good. . . .But after a twelve-hour workday you’ll pull guard duty some nights on the airbase perimeter. So don’t get rusty with the rifleman basics you learned at PI.”
“Yes, sir,” I say, meaning to continue but he interrupts.
“You get lulled into thinkin’ you’re safe on an airbase—till a crack unit of gooks busts your perimeter after midnight when you’re in the rack dreaming of Mary Jane back home. Those motherfuckers ain’t there to take prisoners or fight clean like you see in Hollywood films. . .”
Rather than looking right at me he’s staring dead ahead, now with both hands on wheel, Hank Aaron wrists taut.
“Gooks in the wire. . .” he says, his voice lower. “They know they’re gonna die but come anyway.”
I can only listen.
“Citizens defending their homeland against an invader make hellacious good soldiers. . . .Quit ain’t in their vocabulary.”
I’m with him for about twenty minutes but it seems longer. He drops me at a good spot for rides west. He doesn’t offer his name and doesn’t ask mine. Neither matter.
He shakes my hand goodbye. As I open door and swivel right to exit his Ford he touches my left elbow.
I turn as he knuckle-taps his lower right leg. It sounds hollow.
My gaze goes from leg to his eyes.
“Your Mom is right: Don’t volunteer for anything.”
He’s not smiling. I switch bag and sign to left hand and swing my right over both to shake his hand again. We clasp firmer than before.
“Thank you, sir.” I say, exiting.
He U-turns and is gone.
“I need a volunteer,” the bayonet instructor yells to a seated horde of shaved-head recruits.
War is on and warm bodies are needed to fodder escalation, so my boot camp has been shortened from twelve weeks to eight. We’re allotted one day to learn the rudiments of hand-to-hand combat. Training involves 250 recruits from six platoons sitting on beige winter grass surrounding a log-rimmed, rectangular arena cushioned with sand.
Used to recruits who’d been warned against volunteering, the instructor is about to pick one from those seated nearby when a brawny, smirking recruit rises, jogs to and jumps the pit’s log rim and stands ready.
DIs of the assembled platoons are impressed.
He seems a hard-core jock, judging by a cauliflower ear and fireplug build on a six-foot frame. Perhaps he’d been a fullback in high school or an all-state wrestler. Or both.
He does as told during a slow-mo demo using a pugil stick, a five-foot shaft with bulbous padded ends used to simulate bayonet fighting. Pound a foe with both ends to open his defenses then jab torso to simulate a bayonet thrust.
The volunteer seems instructor’s equal in terms of power and speed, if not yet technique. You can tell he likes contact.
Lesson over, DIs herd us into four queues each on opposing sides of the sand arena. A recruit from each queue dons codpiece belt, gloves, helmet and pugil stick, enters the pit and flails at foe from opposing queue till whistled to stop.
Aggressive recruits who deck and bayonet foes earn rare praise: “Good kill, recruit.” Most are dismissed with an emasculating insult.
We watch in awe as the volunteer drops a taller black recruit in seconds with a shoulder-driven uppercut that lifts him off feet. He adds a blood-lust shout while ramming shaft into foe’s chest, mashing him into sand till whistled to cease.
While in line I’m counting heads in the rival queue, keen to assess the foe I’ll battle. Many faces there are counting noggins in my queue. All dread sparring with brutes like the volunteer. He has a flared-nostril zeal that may earn him combat medals. Or get comrades killed charging insane odds.
My foe is my equal. Both ignore the technique we’ve been taught in favor of flails like girls swatting with purses. The instructor is appalled: “You pukes get outta my sight.”
Thus ends our bayonet training. Didn’t get to jab straw men with real bayonets.
After a wordless lunch of C-rations and canteen water, we’re marched into a large gym to learn a single judo throw. DIs fan out bootless recruits across its padded-mat floor.
An instructor, clad in black-belted white judo gear, demonstrates an arm throw at center court. He teaches technique on another instructor, who shows us how to cushion falls with our free arm.
One recruit stands behind another, extending right arm over thrower’s right shoulder. Recruit in front grasps arm at its wrist and under bicep, then brings recruit over his shoulder by whipping arm toward the mat while thrusting hip back and up. Thrower doesn’t let go of arm, so victim travels a tight loop and hits the mat face-up in front of thrower, cushioning fall with left arm.
“Alright recruits, pair off and get ready to do five throws each, at the sound of my whistle.”
Keen to watch what they’ll expect us to do, I’d neglected to pre-pick a like-minded soul. Whirling in search of a dance partner, I see only duos getting set to throw one another. A solo figure moves 20 yards to my left.
It’s the bayonet volunteer.
All near him have grabbed anyone else to avoid sparring with our herd’s alpha male. He runs to and fro smirking, knowing why he’s shunned.
My colon shudders when the volunteer spots me. Grinning while sizing me up, he jogs to where I stand, frozen in my socks.
He steps in front, motioning that I extend my right arm over his right shoulder. I do as though placing it on a guillotine. The blade falls when the instructor toots his whistle to launch 125 heaves. I’m airborne like a Frisbee before its tweety ball has ceased vibrating.
I have the build of a teen miler. The volunteer is shorter but outweighs me by 40 pounds. And he’s gung-ho. Instead of bringing me to the mat at his feet as taught, he lets go of my arm once I’m airborne.
Recruits look up as I fly by. It isn’t gravity or friction that halts my logroll across the mat but rather the standing legs of another recruit.
The volunteer is on me before I arise. Resolved to endure, I offer my pipe-stem arm and off I go again. Arising from the second heave, I notice that a few tossed recruits remain on the mat, injured or dazed.
The volunteer is enjoying himself. He’d earned awe during bayonet practice and now more at judo. He’s a cinch to win the DI-chosen Honorman Prize, a one-stripe promotion awarded on graduation day to each platoon’s outstanding recruit.
While arising from my third flight I notice Vasquez, a stocky recruit from my platoon. He’s seated on the mat, from where he watches my plight. He’d been sufficiently stunned after two or three falls to stay down, and sees that fate has paired me with Everyman’s nightmare.
Kind soul that he is, Vasquez pats mat with hand, motioning with eyes that I should stay down. I don’t.
The volunteer throws me with such force that I revolve with no sense of direction. But his throws don’t hurt and I’m landing on two inches of foam. I’d played Pop Warner football on harder turf, plus eight years of Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball and schoolyard basketball. This I can hack.
While sprawled face-down after my fourth flight, I can’t see Vasquez but I hear him.
“Nickerson! Stay down!” he says, risking their ire if DIs hear him.
I’ve weathered four of five throws. Yielding now would squander a costly investment. The volunteer is irked that I haven’t quit. Many around us have.
I arise, fly and logroll again. My turn to heave.
By now he and I are performing at the center of a loose circle of dazed recruits and busted duos. Some sit, others stand. Two lay groggy where they’d last sprawled. We’re like survivors still shuffling in a dance marathon.
An increasing number of DIs from six platoons, arms folded or fists on hips, watch from the circle’s periphery. None correct the volunteer for heaving instead of bringing me to the mat in front of him. He’s earning their respect.
He stands behind and extends his all-state arm across my right shoulder, knowing all eyes are on him. I grip it as taught, yank forward and thrust my slim hip back and up to take him off his feet. He stiffens his brawn with fullback’s legs firmly planted, thwarting my bid to budge him.
I wanna believe repeated adrenaline surges from sprawling falls have sapped my upper-body strength. The fact is I have a miler’s physique and the volunteer is built like a 10-second sprinter. I’ll not be able to throw him without his cooperation.
He’s already shown himself the best potential marine among six platoons. He wants more. His target audience all wear Smokey the Bear hats.
I yank his arm again, which doesn’t budge him but does buckle my knees. I slump beneath his bulk, me still gripping his arm, him bent at the waist. I yearn for a bout-ending whistle.
In a fetal crouch with the volunteer arced around me like a croquet wicket, he adds insult to humiliation.
“Pussy,” he hisses, snuffing my hope that he’ll allow me to throw him.
The volunteer ends our clinch by shaking his arm from my grip and standing tall. Seeking applause, he shrugs while flashing DIs an arms-spread, palms-up look.
No face left to lose, I act on impulse.
When a pro-wrestling foe behind Gorgeous George would pound him to knees and raise arms triumphantly to booing crowd, George would turn the tide via a made-for-TV ploy.
Still crouched I reach back and to my right, cupping hands behind the volunteer’s right ankle. Before he notices I back-pedal my head and shoulders up into his gut while yanking his leg skyward.
He’s caught off guard and my legs are pumping like pistons. He grasps at my head but lets go for balance as he hops backward on one leg. I ram the other into his torso as though stoking a front-load cannon.
A weaker man would’ve gone right over. He hops thrice on his left leg as I keep us moving back, his arms spinning like propellers.
We topple when his left heel catches on a bunched mat fold. Like door on hinge we swing fluidly above the fold then down hard on the other side like door slammed, our torsos parallel to the mat, me on top, still holding his right leg perpendicular.
As we hit the mat my size 7¾ gourd on gander neck whiplashes back against his beak. I hear a pop, a gargled curse, then the instructor’s whistle. A second later the crook of his brawny right arm clamps under my chin, its hand snaking up my left jaw to the ear, where its wrist is grabbed and locked in place by his left hand.
I’ve seen Gorgeous George use that move as well. The volunteer has me in a rear naked choke that will soon bring sleep.
He rolls us so my face is to mat with his bulk on my back. Blood from his busted nose drips onto my neck’s nape. That tells me where his head is relative to mine.
I bow my back to gain leverage and his resistance and then snap my head back hard. The impact brings more blood. He gurgles as DIs arrive. They curse us both while trying to break his now murderous chokehold. His DI shouts the volunteer’s name.
“Speakman! Goddamn it, let loose!”
I feel hands trying to separate us, then thuds from the volunteer’s DI punching his arm. Python doesn’t flinch. I’m drowsy. Then a pained gurgle from Speakman as the instructor applies a jujitsu move that breaks his grip. They haul him off me.
Seconds later a polished boot tip thuds my ribs.
“On your feet, maggot.”
Still face down, I recognize the Waco drawl of Staff Sergeant Beck, my platoon’s senior drill instructor. My response is groggy. He grabs the scruff of my sweatshirt and jerks me vertical.
The volunteer’s blood dribbles down my back as I stand rigid, knowing what will come. Beck is in my face, shouting like I’d raped his mom.
“Tell me, dickhead, who gave you permission to do anything other than follow orders?”
“Sir! No one, sir!”
“Did the instructor teach anything other than a simple arm throw?”
“Sir! No, sir!”
“You wanna be different than other recruits—is that what ails you, Nickerson?”
“Sir! No, sir!”
Beck’s lean mug is bug-eyed crimson beneath the brim of his Smokey. Its front edge pokes my forehead as he roars.
“Are marines too dumb for you, scumbag?”
“Sir! No, sir!”
“Would you like it better if I send you Motivation Platoon so you can spend weeks with bed-wetters and wrist-slashers?”
“Sir! No, sir!”
Speakman’s getting the same although his DI’s gripe is that his prize recruit hadn’t let go the chokehold when so ordered. He tries to reply but the best he can do is spray nose blood.
I’m on my twenty-seventh pushup when he’s marched to the infirmary and other recruits file out of the gym. From among their ranks Vasquez shoots me a sly grin.
My voice echoes as the gym empties.
“Thirty . . . thirty one . . . thirty two . . .”
My sweat and the volunteer’s blood puddle below my shaky pushups. Beck stands over me, so close I see me rise and fall in his gleaming boot tips.
Even before judo I’d sensed that Beck was onto my modus operandi, honed for a dozen years against quick-to-hit nuns.
Stealth, deadpan and ventriloquism had become second nature since age seven, when Mother St. Elias face-whacked me for an unauthorized smile on day one of first grade at St. Paul’s. She nailed me as we were being marched single file down a hallway to an exit. A lean, wire-rimmed Franciscan who was school principal, she stood at the second floor’s stairway door to enforce exit discipline.
Happy that day one is over and keen to get home, I glance left and grin at a pal being marched in the opposite direction. Mother sees my sin. His eyes widen at terror on my flank I’d not yet noticed. She strikes as I swivel my head right to see what had alarmed him—an ill-timed move that positions my right cheek for her roundhouse left.
Mother’s waist-to-knee rosary beads jangle like spurs as she comes at me. Crimson mug and orca garb distract me from noticing her left arm cocked behind its shoulder. Her leg speed intensifies the whack’s force, which swivels my head hard-left like weather-vane yielding to gale.
It knocks me out of file so Mother yanks me back via my necktie. I’d never been hit at home but don’t cry, primal-sensing that tears will make matters worse. Stunned and expecting more, I stand silent as Mother admires her handiwork, which tattoos me from ear to lower jaw.
Using virgin flesh as blackboard, she’d italicized the day’s object lesson: Do as you’re told or get thumped. She lets my file exit down the building’s outside stairs as she steps onto the landing and stands at its rail, fists on hips like Mussolini preening on palace balcony.
Mother barks my name as I trudge homeward.
I freeze, turn and look up as she delivers coup de grâce.
“Some day you’ll thank me for that!”
From day two at St. Paul’s my MO begins evolving in response to theirs: Show deadpan, speak monotone, quell emotion, evade limelight. Expect the worst so all surprises are pleasant. Worked well with nuns for a decade.
But in junior year of high school my home-room teacher was male. I also had Mr. Howell for History, a favorite subject so I did well. So well that nearby classmates bugged me for answers during Howell’s frequent quizzes, during which he’d patrol the aisles, keen to thump cheaters. I’d whisper answers but it required max stealth. Get caught, get thumped.
Howell was a shiny-bald, fit, hard-ass young lay teacher who’d finished two years as an Army MP, used the GI Bill for college then returned to his high school alma mater to teach. He brought boot-camp discipline to all his classes. Classmates pitied we who had Howell for home room.
He blind-sided me on the last day of class before summer break.
After nine months of hard-ass, suddenly Howell is cordial when bidding adieu to departing homeroom students, some of whom he’d pounded during the school year. Wary, I watch obliquely from a distance while emptying my desk. He leans against the front of his desk while standing with arms folded, chatting with classmates. Yet his eyes scan side to side.
He smiles a bit for each departing pupil, making small talk, then shakes hands with those who offer theirs.
My instinct is to exit quick and sly when he’s busy with others. If I can I will. But he’s posted himself where he’ll notice any not going to him to say what few feel. Parting on civil terms seems best. Right. I know that. Still. . .
As I near hand-shaking distance Howell’s unnatural smile flips downward. He stops me cold with hostile eyes and a backhanded compliment.
“I know you’re a sneak, Nickerson. I was hoping to catch you at it so I could box your ears. Lucky for you I didn’t.”
He doesn’t grin as though joking, nor does he offer his hand. Others nearing him to shake and leave seem stunned. Me too.
Still deadpan but eyes wider, I pivot right and exit his realm.
What the hell was that about, I asked myself for weeks thereafter. Behavior that worked with nuns—I passed their courses and didn’t get in trouble—was less so with Mr. Howell. I aced his course and didn’t get in trouble, yet he’s keen to thump me? Yeah, I knew why: he hadn’t caught me giving test answers to classmates. You could call that cheating, but it’s not like I hadn’t done homework and passed exams.
Howell’s chagrin that he hadn’t nailed me was of no concern. More vital was how to adjust my MO. Eventually it dawned on my teen mind that gender was the likely cause. I’m the only son in a female-dominant family. I was used to females who, at least at home, spoke their mind and didn’t kowtow to males. Adapting to nuns took a while but beneath their macho façade they’re still female.
But, as I was learning, society ain’t controlled by nuns. Males dominate so I’d best learn their ways. Didn’t wanna mimic male behavior, just learn to predict it.
Four years later it happened again—from another male despot. On a brisk day in March following my training platoon’s graduation ceremony at Parris Island.
After eight weeks of zero dialogue, our three DIs make themselves available for an hour of surreal chat. Their charges, now full-fledged marines, stand while speaking warily with seated DIs as others pack seabags. Waiting buses will take all six platoons to two weeks of infantry training at Camp Geiger in North Carolina.
I see the DIs’ sudden humanity as a honeyed trap, like a nun who leaves classroom but eavesdrops from hall to catch sneaks. I stay busy packing seabag while listening to others standing around our three eerie DIs. My bunk is near the squad bay’s exit hatch but even nearer to where our suddenly chummy DIs have posted themselves.
Seated in armless wood chairs, two lean back on chairs’ hind legs against squad bay’s pillars. Staff Sergeant Beck straddles his chair facing its back and the squad bay’s exit, boots on deck as though ready to pounce.
I read that scenario as Mr. Howell redux. Fool me once. . .
As admirers thin to board buses, Beck sees me heading for the squad bay’s hatch, seabag across a less-bony shoulder. I’d gained 22 pounds on PI.
Arms folded across chair back and eyes narrowed to glacier slits, Beck echoes Howell.
“I know you were gettin’ away with shit behind my back, Nickerson! Lucky for your Yankee ass I didn’t catch you at it.”
I don’t stop but half turn and say over my free shoulder on reaching the hatch, where Beck’s control over me is about to end.
"Your nose is lucky you weren’t my judo partner.”
Two dozen hurried strides later I climb a Greyhound’s steps and exhale on hearing its door hiss-close behind me. Turning left to find a seat, I see only one vacant. Next to a big dude with a bandaged nose.
Pulled into fetal crouch atop ripe cardboard left by prior hitchers, I lay on concrete ledge beneath a highway overpass after 1 a.m. Ditty bag turned on side serves as pillow and hand towel as muffler. A thin windbreaker retains body heat.
Neon from a motel sign a hundred yards on the road’s other side beckons me to fill a vacancy. Blinking pink seeps through shut eyelids facing home rather than where I’m bound.
My last ride dropped me a quarter mile on the other side of that motel. I jogged past it to the overpass, intent to sleep outdoors. But the inn’s lure is stronger now as jog heat yields to chill from concrete that never feels sunshine.
Still, dawn is only four hours off. Catnaps will do.
Tire whine rouses me before sunup. The motel’s pink neon is shrouded in mist. I’ve resisted temptation, the root of all sin.
Dabbing palms on dewy grass bordering my concrete perch, I wipe sleep from face, drying mitts and mug with towel used as muffler. Stow towel and windbreaker. Side-stepping down the concrete slope, at bottom I stand behind the flyover’s circular support column to get ready: straighten necktie, slap dust from chinos, align belt buckle with shirt buttons.
Passing samaritans will know where I’ve slept if they see me hitching from beneath the overpass. So I walk a quarter mile west, jogging the last two hundred yards.
Dropping ditty bag and raising sign, I put right thumb out to an empty grey-mist highway as the sun’s orange rays arrive.