Hitchhiking and Mercy

©1997 by Spider Johnson
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[Excerpt from a letter to a friend]:


Wed, Jan 8, 1997, 6:55 pm

...The demise of my friend Bradley is uncovering many memories around death and dying. I had a mystical experience with death as a very young child; I'll tell you about it another time. One that really impresses me is the time I thought I would be killed by a gun-toting loser who gave me a ride once.

Jim Eppler, Marilyn Gordon, her brother Don and I went camping in Big Bend one New Years for a few days in my new VW bus back in 1973. As usual, the Big Bend was beautiful and warm, so when we headed back to Lubbock late one night we were surprised by a blue norther blowing in on us shortly after leaving Alpine. The headwind was difficult enough to contend with, because it slowed the bus down to 30-40 miles per hour, necessitating constant shifting between 3rd and 4th gears. I grew road-sleepy and needed to be relieved from driving, so Don volunteered. The bus's heater was barely adequate, so I slept fitfully, distracted further by Don's failure to shift to 4th gear; he kept forgetting. Sure enough, at about 2 a.m. somewhere outside Odessa, the high rpm's resulted in a dropped valve, a fatal malfunction which tore holes in the piston, crankcase and generally destroyed the engine. We were stranded.

The four of us cozied up inside that VW bus, stranded on a farm-to-market road, waiting for dawn's light. It was so cold that our respiration froze a half-inch thick on the insides of the windows. Soon, the oil field traffic started and some charitable soul towed us into the nearest town. After a roadside cafe breakfast, Marilyn and Don hitch-hiked to Lubbock to get her car and Eppler and I rode the towtruck to Odessa to a VW dealership in order to asses the damage.
Eppler & I left the bus to be repaired and caught a ride with a friend to the Interstate, where we hoped to catch a ride to Abilene, to meet up with Marilyn at her mom's house. The cold drizzle beneath the sodium vapor lights only deepened my despondency about getting home and figuring out how I was going to pay $1100 for a new engine. After 45 minutes of thumbing the few passing cars, a fastback mustang finally stopped ahead of us.

Out stepped a short, thin fellow who waved us into the cramped back seat and then took off like a rocket, finally up to about 80 mph. A fat woman of indeterminate age, wearing rhinestone "cat's-eye" glasses, was sitting mute in the passenger seat. As we were thanking him profusely for picking us up, he suddenly raised up a small pistol, waving it, and said, "I'm sorry that I'm gonna have to kill you boys." Just like that. No warning, like out of a Joyce Carol Oates novel, the absolutely unexpected, sudden shock of hearing those words completely paralyzed both of us. I can still see the silhouette against the windshield of his hand holding that pistol and hear the certainty in his voice, saying he was going to kill us.

My mind went to work. Part of me stood back to observe my own thoughts as I went through several states of being, all within a few seconds. My first reaction was the shock, as I stated, full of primal fear. I began imagining what it would feel like, those bullets hitting and entering my body, then how long I would remain conscious, what the experience would be like to die. And I knew that it could happen any moment. Then he said, "If you go for the gun, I'll just run this sumbitch straight into a telephone pole. It don't make a shit to me." He then pulled out a bottle of Lord Calvert and took a slug.

I noticed another thought coming into focus: when he stops to shoot us, Jimmy and I could run for it, and in this nasty weather, we could possibly get away! That idea cheered me up somewhat, but not too much, because the odds were not all that good in our circumstance. Besides, this crazy bastard just might shoot us where we sat in the car.

Then another thought: I'm beginning to get pissed about this. Hell, I just might whip the little beggar's ass, catch him off guard as he's slowing to a stop. He's not that big, and he could be about half drunk anyway. The more I thought about this option, the madder and more excited I became. I had fought tougher guys than him, and I wasn't about to go down without a fight. Even if he did finally get a bullet in me, it would have to be a vital shot, because from the size of it, the small pistol was no larger calibre than a .32 automatic. I began to revel in the prospect of stomping this worm's ass into the cold, wet, black and deserted asphalt.

At last a brilliant inspiration hit me: I'm obviously way smarter than this little bully, so I'll just talk our way out of this difficulty. By now, Eppler was silent, terrified and shrunken into the seat as if he hoped the driver would forget he was there. It was up to me.

I started talking to Frankie (I don't recall his name, so this one will do), asking the kind of get-acquainted questions one would ask a passenger on an airliner. He was surprisingly convivial, and accommodated my questions blithely, as if we actually were fellow travelers. My questions came slow and measured, and whenever he tossed out a self-aggrandizing response, I affirmed him with credulous animation, stroking his badly-scarred ego. When I asked about the mute woman, he reached over and roughly squeezed her breast, which elicited the first movement on her part, a turned head and a gap-toothed grin. What a surreal situation we were in.
As we talked on, I learned that he was an out-of-work jockey and Viet Nam vet. He had a hard luck story that was as good as any I'd heard. At one point, when I asked him about the gun, he suddenly pulled the clip out of it and handed it to me, proud of his power toy, genuinely pleased that I had such an interest. I told him as much as I dared about myself, that I was a college student, taught guitar lessons and even had my own pistol--back home, of course. By now Frankie was relaxed, almost cordial towards us. He even offered me some of his whiskey, which I adroitly declined.

When we arrived in Big Spring, Frankie pulled off at highway 87 into a truck stop parking lot and stopped his car. The moment of truth, I thought. Better get ready. He turned to us and said, "Aw, I ain't gonna hurt you boys. Maybe you can catch a ride back to Lubbock here at the truck stop." He got out, opened the trunk and got our packs, put the pistol in the trunk, and closed the lid. He shook our hands, friendly as a hound dog. "Ya'll are sure good boys. I wuzn't never gonna hurt you two." He then left, convinced that he was our friend and had done us the favor of not killing us and helping get us back home.

I didn't even bother to get the license plate number, because I felt sorry for the guy. Fear of dying/Escaping/Fighting for my life/Negotiation/Compassion, all within an hour and a half of getting to know a complete stranger, someone I would never have sought out in those days, because he was a "loser." From time to time I wonder what ever happened to Frankie. It would probably surprise him that I think of him, and with a certain quality of mercy. Hell, it sometimes surprises me. Yet when it comes down to it, are we that different in that we showed our compassion to each other?

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes...
-from The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare

What does he think of me?