Friday, October 26, 2012



I rarely see a hitchhiker. Yet as older readers know, it was a common way for young people, even women, to get around in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now we see it mainly in old movies, or when a transit strike hits and the papers print big signs that you can hold up when you're trying to get a ride because you don't have a car.
The hit of my hitchhiking career came when a cousin, friend and I hitchhiked to New York City wearing our RCAF Reserve uniforms. Which was probably against the rules. We really didn't have any problem getting rides despite our number.
It was a wonderful quick trip in 1955 despite a record heat wave. We even rode in the back of a truck, just like in the movies and cartoons. During the three of us cramming ourselves again and again into  cars, I lost my wedge cap, and in the military, that really is a no no.
Since the three of us were the lowest rank, AC2, we had no insignia on our sleeves. And since I was  brazenly without a hat, it appeared to an American officer waking past me that I was some high unknown rank of an ally attended by two aides. Since we were around 16, that really didn't seem likely upon real examination  but it was still good enough for me to get three free tickets that night to the huge Broadway hit, South Pacific, and I was on the aisle about six rows back.
I routinely hitchhiked up north to see the girls from school working at the lodges and resorts. I occasionally had to suffer by the side of the road for an hour or so, but if it rained, the next car picked me up. Often the couple wanted some company on routine trips in Cottage Country. So hitchhiking 400 or more kilometres on a weekend was routine, and not one friend or adult found it strange.
After we bought our cottage on the Trent River, I can remember warnings in the 1990s, and maybe there was even a sign, telling you not to give rides to hitchhikers in the Warkworth area because of the chances it was an escapee from the prison there. Then I heard it was all a ploy by the guards' union because the prison had just got its first female warden and the guards were trying to embarrass her.
Girls would be in more danger, of course, but there is safety in numbers and where you stick your thumb out. My wife thought nothing of hitching to work as a young office worker if the Hamilton bus was delayed. But that was in daylight on busy streets. Yet a woman that I knew all the way back to Grade One remembers that she used to routinely hitchhike home 70 km when she was a nursing student and she had only one bad experience. She always did it with a fellow student and they had a rule that they would never get into a car with only young guys. But one day, it was raining and two men came along and they got in and they took them down a side road and borrowed/extorted $2  from them along the way. (This was in the Fifties.) They jumped out of the car the first time it slowed  and swore that they would never tell anyone. She did it most weekends for years.
I suppose hitchhiking has always been against the law for some strange reason, and I was told that cops would check you out if they found you with your thumb out at the side of the road, but it never happened to me. I probably hitchhiked more than 100 times and never had a bad experience.
I would imagine that outside of America, which United States should remember has more than one country, hitchhiking is still as common as it used to be here.
In Cuba, for example, there are a lot of people standing by the side of country roads, waiting for buses which don't run that often because gas is costly. Then an ancient truck will appear, every possible person will climb aboard, so the truck looks as overloaded as one of those trains in India as it grinds  slowly down the road.
It used to be that you did a lot of hitching when you were a backpacker but lately you hear more about several backpackers pooling and renting a battered cab when they can negotiate a low rate.
My oldest son, John Henry, says he really only hitched on three occasions in his many months of wandering half the countries of the world.
The first was in Alsace when he drew a sign and was picked up in a minute and taken to the train station where the girl from across the street was living. Everyone spoke only French, so they couldn't tell him where she was.
Then one Sunday he was in northern Finland and no buses were running to Haparanda, Sweden. Drew a sign, two men who didn't speak English picked him up immediately, and took him home for dinner by the grandmother before delivering him to the Swedish railway station. He still uses a hand-made fishing knife they gave him as a letter opener and I use their filleting knife when I clean fish.
He was in Inverness, Scotland, when he was picked up by a man from Texas who drove him around the whole ness before delivering him back to the hotel.
My youngest son,  Mark, who still does a lot of travelling from his home in China, says he never hitchhiked regularly in his rich world travels which included Cambodia just after the slaughter of the innocents. He just didn't think it was safe.
Mark hitched once in the Pyrenees. He was picked up in the Tunisian Sahara desert, in the area where Lucas filmed Star Wars, by three chaps in a small truck who were drinking beer. But there was nothing to run into except sand dunes and Mark had some protection because he spoke excellent French, a main language there.
He hitched in Aqaba and was given a ride along the Red Sea by a cement truck driver who asked in his bad English whether Mark had a "peepee." Nope, not a homosexual advance because fortunately Mark, who knows a lot about languages, remembered that Arabs don't differentiate between bs and ps, and the driver just wondered in his small talk whether Mark had a baby.
Mark really tempted fate by hitchhiking in the West Bank and was picked up by a Jerusalem shop owner and his assistant who were going to the Dead Sea for a noon-hour swim.  It''s not a good idea for civilians to do that there but the young soldiers do it routinely. Of course they are carrying a rifle, even at the urinals.
I suppose that in an era when we even drive kids to high school - when I was a pupil no one got a ride  even if they lived just outside of town -  it would be considered a terribly dangerous thing to do to expose them to strangers.
And insurance companies would be opposed, because they oppose just about everything, and then there are the transport companies that probably would fire a driver who decided to pick up a companion for the dark hours when he was just trying to stay awake.
(I remember the reports to the Ontario Safety League when I was a director that an alarming  percentage of truck drivers on the Toronto-Montreal run "rested" their eyes for a startling period several times on a night trip.)
Still, in a day which has almost institutionalized car pooling by giving corporate and tax incentives, and parking lots are built at cloverleafs just for commuters, why can't we set up some sort of rudimentary organization for hitchhiking. What an efficient use of resources. However, that probably wouldn't work because bureaucrats screw up more than they succeed, and part of the charm is just walking to a road, sticking out your thumb, and being taken somewhere FOR FREE. Why some times they would even buy you a hamburger and milkshake.
The good old days often weren't, but they were when it came to hitching. Just imagine how quickly drivers had to size you up as they drove near you. We now know from Malcolm Gladwell's huge bestseller, Blink, that people make up their mind about you in the first few seconds of meeting you. That so many drivers did that routinely just as a glance through a windshield says a lot for the nicer tenor of departed times. Less suspicious, more interested in helping, just plain friendlier.
In a way, the raised thumb should be remembered as one of the nicer things about life. Instant trust, both by the hitcher and the driver. I miss that in our suspicious world.
Remember the old hit TV police series Hill Street Blues where the sergeant dismissed the cops after the roll call saying "you be careful out there.:
Still a smart idea. But we've taken it to such an extreme that things that we used to do routinely, like hitchhiking now seem as dangerous as coming the mane on a lion.

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