by Jason McAndrews
When I read the article about Dr. Anthony Sattilaro (Sept. 3) and how two hitchhikers managed to save his life with their advice about a macrobiotic diet, I could not help but think back to my own hitchhiking days when I was a college kid in the 1950s and ’60s, a much more innocent time when — today’s young people will not believe this, I am sure — hitchhiking in certain parts of the country was fairly common, and drivers would actually pick you up. Although some of those drivers did not necessarily have all of their brain cells intact.
For example, when I was 18 in 1957, I hitchhiked quite a bit simply because I could not afford any other mode of transportation. Once I got picked up by an elderly man in a pickup truck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He had a southern accent and a face that appeared to have been left out to dry in the sun for several decades.
We were soon roaring along at about 30 miles per hour, but I did not complain because it was still a lot faster than walking. After a while he started saying some really weird stuff, like how he had known some Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. At first I thought he was kidding, but he never cracked a smile and got more and more bizarro as time went on. Finally, he told me that he had once been shot during a bar fight. Then he grabbed my hand and said, “Here, feel my head. Feel that hole in my head. That’s where I was shot…They also tried to drown me one time, but I swam to safety!”
I was beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable, so when he stopped the car at a toll booth, I said, “Thanks for the ride” and hopped out of the truck.
Fortunately, not all those who picked me up were so weird. One guy who picked me up in Manhattan in the 1960s was an off-Broadway actor who had lots of good lines he remembered from newspaper reviews of Broadway plays. His favorite was: “The play opened at 7:30 sharp — and closed at 9:30 dull!”
Another good one was: “I saw this show at a big disadvantage — the curtain was up.” Another one was: “This show had one big problem — the seats were facing the stage!”
But times have definitely changed quite dramatically. Not too long ago I saw a highway sign in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts that said: “WARNING! Hitchhikers may be escapees from a state work farm!” For the next 50 miles I would not have picked up Pope Francis.
As with everything else on earth, there were tricks to successful hitchhiking. The first rule, for example, was to be neatly dressed. Most people would not pick up a sloppily dressed hitchhiker, and there were plenty of them on the road. And a big smile was essential. Drivers do not pick up a facial expression that looks as if it is going to kidnap you and demand a ransom from your family.
Also, if the weather was chilly, it helped to shiver visibly, even if it was just an act. A light rain also helped your chances, but heavy rain worked against you since no one wants a soaking wet stranger sitting on the upholstery.
The driver who stands out most in my mind was a guy who picked me up in South Jersey during a light rain in the early 1970s. He told me that he worked in the front office of the New York Knicks in the NBA. His favorite player was Bill Bradley, the former Rhodes Scholar and NCAA Player of the Year in 1965 who later served three terms as a U.S. Senator from New Jersey.
In those days NBA teams would often play home-and-home games on a Saturday and Sunday against the same team. According to my driver, the Knicks had recently lost both games in a weekend to the Boston Celtics. “Bill Bradley received an angry letter from a crazy fan who had lost money betting on the Knicks,” he said. “The letter-writer said Bradley was a no-good bum, that the team must have taken a dive and that if they ever lost two games to Boston again on the same weekend, this guy would find out where Bradley lived and shoot his dog.
“But instead of just throwing away the crazy letter or calling the cops, Bradley took the time to write back to the guy. He told the guy that the Knicks players had given it 100 percent, that they hated to lose to the Celtics, but they were just outplayed. And besides, he said that he did not even have a dog.”
So a week later Bradley was home with his wife when a UPS truck pulled up and delivered a puppy to them. The dog had a note attached to it that said, “Don’t get too attached to this dog!”
I doubt if they make hitchhiker pick-up drivers like that anymore.
Jason McAndrews is a retired engineer who lived in Chestnut Hill from 1976 to 2008 but who now lives in a retirement community in Hilton Head, South Carolina.