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John W. Pinkerton


I've longed to be able to explain to young people how the world has changed since I was a youth.  Anyone fifty years or younger than I am, thinks the world was always in its current state.  I think I've hit upon the perfect metaphor which will bring this false image into focus.

As I've pointed out in other essays, cars came and went in my family when I was a young fellow.  I had a car one minute; the next moment I didn't.  I didn't own my own car until I had been through  my high school years, my college years, and my army years.  I was twenty-five when I bought my first car.  My mom and dad were good enough to sporatically provide me with transportation.   I never really questioned the arrival nor the departure of the cars.  My transportation was their decision.  Although I had jobs as a teen and later as a young adult, I couldn't afford to purchase my own vehicle.  Fifty cents an hour doesn't make much of a dent in a car payment.

When I didn't have a car, transportation wasn't a problem.  I'd just hitchhike to my destinations.

I wouldn't recommend this means of transportation to any young person today, but in the late 50's and early 60's, it was perfectly acceptable to get in a car with strangers.

Of course, there was always some danger involved in this practice, but folks didn't worry much about it.  It was a different world.

A young fellow could stand on the side of the road, put up a thumb, and have some trusting soul stop to take him on down the road.

I never had any bad experiences hitchhiking---well, other than a little misunderstanding when picked up by a couple of young men who were headed to Ruston, Louisiana, my destination to visit with a friend who was going to school at Louisiana Tech.  One young man was driving and the other was in the back seat attempting to keep a large potted fern upright.  I thought it a little odd that two young fellows had a fern in their back seat, but the conversation going down the road was chatty and pretty normal.  Totally unexpected to me, the driver suddenly asked if I would like to stop along the way to have sex.  I immediately declined his offer and asked to be allowed to depart from the vehicle.  He stopped and I got out of the car, thanked them for the ride, and they went on their way with their fern.  Shortly afterwards another car stopped for me---no offer of sex---and I was soon in Ruston.  I got back home a couple of days later with simply my thumb telling folks I needed a ride---pretty efficient.

When I was going to school at LSU, I hitched to and from the campus between my folks' home in Pineville about a hundred miles away from the main campus in Baton Rouge.    Getting a ride was no problem.  I'd just carry along a small sign saying, “LSU.”

I recall once being picked up by the father of a friend of mine who took me to the door of my parents' home. 

My longest hitchhiking adventure was from Houston, Texas, to Alexandria, Louisiana, about five hours, in order to talk to my draft board there.  Mom dropped me off on I-10 just outside of Houston.  In no time at all, a car stopped for me.  It was a family of six or seven black folks.  I was a little hesitant to get in the car, not because they were black, but because I had never heard a car make so much rough engine noise and produce so much smoke.  But, get in I did.  Conversation was attempted but the noise was deafening.  They took me over a hundred miles where we parted company.  I caught another ride and got into Alexandria shortly.   Pretty darn quick.

I had a few other hitchhiking adventures, but most not in the US---the talk with my draft board did not go well.

I once hitchhiked from Southern Germany to the border of Spain.  Even I knew it wasn't a good idea to hitchhike in Spain.  From the border of France where I spent the night on the side of the road, I took a train to Barcelona.  After a few days of yahooing, I took a train back to Germany.

I also hitchhiked from Germany across France to the English Channel where I boarded a ship across the Channel and then a train on to London.  Along the way, I hitched a ride late at night in a mountainous area.  The Frenchman who stopped for me was driving  a Puegeot which I believe is French for “not really a car.”  As he drove down the narrow, windy, mountain road at what seemed to me to be reckless abandon, he must have noticed I was squirming a little in my seat.  His response was to point to a hand strap dangling from the edge of the passenger door---as though that would be any help as we plunged over the edge of a cliff.  A few days later, it was back to Germany using the same means of transportation.

When I returned to the US, got a job, and bought a car, I would occasionally stop to give a hitchhiker a ride.  Then it was only for folks who were obviously in distress, and by the early seventies, I began to question even doing that.

I was never concerned about my safety on any of these hitchhiking adventures.  It seemed perfectly safe and normal in the times.  People weren't afraid of each other the way we appear to be today.

If I had to put a date on the change of the nation, it was August of 1969 with the Tate/LaBianca murders…you know, crazy Charlie Manson…Helter Skelter.  Of course in the late 60's there was a lot going on, but Charlie sent a chill through the nation.  That's a shame.  I don't think we'll ever regain our trust in our fellow citizens the way we trusted each other in the early 60's and before.