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Experiences Hitchhiking in America

Spring vacation of my sophomore year at Yale I hitchhiked home. I made it from New Haven, CT to my doorstep in Long Beach, CA in eighty-three hours. I had one long ride with the Castro brothers in their 51 Mercury- from Jefferson City, MO to Barstow, CA. One of the brothers was being driven by the other two to some Air Force base in California. They wanted me to pay them, but I told them I only had money for food (which was not true). I had a fifty dollar bill concealed in my suitcase lining. They kept getting into yelling arguments with one another, and I several times nearly asked to get out. On a Sunday morning they decided they wanted to sleep in the car for an hour or two. I knew the way they snored, so I told them I was going to go to Mass and come back. (It had been some years since I had been to Mass other than with my mother at home.) They insisted that I take the suction cupped plastic statue of the Virgin Mary from the dashboard and have the priest bless it. Mary stayed in my pocket while I drank coffee and read in a diner. I was happy to see the last of this threesome.

Mom and Dad were shocked to come home and find my suitcase with the big Calif. sign in the hallway and me catching up on much needed sleep in my bed. I offered to hitchhike back to school leaving myself four days of slack to do so. They insisted on flying me back, as I knew they would. Staying at Yale when there would be no classes for a couple of weeks was unthinkable for me, who had begun my school years in a Catholic military boarding school at the age of four-but that’s another story.

It was about ten years after that cross-country thumb that my wife and I had occasion to hitchhike in England during a leg of our journey to Istanbul, Turkey, where I had accepted a teaching position. How odd it felt to hitchhike left-handed. One friendly fellow took us all the way from Oxford to Stratford-on-Avon, suggesting a stop at Bladon to see where Sir Winston is buried. He gave us a running commentary on the countryside, tips for where to go and what to avoid in Stratford, and made us take down his name, address, and phone, saying that he would be happy to put us up if we were anywhere near his home and needed lodging. So much for the famous English reserve.

The next day we hitchhiked the Cotswolds where we were enchanted by gorgeous weather, scenery, and colorfully named places such as Moreton in Marsh, Chipping Norton, Stow on the Wold, Shipton under Wychwood, etc. Our first severe problem with language came when trying to communicate with nine laborers who accompanied us back to London in the back of the panel truck they were riding in. The noise of the truck and the various accents and stutters reduced communication to whatever we could accomplish with smiles and nods.

The last really memorable occasion of this 1966 trip to London involved a late pub stop we made one evening. We fell into conversation with a Brit about my age who was with his mother and who had picked up on our American accents. They were on their way home from a rehearsal dinner for the wedding of a son who was to be married the next day. Their last name was Peake. Mother Maeve had recently turned down the post of artist-in-residence at DePauw U. because of the serious illness of her husband, Mervyn Peake, whose trilogy of Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone was soon to be published by Ballantine Books. It’s a fantasy much like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but it never attained the same celebrity.

There were some wonderful names in the family. The son we met was Sebastian. His brother Fabian was marrying Phyllida. The two Peakes bought us a final drink at the pub and then invited us across the square to their home for some coffee and to look at Maeve’s paintings. There we met Fabian and his sister/bridesmaid Clare. Before we left we were presented with an invitation to the wedding. We argued that we didn’t have proper clothing, etc., but they would have none of it. The other guests, they said, would be both well dressed and extremely “scruffy.” They would not let us leave without our promising that we would attend.

The ceremony took place in the Richmond parish Church that dates way back and numbers Sir Thomas Browne among its past pastors. A harpsichord, cello, and flute ensemble performed processional and recession. An organ handled hymns with a combined children’s and adults’ choirs. As the bridal couple exited after the ceremony, nine bell pullers set up a riot of sound from the many church bells.

To get to the reception, we walked he reception from the church across a green where a cricket match was about to begin. The reception hosts, Dr. and Mrs. Erasmus Barlow of 2 Maids of Honour Row, Richmond Green, Surrey, lived on a square on which the newest dwelling was 300 years old. Two doors from them is a former residence of Henry VIII. A liveried butler met us at the door and after checking with me announced in stentorian tones the arrival of “Mr. And Mrs. – -from California.” I was happy that he didn’t add “who met the mother of the groom last night in a pub.”

Food and drink were sumptuous and elegant. Fabian, we discovered, like his mother is a painter and Phyllida is a sculptress. Sally talked extensively with the bride’s grandfather, who owns the finest private collection of T’ang dynasty art in England, and whose extensive collection of Turkish pottery was on view in various cabinets. Maeve and other dowagers lit up cheroots or expensive Havana cigars as soon as they arrived at the reception. All the guests we met were gracious and welcoming. Some expressed amusement about my being on my way to teach English to Turks. One asked, “Are you going to use that American accent?” The only other American we met was a Guggenheim, who hastened to say, “Don’t confuse me with my sister Peggy.” It was a memorable occasion.