He was walking.
And carrying a heavy backpack.
I pulled up behind him, gave him a little blast of my horn. When I climbed out, I asked, “Where are you headed?”
He stopped walking and stared at me, a chuckle rumbling deep in his throat. “Well…Texas.”
Didn’t surprise me. I’ve had all kinds hitchhikers going all kinds of distances. Cross county, cross state, across the country.
He wore dirty jeans, a couple of shirts, a coat. And a ballcap of the U.S. Navy ship on which he had served.
“A Navy veteran,” I said.
“Must not have been a navigator.”
He stared at me, brows furrowed. “What?”
I pointed east. “That’s where you were going.”
Then I pointed south. “Texas.”
He pointed, southward, at the empty farm field. “No road.”
I shrugged. “Okay, fair enough. Tell you what, I can’t take you to Texas, but maybe I can get you a little closer.”
He stared at me. “Yeah?”
“A big ‘ol truck stop…and an Interstate headed south.”
He looked doubtful. “Well, I know the best rides are on the big roads, but so are the crazies. Feel safer on smaller roads.”
Seemed like, to me, hitchhikers weren’t particularly safe on any road, but I didn’t want to dim his spirit of adventure.
So he looked east, then back west, then at me, and nodded.
“Okay,” I said.
I took a step toward him to do a pat-down (I don’t let random people off the road in my car…behind me…without checking for weapons or drugs or old pizza or whatever, just how I do things).
He held up one arm and told me to go ahead.
“Do your best,” he said, laughing.
The arm he didn’t raise? Yeah, ’cause it wasn’t there.
Sort of felt like I was in ‘The Fugitive.’
So I did what I could, we piled in the car, and headed out.
“Where are you walking from?”
“Iowa City. Left yesterday.”
I whistled. For a fairly frail, one-armed, limping guy that was impressive.
“And what’s in Texas?”
“My son. He’s got cancer. I want to see him before he dies.”
So we talked for a while about cancer. I shared my experiences and he shared some of his own. He’d had cancer, too, when he was younger.
And by younger, I mean years ago.
“How old’s your son?”
“Which makes you?”
He laughed. “I’m just about 80.”
I nearly pissed myself.
Obviously, I’d known he was old. Hell, his cap didn’t just list a naval ship, it said ‘Korea.’
That was a clue.
And we talked about how he’d gotten caught at Chosin Reservoir. Google that, it was a hairy nightmare where nearly every American soldier died.
Dude was getting stronger every moment I talked to him, one-armed limping or not. Still, he was 80 and hitchhiking along the highways to get to a dying son.
And I started to get concerned. I had no plan other than moving him a bit further down the asphalt. There was, in fact, damn near nothing else I could do even if I had a better plan.
All I could do was hope he made it to Texas in one piece.
He won’t. Mankind simply isn’t built that way. The times he’s in a cop car, and most of the times he’s in a big truck, he’ll be fine.
But when he’s walking down the highway, through Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, someone will find him. Someone will realize he’s an old man with one arm.
Someone will victimize him. And maybe they’ll just rob him, knock him around a little, and be done.
But because I’m not only a not ‘glass half full’ guy, or even a ‘glass half empty’ guy, but actually a glass is smashed and someone’s going to use the shards to open up some third party’s jugular, I think what’s going to happen to my Korean War vet is going to be nothing but ugly.
Hell, he might already be dead.
Except there’s some little part of me…some tiny, little, microscopic shred of me that thinks that old dude might actually already be sitting at his son’s bedside.
He might be holding his son’s hand, whispering to him about family vacations when everyone was younger; about school pageants when his son forgot his lines; about the prom when his son embarrassed himself trying to pin a corsage to his date’s chest without grabbing her.
‘Cause if anyone can get on down the highway and not take any shit from anyone, it’ll be that tough old bird.
Would that I could be half as tough as that frail, old, one-armed limping vet.