Adventures in Hitchhiking
-Or …Don’t you get paid much, or are you just cheap?
During my Midshipman years at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, from July 1959 until graduation in June 1963, we spent about two thirds of every summer training with the fleet. After Plebe year we were assigned to Navy ships of the line to serve as enlisted sailors. In my case that meant the USS Independence (CVA-62), a Forrestal Class aircraft carrier out of Norfolk, Virginia. During the summer after Third Class year we trained with the Marines at Little Creek, Virginia, at the Navy fire fighting and damage control school in Philadelphia, aboard a submarine out of Key West, and with Naval Aviation at Jacksonville and Pensacola, Florida
(see http://www.mofak.com/USNA_Cadets_Summer_Flying.htm on this website)
On the summer before First Class year we served as junior officers aboard ships of the line, which for me meant the USS Allan M. Sumner (DD-692), an old World War II destroyer out of Naples, Italy. We were usually turned loose for our summer leave after cruise; sometimes from our ship’s homeport, or after returning to the Academy. We then spent the balance of the summer, usually about 30 days, before returning to Annapolis for the next academic year. Cruises were good times. You learned a lot about the operating forces, had some good liberty, sometimes in exotic places, and made good friends from other companies and battalions of the Brigade of Midshipmen.
Both of my room mates at the Naval Academy were from Kansas; Dick Williams was from Pratt, about 70 miles south of my hometown of Claflin, and Ron “Walt” Walters from Hays, about 70 miles west of Claflin. It seems that all of our summer leaves coincided in time one way or another, and we often hitchhiked from the east coast to Kansas. In those days hitchhiking was not as frowned upon as today, and we always hitched in uniform. Drivers usually didn’t hesitate to pick up a man in uniform in the early 1960s. Usually it took about 3 days to get from the east coast to central Kansas. The down side of travel in this manner is that by the time we got to Kansas, we smelled like we had just crawled out of a pen from the Kansas City stockyards that used to molder on the border as you crossed from Kansas to Missouri.
Walt-1963 Dick-1963 Yours Truly-1963
Anyway, we used our thumbs extensively during our summer travels. This story is a composite of our experiences during at least two of our summer adventures and two Christmas leaves. After Youngster Cruise (Third Class cruise) Walt and I left the Norfolk area and headed west. He had been aboard USS Intrepid (CVA-11) out of Norfolk, and we decided early on during the summer that we would hitchhike home. On our first day out we were picked up in Suffolk, Virginia by a gentleman who worked with the Navy in Norfolk, and was a part time cop in a small town in the Shenandoah Valley. He transported us there and we arrived in the early evening. He asked if we had a place to stay, and when we said no, offered to put us up in the city jail. So we spent our first night of leave in jail cells…unlocked of course. We could come and go as we pleased. We each had our own cell.
The next morning we thanked the city police for their hospitality and continued west. We got several rides that took us through West Virginia, and then were offered a ride by a young guy who was headed for Texas. In exchange for gas money and sharing the driving he would take us as far as St Louis, where he would catch Route 66 to the southwest and to his home. We stopped and picked up some beer and headed west. This was probably somewhere in Ohio. As we neared St Louis on Interstate 70 Walt was driving and our benefactor was passed out in the back seat from too much beer. I suggested to Walt that we wake up our friend, get out of the car and thank him. Walt took one look and decided he was too drunk to drive, and besides he was out like a light, so we passed Route 66 and continued west on I-70. I think the guy slept all the way through Missouri and didn’t come to until we were well into Kansas. We told him we missed the turnoff and didn’t realize it until way too late. This was bullcrap, and I think he knew it, but didn’t say anything and we drove on. I wish I could capture in writing the look of dismay on his face when he figured out that for every mile west that we went, we were going about a mile and a half further out of his way. I was dropped off in Claflin and Walt and our friend proceeded to Hays. Walt convinced his mom to at least give the guy a good home cooked meal, and then he headed straight south on the short leg of the right triangle to Texas, 350 miles and about six hours out of his way. Can’t let a guy drive drunk, can we?
“Get your kicks on Route 66!”…Bobby Troup, 1946
The following summer we were released for leave after returning from Pensacola to the Academy. Dick and I headed for Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. looking for a hop aboard a USAF aircraft to McConnell AFB in Wichita, Smoky Hill AFB outside Salina, or Forbes AFB in Topeka. There were plenty of hops up and down the east coast, but nothing heading west. After several days of waiting we were able to catch a flight to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio aboard a Gooney Bird (C-47). We checked into flight operations at Wright-Pat and there was nothing headed west, so we made our way to the main gate and stuck out our thumbs. A number of uneventful rides later we found ourselves somewhere in central Missouri. A car pulled to the side of the road to offer us a ride. We threw our bags in the trunk and got into the car. Besides the driver and his wife, there were about three or four young kids in the back seat. The dad wanted to give a break to a couple of guys in uniform so he stopped. In spite of some misgivings, and the fact that our bags were already aboard, off we went…headed for Kansas City, which was about two or three hours away. It was crowded, hot and uncomfortable, but we crammed ourselves in…me in the front seat and Dick in back with the loud mouthed kids, one of whom was sitting on his lap, and headed west. It was with great relief that we finally reached Kansas City early in the evening. Dick asked the driver to drop us at the train station, and we thanked him for the ride.
I asked Dick “Why the train station?”, and he replied, “I ain’t hitchhiking another damned step after that last ride!” So we picked up some cheap bourbon at a liquor store and bought tickets on a train to Hutchinson, which is within artillery range of both our hometowns. Unfortunately this train was the nightly milk run and it stopped at every whistle stop town between K.C. and Hutch. Thank heaven for the bourbon. We had it wiped out before we passed Emporia, which was about the mid-way point. We probably would have made better time via the thumb. Our folks picked us up in Hutch, and Second Class summer leave began in earnest, with Dick, Walt and I getting together to make public fools of ourselves on several occasions. Excess beer will do that to a man.
And that tells you of some of our summer leave hitchhiking adventures. But we also travelled via the thumb when returning to Kansas for Christmas leave. One year the governor of Oklahoma arranged an Oklahoma Air National Guard plane to come east to give the Oklahoma USNA Midshipmen and West Point Cadets a free ride home for Christmas. Walt, Dick, myself, and another Kansan from Wichita named Evan Evans (his parents must have had a weird sense of humor, or else they stuttered) were able to work our way aboard and traveled in style compliments of the Sooner ANG.
After landing at Tinker AFB outside Oklahoma City we started working our way north. Dick and Evan decided to catch a bus to Wichita, but Walt and I were going via the thumb route. It was cold with snow on the ground, and our efforts to catch a ride from a service station on the north city limits of Ok City weren’t fruitful. Finally a college kid pulled into the station. We asked where he was headed and he said Wichita. We told him we were going with him. He mildly protested, but we threw our bags atop a trunk full of Christmas presents and got into the car. He was going to have to bodily throw us out or call the cops. But he got in and started driving, finding out that we weren’t bad guys after all, according to us.
Several hours later he dropped us off on the western outskirts of Wichita on U.S. Highway 54 and we stuck our thumbs out again. Highway 54 runs due west to Pratt, Dick’s hometown, and we figured we could get my folks to drive down and pick us up and I would drive Walt to Hays. By now it was early the next morning and the sun was about to come up. We got a ride pretty quickly. Unfortunately it was from a Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Deputy. He asked for our leave papers, which we produced, and said something like, “You boys know that hitchhiking is illegal in Sedgwick County? And I just happen to have a couple of empty cells available at the county lockup.” There goes our Christmas leave, we thought. Not to mention what would happen to us upon return to USNA after the powers that be back there found out we’d spent jail time.
We got into the police car, but instead of turning east and heading back into Wichita, he headed west on highway 54 and drove to a truck stop on the Sedgwick-Kingman county line. He then took us into the restaurant, bought us a cup of coffee, and instructed the service station manager to get us a ride to Pratt. Whew…no jail time. He was just screwing with us. As we were standing outside the station the driver of a car heading east saw us and hit his brakes hard and almost stood the car on its nose. It was Dick’s dad Jay. He was heading to Wichita to pick up Dick at the bus station. So we headed back to Wichita and Dick has wondered to this day about the miracle of Walt and me ending up in his family car before him.
One more Christmas leave story and I’ll stop boring you. Walt and I were standing on the highway outside Topeka in the dark, freezing our asses off having made our way from the Kansas City airport, when a gentleman picked us up and told us he could get us to Salina. As we drove along the driver discovered that we weren’t enlisted men as he had thought, but were Midshipmen…officer candidates in his mind. During his service he had come to detest officers. So instead of taking us into downtown Salina to the bus station he dropped us on the eastern outskirts of town on a dark side road. Unfortunately we needed to be on the west side. We finally got a ride to the bus station and a ride to Ellsworth, where our folks picked us up.
We became pretty good practitioners of the lost art of hitchhiking during our days at the Old Boat School. Of course back then our citizens respected our military enough to rarely bypass a man in uniform with his thumb out. I suspect that if a Mid is caught hitchhiking today he would probably be written up for his efforts. They tell me things have changed at Canoe U. But in the early 1960s Mids were still allowed to indulge their sense of adventure. And we did. And we lived to tell about it. After these soirées of the thumb, especially in the summer, we smelled like the stockyards outside Strong City, but never had to stand a personnel inspection until we were able to take a shower. We looked nice in our uniforms, but you didn’t want to get too close.
Dirck Praeger sends