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Thumbing My Way Across America


By Joe Novak

Stuck at a cross road somewhere in Virginia, I was sure glad to hear those air breaks come on. The big rig came to a stop and I climbed in hoping he was headed somewhere close to my home in Ohio.

In 1967 I was in the US Army stationed at Ft. Bragg North Carolina waiting on orders for my next assignment. I had just finished Jump school and my Company Commander gave me a three day pass. I hit the road early in the morning and wearing my uniform assured me of getting rides from those who appreciated service men. 

This was during the height of the Vietnam War so it was not uncommon to be cursed at, spat at and have bottles thrown at one standing in uniform at the side of the road. Fortunately there were plenty of patriots who were kind enough to offer me a ride.

Talk about a road not taken; a middle age “Cougar” invited me to spend the weekend at her secluded cabin. My Christian values kicked in and I chuckle as I remember her blowing me a kiss after dropping me off.

I was anxious to get home to see my family and my girlfriend; I also thoroughly enjoyed meeting people from around the country. I met school teachers who drove semi-trucks cross country during their summer break and salesman out trying to make a buck. 

I never paid for a meal or a cup of hot Joe since people were more than generous to this traveling soldier. We often shared stories about our lives’ and where we were headed.  I was taken aback by people’s generosity and willingness to go out of their way to drop me off at a place more conducive to catching my next ride. 

In some towns it was illegal to hitch-hike and so avoiding the cops was the plan though not always a success! On several occasions I was stopped by the police or Highway patrol and every time I was given a ride to the edge of town or a place they knew I could catch a ride. An officer once shared his donuts with me and joked that it was a perk of the job; after all, who turns down free donuts? 

One morning four Marines headed for the west side of Cleveland all jumped out of their car pretending they were going to give this Army guy a whooping. When I dropped my bag and put up my fists they started laughing inviting me to ride along. They dropped me at my parent’s front door and in the coming months picked me up a few more times; they were OK for “west side” Grunts! 

The route I chose to travel was a bit longer than the more direct route but the chances of getting a ride were much better. 1400 miles is a long way to travel by “thumb” in three days. I never missed roll call on Monday morning though there were a few times I still had my dress uniform on at formation. Mondays after a trip home where grueling since I barely slept the three days prior but I would not have given up the windshield time I spent with fellow Americans!

Copyright © Joe Novak 6/27/20


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