16. 238,900 Miles from Home, Part I

Published on 18 October 2022 at 09:57

© 2022 Robert Sickles

We were so young! Green and foolish, we defied cultural norms, stood up to authority, and, idealistically, tried to live on less—to measure wealth in a different way than money and stuff. That is, to be poor by choice but rich in loving relationships and experiences.

It was early Summer of ’69 when Michaela and I made a several week trip from Seattle to LA to Boston in my 1955 Dodge panel van named "Beluga" with only $100 in my wallet. That actually covered the gas, some food and two flat tire repairs! We zigzagged across America, seeing the sights, visiting friends and relatives. But we were going to Boston on a mission: to rescue Michaela's friend Lori, who had been dumped and left broke in Bean Town by some clod named Clyde.

I had let both my driver’s license and truck registration expire and neglected a burned-out tail light. At the time, I had no permanent address and no school or job waiting for me at the end of Summer. We dressed in patched jeans and faded flannel, wore our long hair in ponytails or headbands, and preferred sandals or went barefoot. The point of all this, obviously, was to give the cops a reason to harass us and thus confirm our conviction that cops were there to harass us. You understand, right?

 

The Fuzz

Outside Bakersfield, a California Highway Patrol car tailed us, whooped the siren to pull us to the side. He stood at my window and we began with routine questions and answers. “Driver’s license, sir. Did you know your license tabs are expired? Would you hand me your car registration? Your registration is also expired, fella.”

“Where are you from and where are you heading? Do you have a place to stay tonight?”

“I’m from Seattle, she’s from Los Angeles and we’re on our way to Boston. We’ll be sleeping in our van on this trip, sir.”

“Well, fella, your driver’s license, also expired, says you’re from New Jersey, so are you confused about where you’re from? Is it New Jersey or Seattle? Boston’s way the hell the other side of America. You realize you’re in California now, hippie boy? And how old are you, Miss? Are you with this clown of your own choice?  I suppose you can’t afford a motel. Sleeping in the van, huh? You know we have decency and vagrancy laws in California, are you hobos? Or gypsies?  Commune types? Drug users? I think you better follow me into town—I’ll have to impound your vehicle for a thorough search while I look into you and your girlie friend there. You will have to repair and register your truck, get your license renewed, pay the fine before you can be on your way… gad, you're gonna stink up my jail! You know how to use an indoor toilet, right?”

I was stunned. This patrolman had the appearance and demeanor of a Hollywood stereotype for tough cop or prison guard, like the sunglasses guy in Cool Hand Luke. (“what we’ve got here is failure to communicate”) When the patrolman spoke, it was a gravelly pissed-off tone, like he was sick and tired, and about to blow up over one more goddam thing. We were seated in the office of the Highway Patrol in Bakersfield and he was slamming drawers looking for forms and pens, when Michaela asked if we were entitled to a free phone call. He smashed the phone on the desk before her and said “Here, make your goddam call.”

Michaela dialed a number she had in her wallet, spoke softly for short time, turned to me and smiled, then handed the phone to the officer and said “My lawyer would like a word, sir.”

The officer scoffed and mocked “Oooh, your lawyer…” He snapped the phone out of her hand and walked to a back room. I could hear him saying “Yes sir. Of course, sir. Yes. Yes, immediately. No, not at all, sir. No, of course not. Yes sir, I’m clearing it up right now. Thank you, sir. Sorry, sir.” He returned to the front room red-faced and said, like it choked him, “You kids get out of here, watch yourselves down the highway.”

Outside, I looked at Michaela, who was beaming. I had to know, “Who did you call, what just happened?”

“Oh, that was my Uncle Myron, Myron Mendel. He’s a very big LA lawyer, wins a lot of trials, probably more famous than the Governor. Come on, we need to save Lori in Boston!”

Yeah, so there we were holding White Privilege aces, and then we drew the Uncle Myron one-eyed jack wild card! I’m humbled now that two stupid kids like us had options like that. As much as I wanted to sympathize with the disadvantaged, I could never know what it’s really like to be afraid for my life like non-whites or non-Christians are, sometimes just driving out for groceries or a movie.

Years later I saw Myron Mendel on TV as he was representing some Hollywood big shot in a scandalous divorce trial. “Hey” I said to my unbelieving roommates, “there’s my lawyer guy, Uncle Myron!”

The 3 Uncles

In the suburbs of Detroit, we visited Michaela’s relatives, three households of families headed by her elderly Jewish uncles: Abe, Ike and Sol. They ranged, in sequential order of our visits, from liberal to orthodox, from “We heard you were coming, welcome! Enjoy, rest!” to “You should park that awful truck in the alley, and kindly sit only on the plastic covered chairs.” Michaela was having a blast with her cousins so I went along with the wide range of customs, values and hospitality in this crazy Jewish family. Sol, the most conservative, waved me over for some words with his thick Yiddish accent. “You're a shmart cookie, yeah?” I shrugged, he continued,  “You can get a haircut, find a nice job, meet a girl, get married in a pretty church, have a blond family, all that, yeah?”

“Um, Sir, I’m uncertain about any plans like that, but yes, I could do those things.”

“I've got a great idea for you. How about I help you, you could start today, heh? You met my brothers Ike and Abe? We talked, we have a plan. How about we give you, say, $200? You fill tank, fix windshield, get in that truck go on your way. You know... go get that life you want. Leave Michaela here, yeah? We need her back in our family. She should have this life, you know, she’s a Jewish girl. She had fun with you, yeah? Now it’s time you move on.”

I was speechless. I excused myself to use the bathroom. Down the hall, I cracked the kitchen door, caught Michaela’s eye and signaled that I needed to tell her something. “Your Uncle Sol wants to separate us. $200 for me to get lost.”

Her face turned red. “Crap! Aunt Ruth just offered me a room and school tuition if I stayed here! Come on, we’re leaving!” And up and out we went and off we drove in our old van “Beluga,” ¼ tank, cracked windshield and all.

Michaela said with a whew “Now to Boston for Lori.”

The Fuzz Again

Oh heck, one more stop before reaching Boston. In New Jersey, I hoped to visit my brother and some good friends from my high school years in my hometown. But my brother was just packing to take off that very day for a summer vacation with his family. He said we could stay at his house while they were gone, so we moved in for several days to enjoy comforts of home. 

One afternoon while I was preparing dinner, I noticed a shadow move by the kitchen door, followed by some loud pounding and shouting “Police, open the door!” Four or more officers poured into the room, pistols drawn, all shouting commands and obscenities. “Hands where we can see ‘em! You, bitch, on the floor with your hands on your head! You, motherfucker, up against the wall! Spread your legs!” They wore helmets and vests, ready for riot duty. I was frisked roughly; there was lot of yelling and cussing. A couple of them searched the house while I was held tightly by two officers. Michaela was told to sit on her hands on the floor. Through this I was thinking “Which Twilight Zone episode is this? Is this what policing has come to in my little hometown?

One cop grabbed my shirt, held his pistol to my chin and growled “We got a tip that a band of vagrants broke in at this address. The homeowner here is a member of the fire department and he’s out of town. Did you think we wouldn’t know whose house this is? Who the hell are  you?” 

Trembling and gasping, I tried to identify myself. I truly was the brother of the homeowner, and I knew that he was a volunteer fireman, that I was a favorite uncle to his four kids, our sister lives just back that way on the next street, I, I… He said to shut up. Suddenly, there was an energy shift and a long pause. Slowly, he lowered his pistol, relaxed the grip on my shirt a little and looked very close into my face. He squinted and cocked his head “Bobby?” Then he shook his head and grinned. “Holy shit, how long has it been, Little Bobby?” If it hadn’t been for him calling me “Little Bobby” I might not have realized he was my brother’s best friend, Joey. I saw his name badge and realized in an instant I was probably not going to die that day.

I was shaking and panting “Jeez, Joey, when did you become a cop?” He laughed and admitted it was that time-honored tradition—juvenile delinquent becomes cop. We chuckled over a couple of memories, patted each other on the backs, and just as quickly as the incident flared up, it wafted away. He suggested I be sensitive to local values and laws, not everybody around here was up to speed with the appearance and lifestyle of all that “West Coast” hippie stuff. The police climbed into their cars and drove away and I finally remembered to exhale.

So far, we were 3 for 3 on this trip—first Uncle Myron saved us, then we escaped from Detroit when Sol revealed the true agenda of the Jewish uncles, and then Joey recognized his Little Bobby.  We hadn’t even reached the halfway point of this trip.  Did I say we were going to Boston to find Lori?

The rest of the story will be in Part II!

Our trusty gray ’55 Dodge similar to this one but not as pretty, was named “Beluga.” Michaela sang Beluga, the Whale of the Ocean, because when it was wet with rain, its mottled and faded paint reminded us of a white whale, and the van's spongy suspension made us bound over the bumps in the road, like we were sailing over the big blue sea.

[Cue the US Navy marching band: Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean]


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Comments

Dave
5 months ago

This was the best so far. Can hardly wait for the rest of the story

Linda
5 months ago

I love all your stories but this one made me laugh more than once. I couldn't even imagine myself having these adventures and that's probably why the living vicariously aspect is so rich.

Ed
5 months ago

Great fun, Bob!

I can’t wait for part 2.

Ed

Cheryl
5 months ago

I can’t believe you were ever this guy! OMG! Priceless story. Waiting with baited breath for Part II.

Barbara
5 months ago

Great trip - so far, Robert. Today the swat team would have busted in. I'll try never to call you Little Bobby btw.