22.The Gift of the Hoosiers

Published on 30 November 2022 at 14:59

© 2022 Robert Sickles

During our family vacation drive across America in 1967, a round of conversations with a couple of young guys from Indiana became pivotal in shaping my future.

On Interstate 80 somewhere in Indiana, we came to a crawling slowdown due to road work ahead. In the air-conditioned comfort of our Pontiac Bonneville, we were unaffected by the dust and heat of that August day.  Up ahead Dad spotted a pair of guys with duffel bags and thumbs out for a lift. I don’t recall if it was Mom or Dad who decided to stop and give those fellows a ride.  Either way, it was truly mind-bending that my folks would offer a ride to two dusty and sweaty young men.

The guys, so relieved and thankful, packed into the back seat with me, and the conversation was lively from the start. They were local boys and students at the University of Indiana, heading out west for summer jobs. They wanted to make it to Utah for a short stint with the national parks. We were veering northward in a few hundred miles, so they rode with us for just one day across the Midwest.

Both were very polite and addressed my parents and me with genuine interest. “What are your plans after high school, Bob? College, for sure, right?” 

They listened intently. I told them I would graduate next year and hadn’t made any decisions yet. “I’m interested in anthropology, art and music. I might enjoy winding up researching traditional or primitive culture in remote corners of the world.” The guys had more or less blank looks. “OK, it’s dorky stuff—I’m not going to be rich; I know that. Maybe there's no career in it at all, its just what I'm interested in now. If I need an actual career, I could go into architecture, I score high in math and science.”

I would be the first college student in my family. There was not much advice from my folks on where to attend. "I’d probably apply near my home state of New Jersey. I visited Lafayette in Pennsylvania once, it looks nice." I named a couple of other small New Jersey colleges. I assumed a lot back then based solely on the appearance of a campus. “I like a traditional-looking liberal arts college, a small campus is appealing to me. Kind of homey.”  Since my parents were moving to California after I finished high school, I also wanted to visit the Claremont colleges when we drove through California later on the trip. The hitchhikers looked at each other and me with skeptical expressions. “What?” I asked, suddenly wondering if I’d said something wrong.

They gathered their thoughts, then leaned in as though to deliver a sobering message. Cascading from both of them, starting and finishing each other’s sentences, they enthusiastically replied “If you aren’t going Ivy League or a top private university... which you definitely could, by the way... you should look at a dynamic state U, and close to a big city. Seems like your interests are too esoteric and eclectic for a homey rural college.”

I was doubtful. My opinion of a big state university was that I wouldn’t find anything to do there, outside of studies, if I wasn’t going to march in the band, study agronomy or join ROTC. 

"No, no, no! The possibilities are vast!" They listed the advantages, “The variety of events and activities, the stimulating lectures, excellent foreign exchange programs, world class research facilities, advanced degrees in many areas, an international student body, outstanding libraries, diverse social life, an urban setting that would provide pro sports, concerts, museums, shopping, restaurants, parks, and be close to international airport..." and so on until they were panting for air.

"What about getting lost on a gigantic campus, not knowing anyone and being swallowed up in enormous lecture halls? What if I can't adjust?" 

"Yeah, it's an adjustment, for sure. You learn responsibility and where to go for help. You have to get out find interest groups, make friends.  And get an alarm clock and a bike... you can bet you're gonna have a 7:00 a.m. class 2 miles away and up a hill on the far side of the campus! Oh, sorry, you can't drop that class—you need it to graduate, boy!"

They concluded, “Frankly, your college vision is so middle class, white bread, safe and boring. Nothing to do at the end of the week but lounge in your dorm or go home to Mom with your laundry. (uh, no offense, Mrs. Sickles…) You have unique interests and potential, Bob, and you will want to see a wider world…”

All I could utter was “gulp.” 

After we let our riders off, their ideas swirled in my mind all the way to Seattle. A lot happened inside my head in those 2400 miles since Indiana! We reached The Emerald City on that kind of mild and sunny day I have come to know as that rarest of days. I saw the beautiful harbor and waterfront, the public market, the islands and ferries on Puget Sound and snow-capped Olympic mountains. Something about Seattle reminded me of the young energy of Copenhagen in Denmark, a favorite city of mine. I was infatuated!

We toured the enormous University of Washington. It snapped into focus: this place is really alive, just like the hitchhikers suggested! In the area surrounding the campus, fun shops and restaurants lined University Avenue; there were hundreds of people enjoying the sun, reading under the shade trees or dangling feet in the fountain; an energetic troupe of West African drummers and dancers was performing in a courtyard; a campus bulletin board held dozens of notices of demonstrations, rallies, concerts and lectures. That was it, I was going West and going Big.

Who knows how my life would have turned out if I'd taken the path originally charted? A chance encounter on a hot Indiana day led to my decision to attend UW and to fall in love in the Pacific Northwest.

[Those of you who know me well... I can hear it already. "Yeah, but didn't you quit college? What happened to that Hoosier pep talk, Bob?" 

There were many reasons, not all bad. For example, I could see that The School of Life was where my true education was going to be. Arrogant? Oh, yeah! I knew that the tweedy old prof couldn't possibly give me anything useful. From my perspective at today's age, I wonder if I may have been onto something with the small campus idea. UW was overwhelming for a freshman away from home; too big, too complicated, too impersonal... and too damned early! 

I think finding my home in the Pacific Northwest, living here for 50-odd years, marrying and having family here—that's the true "Gift of the Hoosiers."]

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2 years ago

I'm glad your parents picked up those hitch hikers.

2 years ago


I’m sure you know this, but it strikes me how fortunate you were to have worldly parents who exposed you to a diversity of experiences.

Your spirit of adventure is wonderful, and has provided you with a lifetime of memories as evidenced by these stories.

We’ll done, friend!

Kathy M
2 years ago

What a wonderful story! I can picture you coming into the city and being blown away by how gorgeous it can be and falling in love. How interesting that a couple of very intelligent fellows looking for a ride changed the direction of your life!

Camille Fastle
2 years ago

Yeah, no such thing as chance encounters y'know!

2 years ago

Yep! You gotta love those hoosiers but glad you came this way Robert. I know from experience, leaving the Midwest for CA - wow, look at that ocean and those mountains.

a year ago

If I had been the back seat son, my parents would have picked up the hitchhikers and shoved me out of the car in Indiana.