Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Circus Without Elephants--Chapter Two



FOR THE REST OF the summer, the courtship dipped in and out of our classes and ruined most of them. Scholastically, we came out bedraggled and besmirched. But as a couple we were doing fine.

When summer quarter was finally over, Rob asked me to go to Texas with him to visit his parents. “You’ll like them, Babe,” he said, with his old, beach-party enthusiasm. “Dad is smart--fairly serious but basically brainy, and my mom’s a nut and really funny. Everyone likes her.”

“I’d like to go with you, Rob.” What I meant was, I’d like to go with you anywhere, to see your folks in Texas or the moon, but mainly I don’t want our time together to end.

“We can take a train out of Los Angeles,” he said, “but first we have to get to L.A.” We looked at each other—-two na├»ve students, newly in love. And then one of us said, “Let’s hitchhike!” and the other said, “Why not?” as though the idea actually had a shred of merit. As though spontaneity was a virtue that deserved to be cherished above common sense.

Still, it wasn’t common sense that threatened to scuttle our plan, but sheepishness. There we were, standing beside our suitcases on Bayshore Highway tentatively holding out our thumbs . . . in my case with the same dawning mortification I’d had years earlier when forced to admit to myself I would never fully grasp the logic behind long division. Here was a new way to feel demeaned.

I, who’d never hitchhiked before in my life, could barely get my thumb to point in the right direction. Dressed like other Stanford coeds of the day in skirt, sweater, pearls, and pumps, I fancied myself born to the gracious class, a notch or two above your usual hitchhiker.

But as cars disdainfully hurtled past offering nothing more than a windy aftermath, all that graciousness blew away. Pearls or no pearls, begging rides from strangers had its tacky side, like straightening your panties when no one’s looking. My hand kept faltering and I had to keep pushing it out there, into the visual field of oncoming traffic. Finally I said, “Rob, I’m no good at this.”

“It’s not exactly my thing, either.”

“What if the wrong people come along?”

He gazed at me, for once with no answer.

“How will the right people know we’re the right people?”

“Maybe we can tell them,” he said. He gave me one of his thoughtful looks and then, skinny and driven as he was, he took off running along the highway looking for something, though for what, I hadn’t a clue. With Rob, ideas frequently weren’t expressed out loud, but simply acted upon. Sometimes the deed would merely appear, done and finished and presented with a kind of “Voila!” . . . and it was assumed I’d be charmed.

He soon came back holding a big piece of blank cardboard. “We’ll make a sign, Babe. You got a pen in your purse?”

I didn’t. But then I dug deeper. “How about this?”

“Excellent,” he said. “Good thinking, Babe,” and using my brilliant red lipstick, he consumed most of it printing the giant words, STANFORD TO LOS ANGELES.

“There . . . “ holding up his sign for my scrutiny, “that says it all.” I smiled. He didn’t seem to require my approval, not seriously. It was obvious that this work of genius had arrived pre-approved.

Edging closer to the highway, he blended into his sign and became a billboard with legs. Billboards being nicer than hitchhikers, I felt he’d given us a different aura, splashed us with new respectability. Any minute a genteel college professor would stop and whisk us away in his Oldsmobile.

Not for an instant did I imagine a different scenario, that we might be stepping, instead, into the twilight zone. With my usual optimism flowering away, I stood beside Rob and his sign, composing my face for innocence and trying to convey a message. We may be hitchhiking, but we’re not really hitchhikers, you understand, we’re students, and this is beneath us. A lot to convey in a split second.

Our sign’s tour of duty was brief. In only minutes, an enormous truck with attached trailer abruptly veered off the highway, sending up plumes of dust as it pulled to a stop a block away. I wasn’t even sure the eighteen-wheeler was stopping for us. But before I could comment, Rob had lifted his suitcase and started running toward the behemoth. I called after him, “Tell him thanks, Rob. Thanks anyway.”

While I waited and watched from a distance, Rob and the driver exchanged words, and then Rob was running back to me.

“Did he take it okay?” I said, but to my horror he grabbed my suitcase. “Come on, Babe,” he said cheerily.

For seconds I just stood there, stunned. “But Rob! That’s a TRUCK! We can’t go in that!”

“He’s giving us a ride,” said Rob, as though this was a perfectly acceptable idea, as though this was the kind of transportation we accepted every day. “Come on. He’s waiting.”

“It’s a truck!” I shrilled again, but he was leaving me, and suddenly I had a new and awful choice. Remain on the highway by myself or follow my boyfriend. The deserted island or the shark. With feet so slow they could hardly be construed as moving, I dragged down the shoulder toward Rob. This must have been the moment when I surrendered control of my destiny for all time.

As I reached the alien nether world of rumbling trucks and earthy truck drivers, the man was already deciding my fate. A burly fellow whose belly lapped over his belt, he was just tossing my suitcase up into the trailer, into some kind of void where it simply fell out of sight.

I watched it disappear. Whither my case goest, I thought glumly, I will go also.

The man pointed to the great metal steps. In my nice skirt (all women wore nice skirts back then), I was supposed to climb the three enormous steps and deposit my feminine self inside that yawning cab. Me, a Stanford girl who’d signed the honor code and actually believed in it. At heart an elitist, an intellectual snob. Make that a total snob. And here I was with two men who thought it not at all odd that I should enter the ultimate in a man’s world and ride ingloriously in a commercial truck!

Still on the ground, I looked around. There was no escape, nowhere else to go.

Grabbing a handle of sorts, I pulled myself up and finally landed on a broad leather seat. Rob came up and plopped down beside me. I was stuck. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

The driver came around and started the engine and our world began to move. I could feel every ton of that truck, sense its tires bumping over the dirt and making their way back to solid pavement.

Perched unhappily between the two men, I soon perceived a further problem. Between me and the driver was a forest of gears, one handle after another, and as the man revved through the gears, we both quickly grasped that he had no place to shift except up my skirt. Making a fast adjustment, I pulled my legs out of the way. But then he needed another gear, and another, and the whole sequence became impossible. I didn’t want his gears rubbing my legs, but then neither did he.

Within a block, the man was pulling over again so Rob and I could change places. So now Rob was in the middle and I sat next to the dust-coated window. Right outside the glass, the exhaust pipe belched and roared and filled my right ear with thunderous noise. From then on I could hear little of what was being said.

However, from time to time Rob shouted bits of information in my direction, which is how I learned that our driver’s name was Frank, and that his cargo consisted of ten tons of sugar. While the men talked, I sat there feeling more and more like a bug sucked toward a drain.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. We’d only been on the road an hour, bumping and careening down the highway, when another giant truck-and-trailer swung around us, accidentally veered off the highway in front of us and ran down the shoulder, raising a tornado of boiling dust . . . into which we drove at full speed with zero visibility.

I was aghast--both for the other truck and for us. In my head I was screaming, “Slow down, Frank!” but no words came out.

Rob turned to look at our driver, but strangely, Frank seemed unconcerned. He sat there gripping the wheel, staring ahead into the dust, nodding as the runaway rig regained the pavement. The dust cleared and we were still on the road, even in our own lane, and the incident seemed over.

Except it wasn’t.

Minutes later, our own rig accelerated, swung out to overtake the other truck, pulled hard into the right lane and veered toward the edge. In seconds we, too, were off the pavement, bumping crazily down the dirt, wholly out of control and lurching from side to side.

I was so terrified I felt myself turning white. With no seatbelt for security, I grabbed the dashboard and held on, sure we were about to strike a tree or a ditch, knowing we were seconds from death. The truck careened downhill, as reckless as a truck could get, hurtling the three of us toward eternity. For someone who adores all things sweet it seemed ironic that I was about to die under a runaway mountain of sugar. In my head I was screaming at Rob: I told you this was a terrible idea!

After what felt like hours, but must have been only a minute, Frank ended the horrifying ordeal and brought us back to pavement—-back to some marginal kind of safety.

Releasing my grip on the dashboard, I turned to stare at the man behind the wheel.

He was laughing. “I guess I got HIM!” he chortled, and with a glance in the side mirror, I saw behind us a cloud of dust obscuring the road. Clearly the other truck was now plunging ahead as we’d done earlier, driving blind.

“I really dusted him!” shouted Frank for our amusement . . . except Rob didn’t look amused, and I was so unamused I wanted only to order that idiot man to stop the rig and let me out. Actually, I yearned to throttle him where he sat.

But neither could work . . . the first because we were miles from anywhere.

I waited for Rob to do something. Glancing sideways, I saw his irritation and wondered that he didn’t speak up and tell the driver to drop us off at the next town. But he didn’t, and it was clear that Rob had chosen this singular mode of travel and now meant to stick with it. I wasn’t sure whether “sticking it out” was a good character trait or bad.

The rest of the night was long. Entertaining us further, our man gleefully exhumed stories about runaway trailers that overran their cabs and sliced through their driver’s compartments, instantly killing them. He told heartwarming tales of trucks losing their brakes on the steep, winding Grapevine and accelerating out of control down the endless grade, unable to make the required turns, unable to find an escape ramp in time.

At moments he actually made Rob laugh. But not for one second did I ever find him funny.

I wasn’t sure why he’d picked us up. But finally he revealed his motive: we were there to keep him AWAKE!

With such a driver, there was no danger any of us would sleep. The rest of the night I sat stiff as a tree trunk, and when we began barreling down the Grapevine, I watched each curve intently, judging the sharpness of the turn, waiting for the awful acceleration to begin.

True to the last of my nerdish instincts, I monitored our driver with my own set of standards, the Stanford Debutante Test of Acceptability, and on one of the steeper grades it became obvious our man was not driving at prudent speeds, and in fact the truck had picked up so much wild and dangerous momentum, the driver should be searching for an escape ramp. Any fool could feel the straining of the brakes and sense the trailer’s urgent impulses to overtake the cab. Reaching for the dashboard, I held on, consumed by terror. Oh dear God! Here comes the sugar!

Miraculously, though we flew by an escape ramp, the truck held together and the trailer did not come forward to pay us an unexpected visit.

As the truck finally roared down the last hill and slowed in Los Angeles, light was just creeping up behind the hills. Rob and I got out and for seconds stamped our feet, wondering if we could walk. Before we left, I actually thanked our driver---out of sheer gratitude that we were still alive.

With that event, our hitchhiking ended for all time.

But my life with Rob went on. When I looked back on our early months together, I thought of that trip--the hitchhiking part--as a defining moment, an occasion that caught the spirit of our relationship. Because of Rob I did the unthinkable, pitted my girlish, delicate self against a truck, and somehow came out a winner.

In later years, I would experience something similar with my oldest son, and I would feel that sense of triumph once again. You always win when you take on an experience that lasts in your memory forever.

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