Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Funny how things pop into our brains. I was on my bike in a shopping center parking lot with a couple of panniers full of groceries when I saw a guy standing on the curb of the main drag. He looked to me like he was hitchhiking. I only got a glimpse before I had to make a turn. On further reflection, he was probably just waiting to cross the street mid-block, maybe he waved to someone but I thought about it most of the way home.

I realized that you hardly ever see anyone hitchhiking these days. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a change in our society. I'm sure there are several reasons for this change.

When I was growing up and even into the 1970's and 80's there were plenty of people hitchhiking. During the 70's in particular, I spent a lot of time driving, usually alone, all over Florida and Georgia, both on the interstates and the back roads. Around many entrance ramps to the interstates, people would line up with their stuff. Don't tell Mom, but occasionally I would give one of them a lift. Not usually the grizzled old bum but the younger hippies who were everywhere. Often times it wasn't just a random person I saw with their thumb out, but someone who was at the gas station, store or restaurant I stopped at. A short conversation or maybe even a shared meal would lead to a ride if they were headed in my direction. I was about the same age as they were. The differences were that at the time, I had a job and a car. I never had a problem or scary incident. Worst case I might have had to sweep or vacuum the car floor or ride around with the windows open to air out my vehicle. Hey, it gets hot and dusty in the south and hitchhikers don't always have access to a shower and soap.

I'm sure my willingness to pick up the occasional hitchhiker stemmed from my own misspent youth. My buddies and I thumbed our way all over Jacksonville in the late 1950's and early 60's. Those were our tween and early teen years before we got our driver's license. I would say it probably started around the fifth grade and continued until our sophomore year when we began reaching driving age. I went to a Catholic school from kindergarten though 12th grade. That meant two things as far as transportation was concerned. First, our student body was spread out over a much wider area. There were many public elementary schools within the area my parish school covered. In high school, there was one Catholic school for the whole city, actually the whole northeast corner of Florida. The second thing is that we did not have school buses. We were able to buy reduced fare bus tokens for the city buses but they didn't run special routes or schedules for us. That meant that we roamed far wider than most of our public school peers. If I wanted to go to my best buddy's house after school, it may be several miles away. Even though our moms might not work and were at home, they often didn't have access to a car. That was with dad at work. One car per family was the norm. We also didn't sometimes (all times) want to go straight home after school. We might want to go downtown, maybe a local youth center, the drug store/fountain, the Krystal or numerous other spots.

To get to these places, we had to ride a city bus, walk, ride a bike or hitchhike. If one or both of us had ridden a bike to school that was the transportation method. I can't believe how many time we doubled up and one of us rode on the handlebars, top tube or back of a bike. If the destination was close we would walk. The rest of the time the modus operandi was to either try to hitchhike near the bus stop or start walking with our thumb out the whole way.  If the bus came before we got a ride we hopped on. If we had to walk the whole way, so be it. On good days we got a ride. That was always the fastest plus sometimes it might be a cool car. Boys like cool cars. We also met some interesting people. I think we had an advantage in our hitchhiking days because we were usually in our school uniforms. Many people knew the Catholic schools had mostly polite, disciplined students and if the driver happened to be a Catholic (male or female) they weren't afraid to give us a lift. We were able to travel far and wide, at least for a 12 year old. One of my indelible memories is of the days my buddy Joe C. and I would go to the Southside Recreation Center to play pool after school. We usually had the place to ourselves. The room with the pool table also had a jukebox. Our favorite song for weeks was The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens

I can only remember one less than ideal situation during my hitchhiking career. A friend and I were picked up by a middle aged guy. We normally piled into the front seat if there was only one or two of us. Everybody had bench front seats back then. I usually got in first and sat in the middle. That was my assigned position since I was always the short guy in the equation and back then cars had big humps down the middle. Well, this guy seemed to have a wardrobe malfunction in the crotch area. I noticed it, signaled my buddy and we asked to be let out at the next intersection. He complied and we were on our way, probably trying to get another ride.

I think my parents were aware that I hitchhiked but probably not to the extent we did. How could they not be? That was the only way I could have gotten from point A to point B many times. Dad didn't care, he always told me to be aware and be ready. He was never opposed to me getting into a fight as long as I didn't start it. That went for situations with adults too. He taught me how to fight fair in a friendly disagreement, he also taught me how to fight defensively. Punch, kick, bite, grab any implement, whatever it took. He was a tough SOB and he expected me to be too. I digressed for a reason. I think because my dad was confident that I could and would take care of myself I was allowed some extra freedoms. Mom was usually my advocate, but on a few occasions dad would set the tone. Mom's always worry about their kids.

I'm sure I strayed from my original thought. The point of this post was that once there were many hitchhikers on our roads including me. A few people actually would give these hitchhikers a ride, again including me. It was once safe for both the hitcher and the driver, even for youth. For the most part, it probably still would be but the 24/7 sensational news climate we live in now has killed this once viable mode of transportation. Once upon a time, with a pair of shoes, a bike, a bus token or a thumb a twelve year old could travel the city. A little older, you could travel the country.

Times change and I'm not advocating all our junior high kids start hitchhiking. I'm not sure that our country is any more dangerous than it was 50 years ago but it is different. I'm glad I was able to explore the city of my youth with my buddies. We were unburdened by the distance we could walk or ride our bikes. We were not beholden to the city bus routes and schedules. I'm also glad that I was able to help a few free spirit travelers along the way.


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