Drooling on the Pillow

Friday, March 11, 2005

Peanut Butter and Hitchhiking 

Have you ever known anybody with a peanut allergy? I never did. I don't deny that such a thing exists and that it can be a serious problem. But if it's such a danger how did I get through twelve years of public education without ever seeing anyone keel over into their PP&J? I mean they shovelled that stuff at us like it was nandrolone decanoate and we played the outfield for the Giants. Today, if you send peanut butter crackers in for a class snack expect a SWAT team and decontamination unit to show up at your house.

I guess the proper response is to shrug your shoulders and say 'different world.'

No more so than on the issue of hitchhiking. Ten years from now if I catch my daughter hitchhiking I'll take her home and staple her to a post in the basement. And feed her peanut butter crackers.

When I was growing up it was a big part of cutting loose. Growing up in Brick Township (not a dense urban environment) a pre-automotive kid has few options if he wants to see a piece of the world. We started when we were about thirteen. By the time I was sixteen I was hitchhiking into the city and occasionally hopping a freight, just to see where it went and hitchhiking back. Most of the time people would pick you up just to have someone to talk to and the code of the hitchhiker decreed you had to be interested in whatever nonsense they wanted to talk about. Sometimes they were crackpots, but usually more funny than scary. Most guys had stories about being picked up by lonely housewives with predictable results. Never happened to me, but I did get picked up occasionally by young men who had the same scenario in mind. I can't remember being discommoded by them, though. I probably would if I had been.

Only three unhappy hitchhiking experiences stick in my mind. Two were hitchiking in Europe during my college years. I was hitching from Paris to Rome with two girls and a guy picked us up in Switzerland. We didn't have much gear, but it was a small car and it was taking us some time to stow it when I noticed a tram coming around the corner and noticed further that the car was stopped very close to the tracks and that the door was, if fact, hanging over them. One of the girls was stuck halfway in and I couldn't shut the door without breaking her leg. I started screaming every word in French, German and Italian I knew, none of which was "Move the farking car off the tracks!" I tried to push the girl in, but I didn't make it. The tram slammed to a stop right beside us, pinning me up against the car and clipping the door neatly off. The girls were in Paris studying languages, but I didn't really speak anything but New Jersey, so I stood there for two hours while a lot of angry and excited people, some with uniforms, chattered angrily while pointing their fingers at me. The funny thing was, when everybody was done, the guy with the car told us to get in and took us into Italy anyway. I had shotgun, of course, next to the missing door. It was an interesting trip through the Alps.

The other European mishap was just a few days later when we got picked up by four or five guys in a van heading for Naples. They started getting a little pawy on one of the girls and I actually had to start smacking the driver before he'd stop and let us out. I thought that one was going to end a lot worse than it did.

A few years after that I was at Washington State University (a moocher, not a student). I had a girlfriend in Lewiston, Idaho and my car had died so I was doing a lot of hitchhiking back and forth. It's only 32 miles, but the last five or six are called the Lewiston Grade. Standing on the top of it you're in the Palouse. Looking south and east the entire earth just drops about a thousand feet. The road twists and turns and travels six miles to go half a mile north. You can't stop, you can't turn around. Coming back from Idaho one day I was picked up by a skanky looking guy in a pickup with a couple girls and a Tex Watson-looking customer in the back. I wanted to hop in the back but he was very firm about me getting in the cab. I wondered if I was in the beginning of a farmer's daughter joke.

If only. We got about two miles up the grade, he stops the truck and goes "Have you met Jesus?"

Believe me, I've got nothing against born-agains. Some of the people I love most in the world are born-agains. But these characters were something else. Nothing I said could get him to move the truck. I couldn't well get out since my door was pretty much flush with the edge of the cliff. I yelled and argued and threatened and the guy took it all much, much too calmly. He just kept telling me about this farm they had in the Palouse and how happy I'd be there. The girls agreed. Tex didn't say anything. After what seemed to be about a half an hour he said a long, angry prayer, drove to the top of the grade and told me I'd have to get out.

Now back to peanut butter.

In the interest of avoiding sick kids and lawsuits, schools ban peanut butter. It's what they call a priviliged allergy. You can be allergic to anything, what makes peanuts such a killer that it has to be singled out?

In the interest of forstalling reality from resembling my worst fears I would forbit my daughter to hitchhike. There are many other, more likely ways for a kid to get killed.

Is hitchhiking really more dangerous now than when I was young? One would assume so, but I'd like to see some numbers. I have a feeling that, even if it is, most of the reason why it's disappeared is that we're just not as comfortable with the decisions of fortune today as we once were. Of course bad things happened to hitchhikers back then and I was fortunate than nothing worse happened to me. I'm as much a person of my time as anyone,though, and, like I say, I will have nothing to do with my daughter sticking her thumb out there. That simply won't happen. That's a shame, in a way, because hitchhiking was very, very good to me. The places I got to, the stories I collected, learning to deal with difficult people and calculating risks. She'll have to get all these somewhere else.

At least she can get peanut butter at home.
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