It was already late afternoon when Lowell dropped me off on Highway 64, west of Tulsa and just east of Sand Springs. Thanksgiving break was over, and I was headed from Tulsa back to Oklahoma State University, about two hours away. It was cold but there was little wind and the sun felt warm. I pulled the fleece collar of my sheepskin coat up, set my suitcase and guitar case down and stuck out my thumb. Within fifteen minutes a dark green ’57 or ‘58 Ford pickup pulled over to the shoulder ahead of me and stopped.
I grabbed my cases, ran up to the ten-year old truck, opened the passenger door and asked, “How far you going?”
“Enid. You going to Stillwater?” the driver asked, a good-natured grin spread across his face. My first impression was that he was a rancher or farmer.
“Toss your stuff in the back and hop in.”
Once I was settled in he checked his side mirror, pulled the column gearshift down into first and eased onto the highway. I took a moment to assess my traveling companion. It’s not that I believe you can determine a man’s character at first glance but hitchhiking had taught me caution. He looked to be a little older than my father but that could be because of his lined and weathered face. The western shirt looked fairly new, the jeans faded, but his battered cowboy hat gave me the impression they had been partners for a long time.
A friend of my father once told me you could tell a lot about a man by looking at his hands. If he wore a gold band on his left hand that meant he was married. If his hands were scarred that could mean he was a barroom brawler or an ex-con. If they were rough and calloused he probably did hard labor; if they were soft and pasty he probably had a desk job. This man was married and had rough hands.
By the time he shifted into third gear I had finished my appraisal. He glanced at me and asked, “You play guitar?”
Here it comes, I thought. Daily newscasts of students protesting the Vietnam War stigmatized you, especially if you carried a guitar. It meant you probably belonged to the radical Students for a Democratic Society and smoked pot; if you belonged to one club, you belonged to all. “Yeah,” I answered cautiously.
“I got a pre-war Gibson, sun-burst finish. Belonged to my daddy. What kind is yours?”
His reply took me by surprise. I answered mechanically, “Harmony. It’s an inexpensive brand.”
“Yeah, I know Harmony guitars. That’s something we need more of.”
“What? Inexpensive guitars?” I asked.
“That and harmony.” He looked at me and we both grinned in agreement.
By now we were up to speed on the two-lane highway. I stared out the side window at the passing countryside, the trees stripped almost naked by autumn. We rode awhile without speaking.
He broke the silence, asking, “What’re you studying at State? I take it you’re a student.”
“Yeah. Mechanical engineering.”
“You like it?” He glanced at me, his expression affable.
“It’s ok,” a slight shrug punctuated my answer.
“Why’d you choose it?”
“Thought it had a promising future.” I began to feel self-conscious. “What about you? What do you do?”
“You like it?” I asked
“It’s ok.” He chuckled, apparently recognizing my subtle mockery.
“Why’d you choose it?” I asked, unable to resist another repartee.
This time he laughed. “Well, it’s more like it chose me. It was my daddy’s farm and I just carried on the family tradition.” He tilted his head as if reconsidering his reply. “On second thought though, I suppose I did make the choice to stay.” His casual, friendly demeanor turned thoughtful. “Our lives are filled with choices. Those choices often determine our future; they sometimes have an impact on the lives of others.” He paused, and then added, “But when we make those choices, whether good or bad, we have to take responsibility for them.”
For a moment I was taken aback at the openness and insight of what he had said. “Yeah, my father’s persistence was a big influence on why I chose engineering,” I finally admitted. Somehow I’d never quite thought of it that way before.
“Uh huh. We shouldn’t let other people make our choices for us. My father never pressured me to take up farming. From a young age it was such a part of me the choice was simple.” He was quiet for a moment, reflecting.
“Farming taught me that Mother Nature sometimes gives us no choices. Eight years ago we had a drought that wiped out most of my crop.” He chuckled, “I guess that’s why they call her Mother Nature because she’s as fickle as a woman. Sometimes she’s sweet and loving. There were years I brought in crops real easy like. Seemed like I didn’t have to do nothing but plant and harvest. Then she would up and turn angry and difficult and I never would know why. Sure, it was drought or pests but I didn’t know why. Just the way she is. It’s like we was married.”
We rode on in silence along that strip of concrete for a while, crossing the Cimarron River not far from where it flows into the Arkansas. I finally had to ask the rebellious question: “You talk about choices. What about the draft? I might be drafted and I have no choice in that decision. How do you account for that?”
He didn’t answer for a moment, then said, “My son was drafted. You’re right. He had little choice. The choices he did have were poor. Probably the same choices you might have. Right? Run off to Canada? Go to prison?” He just shook his head at the apparent absurdity of the idea. “My son loved this country. He felt it was his duty.”
I was staring at him when he looked at me, and said, “Stepped on a mine. Somewhere in Vietnam.” He pronounced it to rhyme with jam. “Place probably didn’t even have a name; just coordinates on a map. Hardly enough to bury.” He sighed and focused his attention back to the road ahead.
“Choices,” he said. “Maybe he made poor choices in combat. Maybe the poor choices were made for him. I’ll never know.”
The stillness that filled the cab left me feeling awkward. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, thinking it could be my own fate.
As if reading my thoughts he looked at me, and said, “I know. Thank you.” Then he directed his attention back to the gentle turns of the road as we continued on into the late afternoon sun. A few moments later he asked, “You know what a ‘phantom limb’ is?”
“Isn’t that when an amputee gets an itch in his missing limb?”
“Yeah. That’s the way I sometimes thought about my son. I expected to see him come through a door, or felt he was dallying around upstairs and I wanted to holler up and tell him to get his butt down to dinner.”
I was surprised at his candidness. He sighed again, then said, “I’ve seen the horror of war. I’m bitter but have come to accept my loss. The missus hasn’t got over it. I don’t think she ever will. We got the other two boys, but—” Then he was silent as if unable to finish his thought.
We passed through the little town of Pawnee and less than fifteen minutes later he pulled to the shoulder. “Okay, this is your turnoff. State 40 south. Shoot, you probably already know that. You’re sure to get a ride.”
I got out, leaving the door open, retrieved my gear and returned.
“Thanks for the ride. I’m glad you chose to pick me up.”
“I’m glad you chose to ride along.” The friendly smile was back on his face. “Best of luck to you, son.”
I shut the door, stepped back and watched the old pickup pull back onto the roadway and disappear into the gathering dusk.
About Bill Carpenter
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