On the Road with Aretha Franklin

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Juan Carlo, 68
Juan grew up in Canada but traveled throughout the US for many years. He came to think of it as his second home. But it was not until he went back during the Vietnam War that he came to understand what it now meant to be an American.

I was a 16-year-old Canadian in the summer of 1970 when two friends and I decided we would hitch-hike to Florida.

One of them had a relative in Daytona and he was certain we could stay with her rent-free.
My parents forbid me from going. So I set out two days later.

We had no idea what we were in for. I had been to the US many times but there was no way to tell from afar how much the undeclared war in Vietnam had changed things.

The draft had been implemented so as soon as a guy turned a certain age -maybe it was 18?- they had to register for the draft. If your number came up, you went off and fought. If you were of a certain station in life -rich or in university or both- you could try to get out of the war.

And many tried to do that, of course. Not just the ‘draft dodgers’ who came to Canada but the ones left behind as well.

At one point during the trip we spent a few days staying in a big ol’ house in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It was sort of an unofficial commune but the only real mandate -for the males, at least- were attending ‘classes’ where they spend the days trying to come up with ailments or excuses as to how you could get excluded if your number came up.

They had a classroom filled with books, binders, newspaper articles. You name it. They were trying to decide whether they could fake a clubfoot or if they could pass themselves off as being homosexual… anything to get out of fighting the war.

Another time we were in Saranac Lake, drinking beers and laughing like fools, when some kid came in with his pops. They were somber. I mean, like, really somber. They ordered a beer and then talked quietly. But most of the time they just glared at us.

I didn’t know what was going on. We were picking on anyone. We were just playing around amongst ourselves.

Some guy came up finally and told us to shut the fuck up. He said it was the kids’ birthday and he had to register for the draft the next morning. He had flunked out of school, he said, so he was going to have a hard time getting out of the draft if his number came up.

We were like, well for one thing, we’re Canadians so we can’t be held responsible for his situation. And I said, I’m sixteen so I would not be eligible for the draft even if I was a Yank.

And it was true. But no one knew, right? No one could look at me and figure out I was an underage Canadian!

But it was a problem. Everywhere we went people were glaring at us.

One time a guy in a restaurant in DC tried to pick a fight with me. It was a decent restaurant, too. Hell, they wouldn’t even let me go on a tour of The White House. They said I was too dirty. I was. But still.

So we got out of DC as fast as we could. We headed off to Florida. Well, in that general direction. We never knew where the drives were going to take you. Once we almost ended up going back the way we had come.

It took us five days just to get to Georgia. No one wanted to pick us up. And then it got worse. We spent two days in the parking lot of a small gas station. At night all you can hear are the cars buzzing by and the humming of the neon night.

On the second night, someone tried to run us off the road. We were standing on the shoulder just smoking and chatting when some clown in a truck spotted us and came straight for us. We had to jump into a ditch. We just made it.

On Day Three an old, rusty convertible slowed down and pulled over in a cloud of dust and stones.

By now we were so freaking nervous we could only approach the car. I mean, the fear and dread. We were in the middle of nowhere, and if these guys were kooks our goose would be cooked the moment we stepped into the car.

But we couldn’t stay where we were, either. We didn’t even have enough money to buy a chocolate bar from the vending machine!

So we climbed in. The car was being driven by a pair of black kids. They looked like they were barely older than us. We got in, said hello and we were on our way.

We had no idea why they had picked us up. The only reasons we could come up with were all sinister. Murder, mayhem, sexual.

We drove along the highway in silence until I told the guy riding shotgun that I really like Aretha Franklin. They are playing a tape of hers. He kind of turned and looked at us -one at a time- as though thinking maybe he misjudged us.

We drove for ages and ages along the highway and then without warning the car veered off onto a side-road. The road did not even have a sign.

We drove along this road and then another and before long we reached an actual dust road. Okay, so now we are in the real boonies of Georgia. This is so remote you don’t even see any tin shacks along the road. Who the hell would want to live out here!

And so it goes until we suddenly slow down and then turn down what appears to be a long driveway.

It is like something out of Hitchcock. The growth is so thick you can’t even see what might be on the other side. We don’t see anything at all until we stop in front of a huge, gothic house.

Our tour guides tell us that they will be right back and they go inside the house.
It was like the Twilight Zone out there. The birds are singing back and forth and something else (I find out later they are Cicadas) are so loud we can hardly hear ourselves speak.

Not that we are speaking much. We have already discussed the fact that if they kill us no one will ever find our bodies. We have already resigned ourselves to the fact that they will be a slow and painful deaths. And so there is not much more to say.

It is about 45 minutes before the two guys return to the car.

They do not look like they are going to maim us. In fact they look pretty chipper. They are laughing and carrying on. I’m thinking maybe the robbed someone? Or killed the owner of the house? And now they are going to kill us, the only witnesses.

But that did not make sense. Most people would not be happy about killing someone. Not even in rural Georgia.

So they get back in the car and start driving back the way we came. Or at least it seems to be the way we came. It is dark now and besides, we were not really paying much attention to the direction on the way in anyway.

Just before the highway the stop off in a small store and pick up a few bags of chips and a six pack of beer and they share everything with us. They are clearly celebrating, all right. But we still have no idea what kind of festival we are attending.

My buddies keep egging me on to find out what had happened and I finally relent.
They just laugh. They are giddy. So it turns out that a few months earlier they had been driving along the highway near where they picked us up. The police in Georgia like to drop the speed limit in the smalls towns from normal to supper-slow so fast that no one has a chance to see the signs, let alone slow down. It is a breadwinner. The fines, right? They make almost all of their town budget from speeding tickets.

But in those days you had to come back later to face a judge to either pay your fine or try and fight the ticket.

So it turns out that is what they had done. The judge in this particular town was crippled. He was bed-ridden. So rather than coming out to bumfuck every day and dragging his sorry ass into the courthouse, they just moved the courthouse out to him!

So that is where we were. The makeshift courthouse was in his bedroom.

The boys made their case and for whatever reason, the judge let them off. They did not have to pay the fine or anything.

So the entire time we had been sitting in the driveway of the judges’ house.
And now, just like that, we were back on the highway, heading south.

All we could do was laugh, right? I mean, who would believe such a story. But it happened. And we lived to tell the tale.

And we thought, hell, maybe we would make it to Florida after all.

© 2016 James Porteous

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