Sunday, June 25, 2006
Twenty six years ago I was left off at this spot while hitchhiking to Phoenix. It was the middle of the day in the middle of the desert and the ramp already had two other hitchhikers on it. There wasn’t much traffic on the Interstate and practically none on the ramp, Dateland being little more than a restaurant, gas station and a clutch of mobile homes.
The older one, Albert, was French. He was finishing up almost two years of traveling in Mexico, Central America and the U.S., pretty much out of money and hitching to New York for his return flight to Paris. He had curly black hair, dark skin and glasses that made him look like Dustin Hoffman in Papillion. He had a backpack and a guitar and seemed, from the very first, a genuinely nice person. The other one was just a kid – seventeen - named Monty. He was very young and fair-skinned, almost babylike, moving from his Mom’s house in Southern California to his Dad’s house in Santa Fe. He was traveling with a large duffel bag, sleeping bag and a cardboard box filled with records, as in LPs, which he pathetically tried to protect from the desert heat. He’d been dropped off there half an hour after Albert, and they’d both been there for over two hours.
We smoked a joint and some cigarettes, talked a bit and Albert played some songs on his guitar: Leonard Cohen, Jaques Brel and Neil Young, which sounded particularly cool with his french accent. From time to time a car would pass by on the Interstate, and at least one of us would stick out our thumb, lest there be any confusion about our needing a ride. Monty was quiet for the most part: it was pretty obvious he was going through a rough time and was just glad to be with us.
Albert told this story about his service in the military, which at the time was obligatory in France. “I did everything they told me to, except when it came to guns. I told them I would not touch a gun. I refused to.”
“So what happened?”
“They put me in jail… thirty days, I think. When they put me in jail though I refused to eat.”
He said he went eleven days without touching food, at which point they put him in the hospital and fed him intravenously. When he was well enough, they sent him back to the jail, where he stopped eating again, then back to the hospital. After that they told him to just go home: they didn’t want to deal with him any more. I asked him what it was like going without food for eleven days and he said it wasn’t so bad.
We ended up traveling together, the three of us, for the next couple of days, and Albert and I went on to travel all around the country: hitching, hopping freight trains, working odd jobs and camping out or staying with friends and just generally being on the high road to adventure. Though I’m romanticizing a bit, traveling with Albert was something like traveling with a young Gandhi, and he ended up being one of the larger influences in my life. It's odd to think how different our lives would be had one of our rides left us one stop further or short of Dateland.
We’ve remained friends over the years - he’s married with four grown kids and works as a professional photographer in Paris. I called him a couple of weeks ago and reminded him about his story about the military, which, with the benefit of over a quarter-century of hindsight, had had a large effect on me. I was eighteen at the time and I’d never met someone who’d really suffered much for their principles. Nor, for that matter, have I met too many since.
“It doesn’t matter one way or the other,” I said, “but I have to ask: was it true? They threw you in jail and you stopped eating?” He laughed a little and said yes, it was true.
“What made you draw that particular line, why did you refuse to touch a gun?”
He thought for a bit and said, “You know, it wasn’t really so much touching a gun… they're stupid and I hate them - everything they stand for - but I could’ve done it I suppose… I could have picked up the gun. But really I think it was more like I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do. I wanted to show them that they didn’t own me."
"And you didn't eat for eleven days."
"It was easy."