From Richmond, an inner compass guided Jack to the Ohio River. Before leaving the woods, he had time to listen to his inner voice and question his resolve. He appreciated the landscape, familiar to him since childhood. He studied everything preparing himself for when he would no longer see the silos he loved. He noticed the colors of clay, the sweetness of alfalfa, and the smell of silage. He would miss the grain fields and the strip mines, the woods and the used car lots, the dumps in ravines and the trailer courts in the middle of no where and (certainly not to be overlooked) the gas stations and the motels. Shooting the breeze with idlers at his daddy’s gas station and eating out at the Oasis Diner rather than washing dishes at home were still things that were sacred to him.
The lack of glamour with pumping gas taught Jack about monotony. He had felt as if he were on a treadmill. But this Hoosier conceded that he loved being from Indiana and loved dramatizing it. To him Hoosiers were the best, better than Texans, knew their Bibles, their Bible heroes, and he always made sure that everyone knew that Abe Lincoln was born in a Hoosier cabin. He was proud of it.
He spent a week in the woods. All was going well; when one evening who should enter his domain but a farmer with a rifle and a fishing lantern. The old man had his gun in good working order and wouldn’t hesitate to shoot trespassers. Jack had to think fast. He didn’t want to get sent back home and, for many reasons, wanted to live. Knowing he couldn’t out run bullets, Jack thought he’d try to talk his way out of this situation. To divert attention away from his youth, he decided to break the ice by using profanity and said, “You damn varmint, can’t you watch where you’re stepping and let a bum sleep in peace.”
Jack told the farmer that it seemed safer to sleep in the woods than sleeping near the highway, stressing the word safer. Then he talked about hitchhiking across the country. And what a treasure of first-hand information he had about the west! Memories so vivid. Tales so harrowing about fierce wild Indians and wild animals. Notions about cowboys in West Texas, drunk cowboys, who still shot up towns for the fun of it. The difference between fiction and reality gave the storyteller something to say about mad dogs, windmills, and weather vanes. “There’d be shooting…you can always count on it.”
The farmer smiled. It never occurred to Jack that the farmer might’ve been to west Texas and could see right through him. Jack showed his stupidity. How much of his malarkey the farmer bought he never knew. He relied on what he had heard from out-of-state customers and seen in the movies. Instead of acting suspicions, the farmer asked, “Heading home?”
“Yes, sir,” Jack lied.
“I figured as much,” was the reply.
The farmer then suggested that his barn probably would be safer than the woods and that it would be okay for Jack to sleep there. He said he had connections with the woman of the house. In the morning, he reckoned he could get her to rustle up some grub for both of them. He said he would leave his screen door unlatched.
The barn was built so that the prevailing wind blew across the threshing floor. The wind came in through open doors at one end and out a winnowing window at the other. This proved that the builders were God fearing and took John the Baptist seriously. They followed the scripture, which says “Whose fan is in his hand and He will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his grain into the garner, but he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Instead of fire, bats and chiggers kept Jack awake and made him wish he hadn’t accepted the farmer’s invitation.
As the night progressed, Jack felt more and more uncomfortable. He imagined the farmer getting on the telephone. The farmer could’ve immediately held him and called the police. He really wouldn’t feel safe until he reached the other side of the Ohio. So he didn’t accept the farmer’s offer of breakfast and stole away before the sun rose.
Jack refused to surrender and along the way learned many things. First off he had to learn how to hitchhike, how to choose some rides while refusing others. Chance brought him his next adventure and finally a real meal. In this case, chance was almost a pseudonym for impulsiveness. It brought him his next challenge, in a real sense an initiation rite.
They circled back and passed him twice. Such were the precautions the girls took. Obviously lacking common sense, they had few inhibitions. They had nothing to lose but their virginity and that would come about easily enough. With nearly a full bottle of Schenley left, they sung, “As Sunny says, praises to the quality whiskey that wins your favor, try Schenley’s sunny morning flavor.” The kind of girls these girls were was obvious.
As the girls, in their new, blue Mercury convertible, drove by the first time, Jack heard them above the quiet motor sing, “Sun shining, surely one little drive in the country won’t do us in” and he smiled. They were in the mood for love! Now it wasn’t proper for them to pick him up; but there was no one to stop them or no one cared? They had cold slaw in their pockets and were cold. They were keen, peachy keen, and oh-so peachy keen, and took a sportsman’s aim at getting laid. Hellzapoppin’, they were already bombed and bored and aimed to skip school. There were no Paris pin-ups in Indiana, and very few in America, but flaming red hair will drive a young man mad.
Jack had seen his last apple and banana in Richmond. “How many days had that been?” He asked himself that, as he eyed the girls’ sack lunches. For a second or two, now in the back seat, he tried to relax. The trio sped down the exact center of the highway, and Jack tried not to look. In spite of his shagginess or because of his wild unkempt look, the girls decided to take a chance. Why wait for introductions?
Wait until the end of the ride to ask. Couldn’t they see he was hungry? What should he do?
They offer him a swig first. He found himself in the back seat of a convertible with his idea of a cover girl without having brushed his teeth. He had no idea why they picked him up. He just knew they were absolutely crazy. He could see that the dame who chauffeured shouldn’t have had a driver’s license. As he went along, Jack would learn to beg; but first he would have to overcome his Hoosier pride. The best approach seemed to be an indirect one; but that wouldn’t have been easy for him. L ogically these girls should’ve treated him with utter contempt. So, he decided when he got the opportunity he would steal their lunches. He felt he had justification for it.
So much for principles. These friendly girls so successfully undermined them. The redhead placed her hand on Jack’s twitching thigh. Such was the temptation. She even had a class ring around her neck. Certainly, there was one; but you wouldn’t have known that she had a steady boy friend. They wore cut-off tee shirts, which exposed their bellybuttons. But if they were ladies, would they French kiss a dirty stranger? They figured they would never see him again.
So Jack dove into map-less territory. Hoping for more, he lived a fantasy, with girls perfectly willing and daring him to go further. S ome ten minutes later and ten miles down the road, the girls exchanged places. They were taking him for a ride, playing stupid 1948 games, of flirt and tease. He didn’t care. Between long kisses, they joked and laughed, fooled around like that. I’m sure you know that they weren’t really bad kids. Here, Jack met sin again, thinking more about his hunger than taking advantage of the situation, though no one asked for an excuse.
He sneaked off with the sack lunches. An apple, a banana, and sandwiches, nothing had ever tasted better. As for feeling guilty, hunger quickly quelled that. He escaped when left alone in the car and ran without planning ahead. Hiding again in the woods, he watched from afar as his benefactors returned from the rest room. The girls evidently never gave him or their lunches a second thought, so short were their memories.
On the shore of the Ohio, Jack soon found himself lost. The first thing a young man does in that situation is look for something familiar. That was something Jack naturally did. On this particular day he didn’t realize that it was Sunday, until he reached a public landing and heard a robed choir singing, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The sudden shouting brought back bittersweet memories. Shouting Methodists were not that far removed from the Church of God.
The converts stood with the preacher in waist deep water and waited their turn. Jack grew up going to church twice on Sunday and on Wednesday nights. The scene reminded him of his own salvation and his guaranteed ticket to heaven. He had a green light. The good news was that he could sin and still go. Go to a camp meeting or a Revival, and see for yourself. It was a joyful drama.
The best water for baptism flowed down the Ohio. It was not as muddy as the Mississippi. There were many reasons for the shouting, both in English and in tongues. The converts had chosen the right path and knew the meaning of their baptism. Subsequently, with rapt expressions of devotion, they marched down to the river. Baptisms in the Ohio River were still frequent in 1948.
Hearing the choir sing familiar hymns affected Jack greatly. He knew he was a backslider but rarely thought about it. Now Jack thought more about it than he ever had, which made him homesick. But it didn’t effect his determination. Maybe he didn’t turn around then because of what he faced at home.
The preacher, a gigantic man, wore a black-and-white gown. None of the converts were ready for gulps of water. From all of the sputtering, most of them should’ve been ready. Since he hadn’t had a recent bath, the water looked inviting to Jack. But instead of following his urges, he sat near the top of the bank and watched. Certainly he could see himself hollering “see the Glory-gate unbarred!” His mother always had told him that he would make a great minister. She saw him serving the Lord, fighting the devil and warding off temptation. Now he was trying to run away or turn his back on God.
As he watched the baptisms, did Jack not try to justify his behavior? Hadn’t he been taught the difference between right and wrong? His parents had always been direct, but he never gave them any slack. There were many rules; so many rules that it was hard to follow them, but he thought only a few of them merited attention. The rule of all rules was that in order to stay out of trouble he had to limit his friends, strictly limit them. Concerning this, Jack didn’t see his parents changing.
That was where it stood. With his mind surprisingly focused now on sad memories, Jack strolled along the water’s edge. As a kid and a Christian boy, he was expected to be perfect. No one was perfect, so often he failed. He knew he let his parents down. He screwed up. Shut them out.