Heat waves wiggled skyward above the blacktop. Elliott stood on the highway’s fringe and gazed northward toward Canada then south across the central Washington steppe. Ancient patches of black rock that had hardened from the lava streams of distant volcanoes interrupted the rolling grasslands. He retrieved his almost-empty canteen and took a swig of hot water.
Elliott had hitchhiked that same route in 1967, moving north toward Calgary, to a life beyond the reach of America’s Selective Service and its military draft that had stolen his friends away to Vietnam. But a decade later, President Carter granted the draft dodgers amnesty and Elliott headed home.
The August sun burned through his straw hat. Sweat ran down his forehead and dripped into his eyes. He removed his sunglasses and wiped his face with the sleeve of his work shirt. Elliott remembered his past ten years spent moving from farm to farm, dancing fields of wheat stretching across Alberta’s flat plains, quivering images of tall grain elevators, a Canadian National freight streaming eastward.
A semi roared past, its backwash blowing Elliott farther onto the highway’s shoulder. The silence returned, broken only by the occasional gust of wind. Over a low rise, a vehicle approached from the north. It kicked up dust and left a rooster’s tail to mark its progress. Elliott turned to face it and stuck out his right arm, thumb extended. He could make out a single occupant in the blue Cadillac convertible with its top down. The car blasted past him. He turned to watch it disappear. But the Caddy slowed, pulled off the road, and came to a stop. The driver twisted in his seat and waved him on.
Grabbing his knapsack and guitar, he hustled down the highway toward the Caddy. The driver was a big sloppy man, his gut extending forward in a series of sloped terraces until wedging itself under the steering wheel. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and white slacks, his head topped by a Seattle Mariners baseball cap.
“How far ya goin’, buddy?” the driver asked.
“A couple of states south of here.”
“Well, I’m goin’ to The Dalles. Ya know where that is?”
“In Oregon, on the Columbia, about a hundred miles upriver from Portland.”
“That’s the place. You got a driver’s license?”
The big man raised an eyebrow. After struggling to open the door and climb out, he walked around the car to Elliott and stuck out his hand.
“My name’s Frank. If you want a ride, you’ll haveta drive.”
“I’m Elliott … and no problem with the driving.”
Elliott climbed in, moved the driver’s seat forward, adjusted the mirrors, and eased the lumbering car onto the highway. Frank had raised the side windows so the wind noise didn’t bother them.
“Just keep her at 75 and she’ll purr all day long.” Frank leaned forward, opened the glove box, and took out an almost-full bottle of Jack Daniels. Elliott caught sight of a snub-nosed revolver lying amongst a clutter of what looked like traffic tickets.
“You’ve been waitin’ out there long?” Frank asked.
“A couple of hours.”
“Why the hell did you take the inland route? There’s a lot more traffic near the coast.”
“I’m coming from Calgary.”
Frank seemed to consider that bit of information, all the while taking swigs from the fifth of whiskey. They drove in silence. The sun turned the landscape golden in the hot afternoon. Frank slouched, his pale pink belly sticking out below his shirt, seatbelt nowhere in sight. Elliott watched the highway and constantly checked the rear view, looking for the inevitable state trooper to pull out and fall in behind them. But the route remained deserted and the miles rolled past.
Frank finally broke the silence. “So … so what were ya doin’ in Calgary?”
“Working … at the University … as a night janitor.”
“Huh. You don’ sound Canadian, sound more like one of them hippie kids from Californication that came through here in the ’60s. Don’t see many hitchhikers anymore.”
“I’ve just turned 30. I think that qualifies me as an adult.”
Frank glowered at him but offered Elliott the bottle. He took a long pull and handed it back.
“Yes, I moved to Calgary in ’67. This is my first trip back to the States.”
“So you’re one of them draft dodgers?”
Elliott let out a deep breath. “Yes … it was the only thing I could do.”
“No it wasn’t.”
Elliott stared straight ahead, hoping that the questions would stop. Is this what it’s going to be like, being treated like a coward, a traitor, a deserter? Wasn’t being exiled punishment enough? Maybe I came back too soon. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back. The roar of the Caddy’s tires grew louder. Elliott glanced at the speedometer; it was pegged at 85 but the big car continued to pick up speed. The white lines on the two-lane highway became a blur. He sucked in a deep breath and eased off the gas.
He glanced sideways at Frank, who stared straight ahead while sipping his whiskey. “So Frank, why are you out here all by yourself?”
Frank shook his head, as if coming out of a dream. “I’m a small-time plumbing contractor. One of my suppliers is in The Dalles … drive there couple three times a year.” He took a long pull from the bottle. “My son, Eddie, used ta come along. I was teachin’ ’im the business.”
Elliott sensed that they had edged into treacherous emotional territory and shut up. Frank stared into his lap and played with the bottle’s paper label. A blast of wind hit the Caddy. Its right rear wheel slipped onto the shoulder and the car slid sideways for a moment before Elliott straightened it out, his heart racing faster than the big V-8 engine.
Frank hadn’t budged. He tilted the bottle skyward then spoke: “Eddie was a good kid, a fine boy. And he knew his duty. All the men in our family know our duty. I served in World War II and again in Korea. My Pop served in World War I.”
“My family’s the same,” Elliott murmured.
“Except you.” Frank flashed him a murderous look.
“Yes, except me.”
“You know when Eddie got his draft notice, he was excited to go. They sent him to the DMZ, assigned him to a field artillery battery, 155 howitzers I think.”
Elliott took his foot off the gas and let the big car slow. His mind went back to the revolver resting in the glove box, within easy reach of its drunken owner. If I’ve got to bail on this guy, I need to be going slower.
Frank continued talking into the air. “Maybe if all you idiots hidin’ under rocks in Canada had gone to Vietnam, my Eddie might still be alive.”
“How did he die?” Elliott asked, immediately wishing he hadn’t.
“A sniper got ’im … never saw it comin’ … just sittin’ there next to his gun … waiting. Was in Vietnam just two weeks.”
“I’m sorry that you lost your son, Frank. I’m sorry anyone had to die in a war that never should have happened.”
“Well, at least he did his duty … unlike creeps like you who cut and ran.”
“Adding more dead Americans to the toll wouldn’t have solved anything. And the protests helped stop it.”
Frank turned sideways in his seat and glared at Elliott. “Don’t you care about honor, about duty?”
“Sure I do. But there was nothing honorable about Vietnam.”
“You sayin’ my boy died for nothin’?”
“No, I’m not saying—”
Frank lunged for the glove box, grabbed the revolver, and pointed it at Elliott. “I don’t need no snot-nosed punk telling me about honor and duty. You deserted your duty and country. They shoot deserters, ya know.”
“Take it easy, Frank, take it easy.”
Elliott gripped the steering wheel. The Caddy continued to slow. He braked and pulled to a stop on a wide turnout. Mt. Rainier graced the western horizon. Elliott turned toward Frank and stared into the drunken man’s eyes.
“Frank, that war hurt all of us … believe me.”
“The hell you say. I’m drivin’ alone through this wasteland while my son’s underground in Arlington. What have you lost?”
Elliott gazed across the plain then lowered his head. “I … I lost my father. He died while I was in Canada and I couldn’t go to his funeral. I lost most of my friends … scattered to who knows where. I lost ten years of my life working the fields south of Calgary. I lost my purpose in life. I hope to find it someday. I lost my … my home.”
Frank snorted. “That ain’t nothin’. Eddie was my only kid. His mama ran off when he was small. He was the only thing I had and now he’s gone. And here you are, preachin’ … preachin’ purpose in life. What’s my purpose?”
Frank’s gun hand shook. He raised the revolver and pointed it at Elliott’s face, his eyes wide and staring, mouth open, as if ready to howl with rage and sorrow. Elliott watched Frank finger the pistol’s trigger. Time and movement slowed. Frank seemed to see the gun for the first time. His hand calmed and he closed his eyes.
Elliott lunged forward and batted the pistol out of Frank’s hand. It flew into the dry brush. The two men stared at each other, shaking, breathing hard. After a few moments, Frank remembered his bottle. He refused to look Elliott in the eye. Elliott opened the driver’s side door and vomited onto the gravel. The smell made him feel even sicker and he breathed through his mouth, long rasping gasps. His head pounded and he longed for a quiet dark place away from all that sunlight. Finally, he eased the car back onto the highway and they continued their push southward, not saying anything.
Near sunset, they crossed the Columbia and entered The Dalles. Elliott pulled the Caddy to the curb in front of a downtown hotel that looked perfect for traveling plumbing contractors. He shook Frank awake and climbed out of the car.
“Hey, man, thanks for the ride.”
Frank yawned and sat up in his seat. “Yeah, sure, kid.”
“Sorry about your gun.”
“I’m not.” Frank grinned. “You be careful goin’ home. This ain’t the ’60s. There’re some angry people out there.”
Elliott walked west along the highway. To the north, the broad Columbia flowed silently below barren bluffs. Snow-capped Mt. Adams caught the last rays of sunlight, lording it over the hard basaltic steppe, far from the gentle SoCal beaches of Elliott’s home.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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