MY LIFE IN THE NAVY

CHAPTER 4

On the Road Again:

If you happen to stumble across this page not knowing to what else it is connected, go to My Life In The Navy and start at the beginning with “Chapter 1- Boot Camp”.

To write this chapter, I have had to study both the perpetual calendar at http://calendarhome.com/ and the baseball records at http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/.  I’ve always remembered that I left  Los Angeles on a Monday morning and I now determine that it must have been September 29, 1969.

As stated in Chapter 3, I had come to LA from New Orleans by train in early August, 1969.  Now, in late September, my money supply was seriously dwindling. There was never a thought of riding back to Pennsylvania by either bus or train.  Hitchhiking was the only choice.  I had hitched quite a bit in high school and while at King’s College. Now, at age 23, I was a veteran of the roads and knew that it was always best to have a sign.  If drivers knew where you were headed, they’d be more likely to pick you.

I stood in Santa Barbara that Monday morning with a cardboard sign reading “Pennsylvania”.  My very first ride was with a fella headed to Las Vegas, which turned out to be a 350-mile trip, chiefly on I-15.  We arrived sometime in the mid-afternoon and he let me out on what they call “The Strip”. My plan was to continue heading north on I-15 and then east to hook up with I-70, which would then take me all the way back across the country.  Hitching in downtown “Vegas” would have taken hours with a series of short rides, no doubt. I stood at a local bus stop and asked the next bus driver that came along the best way to proceed.  He told me which bus I needed to take and where to catch it.  I thanked him and took a restroom break at a convenience store before going on.  I was amazed to find a slot machine in the men’s room.  The second bus took me “across town” to the point where the city ended and I’d have a better chance at a long-distance ride. 

The next spot turned out to be an excellent spot to hitch.  It was right near Nellis Air Force base.  The road made a 90-degree turn, which meant that oncoming cars meeting me wouldn’t be going that fast, having just come through the intersection.  It was also a wide-open stretch and I took up my position about 200 yards past the intersection.  Slow-moving cars would have plenty of time to size me up and read my sign while deciding if I looked safe enough to pick up.  After a while, a hippie took up his position only 100 yards from the intersection, meaning cars would meet him first.  “Darn!”  Hitching alone is always better than doing so with one or two more people.  Well, at least they’d pick him up and then I’d be alone again.  An old guy in a pickup did stop for the hippie and then, to my surprise, stopped for me, too. 

Happy to have a ride again, I chatted with both of them and, thereby, committed a minor sin.  I didn’t ask the old guy how far HE was going.  We rode for maybe a half hour and then he said “Well, this is where I turn off”.  Oh, hell; the hippie and I found ourselves on a deserted stretch of DESERT with nightfall approaching!  It was likely to get quite cold overnight and, worse yet, we could get awfully thirsty in the next day’s sun.  Cars speeding along in the night wouldn’t have much time to see my sign. Cops didn’t like you to be right out on the main highway but generally wouldn’t bother you if you were on an on-ramp.  We decided to take a chance and stand right at the top of the on-ramp where it met the highway.  Cars would be coming slower up the ramp and so what if the cops rousted us?  Maybe they’d at least escort us to a better site.  Even getting picked up by a cop was better than dying of thirst.

Cars coming up the ramp were few and far between.  We must have stood there for 3 hours before one stopped for us.  The driver was a college student about our age and he had his left arm in a cast.  He made a deal with us; he’d take us all the way to his college if we did the driving.  It’s about 120 miles from Las Vegas, up across a little corner of Arizona to St. George, Utah.  (St. George was in the news in late 2007 as the site where polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs was convicted.) We arrived at his school Dixie State College Of Utah and he invited us into his dorm room.  The hippie and I spent the night sleeping on the floor.

I could have separated myself from the hippie the next day but he was a friendly chap and, so far, we’d had good luck together.  He was only going as far as Denver, so we decided to stay a team.  The next morning was Tuesday, September 30.  We grabbed breakfast at a local restaurant and then caught a ride with a Mormon headed further north on I-15.  He took us about 105 miles to the town of Beaver, Utah, where we had a decision to make.  If one looks at http://www.mapquest.com/ today, one can see I-70 connecting with I-15 just north of Beaver but, in 1969, I-70 hadn’t been completed any further west than Green River, Utah.  We stood for several hours waiting for a ride eastward across Utah to Green River and almost gave up.  There simply were NO major roads across Utah.  I began to think that I’d have to go way north up I-15 to Salt Lake City and then hook up with I-80 to go east.  The hippie would go along to Cheyenne, Wyoming and then turn back south to his Denver destination. 

We were totally shocked when a WOMAN in a station wagon stopped for us!  Hardly ever will a woman, fearing for her safety, stop for a hitchhiker but this woman did, and she had her FOUR KIDS with her!  Her story was that she was a Navy wife.  Her husband was stationed in San Diego and she had given him the ultimatum of “the sea or me” and he had chosen the former.  She was taking the kids and going home to Dad in Grand Junction, Colorado.  She took us the entire 285 miles across Utah!  It’s called “the Beehive State” but it was so desolate that, for the longest stretch, I saw not even a single bee.  We finally encountered life in the form of a flock of sheep herded by a man on horseback, just meandering along.  We’d heard that Utah has “open-range” laws meaning that critters have the right of way.  If you hit one, you pay for it. Lucky for us, they were headed west, so we just sat and waited as they walked past us. 

It was getting dark by the time we got to Grand Junction and this is where I split from my traveling companion.  The hippie was dead-flat broke.  I don’t know where he spent the night before continuing on, but I chose to spend some of my meager funds. I took an overnight Greyhound through the Rockies and got into Denver in daylight on Wednesday, October 1.  Tuesday had been a long day and I decided to rest up on Wednesday, not traveling at all, and taking a room at the YMCA.

Thursday, October 2, 1969 was the final day of the regular baseball season.  The NY Mets would face the Atlanta Braves for the National League pennant and the Baltimore Orioles would meet the Minnesota Twins in the American League.  My first ride of that day turned out to be less-than-exciting at first.  I don’t know how he managed to do it, but my first “chauffeur” left me, essentially, on I-70 proper.  The only on-ramp was one coming from a restaurant and traffic from that sole origin wasn’t very heavy.  I decided to chance meeting a state trooper and took up my position further out on the main highway than I usually would.  I stood there for maybe two hours and occupied my time by watching planes land at Stapleton International Airport which wasn’t far away.  It was definitely a busy place and I counted up to six or eight planes circling the field and landing about once every minute or so.  My mind got to wandering and, being musically inclined, I came up with a little mnemonic that I haven’t since forgotten, not even after 38 years; who wrote “Leaving On A Jet Plane”? Why, John DENVER, of course!

A Colorado State Trooper did stop to chat with me and my fears of being caught once again spiked.  They were swiftly allayed, however, when he turned out to be a nice young fella.  He bought my story about being a college lad out to explore the country and gently explained to me that it was against CO law to hitch on the interstate.  He pointed eastward and, down on the north side of the road, about a mile away, was a truck stop.  He said that buses came through there every couple of hours and then he added something totally unexpected.  I could cross all four lanes and continue walking against traffic, heading eastbound on the west-bound shoulder.  If, in so walking, I happened to have my “Pennsylvania” sign showing back over my right shoulder where it could be seen by eastbound traffic, such action wouldn’t REALLY be considered as “hitchhiking”.  I thanked him and decided to give it a try.  He left, I crossed the road and, sure ‘nuff, I hadn’t walked two hundred yards before I heard a horn!  A tractor-trailer rig had stopped for me!  I crossed back over the median and climbed in.  The driver said he’d been watching me from a restaurant window and knew that the cop had hassled me.  It was against his company’s regs to pick up hitchhikers but he would take me down to that truck stop anyway. 

The next bus didn’t come through for a couple of hours.  Not wanting to spend any more money than absolutely necessary, I spent the time soliciting a ride from other truckers.  I found one who could use my company.  He was, apparently, an independent with no company regs barring his taking me along.  He took me all the way to Salina, Kansas, a distance of about 400 miles from Denver!  It took us all night and we pulled into Salina on Friday morning, October 3.  Not in any particular hurry and, with no real plan in mind, I took another day off, found a room, and slept.

Saturday, Oct. 4, 1969 was the start of a 5-game league championship series in both major leagues and it was also the day on which I got the two LONGEST rides of my journey.  One ride from Salina, KS took me about 425 miles to the outskirts of St. Louis, MO.  I don’t recall much about that ride other than that it was a guy in a car.  I then didn’t have to wait long at all until another fella picked me up in his car and he was going a loooooong way!  We traveled all night; across the remainder of Missouri, the entire breadth of both Illinois and Indiana, and into Ohio, a distance of about 359 miles.  Studying http://www.mapquest.com/ today, I judge that he left me out in Dayton, Ohio, at the intersection of I-70 and I-75.  I clearly recall that he was headed to Wapakoneta, OH, birthplace of Neil Armstrong. 

I’d slept a bit overnight in that car but was still quite tired on that Sunday morning.  Nevertheless, I ventured on, with Pennsylvania practically “in sight”. A kindly minister and his family on their way home from services, took me to their house, fed me spaghetti, and put me back on the road.

I don’t recall the rest of my rides after that, but one thing has remained clear after all these years.  I had started out in Santa Barbara, California on a Monday morning and was back home in PA on the following Sunday.  I had crossed the entire breadth of our fair nation in just a week, even with a couple of days off for sleeping!!!

I have to admit that, despite having now been AWOL for over two months, I still had no idea what to do with the rest of my life.  I was certain of one thing.  I was NOT ready to turn myself in!  During my brief time in the Navy, I’d heard of what they called “red-line brigs” run by Marines for the Navy.  Reportedly, the grunts would beat the living hell out of any prisoner who dared to cross a “red line” on the deck without permission.  The 1953 film “From Here To Eternity” came to mind.  In it, a sadistic Sgt. “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine) had almost killed Pvt. Maggio (Frank Sinatra).  In no way was I of a mind to submit to such treatment.  It wasn’t like I’d killed anyone or committed treason.  To my mind, I’d simply broken a contract.  I had no idea if the “red line brigs” had been banned but I wasn’t about to take a chance.  I’d frozen out in San Luis Obispo, CA on an attempt to get to Canada. Now, back in PA, it wouldn’t have been that far up to Canada but I chose another path; I’d go see about SWEDEN! 

I’m no longer clear as to on which day I did what but, sometime during the week of Oct. 5-11, I swung south to Washington, D.C.  I spent a good deal of time considering how best to approach the diplomats at the Swedish embassy.  All along my journey, I’d always tried to outthink the FBI and had, so far, succeeded.  It now occurred to me that, were I the FBI, I’d tap the embassy phone lines, expecting to hear many deserters calling in for advice.  It would be better to have an appointment than to show up, unannounced, on the embassy’s doorstep.  “Let the FBI listen in”, I thought, “but they’d best have some translators available!”  I’d minored in French at King’s College with a 3.75 GPA and I knew that most diplomats could speak French.  The embassy fellow I spoke to got a real chuckle out of hearing my stumbling attempts in French but he got the message and told me I could come around the next day.

My next thought was “If I were the FBI, I’d sit outside the embassy in an unmarked car and question anyone approaching who LOOKED like a deserter”.  I decided that a “disguise” was in order.  I bought the cheapest white shirt and black tie that I could find and finished off my ensemble with a cheap almost-cardboard-like briefcase.  I then scouted out the exact location of the embassy, retreated maybe 10 blocks, and hailed a taxi.  To anyone in an unmarked car, I appeared to be a salesman calling on the embassy.  It worked!

Once inside the embassy, it was safe to speak English.  The young staffer I spoke with was the same fella on the phone the day before.  He listened intently for about 20 minutes and could plainly see that I was a troubled young man.  I told him of how poorly I’d been treated on the Conyngham and how I feared ending up in a “red-line brig”.  I clearly had a “personal problem” but was not, in response to his query, ready to renounce my American citizenship.  Our meeting ended with his telling me that, while they could not help me get to Sweden, if I did manage to get there, they’d likely let me stay.  I thanked him and left.

Next problem: HOW to get to Sweden?  From boot camp and my limited time on the Conyngham, I knew a little about ships.  I guess I could stow away if I could find a ship headed that way.  New York was a port whence many cross-Atlantic ships depart, so I headed north.  Both the Mets and Orioles had won their pennants in 3-game sweeps.  The World Series began on Saturday, Oct. 11, 1969 and, by that time, I was in New York.  I spent a couple of day scouring the newspapers, since ship arrivals and departures were published daily.  I hadn’t thought about exactly how I’d manage to sneak aboard one but, first, I had to find the right ship.  I failed to find one headed directly to Sweden.  Every one going there was going to make a stop in England first.  That would mean I’d have to stay hidden, in a gear locker perhaps, until AFTER we’d passed England.  Had I been found before we got there, I’d have been put ashore in Jolly Old and they, undoubtedly, would’ve sent me back.

Money was a really serious issue by now, as I was down to my last few dollars.  I considered heading back to the Skytop Club in the Poconos where I’d worked as a caddy in the summer of 1965.  Caddying was a cash job that didn’t required me to supply my Social Security number.  I knew that the professional “bag rat” caddies at Skytop headed south to Doral in Miami for the winter and some even caddied for the PGA tour’s Doral Open each March.  This was October and they may not have left the Poconos yet but, in the worst case, I’d have to hitch to Florida, too.  It then occurred to me that the FBI had probably inquired about me at Skytop and that the caddy master, Nick, would have had to turn me in.  (This was a good guess on my part.  I found out some 35 years later that the FBI had, indeed, made inquiries back in Mooretown, PA, where I hadn’t lived since I was 11 years old!)

OK—no caddying.  What else could I do?  I had some talent as a waiter, having worked in Atlantic City, NJ in the summer of 1966.  Waiters relied primarily on tips but their minimal wages DID require an SSN.  I decided, “What the hell?  I can fake a number.  I won’t stay long and, by the time the Social Security Administration catches on, I’ll be long gone”.  I landed at Pocono Manor and signed on to be a cocktail waiter.  To create a fake SSN that I might have to repeat later, I devised an easily-remembered system.  I took my real SSN and adjusted it thusly: I raised the first digit by one, lowered the second digit by one, raised the third digit by one, etc.  It rang no bells immediately and I was now a cocktail waiter.
 
I was ill-suited for the position, for I knew very little about cocktails.  I was a beer drinker.  In very short order, I had to learn a lot, lest I serve Budweiser in a martini glass.  The bartenders would pour the booze but it was my job to present them with the correct glasses and attendant garnishes.  Let me see: martinis get an olive; Gibsons get an onion, something else took a slice of lemon, etc.  Invariably, I’d screw up and get yelled at by the bartender.  The hours were long, with work starting around 11 AM to serve wine to lunch customers.  Evenings in the lounge would run until closing time at 2 AM.  Lunch customers were impressed with my ability to properly pronounce the names of French wines but I didn’t do so well on the German ones.  I learned the trick to not let wine drip from the bottle as I pulled it back from pouring; one simply had to impart a twist of the wrist and not a drop would spill.  Merely opening a wine bottle presented another challenge, however.  I’ve never been blessed with great manual dexterity and, about every third bottle, I’d manage to destroy the cork, leaving part of it floating inside the bottle.

Working in the lounge at night presented other problems, too.  If a customer scooted out without paying while my back was turned as I got more drinks at the bar, I had to pay for their check.  That happened twice.  The lounge entertainment was a Jose Feliciano-type with a guitar and his amp was loud enough that I often misheard a drink order.  One particular mistake was memorable.  “Excuse me, sir.  Was that a Jim Bowie?”  The entire table erupted in laughter as I miserably guessed “Well, Tom Collins was probably a real guy and so was Jack Daniels.  Maybe what you want cuts through you like a Bowie knife!  If the Mets win the series, we’ll probably see a Tommy Agee drink”.  ‘twas then that I learned of a Drambuie.  It was a liqueur and served in a wee “snifter” glass.  “Dang!” I thought, “it’s either very powerful OR very expensive”.   I think both turned out to be true.

I lasted on about four days as a cocktail waiter.  The hours were simply too long and I wasn’t very good at it.  After nearly three months on the lam, looking over my shoulder and trying to outthink the FBI, I was just plain weary.  I decided to NOT throw away the  education that had been awarded me via a four-year, full-tuition scholarship back in 1964.  MAYBE I’d get lucky and settle my score with the Navy.  MAYBE I could yet get an honorable discharge and go back to my pre-Navy Federal employment.  If I were really lucky, the days of the “red-line brigs” were long gone and I’d be treated decently.  If I were to turn myself in at the Navy recruiting office in Wilkes-Barre, maybe I could even avoid going to a brig.  I decided to go home to Sweet Valley and hope for the best.

It didn’t quite work out the way I’d hoped.  See “Chapter 5: Court Martial”.

 

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

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