I Remember Kindness

I don’t know about where you live, but on Long Island, my home turf until recently, there are a lot of elementary schools.  Many of them are surrounded by chain link fences, and often messages of two or three words in the form of red or blue plastic cups stuck in the fence.  The politically correct ones irritated me, of course, but there was one I saw a few times that I liked: “Be Kind,” or just “Kindness.”  Kindness.  Whether you give it or receive it, whether it’s a stranger or someone close to you, it’s good for the soul.  Yet, when I think about it, I’ve known quite a few people who were incapable of kindness, except perhaps to their closest friends or family members.  Not bad or evil people, mind you, just people who had no real nobility, or people who couldn’t do the smallest favor for someone without expecting something in return.  If I looked at a world map and a U.S. road atlas and racked my brain long enough, I’m sure a hundred memories or at least fragments of memories of kindness would surface.  But I don’t want to go overboard here, and since fourteen is my lucky number, I’ll tell you about the first fourteen that popped into my head.

I remember Hungary in 1978, still under communist rule, though relatively easy to get around.  I’d taken the train from the capital Budapest to a smaller city, Szeged, arriving around 8 PM.  I had no information about Szeged, and no idea where I’d find accommodation.  I walked up to a stranger who thankfully spoke English, hoping he could assist me somehow.  He tried very hard for ten or fifteen minutes.  He said, “I want to help you with all my heart.”  I don’t even remember what he did exactly, or if I found a place on my own.  I did find a place, but I don’t remember anything about it.  I just remember how sincere he was, and how he placed his hand on his heart when he spoke those words.

I remember visiting Inverness Castle in Scotland on that same trip, my first trip to Europe.  I was sitting on a low wall, my backpack next to me with a small American flag I’d sewn on it, which did not endear me to locals, with one apparent exception.  An old man with white hair and a long white beard walked up to me and opened a box of cigarettes.  I smoked back then, and accepted his offer.  He lit it for me.  I said, “Thank you.”  He smiled, flipped up his thumb, and walked away, never having said a word.

I remember spending the night in Chanthaburi, Thailand, a nondescript, untouristed town, after taking the bus there from Bangkok, where I’d arrived after 26 hours in transit from New York.  I’d been to Thailand many years earlier and wanted to get to Cambodia right away, but from what I’d read the main border crossing, at Aranyaprathet, was a nightmare, an all-day affair with lawless officials, pirates really, on both sides demanding huge bribes, in the $50 to $100 range, to get stamped out then stamped in.  Although I’d had my share of delays and hassles when crossing borders, I’d never encountered such a thing in all my travels, and didn’t feel like starting a seven-week, four-country trip like this.  So I opted for Chanthaburi, the jumping off point to a border crossing that was much less used.  There was no regular transportation to this quiet border post at Pailin, thirty miles away.  In the morning, I ran into a local about to get on his motorcycle who happened to speak a little English.  He offered to give me a ride about a mile down the main street to a small lot where an occasional passenger van made the trip to the border, and that’s how I got there.   I would never have found this place if not for him.  He didn’t want any money, which surprised me.  A smile and a handshake were good enough.

I remember the small group trip – there were only eight of us – I made to Iran in 2016, and visiting the Music Museum in Isfahan, a private establishment created by two men who were passionate about traditional Iranian music.  I’m not big on museums, but this was really something special.  There were more than 300 musical instruments on display, going back to antiquity.  One of the two curators spoke excellent English, and showed us around, giving us a quick history of several of the instruments.  He was very proud of his museum, as well he should have been, and equally proud of his heritage.  He exuded as much warmth and hospitality as a human being is capable of.  Afterwards, some local musicians performed for us on some of these unusual instruments, and he had his assistant serve us tea and pastries.  It was a wonderful experience.

I have no illusions about the latent savagery of all too many Negroes, wherever you find them, and of the tortures and massacres of many thousands of whites during various “liberation” movements across Africa in the last sixty years  But the fact is that most black Africans are harmless, and some, as a result of their constructive relationships with white folks at some point in their lives, are happy to reciprocate.  During a trans-Africa group camping trip in 1982, we stopped at a little settlement called Sasi Village in Tanzania, where coffee trees grew, and a man was sorting out the beans on three blankets.  I wrote down his name in my diary: Goodluck Msselle.  What a name!  His heart was bursting with kindness as he explained to our group of fifteen, all white, how he was grading the coffee beans.  Two boys, probably his sons, looked on.  For most rural Africans, it’s an unexpected delight when a group of whites appears.  A few minutes into his talk, Mr. Goodluck barked a few words in Swahili at the two boys, who ran off and quickly returned with a wicker basket of peanuts for us to snack on.  Just a very nice memory.

A month later, in the Congo, with the rigors of this journey having taken their toll, and things falling apart, I abandoned the group with two other guys and we struck out on our own.  The former Belgian Congo is far and away the most difficult, dangerous and regressive country I have ever traveled to.  The roads are in large part mud tracks.  There are no petrol stations and no scheduled transport.  Stay in one spot, and if you’re lucky you’ll have to wait only five or six hours for a dilapidated cargo truck to come by, and everyone climbs aboard and wedges himself in.  If you’re unlucky, you can sit there from dawn to dusk, sometimes for days, without seeing a single vehicle.  The three of us were sprawled out by the roadside, bored to death, with ten or twelve other hopeful passengers.  Nearby a woman was selling eggs out of a basket, which cheered me up – a welcome break from the pineapples and canned sardines we’d been subsisting on.  I walked over and asked her if the eggs were boiled – bouillee (bwee-yay) in French.  “Way,” she said, which is how most Africans in the francophone countries say oui​.  I bought three and cracked one open on a rock.  Egg white oozed out.  “Goddamit, these things aren’t boiled,” I said.  “Bwee-yay,” I cried with a fling of my arm, mocking French elegance, and in disgust threw the cracked egg as far as I could, watching it break apart.  Then I thought, “What’s wrong with me, wasting protein like this in front of these people.”  There was a woman with a small child waiting like everyone else.  I walked over and offered her the other two eggs.  She seemed confused, but accepted them without saying anything.  To my amazement, ten minutes later she came up to me, never speaking a word, and laid a skillet with two fried eggs in it at my feet.  I was touched.

I was in South Korea for five days in 1980, and wanted to get out of soulless Seoul, the Americanized capital.  I found myself in some small town, wanting to get to another, but I didn’t want to take an express bus on a four-lane highway; I wanted to get there slow, on back roads, just to pass through small towns and villages and get a feel for the country.  Can you imagine making such a request at a small bus station where nobody in sight speaks English, and hardly anyone ever sees a foreigner?  I tried anyway, pantomiming short distances with my hands, and getting nowhere.  Then, when it was the last thing in the world I expected, this Korean man walked up to me and in perfect English said, “Perhaps I can help you.”  I told him my wish, and he translated for the ticket seller.  As it turned out, there was no back road bus service, but I still remember his helpfulness, and how odd it was that a local who spoke flawless English just appeared out of nowhere.

But I also want you to know that, even though I’ve leveled plenty of criticism at my country and my countrymen in my book and elsewhere on this site, there are an awful lot of kind people in America.  At least there were when I was young – and I hope there still are.  On my first real adventure, in January 1974, when I flew from New York to Phoenix and hitchhiked back home, I remember what a thrill it was getting my first lift on I-70 in Ohio in an eighteen-wheeler, a flatbed trailer loaded with big steel pipes.  The driver was an owner-operator, and he looked the part with his woolen cap and close-trimmed beard.  We talked and talked.  It was from him that I first learned of the movie The Exorcist​, which I never saw.  We were talking when we should’ve been paying attention to the road, because I meant to get out where the highway split and he took I-79 north, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.  We rode about fifteen miles before I realized my mistake.  He dropped me off at an exit in a town called McKees Rocks.  It was about 7 PM and lightly snowing.  Having no idea where I was, I walked and walked until I reached a neighborhood tavern.  I went inside and asked some guys at the bar to help me get my bearings.  One of them, wearing an army uniform and nursing a beer, knew right away how I screwed up and gave me a lift fifteen miles back to I-70.  What a nice man.

When I look back at those four long-distance hitchhiking trips I made in the 1970s, it’s hard for me to believe that I stuck my thumb out at night as often as I did, but I did.  I just like to keep moving.  That summer, in 1974, I was on I-70 in Ohio again, headed west after dark with my thumb out, when a converted school bus pulled over for me.  The bus was the traveling home of a country western band that played gigs around the midwest, and the driver was one of the musicians.  The others were asleep in their bunks.  I sat in the jump seat next to him, and somehow we got on the subject of baseball.  He was originally from the Cleveland area and was a diehard Cleveland Indians fan, lamenting that his beloved team were always cellar dwellers, year after year.  I told him I was an umpire – I’d only been at it two years at the time – and he was intrigued, asking me questions about certain rules that he didn’t quite understand, as many people do when you tell them you’re an umpire.  I used to love talking baseball like that.  And he was such a mellow, pleasant guy to chat with.  Most people that pick up hitchhikers are, on average, more kind and brave to begin with, giving a lift to a stranger, but there were some who stood out, and he was one of them.
I remember a couple named Bradley – I don’t remember their first names – who picked me up on Route 101, on the coast of Oregon.  They were headed home, which was Lincoln City.  They invited me to their home to spend the night, and I accepted their invitation.  As I recall, they had a teenage son and daughter and a spare bedroom, and after dinner we all piled in the car and they showed me around town and took me to the beach.  I stuck my toe in the Pacific Ocean for the first time, and couldn’t believe how cold it was in July.  In the morning they whipped me up a big breakfast and drove me back to the south edge of town so I could resume hitchhiking.  Such nice people.

I remember Larry Miller, who picked me up on U.S. 20 in rural Iowa.  He was driving a Volkswagen bug and smoking a joint, his German short-haired pointer George in the back seat.  Larry was a Vietnam veteran and a bitter man, as so many Vietnam vets are, who had taken shrapnel in his leg, a wound that never completely healed.  He lived alone, somewhere on the Iowa plains.  We had a deep conversation about life.  It seemed to me that the only thing he lived for was going pheasant hunting with George.  He stopped at a Hardee’s to get a burger and fries, and asked me if I wanted anything, which I didn’t.  It was painful to see this tall, lanky, decent man slowly twist out of his car, then hobble inside, leaning on his cane.  I don’t know how he hunted with a bad leg like that, and I didn’t ask him.  He invited me to spend the night in his cabin – “I ain’t weird,” he said – but I declined.  I could see he wanted company, someone to talk to, but I just didn’t feel like being around his sadness and loneliness.  I still feel bad about turning down his hospitality, though I don’t regret it.  I rolled out my sleeping bag and slept next to a cornfield that night.

Being on the road like this does have its challenges.  Normally I’d look for a cheap motel now and then, maybe twice a week, to sleep in a real bed and get cleaned up, like the afternoon in Nebraska that Ralph Johnson and his wife picked me up.  They were a bit rough, but good people.  Ralph was a biker, but he was driving his pick-up truck when he stopped for me.  He worked in a factory that made lampposts.  He was headed home to Columbus, as I recall, a fairly large town.  I asked him if he could drop me off at the cheapest motel he knew of.  As I was filling out the registration card, he came in and said, “Me and my wife were just talking.  You seem like a nice guy.  You want to stay at our place tonight?”  I smiled at the desk clerk and said, “A free bed.  You can’t argue with that.”  She smiled back in agreement.  I’m telling you, there are a lot of good people in this country.

I remember the trip to the Deep South I made in my old Dodge Aspen station wagon with my girlfriend Carol in the spring of 1979.  Somewhere, somehow, in Louisiana we ran into two old bachelors who had a house on the bayou, and invited us to stay overnight.  I forget their names, but I remember they had five or six dogs, all with rhyming names – Go-Go, Jo-Jo, Mo-Mo and the like.  The house was built on stilts, and I could actually feel it swaying, in the gentle current, through the night.  In the morning they made us a huge breakfast, bacon and eggs with all the fixins, twice as much as we could possibly eat.

Lastly I’ll tell you a story of “coercive” kindness.  I’d just spent the morning in Zion National Park in Utah, and was trying to thumb a ride out.  It was unusual to wait an hour or more for a ride, but this wasn’t my lucky day.  There was another hitchhiker nearby, I noticed, who also had been there a long time.  I went over to talk to him.  His name was Joe Jurgens, and he was from somewhere in Iowa.  He was just like me, a clean-cut young guy with a knapsack on his back, getting to know his country.  For some reason a bottleneck developed at the exit gate and I suggested we team up and walk around asking drivers for a lift.  After a few people shook their heads no, a woman with her kids in a Volkswagen bus, afraid to say yes but too good a Mormon to say no, said, “Well….alright.”  She was headed towards Salt Lake City, as we were, though I’d be getting out before Joe and turning east.

Her five children ranged in age from about four to twelve.  They told us the corniest jokes I’d ever heard, so corny I didn’t know how to respond.  The woman was an absolute nervous wreck, and I’m sure she regretted that she gave us a ride.  She was not the type that picked up hitchhikers, and I understood what she was feeling.  These were her children, and how could she know that Joe and I hadn’t planned something evil?  She was terribly worried and distracted; twice she nearly ran off the road.  I could just as easily see how relieved she was when my junction came up, and I asked her to pull over to let me out.  But then she still had Joe to worry about.  Joe and I actually became pen pals for a while – remember when there was such a thing? – and in his first letter he wrote a line that began “After that woman dropped me off….” which I was happy to read.  I was really concerned that she was going to have a bad accident worrying about her children.

Looking back, I was lucky to be in my prime when travel was so much easier than it is today.  I actually looked forward to going to the airport, before all this security crap came along, not to mention the current Covid global tyranny.  It saddens me that hitchhiking around America, such a wonderful experience, though obviously not for everyone, is unheard of these days.  The seventies and eighties were really a great time for adventure travel.  I’d like to do more of it, on a reduced scale, of course, but if I never again travel more than 300 miles from home I have no complaints.  I only wish that, after we put all this Covid insanity behind us, if​ we do, those children with adventure in their DNA who put those cups in their schoolyard fences get to travel around the country and abroad, and have the pleasure of experiencing random acts of kindness, as I did.