I’m often asked, “How did you become a storyteller?” When I try and answer this question, I think of Walt Whitman who wrote, “slowly, surely, what you are picks its way.” I have at least a half a dozen answers to the question, ranging from three words to an all night discourse, and they are all true in one way or another. It’s been a long and winding road. Here’s an encounter on the road, that I had 48 years ago that is one way of telling the story.
A Big Mistake! I broke one of the cardinal rules of hitchhiking. Rather than patiently waiting for a car to answer the call of the thumb, I approached the window of a vehicle with two guys sitting in it while gassing up and I asked them through the fogged up windows for a ride. I was desperate. It was 3AM, the mercury was approaching 10 below in a blizzard, and frostbite was beginning to flirt with my nose. This was in Windsor Ontario and I needed to get across the border to Detroit and then continue on Michigan State University in Lansing, where still unknown to me, my undergraduate academic career was about to take a 7 year sabbatical while I adventured in Alaska. The car had Michigan plates so I hoped they might be headed to the tunnel under the Detroit River, and across the border. It was February 1970 and I was making my way back from Winter Carnival in Quebec City.
The driver of the car never rolled down the window, but he unlocked the door and with a jerk of his neck, motioned me to the back seat. It only took a few short minutes before I was ruefully wondering if I had willfully walked into a trap.
My desperate mission was to get out of the cold. But these two characters were on a desperate mission of their own. I’ve forgotten their names, but I remember the story they spun out. The were auto factory workers, former marines, current members of the John Birch society, and had been recently fired from their jobs as Michigan State Troopers who had been drummed because their outspoken and radical views. They were on the last leg of a failed mission to return the driver’s son to the United States. The son was a Marine who had been busted for the possession of LSD, then deserted across the Canadian border. My new traveling companions had been up for more than 48 hours without sleep in a failed attempt to get him to come home and face the music. They were bug eyed and wired, exhausted, baffled, bewildered and angry. mission and now… they had a real live long hair096 on board! Both of these guys were huge. From my vantage point I was looking at a solid wall of thick red neck. They started peppering me with rapid fire questions about drugs, the war, and the draft.
But here’s the thing. They were so far out of their element, the situation so unexpected and beyond their normal world, that rather than seeing me as someone totally other and an enemy, they saw me as someone totally other that they could learn from. They really wanted to know what was going on in these crazy student minds. They told me their story. I told them mine. At one point, the driver reflected on the tactics of the radical group SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)
“ I’ll say one thing for them. They don’t sit around on their asses just talking. They do things. They blow stuff up!” And with that reassuring thought in mind, the driver took his ham sized fist, smashed it down on the dashboard and exclaimed, “Dammit son, I LOVE fanatics!”
A few hours later, the sky was turning deep winter sunrise red, and we approached the turn off for Lansing. They were headed further north and extended an invitation. Why not keep going with them and come up to their hunting lodge? I thankfully demurred and we parted, brief companions on the road of life.
Of the hundreds of rides over tens of thousands of miles that I would hitchhike over the next 7 years, this one was probably the most memorable because it so deeply foreshadowed one of my most enduring life lessons… a lesson encapsulated by Vine Deloria’s admonition, to “be related somehow to everyone you know.” Over those years and miles, over and over I learned that everyone has a story to tell, that listening is a way of relating, and that the act of asking and listening provides, at least for a brief time, a sanctuary, and an ephemeral moment of deeper understanding. Yes, I am a storyteller. I do love to spin out a tale. But just as much, and perhaps even more, I appreciate hearing other’s stories.
In the many earth diver creation myths, an animal is sent deep below chaotic waters to bring up a tiny mouthful of earth with which to create a habitable home. There are usually many failures along the way. Somehow I like to think of every encounter with someone whose experience or views differ so radically from mine as a chance to bring up one more bit of that common ground.
So yes, this encounter was one of the experiences that put me on the storytelling path. This and an ancient Indian curse. But that of course, is another story for another time.