Monday, June 18, 2012

Thumbs up! © by adrian

I've just finished eating the most scrumptious meal of my young life with my father and one of my sisters. We're in the parking lot of the exclusive Old Mill Restaurant in Toronto and my sister Marta is crying as she hugs me and says "Goodbye". I get in my father's car and she drives off in hers. He and I head over to the main highway on the western edge of town.

We drive in silence for twenty minutes and finally come to a cut off on the highway where my dad pulls over and stops the car. We both get out and he goes around the back and takes my knapsack out of the trunk. As he hands it to me he shakes my hand and says "Good luck." Without hesitation he quickly gets back in the car and driving off, leaves me at the side of the road. No embrace or show of emotion from him, no dramatic look back, he just gets in the car and leaves. I am now more alone than I had ever been in my life.

My father always felt that any sign of emotion was weak and unthinkable so I guess he thought there was hardly any point to change his stance now. Actually, I should amend this part of my little tale. He was deeply connected to one emotion that was never far from his side and that was rage. He lived his life constantly at war with himself, his family and everything else in the Universe. He spent all his days tilting at windmills until he died at ninety-six, forever ready to do battle with real or imagined ferocious beasts.

He was extremely confrontational and never capable of conversation in a normal tone of voice. Every sentence he spoke seemed to be expressed as though the person he was talking to had already contradicted him. As far as he was concerned, all mankind and every piece of machinery ever invented were in a personal collective conspiracy against him. He constantly went out of his way to make life choices that would help support this theory. Even at my young age it was obvious to everybody that I was temperamentally and emotionally vastly different than him. I had little doubt that I was, and would forever be, a thorn in my father's side. I just assumed he felt that getting rid of me would mean one less battle to deal with.

As for my mother, I had sat on the edge of her hospital bed just a few days earlier saying my final goodbye to her, as she was dying. Oh please, relax already! I had said my final goodbye to her because of her impending death probably a dozen times by then, so it was pretty old hat, even for a seventeen year old. My mother was a martyr and among her other quirks she was repeatedly at death's door. Seeing as her god kept refusing to take her she eventually became a nun so she could live her life of martyrdom in a convent. See my story; My Mother, the Sister © by adrian. That didn't work as planned though and she eventually left the convent and went on to marry a defrocked Jesuit Priest... I swear, I'm not making any of this up.

I was desperate to flee my dysfunctional family but for the past few weeks and certainly today I had hoped someone would stop me. All I wanted was one simple "Don't go". At this point even a casually mumbled or accidental "Are you sure you want to do this?" would have been enough to save me. But no, it was not to be. Not one of my three sisters, father or mother said a word. At that moment I hated every one of them for not trying to stop me. I was seventeen years old and had never travelled anywhere outside Toronto in my life. I had forty-three dollars in my pocket and was alone and utterly terrified.

It was by my own hand I had arrived at this place and I knew my own hand was the only thing that would free me from standing still. I rested my knapsack on the ground and as cars roared past me, put my thumb up and began my journey into the unknown.

During the next three years I was totally dependent on my own wits and the kindness of strangers. I also spent a lot of my journey learning how to avoid the malevolence of others.

As I stood on the side of the road hoping for a car to stop and pick me up, I let my mind wander over my reasons for being there.

From my earliest days I had constantly been in search of every possible answer to the meaning of life. In that respect I guess my dad's complete lack of ability to navigate the world with any comfort helped make me determined to learn how to survive on my own terms. When I was young I was also convinced I had been dropped on the wrong planet and was sure that if I could find out why I would be able to make my escape back to wherever I rightly belonged (I still believe I was dropped on the wrong planet, but no longer have the desire to escape).

One night I struck up a friendship with a fellow my age named Keith Irving who was at an introductory seminar I was attending about a new (at the time) philosophy called Concept-Therapy. It's one of those power of positive thinking things that purportedly also helps teach a person how to adapt themselves constructively to the environment in which they work and live.

It was founded in San Antonio by a fellow named Dr. Thurman Fleet and at that time his course was only available to be taken in the States.

Keith and I became instant friends and walked around all night talking about the possibilities of this new philosophy. Two days later Keith announced he and a friend were hitch-hiking out west at the end of the week and that he planned on going to Texas on his own to take the course. He said they were planning on roughing it by sleeping out on the side of the highway because they didn't have much money. I got the address of the Vancouver rooming house where they planned to stay and it was agreed I would meet him there and he and I would hitch-hike to Texas together to take the course. How we could afford to do this was not considered. In what a lot of us oldsters now refer to as "The good old days" finding work and getting a job was never an issue. You went anywhere and said you were available and as long as you could walk and chew gum at the same time, you'd get a job.

It didn't take long for the first of what would turn out to be hundreds of cars over a three year odyssey to stop and I was offered a ride. Fortunately it also didn't take long to learn the science of hitch-hiking. Where to stand on the road so cars could easily stop... At night when sleeping, to always fold my pants under my knapsack so in the morning they would have a nice sharp crease so I would look (by those days standards) presentable. To always carry a pack of cigarettes and offer one to the driver as soon as I got in the car. From that point on they would insist I smoke theirs for the rest of the trip. If we stopped at a truck stop for food I always said I wasn't hungry and just wanted coffee. Sooner, rather than later, the driver would quickly say they realized I was probably broke and insisting I had to eat, they would buy me a meal. In those day as well, most of the people who stopped were truckers or travelling salesmen who wanted someone to talk to so they could stay awake on their long drives.

I don't want to harp on it, but those truly were different times. Cars with families and full of kids would stop and from inside someone would ask if I was a criminal or had a gun and as soon as I answered I was unarmed and not a criminal the door would fly open and I would be invited in. Sometimes I would also end up being invited into their home to eat and/or sleep over. I quickly became an amateur psychologist and reasonably adept at listening to people's life stories and then offering my seventeen years old view on what they should do. Even as a child, I was received as an Elder and now as an Elder I'm comfortable being received as a child.

I eventually arrived in Vancouver to discover that Keith and his friend had left Toronto with hundreds of dollars between them and although they'd hitch-hiked, they slept in motels every night rather than outdoors beside the highway as I mostly did. They had rented a room in a large rooming house with thirty or so other tenants and every night around midnight I would climb in the window they left open for me and sleep in their closet. In the morning I would shuffle downstairs with the rest of the throng and have breakfast, just like I belonged there. Only twice in the three weeks I stayed  was I challenged by one of the owners at breakfast about whether I lived there or not but they couldn't keep track of who was in each room so they accepted that if I was in the building it must be okay.

Keith and I never did make it to Texas. We got as far as California but had to turn back after finding that hitch-hiking as a pair was a lot harder than going solo. Keith went back to Toronto by train and I was now consumed by wanderlust. I spent the next six months hitch-hiking around British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and then up to Alaska. I slept in various missions or on the roadside. Occasionally people would let me stay at their house for a day or two. Back then you could also walk into any police station and they would put you up for the night and give you food chits you could spend at the local diner. If they didn't have a setup for that they would inevitably take up a collection amongst themselves and give me a few dollars for food. Restaurants would also always feed you if you washed dishes or helped out somehow. Long distance hitch-hikers were usually respected, regarded as adventurers and generally treated well.

By the time I got back to Toronto the Concept-Therapy course was being held here, so I took it. I suppose a normal person would have felt "mission accomplished" at that point, but normal never did do much for me.

Now that I was a convert I wanted to meet the man who started it all, so I went to the closest highway and started hitch-hiking to San Antonio to meet Dr. Thurman Fleet. I had no idea where he lived but I had a San Antonio postal box number. What more could I possibly need? I had the world by the tail so I took the scenic route and went by way of Florida. A few weeks later I arrived at the San Antonio Post office but they couldn't (or wouldn't) give me the home address of the box office holder. Eventually they did tell me someone came to pick up the mail around two o'clock most days. Next day I slid in beside the post box and started my vigil. On the second day around two I watched as someone finally slid a key into the box. I announced my presence and said I had come from Canada to meet Dr. Fleet. He was surprised, but after thinking about it for a moment he said "Sure, why not?" I got in his car and he drove me over to the house. It's hard not to consider how any of that would be handled in today's neurotic world. I suppose I would be arrested for stalking or something. Hanging around a post office for hours would be utterly impossible, but in 1957 nobody gave stuff like that a thought and anyway, I was just a harmless kid.

I was invited in and Thurman and I chatted for over an hour. I have no idea what we talked about, but knowing what I was like at eighteen, I guess I was there to let him know I felt he was definitely on the right track and he should keep up the good work. Eventually Dr. Fleet wrapped it up and I left. As I walked down the driveway his assistant ran after me and told me Thurman wanted me to have the crisp twenty dollar bill he was waving at me. He had spent over an hour with some kid that showed up out of thin air and he had just slipped me a hundred dollars, by today's standards. A rich man now, I aimed for the highway.

During the next two years I continued to travel non stop back and forth across the States and finally settled in Toronto again. Those three years of travel gave me more schooling and wisdom than I had in all my prior years.

Naturally, there are untold miles of individual stories about my travels which I will explore at other times. For now though, I'm sure you and I have had enough.