I was freezing. The temperature was in the low forties but when you have no place to be, no money to work with and no knowledge of the town you’ve just arrived in, well, the low forties can be awfully cold. I was in someplace called Yoncalla. It was north of Roseburg by thirty or so miles and I’d arrived there via thumb express, which is to say I hitched a ride with some guy in a pickup truck in Grants Pass. He dropped me off in the tiny center of his town before driving off to his home, lamenting that his wife would be annoyed that he was late. I think he said that more for my benefit by way of explaining why he wasn’t offering me a couch to sleep on. That was okay, I mean the guy had just hauled me up from Grants Pass, getting me closer to my destination in Portland, Oregon. I had friends there, and maybe could get a place to crash while I found a job and got a paycheck going. Then I could get a place of my own.
But right at the moment I was shivering and my teeth were chattering and I was pretty tired. Except for dozing off a few times as I scarfed rides from San Francisco, I hadn’t gotten any real sleep. There was a bus kiosk up ahead and I went to it, using it to block the breeze that was making the cold even colder. I stood in it shaking and looking around for ideas. My eyes lit on a church steeple, the building looked to be a couple blocks away.I pulled my Levi jacket together around me and set off toward the church. They’d help me. That’s what churches were all about, right? Helping the downtrodden, being the good samaritan and all. The church was dark, no lights showing at all. I went to the front door and found it locked. The same was true of the other doors I found making my way around the building. Huh, I thought. I always figured God’s house was open to all seeking comfort. The next few minutes showed me the flaw in my thinking.
A guy across the street stepped from his house. He was wearing an open robe and carrying what looked like a shotgun. “What the hell you doin’ boy?” he yelled. I replied as how I was looking for a little help, just a place to stay the night and be on my way in the morning. He told me to get my degenerate ass moving and racked the shotgun. “Can you just tell me how to find the pastor?” I asked. He told me he was the pastor and to get to putting one foot in front of the other. Kind of disillusioning, but I walked up the street, shuffling along the sidewalk and wondering what to do. Man, I was cold. I got two blocks up when I decided. I crossed over a block and made my way back toward the church, coming up behind it. It was black with shadow in the rear and I got down on my hands and knees and began to check the casement windows that led to the basement of the building. The third one was loose and I used the give to add some force and managed to pop the window open. I slid in through the foot high opening and walked my hands down the wall. I stood up, closed the window and it cocked itself back open. I found a piece of paper and folded it up to make a wedge and putting it between the window and the frame, shoved it closed. It stayed shut and looked, I expected, like it had before I used it to get in.
I was warming already, the basement being where the furnace was and the firebox cast a warm looking yellow glow that let me make out shapes. There were chairs and tables stacked up all over along with what looked like kitchen goods. Big pots and pans, collandars and the like. After a bit of exploring, I found some moving blankets and used them to make myself a nest behind the furnace. I figured it might help to hide me in case someone made a cursory look-see. After all, I wasn’t sure how eagle eyed the pastor was or if he kept an eye out for me. I relaxed a bit after a half hour went by, but then heard a car. It pulled to the front of the church and stopped, and I could hear footfalls. Glancing out the window, I gasped at the sight of a police cruiser. The cop had his big flashlight and was walking around the building looking for signs of me, I guessed. I leaned hard against the wall so if the cops shone his light in he wouldn’t be able to see me, the angle was all wrong. But he was tapping the window cases with his boot toe, checking for loose windows. When he came to my window I held my breath. He boot kicked out but the window didn’t budge.
“You see anything Alf?” I heard someone call out. It was the pastor.
“Nope. looks okay to me. Sid you see him go into the church?” asked the cop.
“Nah, he went off up the street, but I figured he might’ve come back. I called you just to be on the sure side. Gut had a no good look to him, maybe had him a gun or a knife but I put the fear into him with the old pumper here. I figure he’s up ahead someone looking for a place to shoot up his drugss or get into some kind of mischief. Vandalizin’ or something.”
“You see him with a paint can?”
“Nah, but he coulda had anything in the cost o’ his. With his sort it don’t pay to be relaxed. all them hippies coming north with their drugs and sex diseases.”
“Well, I’ll look for him up the way. God love ya, Rev’rend.” said the cop as he got in his car.
“God loves and forgives us all, deputy.” said the pastor. The car moved off and soon their was just the quiet of the night. I still waited a half hour before laying on my pile of pads. Almost as soon as I lay down, I was asleep.
When I woke the light coming through the windows was dim in the just before sunrise grayscale. I put the pads back where I’d found them and made my way up some stairs and found myself looking at rows of pews. Little racks on the backs held hymnals for the people sitting behind them and I spend a minute wondering where the front row got their books from. But I decided not to waste any time and just hurry on out and get gone. This was not a town friendly to strangers. I moved to the front of the church and the altar, which was actually the back end of the building. There was a box by the door labeled “Church Social Donations.” under that it said “Help the less fortunate.” I thought that was mighty kind and looked in the box. A number of bills and coins added up to $62 and change and so being less fortunate, I helped myself to a $20 bill. Then cracking open the back door, I looked to see any activity. There was no one around, it still being early. My watch said it was 5:30 am. I sidled out the door, closed it and latched it behind me and jogged to the sidewalk where I took up a fast paced walk back toward the center of town. The I-5 was just ahead and a truckstop sat next to the on and off ramp. I went in and ordered some coffee and a muffin.
I was just finishing up when a deputy came into the dinette and scanned the place. His eyes rested on me and then he came over and took a seat next to me. “Howdy, son.” he said. “I don’t believe I recognize you. You vising here?” I said no, I was making my way up to Portland and had just gotten left off. It’s illegal to hitch hike the freeways and probably the town streets as well. But there’s no law in approaching people at rest stops, truck stops and other places people pull off the highway to ask for a ride. “So, what time last night did you pull in?”
“Wasn’t last night, I said. Just a little while ago. Hopin’ to catch a ride up to Portland from here.”
He asked if I had ID and I did and gave it to him. It was a valid California driver’s license and I backed it up with a VFW card, having just gotten out of the army nine months earlier. His attitude began to change when he saw I was former army and asked if I’d been to Vietnam. I told him yeah, I was with the 101st Airborne. He told me thanks for my service, hefted himself off the stool and went back out to his patrol car and left. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was startled when a man put his hand on my shoulder. Turned out he was offering me a ride to Portland and could use the company. I paid my bill and would have paid his, but he’d already paid and so we went out and climbed into his big Kenworth and lumbered out of the truck stop and up onto I-5. We were singing along to Kris Kristoferson’s Bobby McGee as we rolled into the Rose City.
Two days later I’d been hired on as a news director and DJ for a radio station, and per the plan moved into my own studio apartment two weeks after getting into town. I spent the next fifteen years in the Portland/Vancouver area where I worked radio, played drums for a rock and roll bar bad, became a mechanic and found a girlfriend. The nights were a lot warmer since pulling out of Yoncalla as 1969 was about to turn into 1970. It marked the end of my destitute days but not my adventure days. Yet I still thing of that pastor, his shotgun and a deputy happy to roust me till he could associate me with something very no-hippy like. In the low money days between discharge and the slow beginnings of an actual life, I got the meet face to face with the dichotomy that is America, Good people who can be downright ugly, even evil, depending on the slightest of catalysts to change the end mix. My travels took me back to the area to work a radio station in Roseburg, but like Yoncalla, it didn’t fit with my idea of what American towns should be. They seemed to be a lot like the opposite of what I’d joined the army to defend and protect.
But nothing in lie is ever linear. There are no straight lines, no real black and white. It’s all shades of gray –and wouldn’t you know that would be the color of depression.