It was midnight before I managed to hitchhike a ride. An old man in a clattering 1939 Ford pickup pulled over to the side of Interstate 40 and motioned me to get in. I'd been standing in the cold with my thumb out for three hours, so I wasn’t going to turn him down. I climbed up onto the tattered seat, little did I know that I was about to experience my worst nightmare.
It was 1962, and I was hitchhiking from the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia to my hometown of Lancaster, California - coast to coast. I didn't have any problems crossing Virginia and Tennessee, but once I hit Arkansas, the rides dried up about as fast as a raindrop on Death Valley. The sun set behind a wall of black mountains, and the temperature dropped to a biting chill. All I could do was wait along the roadside with my thumb out and hope a Good Samaritan would give me a lift.
As soon as I opened the door to get in I saw this ancient old guy clutching onto the steering wheel like it was the only thing holding him upright. He was wrinkly and skinny, with stringy white hair, a long, crooked nose, and eyes like two shiny black inkwells. Not my ideal host, but a ride just the same. After all, beggars can't be choosers.
“Git in sonny.” He said.
After I was situated into the seat, he ground the gears a few times and headed on down the highway. After the usual small talk, he reached behind the seat and pulled out a quart-sized jar filled with a clear liquid. He took a long drink like it was cold mountain water, and handed it to me. I declined, but he insisted, “This here’s genuine White Lightning!” He said. "Stilled it meeself. Can't get this stuff nowhere's else. Come on sonny, ye can't tell me that a sailor boy like you doesn't like to wet his whistle.
By sailor, he was referring to my navy dress blues. I always wore my uniform when hitchhiking. In those days, it helped. And, of course, he was absolutely right about a sailor wetting his whistle. By that time I had already been in the navy long enough and I had visited enough places to have drunk some pretty nasty liquids, so what harm could a little White Lighting bring? I took a tiny sip. Bam! My lips burned, my throat burned, and my head felt like somebody hit it with a hammer. He cackled, and pushed it towards me again, but I waved it off. You'd have to be a crusty old Marine to drink that stuff and not die. "No thanks," I said.
Suddenly, he turned off the highway onto a tree-lined, dirt road. Of course I asked where he was going, but he just stared straight ahead. The road was barely two rutty ditches with a clump of grass growing down the middle, and the old pickup bounced up and down as he drove farther into the dark wilderness. Again he pushed the Mason jar towards me. “No.” I said. It was pitch black out side, and I was definitely getting nervous.
Finally we reached a small clearing. He stopped the truck, and then looked straight at me with those hauntingly black eyes. I felt a shiver crawl up my spine. He offered me another drink, but I ignored the gesture and kept asking where we were. Now I was really nervous.
“Git on out now boy.” He said.
His face showed no expression, like he was hiding something. I didn’t know if he had a shotgun, or maybe even a machete hidden behind that seat, so I scrambled out as fast as I could. I wanted to run, but I didn't know where to go. It was so dark I couldn't see past a few feet. I was beginning to think my life was over. But then all of a sudden, he slammed the door, laughed out loud, ground the gears, and drove away as fast as he could, leaving me standing there in the dark.
It took me an hour and a half to walk back out to Interstate 40. I was cold, I was tired, and I was scared, but I made it. Now I can look back and chuckle. It was my one and only experience with White Lightning. It was not, however, my last adventure with hitchhiking. © 2008 Learn how to make White Lightning...