In 1960, during my freshman year at Harvard, I decided after reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road that studying and exams were a waste of time and that I’d take a year off to hitchhike across the country, experiment with drugs and sex, write a novel, and get in touch with my inner self.
Among those who weren’t exactly thrilled by this news was my father, who in an uncalm manner asked such questions as, “And how the hell do you intend to support yourself, may I ask?” Though a little vague on particulars, I assured him that the income from odd jobs and my writing, plus the seizing of various financial opportunities as they arose, should see me through.
The prospect of being drafted for two years by the Army caused me to amend plans, and in the summer of 1960 I enlisted in a military alternative then available: six months active duty followed by six years active reserve. My first stop: Fort Jackson in Columbia, SC, for basic training.
That I was a boy being turned into a man gave me great pleasure and would my father as well, no doubt. I wasn’t in some dumb library, I was cramming for life—crawling under barbwire fences, cursing, sweating, grunting, chewing on dirt-balls.
One little problem marred my new self-image, however. My boxer shorts were slightly too large, and on long hikes the perspiration would drag them downward, so I was constantly trying to hitch them up with my right forearm—a nervous tic I still have. In the thick of battle—let’s agree—you don’t want to be tripping up on your underwear.
Anyway, on the early evening of January 11, 1961, I was discharged from the Army—Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas (where I’d spent the last four months). A couple of hours later, I found myself standing by the side of a highway with a barracks-mate named Alan who lived in Sacramento, CA, our destination—1,737 miles away.
Let the odyssey begin! Only trouble…my dorm-room fantasies had failed to factor in that part of the 24-hour cycle called night and that part of the weather spectrum called cold. And Alan was not exactly big in the Charisma Department. And…across the highway a Howard Johnson Hotel beckoned—a siren with long, lustrous hair and beautiful orange breasts. But no, no, I must show the world what I was made of, and, rising to full height, I thrust my thumb forward!
Several hours passed until a car pulled over, and we piled in the back. Almost immediately, the driver’s companion turned and opened an attaché case full of watches. “Top quality,” he said, “And we’ll give you a special discount on any of them because we like you.”
Though admiring the watches, we indicated no interest in buying one. “That’s unfortunate,” the driver said, pulling over, and out we piled. It was now nearing midnight, and we’d traveled about seven miles.
It took some three days and nights to reach Sacramento. People who picked us up usually wanted to talk, so we took turns riding in front and napping in back. Attired in Army fatigues, bulky coats, and heavy boots, and carrying bulging duffel bags, we were always cramped and hot, not to mention hungry, thirsty, dirty, itchy, smelly, and sleep-deprived, plus in no position to say, “Mister, I need to go to the bathroom real bad.”
I soon gave up on jotting down the utterances of the colorful people of the open road, and by the second day, I was having hallucinations: Paul Bunyan kept crossing the road, and a ribbon of highway snaked back and tried to strangle me.
Nothing was more dreaded, of course, than the, “Well boys, here’s where I turn,” and we’d stumble out yet again in the middle of some new nowhere. Day was worse than night (although night was worse than day, too—one of Zeno’s paradoxes, I believe), especially late one afternoon when God looked down from His Mighty Throne and said, “Now that they have a bad sunburn, unleash the heavens on them, so they will get very wet and no one will want to pick them up, and they will have time to reflect on the many errors of their ways.”
The only other time we woke up fully during the trip was when a man with a glistening bald head drove at high speeds on a hilly, winding road while eating spinach from a can with a screwdriver—the nearest we got to sex and drugs.
The high point came in California when we were picked up by the singing group, “The Ink Spots.” Nice guys, though I wish they’d broken into one of their hits—We Three, say—so I might have joined in. In high school I’d sung lead in a barbershop quartet, after all…
Sacramento! Stayed overnight with Alan’s family! Some of the finest people I’d ever known!
After working for a while as a waiter in San Francisco and pretending to be part of the counterculture, I—contrary to all reason—hit the highway again and thumbed my way to San Diego with a guy named Gus who picked up used-car batteries along the way (recharged and sold them). If I’d help load them onto his truck, Gus said, he’d buy me a piece of lemon pie. After spilling acid on myself all day—possibly neutering myself for life, for all I knew—we stopped for a break. I stepped on a fallen branch, which made a loud crack, and he spun around, grabbed me, and pinned me to the hood of truck: “An ex-con, I knew it!” “No, actually, Harvard class of ’60.”
Despite the threat I posed—the piece I packed and all—Gus grudgingly agreed to take me to San Diego, but he never did buy me a piece of lemon pie.
After living in a crummy boarding house for a few weeks, I decided one morning the time had come to head home and…grabbed the first train out of town. Two days later I arrived in Tallahassee on Easter Saturday, all of us very happy to see each other again.
Having run into trouble with the novel I was working on, mostly the-writing-of-it part, I had—for reasons that went far beyond the inexplicable—chosen to rewrite the lyrics to most of the South Pacific songs. Maybe I thought it would be a useful exercise, maybe I thought I could improve them, who knew, who cared—except those who had to feign great enthusiasm at hearing them sung after dinner. Harvard for this?
Otherwise, we had a lovely weekend, and on Monday Dad flew to Chicago to give a speech. Having drinks with friends that night, he complained of chest pains, was rushed to the hospital, and died a few hours later. He was 53, Mother was 48. She went on to live a great life, outlived her second husband, and died at 97.
I look back on that year with a mixture of pride and regret: glad I saw the thing through, but sad that Dad didn’t live long enough to understand why it’d been so important to me.
Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings. He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others.