The Bed, the Raccoon, and the Draft

“…It will run like a striped ape.” It was a vision of madness and security. Cradled safely in the arms of a fleeing primate, conflicts were meaningless, troubles all but disappeared. All left behind by the incredible speed of my striped friend.

It was the middle of August 1970 and I was tired of hitchhiking. For the last two months, I had been traveling through the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Park and Glacier National Park. At home, there was a letter for me from Uncle Sam. It was near the bitter end of the Vietnam War, long after the fresh idealism of the first Peace March, after the Tet Offense, and just after the killings at Kent State. Part of me rationalized that if I stayed high in the Rocky Mountains, then perhaps I could avoid the entire conflict. My thoughts were very linear; if I was drafted, I would be sent to Vietnam. If I were sent to Vietnam, I would die. If I died, then…then…then I’d be dead. This was a powerful motivation to stay even higher in the mountains. But that wasn’t very realistic. The reality was that the war wasn’t going to go away, and neither could I.

The mountains were refreshing, a balm to a troubled spirit. After revisiting old haunts and favorite meadows, I planned my re-entry to civilization. A road partner of mine, from my last venture into the mountains, had moved to Salt Lake City. I thought I would visit with him for a few days before heading back to California. He had a deferment and while he was safe, he sensed my unease. We talked about Canada. We talked about pretending to be insane. We talked about showing up at the induction center in drag, arm-in-arm, in full makeup. The longer I talked, the more reluctant I was to consider hitching across the salt flats of Utah and alkali deserts of Nevada. To hitch across the desert, and then to be drafted once I got across, really made the whole effort pointless.

My friend suggested that we look in the newspaper classifieds for a car cheap enough to justify the gas expense. Once bought, I could simply drive the junker to California, and upon arriving, sell it for scrap. It seemed like a good idea.

The paper had hundreds of selections, most were too expensive, the others were soulless little imports, but one stood out in particular. The ad ran, “1947 Willys wagon, runs, burns some oil, $35.00.” What a remarkable find, an outstanding vehicle, one with some character, and one that was exactly the right price!

After calling to make sure the car was available, and that there wasn’t a price typo, my friend and I went to the owner’s home to take a test drive. It was a bargain center! The owner was selling the entire contents of his garage and basement. Everywhere I looked there was a piece of treasure that seemed placed there just for my discovery and eventual purchase. I was hitchhiking because I owned a dead 1959 English Ford Escort; it had a cracked engine head. The poor beast was stored in California awaiting my return and attention. And right there in a Salt Lake City suburb was a complete English Ford Escort engine with a $15.00 price tag on it. I couldn’t believe it; what a find! And that wasn’t all: leaning against the side fence was a double brass bed. It was a gleaming 1930’s Art Deco masterpiece with a $10.00 sticker. It became more obvious by the minute that I was going to buy the vehicle just so that I could haul away my other purchases. It was becoming something like a possession based feeding frenzy. I was worried I might not have enough money left for the car.

Eventually, I asked to see the Willys, as it didn’t appear to be displayed with the rest of the inventory. The owner took me to a side yard, and there she sat. It looked like something that a tribe of Bedouins had owned. Sandblasted, weather-beaten, it sat on tires that weren’t quite round; it looked every bit like a desert rat. The paint was three or four shades of oxidized lizard green and it looked like they couldn’t stretch it far enough to cover the entire vehicle. She had been sitting for about three years and had last been used to haul motorcycles into the desert. Beyond a little oil burning, she ran fine. There was a spotlight on the roof with the control handle inside, spring-loaded hood latches, quarter-inch steel fenders, and an indestructible look. I fell in love. I spent slightly less than $100 for everything.

The next couple of days were spent making sure that the Willys’ brakes were relined, the rusted floorboards patched, and the electrical system repaired. A neighbor saw me working on the Willys and offered his help. He had repaired hundreds of jeeps in the Army, and in his opinion, he thought my Willys would do fine in the cross-desert trip to California. “Give it a little oil, a little water, and it will run like a striped ape.” His vision of a striped ape running across the desert gave me strange confidence and comfort. For days afterward, I would think on the phrase, particularly with his pronunciation, “steeped ape.”

Finally, I set off, heading for the Great Salt Lake Desert, loaded to the roofline with engine parts, backpacking equipment, bric-a-brac, and the double brass bed. The Willys lurched along, traveling at a top speed of about 45 miles per hour. The “not so round” tires heated with the desert air and began to round themselves out. The lurching became less and less as the miles went on. Only one difficulty remained, repeated about every two minutes. Every oncoming truck caused a tremendous wind shear that shuddered the Willys, raised the hood, strained the latches, and started oscillations that continued long after the truck had passed. And of course, it did burn a little oil.

Lurching, shimmying, smoking, shuddering, the miles clicked off and the sun dropped below the horizon. Somewhere up ahead was the Sierra Nevada, California, and a mailbox with a letter from the Selective Service. All this time to consider the choices and I still hadn’t a clue of what I was going to do. It was clear to me that any kind of military service would change my life forever, either by placing me in a life-ending situation or simply by giving me a vastly different look at reality for two or three years.

Hitchhiking always presented me with distinctly separate choices. At any given fork of the road, the entire journey changed. There was an element of trusting to the fates, but I was the one choosing the path. Beyond the fear of death, I knew that just being in the military would change me unalterably, that the system would remove my choices and send me in directions of their choosing, even into the jungles of Vietnam.

Just about the time I noticed the state line of Nevada, I also noticed a persistent engine knock. A persistent engine knock that got louder and louder. Nothing quite like the still night desert air to magnify sound. I had filled the engine block with heavy oil and anti-knock additives that made the oil more solid than liquid, but the knock continued. There was nothing to do but drive, listen to the engine destroy itself, and hope that it would make it across the desert before engine parts started dropping out on the highway.

At about three in the morning, in the quiet desert air, the mountains echoed with a majestic “clunk.” After hours of “tap-a-tap, tap-a-tap,” there was this one final “clunk” and then nothing, just the sticky honey sound of tires upon the pavement as I coasted to a stop. Turning the lights out, I sat in the moonless desert, swallowed completely by the black silence of night. For over an hour, I sat motionless, interrupted only by familiar shudder of passing trucks. Repairing the Willys was impossible. Hitchhiking with all that stuff was impossible. Leaving everything behind was impossible. I was caught. I now had stuff to consider. I had gone from the freedom of having nothing to the burden of having stuff. I didn’t want to lose what I had. Eventually, I came to accept that the Willys would not have liked California and probably would be happier in a desert junkyard. It was sad, but there was a dignity to dying in the desert. I stripped her of all identification and left a note asking for her to be towed to a final resting place.

The rest of the night I spent unpacking the treasures from the back. Sometime before the sun came up, I had conceived a brilliant plan. I would bury my stuff in the desert. I didn’t have to give it up; I could come back for it later. About 200 yards due north, I scraped out a shallow pit and buried everything except the backpacking gear. Using my compass, I triangulated the position with the surrounding mountain peaks and paced out the yardage from the highway. As the sun came over the eastern horizon, I was constructing the map that I would use in a few weeks in order to reclaim my stuff. Home was only 900 miles away; maybe even my English Ford could make it. Leaving the mortally wounded Willys, I covered my tracks and walked a few hundred yards down the highway, thinking that I had done all I could.

The early morning is not the best time to catch rides, so I wasn’t surprised that none of the few cars that passed had stopped. With nothing else to do, I wondered how to come back for the buried stuff. Over and over, I worked out the future scenarios, until I finally realized that I wasn’t coming back. My desert stuff would eventually become desert dust, and I would never see this place again. I just knew that a draft notice awaited me in California, and that the likelihood of me coming back here anytime soon was slim. Watching the line of cars passing without stopping, I thought it probably wouldn’t be much worse trying to hitch with the double brass bed. Although the idea was ludicrous, the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I could just possibly do it. 15 minutes later, I was unburying my loot and hauling it up to the highway.

I had a lot of years of experience in hitchhiking, and I knew enough not to stand beside the road with a pile of junk awaiting a ride. I deposited my excess baggage just out of sight and began to practice how I would introduce the fact that I was traveling with a full-size bedroom set. I didn’t have a clue. “Thanks for stopping; oh, by the way, do you think we have enough room for the bed?” “How about the distributor, fuel pump, and engine block?” I thought that I was going to be on that highway for a very long time.

The first ride that stopped was polite enough until I mentioned the bed. There was a stammered “I don’t think so” and then the sound of gravel as they sped off. By chance, he did seem to have enough room, but he still drove off rather quickly. It was a few minutes before I realized that I had been gesturing to the bed that lay beneath their view. I suppose that giving a ride to a hallucinating hitchhiker was asking too much. I determined to at least show the next ride that the brass bed was very real.

An hour and 15 minutes later, a Volkswagen pickup pulled off the highway and rolled to a stop. I began to plead my case to the thirtyish male passenger and his female companion. They seemed willing to take me all the way to San Francisco, but when I got to the part where I had a brass bed in the bushes, all I got was a stony stare. The silence was broken by a sharp “yip” as a small raccoon popped his head out of the fellow’s shirt neck, just below the fellow’s bearded chin. When I continued my discussion about the feasibility of hauling the auto parts, my questions seemed directed to the raccoon as we locked our eyes in a mystified stare. It was clear that the driver wasn’t sure that it was safe to give a ride to someone with engine parts and a brass bed. The conflict was finally resolved with an agreement; it was reasonable for me to travel with a brass bed, if it was reasonable for him to have a raccoon in his shirt. Shrugging our shoulders, we loaded my stuff in the back of the pickup and headed down the highway.

About an hour later, I was asked if I didn’t mind driving while the couple stretched out in the back and enjoyed the desert air. I said, “Sure, I don’t mind, I’m a good driver, relax.” He said, “Hmm, you’ll have to drive with Jocko in the cab. He can’t stay in the back; we’re afraid he would jump out. He’s very friendly, although sometimes he can be a pest. Here are a couple of squirt guns to keep him in line. Just give him a shot or two and he’ll behave. Oh yeah, feel free to play the tape deck, but keep Jocko out of the cassette tapes; he’ll pull the tape right out of the shell.” I said, simply enough, “No problem!”

There is no denying the cuteness of baby raccoons; they have wonderful little tiny hands, soft fur, cute little beady eyes, but then, of course, there was the bandit’s mask. I later believed this was God’s little warning that raccoons are not to be trusted. His favorite trick was to act perfectly benign, walk on your lap, chitter in Raccoonese, and then attack my fleshy underarm as I gripped the steering wheel. It turns out that Jocko was a baby raccoon from Hell. Jocko was schizophrenic. A schizophrenic baby raccoon from hell with sharp teeth.

Another neat trick was to wander to the back seat, standing just out of comfortable eyesight, then suddenly spring to the top of my head, scratching, biting, and just plain raising hell. To passing cars, it must have looked like a possessed Davy Crockett cap from Disneyland, or perhaps a bad haircut reeking revenge on the owner for going to a second-rate barber. I know my thoughts were definitely centered on turning Jocko into abandoned roadkill. I had tried the squirt guns and they did seem to work for a time. Of course, after a while, not only did I have a berserk baby raccoon, I had a frenzied, wet, berserk baby raccoon. And did I mention schizophrenic? Then I ran out of water.

Mind you, all of this was taking place while I was driving 70 miles per hour in an unfamiliar vehicle with sleeping passengers in the pickup bed. Jocko seemed to sense that he was winning. He began to pace his attacks with enough time in between that I couldn’t tell when the next assault was coming. He even cuddled with me a little to throw my suspicion off. I didn’t fall for his domestic ploy, though, and I kept a wary eye on his actions.

Jocko began to wander into new territories. First, he was at my feet, looking up my pants leg, then he was in the back, rooting through the bag of cassette tapes, then he was on the dashboard, reaching for the steering wheel, fixing me with a death stare that only demented baby raccoons can generate. After a few minutes, I lost contact with Jocko, nowhere in sight. My first reaction was to cross my legs in case the attack came in low, but crossing my legs while driving was impossible. I could sense that Jocko was in front of me somewhere, I could hear little chittering noises, and then I realized that he had crawled behind the dashboard. There was one last chitter, a little electrical “pop,” and then the engine lost power and I was coasting to a stop.

I had to wake the owners. They were livid that I had allowed Jocko to get behind the dash, “He could have been hurt or burned by the electrical wires. Don’t you have any sense?” they both shouted. Before I could respond with either something abject or even something closer to the truth, I heard a scream from the back seat. The woman had looked into the bag of cassettes that Jocko had been rooting in and found a destroyed cassette. I was really upset because they did have a fine collection of music, and I should have been able to keep it out of Jocko’s hands. I asked, “What tape was it?” She said, “Tiny Tim’s Greatest Hits.” I was just about to comment that at least it wasn’t a classic, when it became clear that Tiny Tim was their idol and the tape was a serious loss.

The wiring was reconnected and I was banished back to the pickup bed and rode the last 200 miles as an outcast, a pariah, unfit for human or raccoon interaction. When I finally signaled for them to stop, they didn’t even take me down the off-ramp. They stopped on the shoulder of the freeway, threw me and my junk out, and drove off into the night. So long, Jocko!

With everything in a pile on the freeway, I was desperately trying to figure out how I could get all this stuff to my house, which was still about a mile and a half away. Again, a brilliant flash of insight passed over me, and I started to assemble the double brass bed. Until then it had been broken down into headboard, footboard, and the rails that connect them. When the bed was assembled, I had a nice frame that was on wheels and plenty of room to tie on the engine parts. As I began to push this contraption down the off-ramp and out into the city streets, it occurred to me that with the engine parts lashed to the bed frame, there was an unsettling look about the whole affair. It looked like the aftermath of some horrific traffic accident, where the engine comes loose and sits in the car’s passenger seat. Except in this surrealistic instance, the vehicle was somehow involved with an Art Deco bedstead, and all that was left was now being pushed down the off-ramp. I had even hung the Willys’ license plate on the rear of the bed, I suppose just in case I was stopped.

There were only a few vehicles driving about at that time of night, and most gave me the right of way. Actually, I think “giving me a wide berth” was more descriptive. All in all, it was a pleasant stroll back to my home.

As I parked the brass bed in my driveway, I thought hard about my summer. I felt strengthened and resolved; I knew that my worst fears could work out perfectly okay. I felt that I had faced my difficulties with faith and a good heart. I felt ready to open my mail, believing that the military was going to be only a little worse than maniacal raccoons.

I was home, safe, surrounded by friends and family. I had been gone only a few months, but it seemed like years, and to my growing spirit, perhaps it was. I was becoming aware of separate roads, leading to realities that could have been and could be still, if only I travel them. But the opportunities presented are not from me, only chosen by me. Somehow, the combination of my free will and the presented choices brought me to this reality. This combination of free will and destiny puzzles me still. In the end, I had tried to make the most of what I was given, yet at the same time, I tried not to get in the way of the unfolding.

My experiences on the road ended with that last trip. I was unaware that this phase of my life was over. Looking back, I can see how everything fits as preparation, not necessarily for the next stage, but perhaps for the one following. There have been dozens of stages since and dozens ahead now. I remain a work progressing, still sometimes stumbling from light to light, hearing and sometimes heeding, seeing, and sometimes not. A work progressing.


For all installments of “On the Road Again,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2