I was raised in the San Joaquin Valley, in particular near Folsom (of Folsom Prison fame). It has grown from a sleepy little town of 10,000 in 1970 and now quickly approaching 70,000. I was in a shuttle from the airport heading toward the hotel when I noticed how often the highway medians and roadsides are covered in large oleander bushes with mostly white flowers. This sight brought me back to Christmas of 1970.
It seemed like the day before yesterday. I’d just gotten paid and made the decision to go AWOL for the second time in my military career. Sadly, my buck private E-1 ranking paid only $132 a month which got me as far as Los Angeles from San Antonio. It was Christmas Eve and I’d been invited to spend the holiday with my friends in Folsom, CA about a 450 mile trip from LA. I got in around noon and figured with any luck I’d get into Folsom late that night. I managed to hitch a ride with a guy and his wife that had to be the only people from ‘Frisco’ that supported the Vietnam War. They pegged me as a GI right away and pulled over. It was a good ride as they took me as far as San Francisco. During the sixties, this area was notorious for VW Buses, Hippies, and drugs so I felt certain I’d get in ahead of schedule. This of course proved to be a fools dream.
90 miles to go and I’d only made it up the road 30 miles to Vallejo and was dropped off at one of the worst ramps imaginable. It was one of those ramps that ran parallel to the highway so traffic was already ramped up to 60 or 70 mph. This discouraged those that may have stopped had they not already gotten up to merging speed. Being the dead of winter, it got dark early as I had already spent two hours on this ramp with no real way to get off it and walk to another. I stood under a street lamp to be seen, but nobody gave me a second look. Out of sheer boredom I began to examine the pole as it seemed to have many written notes spread around the base. Every note had the same theme. “Zack died of frostbite waiting for a ride.” “Big Jim and his ole’ lady died of heat stroke 7/12/68 while hitching a ride.” Had I a pencil, I would have added to it.
It was getting late. The wind kicked up and the ever-present fog began to roll in making it very cold. My light jacket really wasn’t going to cut it and I began to shiver. Being Christmas Eve, the traffic died off to only one or two cars every couple of minutes to finally one or two an hour. I was tired and hungry and had about a dollar in change. There was a coffee shop several blocks above the ramp so I made my way in and sat at the counter. A pretty waitress probably in her late twenties asked for my order. There were no other customers so I emptied my pocket and counted out 93 cents and told her my situation. God bless her, she poured me a cup of coffee and cut two slices of cherry pie saying I could sit there until she closed at 11:00 PM. Those 90 minutes saved me as she brought me an old blanket from somewhere and wished me luck and a merry Christmas.
The fog was thick but was able to find my way back to the street lamp and return to my vigil. Looking back on it I must have looked pretty bizarre in the fog and mist wrapped in a blanket standing under the lamp. It was now clear I’d not be arriving home that night so I found a reasonably level spot amongst the Oleander bushes. Thankfully they blocked the wind just enough to curl into the fetal position and suffer a restless sleep.
Christmas morning at first light I returned to my hellhole. Many drove by pretending I wasn’t there. I began to take it personally and it didn’t take long for me to lose it. Every car that sped by me got a Christmas message; “MERRY CHRISTMAS MOTHER FUCKERS!!!” While it didn’t change my situation, it made me feel better because it seemed I’d never cover the last 60 miles. I finally gave up all pretenses and sat on the pedestal of the light pole and would stick my arm/thumb out whenever I heard a car coming. It was around noon and felt down and depressed; lacking all hope of redemption. My head was still hanging down when to my utter shock I heard a car pull over and stop! OH JOY OH JOY OH JOY!!!!
I jumped into the passenger side of the car leaving the blanket there for the next poor slob. We took off with me thanking this older guy to the point he had to tell me to shut up but wished me a merry Christmas. The heater felt good and I appreciated the fact I could again feel my extremities. Feeling almost human I took another look at my savior and began to notice something odd. He was in his sixties or seventies and quite rotund. He wore granny spectacles and had a shortly cropped white beard. If not for the yellow V-neck sweater and slacks, he’d be a dead ringer for the old Coca Cola Santa. He kept smiling as if he understood what I was thinking, but I decided to keep my observation to myself.
He agreed to take me all the way to Folsom and even drove me to my friend’s front door. I was late, but finally there. I couldn’t thank him enough and he seemed very pleased with his act of kindness. He waved goodbye, and drove off. I felt human-kind was again worthy of life. I knocked on the door waiting for my warm welcome. I was so happy I could shit, and again knocked. I knocked once more, this time ringing the doorbell. Still no answer. The son of a bitch wasn’t there!
I got in through a window, took a shower and emptied his liquor cabinet. I spent Christmas day listening to FM radio (big deal back then) and passing out on the couch. T’was a memorable Christmas.