AWAI Writing Challenge Honorable Mention:
My Best Summer Vacation
It was a hot July night. I was fast asleep in the back of a 1968 VW van. The white noise of Wyoming’s Interstate 80 drifting through my ears.
Suddenly … I woke to a scream!
I sat up and saw at the headlights of an 18-wheeler barreling down upon us. It was just 50 yards away and closing fast. Doing 75 mph!
That’s when I realized that we were traveling sideways – down a mountain pass – out of control. Tires screeching, brakes squealing and a pregnant woman screaming in the front seat.
The lights of the truck grew brighter, almost blinding …
“This is it,” I thought.
It’s true what they say about your life flashing before you. Like a deer in the headlights, my body was paralyzed.
I remember thinking I’d never get to tell my girlfriend that I loved her.
The truck just kept closing and closing. I could now read the “Peterbilt” logo on the grill. I wondered if there was a heaven. And would I go there?
Then! In a flash, the truck lights veered off to my right. I heard this “whooshing” sound as it missed us by inches, barely swirving onto the left median.
My heart was pounding.
But what about the VW van – whose brakes had given out? Fortunately, we came to a stop in the breakdown lane. Facing the wrong way.
I slowly got out, walked to the front seat and saw that everyone was safe. It was dead quiet. You don’t really talk at times like that.
Instead, I peered up at the full moon. I realized I’d never really looked at it before. At least, not like that.
For the fist time I actually saw the “man in the moon.” With that big ol’ goofy grin. As if he knew something.
It was July, 1974. Vietnam was drawing to a close. The Watergate hearings were all over television. And Patty Hearst had just been kidnapped. Apparently, the “60’s” weren’t going down without a fight.
And there I was … just another lost college graduate. “A rebel without a clue.”
The only solid thing in my life was my girlfriend, Judy. We both graduated from Sonoma State College in Northern California two months earlier.
But we wanted different things. She wanted to start a life with me. And I just kept thinking, “What if there’s something better out there?”
Ultimately, it came to a head when she went back to Boston for her sister’s wedding. I came up with some lame excuse as to why I couldn’t go. She saw right through it and ended the relationship then and there.
A few weeks of soul searching made me realize that I needed to win her back – and fast.
The wedding was just three days away. As usual, I was broke. So, flying out was out of the question. And my ailing Dodge Dart? Forget it.
The only option left was to hitchhike cross country – in less than 72 hours. That’s a thousand miles a day! But when you’re 22, anything’s possible.
I gathered up my knapsack and headed east without telling her … For better or worse, I was on my way.
And “what a trip” it was.
There was the Mexican migrant family in Sacramento, who gave me a lift in the back of their pickup.
There was the hardware salesman in Reno who kept a playboy magazine and bottle of Jack Daniels under the front seat of his Buick.
Then, there was the hippie couple in the van. And even though they almost got me killed, they taught me a valuable lesson of true commitment in an era of free love.
But, the clock was ticking down. I was behind schedule.
Then in Cheyenne … a soldier in a Pontiac Bonneville picked me up. He was racing to Toledo to visit his ailing father. We took turns at the wheel, while listening to his Glen Campbell and John Denver 8-track tapes.
We did 1,200 miles in just 17 hours!
I was back in the game … But totally exhausted. I don’t even remember the Pennsylvania Turnpike or New York State Thruway. I slept right though them.
I was dropped off in Western Massachussettes with only three hours left. So close … and yet it would take a miracle to get there on time.
As I stood at the turnpike entrance I thought to myself, “I’m Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate.” Sort of …
That’s when the craziest thing happened …
A shiny black hearse – that right, a hearse with tinted windows – pulled up right in front of me. The passenger door opened and I heard a gravely voice say, “Get in!”
Now, I’m not a superstitious guy. But a hearse?
Hell, why not … I’d already beaten the Grim Reaper a few days earlier. I was living on borrowed time.
As it turns out, the driver was just a “regular Joe” who happened to get a great deal on a used hearse. He was headed all the way to Boston, but south of the city. I was headed to Lynn, a northern suburb.
I told him my story. He was so taken with it that he drove me right to the church.
At this point you’re probably wondering if I made it to the church on time – and did Judy and I live happily ever after?
Yes, I made it on time … And I’d like to say this story has a Hollywood ending. But, regrettably, I still wasn’t ready to commit. About six months later, Judy ended it for good.
She was the best thing that ever happened to me. And I just let her slip away. It haunts me to this very day.
So, that’s how I spent the summer of ‘74.
It was the end of Vietnam. The end of Watergate. The end of youth.
And, sadly … the end of what might have been.
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