The Short, Short Hitchhiker
By Stanley Gurcze
Edited by Richard Menzies
This afternoon I finished reading The Short, Short Hitchhiker by Stanley Gurcze. I thought it was very good. It reminded me of my own hitchhiking experiences. The unique thing about Stanley Gurcze is that he has no feet—his feet were amputated at the age of 10.
Here are a couple of excerpts from his book:
Page 72: “So back to the highway I went, where if I was going to starve, at least I wouldn’t be working for the privilege of doing so. I headed west until I reached Indio, California, which is where I found my first hobo jungle. It was quite an experience.
“A hobo jungle is a camp near a railroad division yard where trains stop and change crews. It’s also where non-paying passengers get on or off the train. These non-paying passengers consist of two different classes: bums and hobos. The difference between the two is as follows: Bums will not work, and will steal or beg or do anything to meet their needs. Hobos, also known as tramps, will work for their needs but no longer than absolutely necessary. Both classes can be found wherever trains go in the country.
“I was camping alone at the east end of Indio when a man with a bedroll over his shoulder walked by. I mistook him for a fellow hitchhiker and said, ‘Hi.’
“He looked me over, saw my crutches and decided I was harmless enough. So he came over and said, ‘Howdy, Crip.’ He paused and then added, ‘You ever been here before?’
“‘No, it’s my first time.’
“‘Thought so. Let me give ya a little advice. Git over on the other side of the road by the trees there.’ He pointed to a grove of trees approximately half a mile to the north.
“‘Why? What’s there?’
“‘A camp where you’ll be safe tonight. There’s a bunch of ‘bos there, pretty decent guys. This side’s the jungle with the bums and winos. They’ll take you for everything you got. You’d be lucky to wake up tomorrow.’
“‘I sure better get out of here, then. Thanks for the heads up.’
“‘Okay,’ he said, then added. ‘You see those two guys back there by them bushes?’
He pointed behind me. “There. That’s the reason I stopped. I noticed they had their eyes on ya.’
“‘Yeah, now I see ’em.’ There stood two of the most disreputable looking characters I had seen in quite a while. One was staring in our direction, the other was sipping from a wine bottle. Both were unshaven. Their clothing had the appearance of never having been washed.
“‘Heavens to Betsy,’ I said. ‘They look worse than I do.’
“‘Come on. I’ll walk you across the road. They won’t bother ya as long as I’m here.’
“I got to the other camp as fast as I could. There I found a group of men with bedrolls and not much else, sitting around a large campfire above which hung a huge pot, boiling. It contained meat, potatoes, onions, and a few other vegetables all mixed together. They called it mulligan stew.
“I was informed that anyone who joins the group contributes whatever they have to the pot, which keeps boiling all the time. Share and share alike. No one is ever refused hospitality unless they demonstrate by their actions that they’re not worthy, in which case they are booted out in a hurry. By contrast, the bums across the way aren’t interested in anything but scoring that first bottle of wine to start their day–in any way they can.
“Sometimes bums even steal from one another, taking whatever they believe will get them ‘the price.’ Many awake to find their shoes gone, or any other item of any value they possess. They are the lucky ones, because there are others who never awake.
“Unlike bums, hobos are men who have left their homes, wives, children, friends, and jobs to seek freedom from their humdrum lives and spend the rest of their days wandering about the country, searching for this elusive thing called happiness–or at least peace of mind. Some might reach this goal; others may not. Perhaps they will all find it in the beyond.”
Page 112: “I cook over an Indian fire—never a white man’s fire. I learned this from an Apache Indian—in Apache Junction, Arizona, of all places. Of course, no Apaches live there; they live on the San Carlos reservation east of Globe. This young Apache worked at the lumber company, which is no longer there.
“I remember I was preparing to build a fire as prescribed in the Boy Scouts manual. I gathered an armload of dead branches and arranged them in the form of a tepee. Just then this young Apache came by, sat down, and watched. He started to chuckle softly. When I got my matches out and prepared to light it, he stood up, still chuckling, and kicked my campfire in every which direction, which of course made me a bit angry.
“‘Let me show you how to build a fire.’ he said.
“He squatted down, dug a hole approximately six inches deep and twelve inches across, took a few of the smaller branches I had gathered and broke them into little pieces, which he placed in the pit. He then took the two thickest branches and placed them across the top of the hole. ‘These two thick branches you use as a grill,’ he said. ‘Just put whatever you want to cook on top of them. By the time they burn through, whatever you’re cooking will be ready.’
“Well, I cooked a whole chicken wrapped in aluminum foil using only the few pieces of wood he put into the hole. It works, he explained, because when the wind blows, it passes over the top of the hole and creates a draft. This results in a hotter fire, and the sparks don’t blow out of the hole. With a white man’s fire, which is above ground, the sparks fly and start wildfires.
“Another nice thing about an Indian fire is that when you are finished with it, just pour a little water onto the remaining hot coals, then refill the hole with dirt and tamp it down. When you walk away, nobody would know you ever had a fire there.”
Virginia Avenue Press
[Stanley Gurcze 1917-1989]