When I was nineteen, and admittedly an idiot, my second ex husband and I (I told you I was an idiot) decided it would be a good idea to hitchhike from North Carolina to California (see above idiocy). We stored our stuff, took two backpacks, our two-year-old Doberman Pinscher (see above) and set out to go through our old homes in Pascagoula and New Orleans, across Texas (see above) and up the West Coast to the counterculture mecca of San Francisco. That’s as far as the plan went (see above).
It probably isn’t necessary to note that we were picked up by an “interesting” assortment of travelers. Some clearly pitied us, some professed their envy, some were dead set on scaring us, like the two ragged men whose entire conversation centered on their recent escape from prison, and some floated, but didn’t press, the idea of various sexual escapades.
Only one, though, on our trip back, after the loss of the dog and sheer hunger made me wise up enough to demand that we go home, took us out into the middle of the desert and held us at gunpoint. And he wasn’t a criminal. He wasn’t a mentally ill oddball living with his mother and an arsenal of automatic weapons. He was a trucker, a big old Hoss Cartwright of a man who kept up a nonstop stream of jokes and patter so far into the night that we let down our guard, crawled back into the truck’s sleeper, and slept. I dozed off listening to him on the CB radio, calling out to people he clearly had known for a long time, “This is Big Daddy and The White Lightning Express; come back,” into the desert night.
There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that wakes you up like finding yourself under the glare of a truck’s cab light, in the pitch black middle of Nowhere New Mexico, staring at death in the form of a 357 Magnum. I know what caliber the gun was because I asked, right after I said “Wait a minute. Let me find my glasses.” Not that they mattered. Big Daddy was right there, not three feet away, and the look in his eyes was as chemically induced insane as any I had ever seen. There was a reason he talked nonstop and drove all night long, and that reason had convinced him that forcing a couple of stupid kids to have sex at the point of a gun in the middle of the desert was a fine, fine idea. He’d mentioned the amphetamines in passing, but he’d been so affable. Such a regular guy. Now he was a regular guy with the eyes of a madman and a perceptible hard-on.
Here’s where the stupid finally ends. We tried talking to him person to person. My ex told him that he loved me and couldn’t subject me to that, that he couldn’t perform if he was terrified, that Big Daddy must know what it was like to care for someone since he’d told us about his wife and children back home. That big, affable face and those crazed eyes never wavered. After a few minutes of pleading and promising that we wouldn’t rat him out if he let us go, all the while being most afraid that the teeth-chattering jitters that the speed had induced would cause a twitch that blew us to pieces, it occurred to me just what the consequences of that would be.
“You know,” I said, in a line I know sounds like bad script writing but is absolutely true nonetheless, “if you shoot us with that thing up close we’re going to be all over the inside of this truck. You’ll never get it clean.”
I remember seeing that sink in, seeing that expression of pained realization that his plan wasn’t going to work and his gun wasn’t going to give him the power he thought it would. Once we weren’t potential sexual victims we became the objects of disgust we’d probably been all along.
“All right. Get out,” he said.
“If we get out you can shoot us.”
“I won’t shoot you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
It’s funny how little time all this took. Within a span of five minutes we had gone from sleeping to terrified to, well, still terrified but clearly not without the power to at least create a stand-down. And yet, having had the smarts to convince Big Daddy to drive the White Lightning Express to a rest stop where he couldn’t kill us without witnesses didn’t give me a sense of power, or even as much relief as you might think. Why? Because he seemed so ordinary. He seemed like a good old boy in a tradition we’d grown up with. A working man, driving the roads and telling his buddies how much he missed his little ‘uns. Who knows who he was without that lightning in his veins? Not I.
I lost any sense of relief and safety that night for one more reason. When we got a lift from a nice old couple to the nearest Highway Patrol station, described who he was and what he’d done, told the two officers there that Big Daddy and the White Lightning Express were on the road right now, headed across Texas, his eyeballs practically throwing sparks and that 357 sitting like a coiled snake under his seat just waiting for him to pick up someone else, they laughed in our faces. Not their problem if stupid kids took their lives in their hands, they said. Not their problem. Not their problem. Not their problem.
Since that night, more than forty years ago, I have wondered what would have happened if we had had a weapon of our own. Could either of us have stood the aftermath of having blown him all over the inside of that truck? Would that trigger finger twitch us into oblivion if either of us gave the slightest hint that we intended to shoot first? Would those patrolmen have thought we were their problem if we, two indigent, homeless, stupid hippie kids had killed hard working Big Daddy, had made sure the White Lightning stopped then and there? What would one more gun have injected into the situation?
I’ve never been happier not to know something in my life.