Innocent Times: “Let’s Hitchhike to Kansas City”

At a lunch yesterday of veteran journalists, we got talking about how much the country has changed in our lifetimes and I told them a Kansas City story. In 1955 I was in the Air Force, stationed at Forbes AFB in Topeka. That Thanksgiving, bored in Topeka, another airman and I decided to go to Kansas City to see what it was like.

We didn’t have cars so we hitchhiked there. We got a ride part way, then got picked up by a man  driving home to Kansas City. We were wearing our Air Force uniforms, and when he found out we didn’t know anyone in Kansas City and had no plans, he invited us to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. We very much enjoyed the home cooking and his family and we never did see the rest of Kansas City. In the early evening he drove us back to Forbes AFB.

A couple of things about the story: In 1955 I think people felt differently about people in the military. It was only ten years after the end of World War II, when allied nations fought and died to save the world. Military people then got a lot of respect.

And it was before the growth of the Interstate Highway System. Most people drove the highways at 50 or 60 miles an hour and had to stop fairly often at traffic lights. Most families had only one car so for young people it was not at all unusual to go places by hitchhiking.

You did it up almost always at a stop sign or traffic light so when a driver had to stop he could look y0u over. If he was willing to give you a ride, he’d honk, wave you over, and ask, “Where you headed?” If you were going where he was going, you got in the car. When they dropped you off, they’d sometimes go a little out of their way to help you get your next ride.

Before the Air Force, I had gone a year to the University of Wisconsin and often hitchhiked between my hometown of Appleton and Madison. Again, pretty easy to get a ride and I never had a bad experience.

A more innocent time. People were friendly, glad to help, never asking for anything in return. It also was a time when we lived in small worlds—we weren’t inundated with the kind of bad news that now often seems to dominate the Internet. Why wouldn’t I trust a stranger? Our experience was pretty much that all people were good.

P.S. When I told our journalist daughter I was going to write about my hitchhiking days, she couldn’t believe it: “You’re kidding. You used to be a hitchhiker?”

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