February 13, 2010 5:30:00 PM
Tim Pratt -
Late Friday morning I happened to be cruising west on Highway 82 out of Columbus when, on the side of the road, I saw a solitary figure with a bag at his feet and his thumb in the air.
The snow was falling and the man, bundled up in a thick black coat, hat and gloves, was making little progress in his effort to catch a ride. Now, I’ve picked up hitchhikers before in beautiful weather, so it was an easy decision to help this man in what looked to be a snow storm in the making.
I put on my brakes and pulled over to the side of Highway 82, my eyes scanning the rearview mirror for any signs of a Mississippi Highway Patrol officer, perfectly aware that it is illegal to pick up hitchhikers.
The man turned around and saw I had pulled over, then picked up his bag and walked slowly toward my vehicle. As he approached the side of my car, I could see a wide, gracious smile on his face.
He appeared to be about 60, but the hair visible around his hat was blonde. His skin was a tanned by the sun and white rings were visible around his eyes, obviously from the shade of his sunglasses.
"You need a ride?" I asked as I leaned over and opened the passenger-side door.
"Yes, sir," he replied.
"Where you headed?" I asked.
"Starkville," he said.
"Cool, man," I replied. "That's where I’m going."
The man put his bag in my back seat and climbed into the passenger's seat beside me.
"My name's John," he said and stuck out his hand. "I'm from Arizona and I didn’t really expect this weather in Mississippi," he said with a laugh.
"Yeah, it’s kind of unusual," I replied.
"We don’t get snow like this in Arizona," he said. "Well, they do in northern Arizona."
"What are you doing over here?" I asked.
"I went to Alabama to visit my old Army sergeant," he replied. "He has cancer and he’s living by himself, so I was in Alabama for about a month to take care of him."
"Man," I said. "That sucks."
"Yeah," he said. "He got cancer from the Agent Orange in Vietnam. He had a nice wife, but she left him when he got sick. Now he lives alone in this little trailer, no electricity or running water."
"That’s terrible," I replied.
"Yeah, so I went over there and helped him out," he said. "It’s the least I could do. He literally saved my life twice in 'Nam."
"Oh yeah?" I asked.
"Once when I got shot right in the guts," he said. "It messed me up."
"Wow," I replied, nearly speechless.
"So do you not have a car or what?" I asked.
"No, I have a house, I have cars, I have motorcycles, I have mountain bikes," he said. "I just like to hitchhike. Sometimes I hop trains. What else am I going to do?"
He went on to tell me that he doesn't work, but receives a check each month, though he didn't specify the source of the check. He uses his limited funds to hitchhike and travel around the world.
"Have you been anywhere crazy?" I asked.
"I’ve been to Australia," he said. "I've been to Canada."
"So what are you going to do in Starkville?" I asked.
"I'm going to try to find a cheap motel for the night, then move on tomorrow morning," he said. "I only have like $15 or $20 on me, though. Do you know of any cheap motels?"
"I know of a few, but I’m not sure if you're going to find one for less than $20," I replied.
"Well, do you know of any churches or shelters where I might be able to spend the night?" he asked.
"I might," I said. "I'll make some calls."
"I really appreciate your help," he said with a smile. "It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside."
"Don’t worry about it, man," I said. "I try to pick up hitchhikers whenever I see them."
"That's very cool," he said. "A lot of people would never do that. They think you’re homeless or you're crazy. I get background checks done on me every other day (by police who stop him), but I have a cleaner record than Jesus."
I laughed again.
"So, are you a student?" he asked.
"Nah," I said. "I work for The Dispatch, a newspaper. I live and work in Starkville."
"How do you like Starkville?" he asked.
"It's a cool little town," I said. "I have no complaints."
Unfortunately, when John was hitchhiking from Arizona to Alabama a month ago, he didn't have a pleasant experience standing on Highway 82 outside Starkville. Passengers in several passing vehicles "heckled" him, he said, and one man even threw a beer bottle at him.
"We're not all like that," I reassured him.
As we approached Starkville, I got on my phone and called Pastor Johnny Buckner, from New Horizons Christian Fellowship at the corner of Highway 12 and Spring Street. While in Columbus, I had picked up extra copies of the Feb. 5th edition of The Starkville Dispatch for Buckner. He had led a group of volunteers to Haiti and the Feb. 5th edition featured a story on their trip.
Unfortunately, Buckner’s phone went to his voice mail.
Then I called Bill Poe, who helps out at the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum and the Starkville Community Market, among other activities around town, to see if he knew of any churches that might be willing to put John up for the night. He didn’t so I called Tasha Hill at the Greater Starkville Development Partnership. Hill directed me to the Red Cross of Oktibbeha County and the United Way of North Central Mississippi.
The Red Cross, however, only helps victims of emergencies, I was told when I called their office. The secretary there did tell me about Helping Hands Ministry, however, but a phone call to Helping Hands revealed its office hours are limited to 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Wednesday.
By now John and I had arrived back at my office in Starkville and I called First United Methodist Church, but no one answered the phone. Then I called First Baptist Church on Lampkin Street, but the secretary who answered the phone said there was nothing she could do until her bosses came back from lunch at 1:30 p.m.
I called First Presbyterian on University Drive, but the call there went unanswered, as well, so I called First Baptist back and asked if there was anything they could do to help John. Kim, the secretary, told me she was powerless.
"Well, what should I do?" I asked. "Tell him to just hang out?"
"Don't send him here," she said. "It's just me and another girl here right now."
The conversation ended shortly thereafter and I hung up the phone.
"What happened?" he asked.
"The secretary said, 'Don't send him here,'" I told him. "It's just her and another girl there right now. They don’t want some random guy they don't know showing up."
The smile and relaxed look on John’s face immediately disappeared.
"That's a true Southern Belle," he said sarcastically.
"Pretty Christ-like, huh?" I replied.
We sat in silence for a few seconds while I pondered my next move.
"I'm sorry, man," I said. "I don't know what else to do."
"You could always kick me out," he said. "I'm used to it."
"Nah," I said. "You could just wait around until after 1:30 and head over to First Baptist if you want. Apparently the people in charge will be back by then. They might be able to help you out."
"Not after that," he said in reference to the conversation I just had with the secretary.
"Maybe you could walk down to the police station," I said. "You could ask them if they know anywhere you could crash tonight."
"I can already tell how that conversation is going to go," he replied.
We walked out of my office, headed down South Lafayette Street and arrived at my car, which was parked near the intersection of South Lafayette and Lampkin streets. He opened the back door and got his bag.
"Well, the police station is about a half-block that way," I said, pointing west on Lampkin. "That church that said they might be able to help you out is right there across the street if you change your mind."
He looked at First Baptist and shook his head.
I wished John luck and he thanked me again for the ride. He then turned with his bag, walked across the street and around the corner toward the police station. Hopefully he found a place to rest his head Friday night