Uniforms and Hitchhiking
By: Garland Davis
Once, many many long years ago. You know back in the day when the Navy paid non-rates less that a pittance and sailors still wore their uniforms on leave and liberty and hitching rides was the only way a non-rated bottom feeder could get from here to there. Every Friday evening, at almost every road leading to an on ramp to I-5 one could find a mob of sailors in dress blues or whites trying to get a ride to Long Beach, Los Angeles or points further North.
At some of the entrances, drivers had to run a three-hundred-yard gauntlet of “Popeye the Sailor Man.” A tanker truck wreck and spectacular explosion could have wiped out half the crew of a Heavy Cruiser.
Sometimes it could get bizarre. Sailors, returning from WestPac hauling gifts home to mama, their girlfriends, wives, or their dear old aunt who sent them a twenty each birthday and Christmas, were humping some of the damndest stuff ever seen on the American highway. One guy with a wooden salad bowl, spoon and fork that looked as if he had stolen it from the Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Then there was some clown with a large black velvet painting of a topless Filipina girl. No one stood near that stupid bastard. You didn’t need a Kindergarten education to know that no Christian family would pick up anyone near an artistic representation with bare tits as its focal point.
There was a dude with a giant witch doctor’s mask. I just couldn’t see anyone stopping for that hideous apparition. I saw a kid wearing a blue work jacket over a striped robe and hospital Pajamas.
“Hey, guy. I know it ain’t my business. But what kind of uniform is that?”
“The ship’s corpsman turned me into Balboa Hospital for pneumonia when we pulled in from WestPac. They take your fuckin’ clothes and lock them up so you can’t leave till they let you go. I want to get to Bakersfield and see my girl.”
I guess the people at the hospital hadn’t thought that one all the way through.
Everyone had a sign…
“Will pay for gas.”
“Just back from WestPac. Need to get home.”
“Wife going to get pregnant…Want to be there when it happens!”
“The Dodgers are in town for the weekend.”
Many sailors of my generation have fond memories of the kindness and generosity of our fellow citizens. Couples with sons or daughters in uniform. Truck drivers who had served and old ladies who needed someone to spell them driving. Families with kids who wanted to wear your sailor’s hat. Farmers, looking for company and someone to talk to. Looking back, there were many good people who offered us rides. Damn fine people.
I had been trying to catch a ride for about four hours and was on the verge of giving up. I walked back down the street to a Diner, went in and ordered a burger and a coke. While I was waiting, a gentleman walked up to me and said, “I see you are a cook on a destroyer. I was also during the war. I would like to invite you to join my wife and me for dinner.”
“That would be fine sir. But, I have already ordered.”
“No, I told the waitress to cancel that. You order a proper dinner as our guest. I outrank you. I am a Supply Warrant; I’m the Commissary Officer at Long Beach. Where are you going tonight?”
“I’m trying to get to LA, sir. I left my car with a friend when we left for WestPac, and I am going to get it.”
“It’s your lucky day; we are going just north of LA. I’ll drop you where you need to go.”
I have tried to return that couple’s kindness to young servicemen many times over the years.
I don’t think the sailor of today understands that there was a time when we wore our uniforms and were cordially embraced by people who went out of their way to assist servicemen and to honor their service. The sailor and his service were accorded honor. We hitchhiked. It was not forbidden. It permitted us to show the pride we had in our service to the public.
I hope that hasn’t been lost. There have been many changes in the Navy and the uniforms. I hope the pride in wearing the Navy uniform in public has not grown outdated. That would be a God Damned crying shame.