The Trip to Poplar Bluff

It was the summer of 1956; I was 15 years old, feeling quite mature and aware of the world. I was about to discover indirectly that children brought up in a safe and caring home will still be tempted to explore other lifestyles; fortunately, my experience was short-lived. My new friend, Fred, was not from my other friend groups, was not a member of our church, and did not go to my school. He was a year or two older and his father always walked around the house in a sleeveless undershirt, carrying a beer and voicing expletives. Their differences from the life I knew were their attraction. Our friendship was short, but memorable as proved by this post.

Visiting his house was always an experience. They accepted the degree of undress of his sister, for example, failing to recognize that I, not being family, saw her differently. Predictably (?), the temptation to taste a beer was beyond my ability to resist. After all, how could I state that beer was bad unless I had tasted it? Such was my reasoning ability at the time. I recall several occasions when his dad was not home that we would sneak a beer. The taste was more the excitement of a forbidden adventure than the beer itself. My memory is that it seemed rather bitter, something that one must learn to like. But I digress; none of this relates specifically to my story of Poplar Bluff.

One fateful weekend, I had told my parents that I would be spending the weekend at Fred’s house and my thoughts were nothing more than that: sneak a beer, watch his sister, maybe go to a movie. But that’s not what happened. Here is the story…

When I got to Fred’s house, he was in uniform (He was in the Army National Guard). To my surprise, he wanted the two of us to hitch-hike to Poplar Bluff for the weekend. Poplar Bluff: that was in Missouri. I had never been out of Arkansas except for a couple of trips to see my dad’s relatives in Oklahoma. Hitch-hiking was something I would never do, going out of town without my parents’ permission I would never do, risking my safety for a meaningless goal I would never do — yet I did it. Looking back, what I was doing seems to mirror Romans: 7:15:

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.

The comfort there is that I was not the first to commit an act for which I disapproved. Continuing on, I inquired why he was in uniform, only to be told that a person in uniform would have a better chance in hitch-hiking. Further, he had an extra uniform for me. I was not only to participate, I was to impersonate a member of the U.S. Army. Youth is foolish and I donned the uniform. And with that lack of planning, the adventure began.

Now, the distance from Little Rock to Poplar Bluff is approximately 220 miles and takes approximately three and a half hours. But this was 1956: no interstate roads, no multi-lane roads, just two-lane blacktop that ran directly through every little community. And… when hitch-hiking, detours were expected. Of course, such logistics were never considered by us.

Since Fred’s house wasn’t near any highways, our first challenge was to get to a highway going north. That took several hours of getting short rides in our desired direction. We received many rides from many very nice people, but I always stayed quiet. Many people asked about our Army unit, our prior assignments, our current assignments, and many other Army-related questions of which I was completely ignorant.

Our adventure had begun early on a Saturday morning and in late evening we had only traveled 30 miles. I recall the darkness, the cold, and standing on the side of a dark and lonely stretch of road. Rainfall had begun. I was tired. I had no idea where we were and the thought of being home was certainly attractive. By then I no longer questioned anyone who picked us up; I was just too tired, too cold and a bit scared, although I hadn’t yet admitted it to myself. We continued on.

Somewhere around 2 am a car stopped for us, or so we thought. Unfortunately (we thought at the time), it was just some teenagers out late who teased us, gave several vulgar hand signals to us and then drove off. A driver of a large truck eventually picked us up, to whom we were very thankful. Somewhere around 3 am we came across that earlier car. It had crashed into a ravine with several dead, with a number of state police cars on the scene. We could have been among those bodies there. A scene etched permanently in my memory. My life could have ended there, and for being on such an ill-planned adventure.

At thirty or so hours into our adventure we reached the town of Paragould, in northeast Arkansas. We had no money, had eaten nothing except for a couple of candy bars since leaving Little Rock, were hungry and thirsty and wet and tired and disillusioned. We agreed to turn back. We would never reach Poplar Bluff.

The trip home was the best we had experienced; a long-haul trucker drove us all the way to Little Rock and dropped us off just a few blocks from Fred’s house. He seemed an angel to us, there to rescue us from a serious error in our lives. At Fred’s house we scarfed down several sandwiches to address our hunger and I happily discarded the Army uniform, becoming once again the teenager in jeans that I knew. My dear parents never learned of my adventure; I was too ashamed to admit how foolish we had been, but I learned a lot of myself that weekend, lessons to last a lifetime.

My primary lesson was that my life is my responsibility. I must always accept that responsibility and never trust to another. I also learned that those who care for us deserve to know of our journeys. We owe that to loved ones. The sight of those dead bodies is a forever reminder that life is short and may end at any time; I could have been there, one of the bodies, with a life still not lived. I am grateful for the lesson. There would be many more lessons in my life, important lessons, but none with so vivid an example of the outcome. And I am forever grateful to that long-haul trucker.