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Our German Hitchhiker

Recently I had the opportunity to #steerthescript for a Lincoln MKZ superbowl commercial with one of my tweets.  Several people have asked me about the true story behind the tweet, so I’m posting it here.

OUR GERMAN HITCHHIKER

Or how the road home from New Orleans became more interesting than Mardi Gras

The rain pounded against the windshield and seemed to be getting heavier with every passing mile. Our windshield wipers struggled to keep up, and I could barely see the road in front of me.

“Hey, wake up,” I said to David, my sleeping boyfriend in the passenger seat.

“What?” he startled awake, looking around, disoriented. “Are we home already?”

“No, still in Louisiana, but I need you to help me stay on the road. I’m getting tired, and the rain always puts me to sleep.”

David asked if I wanted him to drive, but I didn’t see anywhere we could pull over, so I asked him to just keep talking to me. We’d been reluctant to leave New Orleans, our first real trip together as a couple, so we’d stayed for lunch after checking out of the hotel, then walked around the garden district for a few hours. By then we’d worked up an appetite and decided to stay for dinner. We had a few drinks, so we walked around the quarter until I was sure I was sober enough to drive us home. Instead of leaving around 2pm as planned, it had been almost 10pm when we left the Crescent City in the rearview mirror and the 8 hours home to Austin were dragging on. It was 2am, I figured we should be to the Texas border soon, but the rain had really slowed me down. I wasn’t sure exactly where we were.

 “Are you still on the highway?” he asked.

I had to admit this didn’t look much like an interstate, but I also didn’t think this part of the state had a lot of divided highways. “Yes. I think so. I never got off I-10. ”

David rooted around in the glove compartment, emerging with his favorite White Zombie CD. “This will keep us awake.”

I smiled and was still looking at him when he yelled, “Watch out!”

I looked up and saw a car stopped ahead, no lights on – half on and half off the road. I braked, but the tires began to slip on the wet asphalt and my car started to fishtail. I steered into the spin and marveled that I had the presence of mind to remember how to avoid a skid. (But then again, defensive driving classes were an annual tradition thanks to my lead foot, so perhaps some of those videos stuck after all). The tires found their grip and I barely missed the car.

“Jesus, that will keep me awake. Did you see anyone in the car?” I asked him.

“No, it looks like it was just left there.”

“Do you think it was an accident? Should we call someone?”

“I didn’t see any damage, but it will be an accident if they don’t move it.”

I began to look for a gas station or somewhere that would have a pay phone.

A few minutes later we saw two people walking along the side of the road, jackets pulled up over their heads, one wearing a very large backpack. Neither one turned to see the car, but both of them put out one arm – thumbs up.

I slowed down and started to pull to the side of the road.

“What are you doing?” David asked.

“They’ve got to be the people from the car back there. I’d hate to be walking in this – the least we can do is give them a ride to the nearest town to get a tow truck.”

“I guess, but do you really want to pick up strangers on the side of the road in Louisiana?”

“Not really, but if that was my car, I’d hope someone would stop for me. It’s the middle of the night, and I haven’t seen any other cars for a while. We may be their only chance.”

I stopped and watched as one large and one small shadow ran towards the car. A few seconds later, the back door on the passenger side opened.

“ Man, thanksforstopping. You’re an angel,” said the first figure to get in.

I immediately started to regret my Good Samaritan nature. Not only was this man soaked to the bone, but Mother Nature’s shower had been unable to wash away the stink of a three-day bender. As he scooted over behind me to make room for his companion, I got a whiff of the breath of a heavy drinking speed freak. I started to think of things to say – “We can only take you to the next gas station” and “I’ve got a gun” were the leading contenders, but then I saw Our German Hitchhiker (as David I referred to him for the last 20 years.) He was just a kid - a big blue-eyed farm boy who looked like he’d been through a lot more than a rainstorm. When I heard his strongly accented English, as he thanked me for stopping, I knew I was going to help him no matter how much it messed up my drive home.

“Is that your RX7 a few miles back?” I asked.

“Yep. Ain’t she a beauty?” said the speedfreak.

“Well she’s something,” I replied, “but I’d be worried she’d be hit if I were you.”

“Nah, I pulled her over to the side of the road.”

“Well maybe the side of the road moved after you left her. Her ass is hanging onto the highway, and you didn’t leave any flashers or flares around her.”

“You don’t say.”

“Well, actually, I do say. We almost hit her. I think we should pull over at the next town for you to call a tow truck to get her off the road.”

“Nah. I don wanna do that,” he answered, as if I was asking his permission.

I smiled, wondering at the mindset of someone deciding that calling a tow truck just didn’t sound like something fun to do, so they wouldn’t. The farm boy said nothing through this exchange, but I could see his eyes in my rear view mirror. They seemed to be pleading with me. Did he not want me to make his companion angry?

“So what exactly do you want to do?” I asked, regretting the words before they were even out of my mouth.

“You got any speed?”

“Sorry. All out,” David replied. I silently congratulated myself on spotting his drug of choice, but he wasn’t the first tweaker I’d met.

“Too bad man. What about a joint?” he asked, and I actually wished we had one since that might have calmed him down a little. He’d been kicking the back of my seat ever since he got in.

David smiled and tried to give his best we’re cool man look as he said, “Hey, we just spent a week in New Orleans – we had so much fun that there just wasn’t anything left for the way home.”

The speedfreak nodded. “I hear that. It’s my birthday. Well, it was on Friday. I’ve been partying since then. This morning I decided I wanted to go to Houston to visit my friend. That’s how I met Hans here. I picked him up in Alabama, walking along the side of the road. We’ve been having fun, haven’t we, Hans.”

Hans looked at David and nodded, but his eyes said it hadn’t been much fun at all. The next day we found out his name wasn’t Hans at all, but after all these years of calling him Our German Hitchhiker, I can’t remember his real name anymore.

The ride got awkwardly quiet for a few minutes. I really didn’t want to set the speedfreak off, and I really didn’t know what to talk about so I kept driving looking for a gas station or somewhere to pull off the road. David looked straight ahead. The speedfreak muttered something about Houston and kept kicking my seat. Hans sat as rigidly as I’ve ever seen someone sit in a car, hands clenched on his knees.

After about 20 miles, I saw an exit sign indicating a gas station was near. I started to exit, and speedfreak got excited again, “Where ya goin’?”

“I’m just going to fill up,” I lied, hoping he couldn’t see the gas gauge from the back seat.

“Station’s closed,” he said, but I had already exited, so I kept driving towards it, hoping there would be a pay phone.

“Yeah, but we should really call a tow truck. Be a shame to let your fine car get ruined, and maybe they can get you back on the road to Houston.”

“I’ll be stuck here all night. Why don’t you take me to Houston?” His tone said he wasn’t really asking.

“Because we aren’t headed that way.” I lied again – we had to pass Houston to get home to Austin.

“Where are you going?”

David and I looked at each other. I answered “Dallas.” It seemed not too much of a lie, but would have required we head north instead of continuing west past Houston.

“It won’t be too far out of your way – besides you already missed the turn off to get to I-20, might as well go up the highway from Houston.”

I looked at David again. I really wanted this guy out of our car, but I was tired and wasn’t coming up with any new ideas. I sighed and said, “I guess we can get you to your friend’s house, but I want you to call a tow truck or I am going to call the police to report your car so someone doesn’t get hurt.“

It was clear he wasn’t too fond of the idea of the police finding his car so he agreed and got out of the car to go to the pay phone. Every instinct told me to run once he got out of the car. I tried to tell Hans to throw the speedfreak’s bag out the back door. More than ever I wanted to help the German farm boy, but as I tried to explain to him that I was going to leave the speedfreak here and drive away, he got confused and couldn’t understand what I wanted him to do. 

Hans started speaking rapidly in clipped English. “That man is crazy. He has a gun, you know. I’m glad you didn’t make him angry. I don’t know how I’m going to get away from him. I’ve been riding with him all day. I tried to stay behind at the last gas station but he wouldn’t let me.”

My conscience wouldn’t let me leave the man stranded without his stuff no matter how annoying he was. I started to get out of the car, so I could open the back door and put it out myself, but the speedfreak had already turned around from the phone booth and was heading back to the car.  I wondered if he had just pretended to call someone. I just couldn’t bring myself to throw his bag out and drive away while he watched. So we drove to Houston.

After an hour of driving around Houston so the speedfreak could get his bearings, he finally directed us to his friend’s house and we were able to drop him off. He seemed sad to go, but it had been the longest 4 hours of my life and I couldn’t wait for him to be out of my car. He was surprised when Hans didn’t get out with him, but he shut the door and had all his possessions in his hand. I locked the door and waved goodbye — leaving him shouting in the suburban street as the sun rose.

Hans began to relax the more distance we put between the speedfreak and ourselves. He even smiled when we told him we weren’t really from Dallas but were trying to get rid of that guy. He asked us why we didn’t leave him behind too, and David just shrugged. After a few minutes of silence he was fast asleep in the backseat.

“What are we going to do with him?” David asked.

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll take him back to Austin and figure it out there.”

“You want to take him home?”

“At this point I don’t know what else to do. I want to go home, and I don’t want to just drop him off somewhere – he’s obviously been through hell. Besides, you’ll be there to protect me, right?”

David snuck a glance in the backseat. Hans was at least 4 inches taller than his 5’11 and probably outweighed him by 50 pounds or more. “Yeah, sure, babe. I got your back.”

Our German Hitchhiker awoke as we pulled into my neighborhood. “Where are we?” he asked.

“Austin, Texas. My home.”

“You are taking me to your home?” He seemed surprised and then perhaps a little frightened. This combination made me certain I was doing the right thing as I pulled into my driveway.

“Yes. It looks to me like you could use a real bed – well an air-mattress anyway – and a good meal.”

His eyes watered a little as he answered. “Yes. That would be wonderful.”

We spent a few minutes orientating Hans to our home – the bathroom, the kitchen, and the living room where we put a large air mattress and linens out for him. We told him we would take him for a late breakfast (or actually lunch) once we had gotten some sleep.

“I can stay here?” he asked again pointing to the air mattress.

“Well not forever, Hans. But for today, yes, you can stay here.”

He smiled and told us his real name and we slept the sleep of the dead.

The next afternoon we took him to Conan’s Pizza, introducing him to our favorite local pizza place - one of the few things we could afford to treat him to after our week in New Orleans. He liked it and over lunch he told us how he came to America.

He was in love with a farmer’s daughter in the small town in Germany where he was from. He did odd jobs as a mechanic, often working on the farmer’s tractors and generator. The farmer did not think Hans was good enough for his daughter. He wanted her to marry someone who could take over the farm when he got too old to run it. Our German Hitchhiker decided he would come to America to study modern farming methods and would go back to help the farmer improve his farm. After that, he was certain the farmer would give him permission to marry the daughter.

I thought his story the sweetest and most naïve thing I had heard in years. David and I were both enchanted, and then horrified as he told us what he had actually done in the three days since he’d been in the States. He’d arrived in Miami and had been walking for less than an hour when he was almost caught in the crossfire of what he described as a gang shooting. He stuck to the highway after that and a trucker picked him up and drove him north to Savannah where he spent the night in a motel that was more commonly used for prostitution. He caught a ride west out of town after meeting a nice, but senile older couple at the place where he ate breakfast. His next few rides that day weren’t as kindly. An increasingly scary set of good ole boys gave him rides through Georgia – the last of which tried to rob him at gunpoint. Luckily Our German Hitchhiker had been sitting in the bed of the pickup truck at the time and was able to jump clear and run into some trees at the side of the road and the man didn’t bother to get out of the truck to chase him.

 He had decided to walk and camped for the night off the road. By the next day, he had made it to Alabama and back onto the highway. He thought it had been early afternoon when he met the speedfreak, who had almost run him over when he swerved onto the shoulder of the road. The speedfreak had insisted that Hans accept a ride, telling him they would be great friends and that he could get him as far as Texas. We could assume what had happened that day. He got quiet then, finished his beer, and asked if we would give him a ride to the airport.

“What about the plan?” David asked him. “How will you win the girl if you go home three days later with nothing but scary stories?”

I kicked David under the table. “What?” he said.

“You want him to keep hitchhiking until he gets killed?”

“No. But I don’t want him to give up if he really wants to be here.”

He asked us if everyone in America was crazy. We laughed, and told him there were good and bad people here, just like anywhere else. We urged him not to hitchhike any more. I mentioned taking a bus and asked him if he had enough money for a ticket. When he told us how much cash he’d brought with him, David suggested buying a used motorcycle. He’d been admiring David’s that morning and since he’d mentioned being a mechanic, we were sure he’d be able to keep one running, and then he wouldn’t have to worry about transportation.

Hans loved this idea, and got very excited about his plan again, and even went to call his girl from the pay phone by the restroom. David and I smiled at each other – it felt good to help him. The next day, while I was at work, David took him around looking for the perfect motorcycle. I called family in California to get the names of some organic farms there that I thought might be willing to take him on.

He stayed with us a total of three days as we got him prepared for his cross-country trip and he was the best houseguest we’ve ever had. He made us breakfast, and baked fresh bread – crusty, dark and sweet to go with dinner one night. He even cleaned the house. We refused his offer of money repeatedly, but after he left we found some in an envelope on the desk. For a few months we got postcards from California, he seemed happy but never gave a return address. I assume at some point he went home, but we never found out if he married the farmer’s daughter.

That fateful trip was the beginning of a series of great traveling adventures for David and I. We are driving back to New Orleans for the fifth time together this spring, but I think we’ll leave the hitchhikers to you. *

*This author does not actually endorse the picking up of hitchhikers – you are infinitely more likely to end up with speedfreak than Our German Hitchhiker.