The news of the passing of jazz music legend Dave Brubeck earlier this month brought back memories of my most eventful journey home for Christmas.
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My high school years were spent attending a military academy not too far from Knoxville, Tenn. In the 1960s it was not unusual for parents to send their boys off to private military academies. Some kids needed the discipline offered in a tightly structured environment. Others were in an early pursuit of a military career that ROTC training provided. The academy was an approved training facility for entrance into West Point and a number of us kids were inclined in that direction.
At 16, I met a pretty girl from Boston, Mass. Both our families were vacationing in Florida and for a week the two of us, although well chaperoned, were inseparable. Our distant relationship continued on paper and into the fall when I returned to school. It was about Thanksgiving that I began thinking of Christmas vacation and a plan for a surprise visit to my girlfriend in Boston.
The school closed for three weeks during the Christmas holiday, at which time we were dispatched to our families. Some parents drove to Knoxville to pick up their boys but most sent money to buy a bus or train ticket home. That year, our family was all gathering at grandma’s house near Cleveland and mom sent me $32 to buy a round-trip train ticket. That’s when I decided to keep the money and surprise my true love in Boston with dinner and a movie. But I needed to get there. After the school bus departed from the train station, having dropped off a number of cadets traveling by train. I embarked on a 900-mile trip through six states during one of the coldest blizzards to hit the northern Atlantic states in 20 years.
Hitchhiking cross country at 16 wasn’t frightening. It was an adventure. I was in uniform with a duffel bag obviously headed home for the holidays. Most of my rides were from traveling salesmen, servicemen or truckers.
“Where you going kid?” they would ask. “Get in it’s cold out there.”
A good ride was maybe 100 miles. Most were less with long waits in between. The most difficult part of the journey was standing by the side of the road in the cold as traffic sped by. My best ride was when four sailors picked me up on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. They took me all the way into downtown Boston. It was late and would be the next day before I could call my girlfriend and have her pick me up. I was cold, tired and hungry in a strange city. While contemplating my predicament and near freezing, a really big black man came up to me and asked. “Where are you going kid? Don’t you know it’s cold out here?”
I was taken back a bit by the circumstance. My school and most of the south, was pretty much segregated in the 1960s. He towered over me by a foot and likely a hundred pounds. He was well-dressed in suit, top coat and a felt Derby hat. He had a deep baritone voice and the smile on his face quieted any uneasiness I had. And so I shared with him how I had hitchhiked from Knoxville to surprise my girlfriend but I couldn’t call her until the next morning and had no place to stay. And so it was, that I met Gene Wright the famous bassist of the Dave Brubeck quartet.
He put his arm on my shoulder and took me into the warmth of the all-night deli at the Copley Square Hotel. Over a hot chocolate and a sandwich we shared our stories. He had just finished a concert at Tuffs University in Boston and would be doing another the next evening. He was on the way out for the evening staying with friends. He took the room key from his suit pocket and gave it to me.
“Stay as long as you want and order any food from room service. I won’t need the room until about noon tomorrow.”
Then he took two concert tickets out of his breast pocket, handed then to me, stood up and said. “You and your friend are invited back stage after the concert to meet Dave and the rest of the guys.”
My call the next morning to my girlfriend was a surprise. She informed me she was now going steady with a college freshman. She had no intentions of seeing me and why would I be so stupid to come to Boston anyway.
A student gave me $2 for my spare concert ticket and afterwards I briefly visited with Gene Wright, who introduced me to Dave Brubeck and the other musicians.
My heart was broken but there is always the comfort of home. Late that same night I began hitchhiking my way to Cleveland 650 miles away. The next day I was near Rochester, New York, when a young couple gave me a lift. He was in the service on Christmas leave. The couple was eloping, intent on finding a Justice of the Peace that would marry them on their way home to Chicago. I told them I was on my way home and that my grandfather was both a minister and Justice of the Peace.
The next day, after arriving home, my grandfather did marry the couple. The wedding was held at our house and I was the best man. The following day they left on their way to Chicago.
It had taken a week to get home for Christmas; traveling more than 1,600 miles, depending upon the kindness of complete strangers. Along the way I discovered a common thread that binds us all together. We all want to be home for Christmas.
Ken Calhoon is a real estate broker in El Dorado County. He can be reached through his Website at kencalhoon.com.