No one told me about the ridge and how cold it could get in Tejon Pass at 4,000-feet elevation when in December 1945 I set out from San Francisco in order to hitchhike the 500 miles to San Diego. I had maneuvered to get four additional days off between ships and visiting Chic and Katy Melville on Coronado Island seemed like a good way to occupy the time. I wore my blue uniform, no coat, and carried a soft overnight bag. Since San Francisco was sunny, I did not expect the fog in what Californians call The Valley.
Rides were easy for servicemen to get during those immediate postwar months. As a matter of fact, rides were too easy for some.
The fog caused no inconvenience until the second ride let me off in what was then tiny Bakersfield. By then the fog had become pretty thick and darkness had set in. The poor visibility caused me to accept a ride with a very unusual slow moving group that I would have otherwise avoided.
At that time many servicemen were returning from the outer reaches of the Pacific. It seemed that those who wanted to be in San Francisco disembarked from troopships near Los Angeles and vice versa. Autos weren’t too hard to jump start then so quite a few were appropriated by GI entrepreneurs who charged buddies a few bucks for a really fast three-hundred and fifty-mile jaunt. Thus an extraordinary number of vehicles were found abandoned in both cities. Insurance companies retained private detectives to round up and return the vehicles.
From what I observed the detectives worked in pairs and after each such twosome collected six or seven vehicles, a convoy was organized. In each convoy one detective drove the lead car and the other drove the trail car. Those in between were driven by servicemen hitchhikers. The lead man watched for drivers who might feel that the convoy was too slow for them. The detective in the last car was alert for anyone who might try to turn off somewhere. The convoy always stopped for servicemen in order to insure that there were reserve drivers; it was the lead-car detective of one such convoy who stopped for me. There were three GIs in the car when I got in.
After progressing only forty miles in nearly two hours the convoy halted at a hamburger joint near the crest of the ridge that separates the San Joaquin Valley from the Los Angeles area. If anything the area was foggier, colder, and darker. All but the silent little GI who was huddled next to me with his collar turned up, dashed for warmth and some refreshment. When I asked if he felt all right, he nodded. When I insisted that he come inside he whispered, “My wallet was stolen.”
“Come on in,” I said, “I’ll treat for a hamburger and coffee.”
While we were sipping coffee the unassuming soldier quietly told me that he had been away for three years and that his wife did not know that he was on his way home.
The convoy took us into downtown Los Angeles and let us off a little after midnight in a parking lot within walking distance of the bus station and the street railway to places with names that the comedians of the day used in jokes: Anaheim, Cucamonga, and Azusa. The neighborhood was a bit seedy and the fog was as dense as what I encountered in Scotland three-years before. When about to say goodbye I asked the GI how he was going to get home. He said, “My wife doesn’t have a phone, I’ll wait until morning and I’ll ask someone to let me phone her place of work.”
When I offered to pay his fare for what would be a forty-five minute ride on the street railway, he wanted to know what I was going to do. I advised that because I didn’t have enough money left for even the fleabag hotel that we were standing in front of, I would wait until daylight and find my way to Highway 101. There I could resume hitchhiking to San Diego. He insisted that I go with him.
The ride on the street railway in the direction of Anaheim was eerie. We couldn’t see any buildings and knew that the motorman was navigating by keeping account of turns. My soldier host had never been on the route before; his wife moved into the region after he was sent overseas. We had to trust the conductor when he said, “This is your stop.”
We descended into the gloom, waited for the double-car tram to pass and then walked in a direction that we hoped was perpendicular to the tracks. We judged correctly and then were able to guide ourselves by touching picket fences. We could not see any houses. After a while the GI opened a gate and said, “I’ll see if this is it.”
After a few such tries he found the correct house number and came back through the fog for me. Then he ascended the three-step porch and rapped on the door. The time was past one o’clock. What happened next was better that any such scene filmed in Hollywood.
A light came on inside and a women’s frightened voice asked, “Who is it?”
When he responded the door burst open. She literally leaped! Because of the back lighting that suddenly stabbed through the fog, in the fleeting second until they hugged, her body was silhouetted perfectly through her flimsy nightie.
Late in the morning as I was starting to stir because the smell of frying bacon was permeating the little wartime jerry-built house, another blond, also in a nightie and also unusually friendly, shook me awake. The one I met the night before had already left for work and the GI was cooking my breakfast.
Later he gave me a ride in his wife’s jalopy to Highway 101 where I said goodbye to ecstatic, almost three-year old, Tammy who just that morning met her dad for the first time!
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo