He was barely a dot when we first saw him . . . a dark object moving out there on the horizon where the buffalo grass of the Rosebud Indian Reservation met a stark summer sky so blue and so forever that it could have been one of those portals to or from another universe, and for all I knew, the person moving out there had just stepped through it.
The dot on the horizon angled toward us, and yet somehow managed to keep pace with, and stay abreast of us despite his angling approach.
My buddy, Don Benjamin, and I trudged on through the hot August afternoon, heading due south on Highway 83, but, keeping an eye on the moving dot as it approached. As yet, we were not worried — not exactly.
Despite two threats against our lives a day earlier, we didn’t know then that meeting this speck on the horizon would, in some ways, be one of our most memorable adventures as we hitchhiked from the Canadian border near Minot, North Dakota, to McCook, NE, our home town.
Don and I spent the summer working for what was called a core drilling outfit. Back in the early 1950’s, oil had been discovered in Western Nebraska. A few of the lucky ones — high plains, dry-land farmers one day, and oil-rich sheiks-of-the-pains the next — were able to give up farming with the discovery of oil beneath their parched acres. Western Nebraska — McCook included — was suddenly overrun with Midwestern Jed Clampets driving Cadillacs and Buicks to town instead of weary two-cylinder John Deere tractors, or chuffing old corn-row pickers spewing spare parts and next of kin.
Core drillers were the vanguard crews that explored for the oil pooled beneath these endless wind-blown plains. A core drilling rig consisted of two trucks — the core driller’s truck which contained a folding boom that made it look like a miniature oil well when erect — and a thousand-gallon water truck driven by the driller’s helper. The driller’s helper — me — did the grunt work unloaded the large water pan that collected the endless tons of wet sand and gravel washed up during the drilling process. And it was me for my crew — and Don for his crew — who scooped the contents of this pan into soggy molehills along the roads and ditches one hot summer day after another.
There were five or six crews like this. Each crew drilled at least four holes a day, which were later stuffed with dynamite and exploded simultaneously by guys with seismographs in their trucks. The results of each shoot were captured on graph paper pouring from a machine that looked like a first cousin to a lie detector.
Our jobs — Don’s and mine– as drillers’ helpers started that spring when school let out, and finished with the end of summer just after we helped the crew move to its new location along the Canadian border north of Minot, ND.
They asked us if we wanted to stay and work in Canada, but I had a couple of years of high school to finish, and besides, the word was out that we’d be working so far north, that we’d be sleeping in our trucks several nights a week.
Besides, winter was coming. Canada is a big and cold place in winter. McCook, NE — a town I always thought of as NOWHERE — seemed like SOMEWHERE as I peered across the border into the vastness of the Canadian steppes. Don and I glanced at each other and, without a word, decided to head south.
I was 16 then, and Don was 18, and being young and fearless, we decided to hitchhike to save money. More than once on that journey, we thought about, even talked about finding the nearest bus station. But something always intervened.
And so began a two-day journey that tested each of us, and taught us in ways that only facing death and the unknown can teach innocently fearless young lions who don’t know yet that failure and dying are real possibilities.
In the next 48 hours, or thereabouts, our lives were threatened twice, and we nearly froze in a driving, icy rain while making our escape from one situation and we were nearly dashed to death on the road while riding 80 mph standing up on the back of a streaking, trailerless 18-wheeler.
But most of all, it was meeting Man-With-Hammer that continues to haunt me all these years later. Something about that encounter taught me an inward awareness I am still unable to explain.
Later that day, after meeting Man-With-Hammer, we also met a grizzled old man who sang “Oh, Rang Dang Do” as he drank straight whiskey from a bottle in a bed he jury rigged in the back of his 1948 Oldsmobile convertible car, and we were chased by a tornado that followed us later that night during a ferocious thunderstorm just a few miles from our destination.
Our first brush with finality occurred at the end of our first day on the road. We’d had some luck picking up rides as we headed south out of Minot, mostly from local folks who ferried us the few miles to wherever it was they turned off the main road. The afternoon passed quickly with these short rides. But they became fewer and fewer as the hot afternoon ticked by.
Since it was summer, darkness didn’t arrive until around 9 p.m. By then, we were somewhere on a lonesome stretch of Highway 83 with nothing to eat, no cars in sight, and the anvil-shaped head of a thunder-boomer just peeking over the southwestern horizon. Having grown up with these things, we knew that by midnight, somewhere out on these plains that storm would break around us.
Highway 83 is one of the longest continuous north-south highways in the country, so far as I know. At least it is when you’re walking it. It starts somewhere in Canada north of Minot, and drops straight south to Loredo, TX, where is disappears into Mexico. On its journey through the center of the country, this nothing-and-go-nowhere-highway slices through plains and plateaus so rich in soil and crops, and so grand in their thousands of square miles that even if the earth were flat, it would be impossible to see their far side. Highway 83 also threads its way through truly forgettable places like Max and Moffit ND, Selby and Vivian SD, and Thedford, Wellfleet and McCook, NE.
But that particular night, any one of these forgettable places would have been a welcome refuge. Along about midnight, with the temperature dropping fast, big, fat raindrops began splattering around us like ripe bullfrogs dropped from a great height. Thunder thumped ominously overhead while lightening arced through cloud tops 50,000 feet above us. And just about then, we spotted headlights and raised out thumbs.
Our first inkling that we were in trouble came when we heard screams and shouts coming from the car before it stopped. It started swerving and screeching tires as soon as it’s headlights picked us out of the huge raindrops splattering on a car’s windshield like June bugs.
“Hey,” shouted a voice from the car as it whined to a stop, “you guys need a ride?”
“Hop in,” said another.
We were still slightly in front of the car and blinded by its headlights so we couldn’t see who or how many they were. Already the smell of alcohol wafted out of the car and began to envelop us like a fog bank. Don and I traded glances full of question marks.
Jumping into a car full of unknown drunks on a dark night in a strange land that was soon to be inundated with one of those archetypal “frog drownders” that roll out across the plains on hot summer nights did not appeal to me or Don. But those rain drops were getting big. Some stung like they had hail in them. And there wasn’t a light out there anywhere, not even a typical farm-light-on-a-pole that marked a farmstead where sober people live. We were alone. Night, and the ice-laden rain was at our backs, while before us, just a couple of steps away was safe harbor — dubious though it was. A few more sharp cracks on the head from the rain settled it. We dove into the back seat of the car.
Several things came clear to us all at once. First, the car was a two-door. No easy way out, now, except over the three drunks in the front seat. Second the entire floor of the back seat was knee deep in empty beer and whiskey bottles. Third, you could anaesthetize a full-grown Hereford bull in the midst of performing his primary farm function with the alcohol fumes in the back seat of that car. More glances between Don and me.
In the beginning, I wasn’t too worried. At that time in my life I was quite fit. A year of playing football at McCook High, followed by a summer of scooping wet sand and gravel had left me lean and trim. But sadly, my five-foot, eight-inch body weighed a scant 140 pounds. I viewed Don, at this point, as my secret weapon. He was lean and mean, too, and better yet, he stood around six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He was a giant in my eyes. So, aside from the discomfort of inhaling numbing fumes and listening to three guys rave on as though we weren’t there, I felt reasonably safe as the old two-door lurched into the storm that crackled above us.
We were generally headed in a southerly direction . . . the direction Don and I wanted to go. I say generally because these guys were driving a zigzag course, designed to waste time, all the while keeping them close to wherever it was they came from.
They would drive a mile east of the highway, and at the section line, go a mile south to the next section line, and then back to the highway, cross the highway, go a mile west, then south a mile, and then back the highway. Then, they’d do it all over again. All of this was happening at around 10 miles an hour while these guys drank beer and whiskey in gulps and slurps. Our forward progress was about two miles an hour.
Meanwhile it had begun to rain proverbial things from the sky in sheets that were mixed with hail that hit so hard we wondered whether the glass was going stay in the car.
After a few more minutes of this, the driver lost it. The car waffled, but didn’t quite make it through a low spot filled with cold rainwater. The driver, already blind drunk, gunned it, but it didn’t help. The car sloshed and slipped to an ignoble stop, half on the road and half in the ditch. The rear end pointed to the ditch, which put us in a pitched-back state, kind of like we were all sitting in reclining chairs. It also meant that, in terms of level, our heads — Don’s and mine– we below theirs. They had the high ground.
We thought things had been bad up to that point. But we were in for more surprises. Our three unknown benefactors decided we should drink with them, and they stuffed bottles into our hands from across the front seat. There was an edge to their voices, now, and Don, being a couple years older, and therefore, wiser, advised me to act like I was drinking. When the guys in front weren’t looking, Don and I tipped our bottles and dumped our beer in dribs and drabs into the mess at our feet.
The guys in front started talking about local news, like who was in jail and who was out, and what they were in or out for. Someone they knew was in for manslaughter, and that got them to talking about killing people.
“You guys ever kill anyone,” someone from the front seat called to us.
More glances between me and Don. It was more a probing of us than a valid question. What to say? What should we say . . . Yes, and try to bluff it out — No, and sound like wimps. It sounded like that old trick question — Have you quit beating your wife yet? — a question with no right answer. As it turned out, we didn’t have to answer. Before we could dream up something, one of the guys in the front seat let out a hog-calling “Heuuuiieeee!!!” and screamed, “Man!!! I feel like killin’ someone.”
It got real quiet then. The rain rattled on the top of the car and I noticed Don draining the remainder of his beer onto the floorboard. He turned his bottle over in the dark and clutched it in his hands, low between his knees, like club. I did the same.
Maybe it was just that we were strangers here, far from home, cold, wet, hungry, and young, but Don and I interpreted all this as ominous at best, and with us as targets at worst. There we sat, rain and hail raking us like machine gun fire, our backs to a ditch full of cold water, trapped in 1949 two-door rattletrap with guys who wanted to kill someone.
It was Don, the older and wiser, who delivered us.
“Hell,” Don said, “get us out of this ditch and I’ll get us someone to kill. I know just the guy who needs killin’.”
The hog-caller up front whirled around and studied Don through eyes that looked maniacal in the dim light from the dash. He was drunk, but he was also tasting Don’s words, probing Don’s sincerity.
“Yeah . . . an’ jus’ who’d th’t be?” he asked, slurring his words and wagging his head from side to side. I remember thinking his mother must have done that to him — wagged her head and mocked him — when he was a child.
To my utter surprise, Don began describing a sweet old farmer who lived south of McCook. Don had worked for him off and on.
“Guy’s name is John,” Don said, squinting, putting an edge on his voice. “John Leibrandt. Never goes anywhere without a shotgun, and he’ll pop off a shot for no reason at all. He’s dangerous, and needs killin’.”
I opened my mouth, but Don thumped me on the kneecap with his beer bottle. Despite the fact that hog-caller wanted to kill someone, and we’d probably do if he couldn’t find anyone else, I found it difficult to keep a straight face. Don was describing old John Leibrandt. But, for our protection, Don had perverted his story about John Leibrandt. John, like a lot of farmers around McCook, often had an old shotgun rattling around somewhere in his truck. John also had an insatiable liking for fried pheasant, and so, whenever he got the chance, he’d whip out old Betsy and pot one wherever he found it, winter or summer, so long as the game warden wasn’t around.
Hog-caller pondered Don’s story as best he could. At length, he said, “So . . . where’s he live?”
“On a farm south of town.” Don didn’t say which town, and they didn’t ask.
“Well, it’s fer sure we ain’t gettin’ outta here ’til this rain stops,” hog-caller said. “Let’s get some sleep . . . let this rain go on by. We’ll bail outta here in the mornin’ an’ go have a look at this guy.”
He was right about not getting the car out of there, but, while he talked, Don made signs at the cranks below the two windows in the back of the car. I understood. Don and I laid back and waited for about an hour, until we heard the sleeping sounds of the utterly anaesthetized coming from the front seat. Quietly, we rolled down the window on my side. It only would only go slightly less than half way down — a safety feature of the day designed to keep children from getting out of moving cars. But that didn’t matter. We were trapped animals, and in the space of a couple of the longest hours of our lives, we came to understand some basic things about being trapped, like how to squeeze quietly through a space too small for either of us. Now, we were not only cold, hungry, alone and frightened, we were scraped, and getting soaked in a freezing rain.
But we were free!
By God, we were free!
It rained steadily as we slogged along the muddy road to the highway. What a joy was that highway. Even in the rain, it was luxurious with its hard, flat surface. No more slipping. No more five-pound mud balls clinging to each foot. As the first pink tentacles of dawn broke over the eastern hills, we marched down the middle of the highway letting the rain wash the smoke and alcohol from our clothes and the mud from our feet. We shivered like new puppies, but we never looked back.
An hour and a half later, with the sun breaking through, we heard the approaching cab-over, minus its trailer. The driver, a moon-faced fat man, slowed to a stop and leaned out of the window.
“You boys look damn-neart-drowneded . . . where ya headed?”
“We’re looking for a place to eat, ” I said, and saying it seemed to open a channel from my sympathetic hunger system, if there is such a thing, to my stomach. I was starved, ravenous. Even the heat coming this truck’s engine smelled good.
The trucker eyed us with more suspicion than I thought we deserved. “Well,” he said, “there’s a little town about 10 miles down the road. Hop on, if ya want, an’ I’ll give ya a lift.”
We climbed up the first step and popped open the passenger-side door. A big moon-face met us sternly. “I said ‘on,’ not in,” the trucker said. “You boys ride back there,” he motioned, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, indicating the place where the saddle tanks attached to the truck’s frame. Don and I dropped to the road, and one of those say-everything-in-three-seconds conversations, complete with grunts and unfinished sentences happened between us.
We clambered up on the saddle tanks and stood perilously on the five-inch wide steel frame jutting from beneath the cab.
“Hey,” I complained, “there’s nothing to hang on to . . .”
Don pointed the dangling air brake lines. They were tethered to the back of the truck.
“Hang on to these,” he said as gears meshed and, without it’s load, the tuck loped down the highway. I tried hanging on with my toes. I knew it wasn’t helping, but it felt like I was doing something positive.
One after another, moon-face went through the gears, and each time our bounding gait took on a new level of peril. Don leaned down and peered through the window in the back of the cab.
“Sixty-five,” he yelled over the whir of the big duals. Another “clunk,” followed by a “chunk” from the big tranny, and the speed continued to climb. Don peeked again. “Seventy-five,” he yelled, squinting against the wind.
I believe that if Don and I hadn’t learned to ride horses at an early age, we would have been goners right there. There is a particularly strange gait a horse gets into just as they enter a trot. If you don’t know how to roll with it, it feels like you’ll sever your brain stem. This ride was a lot like that except that we had to keep our knees loose instead of our necks. We looked like three-year-olds playing horsy There we were, knees bent, backs hunched, hanging on to those loosey-goosey hydraulic lines like they were reins, our feet occasionally bouncing a couple of inches into the air, and the road streaking by beneath us at a blur. If there’s a trucker anywhere out there with the nerve to tell me these 18-wheelers are rough-riding old bitches on the inside, I’d like to invite him to ride one standing on its frame at 80 mph on a bumpy old blacktop highway with nothing but those hoses to hang onto.
On top of that, our clothes were still wet. Due to evaporation, the effective temperature near our skin on that chilly morning, streaking down the highway in a crouch, was around 40 to 45 degrees . . . not enough to freeze, but Don and I wondered whether we’d ever recover.
We discovered we could still walk as we pulled into the big country-style gas station about a half mile off the highway. Old moon-face leaned out and barked orders. “You boys go in there and get some sweet rolls,” he demanded. “I like the ones with chocolate,” he said. “I’ll wait for you in the truck.” As we hobbled stiff-legged into the station-restaurant, he yelled after us, “An’ get some milk.”
“Murderin’ son-of-a-bitch,” Don fumed as we limped into the restaurant. He added a few other choice words after placing our order, something about an activity in which the trucker might have participated with his mother. Don ordered some great looking cinnamon rolls, two quarts of milk, two big cups of black coffee, and NOTHING with chocolate.
“What about . . .?” I worried aloud.
The only thing Don could do worse than swearing when he was pissed off was to go silent. Bad medicine usually followed when Don quit swearing at someone and clamped his jaw shut. I knew something was up when he refused to answer. He just sat there, smiling one of those little grim reaper smiles of his.
As we paid, Don asked where the men’s room was. This was one of those pre-Interstate places, before super-highways and super-johns. It was a well-built, all wood, large gas stations/with-restaurant that had ordinary johns in them. Men’s rooms in places like this were always in the back of the building. They had ordinary windows, too.
As soon as we entered the men’s room, Don handed the sack to me, and went to the window. His 200 pounds popped it loose on the first try.
“C’mon,” he said, stepping through the window, “let’s get out of here.” I followed Don out the window, and we made our way along the back of the station to a road with a ditch that took us out to the highway in a way that moon-face couldn’t see us. We turned south on the highway, and as we did, Don spotted a flat place on top of a hill on the other side of the road.
“Up there,” he said, making for the far side of the road.
It was a short but steep climb to the mini-mesa. It put us about 30 feet above the traffic on the road. Once there, we dived into the bag of pastry. After nearly losing our lives twice in the same night — on an empty stomach, to boot — and almost freezing to death in our own clothes, nothing — absolutely nothing — ever tasted quite so good as that sack full of sticky cinnamon rolls washed down with sweet milk and hot coffee. And nothing ever felt quite so good as that mid-morning August sun taking the last of the wet from our clothes and warming us down to our bones.
We cleaned up our mess, and then like a pair of cold-blooded reptiles, we stretched out in the stiff buffalo grass, warmed by the sun, and listened to the traffic shush along below. It had been a long and death-defying night and morning, but for now, we felt safe. At last, we held the high ground. It didn’t take long with our bellies full, the sun on our faces, and breathing the air of freedom before we fell into a stupor. We slept the abiding sleep of the saved and the victorious.
The warmth we sought earlier woke us a couple of hours later. We were sweaty, but we felt better with a little sleep. It didn’t take long to catch a ride and we were on our way and without a rerun of the night before we hoped.
Several rides and hours later, we were dumped out at the northern boundary of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Traffic was thin in the midday heat, and we started hiking again. Half an hour later, we spotted the speck on the horizon, which grew until we could plainly see it was an old Indian in a western shirt, jeans, and a straw hat . . . and, to our consternation, he carried a claw-hammer in his right hand.
He was short, but his shoulders were powerful. His head and face were square with upturned slits for eyes. His nose was sharp and short and notched where it joined his forehead.
Don and I slowed our pace a little as he approached. We were acutely interested in what he had in mind for the hammer he carried, but we didn’t stop waking. To our surprise, he joined up with us and began matching us step for step, although he stayed about a step ahead of us. He didn’t speak and neither did we. As we walked along, I began calling him Man-With-Hammer.
If this had been a movie, it probably would have looked like one of those Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns where the camera comes in tight on the eyes, and guys look back and forth at each other a lot. Don and I had been buddies for some time, and we did a good job of reading each other. This was the place in our real-life movie where our eyes got a serious workout.
“What the hell do you think?” my eyes widened into question marks.
“Damned if I know,” his eyebrows arched.
“What about that hammer?” quizzed my eyes, rolling repeatedly in the direction of his right hand.
“Better not try anything,” Don’s eyes answered, glancing down at a his fist, which he wadded into a white-knuckled ball.
“Right,” I replied with a long, hard wink.
“Damned straight,” Don confirmed, pressing his lips together and narrowing his eyes to slits.
“What’ll we do if he . . .?” I asked, signing with eyes wide, eyebrows arched way up, hands palm up, fingers splayed, and shoulders in a frozen shrug.
Don’s mouth narrowed but didn’t close. He clenched together the two eyeteeth on the right side of his mouth, and his eyes turned to slits. He completed a swift, almost invisible kick with his foot, and then wagged his head at me. Next, he clenched his fist again and raised it partially toward his waist. Interpretation: You’re short, so you kick him in the nuts, and I’ll paste him in the face with my fist.
That got another wink from me.
With all that said, we settled into a steady but wary march down the shoulder of the road. Still, I grudgingly began to give ground. He was short, but he walked tall, and he looked straight ahead, like he knew where he was going. That we were there, and slightly behind — where we had the advantage — didn’t seem to bother him. There was purpose in his demeanor, but what the purpose was, I couldn’t guess. Little by little, I, too, found myself walking taller, matching his stride.
He would fix his eye on something, usually in the distance, and I found myself peering out there, too, looking for whatever was so interesting. He took great interest in the prairie hawks riding invisible updrafts of rising summer air, and when they stooped for a kill, his eyes locked on them like radar tracking a target.
But he did not speak or slow his pace. In fact, he now set the pace. We were adjusting to his gait. For all I could see, he was a self-contained unit, complete with an internal guidance system.
I began to feel like a satellite orbiting its mother planet.
Suddenly, after about 30 minutes of silent hiking, Man-With-Hammer abruptly veered off to the right, and struck out across the shimmering prairie. There was no marker, no sign that said this way, no visible foot path, and nothing — no buildings, rising column of smoke, or beacons of any kind — in the direction he traveled . . . just an endless horizontal line where earth met sky. I looked at Don. “Whew,” my eyes said.
Don cocked one eyebrow. “Yeah,” it said.
We watched him go as he came, growing smaller and smaller but always abreast of us. I wondered how he did that. His departure, like his approach, had to be faster because, now, he was angling away from us. He had to move faster just to stay even.
Finally, whatever it was that spawned him, now swallowed him. His dot merged with a gray-blue line out there where grass and horizon blurred together, and he was gone from us.
I felt strangely alone as we soldiered on against the shimmers of heat that were building to another summer storm to the south and west of us.
At about that time, I thought I was hearing the crackle of the as-yet-distant storm. But then I realized the noise was coming from behind us. Don heard it, too, and we turned to see a 1948 black Oldsmobile convertible growling to a stop behind us. It had no muffler and its occupant, a grizzled old man with a three-day growth of white whiskers and no teeth leaned out the window, and shouted above the noise, “Where ya headed?”
We told him McCook, NE.
“Ain’t goin’ that far,” he grinned, but I’ll take you as far as Valentine . . . on one condition . . .”
More Clint Eastwood looks.
“Now what?” my eyes pleaded.
“Damned if I know,” Don’s replied.
Out loud, Don said, “What . . . what condition?” “On condition you drive.”
“Okay,” Don said, and we piled in.
As we did so, our guest bounded over the seat onto a mattress that laid almost even with the tops of the seat-backs.
“I live in this old car,” he explained above the roar of the engine. He went on to tell us all sorts of things, about where he lived, where he was going, children. For one thing, he was chimney sweep by trade.
He held up his hands as proof. They were black as the road we drove on.
“Feel ’em,” he commanded, thrusting them into the front seat between us. I would have started worrying, what with a guy we didn’t know asking us to feel his hands, but this time, it was him in the back seat, not us. Besides, for once I was bigger than he was. And he must have been 70, maybe older. And spindly. He looked like an emaciated Gabby Hays.
Don and I didn’t even check eyes. I groped one hand, and Don pinched the other.
“Hard, ain’t they?” he asked.
“The soot does that,” he explained. “Makes ’em hard as wood . . .” and he trailed off for a moment, and then, to my surprise, a fifth of whiskey appeared in the space between Don and me.
“Drink?” he asked.
We both shook our head.
The old man took a long pull on the bottle, and then another before he spoke again. “I’m going to get some sleep,” he said, “but before I do, I want to sing you boys my favorite song.
This was just too good, and we passed a couple of looks between us.
“Are ya ready?” he asked, sounding like a child asking his playmates if they were ready to play.
“Ready,” we yelled.
“Here goes,” he said, taking another pull from the bottle.
He put his head back and sang:
Oh rang dang do,
Oh rang dang do.
Oh, what is that
So big and fat
Like a pussy cat
That hangs on you.
He sang it two or three times more, and each time, he laughed and squirmed on his mattress. His eyes twinkled like a child who had just opened a Christmas gift. Finally, wrung out from laughter, he rolled over and passed out.
I don’t know how he slept in that car. It was one of those 100- degree plus days, one of those pre-air-conditioned-car days. It had to be hotter inside the car than outside. Add the incessant roar of an engine with no muffler barreling down the road, and I just couldn’t imagine how that old guy could sleep.
He was still sleeping when we pulled into Valentine around 6 p.m. We woke him, handed him his car keys, and said good-bye. Then, we found a restaurant. It was the first sit-down meal we’d had since we left Minot. Looking back, I don’t remember it being all that good, but after 36 hours of being hi-jacked, roller-coastered, rained on, and sung to, all on about two hour’s sleep, it was good enough that we praised the old lady who served us so much so that she gave us seconds. We wolfed that down, too.
“Think we’ll make it home tonight?” I asked as headed down main street for the highway.
“Maybe,” Don said. “If not tonight, by morning for sure.”
Almost immediately, we picked up a ride out of Valentine that took us straight down to North Platte, NE. We got in around 10 that night, as I remember, and shortly thereafter, we were picked up by a family of four in a big station wagon. With the exception of the two-hours sleep I had up on the mesa somewhere in the Dakotas that morning, I had been up and fighting for my life for about 40 hours. So had Don, but his tank carried a larger reserve than mine. I literally passed out as the station wagon crossed the outskirts of North Platte and headed due south. Next stop: McCook.
But I hardly closed my eyes, or so it seemed, when I awoke to Don calling me out of my fog-bound sleep.
“Wake up . . . wake up,” he called.
“Are we home?” I asked.
“NO!!! LOOK!!!” he cried. “TORNADO . . . TORNADO.”
I bolted up and peered out the window where Don pointed. It was another night like the night before . . . thunder, lightening, rain, hail, and now, a tornado!
“See it??? See it!!!” Don yelled as great arcing bolts of lightening sprinted overhead.
One . . . two . . . three crackling bolts backlit the sky, and sure enough, there it was, like a great black pillar rising straight into the clouds that boiled above us. It was about fifty yards off to our right, and running parallel with us. We followed it, or it followed us for a few more minutes, and when the next series of lightening bolts zipped jiggedy-jaggedy through the sky, it was gone.
The adrenaline from that kept us all awake until we reached McCook. Don and I took our bedraggled selves off to our homes. I slept for a couple of days.
I went back to school, and shortly thereafter, Don joined the US Army. We drifted apart, then. Each of us had our own things to do . . . lives and marriages and children. And, in Don’s case, wars to fight. He became a Green Beret, I heard, and when Viet Nam came along, he was one of first in, and he lived to tell about it.
I suppose that now, after dodging bullets in a jungle, the things that happened to us on that trip seem tame to Don.
But I wonder if he still remembers Man-With-Hammer and the ambiguities he raised in us. After all, hog-caller, moon-face, and the chimney sweep had agendas, strange as they were. As long as these agendas were identifiable, they could be dealt with, even if we did it by running into the night, or hanging on for our lives, or groping an old man’s hands.
But Man-With-Hammer . . . he was different. He had no agenda. He didn’t bark orders, ask personal questions, drag us down the highway at 80 mph or sing dirty songs to us. He simply shared himself and the day with us.
For me, the hammer was a focal point and a mirror. The more I focused on it, the more I saw me. Life came into sharp focus while that hammer swung in his hand. I forgot the heat or how tired I was. Suddenly, I felt the heart in my chest pulsing life into my body, and the hum of my being coursing in my soul. Probably for the first time in my young life, I really looked at the prairie upon which I had been raised. It was no longer a boring and endless place, especially so long as a dark and powerful man with a hammer walked nearby.
All these years later, I don’t give a damn about those guys in the car, or the trucker, or how many more songs the chimney sweep could sing, but I’d give a lot to go back and ask Man-With-Hammer what were his really important things in life.
In the end, Man-With-Hammer forced us to see . . . to see ourselves. He shined a light into some of our darker rooms. There is less in there to fear than I thought.
He gave us a gift that day, a simple standard by which we could illuminate and measure ourselves against all the hog-callers, moon-faces, and chimney sweeps we would encounter in the years ahead.