August, 1968

What follows is the draft of a chapter of a book I am working on, one based on my experiences as a 16-year-old in 1968. This chapter covers the most dramatic events in my personal life that year and takes place in Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands and Belgium. I am trying to combine the academic and the personal, as I do in Unfolding. As a matter of fact, some of the incidents recounted here also appear there, and I have taken the liberty of using a few passages from Unfolding as the bases of parts of this chapter:

Prague_Castle_View_To_Eastern

GPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=800795

Sorry, I can’t stop and talk now
I’m in kind of a hurry anyhow.

–Phil Ochs, “Tape from California”

You could tell who was intent on traveling at the start of each day. They would be the ones who had kept almost everything packed, who rolled out of bed and into their clothes and then out of the hostel hardly stopping for the simple breakfast usually provided. Foremost among these were the hitchhikers, for they had to race to the highways before others displaced them at the heads of the queues.

There were thousands of young hitchhikers across Europe that year, more than in the United States, and they moved everywhere, mingling with others from myriad countries and cultures. It’s not my memory inflating them: “As travel had become a fundamental aspect of the new European youth culture, so it was fundamental to the youth political movements of 1968 and their transnational, even Europeanist, sensibility.”[1]  So wrote Richard Ivan Jobs four decades later. The numbers were huge and didn’t include only Europeans. There were Japanese, South Americans, Australians. And, of course, Americans. The ‘sensibility’ wasn’t limited to one continent.

Life on the road, however, wasn’t as easy or romantic as it might seem, given the numbers who flocked to try. It takes a great deal of planning to successfully hitch, as well as endurance. You have to figure out where to be and when to be there—and have to have as many alternative routes in mind as possible, and contingency plans. One almost never arrives quite when and where one expects. So, one gets at it as early as possible, hoping for the best and expecting the worst. That was especially true in 1968, in the day when thousands traveled by thumb, each highway on-ramp generally hosting one or two seated on guitar cases or backpacks or standing more hopefully, one leg cocked, arm straight out, thumb up.

Given the multitude, it was easy for someone like me, new to European hitching, to drop into the moving culture, gaining tips from the more experienced on everything from strategies to food to destinations and then quickly sharing what I had discovered with the next newcomer. No one was truly an old-timer on the road; all of us were young and, generally, inexperienced. Our pooled knowledge, though, gave us abilities often beyond individual years. Though it could be lonely on the road, the culture of the evenings that centered on the youth hostels gave a sense of belonging even in places we had never been. Participation in it quickly became as important to us as the places we were visiting, particularly for someone, like me, traveling alone.  Jobs writes:

Just as the early modern grand tour of the aristocratic young had been as much about visiting and identifying with other people as it was about seeing other places, travel by middle-class youth in 1968 functioned as part of a collective identity across Europe based on age and politics. Young people were traveling specifically to meet one another rather than to visit a particular location; destinations were determined by activism more than tourism. And just as the traditional Grand Tour preceded the rise of the modern nation-state, the Grand Tours of 1968 challenged the nation-state by anticipating its decline.[2]

Of course, I had no idea, at the time, what I was involved in. Differences in origin were simply that; we were one by choice, by hair styles and clothes, by politics and by age. Some people didn’t like it. The manager of the youth hostel in Munich would shoo crowds out of the courtyard, yelling that we should be seeing the sights, not talking with each other. We were living something, but we really had no more of a clue what it was than he did, for all the discussions we felt were so deep and serious and meaningful. For us Americans, no matter our pontifications, we had no real idea that, as Norman Mailer would soon write, “the Republic hovered on the edge of revolution, nihilism, and lines of police on file to the horizon, visions of future Vietnams in our own cities upon us.”[3] We didn’t understand what was going on, not on an emotional level, not even as we talked of revolution, for we didn’t really understand what that means. In a sense, we were all deeply conservative, taking advantage of the basic stability surrounding us to live unstable lives. Yes, we were antiwar. Yes, we had consciously decided to “live for today,” as the song by the Rokes (and then the Grass Roots) advises, and not “worry about tomorrow.” But I don’t think many of us really understood what we were about or how tied we were to the establishment we railed against. A generation younger than Mailer and most of the others who tried to illuminate the waters we swam in, we did not have the experience that would give us the ability to see the limits of our little pool. We didn’t want to listen to the Mailers anyhow; they, we thought, we merely grabbing onto our coattails. “There is,” Mailer would write, “no history without nuance.”[4] We were trying to abandon both.

We talked and, in our arrogance, talked ourselves into believing what we said.

Even so, we were learning. Especially those of us now experiencing the difficulty of living on our own and surviving by our own wits. Though we knew that, for most of us, the safety net of home remained intact, the fact of that couldn’t help us through the immediacy of the problems we faced in getting from place to place.

The great virtue of the hitchhiker, we were learning, was patience. Though we rushed to get to our starting points, we quickly discovered that we may have hours ahead of us before a ride comes along. Or, sometimes, even days. There are no guarantees and no schedules, only the waiting, doing nothing but watching the road. Some people, in those crowded days, tried to read, sticking up their thumbs at the noise of an approaching vehicle, but this never seemed to work so well. One needs to seem to care about the ride, almost willing the car or truck to stop, desire nearly strong enough to pull it to a stop at the side of the road just a few feet further along. Until, of course, it disappears, raising a little more of the road dust that covered everything by the end of the day, down into the deepest recesses of one’s pack.

Almost all of us, by the time we got to day’s end, were desperate for conversation, for people like us with similar concerns, similar looks and similar language. We had set out to find the difference but were discovering the draw of the like. And we were very much alike.

Though you occasionally saw a hitchhiker with a suitcase, most of us carried frameless backpacks or, especially if military or a former serviceman (servicewomen were rare in those days, and never seen on the road), a duffle bag. The hitchhikers packed light, rarely carrying more than the absolute minimum they needed. They had a change of clothes or two but only the shoes on their feet—or maybe with a pair of flip-flops stuck in the pack. Learning through experience of our own or through the advice of people who may have been on the road for all of a week longer, each of us carried a towel and a book or two, trading these last when done. In there somewhere was a toilet kit, including a bar of soap. Most bags also contained food for the day, purchased along the way to the highway in the small stores one passed: a small loaf of bread, perhaps some cheese or salami, a bit of fruit, a container of yogurt. Like most, I had a pocket knife, a spoon and a fork. And, of course, my maps. Some of us had hats (no baseball caps) and most had sunglasses. Everyone had some sort of kerchief, small protection against the dust or, at least, a way of wiping some of it away. Knowing you could end up walking for hours, you were loath to carry more.

Never having tasted yogurt back home (it was not yet popular in the States), I had to be instructed in the ins-and-outs of its eating. Only get the ones with fruit on the bottom, that you have to stir up. The others have too much junk mixed in, and the yogurt culture has probably died (or so we believed); you eat it as much for your stomach as for your mouth. Eat it slowly; you are not carrying much food and may not find more until evening, if then. Eat the yogurt first, but space it out so that you will not be reaching back into your pack for the bread and cheese too early.

Paradoxically, there was but one absolute similarity of the hitchhikers that summer—and that, as I have said, was youth. Some of us clearly could have been driving our own cars but wanted to mix with the exploding culture of their peers. Some of the drivers, in fact, stopped for the same reason. Others were students traveling on the cheap, temporarily ‘distressed’ but with great possibilities. A few were genuine drop-outs, men and women who had decided to seek an alternative to the money-driven path, often seeking a spiritual ‘solution’ in the tradition of Somerset Maugham’s Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge. There were even those using the burgeoning life on the road to move up a notch or two on the social scale, getting to know those from better circumstances than their own.

Most of us, both male and female, wore hair below our shoulders, though there wasn’t any standard and no one used hair to separate sheep from goats. Most of our backpacks lacked frames, making them perfect for stuffing into small places in already overcrowded cars. Americans did not like to sew flags onto theirs, but people from other countries often did, often simply to differentiate themselves from us, whose numbers were growing daily. Our clothes, of every variety imaginable, weren’t particularly clean, but we tended to be. Too filthy, and we’d never get rides. I don’t ever recall a woman hitching alone. In twos and threes or with a man, but never by themselves. Drug use, which I’m sure was there, was circumspect; I, for one, never saw it.

Politics, as I have said, dominated our talk. The May unrest in France made the power of youth something we all believed in and took seriously. We believed we really were in a position to change the world. Both the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would crumble, Vietnam being America’s last hurrah and the Prague Spring showing that the wall around the USSR and its client states had been breached.

The uncertainty of hitching could become a particular problem for those relying on youth hostels for their rooms, for the hostels generally had early closing hours—sometimes stopping check-in as early as seven. If one did not arrive before that time, it was likely that there would be no other place to stay, outside of a hotel and, for many of us, hotels were beyond our means. Plus, the hostels filled early that summer, with so many young people out and on the road. Having never experienced such demand, they were almost completely unprepared for what they were experiencing. For us, that meant travel in small steps, trying to arrive in the early afternoons before people were turned away. I’d discovered that 150 kilometers, about the distance from Salzburg to Munich was about all one could safely plan for, and even that was stretching it.

I was heading back to Munich this day because I’d decided that Bavaria held reasonably interesting destinations within that parameter from each other. I didn’t want to try for anything more difficult.

It was already hot, that particular morning in Salzburg, about August 2nd or 3rd, though not much past seven, when I checked directions on one of my maps and strapped the stack to the top of my rucksack. I wanted to get to entrance to the autobahn toward Munich furthest from the center of town as early as I could, of course, having learned my lesson the previous day when I had given up even before starting, seeing the long line of waiting hitchhikers when I got to the entranceway around noon. Even out there and this early, I now knew, I would likely find plenty of others with their thumbs out. Still, I thought I could be at my destination by early afternoon.

By the time I got to the entrance ramp, there were already some thirty hitchhikers queued along the cloverleaf. I took my place at the end of the orderly line, slowly moving up as the sun arced overhead. We talked as we waited, exchanging tips on how to eat cheaply, discussing what was going on in the world, which hostels were most welcoming (the one in Munich was particularly mentioned as worth avoiding), trading paperbacks and tall tales and generally trying to make the time pass more quickly. Toward dusk, I reached the head of the queue, just as many of the people behind me, much more sensible and recognizing that it would be easier to find a bed now, here, than it would be later, in Munich, were giving up for the day; a Mercedes stopped and I climbed in, along with the Japanese fellow and a German also at the head of the line, the German in the front seat, the Japanese and I behind. The woman driving was headed for Munich, as we had known she probably would be.

The ride itself didn’t last long. It never seemed to, not on the autobahn and not in comparison with the standing and waiting. I was the last of the passengers dropped off, the only one heading to the center of town. The woman pulled up at the end of the tram line that would take me to the central train station, the hauptbahnhof. I grabbed my pack, not noticing as my maps, which had been tucked under the top flap, slid out. Running to catch the tram, I swung aboard, paid my fare, and collapsed into a seat opposite the second door. I was the only passenger.

Standing for ten hours in the sun is more tiring than one might imagine, and I was exhausted. We started moving, climbing up a low, long hill, finally stopping near the top. I was already dozing by the time we stopped for a traffic light.

Suddenly, I heard a pounding on that folding exit door opposite me. A woman was outside, gesturing. I looked at her, puzzled. The door opened; she threw in a bundle—my maps—and turned and ran.

And started to scream.

Her Mercedes, driver’s door still open, stopped slightly further down the hill behind the bus, had started rolling backward. She flew down toward it, losing ground at every step, her body outlined in the receding headlights.

I could see her purse swinging from an outstretched arm, still can.

As I watched, frozen, a man jumped from somewhere and stopped the car. The tram driver looked back at me. Sheepishly, I picked up the maps and he started the tram moving.

I got off at the hauptbahnhof and walked into the old botanical garden nearby. It was well after the youth hostel, as I knew, had closed for the night, so I hadn’t bothered to head out that way. After simply walking around the park for more than an hour, I decided I was too tired to continue so found a secluded bench and sat down. With my pack clutched on my lap, I closed my eyes and quickly drifted off.

A policeman woke me way too soon and I started walking again, leaving the park for the street. I could afford no place available for sleeping so wasn’t looking for a bed. So I walked and wondered how to best get through the night.

After another hour or so of this, when I began to feel too chilled to go on, I stopped into a crowded bar I had noted earlier on a street close to the hauptbahnhof, a place where I felt I might be able to warm up without notice, without being asked to buy the drink I could not afford. I pushed open the door, my pack held low to make it as inconspicuous as possible, and moved inside, keeping as close to the wall as possible. No one looked my way, so I kept on going, getting as far inside the grimy and dim place as I could.

It was packed; something was going on near the bar but I couldn’t see well what. Attention was beginning to focus, people backing up, creating a ring and allowing me to watch. Two men, one white and one black, had begun circling each other. One of them, at least, had a knife in his hand—or I thought I saw the glint of metal there though I was too tired and too far away to know for sure. Cautious, wanting to keep avoiding notice, I kept backing in the direction I had been going, heading toward the booths, relieved to be invisible while all eyes were on the action. Two new men broke through the circle of silent watchers, bouncers, I suppose, each on cue grabbing a fighter from behind, bear-hugging him. In unison, still pinning their arms to their sides, they carried the warriors to the door. I had stopped moving by then and was watching from the shadows near a back booth as the bouncers stepped away from the entrance and disappeared back into the crowd.

“American, aren’t you?” A voice from below, from a man seated alone, behind me. “Buy you a drink?” Relieved but hesitant, I turned and slid onto the opposite bench, landing cattycorner from him. Two steins of beer arrived. As we sipped them, he told me—in perfect English—that he had spent time in Wisconsin but was from Munich. He wanted to know about me, asking my age and then telling me he had known other sixteen-year-olds in Milwaukee. We sat there, drinking and talking, for hours. I was not particularly happy, more than a bit uncomfortable. But it was better than walking in the night and the buzz was pleasant.

He taught me a trick with a box of matches. Put a small hole in the top of the box, then take out one match and stand it in the hole, doing so with one hand only while also holding the box in that hand. Then take out another match and light it—still all with one hand. Next, use that match to light the other, one handed, the match heads touching so that they fuse, leaving the matchsticks stuck together at right angles. For years, I would show off this trick, but I never, ever told where I learned it or what happened later that night.

He showed me a wallet full of money—he’d gotten paid that day—and he learned, after some prodding, that I had no place to go. He invited me back to his room, where I could sleep. The second or third time, on his promise that we would sleep only, I agreed, young fool that I was. I knew the risk, from talk at the youth hostels, though my experience was absolute zero.

His was a tiny single room with a single bed up eight floors in a dreary elevator building where the bathrooms were down the hall. He told me we would have to share the bed and that I should undress—but he wouldn’t touch me, he said.

That, of course, did not prove to be true. Far from it. Perhaps I had little choice in the matter; I knew enough not to resist. It could have gotten worse; he outweighed me by a good fifty pounds, probably more.

The details of the next while don’t matter. I tried to put them out of my mind even as they were happening, only wanting it to be over and me anywhere else in the world.

When he finally fell to sleep, I crept into my clothes, moving quietly, scared of waking him. Slowly, I opened the door. The light from the hallway fell on his wallet which had dropped from his pants onto the floor in his hurry to undress, bills spilling from it. I was tempted to sweep them up and take all, but the idea passed quickly. I wanted to be out of there and away from him. Far away. Taking the money would have tied me to him in some way and would have imposed a level of responsibility I did not want. I realized that even then, in the doorway. Always, I have seen that decision as a turning point in my life.

I don’t think I could have spent the money, anyway; handling it would have made me shake. The things bought would have sickened me. I closed his door softly and waited down the hall for the elevator, scared his door would open before it came but unwilling to cast about for the stair. I left the building into the early morning chill and started walking. The light was the dim that comes just before dawn and the streets were empty. I would have run, but was scared of breaking the silence, as though it would bring him after me. I headed for the youth hostel where, I knew, a small park nearby had a bench where I could sit and wait without anyone bothering me, not that early in the day, at least.

The gate of the youth hostel swung open at about seven. I couldn’t register until later, I was aware, not until after twelve, but all I wanted was a shower stall and I knew where those were. It cost money for hot water and I had none of the necessary 10-phennig coins, but I didn’t mind. All I wanted to do was wash him away, which I did, over and over again. I have never in my life showered so long.

The stall was little but private. After a time, I washed the clothes I’d been wearing, scrubbing them as best I could with my bar of soap. Once I was finally outside again, in the courtyard, I spread the wet garments out on a bench to dry and looked around for someone to talk to.

I didn’t feel like being alone; I didn’t want to think about the night; I needed distractions.

So firmly did I push it aside, right then and there, even before I found people to talk to, that it would be years before I let myself think about it—and more after that before I told anyone.

The conversations I could overhear immediately weren’t in English and I couldn’t really speak any other language, but newcomers were appearing as quickly as people left. That manager who liked to scatter people to tourist sites, telling them they should be seeking beauty and history and not hanging around, appeared from time to time. People had been dispersing from before his flapping arms as I had arrived with my laundry and he was heading back to his office, which is why I had found room to set my shirt and pants and things to dry. Only a few had yet to settle back down. Eventually, they did, including a couple of English speakers looking to trade books. I don’t remember what I had with me at that point, but I swapped for two I was unfamiliar with, Anthem by Ayn Rand and Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society. I knew who Rand was but had read none of her books, though I had looked at The Virtue of Selfishness. This one was small, so I figured I could put up with what I already knew as her frightful narcissism for at least the short time the book would take to read.

One woman, I overheard, was explaining to someone—in English—how she had somehow lost her travelling companion. She had wanted to go one way, I guess, and he another. I continued listening, turning around to make it clear I was following the conversation. No one ever minded that. Nothing was private; we encouraged each other to join in.

She trying to find someone to hitch with to Prague but not having much luck. That made me pause: I wanted to get as far away from Munich as fast as I possibly could.

Pretty soon, I was able to jump into the talk, probably something about the politics of Alexander Dubček and what would come to be called the “Prague Spring.” A little later, I offered to accompany her, but told her I was worried about visas. She explained that we could now get visas at the border and that Prague, from what she had heard, was absolutely the place to be, at the moment. I knew that, had known it even before leaving the States. But I had felt too ignorant to even think of going there.

It would be a long trip, 275 kilometers to Linz and then another 250 to Prague. She thought we could get there in one day—today—but I disagreed, thinking even Linz would be pushing it. “Well, then we’ll just get as far as we can today and head on, tomorrow.”

Things had been changing in Czechoslovakia for months, their pace increasing over the spring and into the summer. We Americans of the Baby Boom generation were getting our first glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain where, we had thought, gloom prevailed. What we were hearing was among the few bits of brightness in a world that otherwise seemed headed for disaster—even though the threat of Russian revocation of the new openness loomed. Few of us Americans had any idea of what existed on the eastern side of Europe and a number of us were tempted by the possibility that we might be able to find out.

This trip could certainly be more interesting, I told myself, than wandering around Germany, close to broke, for the next few weeks.

Before noon, I had cashed one of my precious traveler’s checks and we had taken that same tram line I’d come in on the night before back out to where we could walk to the autobahn. The woman, whose name I’ve completely forgotten, told me a little about herself. She was, I think, a college student, some years older that I. Twenty-six, if I remember correctly, but that seems a little old for a student of those times. She had a great deal of confidence in herself—something I was lacking, just then—and told me a car would stop for us quickly. I laughed and told her how long I’d often had to wait. She shook her head and said it never happened to her.

Our luck getting rides was good—it generally was, I was discovering, when hitching with a woman, though this was my first experience of it—and we made it to Linz in Austria while there was still plenty of daylight. On the way, I started reading Rand, appalled, but unable to tear my eyes away. I tried to share what I was feeling with the woman, but she wasn’t interested.

The book starts off: “It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see.” That, I am sure, made me think of the night before (though I certainly repressed it, immediately), of something I planned never to write of, to speak of or, if possible, to think on. In the context of a novel, something meant for reading, something pleading for people to see, the words seemed ludicrous—that I do remember—but so ridiculous that I could not stop reading. The arrogance of the narrator, and of Rand behind him, struck me hard. Belief in oneself, I was learning, can’t be maintained simply through perseverance, though I was discovering that perseverance is a necessary condition for belief—whether in oneself or in anything else. So is a certain degree of humility, something Rand didn’t seem to appreciate at all. And a recognition that, varied talents notwithstanding, one’s own abilities never alone make for a superior person. Even the best can be torn down in an instant. I remembered from my English class, “all our knowledge is, ourselves to know.” You can’t know yourself when you believe you are special, better than anyone else.

If I hadn’t know that before, I did now.

Someone offered to give us a ride the few kilometers up to the Czech border and we gratefully accepted. The driver had figured where we were headed and, like everyone else in the West, was interested. We decided we could easily get at least as far as Budějovice that evening where we figured we could find someplace to stay, so we cheerfully walked from the Austrian border station to the much smaller and plainer one a distance away on the Czech side. No one there spoke any language we knew but it was clear we needed visas. We gave a bit of currency, receiving stamps in our passports and a bit of Czech money in return. Showing a few more German marks and pushing them forward, we got more korunas back, giving us enough, we hoped, for the next few days.

Before we knew it, then, and without fanfare, we had crossed into Eastern Europe and were walking across a wide open space and then along the road we had seen in the distance that headed to the north, fully expecting to find traffic on it. This had been a charmed day, so far. A ride would certainly soon come by, we told each other, optimistic and for the first time (for me, at least), feeling that the world didn’t have to be a disaster.

Of course, I wasn’t in Munich anymore. That, by itself, was a relief; I now hated the city.

No ride appeared. Little did. We walked and were passed by a horse cart and a bus or two, nothing more, and we both started to realize we were now someplace where our assumptions would not correlate with our experience. On what looked like a major road, I think maybe one car did go by, but it did not even slow. I like to imagine it was a Trabant, but that’s simply whimsy.

I was, of course, used to the frustrations of hitchhiking by that point so was willing to just keep trudging along, but my companion was not. It had been clear almost all day that she was in charge on this trip, and that I had better just do what she said. I was along only because she wasn’t foolish enough to travel alone and should count my blessings.

She had already told me she was starting to have stomach cramps but I had no clue what she was talking about. Menstruation and its side effects were not things discussed with sixteen-year-old boys, certainly not in those days. She said she was going to flag down any bus that might come by, and we would take that. She said she had to. OK, sure, I shrugged. I didn’t mind. We probably had enough korunas to pay for whatever we might need. Everything was supposed to be cheap, here.

A bus finally came. It stopped and we were beckoned aboard.

The passengers started speaking to us, almost all at once. When we did not respond, they started trying other languages, finally settling on English, which two of them spoke, after a fashion. As we started up the road toward Budějovice, they told us they were exchange students from Yugoslavia returning from a day trip. There would be no charge, they told us, for the bus cost them nothing. In fact, would we like to join them for dinner? They would treat us.

Why not?

We felt we had fallen into splendor, though the food was not much more than passable. The beer, though, the beer…. Admittedly, I hadn’t yet had much experience with beer, though I had already learned to love it, but this, I could tell, was something special. I drank as much as they gave me, and smoked cigarettes from the pack one of them slid over to me when my Marlboros ran out.

Later, they gave us a room—together. It had two bunk bed sets on opposite walls and common bathroom down the hall. She climbed to the top on one side and motioned for me to stay on the bottom of the other. That was fine with me. She was way too old for me, clearly, and I was far too unexperienced for her, completely unexperienced, except…. But I wasn’t going to think about that. Though now again drunk and very tired, I wanted to shower. After, I put on clean clothes and went to sleep, fully dressed, as she was.

The next morning, I showered again and afterwards the students, still enjoying the novelty of their American visitors, fed us breakfast. An hour later, they escorted us to the station and put us on the train to Prague.

I still had my two books with me. As I had come to loathe Anthem, I rummaged through my bad for The Sane Society, much more comfortable with the question titling Fromm’s first chapter, “Are we sane?” Even so, he is no captivating writer. I switched back and forth between the two books when not looking out the window or talking with my companion, which was rare (her choice). One of Fromm’s first comments and questions kept coming back to mind as I read Rand: “Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself. Many a severe neurotic believes that his compulsive rituals or his hysterical outbursts are normal reactions to somewhat abnormal circumstances. What about ourselves?” Rand’s narrator reminded me, more than anything else, of a person who really should be asking just that question rather than deluding himself by avoiding it.

Even then, I recognized the importance of the serendipity of the pairing of the books and wanted to savor it, especially as they had come to me on the heels of a rude introduction to will and its limits. For the first time, also, I was getting a serious glimpse of the differences between the philosophies of the Quakers I’d grown up among and the greater American society that had always seemed so alien to me, differences I had been living with at least since my family had arrived in Michigan. The Quakers focus on the group and on individual responsibility to the group. Most Americans focus on the individual and on group responsibility to the individual.

In Prague, the woman and I went our separate ways, splitting on the broad street in front of the train station. We had easily found we could use rooms in student hostels, but the one open for me was out a different tram line from the one for women. There seemed no reason to stay together, so we parted. The room I was given had a kitchenette and its own bathroom so I washed most of my clothes again and showered. Later, I rode back into the center of town where I walked around for a bit, looking at the soot- and grime-covered buildings, magnificent, even in grey. I walked across the Charles Bridge and up the hill before returning to the other side of the river where I finally found a food shop, of sorts. I bought some bread and something that looked like a salami. I also picked up what seemed to be a bottle of pop. It was sticky on the outside but I shrugged and paid for it.

Outside, thirsty, I flipped out the bottle opener on my pocket knife and pried off the cap. A quick swig, and I realized I wasn’t going to take another. Looking around for a place to dispose of both bottle and contents, I realized there was no trash on the streets, just the layers of soot from years of lack of scrubbing. Also, there were no trash cans. As there weren’t many pedestrians, I waited until the street was empty—which wasn’t long—placed the bottle on a ledge and walked quickly away.

Back in the room, I ate, stripped, showered and washed the clothes I had been wearing, hanging them over the towel bars in the bathroom and packing away the others, now dry. When I woke up in the morning, I showered again, at least the sixth shower in three days and the third of them had hardly started. I didn’t expect to stay in that room again—it was too far out and I was sure there was someplace I could find more central—so I packed up and carried my rucksack with me as I headed back into town.

I felt a little lonely and at sea. In my pocket, I had a list of addresses, given to me by the Jugoslav students, for other student hostels open to male foreigners, but they were all far from the center of town and I did not want to head to them. If they were like the one where I had stayed the night before, they’d be mostly empty, it being summer vacation.

The old city was magnificent below its dirty coat but I had no one to share it with. As I wandered, I kept returning to the area of the main train station, the area of my greatest familiarity. There, at least, people could be found. Sometimes the rest of the city seemed abandoned.

On one of those loops, I heard my name called. It had to be the woman I’d traveled with. No one else knew me.

Our visas, she told me once she caught up with me, half out of breath, were not for the three days we had imagined but for 24 hours. This evening, and we would have been there for twice that. Unsure what to do and already having discovered that English speakers were rare, we were both at a loss. I thanked her for, at least, trying to find me and tell me. She admitted that she hadn’t been trying to, at all, but had simply seen me at a distance. In fact, she had been trying to find out where to go to get an extension but had been having no luck.

“Why not try the American embassy?” She looked at me, surprised. “I know where it is, saw the flag on the other side of the river yesterday afternoon as I was exploring on the other side of the river.”

“They can’t help us with Czech visas.”

“Sure, but they might know who can.”

“OK, she shrugged. “Lead the way.” So, I did, once more across the Charles Bridge and up the hill.

There, unfortunately, we couldn’t get past the Marine guard. American passports we held, but the right kind of Americans we weren’t. My hair, by now, was down to my shoulders, we were both in jeans and she was wearing a peasant blouse. “Well, where should we go?” we asked, when he denied us entrance. Some of the people in the military resented us, thinking we hated them, though it was the war we hated, not the soldiers. Perhaps he was one of them. I’m sure, had we been the ‘right’ kind of Americans, we would have been welcomed into the embassy.

The split between Americans was getting messy, even then.

He shrugged, “Try the police station,” and turned his attention back to the paper before him in his booth. He didn’t even give us a chance to ask where it was.

Not knowing how to identify them, it took us more than an hour to find a police station. We wandered up and down streets, looking for people in uniform. Finally finding one such to help, we managed, after many false starts, to explain our predicament. I didn’t have enough money to buy an extension of my visa but the man who was trying to help us took pity on my and gave me an extension until midnight. The woman paid for another week.

It was already after noon, and I needed a way back to Germany or Austria. I hurried back to that gigantic central train station. I needed a ticket to West Germany, which was closer, but I didn’t know how to get it. Actually, I knew that what I wanted was one to a town close to West Germany. No trains had crossed that border for more than two decades. But no one at a ticket window seemed to speak any language I remotely found familiar. “Allemande?” Shaken heads. “Deutschland?” Same thing. Finally, someone sold me a ticket to somewhere, a track number, a train number and a destination on it.

So, I shrugged and found it, and boarded. Entered an empty compartment in what looked like something from a movie set in Edwardian times, but tattered. I took off my cheap grey trench coat and folded it over my cheap grey backpack and shoved them both onto the rack above, extracting the copy of the London Times I had somehow managed to buy somewhere in the train station as I scurried around, searching for a ticket. The air was stuffy, so I shoved down the top part of the window as far as it would go, sat back down, and closed my eyes. As usual, I was tired.

The train moved, its rhythm soothing, and I slept. A thump or a bump sometime later, and I awoke, running my hand over my hair—gritty, strange. I looked at my palm: streaked with black. Black speckles covered the newspaper on my lap. At a turn, I could see the engine ahead out the window: We were being pulled by a coal locomotive. It was sleek and modern compared, at least, to the coal burners of an earlier age in the States, but it was not what I expected in the day of diesel and electric engines.

But where was it taking me? Due east, I imagined, Russia and the disappearance of a stupid American kid. Fortunately, I knew little enough, way too little to panic. Or to know if there were any substance to my worries.  All I could do is continue on my course until other options appeared.

There was, at least, the name on that ticket along with the numbers, and I watched the stations, hoping to see it. For it was, I assumed, the name of a station. As we stopped, then stopped again, and again, it did not appear.

An hour or so later, I did see it, relief flooding over me as I made out the small sign at the edge of the station. I grabbed my pack, paper and coat and hopped down onto the platform next to a tiny building, lonely in the midst of a number of tracks, many with electric lines over them. I walked inside—and here, finally my luck was changing, was a map. It even had a you-are-here star. I was, I saw with relief, on the German border, just as I wanted to be.

But, a closer look showed, it was the wrong one… I had no visa for East Germany.

On the map, there was a town near what was, clearly, the West German border: “Cheb,” I shouted to the only other person in the building, a man who had been watching me from behind a little window.

He frowned, hesitated, then motioned me toward him, then kept motioning once I was at his stand. Understanding finally dawning, I started shoving money towards him. He took some of it, pushed the rest back along with a ticket, then ran outside. I followed, dubious, as he leaped across tracks.

A little electric train was heading past the station on one of the farther tracks. He flagged it down and motioned for me to climb aboard.

This time, there were no compartments, just bench seats in an open car, occupied by what were clearly multiple generations of one family, what I knew then as “gypsies,” what I would now refer to as “Roma.” From my particularly American and, quite frankly, provincial point of view, they were rather picturesque, dressed from a grab bag of colors and styles and with teeth that showed a lack of access to dental care. From the way they looked at me, I saw I was as exotic to them as they were to me.

The oldest woman made the rest of the group, particularly the young men, be quiet. She came over and tried talking to me, got nothing out of me. She paused, then finally asked me a question. I understood, I thought, one word, sounded like “Rouski.” She was asking if I were a Russian? I said, “No, American.”

Everyone laughed, especially the children, some of them seeming in danger of falling out of their seats. When the tumult died down, she chuckled again and rubbed thumb and forefinger together and said, “American? Gelt? Gelt!” Now, I laughed, too. “Keine gelt.” She clearly didn’t believe me, but was mollified by the Marlboro cigarettes I gave her and returned to where she had been sitting. One of the younger men slid onto the bench next to me, on her obvious instruction, and handed me a number of curious cigarettes with long tubes and not much tobacco. Strong stuff: he showed me to pinch the tube so I wouldn’t draw too much and continue the choking that had been nearly doubling me forward. They were, I later discovered, Russian cigarettes. I pulled out Anthem, hoping to finish it and extricate myself from Rand’s fantasia.

What I read, I remember, infuriated me. Looking back at the book, I wonder if it were not a line like this: “Whatever road I take, the guiding star is within me; the guiding star and the loadstone which point the way. They point in but one direction. They point to me.”[5] There is no guiding star; I knew that from my own recent travels. There is no destiny, only chance and our own yearnings.

“I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.”[6] That’s the final line from Cat’s Cradle, the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. novel that had been a favorite of mine. Don’t fool yourself, I spoke silently to Rand, “the universe has a way of making it clear that you aren’t its center. It will do it to you, too, one day.”

I hadn’t felt much fear, these past days, only resignation. I worried, of course. One must. But trauma can suspend one’s emotions, one never even knowing it is happening.

Cheb arrived about dusk, or we to it. At another window in another, though much bigger than the last, station, I asked which way the border was. A curious look preceded a reluctant finger and I turned to walk that direction in a light rain, my overcoat now over my shoulders.

The road did take me out of town, a positive turn, at least if generally the right direction. I knew I wanted to head west, but I really couldn’t tell which way it was in the overcast dusk. I remembered from the map in the earlier station that Cheb wasn’t on the border, simply near it.

The road paralleled train tracks for a bit before veering off. The rain got heavier but soon eased off almost completely. The road paralleled railroad tracks for a bit but they curved away. That didn’t bother me, of course, for I knew that no train traffic crossed the border. After just a few minutes of walking through the countryside, I came to a village. As a strolled through, a group of kids noticed me and ran over. One took my hand, tugging me off to the right. I followed and the crowd with me grew. Finally, at the door to a small house, my guide knocked and a man answered. Stepping outside, he began asking me questions. Fortunately, he spoke a little German and I was able, I thought, to ask him how to get to the border. He hesitated, then pointed down the road I was on. I thanked him and walked away, the crowd with me dwindling until all that remained was the kid who had taken my hand. Eventually, he, too, left me.

As I walked, the road got smaller, then became a path, then ended at a gate with a not-so-friendly German Shepherd eyeing me from the other side. I stopped and looked around. The last thing I wanted to do was retrace my steps. I hoped I could see another option.

Across a field, maybe a mile away, I could see a road, a lighted road heading to buildings. A road with cars on it, a good sign. I decided to head out toward it, though I could see no path to it, clambering over a fence and pushing my way through the stalks.

The wet crop, whatever it was, soaked what little of me wasn’t already sopping. It took much more time than I would have expected to cross through it. Looking after the cars passing by, once I had finally reached the road, I saw that some had German plates. Good. Likely heading to or from the border. But which way? One dark, into woods. The other light, toward a bunch of buildings down a little to the right.

I chose the buildings.

Near them, when I got there, was a little sign:

“Cheb.”

Two hours or so, maybe more, and I had made a circle.

Logic said, “Other way.”

What other choice was there? The last few weeks had given me that resilience of the hitchhiker that grows—or you leave the road. That is, I had learned that you just keep going, turning in another direction if the one does not work. There’s no one to help you out, no one to call or turn to when things turn bad. You don’t think about it, don’t complain. About all you can do is shrug and try something else—or suffer through as you are. The woman I’d traveled with to Prague had never built that quality up, probably hadn’t had to, but most of us did, quickly. The guy I’d worked with, traveled to Munich with that first time and had split with at Garmish-Partenkirchenon the road to Innsbruck, hadn’t been able to develop it.

That particular stoicism isn’t something you can try to develop, nor is it something you are born with. It grows through myriad tiny defeats passed through, many imperceptively. Each car that passes without stopping, each mile walked, each goal reset. It doesn’t appear if you think too much about success or failure, only about keeping on. It can seem like stubbornness, and I am sure that’s part of it, but stubbornness has a more passive nature. The hitchhiker may stand still, but there’s nothing passive going on inside.

So, I did what now came naturally, I turned in the other direction and walked. And tried to hitchhike, though the traffic all seemed to go the other way. And walked.

At one point, after an hour or so, a huge noise came from the woods to my right. A dog as big as a Mack truck came bounding towards me, attached to a uniformed giant wielding a weapon larger than he. I stopped. Petrified. Standing still, I slowly raised my arms away from my sides, showing I held no weapons.

The giant motioned for my papers and shrank to normal proportions as I fumbled for my passport. I handed it over, trying to keep my hand from shaking. While he was flipping through it, I shook a few more of my Marlboros and held them out toward him. He grunted, took the cigarettes, handed me back my passport, and motioned for me to go on.

Finally, able to think straight as he was disappearing back into the woods, I realized that I knew, at least, that I was likely headed in the right direction. That was a relief.

Walking on, no cars stopped. Walking on, and finally a different sound came from behind—a tractor. I didn’t bother to thumb, but it stopped. The driver, perhaps my age, motioned me up behind him. It was a bit of a climb, but I made it to the seat beside him and he clashed it into gear.

The noise of the engine was too loud for conversation, but the young driver talked to me anyway, keeping up a steady monologue until we came to a guard station. Straight out of a spy movie, it was composed of a moveable barrier and phone-booth-sized hut—with an actual phone. My driver turned his tractor around and stopped just feet from the little structure. I climbed down, thanking him for going the extra mile, though I was sure he understood as little of what I said as I had of his tales. He waved and chugged off, and I walked over to the man standing in the booth.

In the distance, perhaps 100 meters up a slight hill, I could see the lights of the real border station. Logic said it had to be that; it being anything else would not make much sense—though logic was not something I had seen much of, that day. Might just make it across anyway, I told myself—if it weren’t already past midnight. I had no way of knowing and no idea what the consequences might be of again staying past my allotted time. Nor did I understand the imbalance of borders that had grown over the past generations, exacerbated by the Cold War:

The fortified and articulated frontier is one of the most apparent products of the modern nation-state, with its notion of individual inclusion and exclusion in the national body. We thus have the emphasis of those in power on “foreignness” and the stricter application of border controls in 1968. Yet the modern nation-state’s use of territoriality as a powerful geographic strategy to control people and things by controlling area begins to unravel at precisely this moment, most notably in Europe.[7]

I saw no sign of unraveling but plenty of concern.

The guard took my passport, opened it and picked up his phone. He spoke, waited and then raised his voice and gestured (as best he could in the confined space of his booth), and waited again. Then talked again, raised his voice again. Occasionally, he would glance over at me, scowling.

Finally, someone seemed to give him satisfaction from the other end of the line. He handed back my passport and motioned me toward the border.

Walking up, I still had my passport in my hand. I gave it to the first guard I saw as I stepped from the dark into the fluorescent glare from the canopy above. Cars were passing through toward Cheb apace, but there seemed to be no movement out of the country. The line of cars waiting reached halfway back to that first station. The guard took my passport and, hardly glancing at me, told me to wait. I asked where I could change my Czech currency, having heard that it was forbidden to take it out of the country. He dismissed the need, said “souvenir,” and disappeared into a building.

I stood waiting.

Cars came and went, as long as they were heading toward Cheb, but the guard did not return for me. I felt lost and alone, though I got the feeling that all of the other guards were watching me surreptitiously as they checked papers and passports. Ignored and examined at the same time, or so I felt; it was a dissonance I wasn’t used to.

There was something of a gift shop at the center of the island of light that made up the station, and I was cold and wet and it looked dry, maybe even warm. After standing where I was for some time, I went inside, all eyes following me—or so I imagined.

Some guy, a little older than me, perhaps college age and with the fresh college look of the early sixties that was already far out of style yet wearing hair long enough to make it clear to me that he wasn’t military, was talking to a German couple, trying to change money with them. What struck me was that his German was worse than mine—and I could only speak a few phrases. What struck me, too, was his accent—certainly American. I walked over to him:

“I know they say you can’t take the money out, but they just told me to keep mine.”

He looked over at me, in astonishment.

I hadn’t quite expected that and stepped back.

What I had not been prepared for even more was that everything at the whole crossing stopped. Even outside. Every guard in sight was now openly watching us. Everyone else might as well have not been there.

The German couple, recognizing this, sidled away from us, walking quickly outside and back to their car. The other American looked around, silent, clearly as confused as I was. After a moment, he turned back to me, his expression quizzical.

We stood there, looking at each other, for a long moment, as still as the tableaux we now centered.

He spoke first.

“You’re an American, too.”

I nodded.

“They seem to be interested that you spoke to me.”

I nodded again. That was the understatement of the day, but I wasn’t quite ready to say anything.

“Well, got any idea why?”

I shook my head.

“Look,” he said, “let’s go over there and sit down, get out of the limelight.”

We did, me finally finding my tongue as we sat.

He, I discovered, was 21, from Florida, a Romney Republican. “Did you know that the balloting is going on tonight in Miami?” No, I did not. “Nixon will get it, but maybe he’ll pick Romney for VP.” I didn’t really care. McCarthy was still my man and I didn’t think there was a Republican I could have possible supported; besides, I was too young to vote—but I didn’t say anything about any of that, simply telling this fellow that I had walked from Cheb and needed to be out of the country by midnight—or so my visa said.

He shook his head and looked at the floor.

“We may have a problem.”

He, or so he told me, had walked from Cheb as well, and had been waiting there at the border for some hours, waiting to be told he could cross into Germany. “Don’t know what they’re doing. Don’t know why they won’t let me through. Though, I suspect that, with two of us they are going to do it for even longer.”

And they did.

I don’t know how long it was before they finally gave us our passports and told us to walk on into West Germany. And I have no idea what they were doing, all the time they kept us there. There had been reports, I know, from Russia of caches of American arms found in the area. Maybe they thought we were soldiers, sneaking things across. Maybe they searched the whole area. I don’t know.

There was a line across the road, marking the actual border. Jumping across it, my companion bent down and kissed the ground on the German side, yelling “frei, frei.”

He got a few dirty looks from the Czechs. The German guards remained poker-faced and simply reached out hands for our passports. I cringed, wishing we hadn’t had to cross together.

The train station in the little town there was locked. We sat on the steps to wait, certain we would eventually find a train. I had decided to splurge, to get away from the border and to Nuremberg where I knew there was a youth hostel with a reputation of being welcoming and home to many a good time. My companion had been headed that way, anyway. He turned his transistor radio on and tuned it to Armed Forces Radio, carrying the Republican convention.

It was August 8th, around ten in the evening (or a little earlier) on the 7th in Miami, where the convention was being held.

At dawn, about four in the morning, a man came strolling to the station and, in perfect English, told us there would be a train for Nuremberg along soon. Seeing our surprise, he explained that he had been in the SS during the war, but had been captured early on and had spent most of it in a camp in South Carolina. Just looking at us, he had known we were Americans, he said. He unlocked the door to the station and sold us tickets.

Once he had his, the Floridian paid little attention to anything but the reporting from the convention. The voting had started. “The great state of Alabama casts however many votes for the next President of the United States, Richard Nixon.” That sort of thing. Lots of cheers and noise-makers. I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to get involved in a political discussion, not then. I couldn’t imagine how anyone of our ages could be a Republican and wasn’t particularly interested in finding out. Especially from one who professed support for Romney but who was perfectly willing, obviously, to switch allegiance to Nixon.

Watching from up close what I was listening to from afar, Mailer would soon sum up what I was feeling as I contemplated my companion:

There was slyness in the air, and patience, confidence of the win—a mood was building which could rise to a wave: if there was nihilism on the Left, there were dreams of extermination on the Right…. There would be talk of new order before too long.[8]

I could see his belief through the cut of his hair, his buttoned-down madras shirt, his chinos. I had been living with the same styles since my family’s move to Michigan two years earlier but was no closer to understanding them than I had been, then.

On the train, though, reception died. But Nuremberg wasn’t really that far away. Just as we got off, they were announcing that Nixon was over the top, that he had the nomination. We walked silently into the town. We had known at first glance that the other would not agree with our political leanings so let that discussion lie fallow as we tended the field of our own survival.

As soon as I could, I ditched the Floridian. Or he ditched me. I didn’t want to hear anything more on the radio about Republican chances for regaining the presidency and he wasn’t likely to turn it off. I didn’t feel like arguing. I’d done way too much of that during the winter and spring.

Instead, I found a couple of guys who looked more like me (scruffy, hair to their shoulders—one Italian one Canadian), pooled my remaining ready cash with them (all that wasn’t in traveler’s checks), bought a liter of gin and a bottle of mixer, and climbed to the castle, where we sat, passing the two bottles back and forth until, well, memory blurs most of the “until.”

At some point, I walked over to the youth hostel, which had a much more lenient attitude than did the one in Munich and, I think, an 11 P.M. curfew—later than most. Back where we’d been sitting, the two I’d been drinking with turned into a crowd, with new bottles appearing regularly.

Though I don’t remember much, I did wake in the youth hostel next morning. Someone, looking at me and recognizing my condition, told me that a hangover was caused by dehydration and handed me a large glass of water. I swallowed it, but slowly, and then another. One thing I do know about the night before: I had not listened to Richard Nixon’s acceptance speech in Miami, the one he ended with “The time has come for us to leave the valley of despair and climb the mountain so that we may see the glory of the dawn—a new day for America, and a new dawn for peace and freedom in the world.” That was a good thing; unlike my erstwhile traveling companion, I could see no new light coming.

There’s a lot that I don’t remember about the next few weeks, and not simply because of alcohol—though I am certain that had something to do with it. I made my way from Nuremburg to Würzburg, where I remember looking down over the town and a river from above and wondering what to do with myself besides visiting churches (which charged no admission) and moving on. Soon, I was in Frankfurt, and then (for no reason that I can fathom) a town called Idar-Oberstein near Baumholder, which had a huge American base, and where I met up with a bunch of American GIs not much older than I was. They were bored with their posting and looking for diversion.

We were drinking, at one point (they were paying, for the most part), in a local bar when I put a 10-phennig piece in a slot machine and hit the jackpot. The cascade of small coins added up, I think, to about ten dollars. Still, that night, and not for the first time, I burrowed into a haystack in the classic hobo manner, my new-found riches squirreled in my pockets.

The next day, I met up with a couple of the soldiers again. Drunk well into the night, they spirited me onto the base, where I slept for a few hours before hitching up to Bonn in the bright sun of the morning. That must have been the 21st, for Russia had invaded Czechoslovakia, I heard at the youth hostel, and German students were protesting outside of the Russian embassy. Some of the other people hanging around wanted to go see, but I excused myself. Still, it was the sole topic of conversation, as politics generally was. As Richard Jobs affirms, looking back from a vantage of 40 years:

For anyone who was young and traveling in Western Europe in 1968, it was hard to avoid politics, even outside the major centers of protest, because not only were young individuals being politicized through travel, but the very places and practices of youth travel, such as hostels and hitch-hiking, had become politicized spaces and politicized activities. Traveling was a way to share political news and political opinion, even if not direct political participation.[9]

That had been my experience, and it cemented an attitude that would last fifty years, that politics travels with us, no matter where we may go, who we may meet. We may pretend to leave it at home, but it always manages to secrete itself into our luggage.

I badly wanted to imagine there’d been some drama during my time in Prague, that I had spoken to people trying to spark a new milieu or open the country to the vibrant possibilities found just across the border. Truth be told, I had hardly spoken to a Czech while I was there. I had tried, at the hostel where I had stayed the first night, in the shop where I had bought food, in the train station and elsewhere. But the language barrier had proven insurmountable. For the most part, I already knew that I had missed out on one of the most astonishing events of the decade, one of the most prominent attempts to reward the human spirit even as the forces of gloom gathered around them. I had had a chance, and I had blown it. What was the point, now, of expressing disapproval for what we had all known was coming?

Truth be told, I was a little embarrassed.

After another night of drinking, I took the tram up to Cologne and spent the day looking at as much as I could without having to pay. I’d been there before, three years earlier, and had loved it, so retraced as much as I could (without having to pay) of my earlier visit. The next day, I quickly got a ride to Isselburg near the Netherlands, hoping to get to Amsterdam early enough to find a place to stay. Walking near the highway after an unsuccessful hour or two of hitching, I veered off to a small town, only to discover, once there, that I was now in Holland. The border, apparently was not one anyone bothered to patrol carefully.

I can’t remember if I spent one night or two in the Netherlands. In any event, I managed to soon get to Brussels, too soon. Sitting on a bench in a small park near the central train station, I took stock of my situation: I still had three days before my paid-for reservation at the hotel where I’d meet back up with the group and four days before the flight. My wallet was empty; I knew no one.

One way or another, I was looking into the jaws of a miserable couple of days.

Oh, well. Just have to get through it. I did what I had, so often, circled away from the main train station and then back to it, repeating on a somewhat different route each time, just to keep from getting too bored. It may seem like an odd way of seeing a city, but it certainly does take one away from the normal tourist destinations. It was always a bit of a challenge, too, for there were inevitably barriers I had to find ways around without turning back. Sometimes these took me far out of my way, making me despair that my sense of direction wasn’t quite good enough to get me back, though it always did. The last circuit brought me back a little after dusk.

The Belgian police didn’t take kindly to anyone setting up camp on a park bench, so I soon had to get up and move. At some point during the night, I went into the station, just to mill around in the crowd unnoticed but warm, where I found a Belgian 10-franc note. That fed me, mid-morning the next day, from a cart outside of the station.

Earlier, I had walked off the chill, up and down streets almost at random though, as usual, circling back to the train station where, I knew, I could sit for a time before the police would disturb me—as long as I didn’t become too noticeable by being there too long or too often. Once it was dark enough, I made my way to a park I’d seen and, after making sure I was unobserved, lay down under a bush, my coat wrapped tight around me, my pack acting as my pillow.

At dawn next day, I was up again and walking once more. I knew of a couple of private youth hostels in the city and had their addresses. With no money, I hadn’t tried them, but I was desperate for a place where I could sit undisturbed for a bit. A little after noon—it was hot and I was exhausted—I went to one and sat down in the courtyard behind it, where there were benches and tables and people talking. I didn’t look so different from the rest, so thought I could blend in, for a little while, at least.

Though I tried to read, instead I fell asleep, awaking to someone gently shaking my shoulder.

He was one of the workers at the hostel; he asked if I were staying there, zeroing in on English almost immediately. I shook my head. “Where are you staying?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t any money.” I got up, ready to leave, believing I was about to be thrown out.

“Have you eaten today?”

I shook my head.

“Yesterday?”

“Not much.”

His hand, which was still on my shoulder, pushed me back down. “Wait here.”

He returned with a hunk of bread and some cheese. “Eat this. When you are done, come to the kitchen and do a little work. We have no beds for tonight, but at least your belly will be full.”

All I could do was nod; tears, I could feel, were welling. When he had gone away, I pulled out my pocketknife and sliced a little bit of cheese onto a piece of the bread I had torn off. Slowly, I ate it, looking around a little fearfully. I wanted to see if anyone had noticed what had gone on between that man and me. No one had, it seemed. As I chewed, I tore off another bit of bread and sliced more cheese. Though I wanted to stuff the whole of both into my mouth, I didn’t want to be noticed. Not any more than I imagined I had been, already. I continued to take small bites, working my way deliberately through my meal, making sure to have just enough cheese for the last of the bread.

When I was finished, I walked inside and found the kitchen. There, I pulled someone aside and announced that I was there to work. She looked at me curiously. “OK, but we have no rooms for tonight.” I shrugged. “I ate, so must work.”

She set me to washing dishes and then, I think it was, sweeping the floor. After a couple of hours, the kitchen staff sat to a meal at a long table at the center of the kitchen, inviting me to join them. “There still is no bed, but there’s plenty of work, if you want it, and plenty of food,” one of them said. I nodded, grateful for the first hot meal I’d tasted in weeks.

At dinnertime, I helped a little with the serving but quickly was back at the cleaning, ending up by wiping down the counters. Curfew at the hostel was nine, lights-out at ten—pretty standard, I’d found. As I was collecting my bag and getting ready to leave, at about half-past nine, the man who had first fed me found me. “We’ve one bed left. You are welcome to it.” He handed me a sheet roll and told me where it was. I thanked him and climbed the stairs, and was asleep before the lights dimmed.

Next morning, I was gently awakened before the rest. Quickly, I washed and went down to help prepare breakfast. After eating myself, once the hostlers were finished, I gathered up my things, said my thanks and made my way to the hotel of the group’s rendezvous. From that point on, everything, including meals, had already been paid for.

I had made it. Three days with only 10 francs, and I had managed. With the help of some extremely charitable and kind people, certainly, but I had gotten through it.

The others in the group greeted each other like long-lost relatives but I, by far the youngest of them, hadn’t really gotten to know any of them—except the one I’d worked with and then gone to Munich with. We’d not parted on the best of terms, however, so we simply said hello to each other. Everyone talked about the jobs they’d had—all tough—and the traveling they’d managed—all minimal. We checked into our rooms separately and met again for the prepaid dinner. I didn’t talk much to anyone. Their experiences sounded great, and fulfilling. Mine seemed nothing, in comparison.

The Saturn/Sabena charter flight the next night was held up for several hours, but we finally got into the air, arriving at Kennedy in the morning and quite a bit behind schedule. My parents, who hadn’t heard from me for five weeks, were there, looking worried, understandably. They drove me to my father’s sister’s apartment in Brooklyn, where I slept through until the next morning, awakening refreshed but with the sense that I had blown an entire summer still in my head.

Only then, as my family began to catch up with what I’d been doing, did I begin to learn about what I had missed in the States, particularly over the last week. The Democrats had held their convention in Chicago, nominating Hubert Humphrey in the midst of police riots. My parents were furious, vowing to vote for McCarthy anyhow, or for anyone but Nixon or on the Democratic line. I was too tired to care—right then.

We left, early afternoon, to drive upstate and begin our new lives in the small town of Clinton, NY.

Though I had missed the Chicago riots, even on television, I was now part of a genuine youth movement, muddled though it may have been. Mailer, once more, described what we were becoming:

Some of the weakest and some of the least attached went back to the suburbs or moved up into commerce or communications; others sought gentler homes where the sun was kind and the flowers plentiful; others hardened, and like all pilgrims with their own vision of a promised land, began to learn how to work for it, and finally, how to fight for it. So the Yippies came out of the Hippies, ex-Hippies, diggers, bikers, drop-outs from college, hipsters up from the South. They made a community of sorts, for their principles were simple— everybody, obviously, must be allowed to do (no way around the next three words) his own thing, provided he hurt no one doing it— they were yet to learn that society is built on many people hurting many people, it is just who does the hurting which is forever in dispute.[10]

Over the next few months, I would begin to learn just a little of what he meant.

[1] Jobs, Richard Ivan, “Youth Movements: Travel, Protest, and Europe in 1968” (American Historical Review, April, 2009), 384.

[2] Jobs, Richard Ivan, “Youth Movements: Travel, Protest, and Europe in 1968” (American Historical Review, April, 2009), 384-385

[3] Mailer, Norman, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (New York: Random House, 1996), 4.

[4] Mailer, Norman, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (New York: Random House, 1996), 50.

[5] Rand, Ayn, Anthem (New York: Dover, 2014), 45.

[6] Vonnegut, Kurt, Cat’s Cradle (New York: Dial Press, 1991), 287.

[7] Jobs, Richard Ivan, “Youth Movements: Travel, Protest, and Europe in 1968” (American Historical Review, April, 2009), 393.

[8] Mailer, Norman, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (New York: Random House, 1996), 58-59.

[9] Jobs, Richard Ivan, “Youth Movements: Travel, Protest, and Europe in 1968” (American Historical Review, April, 2009), 380.

[10] Mailer, Norman, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (New York: Random House, 1996), 142-143.

Advertisements