A little old man dressed for March, he wore a nubby gray sweater, black pants, and a smart Donegal cap. In his work-worn hands, he carried a pleather portfolio, a white-handled cane, and a plastic grocery bag full of what looked like more plastic grocery bags. I had just turned west at the Crossroads Texaco onto Highway 155 toward Wofford Heights and Kernville, and there he was before me. At first I thought he was trying to cross the street. He gestured as if he wanted me to wait while he shuffled from one side of the road to the other. But then I realized he gestured with his thumb, pointing it with a shaky hand at the road. I pulled over without hesitation. “Where are you headed?” I asked as he opened the passenger door.
“Oh, just over to the power company,” he rasped in a loud whisper.
I assume he came from lunch around the corner at the Lake Isabella Senior Center. A dab of marinara hovered at the corner of his mouth. I didn’t mention the stubborn spaghetti sauce, however. I was more concerned that he might keel with the effort of hoisting himself and all his things into my truck — not an easy feat for a person half his age. But he managed with something close to agility.
“Do you often have success hitchhiking?” I asked, a few quiet moments after he succeeded in wrestling his seatbelt on.
“If it’s very cold or very hot or raining, I do,” he rasped. “But when the weather’s nice, I wait twice as long as when the weather’s bad.” He told me he had started working when he was 15, and whenever he got any time off, he would hitchhike all over the country. “This was in the 1930s,” he said, adding, “I love to travel. I just got back from Egypt.” And with that, he extracted an 8X10 photo from his wad of grocery bags. Sure enough. There he was, in the Egyptian sands, wearing the same Donegal cap and sitting astride a camel led by robed men in sunglasses and sandals.
He told me that his favorite places to travel were Alaska and Australia. He had first been to both as a soldier during World War II. “I’ll tell you, you should go to Alaska. You know why?” he asked. “To see the Northern Lights.”
I had too many questions for him, but he was giving me so much, so many of his remarkable memories, that I had a hard time asking for more. I didn’t even get his name.
As we turned up the hill toward the Southern California Edison offices, I asked if he was from the West Coast originally. “Nope. I was born in Chicago,” he said, adding that his father had died when he was 2, and his mother had abandoned him. “Until I was 16,” he said. “She had remarried by then, and she and my step-dad wanted me to get them jobs where I worked. I said ‘forget it!'”
I drove into the Edison lot, and the old gentleman insisted he needed no help getting out. I asked if he needed a ride after his business with Edison. “No,” he said. “You’ve done enough. I think I can walk from here. But I want to leave you with something.” At this, he slid, slowly and carefully, from the seat to the ground. He took some time checking that he had all his things. “What I’ll leave you with is this,” he said, and gestured for me to lean toward him.
“Don’t grow old.”
Grinning, I said, “Oh, come on, let me try.”
“OK,” he said, as if I should think better of the effort. “Are you going to make it to 94?”
He shut the truck door and turned to look at me through the window. He pointed at his chest as if to say, “Yep. Me. Ninety-four.” He smiled and put his age-gnarled fingers to his lips in a thank-you. Then I watched him shuffle inside to pay for his power.
© Patrick J. Endres/AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com