It was December 1945 and thousands of recently discharged U.S. servicemen flooded California. San Francisco was the going home designation point for the Army. Navy and Marine Corps personnel gathered in Los Angeles.
There was a major problem in LA, however. The recently released veterans found both train and bus service at a standstill. A strike for more wages had halted both methods of transportation.
Long lines of men in uniform formed in front of ticket windows due to rumors claiming the strike could end at any time.
Due to the uncertainly of that time span, many of the servicemen decided they were unwilling to wait. Their option was to hitchhike home.
This is the story of a 21-year-old Marine corporal who did exactly that. Due to his 6-4 height and 160-pound frame in high school, he was nicknamed “Slim.” During Boot Camp three years before he also was called “Okie” because of his home state.
That was where he was headed now…back to Oklahoma. He had a 19-year-old sweetheart waiting for his return. He wanted to be with her for Christmas.
So with his discharge paper in one pocket and $113.74 of back pay in another, our Marine was on his way. Impatient at times to start with, he certainly was not willing to wait in any ticket lines that remained motionless.
The first thing he did was locate a police officer and ask where U.S. Highway 66 begin. Although it was over 1,500 miles away, he knew that was the shortest route home.
Seventy-three years ago it was normal for motorists to pick up hitchhikers. For a hitchhiker in military uniform, it was almost a sin for a motorist to not give one a ride.
Our homebound individual would be offered three rides before the first 10 miles of travel. The first came from a young woman headed home from her shift-work job.
Told of his designation the driver had a suggestion. She lived with her parents. They were also from Oklahoma. She said her parents would insist she invite him to dinner and stay overnight at their home.
A home cooked meal and free night’s lodging would be appreciated.
There was still three hours of daylight remaining, however. That could be used to get closer to home. The invite was turned down, but Slim thanked the woman for her kindness and asked her to extend his gratitude to her parents.
CACTUS, SAND, AND RATTLESNAKES
After the Marine covered a few more blocks an old man in a pickup pulled up beside him. He said he could give him a ride for about 30 miles. At that point he would turn off to go to his desert home.
What was around the location at the turnoff, Slim asked.
Just “cactus, sand, and rattlesnakes” the old man answered.
Once again the offer for a ride was declined.
By now darkness was fast approaching. The hitchhiker was thinking about seeking a cheap hotel room when his third Good Samaritan stopped.
This time it was a Nebraska salesman on his way back home from a business convention. He asked where the Marine was headed and did he have money for meals.
The answers were Tulsa, yes, and he could even help buy gasoline and share any hotel expenses.
The driver told our Marine to hop in and no, he didn’t need to pay for anything but his food. He had been wanting to pick up serviceman but all the hitchhikers before had been two or more together. He was the first lone one.
The salesman’s travel plans were to take U.S. 66 to Clinton, Oklahoma and then head north to his home state. Before reaching Clinton, however, he told his passenger he had looked at his maps and said he could take him all the way to Tulsa. He could take U.S. Highway 75 north from there.
No, the Marine insisted, if his benefactor could get him to Oklahoma, he could run the rest of the way if he needed too.
In later years the Marine would tell family members of three other events that occurred on his way home.
The first two dealt with meals in two separate roadside cafes. At breakfast the second morning an old Arizona cowboy was drinking coffee at the counter when the Marine and salesman entered. He didn’t even look up. Still paying them no attention he finished his coffee and walked out…but not before paying for his coffee and the Marine’s breakfast.
The next time was lunch time somewhere in eastern New Mexico. As the two travelers were waiting for their food the waitress asked the Marine if her mother, the café’s cook, could speak with him.
Her son had recently been killed in Europe while serving in the U.S. Army. She wanted the Marine to share some of his experiences that may have been the same as her son’s.
Here again the café refused to accept payment for the meal.
FINAL MILES BY BUS
The final miles home were by Greyhound Bus. One was pulling out of the station at Clinton for Oklahoma City just as Slim was thanking the salesman for the ride from California.
The Marine ran to the bus and asked the driver if he would wait until he purchased a ticket. The driver, a Marine himself who saw action in China during the 1930s, told him to get abroad. He could get his ticket at the other end.
Taking the first seat across from the driver, the two Marines shared their experiences. From Oklahoma City the bus would continue on to Tulsa. The driver told his passenger the ticket fee was on him.
At a certain point along Highway 66 northeast of Sapulpa the Tulsa skyline comes into view. Our Marine was asleep when the bus reached that spot. Reaching over and awakening him, the driver said gently, “You are home Marine.”
Christmas was extra special a week later. The Marine and his girlfriend were together again. Three weeks later they were married in a small ceremony.
A full life together followed for the next 72 years. The last 55 were spent at their Claremore home.
That couple was my parents, Bill and Lois Larkin. Three weeks ago my father made another trip home. He was active until just a few days before his death at age 93. Once again I am sure he is gathering up stories about this trip to share with the rest of us in the near future.
Larry Larkin is a contributing columnist for the Claremore Progress.