Washington, 1981

It’s 1981; late summer. Morning.

I’m standing at an on-ramp to the Washington beltway.

I’m hitch-hiking to Pennsylvania.

It’s not a long journey I’m undertaking, but it is a tricky one. I need to get onto the beltway, up the interstate, round the Baltimore beltway and then along country roads through Maryland and across into Pennsylvania. So I’ll probably need five or six separate lifts.  If I’m unlucky, I may have to overnight somewhere.

I’ve been waiting a while and I’m pondering the wisdom of my undertaking when a huge red sports car rumbles to a stop. Now this is 1981 – okay? – so this “sports car” is the size of an Australian family station wagon – except it’s low-slung, powered by a V8 and has only two doors.

But this is no flash coupé. Rust patches are showing through its powdery paint and the muffler is shot.

The man behind the wheel is a twenty-something African- American. ‘Where you going man?’ he asks.

‘Pennsylvania,’ I say, showing him my sign.

‘Fuck yeah,’ he says. ‘We’re off to Lancaster.’

Lancaster? I cannot believe it – Lancaster is my destination. In one ride! He springs the trunk, I throw my pack in.

It’s only as I’m getting into the car that I look into the back seat: it’s filled by a huge, white woman, the most obese person I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how they wedged her in there – it may take a crane to get her out. With the rough idling of the engine she’s quivering, like a jelly. She stares at me blankly and blinks.

We get underway. There’s some music playing on the radio. No, not the radio – the old 4-track cart player – you remember those? Continuous loop? I can’t quite hear it – it’s hard to tell if it’s the music throbbing or the engine.  It may be Jimi Hendrix, but I’m not sure.

As we rocket up the interstate, we get to talking, the driver and me, and before too long the inevitable question comes my way. ‘Your accent. Where you from?’

‘Australia,’ I say, not expecting it to mean much to him. This is before Crocodile Dundee, Survivor, Steve Irwin, Men at Work – all of that. Most working-class Americans have only the vaguest idea of Australia.

But not this guy.

‘Australia!’ he says. ‘I been there. Fuck yeah!’

‘Really?’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘When I was in Nam.’

Vietnam. The war. I look at him. It’s 1981. The Americans didn’t pull out until 1975. So he’s the right age; it’s more than possible.

‘So you went down for R&R?’ I ask.

‘Yeah. R&R. They had the best cold beer!’

Then I ask him how he got there. ‘Plane? Ship? Troop carrier?’

He looks at me like I’m some sort of idiot. ‘Fuck no, man. We’d just get in the jeeps and drive.’

Slowly, I begin to understand. He thinks Australia is an army camp in South Vietnam. He thinks that’s where I’m from.

And that’s when he starts screaming. And by screaming, I mean, screaming – in-fear-of-his-life screaming.

‘They’re coming man! They’re coming! Don’t let the motherfuckers get me! Cut ‘em down, cut ‘em down. Over there! Shoot ‘em!!’’

The guy is freaking out and he’s not alone – I’m shitting myself, trying to work out how to get out of the car or take the wheel, pull on the hand brake– whatever – before the inevitable accident.

And it’s at this point, I feel this kind of gravitational shift, this tectonic movement… planets realigning….

You know those old American cars? How soft their suspension was?

It’s the white woman, come to life in the back seat – risen from her stupor by the screaming  of the driver. A large hand plops onto my shoulder like a two-kilo meat loaf. She’s leaning forward and drawls in an accent straight from Gone with the Wind – ‘It’s okay honey. He’s just having a flashback. Too much acid.’

But here’s the thing. While this guy is screaming his head off, he’s driving perfectly well. He’s steering straight, maintaining speed, using his mirrors, indicating, changing lanes.

And then he snaps out of it – just like that – and he’s oblivious to what just happened.

‘Vietnam,’ he says mildly. ‘Australia.’

And he leans forward and turns up the music. I mean,  really turns it up. And all I can think of is that film – Apocalypse Now – you know the scene:  the patrol boat being ambushed on the river.

Because it is Hendrix. Purple Haze.

We arrive in Lancaster a couple of hours – and two more flashbacks – later.

I’m so early arriving that my friends Terri and Dale are still at work. I’d call them but, hey, mobile phones haven’t been invented yet.

So I thank the driver and his companion and retrieve my pack from the trunk. I stand and watch them drive away, the red sports car riding low at the back. And I wonder where they’re going and where they’ve been.

 

Chris is part of Stereo Stories In Concert at Write Around The Murray, Albury on Saturday 8 September 2018.

Chris Hammer is the author of the 2018 crime novel Scrublands. He was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV's flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than 30 countries on six continents.