Home > childhood, hitchhiking, poetry, religeon, travel > Up North Part 9 – Riding with Ray

Up North Part 9 – Riding with Ray

There was a nice long ramp with a guard rail for sitting on the 75 South on-ramp. It was an easy curve so traffic was moving by quicker than I liked and yet not as quick as well. I was uneasy hanging out where pedestrians don’t really go with a big bag pack in sight of the bridge. Bomb threats and all, a newly uncertain world. Not wholly new but far more intense. I did not feel confident under the steely gaze of the guys in white pickups with Bridge Authority emblazoned on the door when they drove by.

Before I  have even filled in all the letters on the Grayling Please sign a big rig pulls to the side and hits his breaks and stops about 20 feet  behind me. There is a giant cross done in blue lights across the grill of the rig, there are 8 or 10 extra lights across the top, and it is flying too many flags to count. As I stash the sign (another hiker might find it useful) grab my pack and hoof it towards the door. I was taking in all of the WWJDs, including How Would Jesus Drive?, Praise The Lord and all manner of similar such things. I did not have time to take them all in. I knew what I was likely getting myself into and was grateful nonetheless.

I also took in the driver, an older red headed guy in a mesh cap. He was grinning and moving shit out of the passenger seat. The lanes were narrow and there was a lot of traffic and the threat of terrorism response coming down kept me hurrying. I opened the door, stepped up on the first step and poked my head in. “Here pass that in and I’ll stow it in back” and I handed him my pack and he tossed it in the sleeper.

I stood awkwardly on the step as the driver finished clearing off the last of his gear. It seems he was using it as more of an office but eventually I sat down and he pulled out on to the ramp. He said, “Ray” and I said “Michael” as we shook hands between him grabbing gears. Ray asked me where I was heading and to cover my bases in case he was going down 27 or 75, I said “Lansing or Monroe.”

“Well which is it?” Ray responded. As I thought about the best way to respond Ray said, “Well, I’m heading to Chicago out 10 so I can get you to Claire.

“Sounds great. I’d rather go to Lansing anyway. That’s where I live.” I started to warm up in the heat of the cab and started to unzip my jacket until i realized i had picked up a powerful odor and decided to leave it on. Ray then turned up the volume of the previously inaudible cassette player in his rig and I heard Carman of all people. The cheesiest, Las Vegas lounge lizard turned crooner for Christ that I’d ever heard. It was one I hadn’t heard, a patriotic number with God Bless America swelling in the background and Carman is doing some kind of stilted spoken word number about patriotism and such. “We need to stop handing out condoms in schools and start handing out Bibles.”

When Ray first turned up the tape he just looked at me and grinned. I didn’t noticeably wince, I don’t think, and tried to put on a face of bemused appreciation, although it was more for starting to ride down the Mackinac Bridge and at worst get preached at a little instead of sitting in fear waiting to get shook down as a potential terrorist. Carman could be OK if you can appreciate the utter ridiculousness of it. He could on occasion at least be clever in his word play.

Ray then turned down the music and opened up a conversation about how beautiful it all is. We talked about what it must have been like for the Indians crossing the straights by canoe. We talked about where we were from and Ray told me about his job a bit. He then said, “Let me show you this,” and pulled out a vinyl cassette holder with a capacity of twelve or so. Every cassette is Carman. “I’ve got them all” Ray grinned proudly. He went on with a disclaimer, a couple that were missing or only out on CD and he went on to tell me about his efforts to track down Carman cassettes.

I casually mentioned that I saw Carman in concert once and that I had a lot of respect for the fact that he does his shows for free. Ray was blown away and I could see an innocent jealousy slide across his face. “He has a powerful message for the young,” Ray told me.

I nodded and smiled and remembered my falling out with Carman. I had actually been a pretty big fan in my teen years. I had a keen appreciation for fundamentalist novelty music and Carman walked tall in that little niche. As I grew up though I came to challenge the ethnocentrism of my native fundamentalism and ultimately had embraced a larger view of  truth. I had seen Carman as a penniless high schooler and gotten on a mailing list and had sent him a few bucks on occasion. Until I read in one his flyers that “nine out of ten missing children end up sacrificed on a ‘satanic altar’. My brother is a cop so I know.”

This ridiculous hyperbole, this incredible bald faced lie, so offended my sense of truth I had severed my relationship and never played his stuff. I didn’t even think about sharing this with Ray under anything but a direct question because hitchhikers are agreeable by nature and practice.

Then of course it came. “So since you’re a Carman fan I assume you’re born again?”

I told him “yes” more because I didn’t want to fend off Ray’s clumsy attempts to win me to The Lord though the actual answer to that question really requires more than a one word answer. I had in fact made that long walk to the altar on the seventh verse of a five verse song and asked Jesus to forgive my sins at the Monroe First Church of the Nazarene back in 1981. I still believe that “except one become like a little child one shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven”, I just think it may mean something more. So I took the easy way out and did not elaborate my conflictions on the term, besides in the moment I was kind of feeling it pretty heavy too. It had been a long week of thoughtful wonder in the wilderness and the unknown guarded over by wonder and naive enthusiasm.

Ray of course was delighted with yes.  “I knew it all along. You see the Lord told me to pick you up. You may not believe it but I have been driving over the road for seven years and you’re the third hitchhiker I’ve ever picked up. Every one of them a Christian. I’m not supposed to have passengers in the rig, but my boss is a Christian too and he’d have to understand. When God tells me to do something I listen.”

I nodded agreeably wondering if I was going to get the follow up questions. “So where do you go to church ?” or try to pin you down on doctrine “so you must believe that Jesus is the only way to Heaven?” Instead Ray just started talking and told me his story, his testimony if you will.

It was the sixties and Ray was in high school and he had a sweetheart. This was all in Oxford Ohio and Ray was hoping to get a job at Miami University like his father and his grandfather before him. He wanted to marry his sweetheart but she wanted to wait until he was settled with the University. Before Ray got settled he got drafted.

He reported to his physical but failed the exam. It seemed that Ray’s mom had been doing his homework for a good long time. Safe with his classification of “too dumb to fight” he got his dream job driving truck for Miami U. and plans for the wedding move forward. Than this bucolic scene was rudely interrupted when Ray was drafted anyway.

Ray was classified as infantry material and shipped off to Germany where he was assigned to a tank battalion. Ray struggled through his tank training and was two instructional hours away from testing for tanker status he was reassigned to Vietnam.

Ray halted his narrative and pulled off at an exit to stop at his favorite truck stop. He bought us coffee and chatted up the woman at the counter. He looked at lights and bought two based more on his budget than what he wanted, which was all of them. I just followed, orbiting his energy and intensity and waiting to get back in the truck and hear the rest of the story, which he did, picking it up without a pause.

While home on leave he tried to marry his sweetheart but there was not enough time. They decided to marry after Ray returned from Vietnam. He was shipped to Vietnam and faithfully wrote, daily. After six months the letters from his sweetheart stopped. His mother then wrote that she had married another guy.

Ray took this badly and so became a machine gunner volunteering for every dangerous mission. “Whoo I kept my guardian angel busy Michael. When I arrive at the pearly gates my guardian angel is going to say, ‘boy you kept me busy’, yes sir.” Miraculously Ray made it back to civilian life, was pursued by a friend’s wife and married unhappily, but maintained it for the sake of the children, in spite of her infidelity.

Eight years later Ray ran into his sweetheart, divorced for four years now. Ray quickly followed suit and at last was with the only true love of his life. Four years later he lost her to cancer. “She’s with the Lord now dancing on streets of gold.”

It was really a sweet story and I didn’t add much beyond taking it all in as the miles flew by on our journey south. As we drove Ray pointed to a squirrel, dead on the side of the road. “Can I tell you a secret Mike? If I could ask the Lord for one gift it would be to raise those poor critters from the dead. They don’t know any better. They can’t read or nothing. Isn’t that foolish?”

“I don’t think that’s foolish at all Ray. Jesus himself tells us that ‘the Lord knows when even a sparrow falls’. I can’t help but think that he feels the loss. It’s refreshing really. Not enough Christians care about the critters and the rest of the natural world. Have you ever read Psalms 104 Ray?”

“Well I can’t say that I have off the top of my head.”

“Some call it the environmental psalm Ray. Its really cool and you should check it out. It says there” that the mountains belong to the wild goats”. We like to think it was all given to us to use as we please but that is not so. God made all of the species we are driving to extinction and the wild places that hold them for a reason and we are thoughtlessly and methodically killing off God’s creation for a profit.”

Ray perked up when I started rolling, giving my mini-sermon. I realized I hadn’t said more than a handful of words on our hours long journey and we had bonded in the telling of Ray’s story but I was a tabula rosa that Ray for the first time realized could talk. Ray asked again for the name of the psalm and he wrote it in his little steno pad he kept in his shirt pocket.

Ray then gave me a really searching look, paused, and said, “It says in the Good Book you never know when you ‘may be hosting angels unaware’”. He looked at me conspiratorially and I just nodded.

“Angel is just the Greek word for messenger Ray”.  All too soon we were at the fork in the road where Ray went to Chicago and I continued south towards Lansing. Ray let me out on the side of the road ahead of where he was splitting off on 10. As Ray pulled away I walked away from the highway into the grass and sat down. It was another abrupt shift in environment and I wasn’t quite ready to deal. I sat in the grass and smoked a cigarette.

My thoughts turned to when I was in junior high and Cindy Ball who was the mother of a couple of my church buddies and would frequently give me a ride picked up a vagrant. She left us in the car while they had pie and coffee in a diner late one night, perhaps after church. She had quoted the same verse and was convinced of a miraculous encounter. I believed what I had said to Ray, anyone can carry a message. I tried to write a bit of verse as I stowed my stuff for walking to bolster my trepidation about being stranded on the junction of two highways and having to walk some up the interstate:

If you wanna be an angel

You don’t tell them your last name

That we’re all the same

Lost and confused

You give a few tricks for the game

Tell them they’re not to blame

When they’ve been abused

You listen more than you talk

Then show you’ve walked the walk

And have something to say

This bit came easy as I shouldered my pack and began making the difficult trek along the slope of the ditch, not yet wanting to dare the interstate.

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