I passed through or by Joplin a dozen times during a period of several years when I hitchhiked between Los Angeles and St. Louis or New York.
On hearing a few hours ago of the tornado that has devasted the southwestern Missouri town, I immediately wondered if old Route 66 had been wiped out. And author and poet Langston Hughes' birth home which I think, but am not sure, had been given a national designation – is it still there?
Thomas Hart Benton was given his first job as an artist by a Joplin newspaper. Film star Bob Cummings paved the way for vegetarians. Some think Jopln was named after Ragtime's Scott Joplin, but, though a Texan by birth, he had made his home up the road in Sedalia, another Missouri town.
I had interesting experiences on either side of Joplin and the old legendary highway.
The first was hitchhiking from St. Louis to Los Angeles one July. Myself and a friend felt we had a ride all the way to the coast, but some 60 miles east of Joplin, dropping down from the Ozarks, there was an auto accident on the other side of the highway, a station wagon with a family, three or four kids.
No one was seriously injured, and we tended the kids with bandages and cool sodas. But the family was poor and the car was not driveable. The family was from Californa and our driver, the man who had kindly stopped to give us a ride outside of St. Louis, decided a mission of mercy was more important than giving us a ride to LA.
He took us aside and said, ``Look, this family has lost everything and is in shock, but they have relatives in San Diego. I think I can fit them all in (the car) and take them back there. But there's not room in the car with you guys. Do you mind?''
Well . . . of course not.
The other event happened a year or so later. I was hitchhiking from Los Angeles to New England in the early fall. Near the New Mexico–Texas state line I was picked up by an old soft spoken man who spent most of the evening and night as we crossed into Oklahoma wondering at what he was seeing and asking me questions that seemed quite naive, such as, when we passed through small towns, which had at most perhaps a three-story building, ``When did they start making buildings so tall?''
It seemed odd, but when you hitchhiked a lot, especially then, you were used to some of the people picking you up being a bit different. Still, I admit to becoming concerned when we drove into a town in the still black early morning hours and he stopped at a locked up gasoline station and deftly picked the pump lock to fill up his gas tank.
Crossing the Missouri state line he started talking about Joplin. Wondered if it had grown. Had it tall buildings now? I was about to enter that conversation when the interior of the car flooded with light and penetratingly shrill sound. I looked back and we were being chased by a fleet of cruisers, sirens on. He said, ``Hold on,'' and he hit the gas.
It all seemed a blur until we had been run off the road and I was in handcuffs, shaken but not injured, though the car was angled strangely in a ditch. As they took the man off he apologized to me. ``Sorry, kid,'' he said.
I was released and a sherff's deputy took me for coffee in an all-night diner outside Joplin. The man, the deputy said, had been an escaped convict who had stolen a car and, within a few hours of the escape and car theft, picked me up as a cover.
The man had grown up in Joplin, the deputy said, and on a trip to the West Coast as a young man had gotten into a brawl in a bar and killed another man. It had not been a premediated killing. The man hadn't seen home for decades.
``It was not difficult picking up his – and your – trail,'' said the deputy, paying for the coffee. ``We had a pretty good idea he'd be heading for Joplin. They usually try to go home.''
I've always wished he could have gotten one more look at his home town, now more than ever, because his Joplin is gone.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...