Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Did I ever tell you about the time I hitchhiked to Hamburg with one dollar in my pocket?

After a summer of camping in Spain, I said farewell to my friends who were returning to graduate school in the States, and I began the 1,000-mile hitchhike up to Hamburg in northern Germany. I had lived there a couple of years earlier and had a newly-married friend who would let me crash on his couch until I could line up a job.

It was the 1970s. I was in my 20s and I trusted to luck. Along the way, a young German couple gave me a ride into Germany. They were returning from one month's vacation in Africa. He was a long-haired jazz musician. She was a brown-haired beauty who turned around from the front seat to talk to me while her man drove us to Wuppertal, a destination that advanced me quite a ways toward my goal. They talked about Africa and I told them about America. We arrived that evening in Wuppertal and I was invited to stay over. The next morning they would bring me to the Autobahn so I could continue my northward trek.

We had dinner in their kitchen and remained at the table for hours talking about our travels and hometowns. When it came time to retire, the jazz man showed me to a guest room with a small bed against the wall. He would be up early to pick up the couple's two house cats before going to work and would wake me. The cats had been boarded at a friend's.

It had been a long road up from Spain. I killed the light and was quickly falling asleep when I felt a tiny pinprick on my arm. Then another. Then two or three on both arms. What was happening? I sat up and stretched to turn on the bedside lamp. In uncomprehending surprise I saw dozens of tiny black dots appearing and disappearing on the bare skin of my arms.

Now I was wide awake and could make sense of what I was seeing. Fleas! I was being attacked by dozens of tiny black cat fleas. I soon realized I could only kill the fleas by smashing them between my fingernails. Thus began a battle. The fleas jumping on me en masse, and I going after them one at a time, a faint click confirming each kill. Attrition was slow, their ranks seemed to be reinforced endlessly. Soon I was too tired to care. I killed one last flea and surrendered my forearms outside the blanket after turning out the light. The biting faded gradually the deeper I sank into exhausted slumber.

The next morning, fueled by a hearty German breakfast and strong java, I was ready to complete my hitchhike. I said goodbye to the brown-haired beauty and rode with the musician to an Autobahn rest area where, with any luck, I would be able to find a driver headed for Hamburg. I had told my host about the cat fleas and he had apologized. They don't bite humans normally, he said. Of course after fasting for a month they certainly couldn't afford to be picky eaters.

At the rest area I approached a Mercedes with Hamburg plates. A fit-looking middle-aged man in dress slacks and a short-sleeved shirt and tie was stopped at the gas pumps. He saw me coming at him in my jeans, with my worn knapsack, long hair and beard and a cardboard sign that read "HH" for Hamburg. He shook his head and waved me off with a sideways wagging finger. "I never take hitchers," he said.

"Aw look man, I'm a college student from America."

"Did you say you're American?"

The German businessman relented and I installed myself in the passenger seat with my knapsack at my feet. We spent most of the trip in congenial conversation.

At one point, during a lull in the talk, as the Mercedes tracked northward at 140 kilometers an hour, my driver become distracted. He shot a glance at his left forearm. His expression turned sour and I looked at the bare forearm and saw a tiny black speck. In that instant he slapped at the black dot — too late. He looked around a bit, avoiding my eyes. We didn't talk much after that but we made great time and the city looked grand as we sped over the Elbe River bridge.

I was grateful to the man for the ride. And I was sorry about the flea. I knew as I got out of the Mercedes in downtown Hamburg I was absolutely the last hitchhiker that guy would ever stop for. I can imagine him telling the tale: "Hitchhikers are all so dirty! Even this American college kid had fleas!" Most of all I was glad the tiny black flea had the sense to upgrade from a broke hitchhiker to a businessman.

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