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Column: In the middle of nowhere, a kind of deliverance

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 1/10/2020 10:10:53 PM
Modified: 1/10/2020 10:10:13 PM

Last week I received a Happy New Year email from a friend I haven’t seen since 1967.

Willie J. Vance is a retired lawyer, living in Peoria, Ill., with whom I became friends during Army basic training in 1966. We had both been drafted in Cleveland, finished basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and were assigned to Infantry Advanced Individual Training at Fort Ord, Calif.

Our eight-week training was divided by a holiday break in December. Willie and I decided to hitchhike home to Cleveland for Christmas. Our friendship was an example of what can happen in the military. He, a black man from the inner city, and I, a white suburban teenager, might have never met in any other context.

We wore our dress uniforms, black Army issue shoes, thin socks and skimpy overcoats. December in Colorado wasn’t likely to be balmy, but the uniforms enhanced the chance of a ride. We sang a lot.

We quickly hitched several rides out of San Francisco, finding ourselves in Reno, Nev., in the middle of the night. Two soldiers could get a sumptuous meal for a few dollars in a cheap casino in Reno.

Fully stuffed, we walked to the edge of town and lifted our thumbs to a stunning desert sunrise. A ride came along soon and we crossed Nevada and through to Vernal, Utah. There we waited fitfully for hours, finally catching a ride about midnight. We dozed in the back seat, awakened by the driver saying, “End of the road for me. Good luck!”

We were in Craig, Colo., at 2 a.m., temperatures diving into single digits. An all-night diner-laundromat drew us to its neon flame and we huddled inside the door, taking turns at the curb.

Craig was a small town, and traffic on Route 40 dried up at night. After an hour or two, an old sedan pulled up to the curb as I was on thumb duty. The rear window rolled down and a bloom of beer fumes and cigarette smoke rolled out. Willie rushed from the diner, enthused by our apparent good fortune. A voice came from the back seat, slightly slurred and not particularly cheery. “Where ya goin’?”

“Cleveland,” I said. “We’re hoping to make it home for Christmas.”

I had a bad feeling about the car’s occupants encountering the black guy suddenly appearing over my shoulder. The voice said, somewhat ominously, “You’ll never make it.”

“Never make it” has pretty dark implications in the rural West when offered up in Deliverance tones and a steam cloud of beer.

Then, “Wanna beer? Git in.”

Willie and I looked at each other, paused, and got in the car.

Beer cans popped, we took a swig, and the driver said, “You’ll never make it because no one comes through here at night.” He introduced himself. Joey Garcia. He was on leave from the Navy and heading home with his brother, who was sprawled out in the back seat.

Slightly buzzed on the empty-stomach beer, we sat silently until Joey said, “You’ll be here all night. C’mon home with us instead.” We were wary, but had no good reason to decline.

Joey woke up Momma Garcia, who in turn woke up several younger children who were sleeping in a tiny bedroom in the very small, cluttered house. They were, we learned, a coal mining family. Momma made us a magnificent breakfast at 3 a.m. and insisted that we sleep in the younger kids’ beds while they camped out on the threadbare couch.

They woke us at 7 for another breakfast and insisted on buying us plane tickets to Denver, where we’d have a better chance of catching a ride and making it home for Christmas. We refused, as they seemed to be living in near poverty. They insisted, we refused, they insisted, we refused.

We finally accepted a ride in their rusty pickup truck, accompanied by Momma in the front seat and all the kids in the truck bed, to the Craig airport, where they contributed partially to our tickets on a small shuttle plane to Denver. Every Garcia hugged us tight and cried. Deliverance indeed.

Our journey from Denver to Cleveland was uneventful, save the midnight ride with an itinerant preacher in an old Cadillac Seville through eastern Indiana and western Ohio farmland. He sang hymns, prayed for our souls and dropped us near enough home that we made it by Christmas Eve.

Even as a nonbeliever, I’ll take that as divine intervention, although without the Garcias we would not have met the preacher. Perhaps it was they who were divine.

Several years after my discharge in 1969, I found Willie in Cleveland and we had an uncomfortable reunion. I had become a supply officer and avoided combat. Willie had become an infantry platoon leader in the jungles of Vietnam and experienced unimaginable, numbing trauma.

Last fall I found him through Google magic and we have rekindled a long-lost, brief, but intimate friendship. His life was partially broken by that immoral war. He lost a marriage and it has taken years to rebuild patience and trust. But he has found peace in Buddhism, godchildren and an enduring belief in the American principles of liberty and justice — despite that they remain elusive.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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