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My Night in Jail

July 1, 2012

I suppose it goes without saying that doing foolish things is the province of the young. Normal rules of common sense fly out the window and impulsive decisions rule the day. How I ended up spending a night in jail falls firmly in this category. It didn’t involve anything nefarious. Rather, it was the result of an unpredictable series of events creating a path that led several friends and I to a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, jail cell.

In the summer of 1970 I began my Peace Corps training. Although I had been assigned to a tour of duty in the tropics, the Powers That Be had us train in the green mountains of Vermont. Thus Vermont Academy in the bucolic village of Saxton’s River became our home base, and for two months an eclectic assemblage of thirty or so young adults, mostly recent college graduates, spent many hours involved in intensive language study, technical training, and cultural acclimation. The combination of this full schedule and the lack of diversions in the rural isolation of the area fueled the scheme a small group of us hatched to go to the beach at the first available chance. We had heard stories of former trainees making their way to the only beach accessible, that of Portsmouth, about a hundred twenty-five mile drive across the southern segment of New Hampshire. Unfortunately, the only means to get there was to hitchhike, a practice frowned upon by the training staff. But the idea of spending a free weekend in the sun and sand proved too powerful an attraction, especially for several of our party from the Midwest, outweighing any potential downside, at least in our naive reckoning.

The opportunity for that free weekend finally arose, and the five of us set off bright and early Saturday morning. A sympathetic instructor, a former Peace Corps Volunteer himself, dropped us off several miles away on the highway running east. We excitedly started hitchhiking, something in which none of us had much experience. The excitement wore off after several hours of standing, thumbs extended, in the hot July sun and getting no rides. The previously unconsidered prospect of failure began to creep into our collective psyche, furtive glances at wristwatches and deep sighs punctuating our futile attempts at snaring a lift.

Just about the point of throwing in the towel, someone started pulling over. Could this be? Yes! A ride! A beat-up pickup truck rolled to a stop in a cloud of dust a few yards ahead of us, and we rushed in unison to the passenger side door. Through the open window we caught our first glimpse of the occupants, two scruffy men in their late twenties. The driver leaned over and said, “You need a ride?” His companion on the passenger side flashed a wide grin revealing several missing teeth.

Now, I know you’re thinking, who in their ever-loving mind would get in such a vehicle? I can’t say that very thought didn’t cross our minds, but our long-awaited ride had arrived, and the vision of our revelry on a sunny beach blinded us to any prospective hazards involved in undertaking the journey with these two.

“Sure,” we said. “Thanks a lot.”

“Well, two of you can come on up in the cab with me. Frank here’ll go in the back with the other three.” Frank began climbing out before we could even respond.

The two girls got in the cab, figuring the driver would be otherwise occupied operating the vehicle and thus be no problem. As we three guys clambered into the cargo bed, I mollified myself with the thought that Steve and Greg were pretty big guys, and after all we were three to his one should anything untoward occur. In spite of that, his crazed look was more that a bit unsettling.

The driver poked his head out the window. “Where you headed?” he asked.

“We were trying to get to Portsmouth, so as far east as you’re going would be great.”

“Well, hell, we’ll take you all the way! Me and Frank here ain’t got nothin’ better to do anyways!”

We smiled nervously as the pickup lurched forward, not sure if this latest news was a stroke of good fortune or the knell of death.

The girls appeared to be attempting light banter with the driver, so we settled back as comfortably as possible amidst the rattling tools. As we barreled down Route 9, Frank began rambling on about his various adventures and misfortunes in life. The most memorable of these dealt with his heroin use.

“Yeah, man, I know it’s supposta be bad for you and all, but, man, I just love the shit!”

We struggled to respond in a manner neither antagonistic nor encouraging of further conversation. No such luck, for Frank continued with great fervor.

“Yeah, I shot myself up in my arms for a while, but them tracks it leaves was no good, so I started sticking myself all kinds of other places.”

We hoped further elucidation on this aspect of the topic would not be forthcoming, but Frank was on a roll.

“Yup, I stuck myself here, and here, and even there.”

We gulped and grimaced as one.

“Then I took to sticking myself between my toes cuz no one usually looks there. Ain’t that a hell of a thing!”

Good information to have in certain quarters, I supposed, but his discourse had become even more uncomfortable than the bumpy ride on the ridged floor of that pickup. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we pulled into Portsmouth.

“Where do ya wanna go now that we’re here?” the driver inquired.

“It would be fine if you just drop us off right here. We really appreciate the ride.”

“You sure?”

We responded emphatically that yes, we were quite sure.

“Yeah? Well, okay then,” he shrugged.

We scrambled out, waved good-bye, and as the strange duo pulled away, simultaneous waves of great relief washed over us.

The beach in Portsmouth is small compared to those of the Jersey shore I was used to, but it mattered not, nor did the fact that we arrived quite late. Taking a walk by the ocean side in the fading evening light, we basked in the joy of having made it there successfully.

The next problem was one that strangely we hadn’t considered: where to stay. We had little money between us and certainly not enough for a motel. We walked around for a while as night fell looking for a park or some other acceptable place to spend the night. One of the girls suggested going to the church. “Surely they’ll take us in!” she exclaimed with a confidence born of a Catholic school upbringing. When we finally found one, however, the doors were firmly locked with no one in sight to come to our rescue.

As we wandered disconsolate and aimless, a patrol car pulled up alongside of us. The officer rolled down the window and asked, “Can we help you folks with anything?” Our forlorn expressions must have been sufficiently pathetic, for when we told him of our plight, he replied, “Come with us to the station. I think we can help you out.” Exactly what he meant by that we weren’t sure, but since it appeared to be our only alternative, we went along with him.

Though technically a city, Portsmouth had the character of a smaller town, both genteel and old-fashioned, and the police station recalled the one in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. When we arrived, the officer requested that we sign in at the front desk (“Just for the sake of keeping proper records,” he assured us) and then led us inside.

“There’s no one in lockup tonight,” he explained, “so I suppose there’s no harm in you sleeping in our cells. Don’t worry,” he continued, no doubt noting the nervous looks on our faces, “we won’t lock them.”

The accommodations were Spartan to be sure — a hard bunk bed with faded sheets and a flattened pillow — but quite welcome nonetheless, and we settled into our jail house lodging after the doors clanged shut. We left the next morning with copious thank yous and assurances that next time we would think our plans through more thoroughly. The ensuing hours at the beach were pleasant though short since we figured we needed to give ourselves more time for the return trip than we had previously.

Once back on the road, it became apparent that our luck had run out. The several short rides we did manage to get interspersed with tedious hiking left us well short of our destination, and it was getting very late. Fewer and fewer cars appeared in the darkness, and the point of no return arrived. We were forced to call the head of our training facility to beg for a ride back. He was none too pleased, but faced with the choice of retrieving us or leaving us to our fate on the side of the highway all night, he really had no choice. The next day a terse but stern edict was posted absolutely forbidding any further hitchhiking by trainees with the threat of unspecified harsh consequences.

In the many  years since, I have rarely been in the position to need to hitchhike. In those rare situations when it was necessary, I always thought back to that day in New Hampshire. Images of Frank in the pickup truck and our night in jail immediately flash through my mind. I thankfully haven’t had the occasion to spend any other nights in jail, though. I have a feeling that probably can’t be said for the pair who picked us up.

Recently I visited my good friend Greg, one of my stalwart hitching companions who coincidentally now lives just outside Portsmouth. We drove around looking for the old police station to check it out, but we couldn’t find it. Greg thought it had been knocked down to make way for one of those modern municipal complexes. It would have been nice to stop in to see our former cells for old times sake, but it was not to be, for they were gone,  gone as crazy Frank and the old pickup truck, now just memories of a youthful misadventure from long ago.

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