It was not so much that I began with the $137 in my wallet that caused the trouble; it was the leftward march of the decimal point.
The Navy provided me with $137 to fund a trip from Chicago to San Francisco to meet my first ship after boot camp and training. In 1962, $137 was more than adequate for the trip.
Wisdom, however, is distressingly absent in a 19-year-old. I went east instead of west: back home, because the Navy had unwisely allowed me two weeks to get to California. There was Helen. And there was Martha, and perhaps somebody else, gals who helped move the decimal point one digit left, thus reducing my California trip resources to $37.
So when my folks dropped me off at the bus stop and asked if I had enough cash, my pride answered, “Of course.” They drove away. The bus drove away.
And I stuck out my thumb for the 3,000-mile trip from East Coast to West Coast.
I couldn’t believe it! I was in the Navy. I was 19. My jaunt from east to west, into unknown territory, thumbing rides, something I had never done before, was an adventure. Sometimes I was afraid, but not often. It was something that I simply had to do. I got to California, exhausted from lack of sleep, but I got there, and got there on time.
The ship to which I had been assigned, USS O’Brien (DD-725), was due in port two weeks later. My orders consigned me to a holding station at a base on Treasure Island, a place in San Francisco Bay where a bridge touched down between San Francisco and points east.
I was down to 37 cents for the two-week wait, a nickel of which I spent on a pack of Juicy Fruit. Chow, a bunk, and a free theater on base: These things were provided, but I had no money to catch the bus into San Fran to look around.
I could see the hills and buildings from Treasure Island. I lusted to walk those streets, to see the trollies, hear them ding like in the movies. But I could not. On my 20thh birthday, a sailor delivered mail down the aisle of the free theater. He called my name.
It was a birthday card from my folks back east. Inside were two $10 bills. I caught the bus into San Francisco.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my adventures were only beginning: typhoons in the South China Sea, alert for torpedo-carrying “fishing” vessels in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of Vietnam, steaming at top speed across the Pacific because President John F. Kennedy imposed an embargo on Cuba, raising Russian submarines, protecting the location where a crashed B-52 dropped a nuclear weapon into the Mediterranean, getting into the confusion of the Arab-Israeli war, getting so top-heavy from spray ice in the North Atlantic that we had to smash it off the lines with hammers, and finally steaming home to Newport, R.I. in a glass sea, the blue thin distant island of Nantucket my last view from the ocean —
— and all this six years after hitchhiking across the country.
Stan Maiden lives in Hampden.