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"I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy." (Leviticus 11:44.) "Jesus prayed, 'Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be as we are one.' (John 17:11.) "... at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, 'Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, "The Lord needs them." And he will send them immediately.'" (Matthew 21:1b-4.)
Hitchhiking has doubtless ever saved a soul. Few hitchhikers probably do not involve their drivers in religious talk. When I first started hitchhiking I practiced it sparsely. I was timid. If I were lucky enough as a kid to receive a ride, I usually ended up with a mutual acquaintance. Presbyterians show reluctance about talking religion with family, neighbors, or close friends.
Hitchhiking started for me before I was religiously articulate, at thirteen or fourteen years of age. However, I was on the path of religious commitment. I was a church boy from birth, particularly from the time of my baptism at three months of age. As a teenager I started becoming both more restless and more religious. I needed something to do and someone other than my parents or my pastor to talk religion. I was so devoutly thankful, therefore, one Sabbath after Church when one of our elders, Calvin Frye, offered me one dollar per day if I would come to the farm and help him during hay-cutting and wheat-threshing seasons. I took the job. The problem I faced was transportation. The Frye farm was located two miles away on a dirt road, one-and-one-half miles off a blacktop. I was determined that I would either hitch a ride to work, or walk. I hadn't given much thought to doing holy conversation with the drivers, partly because I usually knew my benefactors. I feared that they may ask, "What business is my faith to you?"
I had no trouble getting rides from the first day I worked for Mr. Frye. I customarily started tackling the hike walking. I was usually at the farm on time; time was flexible. The job turned out to be more sweaty and gross than I had anticipated. Getting a ride to Frye's was simple and easy by comparison. Being a town-very small town-kid, I was not accustomed to swinging a pitchfork. Not only did I have to master the fork, I also had to take on other chores like cleaning out the horses' stalls in the evening and scattering fresh straw in them. By the time I arrived at the farm, Cal-at the time he was "Mr. Frye" to me-was usually finishing reigning the horses and attaching them to a wagon. Then we took off for the field, Cal driving the horses while I bumped along in the back of the wagon.
Days on the Frye farm proved long and boring. I carried a sack lunch to work and usually stayed with Frye's for a bountiful supper. After eating I headed to the barn to complete my smelly duties, then headed out toward the "blacktop." I usually succeeded in receiving a ride. I looked forward to Friday or Saturday, and Mr. Frye's handing me five or six dollars. He reminded me to tithe it. Working with Calvin Frye eased when I received employment mowing graves at the local cemetery, picking pickles at a farm to which I had to hike a distance about equal to the Frye's, maintaining lawns in town, washing windows, and caring for young children.
At the age of sixteen my hitchhiking expanded when my employment elevated to a more sophisticated activity. I found work-the job will be described in more detail later-that required traveling fifteen miles from my hometown, Elderton, to Indiana, on Pennsylvania Route 422. Eventually I graduated to hitchhiking U.S. Route 40, and finally and occasionally, to the trans-national Route 66. Covering the longer-distance introduced me to more worldly pleasures, as guaranteed in the lyrics of the 1940's popular Hit Parade Song, "You Can Get Your Kicks on Route Sixty-Six." The hit had become one of my favorite tunes on the "Lucky Strike Hit Parade."
Concurrence with my more far-reaching hitchhiking experience happened in my teenage interest in things spiritual. In the early 1940's my church involvement increased, and I was simultaneously developing a taste for higher levels of highway conversation beyond, "Where are you going ... where are you from ... how do you like the weather ... what does your father do... do you have children?" Sometimes neither driver nor rider talked at all; the driver was more interested in listening to KDKA-Radio from Pittsburgh, or enjoying silence. My enterprise benefited from a World War II influence on consumer products. Fewer cars were on the road at the same time more hitchhikers showed up.
HOLY HITCHHIKING FOREIGN HIGHWAYS relates my interfacing-sometimes intentionally, sometimes coincidentally, and sometimes accidentally-of hitchhiking and a holy calling. Taking God and Church more seriously was taking place at the same time I was more frequently seeking free travel. At first it met my need of a frequent escape from my village in Elderton, Pennsylvania, to the faster life in either Kittanning or Indiana, twelve to fifteen miles away, in opposite directions. Making a dollar or two a day, I had the quarter for occasionally going to a picture show, frequenting the five-and-ten cent stores, sometimes just walking the streets and gawking at the traffic and pedestrians or decorated store windows, and on one occasion shop-lifting. I was so scared and felt so guilty that I ended up with only a ninety-eight cent pair of socks from Kresge's. My Mother discovered my theft and immediately drove me back to the store and made me return the item. Later in the day Dad's punishment was inflicted. Little did I dream at the time of being able, having the opportunity, or facing the need to travel sometime in foreign places other than unfamiliar roads in the U.S.A., like Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, New Zealand, and finally, Africa.
Holy conversation intruded into my hitchhiking in part because of my innate curiosity about everything. My Mother often commented that my favorite word, next to "No" was "Why?" I attribute my holy hitchhiking to encouraging and clarifying my eventual commitment to ordained church ministry. I felt more comfortable and judged myself increasingly successful in engaging drivers in talk about God, Church, Jesus and the Bible. I wanted to know what people, other than the people connected with our local United Presbyterian Church, thought about these subjects, and how their knowledge was making changes in their lives. Sometimes I found myself in deep water. I needed to be smarter, wiser, and holier.
At the ages of seventeen to twenty-two I would have been ecstatic to have had the experience, with perhaps a little less fervor, that my wife and I experienced in public on a 1987 visit to Korea. Among other conveyances, we traveled on the new subway system designed for efficient movement of people in the upcoming Olympics. We were visiting Presbyterian missionary friends and Institutions; they spoke the local language. Our conversation and skin color-and usually our height-identified us as foreign. Never in our lives have so many Presbyterians on the street or in the subway or on buses asked us, frequently in English, "Are you saved?" I quickly developed several scripts for the question, many of them out of the English vocabulary range of the questioners. Our hosts would assist with translations.
Statistics on the popularity and practice of religion today could discourage a hitchhiker from attempting holy conversation, or expecting a positive response to it. It is not unusual to run into an unwillingness to enter into conversation about spiritual matters with a stranger. A smaller segment of the population shows interest in or has knowledge of God and the Bible and theology, especially religion with an institutional twist. Many religious or church folk have a low theological IQ, and in the Pacific Northwest's social diversity the Christian Faith has lapsed into a minority status. Fewer American families here "go to Church," or preface lunch or dinner with prayer. Korean Christians in the Seattle area, along with many African American churches, evidence more holy profession and action than Caucasians. The leadership of most mainline churches look with envy and sometimes confusion, and even suspicion, at the growth of Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Fundamental religious bodies. Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Methodist, and even Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist constituencies are increasingly graying and not growing. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this malaise, and the crisis in the American economy, secular culture could find a new mission field in holy hitchhiking. Time spent in cars in religious conversation could redeem the travel time. It could prove equally valuable if it takes place in the environment covered in this book, in a foreign car, on an airplane or boat. It has both given me satisfaction and confronted me with a challenge to engage my foreign hitchhiking hosts in clean talk.
The practice also offers the advantage of making the miles speed by faster. At no time in my hitchhiking has a driver stopped when approached with a holy topic and told me to get out of his/her car. More often thanks have been extended for the engagement. On occasion a stranger has made a commitment to explore religious activity further; or, as a young Parisian female said when I engaged her in spiritual conversation while crossing the North Sea on a ferry from England to France, "I will think about the Church when I get older." I may be cynical, but I am not much encouraged that she did.
My increasing skills in making a hitched ride holy grew in proportion to my attempts at the practice. By the time I entered the fifth grade, I had become aware, but had only a rudimentary understanding, of the American cherished right to the pursuit of both holiness and happiness. Our small school had a downstairs for the first through fourth grades, and an upstairs for the others. Both downstairs and upstairs school days began-in winter, if the pot-bellied stove had heated the room comfortably-with Teachers Virg and Stan (Mrs. Woods and Mr. Schall to the students) complying with Pennsylvania law, long since repealed, by reading ten verses from the Bible, and leading us in "saying" the Lord's Prayer. Mr. Schall on occasion followed the religious exercise by having the classes repeat patriotic sentences he had written on the chalkboard. One that caught my attention was from the Declaration of Independence. The Document, we recited, guarantees every American citizen the right to "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
As written earlier, I was being raised in a good Christian (Presbyterian) home, but not strictly fundamentalist. As I merged into puberty, most of the time I liked both church and school. I did well in my classes. In fact, until I entered the eighth grade, when I heard the upper grades recite from the front-row desks, I put aside my own assignments and challenged myself to learn the tougher stuff the upper classes were studying. Hearing Mr. Schall say repeatedly that education is the way to prosperity and to some extent, happiness, I believed that I would be hotter on the pursuit of the two if my family had more money. I had visions of becoming rich myself, and I would make my money as a movie star. Jimmie Stewart and Bette Davis were my idols, along with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Jimmie inched higher in my estimation because, as noted earlier, he was from Indiana, not more than fifteen miles from my hometown of Elderton. His father and I would eventually become acquaintances.
Although I became frequently bored, I finally accepted the fact that life at our home was not all that restrictive or poor. Dad seemed to have recovered from the effects of the great depression of 1929 without too much debt. We always had a comfortable late-model car, big enough for us four siblings in the back seat. (And we knew the consequences of "acting up" or misbehaving. "Mum" had made it clear: "... the next time you will stay home." That announcement worked as discipline, but was never carried out.)
Home life for me in childhood was not all that bad. In fact, as far as I could determine, it was good. My younger brother commented two years before he died, "We had the best dad there ever was." He and our Father entered into a lot more activities of mutual interest than Dad and I ever did, like working together on cars, hunting deer and wild turkeys and other outdoor activities. (The only hunting I ever did with Dad was autumn coon hunting at night with our coon dogs, and I never shot a gun.) We had a nice big radio in our living room, but no TV yet of course; the time was still in the early 1940's. Our town had no organized sports except high school basketball and baseball; no movie theater, no roller skating rink, no bowling alley, no casinos, no races; just churches and church organizations and activities, school sessions nine months of the year, an Elks Lodge, and in my young manhood, an American Legion Organization, which I joined after my discharge from the U.S. Army Air Corps. Our house had a party-line hand-rung telephone, one camera with black and white film, one wheelbarrow, one wagon, and one bicycle for us four children. Summers, nevertheless, went too quickly, and winters too slowly. Dad took me on an occasional summer trip to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates play baseball. Almost every summer we drove to a park in the area to attend the Gibson family reunion. We took an occasional weekend drive up to "Camp," in the Elk County Mountains. A group of Elderton men owned a hunting lodge, and Dad belonged. More frequently, we went to a picture show in Indiana when the family had enough money to buy the tickets at twenty-five cents for children and fifty for adults. The one Elderton restaurant was open occasionally, but it had a beer license, so not many local residents patronized it; its owners lived "upstairs." One of my seventh-grade girlfriends lived next door, and one day she took me in to see the place and meet the wife of the owner. I knew her; she went to the other Presbyterian Church in town, and in my Mother's estimation, she was not a very good Christian because she sold beer and served it to the few persons who patronized the "establishment." I had never eaten at a restaurant or bought "fast food" before I was seventeen.
In October, high school activities included practicing basketball-both boys and girls. By November intramural games were being played. I was not a very tall or quick player, but I developed an interest in officiating girls' basketball games. At that time the playing team was made up of six girls, with the centerline as a dividing line between the defensive and offensive sides. In my junior year, the school became a beneficiary of a gift from the previous senior class: a record player. We began occasional dances after basketball games, and in 1943-I was a junior-we had our first Junior-Senior Prom: music supplied by records. We also put on plays in the spring and the fall, and since I was interested in drama, I was often chosen for the male lead. If a guy did not hunt or trap or fish, his life was limited to creating his own recreation, hanging out with pals or cousins, sled-riding, playing pick-up softball or baseball, and other homespun activities. On summertime Saturday nights the biggest crowd could be found on the steps and the front porch of William's Grocery Store. Folk from the country came to the village for their shopping and took advantage of the gathering to catch up on news and to gossip. In the wintertime the storeowner took the benches inside for "loafing" and visiting. Both town and country teenagers paraded the streets like hens and roosters on Saturday nights. (I hesitate to say, "Like chicks and cocks!") Town kids looked down on the country kids-until they were together in high school. In spite of all the wholesome and occasional changes in life in Elderton, Pennsylvania, it was too quiet for me; I wanted to live in a city.
Sundays-we United Presbyterians called it "Sabbath"-of course were holy days for the Methodists and the two Presbyterian Churches. Solemn worship services-and for us "UP's" evening services-broke the routine. We United Presbyterians regarded ourselves slightly more devout than other affiliated believers, since we practiced the Fourth Commandment more literally. Our attitude toward and practice of Sabbath observance could probably be more realistically described as threshold hypocrisy. The two grocery stores (both owned by United Presbyterians) were closed, as were the Bank and the Post office. The Hardware Store (also owned by a United Presbyterian) was closed. The two Service Stations (one owned by my Grandfather and Father, and the other operated by a Presbyterian, and across the street-Highway 422 until the 1940's) also shut down. On summer "Sabbath" afternoons Dad would spend two or three hours at the garage, "pumping gas." I would occasionally join him. When a car from Ohio stopped for a purchase, I wished I could have hidden in the trunk of their car and left Elderton with them. The "heathen" Restaurant-Tavern stayed open, but I never saw any cars parked out in front or any evidence of patrons. Our church had Sabbath evening worship every second week, and our family attended. Traffic on our main street (it had no official name then and it still hasn't except that it is locally referred to as "Main Street") along Route 422 was sparse, and hitchhiking was invisible.
Excerpted from Holy Hitchhiking Foreign Highways by Vernon G. Elgin Copyright © 2010 by Vernon G. Elgin. Excerpted by permission.
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