He was definitely the neatest looking hitchhiker I’ve ever seen. Clothes and body clean, thick gray hair and mustache neatly cut and combed. He was about five-eight, lean and tanned and he carried a small backpack, like a kid’s school bag, and a non-digital 35mm SLR camera. Even though he was wearing a thin gray athletic undershirt (the type my kids used to call a “wife beater” when they were in high school), he looked like an actor. He even had a red bandana folded up and knotted around his neck in a sort of jaunty fashion. I pulled onto the shoulder at the top of the on-ramp where Kansas-120 merges onto US36-East and offered him a ride.
“Where you headed?” I asked through the open passenger’s side window. “Where you going?” he replied, leaning down and looking in. “I’m going east,” I answered with a bit of reserve. He was headed from Hiawatha, Kansas, to Independence, Missouri, slightly over a hundred miles total distance. “A friend of mine gave me a ride over here from Hiawatha, let me out right back there.”
“Throw your stuff in the back seat,” I instructed and he obliged, then got into the front seat. “If you would, buckle that seat belt.”
“Oh, yeah; I learned that a long time ago.” He looked around for the strap, found it and snapped it in place. The three seconds it took for him to do that was the only time he wasn’t talking for the next thirty minutes and that sentence was one of the few he used without any profanity in it. I will, however, omit most of that from the record that follows.
I asked him his name and he said, “Barry. Barry Duke. You’ve heard of Duke University in North Carolina? Well, my family, you know, my ancestors, they’re the ones that donated the land to build that university. Dukes of North Carolina but I’m from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and I’m part Indian, Cherokee, but I’m descended from England.”
He said his wife died in April and his mom died on Mother’s Day and he lost his house and he abandoned his girlfriend and moved to Hiawatha with some guy that came down with a U-Haul and moved him in the middle of the night and they went through Wathena at five in the morning. And his stepdad retired from twenty-four years in the Air Force and then flew a private jet for the king of Saudi Arabia, Prince Farouk. “We lived in the Philippines from ’79-’85 and then he and Mom moved to Saudi Arabia and I moved back to Virginia.”
Then Barry’s ex-girlfriend called on his cell phone but he couldn’t hear half of what she was saying and he told her he’d call her back when he got to the Kansas state line. Then he said his wife died in bed three years ago and they’d been together twenty-four years and he went in to wake her up and she was ice cold. He called 911 and the woman said, “Sir, can you put her on the floor?” “Yeah, I can put her on the floor but she’s dead.”
“Sir, can you put her on the floor?” “Yeah, I can put her on the friggin’ floor but she’s dead.”
“Sir, can you put her on the floor?” “I can take her outside and put her on the friggin’ roof if you want me to, but she’s dead. I know what ‘dead’ is.” He talked again about how much he missed her and about his mother dying and him losing his house and about his girlfriend’s brother breaking out his windshield. And each little segment had its own little bit of Barry’s salty language.
Regardless of rhetoric, he seemed to have no idea where we where when we crossed the river into Saint Joseph and then turned south on I-229. But when he saw an exit sign that said “St. Joseph” a few minutes later, he said, “Oh, Saint Joe. Yeah, I know Saint Joe real good. I spent eighteen months in the Saint Joe Prison. Violated my parole. Had contact with my wife. I knew she was going to turn me in. I told her, ‘I’ll see your fat butt in the morning.’ Told her that right to her face; I knew what she was going to do.”
I didn’t bother asking Barry if this was the same wife he missed so much and I didn’t bother telling him that Saint Joseph doesn’t have a prison, unless he was referring to the state psychiatric unit. On reflection, I thought there might be a pretty good chance, actually, that he might have looked at the world from the inside of that institution for a while. By this time, I was pretty sure that there’s not a lot of overlap between Barry Duke’s reality and that of the other folks around him. I also speculated that if his wife had secured a “no contact” order against him if maybe there was something to that stereotype about the kind of undershirt he was wearing. But, I figure even people like him qualify as “the least of these my brethren” so helping him out was a good thing.
For sure, when I pulled into the truck stop near Menard’s at 169 and I-29 South, he certainly seemed grateful, especially when I tipped him for the company. “Man, thank you, I really appreciate that. God bless you, Doc. I’m going to say a prayer for you next time I’m in church.”
“Don’t wait that long,” I chuckled, “go ahead and say one before that.”
“Oh, no,” he protested, “that’s something I started doing when I was going to the food kitchen in Independence. I started going to church every Sunday.”
Well, folks, I don’t know whether or not to believe a single thing Barry Duke said to me in that thirty miles or so. But he sure changes your image of “church people” now, doesn’t he?