This month, many of us will celebrate Valentine’s Day by expressing our devotion and commitment to the one we love. In the spirit of this shared love, my mind began to consider what would happen if humans extended love’s essential qualities to others? These qualities include the following: trust, empathy, kindness, fairness, forgiveness, and concern.
After graduating from high school, I enrolled in college. My parents hoped I would be the first one in our family to earn a higher degree. Unfortunately, my heart wasn’t in it. Instead, adventure was on my mind, so after completing 13 years of public school in a factory-laden inner-city, I decided to leave that city, my long-time friends, and even my family in search of something different.
Leaving home for the first time was exciting—yet intimidating. Just before my 19th birthday, I came across some pictures of Big Sur and its giant Redwood trees, 300-foot cliffs, aquamarine coves, and fern- bedecked forests. My heart said go there—go experience the beauty this country offers. Yet, my mind reminded me of the reality—I knew no one on the West Coast, so I would be on my own. There were no cell phones, and long-distance phone calls were expensive. Offsetting those practical concerns were the following motivating factors: my rebellion against parental rules, lack of freedom (“As long as you live under my roof, you follow my rules”), and a not uncommon father/son conflict.
My thirst for adventure led to a solo journey where I would have to rely on the kindness of strangers to help me hitchhike across North America. Without further ado, I dropped out of college, packed my father’s military duffel bag with a few essentials, and mapped out a wet-behind-the-ears plan to hitch-hike more than 3,000 miles to Big Sur, California. Surprisingly (or not so), my father offered to drive me to the Massachusetts Freeway known as the Mass Pike.
“You can always come home. You know that, right?” Simon Joseph Badrigian looked over at me. My father was 21 when he married my mother; she had just graduated high school. By her 26th birthday, she was the mother to five young children with me being the oldest. Simon worked three jobs to support his growing family, and his “work more, sleep less” work ethic would be one of the leading factors contributing to a fatal heart attack at the age of 50. Being a first-generation son of Armenian immigrants, he was a man of few words who grew up during the depression—a scarring experience. I soon became accustomed to this barrel-chested, macho father not showing much in the way of emotion or affection.
I nodded, “Thanks dad, I appreciate that.” My dad wasn’t a hugger, so I closed the door of the rusty family station wagon and watched it drive away slowly. Looking back, I should have said more: “Thanks dad for changing my diapers, for working 18 hours a day to provide for your family, for keeping a roof over my head, for loving my mother and being the best parent you could be at such a young age, for being a visionary even with the odds stacked against you. Maybe I would have said some of that if I had known 3,000 miles would keep us apart for more than five years. Yet, I was young, and sentimentality rarely visited my shallow mind, so I left Massachusetts with a small sign with four large hand-drawn letters—WEST was all it said.
On the road, I quickly learned two maxims: some people are dangerous, and some people will help a stranger simply out of kindness. My young brain slowly began to realize that the kindness of strangers remains the thread that makes our world bearable and a bit more welcoming. I remember hitching rides from a potpourri of individuals: a young businesswoman who said nary a word to me as she softly listened to classical music, an old farmer who was just lonely and wanted someone to talk to for a while, an alcoholic who pounded down several beers from a case of beer warming slowly on the back seat until I lied and said the next turn-off was mine, a young single mother who offered me her couch and a shower, a college student on his way home during break who lied to his parents saying I was his roommate so they would let me stay the night, shower, and eat with them, a salesman who dropped me off in the middle of nowhere in the pitch-black darkness just as it started to pour, a young couple in love trying to elope to Las Vegas without any money, and even a priest who blessed me with the sign of the cross. Each one showed a different degree of kindness to a stranger miles from home and at the mercy of others’ goodwill.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I experienced several close calls, made stupid decisions, and learned some painful lessons. One incident involved a mean old man in a Cadillac who tried to flatten me at 60 mph. With the quickness of youth and the grace of God, duffel bag and boy vaulted the guardrail and careened recklessly down the hillside. Another time occurred when I was refused a drink of water from a bubbler in a gas station. Thinking the owner was kidding, I took a sip anyway as two mechanics menacingly stepped toward me wielding over-sized wrenches in hands. Their butch haircuts contrasted distinctively with my free-flowing longer hair. I thought I escaped cleanly by walking away, yet as I stood hitching absentmindedly at the base of a nearby bridge with a concrete wall behind me and my concentration on a wrinkled map, something thrown from a passing pickup truck suddenly whooshed by my ear at 50 mph and then exploded against the concrete buttress behind me. As I turned, I gazed at what once was a full can of beer. As its agitated white foam slid down the wall, reality set in. My legs buckled; I fell to my knees. Fear, anger, and despair coursed through my mind as I tried to calm my heart. So this is Texas, I thought wryly as I stood up and moved farther down the road.
Later, a battered old truck driven by a young man with his girlfriend sitting pretty on the front bench seat came by. She yelled, “Jump in the back with the others; we can take you to the next state.” The couple stopped at a gas station where the driver and his girlfriend politely asked their passengers for (and received) donations for gas before they crossed the desert. Readying for a long slow drive through the desert, I laid out my bag and used my duffel as a pillow. The other two young men did the same. They were brothers going to visit their mom. I stared up at the night sky as most cars passed by the slow-going old truck. The brothers in the back of the truck were asleep, but as the desert darkness revealed one star after another, my eyes looked up in awe at a chalk-dusted sky streaked with Milky Way magic— beyond anything I heretofore could have imagined. My unblinking eyes were transfixed; I somehow knew I would never see as many stars again in my life. Sometimes, once is enough.
I arrived in Newport Beach, California. Helen and Anne were in college (the kindness of strangers), but took the time to introduce me to the Pacific Ocean for the first time and gave me a place to crash in their dorm. Later, I withdrew my savings earned from factory work and life guarding, and bought a used Harley-Davidson that knew the way to Big Sur. By late afternoon, I spied a sign: MORRO BAY. It didn’t look like much, so I roared on by heading north on Highway 1. Passing Morro Bay, the skies opened and a sudden downpour soaked boy and bike evenly. With needle-like raindrops blurring my vision, I drip- drove into the next town.
CAYUCOS: POP. 600 said the sign. The year was 1971. I putted slowly down the main street. Cayucos looked like a ghost town. On the right, I spotted an empty parking lot in front of a laundromat (that laundromat is still there). I thought, No one around—I might as well dry my clothes. Undressed, I stood there shivering in semi-damp boxers watching the dryer—then the door opened! A young black man (a couple years older than boxer-boy) stepped inside carrying a basket of laundry. He looked at the almost naked figure, turned on his heel, and moved to the other end of the empty room. As he loaded his clothes in the white washer, he turned to the embarrassed figure watching his clothes spin-dry. “Is that your Harley out there in the rain?”
“Yes, it is. I pulled over because I couldn’t see clearly.” “Whoa! Where the heck are you from? You sure talk funny.” “Massachusetts. I just arrived in California last week.”
“Well, you look like a wet dog. I’m a cook at The Breakers restaurant, and I brought home a big pot of soup and some bread if you’re hungry. I live right around the corner.”
That is when I met the stranger who would change my life for the better by introducing me to his friends, offering me a place to stay, and providing me the opportunity to get to know Cayucos and Morro Bay where I would live and raise a family for the next five decades.
“My name is Steve Williams, but my friends call me Huck. I’m walking, but you can follow me home on your Harley.” The two of us gathered our clothes. I kick-started the Harley and followed Steve to the tiny house around the corner. “We can’t leave your bike out in the rain. I’ll open the front door and you push it into the living room. There are no steps, so it should roll right inside.”
Stephen and his brother Paul would go on to build the successful Williams Concrete Company (their company laid the foundations of our schools, airports, and homes), produce amazing, talented children (many of whom graced my classroom at MBHS), and become well-loved contributors to our community. I slept that night on Paul’s bed in my sleeping bag. He was in Los Angeles visiting his mom. That night, Steve and I bonded listening to Jimi Hendrix, drinking beer, smoking, and laughing. We finally retired to sleep,
but in the wee hours (with a too full beer-bladder) I tried to find the bathroom in the dark. “Mmmphhhvrrroomvrooom, vrroooommm, brrraarrghhvrooom” came from the living room. As my eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, there sat Steve—on my Harley. Clad only in boxers, I smiled at the irony as he splittingly made motor noises with his vibrating lips. A cloud of smoke hung like a cloud above his head, one hand turning the throttle back-and-forth, the other white-knuckle gripping the handlebar. I quietly slipped back into the darkness. I never said a word—until this article.
The next morning, “Look outside; it’s still raining. You can stay here until it stops raining. I’ll be home around five. If you want, we can go visit a few friends; you’ll like them.” It rained for three days, and I stayed. On the fourth day the sun laid diamonds upon the sea, so I gave Steve a ride on the Harley around Cayucos and then headed north. After making it to Big Sur and spending a couple of weeks in awe of Nature’s handiwork and camping out, I returned to Cayucos to settled down knowing Big Sur was only an hour away.
Stephen and I became friends, and our friendship continues—almost 50 years so far. I think of Steve often; he helped me discover Cayucos and Morro Bay and introduced me to one of the best areas in the world for a young person to grow up, find a job, and raise a family.
Thank you Steve for showing kindness to a stranger; I am thankful there are people like you in the world.