On August 24, 1968, Mary McBride and I stood one mile south of Hawthorne, Nevada. It was 108 degrees, and we hadn't eaten in a day or had a change of clothes in two. She was 17. I was 24. We were in love.
Mary grew up in Columbia, a California town of 2500 set in the Sierra Nevada foothills. She was tall -- five foot, ten inches -- had outrageously long, fire-red hair, green eyes, thin, wide lips, long legs, and large breasts. Now add a sweet disposition and significant talents in art and piano.
We'd met, the preceding spring, in Los Altos Hills, California, at one of my stops, Foothill Junior College. I was living in a 75-dollar-a-month hovel that became, within the space of one week, a 75-dollar-a-month hovel/love nest. At the end of spring semester, Mary, at her mother's insistence, went home to work in a photographer's shop, a job mom arranged the moment she heard that daughter was off the leash.
We planned an August rendezvous at the Fresno airport. Mary would pick me up in her boat of a Ford Fairlane and drive us back to the Bay Area. She would resume her studies, and I, reformed by the love of a good woman, would commence an epic trek to a Ph.D. followed by a tenured life of piano recitals and faculty barbecues.
The Fresno airport closed at midnight, and at midnight I was patrolling the empty terminal under the visual custody of two janitors. Showing the kind of gumption that, 30 years later, would find her as sole owner of a greeting-card company, living on an honest-to-god Mississippi plantation, Mary got through to one of the janitors, who walked the length of the terminal, tapped me on the shoulder, and led me into his office.
Mary said there was an accident followed by a fire. Miraculously, no one was hurt, but she lost her Ford, clothes, money, and I.D. She called from her mother's house in Columbia.
The next morning, I hitched over to retrieve Mary. It was a hostage situation. Her mom had telephoned the cops (Mary was underage by two months) and demanded my arrest. While mom waited for the police to do their duty, we went for a walk. The Bay Area was blown; what should we do? We walked and talked and then, without discussing it, put out our thumbs.
It took two days to travel the 151 miles from Sonora into Hawthorne. This is 1968 in central Nevada and two longhairs were regarded as alien invaders. For this reason, we set our hitchhiking post one mile south of town, not wishing to disturb Hawthornites as they woke to another fucked-up day. I told Mary, "On all accounts, let us not excite the natives." And, aside from the odd beer can thrown at us from passing pickup trucks, and apart from the deputy sheriff, who drove by every hour to order us out of town, our deployment was a diplomatic triumph.
Happiness, thy name is Jarrod. That was his name, Jarrod Pridham. He was driving a big, black Caddy hearse and stopped to give us a ride.
Jarrod worked for a Las Vegas mortuary. When a wealthy Vegan died out of state, he was dispatched to haul the carcass home. The carcass currently resting in the back was picked up in Seattle two days ago. We gradually pieced this rare morsel of concrete information together in between Jarrod's relentless monologues celebrating his sexual exploits on the road.
It's 315 miles from Hawthorne to Las Vegas. Mary counted off every one of them out loud. We escaped at the first stoplight in downtown Las Vegas. A phone booth beckoned. I walked over, picked up the phone directory, began turning pages, muttering, "Liberals, liberals, liberals. Where are you? There's got to be one." I leafed past bakers, cocktail lounges, optometrists, and then, "Bingo, here's a university."
I considered the question, "What's the most liberal department in a college?" and then called the Nevada Southern University sociology department. Bruce Burger came on the telephone, "Hello."
I said, "You don't know me, but...," and run down current events. He invited us to his office.
We wound up staying six weeks in Bruce's apartment. Bruce got us into school and lined out a magnificent package of NDSL loans, Pell Grants, student loans, and work-study jobs. Pretty soon, Mary and I were pulling down more money as students than we'd ever made working in the hive.
We stayed in Nevada for a few years and then I started traveling, Mary moved to Santa Monica, took up freelance work as a graphic artist, married a man from Pass Christian, Mississippi, moved there, started a greeting-card company, got divorced, stayed on, and grew her business.
Pass Christian, Mississippi, disappeared from the face of the earth during the early morning hours of August 29, 2005.