Narc Passage

Warning: Convicts in mirror are closer than they appear

    Photo: Geoff Kern

I AM OVER SIX FEET TALL, and my first love and co-conspirator was almost seven feet tall. I mention this because, in the context of danger, size matters. In 1971 and '72, we hitchhiked through Europe as if in a security bubble. We saw great art and viewed the landscape. Our backpacks remained unstolen; the average European gave us a wide berth. In addition to being extra-tall, we were Marxist, or, rather, he was Marxist and I was the fellow traveler. He was always trying to make contact with the working class but was too intimidating to succeed.

When we got back to the States, the revolution, such as it was, seemed to be passing us by. It was August, sunny and hot, and we were on a trip from Iowa to Wyoming by way of the scenic wonders of South Dakota. We were doing 73 with the windows down and chatting about the labor theory of value. Two hitchhikers appeared. My companion slowed down to pick them up, since we'd gotten rides so many times in Europe.

They ran to the car. They were wearing black and did not look like respectable members of the working class but, rather, charter members of the lumpen proletariat. They got in back—the tall, skinny one behind me, the shorter, heavier one behind my friend. We began talking; it turned out they were just out of the state penitentiary, where they'd served time for drug-related offenses. This was not, on the face of it, a negative. Theoretically, they had something to teach us about aspects of the revolution that we were less familiar with, but we didn't overhear them making political plans, only talking in low voices about old associates.

My friend and I exchanged a glance. As he turned off I-90 toward the Badlands, I pulled down my sun visor, angling its mirror so I could see the hands and face of the guy behind me. His face was animated. In his hands was a knife. I angled the visor toward the other fellow's hands. He had a knife, also. I tried to communicate this to my friend by means of gestures, but he was busy drawing them out about their prison experiences.

As we entered the Badlands, we saw that they were truly bad, from our point of view: desolate, beautiful, strange, and isolated, one cliff face and jutting butte after another, in wildly striated and colorful layers. Why were we taking ex-cons with knives into the Badlands, anyway? Well, because we felt we owed them the benefit of the doubt, and also because, since we had talked about how we were headed for the Badlands, we didn't want to seem to be prejudiced or modifying our trip out of fear.

Beyond that first impression, I don't remember the Badlands, but I remember perfectly how graceful and slender the skinny guy's hands looked as he played with that knife. My friend kept talking in a relaxed, friendly manner, but he drove faster and faster. Pretty soon, the colorful rock faces were zipping by, and by late afternoon we were back on the highway, doing 85. As Marxists, we gave no thought to stopping and kicking them out. As big, tall people, we gave no thought to asserting ourselves. We drove. Evening drew on. We approached Rapid City.

"Say," said the shorter guy, "so-and-so lives here. He'd put us up for the night."

"I don't know—" said the skinny guy, but my friend, ever helpful, crossed two lanes and the apron of the exit ramp, bouncing the Chevy over the curb. We paused at the stop sign and whipped around a corner into a Howard Johnson's. "Need some money?" said my friend. "You could eat here."

The guys sat quietly, not moving. I watched their hands. Finally, the short one said, "Yeah. We do need some money." My friend emptied his pockets. He had about 30 dollars, all our money. It's what they would have gotten if they'd killed us.

As we drove away, we waved. We drove fast, in case they thought to pull out their six-guns and drill us from afar.

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