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Hitchhiking Cape Cod in the 1960s: quiet winter roads, lone servicemen

Andrij Bulba / flcc

During the winter of 1962, when I was nineteen, I lived in Provincetown, where I worked as a reporter for The New Beacon, a small local weekly newspaper. It was during late October of that year, when the Cuban Missile Crisis raised its apocalyptic head, that I first became aware of the now-defunct North Truro Air Force Base. At that time the base was an active part of the DEWLINE system, one of 23 Distant Early Warning radar stations established by the Department of Defense at the beginning of the Cold War. The North Truro base was part of the so-called “first line of defense” for the North American continent against possible Soviet nuclear attacks. At its peak, some five hundred servicemen and their families were stationed there, and though I never actually set foot on the base when it was active, I did encounter several of its personnel over the course of that winter.

In the early 1960’s, Provincetown was a virtual ghost town in the off season. It was six weeks before I met someone my own age there who wasn’t either married or a fisherman, or both. I was lonely and without a car, and so on weekends I usually hitchhiked to Orleans to visit friends. In those days there were many fewer cars on Route 6 in the winter than there are now, but I knew that if I could make it as far as the North Truro exit, I could always catch a ride with one of the enlisted men from the Air Force Base on weekend leave. They were usually cheerful and expectant, happy to give me a ride as they headed up-Cape to a world of light and music and women - or men - in Hyannis or beyond. (In those days no one gay or straight went to Provincetown in the winter – there was nothing there.) 

On the other hand I tried to avoid getting a ride back from Orleans with one of these servicemen on Sunday nights. That was because at the end of the weekend they tended to be sullen and taciturn and had usually been drinking. Many of them, I’m sure, would not have passed a sobriety test if they’d been stopped – not that there were any police cruisers on the roads in those days to stop them. But every now and then, standing out on the cold, empty highway, desperate for a ride, I would accept a lift from one of the soldiers returning to the base.

On one of these return trips I sat in the passenger seat, trying to appear calm as the driver weaved his way along ice-slicked roads at 10 p.m. on a moonless night in February. But he must have noticed my hand’s white-knuckled grip on the armrest, for he turned to me and said,

“Don’t worry, kid,” (he must have been all of 22 or 23). “Don’t you worry. We’ll get you back in one piece. You know why?”

I mumbled something unintelligible between clenched teeth and thought to myself, Because you want to protect your country from godless Communists?

“I’ll tell you why,” he said. “Because when I get back to the base I’m going to make love to my wife!” Of course, he didn’t use the phrase “make love,” but his point was clear. In any case, I thought, there are worse motivations for vehicular survival - and sure enough, he dropped me safely off at the North Truro exit, where I waited for the next ride into Provincetown, full of a new appreciation of the steadying power of conjugal lust.

Robert Finch is a nature writer living in Wellfleet. 'A Cape Cod Notebook' won the 2006 New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.