Games People Play
Western Minnesota had introduced us to something unique in road construction. Nearly everywhere else, a highway, in changing direction, would make a sharp right angle turn right, then later a sharp right angle turn left, almost always following along section boundaries. But here those turns were rounded, rather than sharp, so a car didn’t have to come to a virtual stop in order to negotiate them.
Here in western Minnesota, also, great lagoons dotted with waterfowl and herons appeared along the highway. This area was famous duck country. We spent a lot of time watching the birds in flight. The marshes became more frequent upon entering South Dakota, some of them stretching for miles along the road.
A rancher was our host and his old Ford our conveyance, as we entered South Dakota. Where a patch of woods joined an open field, Win suddenly let out a loud call.
“Look, Francis, that’s a deer.”
I looked. It was. The animal raised its ears, casually observed our slow-moving car for a second or two, then—turning—gracefully leaped over a stump fence as though it was a row of tumbled-down dominoes, and disappeared into the woods.
An interesting episode, yet quickly gone. But Win’s glimpse of that deer was the beginning of some of the most rewarding experiences in observation of our trip—experiences which would help to keep us wide-eyed and alert.
Actually, it was the initiation of a new travel game which didn’t really begin until a few minutes after the deer episode, when I spied a huge jackrabbit streaking across a field like a runaway express train.
“That’s one for you,” Win exclaimed. “Now we’re even. Let’s play a game. The one who sees the most wild animals during this ride gets a prize. “
Our driver fell into the spirit of the thing. “Do dogs count?” he asked a minute later, as he slowed down to miss a large collie which ran out from a rancher’s barnyard.
Win won the first round. Before our ride ended, he’d spotted another deer and two rabbits. I had seen one more rabbit.
Not only did this new game provide fun during dull times on our trip, both for us and often those we rode with, it also required us to be more alert to the scenes which were continually flashing by.
Sometimes we’d switch from trying to spot animals, to looking for new varieties of trees. When the people we rode with joined in that game, they invariably beat us. We were to find that each new state had new kinds of trees, some of which Win and I had never heard of. But before too many states had greeted us and bid us good-bye we became amateur tree experts. And it proved far more enjoyable than reading a textbook.
Then, one rainy day on an open prairie when all the animals were in their holes or dens to keep dry, and where no trees were in sight for a hundred miles, we turned our game inward. Each driver we rode with became—all unbeknownst to him or her—the object of our scrutiny and the ingredient of our game. This interesting new pastime of ours shifted from a study of animal nature, to observations in human nature.
The new version of our game started in an unusual way, quite by coincidence. A roughly dressed man of about thirty, driving a nearly worn-out Maxwell, carried us for five miles, said scarcely a word, then let us out when he turned off on a side road.
“I wonder who he was?” I asked Win. “By his clothes, he was a farmer. But did you notice his hands? They’d never done any hard work in years.”
“Yes, I did see his hands. They were as soft as a young woman’s. “
“Not a farmer. Not a mechanic, with hands like that. But that book in the seat beside him. Maybe that was a clue.”
It definitely was. About an hour later as we were walking doggedly on and lamenting our luck at lack of rides, a shiny Ford stopped beside us. The well-dressed driver smiled slightly and said, “Get in boys. I’ll take you a few miles farther.”
Win and I looked at each other in bewilderment.
“Aren’t you the man who…?”
“Yes,” he interrupted. “I took my son’s old Maxwell back to his house, where I’d left my Ford. Got back into my regular clothes, too. Probably you didn’t recognize me.”
Win blurted out the thing which was apparent on both our minds. “No, I’ll say we didn’t. But we’ve been talking about you. You’ve still got that book. We were wondering about what your occupation is—what you do for a living. “
The man picked up the book. By this time we had both gotten into the back seat. Before he stepped on the clutch he handed the book over to us.
“American Literature,” was its title.
Our two-time host was a high school English teacher.
From then on, throughout much of our trip, Win and I became amateur sleuths. When people would pick us up we would look for any clues that might reveal their occupations. Hands; were they rough, calloused, soiled, clean? Clothes; those often revealed a lot. And also gear or telltale clues that might be in the car. Each of us—silently to himself—would make a guess as to the person’s occupation. Then, as casually as possible, we’d try to steer the conversation in a way that would bring out the answer. More than half the time our educated guesses would prove to be correct. Throughout our journey we were given rides by ranchers, cattlemen, ministers, cowboys, truckers, lawyers, business men of a dozen different kinds, doctors, escaped convicts, teachers, at least one murderer, veterinarians, prospectors, librarians, housewives two or three times, garagemen, whiskey-runners, politicians, you name it.
Once a school bus stopped to give us a ride. Besides the driver there were just five other occupants—five teenage girls, and every one of them pretty. We were sorry when that ride ended.
On another occasion the United States mail carried us for four miles.
We rode with an undertaker’s supply agent.
One of the more unusual of our traveling hosts was a well-dressed man in a shiny Chalmers. No clues. No hints of his occupation. Beside him in the driver’s seat was a cane but we couldn’t steer the conversation to that. When the ride ended we had no answers. Next day, at the edge of a city street, we saw that man again. He was sitting on the sidewalk. He had only one leg. He was selling pencils—begging!
“What in the name of….” Win began.
“Oh, hi boys,” the man answered. “Good to see you again. I left my cork leg up in the hotel room. Business is better without it.”
We each bought pencils. Before sharpening and writing with mine I used it to scratch my head in amazement.
Once, an auto stage driver picked us up. He slid to a stop ahead and signaled to us. “Only two passengers and no bosses along. Jump in.” It was one of the big stages, electric heated and equipped with separate smoking compartment. We had wanted to ride in one. Although on the twenty-five mile trip enough passengers were picked up to nearly fill it, the driver let us remain to the end of his route. He was certainly some fellow.
Our most frequent hosts proved to be commercial salesmen—whose products covered all the categories from groceries to gold stocks. Salesmen were always on the road, usually wanting someone to talk to or—as often as not—someone to help change tires, or push their autos through bad places in the road or up nearly impassable hills.
Win’s and my game of “What’s He Do for a Living?” opened up for us a hundred new worlds of interest in our exciting “College on Wheels” of human nature.