In dredging up some of my old writings for the first time in years, I found this piece that I had completed for a writing class in college. The assignment was to interview someone that we knew personally, and let them tell their story in their own words. My step-grandfather, Carl Kinion, who at the time (sometime around the year 2000) was facing the end of his long marriage to my grandmother, was already spending a lot of time reflecting on his life and the paths he had taken; so I thought he would be the perfect subject for my interview. What follows is the interview in its entirety, prefaced by my brief introductory remarks.
It's peaceful out tonight. It's going to be a good night for traveling – not across space or distance, but across time and memories. Carl Kinion, my step-grandfather, leans back in his recliner and lights the first of what will be a seemingly endless chain of cigarettes. The fumes are so thick in his small apartment that I can already feel my head starting to hurt and stinging tears welling up in my eyes. But I'm here to do an interview, and my own concerns must take a back seat to the story I'm about to hear. I wanted to ask Carl about a cross-country journey he took twenty-five years ago because I love to travel. I'd love to be able to visit all the places that Carl went – though I'd prefer not to go about it in the same manner that he did. The circumstances under which he left originally, and under which we now meet are unfortunate, but virtually the same as they were all those years ago. Carl and my grandmother, his wife of thirty-six years, have separated. This time – due to truly irreconcilable differences which it is unnecessary to go into – it appears that they will never be together again as man and wife. Carl is a fascinating storyteller. He has so many vivid memories of his past; and only now, after years of feeling repressed by his wife, is he able to tell them to someone who wants to listen. As we begin, the television competes with our two voices – JAG is Carl's favorite show, but he's devoting more of his attention to our conversation...thankfully.
CARL: I left here and I hitchhiked all the way to L.A. California.
JASON: Why did you go?
CARL: Well, I left my wife. And I went all the way to L.A. I worked my way out with A-1 Van Lines.... I'd pick up odd jobs along the way. I spent the nights in city jails out there, 'cause – you know, you can't do it in North Carolina – but out there, they'd rather have you in jail [and] know where you're at all night than have you out on the streets.... I went out there [to L.A.] and I stayed about three days, and I headed back this way.... Got a meat-cutting job in Claypool, Arizona, which is between Globe and Miami, Arizona, at two dollars an hour – which won't much, but it was enough to get by.... What else you want to know?
JASON: Okay, you answered some of my questions already, but I'll ask them in different ways. When you left, did you ever plan to return? Did you think you were coming back?
CARL: No, I didn't think I was, and I had seventeen cents in my pocket.... In fact, out in Arizona, I told them I was gonna settle right there. 'Cause the first thing they asked me, "Are you a tramp butcher?" See, in Arizona, they got those copper mines. And a tramp miner, he'll spend thirty days at this job, and go somewhere else. And I swore up and down, I was gonna stay right there. But just as soon as I got me a couple of paychecks, and called your grandmama...and she accepted the charges on the phone...I was headed back towards the East.
JASON: Okay, you already said a little bit about this, but what did you do for food and sleeping arrangements?
CARL: Well, I'd go to the Salvation Army, if there was one handy, and they'd give you a bowl of oatmeal – that's all, no cream, no sugar, just a bowl of oatmeal. And these rescue missions would give you a night or two of sleep. But most of the time I slept under a bridge, a viaduct, where one road goes over the other one. And if you walk up that steep embankment, you got an eight-foot slab of cement all the way down, you know...and you can crawl up there, and get that first spot. You're out of the wind, the rain, the cold, and you can hear the cars going over...the highway. I spent many a night in there. But now, I got hungry too. I went eighteen days without eating anything solid.
CARL: Well, there ain't nobody gonna give you nothing, and I didn't have no money. So, if somebody'd buy me a cup of coffee, they got these packs of sugar. I put all I can in my pocket. And if you keep a little sugar, it gives you energy. And if you keep your belly full of water, you don't get hungry. Now, you can't go but so long that way.... But you keep plenty of water. You've got to have water.
JASON: Did you meet any interesting people along the way?
CARL: Yeah, I met a lot of nice people. There's a lot of people that don't mind helping somebody. Sometimes somebody might give a five-dollar bill to help me on the way – most of the time they didn't. They all wanted to know why I was...going across the country. And I told a different story every time. [Laughs.] I didn't think it was none of their business.
JASON: Where were a few of the major places that you stopped? I know you said L.A. and Arizona.
CARL: Well, I'd never been to the capital of New Mexico, which is Santa Fe. Now, I was hitching a hike on Interstate 40.... Well, when you get into Albuquerque, if you make a right in Albuquerque, then you go right on in to Santa Fe, which was a good little ride. But I went to Santa Fe – I'd never seen or been there – walked around and looked at the buildings, which was adobe, then I come back to Albuquerque, and started on back. Spent one night in the desert, and it gets cold, and that's a fact. And you do dehydrate. You can't even speak the next morning till you take just a little sip of water.
JASON: So, it's really hot during the day and cold during the night?
CARL: It really is.
JASON: I know you said you did meat-cutting. What other jobs did you have – in different places?
CARL: Well, I'd wash dishes and I'd load and unload furniture...and I did meat-cutting...about anything [I could so] I could get a few dollars to help me.
JASON: Of all the places that you went, which place did you like the best?
CARL: I guess Spokane, Washington. I liked Spokane for some reason. California I didn't like at all. I hurried up and got out just as quick as I could. You can't get no work there...unless you buy it.... You go to Manpower or somebody, and they'd get you a job, but they get most of the money. You're working less than half price for what you would draw....Then I stopped at Globe, Arizona, and found out about that meat-cutting job, and I got it. The head butcher was leaving to a better job, and they hired me – they liked me. But I sure hit the road. I went to the bar, and I got tore up, and I told the bartender, I said, "Give me ten dollars in quarters." I went over to the phone outside. And I called your grandmama...collect. I said, "If she won't accept, I'll pay for it on this end." But she accepted. It was two hours' difference....it was about twelve [here] when I called, so it was about ten o'clock [there], and I knew she was still up. She took the call. The next day I was out there, heading East.
JASON: What made you decide to return?
CARL: Well, I missed her, you know...and I'd been gone almost a year....
JASON: Do you feel like you gained something from your trip?
CARL: Well, I gained a lot. Like you say, I met a lot of nice people. I did it the hard way. I wouldn't do it today because of the way things are...but back then you didn't have a whole lot [to worry about].... Most of the time, if anybody's going several hundred miles, and they pick you up, the first thing they ask is, "Have you got [a] driver's license?" I say, "I got North Carolina." They say, "That's good enough." As long as they're in the car...they want you to drive, see. Especially somebody going cross-country. They want you to drive twenty-four hours a day, or drive and let them sleep, you know.
JASON: If you had it to do all over again, what would you have done differently?
CARL: I don't know, really. I may have stayed home and listened to [her] mess.
JASON: Do you think, if you had it to do all over again – knowing what you know now – that you would have stayed somewhere across the country, and not come back?
CARL: Yeah, I do now, the way things have turned out. I wish I had stayed in Arizona or somewhere. 'Course I missed her then, and I miss her now. I missed her a whole lot. We got married in '62, and we'd been married about ten or eleven years [then]. Now, we've been married almost thirty-seven... August'll be thirty-seven years. And I never thought she would do the things that she has done to me. I tried. I went without food myself to make sure she had something on the table.... But...things changed, and I saw it.... I still love the woman, even though she has done me so wrong.
Carl and my grandmother never reconciled, both living the remaining years of their lives apart. Carl Kinion died on July 12, 2003, at the age of 66. My grandmother, Ruth Kinion, died on April 8, 2010, at age 85. I loved them both.