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Bob Butler: Hitchhiking let me see world as exciting place

Marc Dunkelman’s new book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community,” carefully analyzes a serious problem that has gotten progressively worse over the past 30 years, the erosion of many forms of community, which is a result of the overprivatization of modern culture. He deplores our steady retreat from public space, which has caused us to recoil from contact with anyone not in our immediate circle of family and established social relationships.

I was born in 1942 and grew up in a very different time when there was relatively little anxiety about public space. We enjoyed hanging around parks and gyms to play pickup games of baseball and basketball with complete strangers who very often became friends and teammates.

In the summer we gravitated to front porches, which were the hub of the neighborhood. These porches, unlike the private back decks and patios that replaced them in suburban homes, were vibrant sites of social contact where passing strangers were greeted with at least a hello and sometimes were invited to join in on conversations and perhaps a game of cards.

But the experience of my boyhood that most vividly illustrates the sharp contrast between the excessively privatized society of today and the more communal world in which I was raised is the now defunct practice of hitchhiking – soliciting free automobile rides from strangers. When I tell my students of this, they shake their heads in utter disbelief, but it was my main mode of transportation during childhood because my parents, like most parents I knew, did not own a car and public transportation had the serious disadvantage of costing money.

My introduction to hitchhiking occurred when I was about 6. My older brother and his friends would have me “thumb a ride” while they hid behind a bush. The first car I petitioned picked me up, and my brother and his buddies leapt out from the bush, piled into the back seat and informed the driver that we were headed to the lake for an afternoon of swimming. Amazingly, he took us there!

My most memorable hitching experience took place two years later when I got a ride to the town airport and then secured passage on a Piper Cub airplane that took me on an hour-long aerial tour of Berkshire County.

Hitchhiking became especially important to me when I went to college in northern Vermont, which was more than 150 miles away from my home. It meant that I could forego the expense of buying and maintaining a car, which helped me to afford graduate school. I came to know many heroic hitchhikers who took extraordinary trips all over the East Coast.

Hitchhiking became widespread during the Depression, when unemployed men would cross the country in search of jobs and would be helped by people who regarded them as fellow citizens rather than bums to avoid. It flourished during World War II, when motorists were happy to assist a serviceman on leave to visit his family. I’m happy it continued to be an accepted practice when I was growing up, because it encouraged me to envision the world as an exciting prospect rather than a place to fear.

But I’m not recommending a revival of hitchhiking. Times have surely changed and there are good reasons to be much more cautious about strangers. But it’s nice to recall a more relaxed and trusting period in life when people could move more comfortably about the country without fear.