A lonely figure of
a teenager stands on the side of the road at the outskirts of
Ronceverte. Its late and its cold. Every once in a while a car will go
by and he takes his ungloved hand out of his jacket pocket and makes
the gesture. The closed fist with the thumb extended, pointing in the
direction he wishes to go. The car speeds past. but makes no effort to
The boy grumbles to himself for staying out later than he should. The
wind from the passing car throws a splash of cold air at him and he
shrinks down into his upturned collar. He wears no hat. That would
disturb his slicked back “DA” haircut. The wind cuts through his too
thin clothes and he turns his back to shield himself from the cold and
His chances are getting thinner now because of the late hour. It is
five to ten minutes between cars. The night air is getting deeper and
more hopeless as the time draws to midnight. Finally a car pulls over.
The teenage boy runs to the car and opens the right side door. When he
looks inside he sees a man driving with a woman riding close to the
him. He doesn’t recognize either of them, but he jumps in, glad to be
out of the cold and on his way home. “Are you going to Alderson”, the
teenager asks. “No, we can take you as far as Fort Springs.” Having
settled in and loosened his jacket because of the heat of the car, the
teenager realizes the strong odor of sour whiskey in the air. No one
speaks for a long time. Then the boy thanks them for picking him up.
After a five minute ride the car turns off at the Fort Springs
triangle. The car stops and the teenager jumps out and again thanks
the couple for getting him this far. He walks down past the triangle
to wait once again for a car to come along and get him the next seven
miles to Alderson and home.
A few days ago David Shields sent me a copy of a book called “Kates
Mountain and beyond” by John Jameson. The book is made up of a lot of
little stories about John growing up as the son of a ranger living
inside Greenbrier State Forest and the different stages of his life.
David Shields is the subject of one of the stories and his 15 minutes
of glory while playing football for Alderson.
One of the other stories that caught my eye was the one about John
going to a dance after one of his games he played for White Sulphur
and hitch-hiking home after it was over. It brought back a lot of
memories about thumbing or hitch-hiking as some call it in the 40’s
and 50’s. Thumbing was as much a part of life as going to the mall and
playing Sega games are today. If you decided to go to Ronceverte or
Lewisburg for a dance or Rainelle for a ball game and you had not made
arrangements before hand, you went out to the edge of town and thumbed
Being a teenager in Alderson in the fifties meant learning the art of
hitch-hiking. No smoking or chewing tobacco while waiting for a ride.
If you absolutely had to do either you walked off the side of the road
until you were finished. No more than two people should stand together
to catch a ride. If you walked out to a spot and there were already
two people there, the polite thing to do was to walk on up the road a
comfortable distance to give those who were already there a chance to
get a ride first. You said no sir and yes sir when spoken to and
straight answers when asked questions. When you left the car you
thanked them for the ride.
No one was afraid of getting into a car with a stranger. There were no
signs posted in the school halls saying, “Just say no to
hitch-hiking.” Most boys who grew up around Alderson thumbed rides
until they had received their discharges from the armed forces. If you
were wearing a uniform, getting a ride was almost automatic.
About ten percent of the guys around town had use of their family car
and only one or two had their own cars. There were no buses and trains
only ran once a day each way into and out of Alderson. Since Taxis
were cost prohibitive, the popular modes of travel were walking and
hitch-hiking. The word hitch-hiking was very apt because at times you
did as much hiking as you did hitching.
Two Alderson teenagers came into the Snack Shack one fine sunny summer
afternoon and informed me that they had thumbed a ride to Charleston
and back in one day. When I asked why they did it, they said, “just
wanted something to do.” Well, I guess I looked just too skeptical for
one of them and he said “all right, if you don’t believe me, be here
tomorrow morning at 8:30 am and you and I will do it.” The next day,
with twelve cents between us, we walked out to the edge of Alderson
and thumbed our way out to Alta and then across route 60, right up
Kanawha Blvd. to the capital building. We went into the basement
museum of the capital and looked at all the “stuff”, got a drink of
water, walked back to the blvd. and made the return trip. We made it
home about five thirty, but only because the last ride dropped us
about 5 miles out of Alderson where we finally caught a ride in the
back of a cattle truck into town.
The only time I was ever really scared while on the road was a day
when thumbing out of Alderson, I was picked up by a fellow wearing a
white shirt and tie and a sport jacket. While making small talk I
noticed the butt of a hand gun under the armpit of the jacket. I know
the fellow saw me turn as pale as printing paper. He looked at me and
then down at the butt of the gun, then laughed and introduced himself
as C&O railroad detective.
I could fill pages of thumbing exploits, but if I did I would leave
out the most prolific thumb king in the world. I speak of no other
than Toby Keeney. If Roger Miller had written his song “King of the
road” about a hitch-hiker instead of a railroad hobo, it would have
been about Toby. I believe that Toby could have thumbed his way around
the world and back and probably broken several speed records along the
way. He was always amazing people by his abilities to get from one
place to another. You could leave Alderson going in any direction and
when you got there you would see Toby walking down the street. He not
only had beaten you to that place but had already concluded his
business and was headed back to Alderson. The amazing part about it
all is, there were very few places on the roads around the tri-county
area for cars to pass each other.