Hitchhiking was once a very honorable way to get to where you were going. In the early 1960s, it was very common to see people on the side of the road with their thumbs out. While you might get the occasional derelict, a lot of times it was kids like us, soldiers, or people that just didn't have a car.
We used to hitchhike everywhere in Atlanta before I got my drivers license at 16 and managed to buy a car. Up to that point, though, we hitchhiked everywhere. At 14 and 15, we'd hitchhike down to Florida, or maybe up to Chattanooga. We'd meet all kinds of people, of course, some of them a little strange. I'm still not quite sure why my parents didn't seem to object. Maybe because they probably assumed I would have disregarded their admonition.
One summer Friday morning, my buddy Jerry and I decided to hitchhike to Chattanooga. I had met a girl about a month before who was from Chattanooga, and she casually said one day to come on up and see her sometime. She eagerly gave me her phone number. That was good enough for me. I had recently transferred over to North Fulton High School, and Jerry was a new friend. I don't think he'd ever hitchhiked before, but he was game. He never hitchhiked with me again, because he had forgotten to mention to his parents that he'd be gone that weekend. They were a little upset at him when we got back.
Back in those days, Interstate 75 was still mostly on the drawing board. We started out by hitchhiking up Peachtree Street, then down East Paces Ferry Road, until it intersected with Highway 41. The same Highway 41 that the Allman Brothers sing about. It was a rough little highway that meandered through the Blue Ridge Mountains, crossing over into Tennessee up in to Chattanooga.
We got several rides that took us just outside of Marietta. It was about noon and close to 90° when a beautiful 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible pulled over onto the shoulder just past us. The driver, a white male, probably about 35 years old, motioned for us to come get it. We ran up to the car and jumped in. Sometimes of course, people would pull over only to race off just when you were about to reach their car. They considered it great sport. But this guy didn't do that. I jumped into the front seat after Jerry climbed into the back. The driver introduced himself as Jasper and we all shook hands quickly before he raced back onto the highway. Sometimes cops would ticket drivers for pulling over to pick up hitchhikers.
Jasper had hair that was slicked back with Brylcreem, and a real Georgia twang. "Where y'all heading?" He asked.
"Chattanooga," I responded. Jerry piped up in the back "we're going to see some girlfriend of his!" We both laughed. Jasper seemed like a good guy and it looked like he was going quite a good ways.
"I'm heading that way myself, just got to stop and make a little money. If you're not in a hurry, I'll get you to Chattanooga around suppertime. That okay?"
We replied that it was.
As we entered the city limits of one of the many little towns that Highway 41 passed through, Jasper casually commented, "keep an eye out for any pool halls."
We went through three towns before I happened to notice a dirty little pool hall in a small downtown. We hadn't even noticed the name of the town when Jasper slowed down for the usual 35 mph speed limit sign, announcing the possibility of another small town speed trap. Speed traps in Georgia were as common as roads named Peachtree in Atlanta.
Jasper doubled back, and drove by the pool hall slowly, peering intently at the dirty plate glass window with the words Pool Hall hand brushed in white paint onto the glass. He drove past several empty parking spaces in front of the pool hall and parked in front of a hardware store a block away. When I looked at him funny, he just said, "you'll see".
He popped the trunk of the candy apple red convertible and took out a polished wooden case. It held his cue sticks. Jerry and I looked at each other. Was Jasper an honest to God pool shark?
"Alright, listen to me. Follow me into the pool hall, but not too close. Don't act like you know me. And when I give you the signal, run to the car." Jasper lit a Camel cigarette, unfiltered of course, and started walking back towards the pool hall.
"What kind of signal?" I asked.
"Fair enough question. When I look at you and nod my head, take off to the car. Get there as fast as you can. I'll be right behind you. Just pay attention." Jerry and I looked at each other again. This was going to be an interesting afternoon.
We followed Jasper into the pool hall. Nobody noticed two fifteen-year-olds in blue jeans and T-shirts because the seven or eight people in the dark pool hall all stopped what they were doing to watch Jasper walk in very casually, holding his cue stick case. Jerry and I found two bar stools to sit on and watch the unfolding drama. It didn't take long.
A big beefy guy sidled up to Jasper. "Looking for a game?"
"I might." Jasper's case held two sticks. He carefully selected one, and began chalking it. They settled on eight ball for $10. Both of them placed $10 on the side of the pool table.
Jasper lost. Jerry and I were surprised at how poorly Jasper played. He miscued several times, and when it looked like he should have been able to run the table, he'd miss an easy shot. At least, it looked like an easy shot to us.
The beefy guy and his buddies who had watched the match were jubilant as the victor collected his $20. Then Jasper casually said, "how about a rematch?"
Beefy guy asked Jasper how much he wanted to play for. Jasper said, "How's 50 sound?" Beefy guy quickly accepted. I was beginning to wonder if Jasper was going to lose all his money and ask us to help him with the gas to Chattanooga.
My fears were confirmed when Jasper lost again. Beefy guy was jumping up and down with excitement as he pocketed the hundred dollars. Once again, Jasper asked him if he was interested in another rematch. Beefy guy quickly accepted. Then Jasper said, "How's $300 sound?"
All of a sudden, beefy guy looked nervous, but his friends goaded him into accepting. He wasn't about to lose face to some stranger in his pool hall. He pulled $300 out of his wallet and slapped it down on the side of the table. Jasper followed suit and beefy guy broke.
It was all over in just a few minutes. After beefy guy put his first two balls in, he missed the seven ball. Jasper efficiently ran the table, and called the eight ball pocket, and quickly dispatched it. Beefy guy and his friends were stunned, and Jasper, in the most fluid motions I had ever seen, put his cue stick back into the case, latched it, collected his winnings, and turned to me and nodded. I almost missed it. Jerry did, as he was watching the small festering crowd as it dawned on them what had just happened. I grabbed Jerry by the shirtsleeve, and we casually walked out.
We were halfway to the car, when we heard a roar from the pool hall, someone running behind us, and Jasper yelling, "run!"
We didn't even bother opening doors. I jumped over into the back seat and Jerry grabbed the front. Jasper had the keys in his hand and I was sure glad to hear that Chevy crank right up. We roared away just before beefy guy and his friends reached us. Jasper had planned his parking spot well. There was no stoplight nearby that would've allowed the angry mob to storm the car. We made a clean getaway out of town.