Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing orders from God. – Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle.
The year was 1972 and Mark Paul Smith had just gotten his commission as an Air Force ROTC second lieutenant with orders to report to flight school in eight months – the first step in what would most likely be active duty in the Vietnam War.
With his days of freedom numbered, the Fort Wayne native decided to go see the world.
With a couple of hundred dollars in his pocket and a large Central American machete, which he says he never had to use, he set out on the ultimate hippie odyssey.
From Monterey, Calif., he went to Golden, Colo., then to Montreal. He flew to Lisbon, Portugal, wandered down to Spain, through France, Italy and Austria to get to Budapest in Hungary and later continued on to Greece, through Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and finally, India.
As far as I know, I’m the only guy to hitchhike through the Iron Curtain, the 63-year-old trial lawyer says. He admits living on a nude beach in France, smoking opium in Iran, working on a collective farm in Hungary, stowing away on a freighter bound for Turkey, smuggling turquoise through the Khyber Pass to Pakistan only to find out the stones were worthless and ending up broke, sick, scared and homeless in Bombay, India.
Smith has now committed his youthfully enthusiastic journey to print in The Hitchhike (Christopher Matthews, 318 pages; $17.95), a just-released memoir has the one-time reporter for The Journal Gazette joining the multitudinous ranks of ink-stained wretches selling books on Amazon.com.
And Smith says he’s having a midlife ball.
It took me 40 years to write this book, he says, sitting in the front room of Castle Gallery, which he owns with his wife, Jody Hemphill Smith.
I couldn’t have written it before, he says. I didn’t have the perspective I do now. I wasn’t mature enough.
Smith says his journey turned him from a dilettante peacenik who had attended college antiwar rallies in his Air Force uniform into someone willing to put his beliefs on the line and declare himself a conscientious objector when he returned home.
Which came about after a frantic telephone call home from India to his lawyer father who mercifully sent plane fare.
Smith says he wanted to write the book because, while there have been many memoirs of Vietnam combat experiences, those about young men who took the less-traveled road are harder to come by.
His, he says, led him to see that people everywhere were pretty much the same – people just trying to get by – and that it didn’t seem right to declare them the enemy and kill them for it.
Among the myriad of experiences he recounts, two changed him, he says.
The first was seeing that the Cold War’s Iron Curtain, dividing East from West in Europe, was in actuality a guard post tower and barbed-wire mesh in the middle of a bombed-out no man’s land.
More of an iron net, he says, adding he was able to pass through – despite having a kid about his own age point a rifle at him while he flashed a peace sign – because he had an invitation to join an international exchange program on a collective farm in Debrecen, Hungary. He secured the invite during earlier college studies abroad.
After an officer studied Smith’s papers and declared he could go through the checkpoint, his troops parted, and as I walked through, I swear, those kids cheered, Smith recalls. Those kids were pulling for me. (I realized) they’re kids trapped in a uniform, like me.
The second experience came when he had the occasion to meet some North Vietnamese while at the collective farm. As he stumbled to apologize for what his government was doing to their country, one man tearfully recounted that his girlfriend who worked at a hospital in Hanoi had been killed by American bombs.
I didn’t know we were bombing North Vietnam, let alone hospitals and civilians, Smith says. This sounds corny to say but I felt his suffering. He literally collapsed at my feet and wrapped his arms around my ankles. I’ll never forget that man.
The lesson? It wasn’t about me anymore, Smith says. It was about what I was going to be doing to them.
Being a conscientious objector, however, wasn’t that easy a row to hoe. For one thing, his attorney father told him that even if he weren’t his son, he wouldn’t take his case because it couldn’t be won.
But Smith, who had been hired by The Journal Gazette, which had published his tales from the road on a freelance basis, didn’t run to Canada.
He filed the requisite legal papers, passed quizzes as to his sincerity, endured local headlines that branded him a coward, appealed a decision against him and ultimately won the case.
While Smith clearly relishes recounting his exploits – he, after all, organizes the book’s chapters around the women who were willing to hitchhike with him based on his tousled-headed looks and winsome ways – he says he’s got a larger purpose.
I look at Iraq and Afghanistan and wonder what happened to the peace movement, he says. I want to grab all the old hippies by the shoulders and shake ’em and say, You weren’t so wrong back then. Don’t forget your ideals.’