The lines on a map really don’t mean a lot when you’re hitch-hiking. In the summer of 1969, I hitched from Claysville, Pa., to Charleston to see a college buddy of mine who lived in Kanawha City. There weren’t as many interstate highways in West Virginia back then as there are now, and hitch-hiking was usually an adventure. On the way down, I traveled from Claysville to Morgantown and on down U.S. Route 19 to Clarksburg, where I caught a ride across U.S. Route 50 all the way to Parkersburg, where I-77 was done most of the way down to Charleston.
I got a ride in the back of a pickup truck on the new interstate that was memorable because the guys were hauling a 500-gallon tank full of a dark liquid that they said was moonshine, but I thought was probably molasses. They took me near where I was headed, and the Charleston/Kanawha City buses took me the rest of the way. I can almost smell the diesel exhaust fumes from here.
My friend was in a tennis tournament, but I didn’t know that when I hitched down there on that Friday. I watched his match on Friday evening. He won, and advanced to play in the next round on Saturday afternoon. He won his Saturday match, too. We went out to watch a movie that evening, “Midnight Cowboy,” but I didn’t want to hang around to see another tennis match on Sunday afternoon, so I decided to hitch back north that evening.
I looked on a map and decided that U.S. Route 119 would be a straighter way to go rather than back out to the incomplete I-77 and on back to Route 50 and up. That proved to be a bad choice. I got a couple of rides that took me as far as Spencer, but that was as far as I got until the early morning hours of that Sunday. Of course, I kept walking, but there were very few vehicles of any kind on the road. At one point, a couple of guys who were working on a car teased me that I better watch out for bobcats, but I knew they were just kidding me.
At least I thought they were kidding until I actually heard a growl coming out of the forest darkness. I’ve never been afraid of the dark, but rather than walking into the pitch black night, I stopped and sat down on an old wooden guardrail post that was at least partially lighted. I sat there a long time, thinking about how to roll the opening credits of the movie I was writing in my head. I visualized the title and the names of stars scrolled along in the illuminated smoke rolling off the cigarette I was smoking. Each passing car provided a backdrop for the next cluster of actors in the movie.
My experience with an imaginary bobcat in Spencer held up for a long time as the benchmark of my fear of the unknown until Oct. 2, 1998, at the Battlefield Overlook in Saltville, Va., when I listened to Samuel Lewis Johnson read the names of the Union soldiers from the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry who are still listed as missing in action from the Oct. 2, 1864, Battle of Saltville. David Brown, a descendant of one of the 5th USCC survivors of the battle compiled the list. The 5th USCC was made up mostly of slaves, recruited straight out of the fields of Kentucky and sent into combat after about two weeks of training.
Earlier that year, I had heard Sam recite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at a Black History Month program at Bluefield’s First Presbyterian Church. I had already known Sam for a decade when I asked him to travel with us to Saltville. Harold and Alcesta Wells, the Reverend Garry Moore and I had planned the memorial and remembrance service, but to me, Sam Johnson’s role was the central moment.
There was plenty of drama at the service. We weren’t working from a playbook. Garry Moore gave a powerful speech. Joe Bundy and his parents Sam and Julia, followed the same route that the 5th USCC traveled through the mountains and arrived a little late. Karl Miller and I did a couple of songs, but everything was designed to emphasize the reading of the names of the missing.
In hindsight, it seems like a simple task, but on that evening, it was monumental. I could feel people coming closer to the speaker’s dais as Sam started reading the names, but the presence I felt that moment was something I cannot explain.
I was not part of the presence, but I could certainly feel it pressing me closer to where Sam was reading the names. Sam started reading as soon as Scott Street Baptist Church youth had lit 155 luminaries in memory of the missing. There weren’t that many names on the list. Many of the missing were known only to God. At the time, I thought about those missing souls. Sam Johnson died on Nov. 3, 2012. His passing reminded me of that powerful moment when he read those names. Sam’s voice was clear and articulate. Although I still can’t explain what I felt, I was honored to stand near Sam as he called out those names. I truly felt as though his voice was heard.
Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com.