Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Perhaps you read last week about hitchbot.

He (it?) was the Canadian-made robot hitchhiker who, following months of successful intercontinental travel, died a mysterious roadside death from vandals in friendly Philadelphia.

The sad Luddite tale hit home to a trio of my Arlington boyhood buddies. It seemed a high-tech update of a similar adventure we promulgated here at the end of my high school years.

Our social experiment gauging the kindness of strangers involved constructing a fake hitchhiker using more-primitive technology.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, I did lots of hitchhiking. It was an era when hippie romanticism combined with a need for youthful adventure when I had time on my hands. My free-loader travels eventually extended to nine countries in Europe. But that was after I’d learned the art of thumbing by journeying to friends’ college towns south of Arlington—embarking usually from the South Glebe Road entrance to I-395.

I learned to converse with grownup strangers as I explored the world beyond my launching pad—hitching being a time-tested adventure my own father embarked on after high school in the 1930s. I recall no fear of crime, which in today’s world appears naïve.

In the ‘60s, my carless teenage pals and I viewed hitchhiking as a way of redistributing the wealth and freedom of automobile ownership.

So the four of us gathered in the basement of my parents’ home focused like scientists. Using a ping pong table as Dr. Frankenstein’s operating platform, we measured and cut two-by-fours. We hammered them together to form a spine, two legs, a rear stand and two arms—the right one bolstered with a brace to extend it outward in the all-important pose.

We pulled a pair of old jeans on over the hitchhiker’s skinny legs and wrapped a worn-out brown plaid windbreaker over his torso and still-flexible arms. Then we hammered more nails to stabilize the limbs before stuffing both garments with wads of newspaper.

His head was a brown bag stuffed with newspaper and a silly grin drawn in magic marker, its artificiality disguised under a cheap fishing hat. The piece de resistance? An out-sized right hand molded in papier-mache to form the proverbial pointing thumb.

Only problem was, when we stood our adventurer up, he towered eight feet high. We recited the phrase “Good enough for government work.”

Cradled in his left arm was a Saran Wrap-covered sign reading “West.” Tucked inside was a “to whom it may concern” letter inviting any driver who pulled over to get on board the experiment and help deliver the hitchhiker to a friend’s address in Los Angeles.

Just before dusk, we loaded him in the back of a station wagon and drove out to the Beltway at Balls Hill Road. Parking at an exit just before today’s I-270, we stood our guy convincingly on the shoulder and hid in nearby bushes. As my brother Tom recalls it, “That first car pulled over on the shoulder and waited about 20 seconds, then the front-seat passenger got out, whistled and motioned impatiently with his hand to come on down. Then he realized what it was. That was our belly laugh.”

We never received confirmation that our eight-foot journeyman made it to L.A. But we like to think he met with a better fate than hitchbot did in Phillie.

***

Is Arlington the East Coast Portlandia? Very similar, according to Tad McCall, a Westover resident whose father was the legendary Tom McCall, Republican governor of Oregon from 1967-75.

The younger McCall, a retired Navy captain who advises the Defense Department on environmental issues, told me Arlington resembles Portland in that people “see the government as a force to better people’s lives, as partners working together, lots of citizen input and procedures that respect the rights of all.”

He lauded the county’s successful handling of the Westover Beer Garden noise dispute, and applauded the election of John Vihstadt because the county board had “lost some of their connection to the community.”