30 Year Anniversary
September 6, 1991
He was supposed to arrive at 6:00 pm, but 6 rolled by and he didn’t show up. 6:15. Still no Gary. I was getting nervous. This was my first week at college. I was a 17 year old who had never lived away from home. I had spent all evening teasing my hair and changing outfits to look cute for our first date and now I was starting to think he was standing me up.
At 6:30, Gary finally pulled up to the dorm and bounded up the stairs to greet me and brought me out to the car. I was so relieved. The cute red-headed math major I’d met the week before hadn’t stood me up after all.
As he opened the passenger door to his 1981 Plymouth Champ with it’s mix-matched tinted and untinted windows and torn fabric hanging from the ceiling, he introduced me to a young man sitting in the back seat of his car. He said the guy’s name was Wade and he had seen him standing on the corner downtown playing a guitar. He explained that he had invited him to go with us on our date to Lexington and provide some music entertainment along the way in return for a free meal. Wade began awkwardly strumming his guitar and it became obvious pretty quickly that he wasn’t that great of a guitarist. He would strum a note and call out a word or phrase.
I was really wondering what I had gotten myself into but I was trying so hard to be nice and accepting to Wade and to Gary. But this date had gotten off to a weird start.
As we made our way out of campus and onto the main stretch of road through Richmond, Gary and I made small talk, interrupted occasionally by Wade, and started to learn a little bit about each other.
When we came to an intersection in front of McDonald’s, Gary slowed to a stop at the red light. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a straggly man standing at the crossing with his thumb out hitching a ride. He had on dirty clothes, needed a haircut, and had rolled up clothes under his arm.
Gary leaned over me and yelled out the window, “Hey! Where ya headed?”
“Lexington! Or as close as you can get me!” he replied.
I looked at Gary bewildered and whispered to him that this was not a good idea. I had always been warned about hitchhikers and I could not believe that Gary would even consider giving this bedraggled man a lift.
Gary assured me he did this kind of stuff all the time and it would be fine. He told him to jump in the back with Wade and he could ride up with us and that he could join us for a good meal. I got out of the front, pulled the lever on my seat for the hitchhiker to climb in, sat back down and off we went.
My date was chatting with the strange man and the guitarist while we rolled along. I was so confused and starting to get scared. I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. I had no way of contacting the authorities. This was 1991! There were no cell phones. My parents didn’t know where I was. I was literally experiencing what every mother and father warns against. Do not talk to strangers and do not get into a stranger’s car. I had innocently put myself in a lot of danger.
About halfway to Lexington the real trouble began.
“Pull the damn car over!”, the hitchhiker shouted. “I need you to shut up and pull over.”
I looked at Gary and became very frightened as he quickly turned his blinker on to get in the right lane and pull over to the side with cars whipping by us on Interstate 75. The hitchhiker kept screaming at us to pull over and give him our money. Gary kept saying he didn’t have much money, but the hitchhiker became more frantic.
As we came to a stop and Gary put the car into park, the hitchhiker became more agitated. He was yelling at me to give him all the money and to get out of the car. I kept looking at Gary and he had his hands up in the air telling him to take whatever he had and let us go. I didn’t know what to do, but I was imagining my parents and my friends reading about my disappearance from college during my first week at college.
I imagined the headlines: “College Freshman Murdered on First Date by Hitchhiker”. What would they think? My family would never be the same.
Pondering these questions, I heard the hitchhiker order me out of the car. I was so scared and trying to stay calm, but my head was telling me to panic. Gary looked at me and implored, “Just do what he is telling you to do.” I thought, “Wow, what a gentleman.”
I gently opened my car door and eased myself slowly out of the car. The hitchhiker started to climb out behind me while shouting, “Get out of the car! I have something to give you!”
He had a pair of dirty jeans rolled up under his arm with what I assumed was a concealed weapon of some sort. I imagined that he was going to get me out of the car, take me down the side of the highway, rob me and my date, then kill us with the weapon.
I tentatively took a step away from the car while the hitch hiker climbed from the back seat still with the rolled up jeans under his arm.
“I have something to give you!” he kept yelling. I started to get angry. How dare this man do this to us? We had done nothing to him except to show kindness.
Suddenly, the hitchhiker lunged at me with the rolled up jeans and pulled out….
A dozen roses.
Not a gun.
Not a knife.
It was a prank or an ice breaker for the date according to Gary. A thought out and perfectly executed joke played by Gary on me, his unsuspecting 17 year old freshman date who had no idea what she was getting into.
Wade and the hitchhiker lived on his dormitory floor. Gary was a resident assistant that year and roped them into playing a joke on a girl that he really liked.
I got back into the car and didn’t know what to think. Gary had so much confidence that I would be the perfect person to set up like this. And he was right. I loved it. I couldn’t stop laughing.
We took those two guys back to the dorm and went on a real date in Lexington. We got Wendy’s take out and went to the BlueGrass airport and ate Dave’s Singles, fries and Frosties while watching the jets take off and land. We finished with a rousing game of miniature golf.
I knew from the minute those roses came out of that greasy pair of jeans that Gary was the one for me. I never wanted or loved anyone else. He was mine.
Over the years we have told this story 100’s of times. We tease our kids and tell them our first date story is their legacy. People have asked me why I would ever go out with him again or why I didn’t demand that he take me back to the dorm. And my answer is always the same. If it had been real and he had really thought a guy in the backseat playing a guitar was romantic and he had really picked up a hitchhiker, I never would have spoken to him again. But in a strange sort of way, the fact that he took such a big chance on me with creative planning was a compliment. He had no idea how I would react, but had nothing to lose.
On September 6, 2021, Gary and I will celebrate the 30 year anniversary of that first date. It’s our favorite story to tell. Our kids ask us to tell their friends. Our extended family repeats the story. It never gets old. And people are always surprised we’ve made it this long.
My cute redhead math major is now a silver fox statistician with a Ph.D. and I couldn’t love him or admire him more than I do. He has loved me with wisdom, patience, understanding, humor and sometimes an exasperated sigh. I will never regret getting back in that car after being pranked. It was the smartest decision I’ve ever made.