Jersey Shore Magazine

Fall / Holiday 2022

Jersey Shore Magazine

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J e r s e y s h o r e • F A L L / H O L I D A Y 2 0 2 2 82 Only with prodding did my passenger offer he was headed to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He muttered he wanted to see someone. He was hard to understand and might have been drunk. I surmised from our first exchange that he had made the decision to hitchhike in a cockeyed moment—probably after shots of whiskey when an idea that had been stewing was ready to be served. "Who are you going to see?" I asked. "I am going to kill a man," he said casually. "He took my woman." My heart jolted. My hands felt cold and skeletal on the steering wheel; I had no doubt that he was serious. Abruptly, my passenger became a menace. I looked at my wallet on the dash: he was young, fit looking, and must have been well trained to be in the Special Forces. He could probably break me in two before I knew I was being attacked. After that realization, my brain whirled: I've got to think—FAST! As he warmed from the car heater, he became easier to understand. I realized he had a European accent. I felt feebleminded but arrived at the notion that maybe if we talked about something else, this developing nightmare might not really be happening. Let's go slow, I thought. "Where are you from?" I asked. "Czechoslovakia," he replied. He volunteered nothing else—perhaps his English was weak. "How long have you been here?" "Five years," he muttered. "I didn't know the U.S. Army would let someone from another country join so soon after coming here." "I was in Russian Army. They want me to teach Soviet tactics." "What was your specialty?" I asked, hoping to expand the conversation. "Improvised explosives," he said, almost absentmindedly. This conversation was getting more discouraging at each turn. "Improvised explosives? Wow…" I said meekly. My mind wandered to images of the rest of the world on this night. I could almost see them: cozy, sipping eggnogs in colorful holiday sweaters before a roaring fire, and listen- ing to carols. I imagined how many parents were wrapping presents for their kids. HOME PORT I t was after dark on Christmas Eve, 1976. I was traveling north through southern Georgia, returning to pick up my '69 Volvo. Two days earlier, I had taken my girlfriend, Toni, and her daughter from Lavallette to Newark Airport for their flight to Boca Raton. I planned to drive south and meet them after a visit with my parents along the way. Things took a turn for the worse near Florence, South Carolina. My Volvo threw a rod—the automotive equiva- lent of a heart attack. I hitchhiked my way down to my parent's home in Melbourne, Florida, borrowed my Dad's Dodge Dart, and rented a tow bar to retrieve the car and bring it south to Jacksonville where a friend was going to transplant a used engine. By 10:00 p.m. I had been on the interstate for four hours heading back to Florence. I took an exit for a truck stop for coffee and to make a phone call. As I exited the warm truck stop, the wind snapped. I parked near the forlorn glow of the phone booth and called Toni. We had been dating for almost a year and planned to get together as soon as I got back to Florida. As she answered the phone, I could hear the squeals of her daughter in the background as the excitement and anticipation of Santa and Christmas pres- ents were in the air. We said goodbye, and she reminded me not to eat all the cookies she had made for my parents and myself. As I got into my car, snowflakes whirled out of the dark. Before I got behind the wheel, I put my wallet on the dash- board, so my butt wouldn't get sore, and headed to the interstate a half mile down the road. As I descended the ramp, my headlights washed over a uniformed soldier hunched over against the biting wind. He had no overcoat. Little more than twenty-four hours earlier, I had been hitchhiking in the other direction. It was cold, he was in our nation's service, and it was Christmas Eve: I had to pick him up. I pulled over and watched in the rearview as he jogged down to the car. When he got in I noticed there was a Special Forces patch on his shoulder. As soon as he spoke, I thought I had made a mistake: his words were a garble; I couldn't make out his name as I shook his hand. Minutes later I was to realize it was an even bigger mistake. I accelerated and noticed that the road was devoid of travelers. The Christmas Killer by Gordon Hesse continued on page 79 Natsco

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