When I was a freshman at the University of Arizona, I persuaded my roommate Pat Kent to hitchhike with me to San Diego to see my sister, who was a Navy wife. “We can stay with her a couple of days and then hitchhike back,” I said. Pat was always game for an adventure. It’s about a six-hour drive from Tucson to San Diego, but it took us all day. We kept getting left at crossroads, progressing in fifty-mile jumps. At one crossroads there was rain. Finally, though, as the sun was going down, we made it into downtown San Diego. I had my sister’s number, so I found a pay phone and dialed it. The first hint that something might be wrong came when the operator said “Deposit $1.25 in change, please.” Between us, we scrounged the five quarters and I put them in, the phone at the other end rang, and a voice unmistakably my sister’s answered.
“Hi, Judy,” I said. “I hitchhiked here to San Diego with a friend. We’re going to freeload on you for a day or two. Where do you live?”
There was a pause of perhaps three beats before Judy answered. “I live in San Francisco,” she said in an even voice.
“What!” I said. “You’ve lived in San Diego for years.”
“Yes, Marty,” she said. “But Dennis’s ship has been in San Francisco for the last year.”
This conversation went on for several more minutes, but I was too stunned to listen to much of it. We were in San Diego with no place to stay and not enough money for a hotel room. We were too tired to just start hitch-hiking back—not a good prospect at night, anyway.
Our immediate solution was an all-night movie. Maybe not the best choice for some shuteye: It was Vincent Price in The Fall of the House of Usher. Every time I managed to doze off, there came one of those screams usually described as “blood-curdling.” For me, “sleep-shattering” would have been more accurate.
In the morning, Pat remembered he had a second cousin who lived in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego. He managed to find the cousin’s number and called. “Oh, sure,” said the cousin. “Come on over. There’s an empty guest house you can stay in just outside the walls of the asylum.”
Pat’s cousin, it turned out, ran a private asylum. But he gave us a meal, and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep in the guest house, which was very comfortable.
But then, in the wee hours, lights glared through the ample windows of my bedroom, and there came the sound of people shouting at each other. I looked out to see several blue-bathrobed inmates clumsily trying to climb the wall toward us, while white-clad attendants urged them to “come back down now, be calm, everything will be all right.”