A station-wagon grope and its place in today's national reckoning on sexual harassment and assault

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Incident on I-90 led to end of personal hitchhiking

It’s hard for me to think of myself as a victim of sexual assault. But looking back, especially through the magnified prism of today’s heightened awareness, I suppose that’s what I was.

There wasn’t much too it, really, especially when compared to the nature and degree of sexual assault that is typically visualized by that term, or to the damage suffered by victims of such assaults.

I didn’t have that kind of damage, or that kind of suffering. Not even close.

Still, what happened to me back in the early 1970s in that stranger’s station wagon cruising east on Interstate 90 left me shaken for a couple of days, and a little confused for months. Ultimately, it was instrumental in my decision to stop hitchhiking entirely, which probably wasn’t such a bad thing anyway.

And over the years, the disturbing station-wagon grope got folded in among an assortment of wackier hitchhiking stories, featuring the driver who brandished a .357 magnum, the two Dobermans and me scrunched together in the back of a purple Gremlin and the motorcycle-less Hell’s Angel emphatically describing his favorite car and motorcycle crashes while at the wheel of a Plymouth Valiant that was straining to hit 80 mph.

I haven’t told those stories much in the last 30 years or so. And I hadn’t thought much at all in recent years about the traveling salesman who picked me up at an I-90 on-ramp somewhere around Mitchell, heading east.

It came back to me the other day as I listened to a National Public Radio interview with one of the women who accused Donald Trump of sexual assault. She was describing her conversation with other victims of sexual assault and how it wasn’t unusual for them to throw away the clothes they had on when assaulted.

Which is when I had one of those light-bulb moments. And I remembered something I had forgotten: I threw away the faded blue jeans I was wearing that day on I-90, hitchhiking from Chamberlain to spend the night with my brother, Jim, and his family in Sioux Falls. Over the years, I had somehow forgotten throwing away the jeans, just as I’d forgotten many of the details of that day.

But I still remember some. And a few I'll never forget.

It was cloudy and threatening rain, as I recall, but pleasant as I stood next to my small duffel bag on the I-90 shoulder and dropped my thumb as a mid-sized late-model station wagon slowed and pulled over in front of me.

Peering back through the gauze of 45 years or so, I see the driver as a trim man with closely cropped hair who looked like he was in his late 30s or early 40s. Beyond that, I can’t remember much about him, other than that he was friendly and chatty in a casual, enjoyable way for 20 minutes or so after he picked me up.

We talked about my journalism studies at SDSU, and my hopes to be in newspaper work. He said he knew people in Sioux Falls who might be helpful. Then he started to ask about my personal life, including whether I had a girlfriend (I told him I’d recently broken up) and what I looked for in a romance.

About then, I started to get uncomfortable with the conversation, and got a lot more uncomfortable when he asked if I was open to some exploration.

“I mean, you wouldn’t limit yourself, would you?” he said.

I didn’t know what to say then. I thought I knew what he meant, but I wasn’t sure. I said something to that effect. He cleared up my confusion by propositioning me, but still in kind of a vague way.

It was no big deal at first. I said something stupid like I wasn’t interested in that. He joked that maybe I didn’t know what I was missing. I laughed, nervously, and said something like, “I guess I don’t. But, really, I’m not interested.”

He joked some more, changed the subject briefly and then said, “But you wouldn’t turn it down, would you?”

I was midway through saying something like “Yeah, I would turn…” when he  blurted out “Are you getting turned on?” and reached over with his right hand and grabbed my crotch.

I swore and pushed his hand away, grabbed the duffel between my feet and pulled it up on my lap, and yelled at him to stop the car so I could get out. Which changed his demeanor immediately, and he was profusely apologetic as he pulled over.

I suppose he was also concerned about his job, since it was a company car and he was on a company trip. There was something on the dash, I think, that said the name of the company, but I don’t remember what it was.

“You don’t have to get out,” he said. “Please don’t get out. I won’t try that again. I promise. Besides, it’s raining now. And it’s miles to an exit. I don’t want to leave you standing in the rain. Please, let me take you on to Sioux Falls.”

It was indeed raining at that point. He hadn’t hurt me. And he hadn’t resisted when I yelled at him and pushed his hand away. He was about my size, and like me not physically imposing. And he seemed, well, settled down, and genuinely remorseful. So, after we talked for a bit, I decided to take a chance.

“OK,” I finally said. “If you promise you won’t do anything like that again.”


He promised, and apologized again.

“I really am sorry,” he said. “I just saw the boots and jeans and got turned on.”

That line would stick with me, long after the uncomfortable ride on to Sioux Falls, where the guy dropped me off near the Western Mall. In fact, mulling that line would lead me a few days later to throw away a perfectly good pair of $7 Lee jeans. I hadn’t worn them since the incident and didn’t want to wear them again.

I considered tossing the boots, too, but the boots weren't touched in the way the jeans were touched. Besides, I really liked those boots, a lot. And they cost more than $7.

I was pretty cheap in those days (Some of my friends might say, “In those days?”). I didn’t buy much. I didn’t throw much away. And I tried not to be wasteful. That’s a big part of why I hitchhiked pretty regularly for a couple of years.

Oh, I had a car. It was a sweet white 1962 Chevy Impala two-door hardtop with red trim and red interior, and a smooth-running 300-horsepower, 327-cubic-inch motor. It was a sweet ride, as teenagers would later say, and it moved fast when you asked it to. But it really liked its gas, too. So, during comfortable hitchhiking weather the Impala sat for extended periods at my mom’s house in Chamberlain or in my sister’s and brother-in-law’s driveway up in Brookings.

I saved a little money that way. But it was also an environmental thing. I was paying attention — maybe too much attention —  when the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth and the National Wildlife Federation told me we were spending fossil fuels like a people deranged and likely to deplete our supply, with all sorts of cataclysmic  results.

Turned out we didn’t run out, and the cataclysm was avoided — or, perhaps, simply delayed or stretched out into one small cataclysmic piece of degradation after another, depending on how you feel about effects of fracking and oil spills. Or climate change, which could lead to the big cataclysm, of course.

I wasn’t even thinking about climate change back then. And eventually, I was regularly back on my own four wheels, but in a tiny, gas-sipping Toyota Carina, which was perhaps the worst model the folks at Toyota ever made. Wisely, they didn’t make it for very long.

But that’s another story, one that includes me standing next to the Carina on an uphill stretch of highway in the Minnesota River valley, kicking the driver’s door as my first wife (bless her heart) watched me rage against the machine — that particular machine, at least — from her unsettled vantage point in the passenger’s seat.

Call it passenger-car abuse, to which I plead guilty.

I sought no such guilty plea from the traveling salesman. In fact, by the time we got to Sioux Falls we were talking a little bit, about things that had nothing to do with our personal lives. And I was feeling kind of sorry for him. I didn’t want to get him in trouble with his bosses or damage his career. And he kept his promise for the rest of the drive.

Of course, it never occurred to me until later — many years later — that I could have reported him. I don’t know, maybe I should have reported him, because I suppose that wasn’t the first time he grabbed someone, or the last.

But I didn’t think of that at the time. And it might not have changed my decision anyway. I hadn’t been injured, and he did apologize and leave me alone for the rest of the ride.

Also, oddly enough, I went through a period of self-reflection that, I understand now, was not uncommon. I’m a chatty guy. But was I too chatty early in that ride? Did I somehow send out a message I wasn’t conscious of? In trying to be polite, had I not made myself clear enough when I declined his proposition?

I tend to overthink things. And I suppose I overthought this.

But was it my fault, at least in part? And what about the comment about the jeans and the boots? Was there a code or message in wearing those, other than they were comfortable, durable and I liked wearing them? Was I sending a message I didn’t even consciously understand?

It seems silly now. A pair of jeans and boots? That’s what I wore. It’s what my friends wore. Being chatty? That's who I was, pretty much with everybody.

How could it be my fault? Yet, I wondered. And looking back, I realize that I was blaming myself, to a degree at least, as some victims who have been victimized, often in much more serious ways, might somehow end up blaming themselves.

The whole thing left me with a dull, sickening sense of doubt, about myself, what had happened and why it had happened to me. That eventually passed, and seemed forgotten. The radio interview and the clothing comment brought it back.

Even more than that, it had me thinking about something I never experienced: What must it be like to not only blame yourself but also to be blamed by others? Wow.

I thought about how I would have felt if I’d called the guy’s boss or taken his license plate number and called the police, then had my version of the incident questioned. Or maybe my chattiness and demeanor questioned. Or even my choice of attire. What if I'd also been asked why I didn’t get out of the car after he grabbed me, but chose instead to ride on to Sioux Falls.  Did a little rain matter more than a sexual assault, if that’s what it really was?

Imagine facing those questions, as a victim. Many women don’t have to imagine, of course, because they have faced them. And still will face them, sometimes, unfortunately, although perhaps not as often as they used to.

I really don’t know much at all about being sexually harassed. As a man in a world where men have traditionally had most of the power, I was never in a vulnerable position at work. I just got to do my job, without worrying about what I wore or how I approached a boss or what a supervisor had in mind when I was called in alone for an office chat.

As for the proposition and outright grope by the traveling salesman so many years ago, well, I imagined what it would have been like if the guy had outweighed me by 50 or 100 pounds. And what if he had also shown more aggression? That’s the position many women find themselves in when being sexually harassed or assaulted.

I was really more angry than scared. And to be clear, I wasn’t angry because I was groped by another man. I was angry because I was groped. Period. It was a violation that had nothing to do with gender.  And it felt bad. Or, to apply a descriptive word that a woman friend of mine used recently in response to the flurry of stories about sexual misconduct by public figures, it felt icky.

And it felt that way for quite a while. Not forever. And not in a debilitating way. But certainly, in a way that lingers, even if only subliminally.

I rarely think of that day and that grope anymore. But when I do, I feel just a hint of what I felt decades ago. That gives me at least a little bit of understanding of what victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse go through, often after being victimized in a much more serious way than I was.

Looking back, I’m glad I kept the boots. But I never wanted to touch those jeans again.



 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.