Thirty-three years ago, on the outskirts of Elko, Nevada, I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker named Stanley Gurcze. Stanley told me he was on his way to visit Mount Rushmore, but that wasn’t exactly true. Fact is, he’d been hitching his way around America for fifteen years, with no particular destination in mind and only a couple of goals. One, he hoped to score a ride in a Chrysler—the only brand of vehicle that had never stopped to give him a ride. Two, like Diogenes, he hoped to find an honest man. A hundred and fifty miles down the road we two parted company, and Stanley Gurcze resumed his lifelong quest.
I never saw Stan again, although some months later I received a letter from him, postmarked Apache Junction, Arizona. Along with the letter was a tattered manuscript. It was an account of his many years on the road, titled THE SHORT, SHORT HITCHHIKER.
“No doubt by this time, you, Richard Menzies, being the perceptive type, noticed that I included my manuscript with this letter,” he wrote. I guess you have also noticed that I am a very sloppy writer. Of letters, of course. Of manuscripts, I can be truthful as hell and say, ‘I am the most untalented writer in the literary world!” If you can make anything out of the mish-mash I wrote, all I can say is, ‘Bless your little heart.’ Because I sure as hell can’t.”
Now, as cover letters go, I will agree it could use some work (and fewer cigarette burns). As for the manuscript, it’s anything but mish-mash. In fact, it’s quite good, and I promised Stanley I’d do my best to find him a publisher. Alas, I had no success, and in time Stanley’s manuscript became one among many gathering dust in my vast rejection bin.
Then four years ago a miracle happened. Someone at a publishing house slipped up and accidentally forgot that the things I send out never meet anybody’s editorial demands. As a result, my name ended up on the cover of a book. And inside that book is a chapter about Stanley Gurcze, titled “Footless and Fancy Free.”
By this time I had almost forgotten what it was that motivated me to turn back and offer a ride to the Buddha-like figure I’d spotted meditating in the sagebrush beside Interstate 80. It was because he was missing both legs below the knees! I figured there must be a story there, and so the second thing I asked him, after where are you going, was “How did you lose your feet?”
“My legs?” Stan answered. “I froze ‘em off, just playin’ out in the snow. I was ten years old. Cleaveland, Ohio. But you know, there’s no way to keep a ten-year-old kid indoors when the snow is out there, beautiful snowdrifts in every direction. So I put on a pair of tennis shoes and I went outside and played all day.
“Well, that wind comin’ up offa Lake Erie gets cold. And it’s a moist cold; it goes right through ya. When I first started playin’, my feet were cold, but then they started warmin’ up, and I didn’t know what the heck that meant. Then when they got real nice and comfortable, they were frozen. Ha ha. I didn’t know that. But I sure found out, the next morning.”
So it came to pass that Stanley lost his feet to gangrene, the result of frostbite, caused by a cold, damp wind that blows off Lake Erie. This from the same guy who told me he was headed for Mount Rushmore.
Stanley could never have dreamed that as a result of me having given him a ride in 1976, his face would appear on high definition public television in 2008, but that’s exactly what happened—when station KNPB in Reno aired an hour-long documentary titled “The Big Empty.” The show is largely about my book, and an entire segment is devoted to the footless vagabond from Cleveland, his words voiced by a professional voice actor, Ed Mace.
Subsequently Mr. Mace posted the segment on YouTube, and not long afterward I received an e-mail from a Ben Gurcze in Cleveland.
“I was on YouTube today and decided to do a search on my last name just for the heck of it,” wrote Ben. “Well, the first video to come up was the one you did for PBS that had Stanley Gurcze in it. So I watched it and saw pictures of Stanley on there and thought to myself that man he kinda looks like my dad a little’
“So I call my dad to ask him if he knew Stanley and he said yeah that was my dad’s brother and he had no legs from the knees down and said he lived in the desert. So I told him to go to YouTube to check it out and he could not believe it was him. I myself never knew of him and my dad said he hadn’t seen him in a very long time.
“My dad also told me the sad story on how Stanley had lost his legs when he went out for ice cream for his mother in the middle of winter. He spent the money on something else and was afraid to go home so he slept under the porch in the snow and his legs froze. So sad. My mom also remembers when he came to visit and he was telling her of all his journeys and how much of a nice man that he was. She said that when he was here he stayed at his aunt’s house and didn’t even sleep in a bed and preferred the floor instead.”
I promptly send Ben a copy of my book and a copy of Stanley’s autobiography. In return I got an e-mail from John D. Gurcze Jr., who introduced himself as Stanley’s great nephew.
“Upon visiting my parents just yesterday I was amazed to see all this information and your book on my parents’ counter. I never knew Stanley but hearing my father yesterday tell a few stories about him when he was a teenager was fascinating. It was like I was meeting him for the first time. I brought it home with me last night and started reading it. All I can say is WOW what a journey Stanley had. It is kinda funny to hear about him now because nobody I can remember on my Dad’s side of the family ever really talked about him.”
So thanks to the information highway, which connects us in a way that random encounters along the interstate highway never could, Stanley’s kinfolk now have a clearer picture of what became of their nomadic uncle. And—if what he wrote in his unpublished autobiography is true—they finally know what happened to the short, short hitchhiker’s feet.
Stanley begins: “The following is what happened that fateful day back in 1927. The month was February, the day was a Monday.
“I came home from school that day, saw my stepfather was drunk as usual, sitting in the front room with a bottle in his hand. Glancing at the kitchen table I saw that he had left his pack of cigarettes there. I proceeded to extract a few when I heard a noise behind me.
“There stood my stepfather reaching for me with a very unfriendly look in his eye. I saw right then that he did not take kindly to my helping myself to his Lucky Strike cigarettes, and ran out the kitchen door as fast as I could.
“It was a pleasant afternoon, not too cold, so I was wearing a light jacket. On my feet I was wearing a pair of tennis shoes. When night time came I was afraid to go home and face my stepfather, not knowing whether he was still drunk or had sobered up by then. I met my older brother coming down the street and asked him, ‘How’s the old man? Still drunk?’
“My brother answered, ‘Yeah, and boy is he mad! He’s waiting for you to come home.’
“’I ain’t going home until he goes to sleep.’
“By then it was getting colder. My brother was wearing his sheepskin coat, which I kept glancing at because the light jacket I was wearing wasn’t keeping me warm at all.
“’Hey, Arnold, how about letting me wear your sheepskin coat? ‘Cause I’m freezing in this jacket I got on.’
“’OK. I’m going back in the house anyway.’
“We exchanged his sheepskin coat for my light jacket. Then we parted and I started to walk around to kill time until my stepfather went to sleep, got tired of walking around and wanted to rest for awhile. I was hungry, not having had anything to eat since noon. I saw a quart of milk on the neighbor’s porch. There was nobody around so I reached up and took the milk. I also saw a little hole beside the porch steps. So, holding tightly to the quart of milk, I crawled through the hole and sat down under the porch steps where I proceeded to drink the milk.
“After drinking some of the milk I became sleepy, so I thought, why not close my eyes for just a little while—not realizing the consequences of that act. I soon fell fast asleep. While I was sleeping a blizzard began, and the temperature dropped rapidly. My body temperature started to drop also until I fell into a coma. I know now that the only reason I did not freeze to death was because I was wearing my brother’s sheepskin coat.
“I had many hallucinations during the time I was in a coma, and very few lucid moments. When once again becoming conscious I later learned that it was Friday evening. A wet snow was falling, but it wasn’t very cold.
“Crawling out from under the porch, I found I could not stand up, so I crawled through the snow past four houses until I got to our house. Somehow I managed to get on my feet and walked in the back door into the kitchen.
“My stepfather was sitting alone at the kitchen table. He was sober, but there was no one else around. Later I learned that very evening he had chased my mother and both my brothers out of the house.
“He looked at me and yelled, ‘Get out! Go back to wherever you were for the last five days!’
“I started to cry and stumbled toward the door when he said, ‘Wait, what’s the matter with your feet?’
“’Nothing,’ I answered tearfully, feeling no pain.
“He came to me and stooped down for a closer look. ‘Oh, my god! They are frozen solid!’”
For the first time ever, Stanley saw tears in his stepfather’s eyes. But no amount of tears could warm those frozen feet, and nothing the hospital could do would save them. In the years that followed the story of how Stanley lost his feet would change, because it was just too painful for the family to talk about. Even Stanley couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.
“In my way of life as it is now as a hitchhiker” wrote Stanley, “I have been asked many times, ‘How did you lose your feet?’ I have been asked this same question literally thousands of times since the age of twelve. I have never given the true version to anyone before because what happened that day in 1927 is too painful for me to dredge up. The version I give is very short, just enough to satisfy somebody’s curiosity.”