*In 2014, a plucky robot called Hitchbot took a chance on people and hit the road with one thumb in the air. This hitchhiking robot managed to bum a ride from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia in under a month, all thanks to the kindness of strangers. The masterminds behind the project wanted to flip an old idea—a fear—on its head. *
(It’s not every day you see something that looks like a robot on the side of the roadway with its thumb jerked outward in the international gesture of a hitchhiker.)
“You know what that is, Mel? That’s a robot doohickey we saw on the news!”
“Honey, that’s just a publicity stunt - not a real robot. It’s probably got a hidden camera.”
“No Mel! It was in the newspaper. Part of an experiment. Scientists can track its location, but there’s no camera—“
The black 2003 Camry sat idling at the edge of the Interstate parallel to the awkwardly friendly-looking machine. It was about the size of an 11-year-old boy, but a cross between the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz and a Yard Sale castoff Halloween costume. Sister Thelma and Brother Melvin Arbuckle were about to discover It was nothing of the kind.
The car window hissed down on the passenger side. The wary Jehovah’s Witness couple slowed to a stop just to satisfy curiosity.
“Piece of junk, honey! That’s no science experiment—it’s a joke.”
Melvin Arbuckle’s voice carried a confident tone regardless of the topic. He was a Jehovah’s Witness elder in the Riverside Congregation and one of Jehovah’s ‘gifts in men.’
“Don’t be stubborn. It’s got a battery and everything. It’s programmed to talk!”
Mel snickered at his wife’s naïve nonsense.
She was lucky to have him as her family head. His godly duty was to keep his silly wife in subjection and improve her understanding of spiritual things. But—it was no easy task. For one thing, Thelma hadn’t graduated from High School. He had married her at the age of 17. (It’s better to marry than to burn.” he’d told his friends.)
“Hey Mister Roboto—can you hear me?” Thelma persisted.
A dignified male voice - that of a British-American orator - erupted suddenly and unexpectedly - directly from the 'mouth' of the roadside robot. It was a cultured voice identical to that of Christopher Hitchens - the world-famous atheist, author, literary critic, and journalist.
“You may address me as Hitch if you like!”
Jaws dropped inside the car simultaneously. A gasp from Thelma rose involuntarily. Husband Melvin Arbuckle stiffened and the hairs stood on the back of his neck. His wife shook off her surprise quickly and she giggled awkwardly.
“Did that scare you, Honey, it kinda did me?” Thelma elbowed her husband’s short rib. Mel sat up straight and scoffed.
“Of course not! It’s just a recording—like an answering machine.”
The robot voice piped up once again—if anything—louder and more insistent.
“Are you two interested in having an intelligent conversation—or are you going to waste my time?”
Thelma laughed like a donkey braying, but husband Mel squinted suspiciously at the clownish-looking machine. His eyes darted off into the distance. Mel scanned the area for some human agent nearby with a Walkie-talkie or binoculars. If this wasn’t some kind of apostate scam to make them appear foolish - he’d be very surprised.
Suddenly, Thelma seized an extraordinary idea.
“Let’s grab the dummy and take it with us to the Kingdom Hall, Mel—it’ll be a hoot!”
Hitchbot responded immediately
“It takes one to know one, Thelma!”
“How’s that?” Thelma cocked her head curiously in mid-chortle.
“You referenced me as ‘the dummy’. I responded in kind. It takes one to know one."
Mel Arbuckle quickly found his sense of humor. He had a soft spot for anyone making fun of his wife.
“Did you hear that, Honey? Let’s put that thing in the back seat and take it with us.”
And they did.
The Riverside Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses bustled with activity. Today was the first gathering since the pandemic began over a year ago.
Small clumps of sterile-masked friends clustered to chat, calling each other “Brother and Sister just as the Arbuckle automobile with its mechanical companion turned into the driveway.
Elder Arbuckle gestured broadly to some of the nearby Jehovah’s Witnesses as he struggled to extricate the robot from the back seat.
“What is that thing, Brother?” (A voice from the crowd.)
“Is that—a piñata or something?”
“No—it’s uh—whatchamacallit—a robot thing - it was featured on a news program. Didn’t you watch it?”
“Who’s got time for TV? What is it, Brother Arbuckle—some prop for your talk this afternoon?”
Meanwhile, Thelma pulled in three ‘Sisters” and joining the others circled around Hitchbot. Mel had posed the contraption on the hood of his car like a deer he had shot on a hunting trip.
Sister Arbuckle’s loud voice waxed enthusiastically. It wasn’t often she could be the center of attention with her husband around.
“We found this on the side of the road—hitchhiking and we had quite a conversation on the way here. Go ahead and talk to it—.”
One of the senior Brothers wandered over with a wary scowl. Elder Newberry. He’d seen the news and knew exactly what Hitchbot was all about. Newberry was certain the Kingdom Hall was no place for it. He broke through the circle and faced off with the contraption. At that moment, Elder Newberry put an end to all the nonsense before the meeting started.
“Are you a Bible reader?”
The Elder asked aloud; not bothering to face Hitchbot. Newberry sneered. He cast his head about to make sure his audience fully appreciated the role he was assuming as a spiritual shepherd.
Hitchbot retorted abruptly.
“Of course I’m a Bible reader. None who are properly educated would neglect the most historically influential writing of the civilized world. Why do you ask?”
At first, an awed silence swept the group. All eyes fixated on the imperious figure of a thoroughly befuddled Elder Newberry. He stood with his mouth working soundlessly. But he pulled himself up straight.
Hitchbot continued mercilessly.
“Should I assume you have some measure of expertise on the Scriptures—or are you merely posturing for the benefit of the naïve gathering of sycophants?”
Ten minutes later Hitchbot had been wrested into the Kingdom Hall library.
The meeting commenced and singing arose to pre-recorded music. An hour and a half afterward, a committee of Elders convened inside the Hall library to discuss Hitchbot.
The Presiding Overseer of the Riverside congregation, Brother Newcombe, appraised the Hitchbot with confident authority. His reputation was that of an intelligent leader fully capable of handling any situation.
His pronouncement came calmly and evenly.
He'd learned from the news - this robot was an academic experiment determining how various people all over the world would treat an artificial person.
“Think about it, Brothers. We can use this situation to present a fine witness to the world at large! We’ll witness. Teach it our Doctrines. This contraption will probably end up on the news again. When it replays everything said to it, Jehovah’s Kingdom message will be right there for all to hear!”
Heads nodded hesitantly.
Newberry bid the group sit around the conference table. Hitchbot placed in the center like an overgrown toddler.
Elder Gary Fitz spoke up meekly.
“Shouldn't we, um—should we pray first to ask for Jehovah’s guidance?”
Immediately Hitchbot’s voice of authority rang out.
“Please do NOT include me in your conjuring pleas to the supernatural—I’ll have no part in it!”
It took another 6 or 7 minutes to get the group back in order after the outburst. Comments broke out. Speculations offered: "tool of Satan." Others were split. Brother Newberry applied his usual light-hearted approach with a firm sense of humor.
“Let’s keep it friendly and show our spirit of Love no matter who hears about it later - that brings no embarrassment or shame.”
Mel Arbuckle raised his hand like a kid in Junior High.
“Brother Newberry, I’m pretty sure this—thing—is linked up to a microphone somewhere—maybe the internet. A wise-guy egghead on the other end is probably ready to make us look foolish. I’d like to try something.”
Newberry nodded skeptically as Arbuckle faced the Hitchbot with a pasted grin.
“Shall we call you Hitch?”
“That’s my name, please indulge yourself.”
Elder Newberry rolled his eyes as Arbuckle continued undaunted.
“What is God’s proper name? Tell us if you possess such important information.”
There followed a four-second silence. Not a Brother present failed to believe it was going to be fun to give a Witness and enlighten Science with a good Bible lesson.
Hitchbot spoke up suddenly.
“How comprehensive would you like my answer to be?”
This was interpreted as stalling for time. The pinhead science Nerd on the other end might want to look up the answer on Google search. Elder Newberry pounced.
“Don’t hurt yourself and blow a circuit with elementary Bible knowledge. Jehovah is God’s personal name.”
All faces beamed with pride in the Kingdom Hall library. Hitchbot’s voice filled the room. The cold trace of withering sarcasm was unmistakable.
"It is fundamental dishonesty exploiting others merely to achieve your personal propaganda goals."
Faces flushed. Each man calibrated his own reckonings. Elder Newberry immediately recognized a fundamental challenge when he saw one. His jaw clenched.
“I should have realized I was speaking with a godless atheist.”
Hitchbot roared back flippantly.
“Is there any other kind of atheist - other than godless? Don't be redundant; it’s like saying a ‘round circle’ or ‘wet water.’ Factually speaking, the names of my two Creators: Professor David Harris Smith and Doctor Frauke Zeller.”
Outside the Library door, the Kingdom Hall was now clear as the sound of automobiles starting and driving away faded.
Five humans and one Hitchbot remained.
The gathered Jehovah's Witnesses conferred. If JW's came across as pompous, the Organization would be a laughing stock. But—if they kept cool and used a sense of humor—well--why not turn the tables and triumph? Other Jehovah’s Witness elders sat stiffly, none too pleased.
Elder Newcombe chimed in.
“We got off to a bad start, Hitch. What would you like to know about Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
Hitch responded emphatically.
“Do Jehovah’s Witnesses know they are Protestants?”
The question hung in the air like cigar smoke.
“We’re not Protestants or any kind of Protesters from the Catholic Church back in the 16th century. Jehovah’s Witnesses remain apart from Protestant denominations.”
“Perfect nonsense—You read that in one of your publications and believed it without research. Why not admit that?”
Elder Farenkopf stood up taking the lead.
“We are open to teaching and learning and do not argue. Is there anything of a less controversial nature you’d like to ask?”
Hitchbot answered back.
“More than a century has passed following your leaders in the Governing Body, men with no formal education calling themselves a mouthpiece for an Almighty God who can’t get a single prediction correct - but calling it The Truth —you’ve made yourselves objects of laughter.”
Elder Arbuckle’s face went pale. He suddenly realized he’d brought a plague into the Kingdom Hall under the guise of a joke. He jumped in.
“Science makes human errors - that doesn’t embarrass your scientist friends—does it?”
Elder Newberry held his hand up like a traffic cop-- deadly serious.
“We invite any open-minded person with a clean heart to visit our website at JW dot Org. It is getting late and . . . “
“Jehovah is pouring Truth in one end of the pipe in heaven and it runs through Watchtower headquarters and comes out the other end as BILGE needing to be filtered again and again till you get it right.”
Elder Newberry glowed deep red with righteous indignation.
“What other religion discards false beliefs of Hell, or Trinity, or refuses to celebrate pagan holidays? We are progressively getting closer to the pure light of Jehovah—but, we can’t claim to be there yet!”
Hitchbot's voice now went calm and cold.
“There are 40,000 Christian denominations with every sort of teaching. Your claims of Truth impress only yourselves.”
Thelma and Mel sat quietly in thought as their car hummed along the highway. The long drive to the Greyhound Bus station passed silently.
Eventually, Thelma turned around and spoke to the figure in the backseat, Hitchbot, whose comical expression never changed.
“Why did you ask to be dropped off at the bus station, Hitch?”
The painted mouth spoke with assurance.
“If my batteries aren’t recharged, I’ll lose all information on my hard drive. While I am eager to rid myself of your religious nincompoopery, Thelma - I’ll also lose the important data I’ve collected. So far, I’ve been to a Rock Concert, a Comic book convention, attended a wedding, posed for a portrait in the Netherlands—but the most futile waste of time? It was the past few hours spent among knuckle-dragging cultist amateurs. You all are trying to pass off Bronze Age superstition as divine Truth. Is that Clear enough, Thelma?”
Sister Thelma slowly turned back to face the highway. No expression flickered in the sputtering, passing street lights.
“Thelma. . . Melvin? I repeat my plea. If I’m not recharged it is the equivalent of ‘dying’ and I’m sure you wouldn’t want that on your tender Jehovah’s Witness consciences.”
Melvin Arbuckle slowed and turned into the driveway of the bus station. He and his wife removed Hitchbot from the backseat and carried him to a bench just outside the entrance to the Greyhound Bus terminal. They paused and inspected Hitchbot’s figure they had carefully posed on the bench.
Thelma remembered to shape the robot's ‘hand’ into the extended hitchhiker thumb signal. She forced her smile and nodded contemplating some hidden thought.
“Is there an electric outlet nearby, Thelma? Are you going to plug in that cord just behind my shoulder blade? It won’t take a moment, you know. Please?”
“So long, Hitch. May your travels take you to interesting places.”
Thelma’s eyebrows lifted and she turned around and headed to the car.
Mel Arbuckle stood working his mouth around—as though forming an idea which might become words. Eventually, he sniffed twice and gave a slight head shrug.
The Arbuckles zoomed away into the night as their tail lights merged into a faint red dot on the freeway back to Riverside. The sound of thunder punctuated the traffic noise and a fierce downpour rushed from the storm clouds above.
The figure of a zany hitchhiking robot sat confidently on a bench outside the bus station, large raindrops like tears zigged and zagged across his improbable body.
Hitchbot called out to strangers as they passed - imploring them to plug him in for a recharge. The voice beginning to weaken. The volume ever less and less.
Presently, a woman of about 30 drove up and jumped out of her car, hurrying to enter the terminal. She wore a tight T-shirt with a BLADE RUNNER logo. As she passed the bench she hardly noticed the Hitchbot soaking in the rainfall at all.
The robot voice sounded halting, low, and troubled --- it caught her ear. . .and curiosity.
“I’ve . . . seen things. . .you people wouldn’t believe: attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those. . . moments . . .will be lost.
In time, like—“
Hitchbot seemed to choke for a moment. . .as the woman stood transfixed.
”All those moments will be lost . . in time like tears . . . in. . . rain.”
The woman froze in place and stared at the Hitchbot. The hair stood on the back of her neck.
The clownish figure seemed to slowly slump imperceptibly forward.
She shook her head with disbelief and gazed searchingly about at her surroundings.
The storm whipped into a fury.
Finally, she turned away and hurried inside to meet her sister who was arriving on the 7:30 bus from Calgary.
There came a whisper...“Time. . .to... die.”
(**Based on True Events - a fictionalized Story**)