Two incidents, both in the early 70s. The first was perhaps in 1971, and the other a few years later.
Two separate attempts to make my break for freedom, forceful acts of will in honor of that long-standing tradition: The child who runs away from home to escape what he perceives as the unbearable daily torture of parents who just don’t understand.
Sadly, both of these renegade moments occurred when I was less than 10 years old, automatically dooming my efforts at independence and emancipation. I was always doing things much earlier than I should. This was my fate as a freakishly intelligent child who, at the same time, had no common sense whatsoever.
The first little adventure went something like this…
We were still living at the house on Sixth Street, in Tulsa, so I was of first-grade age or less. (We moved before second grade.) This means that my parents were still together, so the troubling “divorce experience” had not yet begun. Therefore, I’m not really sure what my problem was, but I did indeed have some type of issue with my treatment in that household.
Now, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’re aware that my father and I did not get along in any way, at all. There are innumerable incidents I can point to and say “right there, that’s what I’m talking about, he made me crazy when he did that”. But in my mind, as I write this, I’m not making a connection between any of those particular moments and my first decision to run for the border.
I don’t know what it was.
The only tenuous memory that is slightly attached to this same time-frame is that my mother had recently experienced a very severe sunburn. (Back in that day, we had no clue about sunscreen or annoying UV rays.) She spent several days lying on a leather couch in the den, moaning quietly, her only solace being the pain-easing sensation of the chilled cowhide courtesy of the air-conditioning unit in the window directly above her, a contraption set at full-blizzard blast. (Central air? We had no clue about that. If you were hot, you went to the store, bought a heavy metal box, if you could afford it, and crammed it into a window and hoped that you would never need that window for some other use.)
I’m sure her blistered-skin condition was not the source of my agitated need to flee for parts unknown. (After all, even though I was a moody child with validation issues, I understood that Mother Nature was an Old-Testament kind of goddess, wrathfully distributing vengeance on those who just wanted to swim in a local lake.) My recall of the time is one of those hybrid memories still clicking around in my head, jumbled and muddied by distance: the first time I ran away, the house on Sixth Street, the turbulence of very youthful dissatisfaction, and Mommy looking like a boiled lobster, perched on that couch, regretting life choices.
In any case, somewhere around that time, I came to a decision about my legal connection with this family. It was time for me to seek opportunities over the horizon, make my own way, fend for myself. I remember marching into the kitchen, where Mom and Dad were both in the same room, (indicating that they were on speaking terms at the time, something that was already unusual), and announcing that I had every intention of running away and that the train would be leaving the station tonight.
They both looked at me, Dad with his typical expression that the thorn in his side would simply NOT go away, and Mom with her softer expression of “here is another challenge to overcome with love.” Completely different parenting skills. Guess who I liked better?
To my startled astonishment, they both looked at each other, their eyes carrying on a brief but mystifying conversation (all adult conversations are mystifying when you don’t have familial voting rights), and then they turned to me and said: “Great. We’ll help you pack.”
What the hell?
I’m not really sure what reaction I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that. After all, my itinerary was already murky, as I hadn’t planned much beyond “I want to run away”.
I’m sure part of me was hoping that my announcement would cause a momentous change in parenting techniques, with both of them vowing to do whatever it took to keep me in the fold. Perhaps happy birds would start chirping and sunlight would break through the sad clouds. (Of course, this would mean we had to keep Mom away from the windows or her bacon would be even crisper, but I digress.)
The moment of epiphany and validation did not happen. Instead, they were encouraging my quest for freedom by offering to help me with my travel preparations, providing itinerary options (“I understand that Panama is nice this time of year”) and ensuring that I had an adequate supply of underwear and whatnot. In fact, Daddy raced off and returned with a cute little blue suitcase with which I could tote my worldly possessions, all two of them.
This was so not what I pictured in my head. Where was the ticker tape parade begging me to stay with a suddenly-loving family? Why was I not being proffered a renegotiated contract that I could review with my lawyers?
Instead, we packed my little suitcase, with Mom ensuring that I had a toothbrush and toothpaste, and Dad ensuring that I took all the annoying toys that he hated stepping on during his march to the garage where he would do Man Things for hours and ignore the rest of the family until they gave up and left.
Then they led me to the backdoor of the house, with Daddy throwing open said portal and then stepping out of the way. Both of them were beaming with encouraging smiles as they gently pushed me forward. “Have fun!”
I traipsed down the three concrete steps into the yard, turning back to confirm that I was fully understanding how this was developing. They really wanted me to go?
They both waved happily. Bon voyage!
Great. I really had to go through with this. Damn.
So I turned back around and ambled across the grass to the back gate. (I had barely taken two cautious steps when I heard the back door being slammed and the lock being turned with a little bit more jubilation than was required in this situation.) The deal was done. I was now a free agent, and the world was my possibly-tainted oyster.
I unhitched the gate, and stepped into the alley. Now, alleys can be great and wonderful things, especially when it’s daylight and you’re a 6-year-old. Lots of things to discover and explore. But at night? Not so much. And especially when it’s a night where your parents appear to be quite enthusiastic about your decision to relocate.
I stood in the middle of the alley for some time, glancing left and right. I really didn’t know which way to go. Neither option held much appeal, as my surveillance revealed that it was incredibly dark and murky in both directions. I could be instantly killed in any number of ways, regardless of my decision.
Something told me to head to the left, towards the east. There were no logical theorems behind this decision, other than the realization that I can’t actually be running away if I don’t, in fact, run. So I headed east.
Slowly, at first. My pace picked up a bit as the neighboring dogs realized that there was a potential intruder. These beasts came racing to their respective back fences, baying like Satan himself had just ascended from the bowels of the earth. I really did not care for this part. I increased my speed to escape the hounds of hell.
Miraculously, I made it to the end of the block without being ripped to shreds. (Let’s not discuss the fact that some of these evil canines were probably poodles that couldn’t effectively damage a falling leaf. I was six years old with a tendency for slight exaggeration. Sue me. My flamboyance would not be fully appreciated until Logo TV was invented a few decades later.)
I paused before actually crossing the street. Not sure why. Maybe it was the fact that the alleyways, at least at the point where they intersected actual streets, had light poles illuminating the area. Suddenly, everybody could see exactly what I was doing.
This was disconcerting. Part of it was the fact that my actions were now visible to the viewing public, or at least to bored citizens tromping around the neighborhood for no apparent reason, disgruntled that cable TV hadn’t been invented and/or trying to determine why the poodles were barking with such intensity. But mostly, my hesitation was due to the fact that, when you have the freedom to run anywhere that you want, where, exactly, do you run to?
I really hadn’t done enough research on this particular aspect of my joining the Underground Railroad. Poor planning. This always causes complications.
So I decided to keep running in a straight line. Keep following this same alley until I eventually ran across a family that just happened to be looking for a dissatisfied youngster seeking better opportunities. Sounded good to me.
I dashed across the street and entered the next segment of the alley. This was really foreign territory for me. I knew most of the intricacies of my own alley, because boys will be boys and they poke at things with sticks, but this was a new world. On top of that, once you got away from the cross street, there were no handy lights to guide you on your mission. So I decided to just run like the wind until I got to the distant light at the next cross street.
This was a very serious error in judgment.
So I’m racing along, breathing quite heavily, unable to see a single thing that might appear in the dim path before me, and just trusting that my forward momentum is all I need to survive the ordeal.
Suddenly, one foot comes down at a slightly odd angle, with my toes mashed upward at a very unpromising degree. Before I can fully decipher this change in terrain, my other foot slams hard against an apparent boulder in the middle of the alley. Due to whatever physical laws, my tiny body is now airborne, roughly parallel to the perilous trail. Ground control to Minor Tom.
I crash to the earth with bone-rattling surprise, all of the air forced out of my lungs with a frightening oomph, my cute little suitcase clipping me on the head as it sails forward to parts unknown.
I finally skid to a halt, my face mashed in unfamiliar dirt. It feels like the entire front of my body has been scraped clean of any flesh. There is no redemption in this moment, whatsoever. Even the poodles stop barking, because the joy of annoying the humans loses its luster when the human face-plants on the path of humiliation.
And I burst into tears.
A few minutes later, I realize that my waterworks are not solving anything. I wipe my face with my shirt sleeve and struggle to a sitting position, sniffling. I look around, and I can barely make out my suitcase just ahead. It has popped open, and my boy panties are peppering the alley way, absurd little flowers in the darkness.
Great. Can we possibly get any lower?
I struggle to my feet and start shoving my personal items back in the suitcase, my tears dotting the contents as I do so. Once everything is secure, I hoist my traveling companion and look back west, toward home. Pondering.
My run for freedom has lasted exactly 17 minutes. And now I’m done. My parents knew exactly what they were doing in helping me out the door, realizing I wouldn’t get far. In fact, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they were the ones responsible for the strategically-placed boulder. Parents will do anything to win the battle. They might have even paid the poodles to be especially snarly tonight.
Time for Plan B. Perhaps another round at the bargaining table? Not sure. For all I knew, my parents may have already replaced me with a more complacent child that didn’t have such grandiose expectations of the world. A naïve little Stepford son that would clean his room and not question authority.
In any case, I’m sure my sister had been doing a dance of royal ascension from the first second of my departure, thrilled at her rise in status. She would probably just turn the TV up when my pitiful knock came at the back door. I would now be facing two unimpressed monarchs and a potential conniving usurper to the throne.
I sighed and headed back down the alley.
Click here to read the rest of this story.
(Originally published in “Memory Remix” on 02/09/10. Revised and updated with extra flair for this post.)
Categories: My Life