The First Time I Ran Away
By David Arthur Walters
My father often harangued me at length. He never laid a violent hand on me, but he believed he could reform me with interminable lectures. I responded with more of the same behavior, sometimes because I could not figure out exactly what it was I was being accused of, or why what I had done was so wrong.
To this very day I vividly remember him lecturing me one night by the Topeka State Capitol building after I had emerged from a movie house across the street - he had been waiting for me outside. I recall that I had eaten a juicy dill pickle while watching the Western movie, Shayne, but I do not recall what I had done wrong that would have caused him to come downtown and tell me off - maybe my stepmother had seen me smoking a cigarette.
If I did manage to say something during one of my dad's lectures, I was always wrong. He said I had a “conflict with authority,” and accused me of persecuting him with “juvenile delinquency.” After a long series of such accusations, I took up reading big city gang books and became a juvenile delinquent of sorts.
Jim and I were bad chemistry when together. We broke some garage windows. I got myself a cheap switchblade knife like his, which soon fell apart. We snuck into the movie without paying and saw Blackboard Jungle. Jim got a hold of his grandpa's .22, and we fired it twice; once at a little red wagon, and once at a tractor tire. We also made a zip gun in shop, but I don’t recall what we did with it. We discovered lots of whisky in a garage, and I often got drunk in middle school study hall and was recommended to AA by the principal. Baldy hubcaps were the in thing in those days, so we got some for the high school boys and they let us ride around with them, in our leather jackets. We liked to drive by the other middle school and hang chains out the car windows to display how bad we were, but we never got in a fight and were relatively harmless compared to the big city gangs I was reading about at the time. Then Jim and I almost burned down the Episcopalian church one night when we took a break from the Boy Scout meeting to buy Cokes and smoke Lucky Strikes upstairs. The fire was an accident, but I pulled a week in the detention center downtown, where I became a hero because a girl set her locked cell on fire when the wardens were out, and I grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out before she got burned to death. If only I could offset every bad thing I’ve done with a good deed!
I was not really a bad boy at heart, but I reckon I was bad enough to be called a juvenile delinquent. Oh, come to think of it, I did do something very, very bad in grade school. Jim, Clifford, and I peed in the finger paint pots at school. Clifford laughed so hard that our fifth-grade teacher noticed the commotion and asked what was going on. Clifford squealed. The kids all ran to the bathrooms to wash their hands and Jim and I got six whacks each with the paddle that had a hole in it. Okay, I guess I was a juvenile delinquent already in the fifth grade. I'm sorry, I hope the world will forgive me.
Maybe my father was right, but it was not my conscious intention to persecute him by being a juvenile delinquent. I loved him and he loved me, but so what? He was the one who started the vicious circle from which I wanted desperately to escape. I wanted to live in the foster home I had grown accustomed to after my mom died, but he came and got me. I ran away from home several times after that, and finally escaped for good shortly after my thirteenth birthday.
Again, I loved my dad and I'm sure the feeling was mutual. He could not help the way we were and neither could I. He worked years of overtime on construction jobs, laboring to make a home that simply could not work out. The situation was impossible. My stepmother resented and hated me the moment I was brought into her home. Maybe she thought I was a juvenile delinquent instead of the relatively good boy I was when she met me. She wrongly accused me of being a little thief and liar during my first week of residence.
Sometimes I think it is a person’s duty to run away before his or her life gets totally wrecked. My siblings say I got out just in time, before my dad wanted vengeance on his third wife and the world, choosing to prove to everyone in town that he was a woman trapped in a he-man’s body.
My dad was tempted to run away too – he showed me the stack of travelers checks – but he was old fashioned and thought it was his duty to persevere through thick and thin, to provide his family with financial support. So his escape was to drive over to Kansas City on days off and pose as a woman – he was so convincing that a newspaper photographer accosted him and had him pose for an article featuring ladies fall fashions.
I contacted my dad many years after I ran away from home, and we got along famously until he died at 90 – he eventually gave up on being a woman because it was too much work. He said he thought I would have been much better off in an orphanage, but he had promised my mother on her deathbed to take care of me. I recall that he sometimes threatened to send me to an orphanage, and I prayed and prayed to my mother in heaven, my only god, that he would do just that, but he never did, or I probably would be a big shot today.
The first time I ran away from home was at age eleven. I hitchhiked on the turnpike to Lawrence, home of the Jayhawks – critters that fly backwards because they only care where they've been and don't give a damn where they're going. Native Shawnees found me downtown, wandering the main street half-starved, and gave me a helping hand. They fed me and got me a job on a wrecking crew contracted to demolish several buildings at Haskell Indian Nations University.
I worked hard and the work was dangerous. Because of my tender age, I served as a sort of mascot for the crew and as a ‘go-fer’ for the boss - he liked me to climb up on his bulldozer and light his cigars while he rested one boot on my shoulder - sometimes he used my shoulder to scrape the mud off his boots, just to show me and the others who was boss. After work, the men had me pull my hard hat down low over my baby face so I could get into the saloon and drink beer with them - I was already six-foot tall. They showed me a good place to vomit in the alley until I became accustomed to the art of beer guzzling.
The Shawnees had fixed me up good. Once I had the wrecking job, they helped get me a room on credit at a fleabag hotel downtown - one wall of my room was made out of comic-strip pages taped together. They also got the owner of the diner downstairs to give me a meal card. That got me by until I was paid, and I promptly paid off all my debts, just as any other person with a Midwestern work ethic would do.
Unfortunately, our wrecking crew had a disaster after I had been working only three weeks. After salvaging everything of value inside one Haskell building, we brought the building down, alas, on top of all the tools. The boss was cursing like a wrecked man, and he said nobody would get paid that week, so I walked back downtown and over the bridge, and got a night-job erecting the new grain silos.
My job was to fill wheelbarrows up with cement when the buckets were hoisted to the rising tops of the silos, and to pour it around the edges of the silos as the structure got higher and higher. Then I cranked and cranked cranks - I don't remember how that worked, but I was somehow cranking up the silos. The construction company was in a big hurry to finish the job, so I worked overtime every night for thirteen nights in a row. I was to be paid on Saturday night. Good thing too, because my credit was running out downtown. As I walked back over the bridge when I got off Saturday morning, I calculated how much my check would be that night - it would be huge!
Then two squad cars came at me, one from each end of the bridge. The cops jumped out, with guns drawn! I was put down, cuffed, taken to the police station, and tossed roughly into the slammer. I was not about to tell them I had run away from home, so I did the best I could under the circumstances: I told them I was a migrant worker and gave the address of the hotel I was living in. I heard a cop refer to me as "one of the Coffeyville killers."
Well, the law checked out my hotel room and found my dad's driver's license on the dresser - I was a dumb kid and thought I might use it for ID even though he was more than twenty years older than me. Of course they called him and he came right away and sprang me from the cooler. He didn't give me a lecture on the drive back to Topeka - 'topeka' means "a good place to dig potatoes." Funny thing, I got the impression he was kind of proud of me - he had left home at a young age himself during the Great Depression.
I have only one regret about running away from home that first time: I never got paid by the silo contractor. I hitchhiked back to the grain elevators a couple of years later, and the lady said she had no record of me. I returned in 1997 and took a photo of the silos - you can see them when you drive over the bridge from downtown Lawrence. It just isn’t fair that I didn't get paid. I’ll never forget it. I wish I could have that money with interest right now.
That was not the end of my troubled youth, but the reader may be glad to know that I survived long enough to become a good fellow.