15 May, 1967

 Morning dawned bright and clear. My own personal D-day had finally arrived. My emotions were a bittersweet mix, equal parts relief and guilt. My conflicted feelings churned inside of me. I had to put a lid on it, pretend that everything was normal.

I‘d gotten up early, breakfasted and dressed for school. Although in expectation of a warm day, I was wearing three long sleeved shirts, layered over each other, and an equal number of pants.

In my room, I’d put the finishing touches on a farewell note to my parents that said little. What could I say? Only that I was leaving home. I tried to make it clear that it wasn’t their fault.

“I’ll be fine,” I wrote, “Don’t worry about me. I just have to get out on my own.” I didn’t sling any blame. They were difficult to live with, sure, but they couldn’t help it. I felt they were products of this soul-killing society. I needed to escape their fate. I didn’t want to grow up like them, but I didn’t want to be cruel. I needed fresh air, to escape from the confinement of my home and this constricting neighborhood.

“I promise to write you how I am doing when I have the chance.” My words sounded stiff, even to me, but I knew I had to keep it short and to the point. I slipped the note into the top drawer of my dresser, right on top of my underwear. My mother should find it later when she put away my laundry.

I walked through the kitchen to the back door as if it were a normal day, where I froze in panic. Dad was speaking to Mom in the living room. He was usually gone to work by that time of the morning. There was a weary, worried, tone to his voice. Their intense, but hushed, discussion may have gone on throughout the night. Did they suspect that I was up to something, or was it just their relationship on the rocks?

I stood there a moment, poised to open the backdoor and step out into the larger world, straining to make sense of what I heard. Finally, I decided my parent’s conversation had more to do with their on-going marital problems, rather than any suspicion of my leaving.

My father seemed to have no clue as how to win over my mom. I felt sorry for them both. Although my sympathy laid more with mom, her bitter sarcasm and steady drinking didn’t seem like the best coping mechanism. They were both trapped in a tar pit that they only dug into more deeply.

I walked out of the house carrying only my sack lunch. My books were all sitting in my locker in school. I had not bothered doing any of my homework last night. That terror was ended.

Cutting through the vacant lot next door, I stooped to retrieve my gym bag from the undergrowth. Last night I‘d stashed it there along the path. I didn’t want my family to see me carrying it from the house. This bushy field was all that was left of the once extensive prairie that had surrounded our newly built house. I had watched our home being built in 1955, when I was three years old. As my mother and I picnicked under the quince tree in the long grass, we watched my father work. The land was an Eden then, a place of flowers and butterflies, so different from the cramped Chicago apartment we‘d left. My parents had been living with my Mom’s parents when they first married.

The woods and fields had been my refuge in my early years, but they were mostly gone now. The neighborhood had changed; it was filling up with people who cared nothing for the natural environment and screamed at us ‘damn kids’ who cut across their manicured lawns. The homes that had replaced my living woods seemed like mausoleums. They were inhabited by un-neighborly neighbors who remained strangers to each other. Society was a series of private families, hermetically sealed off from each other.

Cutting diagonally through the field to Addison Road, I legged it to the intersection where Addison ended at Irving Park Road. Irving Park was a busy, east-west, commuter highway during morning rush hour. The gas station at the corner was where I caught the school bus. Not today. There was no traffic light, no crosswalk. I took my chance and ran for it across Irving. It was early enough that none of the other school bus riders were there to see me.

I hopped over the half-fallen barbed wire fence and ran across the field of young corn to the railroad tracks beyond. This was one of the last working farms in town. We were rapidly losing our open spaces to development. They were taking the woods out of Wood Dale, which was turning into just another commuter suburb of Chicago.

Reaching the railroad tracks, I turned right and found comfort in my first objective: the tree-shrouded railroad trestle over Salt Creek. It was peaceful, surrounded by whispering willows that protected me from view. I sat, smelling the spring blossoms and listening to the creek gurgling around a line of rocks. I’d often hopped across the creek from one rock to the other, but the spring showers had raised the water level. Crossing would be a damper experience than I needed.

I leaned back against the concrete embankment and gazed into the woods to the north, my back to the busy hubbub of Irving Park. The slowly crawling traffic made me fearful that the drivers would be more attentive to whatever they saw along the way. That could mean trouble.

I had far to go. I’d left false clues behind to throw them off. The World War escape literature I’d read advised exercising patience in making a getaway through enemy country. That’s what this was to me: enemy country. Like a prisoner on the lam, I would lie low during daylight. Seeing a kid, like me, out of school would arouse suspicion. A watchful housewife could make a call to the Truancy officers.

Meanwhile, I need to get as much rest as I could to help pass the time and keep my mind calm, my anxiety in check. That was the key, keeping cool. Breathing exercises helped. I must not appear to be a fugitive.

By this time I should be boarding my school bus. Soon it would be roll call in my first class and I‘d be marked tardy. Then, an hour later, I’d be absent in my second class, but as I’d often cut these classes, it might take a while for the alarm bells to go off and my mother to be phoned.

Mother wouldn’t find the note I left until late afternoon. She’d get a call from the school first. I felt terrible about the anxiety this would cause her, but I couldn’t help it. Some things had to be done regardless of the consequences.

It was getting hotter. I removed the extra clothes I wore and tried to cram them inside my already bursting gym bag. The seams of the cheap, plastic bag were already starting to fray. My gym bag was jammed full to bursting with supplies: A few changes of underwear, a wind-up alarm clock, two pocket knives, ten small cans of Sterno, which I’d pilfered from the restaurant I’d worked at and more than ten packets of Carnation Instant Breakfasts.

The last item took up most of the space in my small bag. As I used them up along the way I’d eventually have room for the extra clothes I wore.

I rifled through my gear, weighing the value of each item. I folded my brand new pair of white pants carefully and left them on the concrete side of the trestle, hoping some wondering hobo would find them.

I didn’t carry water. No liquid to quench my thirst. My training regimen had toughened me to where I knew I could go over twenty-four hours before needing a drink. In this cool weather I wouldn’t sweat too much. By the second day I’d be far enough out to venture into a store for milk for my Instant Breakfasts. I’d tried drinking them with cold water. Yuck, that wouldn’t work except in a dire emergency. If need be I could look for an outside water tap.

As the morning rush hour died down, I began walking west along the railroad tracks. They were parallel, but some distance from the highway and most houses. With studied nonchalance I strolled out of Wood Dale and through Itasca. My heart raced as I crossed the still busy Route 53, desperately hoping not to arouse the interest of passing patrolmen. I made it through the hamlet of Medina to Roselle.

At first I was hidden from a clear view of the road. Gradually the road angled closer and the trees thinned. I felt naked, walking in plain sight. Could they tell my age as they cruised by? I needed to appear insignificant, invisible. What should I do if a cop pulled over? Run or brazen it out?

Just beyond Roselle, after putting about six miles behind me, I encountered a delightful blind of poplar saplings to my right. Cover at last. I would stick to my plan and lie low. Slipping into this forest of shimmering leaves, I dropped and pulled out my collapsible binoculars. Low crawling from one vantage point to another within this little green island, I studied the approaches, making sure that I was not being followed.

I amused myself by scanning the houses and yards surrounding my haunt. Laundry flapped in the breeze in the backyards of the neighborhood to my north. It was a homey sight, nothing amiss. No reason to fear discovery this early in the day. I wasn’t tired. It was hard to doze through the rest of that long afternoon. Time ticked slowly by. Each passing second was like a drop of my life’s blood draining away. Feelings of panic arose that I suppressed.

“Patience,” I told myself soothingly, reassuring that part of my mind that wanted to bolt. “Patience, learn to wait.” I must dull, not excite, my mind. Even though time was wasting, I should not break cover too soon. That could blow the whole thing.

Finally, the distant banging of screen doors and yelling children told me that school was out. Still I waited. Dinnertime came and went. Then dusk gathered. I could safely proceed.

As I walked west along the tracks the moonless night grew much darker than I’d expected. I’d given no thought to the phases of the moon, a serious oversight. I became frazzled from stumbling over stones and unevenly laid railroad ties and I was cold. I’d planned to walk all night, but it was not yet midnight when I stopped at a tiny wooden shack, right next to the tracks. I had to get out of the cold wind.

Freezing, I put on all of my clothes, even pulling the cotton tee shirts over my long-sleeved shirts for extra warmth. I curled my legs up to my chin and squeezed my frame against the dirty plank wall. I lay on the dirty wooden floor. The shack was meant only to shelter a standing man. There was barely enough room to sit, much less lie in the cramped square. I’d rest only a few minutes, I told myself. I’d carry on in better shape after a snooze.

Worried about hypothermia, I remembered the story I’d heard of a local boy. He ran away only to freeze to death in a barn. I lit one of my Sterno Canned Heat paraffin cans. Disappointing. It didn’t give nearly the heat, nor last as long as I‘d hoped.

My rest was shattered regularly by the thundering roar and earth shaking vibration of passing trains. They barreled by, only feet from my ears. Sleep had to be counted in shivering moments.

Such an awful lot of noise. How did people living nearby stand it? That was no place to rest and I couldn’t get warm. I owed it to that dead runaway boy to succeed and prove that there was a chance of success, of escape. We didn’t have to be victims all our lives.

My parents would be frantic by that time. The thought gnawed at me. Despite everything, imperfect as they were, I loved them. But I had to push them out of my mind. I couldn’t help it; leaving was something I had to do. My survival was at stake. There was no guarantee I’d survive this escape, but I repeatedly reminded myself that I wouldn’t survive staying put. We all had to harden ourselves to survive. Losing me would be good for them in the long run. My parents had five daughters to raise. As the only boy, I was the odd one out. They would have to focus on raising the girls until I was old enough to be beyond their control. I could return, or get back in touch then.

My grandparents were another matter. This would be especially hard on them, but I knew Grandpa, who’d also run away at fifteen, would understand. There was no sense torturing myself with how my absence would be torturing them. It was fate, an act of nature like a tornado. Better that they have an absent grandson, then a dead one. I knew the dangers. I may not survive this flight from home, but it was my best chance.

To steel myself I had to invoke my warrior heroes, Indians like Crazy Horse of the Sioux and especially those hard-bitten soldiers on the Russian Front. I would become like them. In an impossible situation, with death staring us in the face, we simply had to steel ourselves, suck it up and do what we had to. The present moment produced immediate concerns that I had to rouse myself to focus on.

Back on the tracks, I jogged for warmth, still shivering and tripping over the odd railroad tie. I had to reach my first objective in the darkness before dawn.

Tuesday, May 16. Bartlett, Illinois 

The sky began to lighten with streaks of red. I could better make out the shapes around me. A white sign stood beside the tracks. Its black letters spelled out “Bartlett.”

It was my “phase one objective.”

Bartlett was only about six miles beyond Roselle, where I’d waited for darkness. Under normal conditions it should have taken three hours at most. This last stretch had taken too long. The railroad tracks began to curve north towards the larger city of Elgin.

A railroad trestle loomed before me. It appeared ghastly in the eerie pre-dawn light. This was my place to cross the broad Fox River. I crouched and cautiously studied it. There was a control tower on the trestle. I didn’t know if it was manned at this hour, or if I’d be visible to whoever was up there. I scanned the area for signs of guards or workmen. Finally I was satisfied; there didn’t seem to be anyone around.

Warily, I crossed over the great wooden structure, grateful to be on the far side of the river. I was giddy with joy. The new day brought its own bright confidence. On the other side of the bridge I left the railroad to head due south along the river.

The morning traffic was already increasing along the roads. My plan called for me to hide through the day along the Fox River. There should be some concealing woods along the bank. The area was more urban than I imagined from the maps I’d studied. People would soon be waking up to their breakfast and daily routines.

The Centerfold

I found a small greenbelt. What a relief to be back in the woods. Unfortunately, it extended only a short distance down the West Bank of the Fox. I came upon a boy’s clubhouse concealed in the trees. It was only about six square feet, but sturdily built with odd scraps of tongue and groove lumber. They probably purloined it from a construction site, just as my friends and I had done to build ours. It was a well built structure that I wouldn’t mind inhabiting indefinitely if I could find a way to make a living.

In curious awe, I looked inside. There was no furniture on the warped plywood floor. The smell of fresh sawdust, mixed with the spring flora outside created a pleasing scent. Prominently tacked to the far wall was a lasciviously smiling nude, a Playboy centerfold. This shack was a boy’s temple to sex, holy Pornography. This, after my long night’s march, was a most welcome sight.

The lady in the centerfold was a well endowed brunette, kneeling sideways and smiling engagingly at the camera. Her large breasts were pertly pointed, poking through an open negligee in a beguiling way. It was as if she was inviting me to join her and I did. This was the perfect place to wait out daylight.

I almost forgot my plight as I fell to my knees on the plywood floor. She was all I could hope for in a woman. If only she was real. A knight errant, such as I imagined myself, needed the blessing and affectionate tokens of his lady to embark on a quest. This mute woman became my muse. As if in a mystic temple, I worshiped at this shrine of my desire.

My guardian spirits had surely led me there. They were encouraging me on my quest. Somewhere out in New Orleans I would find such a beautiful woman. That quickened my pulse. I should have been bone tired, but I was on edge, full of adrenaline and desire. Inspired by the fantasy before me, I hungered for the real thing, a live girl.

After a few sleepless hours I arose, more stimulated than refreshed. Although it was still too early in the morning, I felt time was wasting. I should have waited for darkness, but I couldn’t relax.

The last shielding trees ended. Controlling my nerves, I wound through streets that were not empty enough. Should I return and hole up in the boy’s clubhouse for the rest of the day? Retracing my steps could appear suspicious and I hated to retreat. Moving on, my teeth clenched as I encouraged myself.

“Get a grip on yourself,” I whispered, forcing a grin on my mug, very much the opposite of how I felt. I had to be like the characters in my books. I was behind enemy lines in search of no-man‘s-land.

The populous city of St. Charles straddled the banks the Fox River right up to the waterline. I had to turn away from it. Due west ought to be open country. In an overgrown weed lot on the edge of town I forced myself to lay low and wait for nightfall.

Switching my twelve pound bag from one arm to the other reduced the strain. Alternately I tucked it under an arm, or put it on my shoulder as I forged ahead. It was all I could do to minimize muscle soreness. It was a workout, a good thing I’d gotten myself in shape over the past year. My boy scout back pack would have been ideal, but it would give me away as a boy on a journey. Except for stubbed toes, my feet were holding up.

I had to talk tough to myself, be my own coach. Coach Townsend had pushed us hard. Tormented us as we ran and did calisthenics, but their verbal abuse was exactly what I needed to hang in there. Their words came back to me as I channeled their voices to urge me on.

“Suck it up and keep going, ladies!” they mocked us as we ran. “What are you a bunch of cry-baby pansies? My grandma can run up that hill faster than you!”

Coach Townsend laid out our future in a pep talk after practice.

You boys may think that in this modern world, you won’t need the stamina we’re training into you. Well, I guarantee that many of you are going straight to Vietnam after you graduate. You’ll need some damn grit to make it there. Even if that war winds down by that time, don’t kid yourselves, there’s bound to be another and you draft age boys had better be ready. You’ll thank me when you’re cut off by the enemy, exhausted and hungry. You’ll think you’re finished, hungry, thirsty, exhausted. You’ll imagine that you‘ve pushed yourselves as far as you could go, that you‘ll let the enemy have you. Then you’ll remember my ugly face yelling at you and you’ll reach deep down inside your guts for that last ounce of effort. You will rise and pull yourself through.

Desperation was the best motivator. I had no illusions about my future. If they caught me I would be sent to Reform School.

 

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