The First Time I Ran Away From Home

First Time Photo

Frustrated Juvenile Delinquent

THE FIRST TIME I RAN AWAY FROM HOME

BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS

I don’t believe I was born a bad boy. I don’t believe in original sin that much. Every kid in this prison we call the world is born innocent. My mother died a few months after I was born.  I believed in no god except her, so I always prayed to her. She continued to watch over me so I did not wind up dead or in prison.

I must have been a good boy originally. My first stepmother liked me so much that she tried to kidnap me when she broke up with my father. He found me and put me in a rather liberal foster home for awhile. I learned to like it. An older boy there, who wore a brown leather jacket and jeans hung low, was my role model. He was like a brother to me. We played marbles, smoked cigs, ran around town unsupervised, hung out at the swimming pool, attended triple-feature matinees.  He began my sex education with the little girl next door I was 8 and she 7. I accidently broke his arm when we were wrestling on the roof of the garage and he rolled off. I was sorry to learn after I left the foster home that he and his girlfriend were decapitated in a collision with a freight train.

My dad took me away from my beloved foster home when he remarried. My second stepmother hated me so much that she eventually made my father rent a room across the street from school for me. I was a fifth grader there. He gave me an allowance for food, and I earned more money raking leaves and watering lawns. Alone in my room, I listened to Elvis Presley records on my little record player, slicked my hair back with Brylcreem, sang along and imagined that I would be a rock star – Jailhouse Rock and Are You Lonesome Tonight were my favorites. Gene Vincent was my idol before Presley. Johnny Mathis would replace Presley after I ran away from home the second time. Misty was my favorite. I was a frustrated crooner.

I smoked cigs and drank before I was a teenager. I had found some half-empty bottles of whisky and rum out of a garage as I walked to grade school in the alley one morning. I got so drunk I passed out in class one morning. The principal said I should attend AA meetings.
One evening in my room I finished off the rum I had found in the garage. I went out to eat my favorite dish, Salisbury steak, at the diner. I cop saw me staggering around, and order me to come to his squad car. I leaned in the window on the passenger side and accidentally vomited on the car seat and passed out. The cops called my dad and he carried me back to my room. He said I had identified myself as Nikita Khrushchev at the police station.

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. That figures, as he had been an MP during the war. I recall that I had eaten a juicy dill pickle while watching the Western movie, Shane, but I do not remember that I had done anything 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 an amateur JD.

Jim, my partner in delinquency, a Mormon boy who would eventually have two wives, and I were bad chemistry put together. We broke some garage windows. With his assistance, I used my new chemistry set to make some ink to toss onto a garage wall. I was caught and had to paint the garage. I got myself a cheap switchblade knife like his, which soon fell apart. We snuck into the movies without paying and saw taboo flicks like Blackboard Jungle.

Jim got ahold of his grandpa’s .22. We fired it twice, once at a little red wagon, and once at a tractor tire. We made a zip gun in shop, but I don’t recall what we did with it. We discovered lots of whisky in a garage, so I often got drunk in middle school study hall and was recommended to AA by the principal.

Baldy hubcaps were the thing in those days, so we stole some from one gang of high school boys for another gang of high school boys to put on their jalopies. In return, they let us ride around with them in our brown 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 harmless compared to the big city gangs I was reading about at the time.

Jim and I and one sidekick or another would occasionally sneak into a house when the residents were out. We only looked around, never stealing or damaging anything. That is scary for me to think about here. I cannot imagine violating someone’s home. I suppose we were incipient burglars.

Then Jim and I almost burned down the cathedral one night when we took a break from the Boy Scout meeting to drink Cokes and smoke Lucky Strikes in the loft. 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 bed in a locked cell on fire when the wardens were out; I grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out as she clung to the bars. 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, my black pal, 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.

I had already been whacked because, one day, I was curious, and touched Anne in the wrong place when she was hanging upside down in the gym—we would eventually become a number, and kiss in the alley.

Okay, I guess I was a juvenile delinquent already in the fifth grade. I’m sorry: I hope the world will forgive me because at heart I was really a good boy.

Maybe my father was right about me. However, it was not my conscious intention to persecute him by being a juvenile delinquent. I loved him and he loved me. 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. I heard her screaming at my father, “Get rid of him!” on the first night I was there. Maybe she thought I was a juvenile delinquent instead of the relatively good boy I was when she met me. She wrongly accused me stealing a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of underpants, and lying about it, 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 wreaked vengeance on my stepmother, 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 a stack of travelers’ checks, and said he could leave town at any time. Yet 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 his 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; however, he said 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 the step of 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. He said nobody would get paid that week. I said to hell with that, 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. You see, 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, which the Shawnee say 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. However, he did accuse me of persecuting him the next day. Maybe he had good reason to be paranoid; maybe that was what I was doing, albeit unwittingly.

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 and am endeavoring to become as good as I can be.

Lawrence, Kansas 1997

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