“We’ll let you know when we get to Mexico!”
With that, Dick and I walked away from our girlfriends and our high school picnic and onto two lanes of blacktop just outside of Lakeville, Minnesota. We were 14 years old, had about $50 between us, and were leaving our boring lives attending a Lutheran high school in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the open road and eventually Mexico. We were running away.
We made a clean getaway. No one knew our plans except our girlfriends, Bonnie and Donna. They’d been sworn to secrecy. As the busses loaded to take the school’s students back to campus after the yearend picnic, the teachers neglected to take a head count. So it wasn’t until the busses arrived back at the school a couple hours later that they found out we were missing.
By then, Dick and I had hitched rides down miles of country roads, and the scent was dead. We were getting close to Northfield, Minnesota, following our plans to take the back roads south, staying off Interstate 35, but crisscrossing it so we’d stay headed the right direction. Our backpacks held a map of the United States, a compass, and copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that I’d checked out from my hometown public library in Stillwater, Minnesota, with no intention of returning it.
What turned a farm kid from a small town – me – and a city kid from a big city – Dick – into cohorts on a teen runaway adventure? I had my reasons. I’d been bounced around schools for the past three years as my parents tried to find a place where my attraction to turmoil, truancy, and trouble might be mitigated. I insisted that I didn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble always found me. They didn’t buy it.
First stop after eighth grade at Stillwater Junior High was ninth grade at a Lutheran school in Maplewood, Minnesota. Going from a class of hundreds to a ninth grade class of 20 was a jolt. Though hardly a religious soul, I found new comfort in the daily meditations, studying biblical history, and the ubiquitous Lutheran fellowship that included hayrides, roller skating parties, and music. Lutherans I grew up with were always singing and playing instruments. I played piano for the choir and trumpet in the small, but award-winning school band. If Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon comes to mind, you’re not far off.
As this school only went to ninth grade, however, my parents arranged for me to attend tenth grade with our pastor’s son and daughter at a Lutheran high school in St. Paul, a rather long daily commute from our farm in Stillwater. My 14-year-old persona turned going from the top of the pile in ninth grade to bottom of the heap in the tenth into a provocation. I discovered that many of the students at this small school were there for the same reason I was: they had a penchant for insubordination, incorrigibility, and disdain for authority. We troublemakers found each other immediately. To boot, this Lutheran school was part of an evangelical synod, which just begged resistance and rebellion.
I was in trouble from my first day, when a teacher pulled me aside in the hallway and told me to go immediately to the bathroom and tuck in my shirt. I had the audacity to ask “why.” It was downhill from there, and the stage was set for another trouble maker, Dick, and me to thumb our noses and go on the run. The final straw was when the school principal called me into his office and slapped me across the face because I wouldn’t “wipe that smile off your face.”
Now here we were, on the road, and committed to the run. As night was falling, we were getting hungry and thinking about where we were going to sleep. Hadn’t really factored that into our planning, but runaways are resourceful. Our last ride of the day dropped us in the small town of Cannon City, just outside Faribault, Minnesota. It was early June, so the days were long and the weather was fine. We stopped at a small grocery store and bought a loaf of bread and some summer sausage for dinner. We dined en plein air in a park by the side of the town’s lake, then walked to the edge of town where under cover of darkness, we appropriated the front and back seats of a large old car in the back row of a used car lot. We slept well, in spacious comfort, and woke early. We finished the last of the bread and sausage for breakfast and put our feet on the road once again.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.” – Robert Frost.
Our first ride was with a farmer in a beat-up pickup truck.
“Where you boys headed?”
We smiled at each other. Now began the fun. We had just been given license to lie through our teeth! We couldn’t let on what our plans really were, so we lied, and lied, and lied. We made up everything. We made up our names. We made up where we were from. We made up where we were going. We made up why we had left where we were from and why we were going to our fictitious destination, always just beyond where our driver would drop us off. We told each of our rides completely different stories. Sickly aunts, uncles who’d just died, parents who’d dropped us off and were meeting us later, life stories that were pure fantasy, stories of lost family wealth, stories of heartache and sorrow. We faked our accents. Dick could do a great British accent, so he was from London. Or Ireland. Thanks to my aunt and uncle, I did a mean Texas drawl. We really were incredible liars.
I don’t know if anyone believed us. It didn’t matter. That day one of our rides shared his lunch with us, and another bought us more bread and sausage for supper at a small store. We’d bypassed Faribault and Owatonna on the back roads, and we were now just north of Albert Lea. Our last ride dropped us near a freeway entrance. There was no town nearby, so we started walking down an adjacent country road. It was getting dark, and there were no towns, or even houses or farms. We came across a deserted portion of the freeway that was under construction and decided to take shelter for the night under a partially completed overpass.
As we settled into our concrete cave, it grew increasingly colder. We curled up in our jackets and pulled some of the few clothes we brought along for warmth and insulation from the ground. We had packed our bags for Mexico, not Minnesota.
Eventually, we both fell into a troubled sleep. Then we woke to a sound. It seemed to be coming from directly over us on the overpass bridge. Then we heard it again. Could it be someone walking around up there? Was it the police? Had they found us? Or was it…what? A criminal escaped from prison? A wild animal? A werewolf? An ax murderer?
We froze in stillness, afraid to move lest we give away our position. We conversed in whispers. We remained wide awake until morning. The sound was still there. Summoning up courage from the depth of our souls and using extreme stealth, we crawled on our bellies to gain a vantage point and see what the hell was up there. As we slowly, slowly peered over the side of the bridge we saw it.
An empty paper concrete bag flapping in the breeze.
We smiled, then we started laughing. We laughed so hard tears were running down our grimy faces. We had been held down all night by a paper bag!
We got back on the road and started walking, thumbs out. Almost immediately a car stopped to pick us up. The driver opened the door and took a long look at us.
“What on earth are you boys doing out in the middle of nowhere this morning?”
Now we woke up. Time to do our best improv duo for the nice man in the car. We did “lost boys.”
“We’re on our way to visit our grandparents in Albert Lea. I’m Bob and this is my brother Brian. Our parents let us off just down the road because mom felt sick so dad was going to bring her to the doctor. We didn’t want to wait, so dad said we could go ahead. Well, we musta’ took a wrong turn back there, but if you could drop us off at the next town, we’ll call our grandparents and they can come pick us up.”
“Why sure, boys, there’s a little town just ahead. Do you want me to call your grandparents for you from the pay phone there?”
“Oh, no sir. I have a dime for the phone. We’ll be just fine.”
We washed up at a gas station and bought more bread and sausage at the grocery store. A loaf of Wonder Bread was about 20 cents, so our meals were costing us about a dollar a day. We put a couple candy bars in our pockets as we walked out the door. We figured we’d be good until we got to Mexico, where we could just eat the fruit off the trees. That afternoon we crossed into Iowa at Emmons. Our last ride brought us into the sleepy little town of Lake Mills. Just four states to go.
It was still early in the evening, so we decided to see if we could get one more ride. We were getting pretty crafty. We watched to see if oncoming cars might be police cars. We hadn’t seen any so far. But when we looked closer, we could see a car with those bubblegum machines on top coming down the road. We jumped off the shoulder and ran into the bushes. As soon as the police car passed, we got back on the road.
Well, two boys jumping into the bushes at the sight of a police car roused the officer’s curiosity, so he’d turned around and come up from the other side when our backs were turned.
“Hello, boys. You’re not from here. What are you doing in Lake Mills today? Come on over and hop in the car so we can talk.”
I was pretty sure we weren’t going to be able to lie our way out of this, but that didn’t prevent us from giving our best effort. We started with false names, relatives in the next town, etc. The officer wasn’t having any of it.
“Let’s see. Those names don’t ring a bell. How about these names?”
He already had our names. Should have known.
If there was a flaw in our plan, it was that Dick’s father was the chief of detectives at the St. Paul Police Department. So when our little adventure was discovered, every police department in the five-state area was notified. If you remember Car 54, it was an APB – an All-Points Bulletin. Two runaway boys. One’s dad is a St. Paul police detective. Find them.
“We’re notifying your father, Dick, and he’s going to come down to pick you up. He’s been expecting the call. Congratulations! You made it quite a ways. As you are both a flight risk, we’re going bring you to our jail and lock you up. We don’t have anyone in jail right now except Carl, our town drunk, so you’ll have the place to yourself. We’ll get you supper, and there’s a shower. Then you’re going home.”
My first thought: please leave us in jail. When we get home we are going to be in so much trouble. When we get back to school, we are going to be in so much trouble. We are in trouble, right now.
It was a comfortable jail. There were two officers on duty. They brought us a hot Midwestern supper with generous portions from a local restaurant – thankfully, not sausage – and they sent Carl out to buy us a six-pack of Coca-Cola. It was about midnight when Dick’s parents arrived. They were very calm. I’m sure they were mad, but they were more relieved than anything. They’d brought snacks for the long drive back to St. Paul. Dick’s dad drove a big white Chrysler Imperial sedan, so we were both asleep in the back seat almost instantly. We woke up at Dick’s house, where they fed us breakfast and we all had a little, ahem, talk. My parents arrived an hour or so later. I could tell my mother was seething, but my Dad just smiled and said, “Well, Steven, how was your little journey.” My little journey. As I was likely to be grounded for the next year, it was going to be my last one for a while.
We were back at school the next day. More long conversations. The teachers stared daggers into our hearts. The principal of the school asked me if I was planning on attending this school the next year. Nope. No way. He said that would make it simple because he would not then have to go to the trouble of denying a request for my return.
When they let us lose into the halls for our classes, we found that we had become legends in our own time. Upper classmen came up to us and said: You two have balls of steel! Our girlfriends hung on our arms, and the other girls were all smiles, with come hither looks. We retold our story over and over, enhancing it as we went. We got a ride with a race car driver who was going 100 mph, the bag flapping on the bridge became an old man with a shotgun firing at us as we ran away in the dark of night, and the police officers in that little town in Iowa told us they were locking us up for good and throwing away the keys. Or something like that.
The next year I was back at Stillwater High School, as a junior. Four schools in four years. I was on a first name basis with every school counselor.
That would be the end of the story, but several years later when I was attending the University of Minnesota, I ran into Dick on campus. He looked exactly the same. He was majoring in criminal justice – going to be a detective just like his dad. We went out for beers several times and remained good friends until our paths once again parted.
One of the last times I saw him, Dick said, “Hey, Steve – let’s run away again. I’ve never had so much fun!”