Friday, September 11, 2009

Chapter 10 - Eggsactly the Wrong Car

If I left my house and walked down Linglestown Road toward the river, I’d come to an old tunnel that cars had to drive through. Linglestown Road was a tiny country road, one lane in each direction, hilly and dangerous. It was the only road in the area that people could use to get to town, so there were always a lot of cars on it.

But the road was a super highway compared to the tunnel. These days, laws won’t allow such traffic hazards. It was dark, about 50 yards long, had a slight dog-leg curve to it so you couldn’t see all the way through it, and it leaked water from above down onto the roadway and the cars that drove through. We referred to it as “the underpass.”

If I wanted to walk to Siggy’s house, I had to negotiate this underpass. Walking through it was a real no-no. My father would say, “if I ever hear that you walked through there I’ll spank you so hard that you won’t be able to sit down for six months.” Truth be told, my father NEVER ever spanked me or hit me in any way. Never ever. But I knew what he meant when he said that. If you tried to walk on the roadway, you would be dead before you got to the other side.

First of all, everybody that drove through there honked their horn. You couldn’t tell if another car was coming toward your car because of the dog-leg, so people honked to let oncoming traffic know they were there. And the road was barely wide enough for two cars at the same time anyway, and the walls on both sides of the road were scarred where cars hit the sides all the time. If a mouse tried to walk through there the same time opposing cars drove through, he’s be a goner for sure.

So instead of walking through on the roadway, I’d climb up the side of the embankment and scurry up to the top where the Pennsylvania Railroad trains would travel on their way across the country. If I walked north on the tracks, I could get to the famous Rockville Bridge (the world’s longest stone arch bridge -- see Chapter 2) in about 30 minutes. If I walked south, I could get to Siggy’s house in about 20 minutes.

If I stayed right there on top of the overpass, I could look down at the cars entering and exiting the tunnel. I would lay down on the ground so the drivers couldn’t see me, and get as close to the edge as possible and look straight down. The train tracks were just far enough away from where we’d be laying that we didn’t have to get up and run when one would come past us. The noise was exhilarating, and the entire surface of the ground above the underpass would vibrate like an earthquake. We had never experienced an earthquake, but we were sure it had to be like that! And if the engineer driving the train saw us, he’s blow and blow and blow that train whistle and it would be 15 minutes until we could hear again.

Sometimes for boyish fun, Siggy or Mark or Steve and I would lie there, in ambush, waiting for a car to come out of the tunnel. We couldn’t see the car coming, but we could hear it, and we’d try to time it perfectly so that as soon as the car exited the tunnel, we could drop an egg down onto the car and hit it on its roof. Most of the time we missed, and the egg would splat on the road, or worse, someone’s windshield or back window.

Every now and then, we could hear the driver slam on his brakes and pull over. They’d get out of their car and look up toward where we’d be hiding and laughing, but they couldn’t see us.

On one occasion, a car stopped and three teenagers jumped out of their car. They looked up to where they figured the eggs came from, and they started to climb up to where we were. Fortunately for us, a train was coming, so we ran to the other side of the tracks and the train was between them and us before the three of them made it to the top. We ran down the other side and hid before they could get back into their car and drive back through the tunnel and find us.

On Halloween night in 1965, when I was 14, my mother dropped me off at my friend Mark’s house on her way to play bridge with some of her friends. I had a pillowcase to hold all my candy, and a not very scary Wolfman mask. Mark and I were going to spend the night being kids and getting free candy.

 We met up with our friend Siggy, and we started out like nice boys, going door to door as was the custom. Siggy’s house was in a neighborhood where the houses were all right next to each other, so we could hit about one house every minute or two. I had been doing this same Halloween “run” for years, and I knew I’d have a lot of candy quickly.

Within an hour or so, it was very dark, and we had all the goodies we felt like carrying. My pillowcase contained at least 20 pounds of LifeSavers, Lik-m-Aids, Pez, Milky Ways, Sugar Daddies and apples. We threw the apples away and hid everything else on the back porch at Siggy’s house, and then went out, in the dark, to do what teen age kids sometimes do on Halloween -- pranks.

Siggy was a brainiac and he was always into science experiments. In his pocket he had a bottle of powdered magnesium that he said was very dangerous, so he wouldn’t let me touch it. But he sprinkled a trail of it across a residential street, and we hid behind a big oak tree, waiting for the next car to come along. We didn’t have to wait long, and soon enough a car slowly approached the ribbon of magnesium. Siggy waited, giggling like a little girl, and when the car was just a few yards away, he lit his end of the powder trail. Within a nanosecond, the brightest flash of light that I have ever seen, even to this day, stretched all the way across the road. The driver of the car slammed his brakes on, and we took off running and laughing.

 We ran for a couple of blocks, and then saw my friend Phil. He had a four goose eggs he had taken from his next-door neighbor’s farm. He said he was going to go down to the underpass and drop his eggs on cars. 

Goose eggs are about three times the size of a chicken egg. If you throw one at somebody, it’s like hitting them with a baseball. Phil gave each of us an egg, and he kept one for himself, and the four of us walked over to the train tracks and followed those tracks for about 15 minutes until we arrived, front and center, above the underpass.

 It was now about 10 PM, and there were not many cars coming through the tunnel. Each of us had just one egg and only one chance to bomb a car, so we wanted to make sure our toss would not be in vain.

We had agreed that we would all drop our eggs on the same car, and we waited, the four of us lying prone on the ground, for the first available opportunity. Within a few minutes, we could hear that a car had entered the tunnel on the other side, and we held our eggs over the edge on our side, hoping our timing would be perfect. We’d splatter that car with four big goose eggs.

We waited for what seemed like forever, but in reality it was only about 10 seconds. Then Phil excitedly bellowed, “bombs away!” We all let our eggs go at the same time, and all four hit that car on top of the hood. The noise was much louder that I had expected, and it sounded like a car crash.

Instantly, the driver pulled over, probably thinking he hit something, and walked to the front of the car. In the headlights, we could see that it wasn’t a man, it was a lady. But not just any lady. It was my mother. We had just plastered my mother’s Lincoln Continental with four huge goose eggs.

We quietly watched her as she looked all over the front of the car. Seeing no damage, she got back into the car and drove off, headed toward home.
The four of us got up from our prone position and as if on cue, we all started to laugh like madmen. To this day, when I think of this event, I can’t help but laugh so hard that I cry.

I was supposed to sleep at Mark’s house that night, but I thought about it for about 30 seconds and decided to walk home. My parents were still up when I entered my house, and I kissed them both good-night and went upstairs to my bedroom. When I awoke the next morning, I made an excuse about having to get something from the garage. I made my way to my mother’s car, then excitedly ran back into the kitchen where my mother was cooking breakfast and I shouted, “Hey Mom!! It looks like someone egged your car last night!”

“WHAT??” she replied, and ran down to the garage to check out her car. I showed her what I had “discovered” and she was furious. She told me that after driving through the underpass on her way home after playing bridge last night, she heard a noise and thought she might have hit something. She said she was very upset at first, because she thought she may have hit a child who was out trick-or-treating. She related how she got out of her car and looked all around, but seeing nothing and no damage, she drove home, relieved that she hadn’t killed anyone.

My mother knew I was counting the days until I could get my driver’s license. I still had two years to go, and couldn’t stand waiting! Like all red-blooded American boys, I wanted to drive NOW. That morning I told her that if she would let me back her car out of the garage and put it in the driveway, I would wash her car for her. She agreed, and my sweet mother died 40 years later, never knowing that it was my friends and me who bombed her car that night.


Friday, September 4, 2009

Chapter 9 - Hold the Elevator Door, Please

One of my friends that went to prep school with me was named Bruce. We both began going to the school at the same time, and we had grown up together in Harrisburg, too. I didn’t know that Bruce would be going to the same prep school, but I was happy to see him on the first day of classes. I was thrilled to actually know someone else here – most of our class of eleventh graders began going to this school as elementary school students in the first grade. They all knew each other very well, and I was worried they wouldn’t accept me as an equal.

One other new student on the first day of school was a very beautiful and cool girl named Susie. I fell in love with her the minute I first saw her. Susie and I had a lot of fun together during our years at the prep school, and to their credit, all of the original class accepted Bruce, Susie and me right away.

My entire senior class only included 13 students. And that was one of the larger classes. My older brother’s class only had eight! So the classes were very small at our school, with a great teacher-to-student ratio. We were all close with most of our teachers, and we’d sometimes go to their homes and study with them, or have dinner with them.

One of my classes was American History, and I was always captivated by stories about the early days of colonial America. There were signs all over the Harrisburg area saying “George Washington slept here” or “Abraham Lincoln met somebody important here.”

American History was always one of my favorite classes, and I hated classes. In the sixth grade, I had a girlfriend named Fran who did my homework for me, and from that year forward, I always looked for a way to make going to school a little less work and a lot more fun.

One Friday our American History teacher gave the class an assignment that required each of us to spend the weekend photographing any five of these local historical signs, and then write an essay describing the event mentioned in each sign and how it impacted early American history.

At a very early age, my mother and father encouraged me to take photographs. My first camera was a Brownie Still Camera by Kodak. It was almost as big as I was. I used to love taking pictures with it, then waiting with such anticipation for a week while the film was being developed.

By the time I was 10, I had a very cool camera that I could hide in my pocket – a classic Minox. When my father gave it to me, around 1962, it was just after the James Bond movies started showing in all of the movie theaters. Dad told me it was a spy camera, which it really was! I took it with me to the New York World’s Fair and all of the pictures I have of those memories were taken with that Minox.

So I had no problem with the photographing part of the assignment – it was the essay part that bothered me. On my drive home from school that Friday afternoon, I came up with a plan to make this assignment more palatable.

When I got home, I called my teacher and told her that our family had to go to Washington, DC that weekend, and asked if it would it be alright if I took photographs of signs that were in Washington instead of Harrisburg. My teacher said that would be fine with him, and I was off and running.

Then I told my parents that I had to go to Washington, DC for a school assignment. I explained about needing photographs, blah blah blah and finally asked if I could use one of their credit cards so I could stay in a motel somewhere near Washington.

Now Washington was only about 80 miles from Harrisburg, but hey, I wanted to have some fun if possible and stay overnight. A little reluctantly, they agreed and my father gave me his Esso gas credit card. Not only could I get gas, but I could now stay in any hotel whose logo was on the back of the card!

Early the next morning I was all packed and ready to begin my adventure. I called Bruce the night before at his house and told him what I was doing. Asking him if he wanted to go with me was like asking a child if they wanted a lollipop. Bruce told his parents the same made up story I told mine, and by 8 AM I had picked him up in my VW and we were on the road to Washington DC! Just the two of us, my cameras and about 10 pounds of munchies -- Twinkies, Good N’ Plenty’s, Hershey’s Kisses and Mallo Cups.

To tell the truth, Bruce was my second choice to take with me. Susie was my first choice, and holy cow, did I ever want to spend 48 hours in a row with her! But Susie’s father was the chemistry teacher at our school, and he certainly knew our American History teacher. There was no way Susie would be able to tell her father my made-up story about having to go to Washington DC for a class assignment, so I was off to DC with Bruce.

We arrived in Washington around 10 AM and drove around for a while, grooving on all of the strange traffic circles and trying to find old historical signs to photograph. After a few hours we both had taken all the pictures we needed for our assignment and began to look for lodging. When we were within spitting distance of the White House, we came upon a magnificent old hotel called the St. Regis. I looked at Bruce and said, “Brucie, I think this place is worthy of us!”

I drove my red Volkswagen right up to the front doors and a bellman, dressed like the bellmen dressed in old Marx Brothers movies, opened my driver’s door and said “Welcome to the St Regis, gentlemen. Will you be staying with us this evening?”

I stepped out of the car and showed  him the back side of my father’s Esso credit card, asking  him if this hotel was one of the hotels that honored this card. He said it was, and we were in! Bruce and I walked into the unbelievable lobby, and within ten minutes, we were in our room on the third floor.

And what a nice room it was! I’m sure my parents figured I’d be staying at a Best Western or a Travel Lodge, but they raised me to aim higher than expected, to stand above the crowd, to be the best I could always be. Plus, the room was free – all I had to do was show them the Esso card.

I think the room rate was somewhere around $120 per night back then in 1969. That’s like $800 in today’s money. But the room WAS very plush – incredibly soft bed, gorgeous furniture, and we could see the Washington Monument from our window.

Bruce and I surveyed our surroundings, and then Bruce said, “Hey, let’s make a movie!” He had an old Brownie camera, too, but Bruce’s Brownie was a movie camera. To take a movie, you had to wind the camera up by hand. If you didn’t keep winding it up while shooting a scene, eventually the camera would simply stop, and you’d have to wind it up again. But Bruce was very proficient with his Brownie movie camera, and he had an idea.

He was writing the script of this movie in his head as we talked. He wanted a slapstick, comical sort of movie with lots of close-ups and scene changes. He said, “Let’s take all of the furniture out of this room, piece by piece, the lamps, the end tables, the chairs, even the mattress, and put it all in the elevator. We can stack it so it all falls out when the elevator door opens. Then I’ll run downstairs to the lobby, and film everyone’s reaction when the door opens.”

I thought this was a BRILLIANT idea for a movie short, and said “let’s do it!”
With Bruce filming, I left our room and pushed the button to call the elevator to our floor. Bruce got cool close-ups of my finger pushing the button and of the needle above the elevator door slowly moving as it approached our floor. I then put a chair from the room into the doorway of the elevator so the door couldn’t close, and made about 10 return trips to our room to move the furniture from the room into the elevator. I was laughing like a girl, and Bruce kept yelling “CUT! You’re ruining the scene!!”

After about ten minutes, every piece of furniture except for the headboard was inside the elevator. We couldn’t figure out a way to stack it so that it would all fall out when the door opened down in the lobby, so I hid in the elevator, behind the king-sized mattress, and I would push everything out when I heard the door open.

Hitting the elevator button to call another elevator to take him down to the lobby, Bruce instructed me, nay, directed me, to wait several minutes to allow him to get all set up to shoot the scene in the lobby, and then I was supposed to get in the elevator, push the lobby button, ride the elevator down, and then, while hiding at the back of the elevator, push everything out so that it would all fall into the lobby of this magnificent old, classy hotel, making lots of noise and drawing lots of attention. I was supposed to stay hidden the entire time. Bruce would film the door opening, the furniture falling out, and then quickly film the reactions on the faces of the people watching this stunt.

I was ready! Bruce rode his elevator down to the lobby while I counted “one Mississippi two Mississippi” until I got to 180. Then I pushed the button for the lobby, scrambled to the back of the elevator, and with my heart pounding from excitement and anticipation, stood behind the mattress.

The elevator car began its descent to the lobby, and as soon as the door opened, I pushed hard against the mattress and shoved everything out! It all fell into a huge heap - expensive side chairs, lamps with the lamp shades still attached and getting smashed (we didn’t think about that beforehand, and we were really sorry that happened,) even the writing desk.

But there was no Bruce, and the only people that saw what happened was an elderly couple. I wasn't aware of it, but the elevator stopped at the SECOND FLOOR because this couple had pushed the elevator button!

I came out from behind the mattress when I realized what happened, and the couple saw me. I asked them if they would like to use the elevator, and they responded, “no, thank you. We’ll wait for the next one.”

I again used a chair to block the door from closing, and I ran down the stairs to the lobby to locate Bruce and tell him why I was delayed. I knew I had to hurry back to my elevator before the elderly couple could alert anyone. Bruce was where he was supposed to be, camera in hand, right near my elevator.  I told him I’d be down in two minutes.

Within 60 seconds, I was again on the second floor, putting everything back into the elevator. I pushed the button for the lobby and got into position behind the mattress and waited, once more, to arrive at the lobby.

All of a sudden, the elevator stopped, the door opened, and I could tell I was home! I pushed against that king-sized mattress, and all of the furniture and accoutrements from our St Regis hotel room spilled, quite noisily, onto the lobby floor!

I never saw Bruce filming, because I had done my job by staying hidden behind the mattress. I could hear a lot of commotion and people shouting., when all of a sudden, the elevator door closed and the car began ascending with me still inside. I was supposed to wait a minute until people were milling around the pile of furniture on the lobby floor, then come out from behind the mattress and take a bow. Bruce would then holler, “annnnnd CUT!” Instead, I was on my way upstairs again.

Before I could get to the elevator buttons, the car stopped at the 5th floor and the door opened. A very stylish young couple were standing on the other side of the door, and when they looked at me and the mattress, I said “sorry, maintenance. Please take the next elevator” and pressed the button for the lobby.

When my elevator arrived downstairs, Bruce was still filming. I whispered to him, “Let’s put this stuff back NOW!”

Bruce and I crammed everything back into the elevator and with both of us standing inside, pushed the button for the third floor. There were no surprises this time and the door opened, fortunately, on our floor. We got everything out of that elevator and back into our room within two minutes.  We replaced the mattress on top of the box springs, and put all of the furniture back where the dents in the carpet showed it all belonged.

We then waited for the knock on our door that we were sure would be coming any second. After an hour of waiting, Bruce and I left our room and rode the elevator down to the lobby. We walked right out the front door, and began to explore this part of Washington DC by foot.


Chapter 8 - Leaving Home

I wanted to quit high school at age 17 and see the world. It was 1968, the world was in such an upheaval and I didn’t want to miss any of it. But my grandmother lied to me to keep me from dropping out of prep school. She told me that where we lived, in Pennsylvania, there was a law that would put at least one of your parents in jail if you dropped out of high school. I was one of those odd teenagers back then -- I did love my parents and saw nothing good about either of them rotting behind bars. Years later, by the time I discovered that my grandmother lied to me, she had already passed away, which was too bad -- I had a lot of questions for her that remain unanswered. I sincerely wanted to know if it was her idea to get me to drink milk by telling me that there was a law in Pennsylvania that required one to drink milk at every meal until one turned 16.

So, unaware of the truth, I finished high school in 1969 on a Tuesday in June. On Thursday morning at 6 AM I was 200 miles away, driving my red 1967 Volkswagen Beetle toward San Francisco. Before I drove off, my father begged me to remove the peace signs and the “I support the Chicago 7” bumper sticker stuck in the middle of the rear window. I didn’t take his advice. I kissed him and my mother farewell, and drove west.

Among the items in my car were my guitar, which I never learned to play, camping equipment so I could sleep in the woods when I ran out of money, about a pound of black Twizzler’s licorice, an old army-issue Speed Graphic press camera that took great photographs (but weighed around 20 pounds), and about 20 eight track tapes. Otis Redding, Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, lots of Beatles, some Doors. Steppenwolf was playing "Born to be Wild" when I got pulled over for the first time on my adventure. I was outside Columbus, Ohio and saw those dreaded red flashing lights in my rearview window.

I pulled over and smiled broadly at the officer when he walked up to the driver’s door window. I didn’t really know how fast I was going because when my friends and I installed the eight track tape player almost a year earlier, we did something wrong that made the speedometer and the odometer stop working. I had no problem with the odometer malfunctioning, because I thought I would be able to sell my VW one day, maybe ten years in the future in 1975, with an ad stating “great ten-year-old VW Beetle for sale, only 3500 miles.”

“What are you smiling at, boy?” was the first thing the policeman asked me quite snidely. Right away, I knew I was in trouble. I should have said something like “was I speeding officer?” Or “I didn’t know I was smiling, sir.” But instead I said, “hey, I’m not smiling – this is my normal face.” Which it wasn’t. So I had to fake that same smile the whole time this law man was looking at me. He wrote me three tickets that day. Speeding at 85 in a 55 zone – this one was very hard to accept, as my VW wouldn’t go 85 if you pushed it off a cliff. The second ticket was for having my license plate attached upside down on the back of my car. Of this I was not aware. I found out several years later that one my pals I had left behind thought it would be a wonderful practical joke.

The third ticket was the one that landed me in jail for the third time in my life. Along with my sleeping bag and tent, I had an old propane camp lantern that I bought from the Army-Navy Store in Harrisburg and an old Boy Scout knife that I got when I was ten years old. You know, the kind that comes with a fake leather sheath with the rawhide straps hanging from the bottom that you can tie around your leg. The blade was only about five inches long and it was so dull it couldn’t slice an apple. I had brought it along just in case, while camping, I should need to protect myself from a raccoon or an armadillo. Plus, it had a compass built into the top of the handle. I figured if I ever needed to know where north was on the trip, I had a way to find out. When the cop asked me if I had any weapons in the car, I should have said “no.” Instead, what I said was “no, just my old Boy Scout knife, sir!”

Within seconds of my reply, I was out of the car, spread-eagled, hands on the hood, while the officer emptied all of my possessions out of the car. When he found my Boy Scout knife, he arrested me for possession of a deadly weapon.  Back-up arrived and I was placed, hand-cuffed, into the back of a police car. I spent the next long hours in the Belmont County, Ohio, jail.

The cops had my VW towed to their police station to, in the words of the cop who had the pleasure of delivering me to jail, “await further search.” If you’ve ever owned a Volkswagen Beetle (not a “New Beetle” but a bug from the 50’s or the 60’s) or ever knew someone young that owned one, you probably know about the little hidden secret compartment inside the car. If you took out the passenger floor mat, there was a small compartment right where your passenger could rest their feet. If you didn’t know about it, you’d never think to look there. I was hoping none these Ohio cops owned a VW, because I had some stuff hidden in there that, should the cops find it, it would not be too good for me. I was allowed one phone call so I called my father. I told him what had happened, and he told me to “sit tight.”

Sit tight? Five years earlier, when I was only 13, I waited until my parents went to sleep and then went downstairs to the garage. I disconnected the garage door opener catch and pushed the garage door up quietly by hand so as to not awaken my parents. I then started up my mother’s brand new 1964 Lincoln Continental and drove over to my friend Siggy’s house where he was waiting outside in some bushes. We then drove that Lincoln to Washington DC, arriving there at around 1 AM. I figured I’d be back home, have the car back in our garage, and be asleep in my bed by 5 AM. Nobody would ever know. But we got lost just outside Washington DC, in a place called Prince George’s County, Maryland. We were starting to panic and I drove a little too fast on a residential street and screeched the tires real loudly. As luck would have it, there was a cop sitting in his car and he heard that screech. He put his lights and siren on. Siggy said “step on it, he’ll never be able to catch us in this Linclon!” I ignored Siggy and pulled over. While the cop walked up to my driver’s door, I tried to make myself look older, since I was only 13 years old. I tried to sit up taller in the big seat of that Lincoln, but the seats in that car were like Barcaloungers. And I had already raised the twenty-six way electric seat as high as it would go so I could see out of the windshield - I wasn't very tall when I was 13. We were goners.

As soon as the cop walked up to my window and looked inside, he started to laugh uncontrollably. He must have roared with laughter for at least five minutes. So I figured he was in a good mood, and I just knew he was going to give us a scolding then tell us to go home and never do this again. I was wrong.

He called for back-up, handcuffed us both, and then introduced us to the back seat of his cruiser. We were then chauffeured for a five minute ride to the Prince George’s County police station.  While riding to the cop station, we told each other we’d give the cops fake names. We were sure they wouldn’t put us in a cell since we were only 13 years old. We figured that we’d make a break for it as soon as the cops were busy doing something else. We were wrong. Within 60 seconds of arriving at the police station, we were behind bars.

First they came for Siggy. The cell door was unlocked and they took Siggy away. About 20 minutes later they came for me. They took me to a room where I was sure they were going to beat me with a rubber hose. But instead they said, “Tommy, we’ve called your Dad.” They didn’t say ‘father’ – they said ‘dad.’ “And he wants to talk with you. Call him from that phone over there.” I had no idea how they knew my name or who my father was. All I knew was I was probably in a lot of trouble.

Shaking like a Parkinson’s patient that’s had 10 cups of strong coffee, I called my father at 2:30 AM from the police station. The cops had already told him what was going on and why he was being called at such an early hour of the morning. He was very calm with me, and told me to “sit tight.” To teach me a lesson, he had me sit tight in that police station for almost three days before he and my mother showed up. The one hour ride back Pennsylvania seemed like it took ten years. My mother drove her Lincoln and I sat in the back seat. My father followed us in his car.

When you are 13, you don’t think about what jobs your friend’s parents hold. I knew my friend Sharon’s mother was a teacher because I had her for my teacher in 4th grade. But I didn’t know what Siggy’s father did for a living. Turns out he was, at the very time we were sitting in the police station in Prince George’s County, a Secretary of some department in the Governor of Pennsylvania’s Cabinet. All of the charges against Siggy and me were dropped.

So as I sat in the police station in Ohio hearing my father tell me to “sit tight,” I imagined that I was going to be there for a few days. I was wrong.

Siggy’s father and my father were best of friends for something like 40 years. By the time I was behind bars in Ohio, Siggy’s father was some major Politico behind the scenes, but this time his job was on a national level and not simply a state position. I once asked him what his job entailed and he responded with something along the lines of “if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”

I didn’t know it, but after telling me to sit tight in that Ohio jail, my father called Siggy’s father. Siggy’s father called somebody else who called somebody else who called somebody else and the cops in Ohio let me go. Even the speeding ticket was voided. I borrowed a screwdriver from one of the cops, put my license plate on right side up, and drove off to resume my adventure. I guess those Ohio cops never knew about the secret compartment and for that I was always very grateful.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Chapter 7 - I Didn’t Know Canoes Could Fly

There were lots of very small towns within an hour drive of my house. You could drive for 10 minutes in any direction and be in another governmental jurisdiction. The town would have its own little volunteer fire department, it’s own town square and it’s own police force.

My home town, Harrisburg, PA, had a population of around 50,000. Most of these smaller towns had populations of less than five thousand. This was before Wal-Mart had a store in every town, and most of these towns had a Montgomery Ward, a small Sears & Roebuck or a Western Auto store. If you went inside any of these stores, you’d see that they all looked the same – the whole store was just a rectangle, about 50 feet wide, with shelving from the front windows all the way back to where the bathrooms were.

And they all had the same big front windows. The store employees would put merchandise in the windows, hoping to entice you to come in and buy whatever they were selling.

Usually, these stores had a place in the back of the store where all of the shelving ended and the clerks stood behind a counter. A local resident could walk up to the counter and pay their water, telephone or electric bill there.

These stores only had one or two employees working at any given time. When someone went into the store to pay an electric bill, that only left, at best, one employee to tend to any other customers, if there were any other customers. In reality, I don’t think many of these little mom and pop merchants ever had more than one customer every few hours.

I had a friend named Steve who had a 1965 Rambler Classic convertible, and compared to my Volkswagen it was a rocket ship. That car would really fly. And when we put the top down and cruised for girls, we always got girls.

I never, ever, named any of my cars, but Steve named this car “Betty,” as in apple brown betty, because the color of the car was brown. Steve took real good care of his car. He knew how to tune it up, how to fix things when anything broke, and he washed it every day.

Now Steve wanted a custom steering wheel for Betty. He had seen the steering wheel in a Western Auto store near his house. It was make out of wood and had stainless steel rivets and Steve just knew it would be the perfect accessory for Betty. They wanted $35 for that steering wheel at Western Auto, but Steve thought of a way he could get it for less. $35 dollars less.

Steve had an aunt, his father’s sister, who lived in Elizabethtown, one of the small towns about 40 miles away from where we lived. When Steve’s family would go to visit his aunt, Steve used to wander away from her house and walk around the town square and look in all of the small store’s big windows.  He knew there was a Western Auto in the little town where his aunt lived, and he was sure they had one of those steering wheels on display.

Steve’s father was an agent for the FBI, and the whole family went to church all day on Sunday and every Wednesday night. Steve was brought up in a good and wholesome family, and in all the years I spent growing up and knowing Steve, I never knew him to do anything REALLY illegal like stealing or shoplifting.

Looking back, I guess that’s not entirely true. One time, when we were in the 7th grade, Steve’s mother dropped us off downtown on a Saturday morning so we could go to the movies. Before the movie started, we walked over to the department store just off the town square. It was called Pomeroy’s, and we moseyed over to the young men’s department. We both picked up sweaters and went to where people tried on clothes to see if they fit. I remember my sweater like it was yesterday. It was Kelly Green, and real fuzzy with a V-neck collar. We both liked our sweaters and we just nonchalantly walked out of the store, wearing them. We did that just for the thrill and to see if we could get away with it. Neither one of us needed a new sweater, and our parents would certainly have bought these sweaters for us if we had asked them. I’m not positive about Steve, but I had never shoplifted anything before this day, and I have never done it again ever since that day, some 45 years ago.

I tried to talk Steve out of driving all that way just to steal a steering wheel and save thirty five dollars, but his mind was made up.

When Steve was ready to drive to Elizabethtown, he put the top down on his Rambler and drove over to my house to see if I wanted to go with him. I asked him, “Do you still plan to steal the steering wheel?!” He responded that yes, that was his plan.

I told him I wouldn’t go with him if he was going to steal it. I offered to loan him the $35 so he could buy the darn steering wheel, and he laughed at me so hard that my mother came up to my room and wondered what was so funny.

“All right, all right, you can loan me the money,” Steve roared with laughter. “I won’t steal it.” On the spot, I gave Steve $35 I was saving to buy a record player and he put the money into his pocket. I actually told my mother where we were going, and Steve and I hopped into Betty with the top down and drove off.

It was a wonderful drive to Elizabethtown. The weather was incredible, the air was cool, and the sky was a beautiful bright blue. It took us about an hour and a half to get there. We had to drive through several small towns to get there. First was Steelton, where my father was born inside his parent’s house in 1911, then Middletown, near where the Three Mile Island nuclear accident took place years later, and finally into Elizabethtown.

Steve knew right where the little Western Auto store was, and less than one minute after passing the “Welcome to Elizabethtown” sign, we were parked about 100 feet from the store’s front door. We couldn’t park any closer to the store because That Western Auto had a couple of new canoes for sale outside, up on stands, taking up at least two parking spaces right in front of the store.

Steve and I walked into the store, and found that it was much more crowded than we expected it to be. The store was having a big sale, and instead of seeing three of four shoppers, there must have been at least 20 people in the store. There were young children buying fishing poles and men looking at shotguns. There were ladies buying toaster ovens, and this made Steve reconsider his promise to me. He thought it would be easy to shoplift today, since the clerks would all be busy with other shoppers. I made him promise to keep his promise and he agreed.

We wandered around the store until we came to the steering wheels. They had a couple on display, but they didn’t have the one that we drove all this way to purchase. When we were still back at my house, I told Steve that we should call this store to see if they had the steering wheel that he wanted in stock. Steve said that was a bad idea, because if we did that, the store employees would put the steering wheel aside and be waiting for him. We had that conversation before he promised he wouldn’t steal it and before I loaned him $35. After he agreed not to steal it, we forgot about calling, which was definitely too bad.

While we were still in the store, Steve was fuming that he spent $2 on gas to drive all this way for nothing, and he walked out of the store fuming. He still had my $35 in his pocket. I ran after him, and said, “Hold on, let’s ask the clerk if they have one of the steering wheels in the back.” He ignored me, and began walking over to the canoes on display outside.

I went back inside and waited my turn to speak with a sales clerk. After describing the steering wheel to him, he went into the back of the store where they keep the extra stock to look for one, but returned empty-handed and apologized that they did not have one in stock. I thanked him and walked outside. Not seeing Steve, I glanced toward where we had parked, and there was Steve, in his car, behind the wheel, motor running, ready to go, and he had shoved one of those brand new canoes into the back seat. Most of it was sticking straight up into the air way above the car.

I yelled, “Holy cow, Steve, are you CRAZY??” Laughing wildly, he hollered for my to hurry up and get in the car. “C’mon, we gotta go NOW,” he screamed.

If I were thinking rationally, I would have said “No, you can go without me,” but nobody ever accused me of having too much sanity when I was 17 years old. I got into the car, and within seconds, we passed the “Welcome To Elizabethtown” sign again, but this time it was the back of the sign we were looking at, and it said “Thank you for visiting Elizabethtown. Come back soon.”

The speed limit back in those days was 45 miles per hour on the road we were on, but Steve was driving  at least 65. We got about two miles up the road toward home when Steve saw the flashing red lights in his rearview mirror. I immediately turned around to look, but all I  could see was canoe. It took up the entire back seat, and yet still stuck out of the car about eight feet up into the air.

We didn’t know if the cop knew we were canoe thieves, or if he just saw us speeding in his jurisdiction. But Steve didn’t have any plans to find out.

Steve said, “Hold on, I’m gonna outrun this cop” and with that he floored it. We were doing at least 90 miles an hour when we approached a sharp turn in the road. I still couldn’t see the police car behind us, but Steve said he was still there. All of a sudden, we barreled through that unbelievable dogleg turn at maybe 70 miles per hour, and the canoe began to lift up even higher into the air. I think the wind pressure from the crazy speed we were traveling combined with the curvature of the canoe turned it into an airfoil for a moment, and she wanted to fly!

Steve noticed it before I did and screamed “hold on to the canoe, we’re losing it!” I turned around to grab the canoe but there was nothing to hold on to. The open part of the canoe was facing toward the cop that was chasing us, and all I could see was the wide, flat bottom of the boat. So, without really thinking, I climbed over the front seat into the back seat and nestled into the open part of the canoe that was facing rearwards. I ended up sitting on the backseat Indian style, with my legs crossed, facing the cop car, snuggly inside the canoe with both arms straight up in the air, holding on to one of the seats inside the boat.

In this position, I had no difficulty seeing the cop car that was chasing us, and realizing that this craziness needed to stop, I began hollering at the top of my lungs for Steve to stop the car. He couldn’t hear a word I was saying because we were moving so fast with the top down, plus I was inside of a canoe.

I’m watching the police car get closer and closer, and I knew that very soon, Steve and I were either going to be dead or behind bars. I’m crammed inside of this canoe, helping my friend get away with shoplifting, and I’m thinking, “hey, what am I doing this for. I want no part of this, I’m not a thief, and I sure don’t want to die here.” So I let go of the canoe’s seat and let my arms fill up with blood again. I could now see the policeman inside of his car, and I knew he could see me. I put my hands up into the air, like you are supposed to do when a policeman says “put your hands up.” But then, I took the index finger of my right hand, pointed toward the front seat, and then drew imaginary circles near my right ear, you know, the one that means, “he’s crazy.” Then I put my hands back up into the air and surrendered.

But Steve was still driving at least 70 miles per hour. Without me holding on to the canoe, it once again began to rise up into the air. I didn’t try to stop it, and it became airborne and flew right out of that Rambler and landed in the middle of the road.

The police car pulled over, I think to remove the road hazard that Steve’s canoe had become, and he stopped chasing us. About five miles up the road was an A&W ice cream store, and I told Steve to pull over. I wanted to wash my hands of this entire day and get as far away from Steve and betty as possible. I was sure the policeman that was chasing us was able to make out Steve’s license plate, and I was positive that our hometown cops would be waiting at his house when he showed up there. But Steve was afraid to stop and we drove past the ice cream shop still going 70 miles per hour.

We got back home in record time, and Steve promised me that if the police came to his house, he would not tell them who I was. He said the cost of his silence was $35.

On Monday, I saw Steve drive up to school in Betty. He said no policemen ever came to his house during the weekend, and we were both sure that if the cops were looking for thieves and not just a couple of teenage boys speeding, there would have been a knock on Steve’s door during the weekend. The top was down on his beloved Betty, and his hands were wrapped around a brand new steering wheel made out of wood with stainless steel rivets.

I asked him if he bought it or stole it, and he replied, “What do you think?” I think he stole it.


Chapter 6 - Horse Rustlers

I always wanted to live in Arizona. Home of Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, the Painted Desert, Indians and big Saguaro cacti that I’d seen a thousand times in cowboy movies, Arizona just beckoned me to explore. So I moved to the ultimate Arizona cowboy town - Tucson.

Back in Pennsylvania it is impossible to get lost. If someone were to drop you by helicopter into the middle of a forest, which we mostly called woods in Pennsylvania, you couldn’t walk for more than a mile and you’d come to a paved road. Take a map of Pennsylvania and a crayon and color the state green. Then draw in all of the roads and highways. You won’t be able to see very much green any more. The there are so many roads and highways that you can barely see the state outline. If you look at a road map of Arizona, you’ll see mostly green. There is a lot of wide open spaces to explore, and I took advantage of that as often as possible.

I had a friend named Dan who lived near me in Arizona. He had the same wanderlust that I had, and we became companions. We trekked, by car, by horse or by foot, almost every inch of Arizona. On one of our weeklong excursions, we found ourselves in the Four Corners area of Arizona. This is where the far northeast corner of Arizona and the states of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah all come together and actually touch each other. Except for a US Government marker delineating the spot, there is not much there. In fact, the closest convenience store is probably some 50 miles distant. A couple of hours drive away, into Colorado, is the Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park is over 50,000 acres large. Most of it is definitely off limits to the general public. There aren’t a lot of roads in the park, either. There is only one small road, one lane in each direction, that leads to the visitor center, then winds around the park, providing parking spots where one might park and view, off in the distance, 1,000 year old native American ruins. Jutting off of this small road are some dirt roads with locked gates and signs that say “U.S. Forest Service access only. All others prohibited.” Dan looked at me and said, "Do you think they mean us?"

A few years earlier, I had met a very beautiful, yet quite homely, young lady while camping. Her name was Linda, and she scared the daylights out of me. I was camping alone on a mountain top near Tucson, Arizona when I came out of my pup tent at 6 AM to find her trying to extinguish the remains of my very small campfire. I thought that if I kept a small fire going during the night, the numerous bears that lived in this mountain range would leave me alone.  Linda was an employee of the US Forest Service, a genuine US Forest Ranger. She chastised me for the fire, asking me if I was trying to burn down the whole mountain. My entire fire, including the rock circle that I had built to contain it, was less than 12 inches across. If you put a coffee pot over the heat, you wouldn’t be able to even see the embers. I asked her if she was serious, and she said “no.” We became friends right away and we spent most of the day together. I talked her into trading me her official US Forest Ranger badge for some vegetable matter, the kind that I used to keep in the secret compartment of my 1965 Volkswagen.

Before we parted that day, she told me about the combination lock codes that the US Forest Service used on the locks that were used all over the USA. These are the padlocks that keep the public off the many small roads in United States National forests, monuments and parks, making access restricted to officials. These are the roads one sees with signs that say “US Forest Service access only. All others prohibited.”  All of the padlocks were combination locks with four small dials. The combination could be anything between 0000 and 9999. Linda told me the code was usually the same as the current year. For example, in 1992 the code would be 1992. She said that some locks were maybe a year or two behind, depending upon how often some remotely stationed US Forest Service Ranger actually came upon one of the locks.

So Dan and I find ourselves driving slowly on the main, and I think, the only paved road in Mesa Verde National Park. If one were actually able to leave the main road, which is definitely not allowed, one could see unimagined splendor and truly be “away from it all.”

We were taking in the incredible beauty of this place, and telling each other how cool it would be if we could park the car right here and simply wander off into the wilderness. All of a sudden the road took a hairpin turn, and we came upon one of the primitive dirt roads with a sign that said “US Forest Service access only. All others prohibited.”  There were two obstacles blocking us from driving down this road. There was a rather large and heavy chain stretched across this dirt road, and as if this were not enough of a deterrence, there was a very heavy metal gate also blocking the way. I guess the governments was serious about keeping the regular people out of this area. Both of these obstacles were held closed by, wouldn’t you know it, an official US Forest Service combination padlock.

Trying to seem very suave to my friend Dan, I said to him “I think I can open these gates” and got out of the car. Sure enough, both of the padlocks opened in an instant. We had the car inside the gates, had the gates locked backed up again and were traveling down the dirt road within 60 seconds. We could see that the road took a sharp turn to the right about 100 yards away, and we knew that once we were around that bend in the road, no one would know we were there. We drove rather slowly, however, because we didn’t want the car to kick up a large dust cloud which would give us away. It seemed like it took an hour to get around that bend. In reality, it only took a few seconds.

As soon as we rounded the bend, we were met by some of the most majestic views I have ever seen. The land went on forever, the sky was an incredible bright blue, and on top of it all, we could see two horses off in the distance, about 500 yards away. We parked the car off the road, hidden as best we could hide it under the boughs of a Spruce tree that was probably 1000 years old.

Way off and down a valley we could see a lake. The lake must have been about three miles distant. I had a small, retractable fishing pole in the car, and some lures. I thought that if there were any fish in that lake, I was going to catch them. But the lake was simply too far to walk to, so Dan and I decided we’d try to make friends with the two horses, and simply ride them over to the lake.

We had some apples in the car, and Dan used one to bribe the horses into letting us near them. Within 10 minutes, those horses belonged to us. They both had a simple bridle on, but no saddle. I took my belt out of my pants, and attached it on the bridle so that I could use it for a simple rein. Dan did the same, and we were good to go.

These were beautiful horses, each about 15 hands tall. Both horses had been branded “US” which we figured meant they were the property of the US Forest Service, which only stood to reason, since we were on US Forest Service private land. Trespassing, no less.

With a little difficulty, we each hopped up onto our own horse, and with our jury-rigged reins in hand, we were off to the lake. Happily, both horses were extremely well trained and quite gentle.

We were very pleased that we had “borrowed” these horses from the US Government, because it took us about 45 minutes on horseback to reach the lake. But once we got there, we were in heaven. The lake was about a mile across, and ice cold. There were trout in the water that I don’t think have ever seen a human being. I caught ten of them in the span of about one hour, but always threw them right back into the water.

Dan and I spent many hours out there in that beautiful wilderness, drinking Johnny Walker Red with a twist, eating apples and some wonderful cheese we had brought, and sharing the kind of material one may hide in the secret compartment of one’s Volkswagen. We were both sorry when it was time to go. We knew we had to put these horses back before we got caught stealing US Government property, and besides, it was beginning to get dark. We moseyed on the horses back to where we took them from, removed our belts, kissed the horses goodbye and thanked them, and began the short walk back to our car.

Quite incredibly, our car was gone. We knew we were looking in the right place for the car, so we figured either somebody stole it, or we were in a lot of trouble. We started walking back around the bend in the road that hid our car from the paved road, when we immediately saw our car. It had been moved out from under the tree, and all four doors were open. There was one, and only one, US Forest Service Ranger at the car, and he had the reddest hair I have ever seen. With much dismay we noticed that all of the seats had been removed from the car and they were sitting on the dirt road like so much lawn furniture. The door panels had been removed from the doors, the trunk lid was up in the air, and the spare tire and everything that was previously in the trunk when we parked the car hours earlier was sitting on the dirt road.

Apparently we surprised “Red” when we approached, because as soon as the Ranger spotted us, he went for his gun. I more or less freaked, and dropping to my knees, I shouted “Oh pleeease don’t shoot us, we give up!”

The Ranger holstered his gun and asked us who we were and whether this was our car. We provided him with our names and confirmed that the car was ours. He already knew Dan’s name, because he had entered the license plate into the NCIC or whatever it’s called national bad guy computer system. Fortunately, at that time, Dan didn’t have anything felonious on that computer.

Officer Red Ranger told us that we were under arrest, and he called for the proverbial back-up. We were too afraid to ask what the charges were, so we kept quiet. We didn’t know just what the charges would include – trespassing on forbidden US Government lands, stealing US Government property, holding illegal controlled substances, you know, minor charges like these.

Another Ranger appeared soon thereafter in a Jeep with no windows, windshield or doors. We hopped up into this Jeep and within ten minutes we were taken to a back room not far from the Mesa Verde National Park Visitor Center. There were no windows in the room, and only one door. We were the only people in this room, and we discussed how the hell we were going to get out of here. We tried the door, but it was locked. And even though Dan was six feet four inches tall and weighed 245 pounds, we did not think that it would be a real good idea to simply use one of Dan’s shoulders to open that door.

After making us stew over an hour, the redheaded Ranger came into the room, all by himself. He told us he had completed his search of our car, and that he was not able to find the pottery. “Pottery?” we asked. Seems that this national park has a lot of ruins that are off limits to the public, and every now and then some professional pot hunters come into the park to plunder those pots.

Pots? Pots! Dan and I both started to laugh hysterically, which Red didn’t think was funny. He went for the door, saying that he was going to run our names into some other governmental computer system listing the names and whereabouts of known professional pot hunters. We knew we were going to be getting out of here soon.

Red came back after we simmered for another hour, and told us we were clean. I said “I could have told you that,” and then Dan asked about the disposition of his car. Red actually drove us himself to our car, which by this time was parked out back of the Visitor Center. Everything was back where it belonged, except for a small baggie that we thought we had hidden extremely well. Apparently not well enough, but no one ever mentioned it, and to this day, Dan and I continue to believe that Red liked us more than he let on.

No one ever asked us just what we were doing out there in the back country that day, and to this day the government has no idea we hijacked a couple of their horses. And as for “pottery,” when we left the lake and were about half way back to where we had left the car, I realized that I had forgotten my 20-year-old retractable fishing rod back at the lake. I had also left my package of lures, and some “pottery,” if you know what I mean. It was too far to go back for it all, so we just figured it was the way we ended up paying for the use of those wonderful horses. We did, however, have to pay a $45 fine, each, for trespassing. And we were told to never come back to Mesa Verde National Park, but I don’t think they can legally say that, and I’ve been back several times since. I’ve never seen Red on any of my return visits. Maybe next time I go I’ll try to look him up.


Chapter 5 - Maddog Killer and a Billion Bugs

When I was 12 years old, I had to practice for my Bar Mitzvah. In case you don’t know what a Bar Mitzvah is, it’s an old ritual that Jewish boys go through during their 13th year, a ritual that welcomes them into manhood.  The only part about it, to us boys that had to go through it, is that all your parent’s friends send you money and presents. Every day, when I would come home from school, there would be at least a few envelopes that came in the mail for me with money and checks. There might also be a couple of packages, too. Maybe an electric shoe shine machine, or a real gold fountain pen, or an expensive watch or cufflinks.

I was not what one could call a serious student when I was in the 7th grade. If I had a ten-page paper due three weeks from now, I wouldn’t even start it until the night before. If the paper was not ready on the day it was due, I pretended I was sick so I could stay home from school that day and finish it. I was consistently a straight “C” student but all my teachers liked me because I pretended I liked them.

Practicing for one’s Bar Mitzvah is hard. Just about everything you have to say is in Hebrew, which is the old language from Israel. To me, however, it was simply impossible to master. The letters in Hebrew don’t look anything like English letters. As if that’s not bad enough, in English, we read and write from left to right. In Hebrew, one reads and writes backwards, from right to left.

Needless to say, I was only having this Bar Mitzvah for two reasons. One, for the presents and the money, and two, because my parents MADE me do it.

True to form, I was very lax in studying my Hebrew lessons. My parents would say “Have you learned this week’s verses in Hebrew yet today?” and I would always say “Yes.” They would always reply with “Well, let’s hear what you’ve learned.”

Early on, I tried faking it, making up sounds that were more like Chinese than anything else. My father would laugh, then tell me to get into my room and study. He knew Hebrew well, and he could always tell that what I was pretending to say in Hebrew was just made up gobbledegook.

After dinner one day in early autumn, my parents said they were going to take my two brothers and me out for ice cream. I was down the steps, through the garage and in the car in about five seconds, but before we drove off, my father asked me if I had completed the Hebrew lesson that was due. Not wanting to miss out on ice cream, I said, “Sure.” He asked me to recite the lesson, so I began reciting something like “comawah dingdong karma retty ooh la la scheema” and that was as far as I got. He told me to get out of the car, go to my room and study. No ice cream for me!

So I got out of the car and watched my parents, my two brothers, and even our dog, drive away. I went back into the house and walked upstairs to the second floor where my bedroom was. I was in my room and took off all my clothes except my underpants and sat at my desk where I did my homework. I was actually looking at my Hebrew lesson book, when all of a sudden I was positive I heard the front door creak slowly open. I tried to say “hello?” but I was so scared that no sound was able to come out of my mouth.

Now, about one mile from my house was a gigantic house. It sat in the middle of probably a couple of hundred acres, which was known as the Mitchell Farm. They didn’t do any farming there, but that’s what it was called anyway. About one month earlier, they found Mr. Mitchell dead in his house and they wrote about it in the newspaper every day. It was called the “Mitchell Murder.” Apparently Mr. Mitchell was murdered there, and the killer was unknown. The story was on television and in the newspapers constantly, and as a kid of 12 years of age, I just knew the killer had just entered my house and was coming to kill me, too.

The second floor of our house consisted of four bedrooms. Mine, one for each of my brothers, and my parent’s room. In about two seconds, I came up with a plan to escape the mad killer. I would sneak from my bedroom over to my parent’s bedroom and lock their door behind me. I would then open one of the windows in their room, knock out the screen, and jump from the window down into the swimming pool two stories below. I could then run over to a neighbors house and they would save me.

I made it safely into my parent’s room and locked the door behind me. Shaking like a leaf, I looked out the window to the pool below, and quickly realized that jumping was a bad idea. The pool wasn’t actually JUST below, but about 20 feet down and 20 feet away. I would have to jump 20 feet away from the window if I wanted to make it into the pool. I think the world record for the running start long jump was something like 26 feet. There was no way I could leap from the window and make it – I was sure I would crack my head wide open and die when my body hit the pavement. So now I REALLY got scared.

Our house was large, too, and there were telephones in every room. We had about 15 telephones and 3 phone lines in the house. There were phones everywhere, and they all had the kind of buttons on them that you had to push down to get a phone line before you could make a call. And when you pushed one of the buttons down, it would light up to let others in the house know that line was in use. The phone system in our house was just like the one my father had at his office. I knew that if I tried to phone for help, the madman killer inside my house would see the button light up wherever he was in the house and he would know someone else was in the house, too. He would then come upstairs, knock down the door, and kill me.

My parents had a dressing room off their bedroom, and the door to this room had a lock on it, too. So I went from the bedroom into the dressing room and locked that door behind me. Now I was separated from the killer by two locked doors. The dressing room led to my parent’s bathroom, and this door also could be locked. I went into the bathroom and locked the door. Now there were three locked doors keeping the killer from my small, scared 12-year-old body.

The bathroom had one big window, about four feet wide and three feet high. I looked out of the window, and I could see our next door neighbor, old Mr. Neill, mowing his lawn on his lawn tractor. I couldn’t holler to him because I was sure the killer would definitely hear me, and besides, Mr. Neill was riding a very loud lawn tractor. I could have been 20 feet away from him and he wouldn’t hear anything except the very loud noise his tractor was making. On top of that, the yards in our neighborhood very quite large, and Mr. Neill was at least a football field’s length away.

Not having any more doors to put between me and my executioner, I knew I had to do SOMETHING. I couldn’t just wait in that bathroom for that butcher to break down all of the doors and come for me. So I opened the window and, thinking, just maybe, that Mr. Neill could hear me, I began to holler “HELP! HELP! HELP! HELLLLPPP!”

He never even glanced my way. Now I knew I was going to die. I was sure that the assassin in my house heard my screams, and that right now he was running up the steps to come upstairs to knock down all three doors and do me in.

Just outside the bathroom window, about six feet away and a couple of feet down, was a Blue Spruce tree, which looked like a Christmas tree. I remembered watching my father plant it there when I was about eight years old and I was glad it was much taller now. I thought that if I could leap out of this window, I could maybe grab on to the top of the tree, climb down it, and run over to Mr. Neill’s house and he would protect me.

I pried the screen out of the window jamb and it fell the 20 feet to the ground below. With all the willpower I could muster and shaking with fear, I scurried into the window jamb, said a real quick prayer, and like a flying squirrel, I made my escape. I leapt for the tree.

I hit the tree right where I was aiming, but found out the hard way that there is no way one can climb down a Blue Spruce pine tree. The branches near the top, where I landed, are only the width of a pencil, and about a million of them broke as I slid the whole way down the tree and then fell onto the ground. I lay there for a second or two, the air knocked out of me, all cut up and bleeding, with pieces of the tree still falling onto me.

When I was able to get back up, I sprinted as fast as I could over to Mr. Neill. I had forgotten that I was only wearing my underpants, my tighty-whities. As soon as he saw me, all bloody and in my underpants, he turned off his lawn tractor and asked me what I was doing there. I told him that the Mitchell killer was in my house, and that my parents were off having ice cream.

Mr. Neill took my inside his house and tried to calm me, where I waited, wearing nothing but my underpants, until my parents drove past. Mrs. Neill gave me some ice cream, and she put iodine and band-aids on me.

About 20 minutes went by and I finally saw my family go past and enter our driveway. I thanked Mr. and Mrs. Neill, and sprinted home. I made it to our garage before anyone even got out of the car. I had to warn them before they entered the house and were slaughtered, one by one.

Upon hearing my story and seeing my bruises and bandages, my father made all of us wait outside while he went in the house. My mother was crying, thinking she could have lost one of her children to the Mitchell Murderer.

After a few minutes, my father called us all into the house, saying, “All clear!” There was no one in the house, the front door was locked and bolted from the inside, so apparently no one ever entered our house. But I was definitely maybe positive that I had heard something that evening. So my father called some police friends of his, and they came over to our house and did a thorough search without finding evidence that anyone had been in the house except me. These policemen also told us that they knew who the Mitchell Murderer was. It was Mrs. Mitchell, and they had arrested her earlier that day. Mr. Mitchell was apparently cheating on Mrs. Mitchell, she caught him, and done him in.

My father used a tiny screwdriver, one of the tools on a very small pen knife that he always carried in his pocket, to unlock his bedroom door, then the door to his dressing room, and finally the door to the bathroom. Within a nanosecond of opening the bathroom door, about a trillion bugs flew out of the room and dispersed all over our house. When we entered into the bathroom, you couldn’t even see what color the walls were. There were flying bugs everywhere, and it sounded like we were inside a big stereo speaker. There were moths, some the size of dinner plates. There were mosquitos, gnats, dragonflies, aphids and beetles. There were even grasshoppers, wasps and lightning bugs. The buzzing, humming and whirring was deafening. It was really creepy - even the toilet bowl had a thousand bugs in it. You couldn’t stay in that bathroom for more than a second or two, because the bugs would get in your mouth and ears and eyes and nose.

All of my mother’s perfume bottles were covered with bugs. So were all of the towels, the drinking glasses and shaving equipment. Even the toothpaste tube had about 500 bugs on it.

Because I had knocked the screen out of the window and didn’t bother to turn off the bright bathroom lights before I jumped out and onto the Blue Spruce pine tree, all of the nighttime flying bugs from the surrounding three towns found the lights too irresistible to bear, and they all made a beeline, pardon the pun, for my parent’s bathroom.

We all ended up staying at a motel for a couple of nights and my parents had to find some people to go over to our house to remove all the dead, and some still alive, bugs that were everywhere inside our house. They did a good job, but I don’t think I ever went into my parents bathroom again.

I never mentioned my cuts and bruises to my parents that night, and they never mentioned them to me. Forty years later, I still have some scars on the inside of my arms to remind me of that dreadful night.

I never skipped another Hebrew lesson after that, and I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah a few months later.


Chapter 4 - If You Don’t Move They Can’t See You

My friend George lived with his family in a secluded area just on the other side of the mountain that my house was near. To get to George’s house I had to drive my VW one mile west to the river, then take a right turn, drive up the river for about five minutes, then take another right turn heading more or less back towards where I started from. As the crow flies, our houses were probably only one or two miles apart, but there was a mountain between us.

About two minutes further up the road from George’s house there was a beautiful exclusive country club with an 18 hole golf course and an unbelievable club house. By exclusive, I mean they didn’t allow Jews to be members. Growing up Jewish, I was usually aware of these kinds of places in Harrisburg and I did my best to “get even” with these establishments whenever I had to opportunity.

Every now and then, the private school I attended would have some sort of event, like a dance, a prom or a fund-raiser, and instead of always holding the event at the school, sometimes it was held at this country club. Here we were, all of us privileged high school students, with their dates, all dressed up, going to a party at this country club, driving Cadillacs and Lincolns.

In my senior class, with a total of only 13 students, three of us were Jewish – one other boy and one girl. I guess that’s a higher than average percentage of Jews to non-Jews, but you know the stereotype – Jews educate their children so they can run the world one day.

One evening I find myself at this country club, at a dance event for students of my private school. I can’t remember what the event was for, but I do remember wandering away from the dance, with the other Jewish boy, and we peed all over the couches and chairs in the room where these anti-Semites played cards. We put salt on potted plants wherever we found them. We stuffed whole toilet paper rolls into the toilets, and we loosened all of the salt and pepper shaker tops in one of the restaurants. We were doing our small part to avenge the Jews of Harrisburg.

Occasionally, I would spend the night at George’s house. George had a Volkswagen too, and he was quite mechanically inclined. On a regular basis, he would take the entire motor out of his car and carry it upstairs to his bedroom to play with it. The carpet in his room used to be a pretty green color, but you’d never know it. Now it was black from all of the oil he spilled on that rug. George’s father owned a bank, and they were very classy people. I couldn’t understand why it was alright with his parents that George was allowed to turn his bedroom into a garage, but they did.

George’s next door neighbor, a girl named, Willa, was one of the most beautiful girls in the world. She had blond hair and green eyes, and her father was never home. He was some kind of big-shot engineer, and he designed bridges that were all over the world. Willa’s mother, whom I referred to as “Casper,” was an alcoholic, and crazy. Whenever I would be in Willa’s house, Casper would pretend she was invisible. She actually thought that if she remained quiet, Willa and I wouldn’t notice that she was in the room with us. I think, from a very early age, Willa was brought up to think that her mother was truly invisible, because Willa could do anything and say anything and it got absolutely no reaction from Casper.

One Friday night, I stayed at George’s house and while he was working on his motor, I walked the half-mile or so over to Willa’s house. It was late April, and the weather was wonderful. It was around 10 PM and it was pitch dark outside. I had to walk along a small path that had been created in the forest between George’s house and Willa’s house. I could see the lights from Willa’s house, but the walk was creepy. When I got closer to Willa’s, I could see the light through her upstairs bedroom window, and I threw a small pebble at the glass. She looked outside, and seeing me, she opened her window and said “Come on up!”

I entered Willa’s house by walking through the front door. There sat Casper, drink in hand. I looked over at her as if to acknowledge that she was there, but she simply cringed as if to make herself smaller and more invisible. So pretending I didn’t see her, I went upstairs to see Willa.

I had known Willa for a few years, but we were never boyfriend and girlfriend. Not that I didn’t want to be her boyfriend, but her beauty was so intimidating that I never had the nerve to ask her out on a date. We were very good friends, but that was all. For all I know, she may have wondered why I never tried to kiss her, but I never did. Until this night.

Willa’s upstairs bedroom had a French door leading outside to a balcony about 10 feet deep by 20 feet wide. We could sit out there with the lights off and listen to the owls. It was very romantic. In reality, while listening to the birds, I so much wanted to kiss Willa and tell her how I felt about her, but the only words that were able to come from my mouth were things like, “Boy, it’s really dark” or “I saw your Mom downstairs.”

After a few minutes, Willa suggested we go for a bicycle ride. I reminded her that it was late at night and pitch dark. She responded with, “that’s what makes it fun!”

Willa’s driveway was about a mile long, downhill all the way to the main road, which is no main road at all. It’s the same little country road that leads to George’s house, and that road didn’t have more than 10 cars a day on it. It’s the ONLY road, and on days in the winter when there was a heavy snowfall, George would not be able to make it to school.

Willa and I walked downstairs, pretended we didn’t see Casper, and went into the five-car garage. There were several bikes there, and we each hopped on one and began the ride down the hilly driveway in the dark. There was just enough starlight reflecting off the driveway that we could see the pavement and not ride off into a tree.

We got down to the road in no time, and Willa said she didn’t feel like riding back up the hill yet. “Let’s ride over to the country club,” she said as she began to pedal down the road past George’s driveway and beyond to the country club. I would do just about anything to spend time alone with Willa, so I followed after her like a puppy dog.

We arrived at the entrance to the country club within a few minutes. All of the lights were off except for a few that dimly lit up the empty parking lot. Willa didn’t stop at the front gate, but rode right through it and went past the clubhouse toward the golf course. She said she liked to ride around the golf course in the dark, and took off on her bike, riding on the golf cart path. She said we needed to keep as quiet as possible, and I took off right behind her.

It was exhilarating! I was cruising a bicycle, in the pitch dark, on the golf cart path at the most exclusive country club around with the world’s most beautiful girl. All you could hear were crickets, owls, frogs and the occasional “fwap fwap fwap fwap” of a sprinkler system watering some part of the golf course.

By now our eyes were adjusted to the low light level, and even though the concrete golf cart path was unlit, it was reflecting starlight like the yellow brick road for us.

After we had been riding for a few minutes, we stopped and walked our bikes over to one of the tees, a part of the golf course where people set up their ball to begin playing that hole. Here on the tee, our vision was not like what is was on the cart path, and we could barely see each other. We lay on the ground, looking up at the stars, and we could see gazillions of them. The night was the blackest I’d ever seen, and the stars were twinkling like Christmas tree lights. It was so romantic, and I began to reach over to Willa to hold her and tell her how I secretly felt about her.

But before I could say anything, Willa stood up and whispered, “if you want to talk, you have to whisper.” I asked her why and she told me that she rides her bike here all the time late at night and that there were two men who worked on the sprinkler system at night. They ride around on a golf cart, making sure the system worked correctly. “They have never seen me, but I‘ve them many times.”

I lost my opportunity to hold her, but as she pedaled away down the cart path in the dark, I figured I’d have another opportunity soon.
I caught up with her and we began riding side by side. We came upon a pond that was barely visible in the dark. I think we were at the sixth tee. When driving your ball off the tee, one had to get the ball to soar over this hazard or risk losing your ball in the water. Willa stopped her bike on the pavement, then began pushing her bike across the grass the toward the pond that was about 150 yards away.

When we got to the edge of the pond it was very hard to see anything. There was no cart path to reflect the starlight. But the pond reflected the stars, and we sat by that pond, whispering and enjoying each other’s company. Before I could muster up the courage to profess my love to Willa, she kissed me right on the lips and stuck her tongue into my mouth! I kissed her back, and I immediately felt like a thousand pounds had been lifted off my shoulders.

She was the first one to speak, asking me why I had never kissed her before. I told her that I’ve wanted to kiss her a thousand times, but that I was afraid she would spurn me or laugh at me. With that, she kissed me again, then said, “Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes when I ride my bike here in the dark, I take off all my clothes and ride naked!” And with that, she began to pull her sweater over her head.

I just froze there, thinking, “Is she going to take all of her clothes off now?!?” I thought I was going to die with excitement. In my mind I’m thinking that Willa, who just French kissed me, who is probably now my girlfriend, is now going to take off all of her clothes!

Within seconds, the girl that I’ve had a crush on for years, a girl that I’ve always thought was the most beautiful girl in the world, was completely naked except for her tennis shoes and she was standing five feet away from me.

Too bad I couldn’t see her! I could make out her profile if she stood between me and the pond, but if the pond weren’t there, I wouldn’t even know that Willa was, either.

She giggled, “let’s ride naked!” and hopped on her bike, waiting for me to join her. I took off all of my clothes, too, except my sneakers and socks, and got on my bike. Leaving our clothes by the side of that pond, we pedaled back toward the cart path. I had done a lot of fun and crazy things so far in my 17-year-long existence on planet Earth, but this night had to take the cake.

We rode around that golf course for a couple of hours, acting like a naked couple in love, when all of a sudden we spotted the two men in their golf cart. They were no less than 100 feet away from us, and one of them had a flashlight.

One of the men shouted to the other, “hey Clyde, did you hear that??” and shined the light toward our direction. Willa whispered, “don’t move a muscle and they won’t be able to see you.” I was freaking out. I could see my name in tomorrow’s local newspaper: son of prominent area business man arrested for indecent exposure! But I did what Willa suggested – I froze.

Clyde shined his flashlight in our direction for a moment but his light never landed directly on either of us, and the men never saw us. We stood there, frozen, for about three of the longest minutes of my life. Then the men finished their work at this spot, got into their golf cart and began to drive off. As they drove away, I began to laugh so hard that Willa put her hand over my mouth to muffle my laughter. I kissed her hand, and then her lips, and she said, “come on, follow me!”

We could see the men on their golf cart when they were moving. When the cart stopped we couldn’t see it any longer, but once it started moving again, we were able to make it out in the dark. Willa wanted to follow the men from a safe distance and began to pedal her bike down the cart path.

By now, I had come up with a much better idea than shadowing Clyde and his fellow irrigation worker. I wanted to make out with Willa and rub my naked body all over hers. So we returned to an isolated spot we had cycled past several times earlier, got off our bikes and laid down on the soft grass. We were kissing and petting and loving each other, when all of a sudden the sprinklers in that area came on, going fwap fwap fwap and we got drenched within seconds. We jumped up to run, and as soon as we stood up, Clyde hit us from about 100 feet away with his flashlight!

“Hey you two!!” he yelled.

I hollered to Willa, “follow me!” and hopped onto my bike. Willa stayed right with me, and we rode as fast as possible on the cart path back into the bowels of that golf course. We could ride much faster on the cart path than Clyde’s electric golf cart could go, and we were soon out of reach of their flashlight. They were not far behind us, but all we had to do was quickly get off the cart path and stand behind one of the many trees that dotted the golf course. We both stood completely still, naked, and watched them drive past where we were frozen like a statue, trying to catch us. We played cat and mouse with them for a half hour while trying to make it back to the pond where we could put our clothes back on. We were both giddy from laughing so hard and from the endorphins that must have been released during the many chase episodes.

When we finally arrived back at the pond our clothes were gone. We both knew we were in the right place and at the right pond, but our clothes were nowhere to be found. I said “Clyde must have them!” and, at the exact same time, we both said, “it’s a trap!” And it was.

Two flashlights hit us, and we were busted! All I could do was stare at Willa’s beautiful naked body, but she had no plan of sticking around. She took off on her bicycle and rode like Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France, her naked back getting smaller and smaller as she disappeared into the darkness. I shouted, “see ya, boys!” and took off after her. Clyde and company were not far behind us, but we had outrun them before and we knew we could do it again.

We flew down that cart path toward the country club’s dimly lit parking lot. When we hit the parking lot, we pedaled as fast as we could for the exit. When we were about 300 yards up the main country road, we saw that the men were no longer following us. They stayed by the entrance to the parking lot. And that was a very good thing, because it was uphill all the way to the beginning of Willa’s driveway, then an even steeper uphill trek to her house.
Naked, we pushed our bikes up her driveway in the pitch dark until we came to the little dirt pathway that led back to George’s house. Willa turned to me, said she had a wonderful time and that we should do this again. Then she kissed me with that incredible French kiss of hers, said “good night, Tommy” and wandered away in the dark toward her house.

When I got near George’s house I could see his light was on upstairs. He was still fiddling around with his Volkswagen’s motor. I threw a small pebble that hit his window and asked him to throw me down some clothes.