Friday, September 4, 2009

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.


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