An Unconventional Event

From a writing prompt in

In 1976, in Columbus, Ohio, when I was 14 years old, I was not a great teenager. I caused my parents no end of trouble with my mouthiness, my rebellion, my general unhappiness of my home life. In retrospect, I was a normal teenager, wouldn’t you say? But I did a very abnormal, unconventional thing that was unplanned and impulsive. I ran away from home. Far away. For a long time, relatively speaking, that is, two whole weeks.

It all started with one of my best friends, Patty, who was 13 and in the 9th grade and I was in the 10th. I wanted to skip school again, which we did rather frequently (even though I’d always continue to have good grades, lucky me), and Patty said if she got caught skipping again she’d catch hell to pay from her parents so our only choice was to just run away. It was really that remarkably simple. We thought it would be a fun adventure and we set about making our plans.

Patty had what seemed like a huge savings account at the bank for the times and for our age, $700! It was a fortune and it would carry us so far! I contributed my paltry babysitting savings of $30. We walked to the bank and Patty withdrew all of her money, no questions asked. These were different times, the 1970’s.

We packed up a few items, clothing, mementos, things that seemed critically important to take with us, and while Patty had a nifty suitcase, I crammed all my stuff into a paper grocery bag. Patty left a note for her parents; I did no such thing. We then took a city bus to Northland Mall, where there was a Greyhound Bus hub and to fulfill Patty’s wishes, we bought tickets to the first stop in Florida which was a town called Jacksonville Beach. Not to be confused with Jacksonville, FL proper, but Jacksonville Beach which was primarily a navy town, and not considered a safe place to be for young runaways. But we didn’t know and we didn’t care. Again, no questions asked at the ticket counter of two teenaged girls buying bus tickets bound for Florida in the middle of a school day.

Oh, it was so exciting, so novel, when we boarded that bus! The whole process had been so simple and we were giddy! This was so freaking cool, no? Definitely yes, indeed, it was.

We were on that bus for 24 very long hours my friends. I’d been to Florida before, but I’d never taken a Greyhound bus anywhere. We just sort of winged it as far as eating at the various stops, being very careful with our financial windfall stash, and no one bothered us, made us feel uncomfortable or really engaged with us. We were just doing our thing.

We arrived in sunny hot Jacksonville Beach and debarked from the bus for the final time of the long trip. We went into the ladies room to freshen up and I remember there was a man in the ladies room, looking for trouble. That was our first sign that maybe Jacksonville Beach wasn’t the best Florida town to come to but again, we didn’t care. This was way too exciting! We were here and Patty’s lifelong dream had come true. Florida was somewhere she’d always wanted to go. By this time in my life, I’d lived many places, Missouri, New York (twice), Florida and several homes in Columbus, Ohio so I considered myself seasoned.

Of course our main goal before any other was to see the beach. I don’t remember how we found ourself there but we did get to the beach before doing anything else. Then we decided we needed a place to live. At this point, in our minds, this was a permanent situation and we needed to make well thought out, good choices.

We rented a studio apartment (once again, no questions asked) that had roaches and no air conditioning but as with everything else, we didn’t care. We were moving forward with our plans and making accomplishments. We were still so giddy and proud of ourselves, but not in a gloating way, rather a more of a validation way, where we were proving that this was all a great idea and everything was going so well.

The next day, we met some of our neighbors, all navy men and their wives or girlfriends and we fell right in with them. They were in their late teens and early twenties and we all formed a quick and warm friendship, Patty’s and my ages notwithstanding-we didn’t hide it. I met an 18 year old guy named Chuck and immediately developed a crush on him-these were my boy-crazy years after all.

The naval guys had a band that played covers from the popular group called Bad Company and they took us down to the local USO to see them play. Nary a thought to us about getting into a car with these relative strangers. They were, and continued to be, very kind people. I still have a photograph of the band playing that night; Chuck must have given it to me at some point.

Within a couple of days, Patty was starting to feel homesick for her boyfriend, Corky, a ne’er-do-well from our friend group-we were all basically anti-establishment and did everything our parents disallowed or disagreed with. We were, after all, I must point out again, teenagers. And most of us were from dysfunctional homes; I know I was. We decided to write letters to all our friends and let them know what we were up to, just newsy letters like you would write to a friend or relative who lived out of town, assuming that our running away was a big deal to them because they weren’t with us and we wanted them to know we missed them but were doing great! We even put our return address on the letters! Never occurred to us that might not be a great idea. We were already gone for good in our minds and nothing could stop us now. This was our life now. And our friends wrote us back.

On the way to looking for a job, I remember Patty buying a record player because music was our thing, like any teenager, and we’d brought our favorite 45’s with us as essentials. So the record player was not considered an extravagance, but rather a necessity. We applied for jobs at McDonald’s and were hired on the spot pending a work permit proving we were 16 years old. This would prove to be a problem since we had no way to get such a permit but we knew we’d figure it out somehow.

So we had our apartment, our record player, our jobs and our friends, all within a few days. I never experienced a moment of homesickness and this life was definitely my new normal. Patty, on the other hand, wasn’t faring so well. Mainly, she just really missed her boyfriend and the novelty was wearing off for her, I could tell. We continued to hang out with our friends, go to the beach, go to the USO, listen to records and ponder the whole work permit issue, but we had plenty of money. I was having a blast. This was heaven for me considering what I’d left behind. I saw my whole future here, especially with Chuck; as by this time we were definitely an item.

One day, two weeks into our adventure, two police officers came to our humble door and that, of course, was the beginning of the end. I was devastated! Who would rat us out? Surely, none of our likeminded friends at home? Our new friends in the apartment complex? To this day, I’ve never known.

We were unceremoniously escorted to the police department, paltry belongings in hand, and immediately separated. I wouldn’t see Patty again until we reunited in school back in Columbus. We never saw our local friends to say goodbye. It was just over. I particularly remember the policeman remarking that I was lucky to be alive considering how long we’d lasted in this dangerous situation and unsafe environment. Who knew? I just cried and cried. This was my first and fortunately only time spending the night in a group home associated with social services. I just remember being so incredibly sad, disappointed and scared to death to go back to my unhappy home in Columbus. I knew I’d be in a world of trouble.

I was flown home the next day and my parents immediately took me to a therapist which was of no use at all because I was so embittered and wasn’t having any of it. Within a week, a violent fight broke out between my dad and me and I was sent to Patty’s to stay until I could procure yet another person to take me in. My mother refused, as she had done several times previously when I requested her to take me back in, my dad and his wife wouldn’t allow me to come back so the plan was to send me to a juvenile detention center. Yes, this was the plan. No one in my family was willing to take care of me. In retrospect, this was extremely traumatic and has affected me my entire life-this life of constant abandonment and giving up on me. I was a relatively normal, smart, friendly, outgoing teenager with atypical problems at home through no real fault of my own. My actions were a result of the constantly dysfunctional circumstances I was exposed to going back to when my biological father left me at 18 months old and subsequently signed adoption papers when my mother remarried. Then she divorced, and made me go live with my adopted father and his 19 year old wife when I was 11. My mom kept my three siblings and I never lived with them again and that was truly traumatizing. So by this time, there had indeed been a lot of disruption in my life and clearly I was acting out as anyone my age would. But I was a good person and it took me years to finally realize that it wasn’t my fault.

Meanwhile, in a Hail Mary attempt to find someone to take me in, I called my maternal grandmother who had recently moved from Ohio to North Carolina with her youngest child, my 18 year old uncle. She agreed to take me! It was bittersweet because I was once again saying goodbye to all my friends, going to a strange place into a strange situation. I remember crying on the plane the entire way down to NC to my seatmate and I wonder today what that poor woman must have thought.

My grandmother saved my life; I have no doubt of that. It was with pure love that she allowed me to come and live with her. We shared a room in a two bedroom apartment until my uncle moved out on his own. We had a lot of fun together, I must say, and I felt safe and loved by at least one person on this earth. She saw to it that I paid Patty back every penny that we’d used to run away and she taught me so many things about unconditional love which I’d never experienced. I also stayed in touch with Chuck and he even came to visit me in NC which was very cool. Sadly, I dumped him for a loser boyfriend and I regretted how I handled it for the rest of my life. I was actually able to track him down fairly recently and I apologized and he was fine, no regrets, no worries, so that was satisfying,

I lived with my grandmother for over a year, until I finished high school. I got a full time job at age 15 working in a diner, and mainly couch-surfed for awhile with my co-workers. I stayed in touch with my Columbus friends, and actually saw Patty many years later when I was visiting Columbus with my future husband. Patty has since died, of an alcoholic overdose. Her life never really recovered after our adventure. I, however, look back on this time with joy and astonishment as I know now that it was a truly unconventional, ballsy and dangerous thing to do, but I will always remember it as a grand adventure.

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