Last week I started the story of the three times I ran away. So today I am writing about the second of those three adventures. In retrospect, I can’t believe how incredibly dumb – and dangerous – this adventure was. It could have very easily turned out quite differently.
This started on an unusually warm day in February 1977. I don’t remember why, but there was no school that day and a buddy and I were out driving around in my Mustang (yep, I had a 1966 Mustang then) with the stereo cranked and the windows down. We had smoked a couple of joints, but we weren’t really stoned, just buzzing and enjoying the day.
We had been out in the country and we were on the highway heading back to Roanoke when we saw two sisters that I knew from church hitchhiking. Naturally, I pulled over and picked them up and asked where they were headed. It didn’t matter to me and my buddy because we had all day, or at least until 5 pm when I had to be at work at Burger King. Flipping burgers at BK was my first ‘real’ job. (I’d done a bunch of other things previously to earn money, but this was the first time I was receiving a paycheck.)
It turned out that the girls had had a huge argument with their mother and were taking off. The older sister, who was probably 16, had a boyfriend who had just moved from Roanoke to a town near Cleveland, Ohio, and they decided that was where they were going. I was kind of ‘sweet’ on one of the sisters and they were both good friends, so I did what I thought was the normal thing for a 16-year-old dude with a car to do. I said, “I’ll take you there!”
My buddy looked at me like I was crazy and said we weren’t going to Ohio with HIM in the car! So we drove him to his house and dropped him off. We went to another friend’s house to figure out what we were going to do next. The older sister called Burger King and said that she was my mother and told the manager that I was sick and would not be able to work that night. (Side note: This then became the first job that I was fired from.)
I checked my wallet and saw that I had $10. For some reason, I seemed to think that it was going to be enough to drive to Cleveland. Back then gas prices in Roanoke were still in the range of 59 cents/gallon, and I guess I thought the prices would be the same everywhere. (They weren’t.) I also didn’t have a grasp on the concept of miles-per-gallon (MPG) and distance, as that Mustang got about 13 or 14 mpg and it was well over 450 miles to Cleveland. (And the only route I knew made it closer to 520 miles.) The gas tank on a ’66 Mustang held 16 gallons, so 16 gallons at 14 mpg meant I wouldn’t get half-way there on a tank of gas, and I didn’t think about the small fact that my tank was almost empty to start with.
But, I filled the car, using all of my money, and we took off. We didn’t have a map, but I thought I knew the general way we needed to go. We left Roanoke around 6 pm and it was still in the upper 50s, so we just had jean jackets or long sleeve shirts. We headed north on Interstate 81 and by the time we got to Maryland (I wasn’t going the most direct way – no map) there was snow on the ground and it was cold. We were also almost out of gas already and I started to realize this wasn’t going the way I had imagined it going.
I came up with the bright idea of getting off the interstate to look for a gas station in the country that was closed. I thought I could pull up to the pump, steal the gas, and take off. I didn’t even consider that the pumps would be turned off whenever they closed. Duh!
Back on the highway, we weren’t sure what we were going to do. We thought that maybe we could talk someone into buying us gas somewhere, so we got off at the next exit. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying very close attention to what the road was like and we hit a patch of ice which led to the car slamming into a curb, busting the tire, and bending the rim. And, because I was so well prepared for this adventure, I had a flat spare tire.
So there we were, sitting on the berm of an exit ramp with the car broke down, a couple of feet of snow on the ground, and we were all dressed for 60-degree weather.
Instead of figuring that this was the end of the adventure, we decided to try to hitchhike the rest of the way. For whatever reason ( well, I think we all know what my reason was) I decided to leave my Mustang on the berm of a ramp that was in an ’emergency snow removal zone’ somewhere in Maryland. (Of course, the car was towed and impounded by the Maryland State Police and was quite difficult to retrieve, as I’ll explain in a bit.)
So, the girls climbed up on top of the car and started trying to hitchhike from that vantage spot. It wasn’t long before a tractor-trailer pulled over, and although the driver would have preferred that I stay behind with my broke down Mustang, he let all three of us climb in. We rode for an hour or two with him, hiding in the sleeper compartment when we went through a toll booth, and we actually had an interesting ride. It turned out that the driver had run away from home when he was a teenager, which is why he didn’t mind giving us a lift.
When we got to a rest stop near the exit where he was going to have to go a different direction, he used his CB radio and found another trucker to give us a ride. The 2nd trucker wasn’t as friendly, but was still nice enough and gave us a ride for another couple of hours. He let us out at a rest area and we were on our own. Once again the girls started trying to catch us a ride while I stayed back away from them. Finally, a trucker agreed to give the girls a ride, but he was quite visibly not happy when he found out that I came with the girls. He reluctantly agreed to take us all on to Cleveland, but that was a somewhat tense ride.
That driver let us out at an exit ramp right as we entered the Cleveland area. There was a gas station at the top of the exit so we trudged up there and went inside to get warm and to find out where the town was that we were heading to. (We had no idea where it was, we just knew it was close to Cleveland.) There were at least two feet of snow on the ground, the temperature was in the teens, and we still had only warm-weather clothes. The station attendant looked at us when we walked through the door and actually asked us if we were runaways. We just smirked and said no. We asked for directions and found out we were about half an hour from Painesville, where we wanted to be.
We convinced a customer at the station to give us a ride, and it turned out that he was heading through that town, so he gave us a ride to the center of town. It was now near noon the day after we had started our excursion and we still didn’t know exactly how we were going to find the older sister’s boyfriend.
The town only had one high school, and it was easy to find, so we headed there, went in, and started walking through the halls, looking in the window of each classroom door. We finally found his class, and we stood in the hall, waving through the window until we caught his attention. He did a double-take, and then a triple-take, as he had no idea we were coming. He managed to excuse himself from class and came out to meet us. He was incredulous that we were actually there, but he said that we definitely couldn’t be in the school or we’d get caught.
He led us out and to a near-by fast food place. (It was a place called The Red Barn, if anyone remembers those.) We were more than a little hungry because we hadn’t had anything to eat since around noon the day before. We told him the story of how we had gotten there and he asked what our plan was. And of course, we didn’t have a plan.
He took us to his house and convinced his mother to let us stay there at least overnight. I was shown a bed in the basement room and I went to sleep immediately, I hadn’t had any sleep since early the day before and I was exhausted. While I was sleeping, there were several phone calls made (it hadn’t taken the girls’ parents too long to figure out where they were headed. My involvement was a surprise to them) and their mom and our assistant youth pastor were coming up to get them after they met up with my mom and stepdad who were coming to get me in their car. It turns out that my mom and stepdad had some major car trouble on the way and had to spend the night somewhere in West Virginia while they waited for their car to be fixed. So, the girls’ mom and the assistant youth pastor came to pick us all up.
They took us to where my mom was waiting and then I rode home with them. That was a long ride home. It didn’t help matters when my stepfather was pulled over for speeding. Then we found out my car was impounded and we would have to come back the next day. So we drove home and then the next day we drove back up to near Hagerstown where we found out we had to pay the fine, pay the impound fee, and then pay to get the car towed to where we could pay to get the wheel fixed.
I wasn’t allowed to drive my car home (I wasn’t allowed to drive it at all for a month, and I had a lot of paying back to do) so my stepdad drove it home. After just a short while on the road, the heater core went bad in the Mustang so he had to drive most of the way home with the window rolled down so that he could keep the windshield clear. That just seemed to add to the general mood that he and my mom were in about the whole adventure.
So that is the story of my second runaway adventure. And once again, I can now see how God had His hand on all of us to keep us safe during that trip. So many things could have gone badly wrong, but He protected us.
I have one more story to share the next time.
Grace and peace, y’all.
Things That I Write About
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