I was nine years old when I first became convinced of what I needed to do. At the time I was confined to my spacious baseball-themed bedroom with pinstriped wallpaper like prison bars, impatiently waiting for my mother to realize that I was perfectly justified in locking my brother in the basement. After all, he started it. But the unwarranted punishment was just one of a long list of grievances that simply had to be resolved. The overbearing hierarchy of our traditional family structure was stifling me. Why should two members of the family rule with complete dominion over all the rest? Bedtimes, meal restrictions, chores, limited television viewing; it was tyranny! More than that though, it was dull. Locking my younger brother in the basement was the most exciting thing that had happened all week.
My ideas of how life ought to be lived were torn straight from the pages of classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. I wanted to float down rivers on handmade rafts like Huckleberry Finn and face cunning villains such as the rogue John Silver. I wanted the freedom, adventure, and influence depicted in Lord of the Flies. One summer, The Swiss Family Robinson inspired me to devise a pulley system by which I could hoist novels to the top branch of my favorite backyard tree. Nestled among the highest branches, I often read till sunset, imagining I was anywhere other than my parents’ comfortable suburban home.
It was this unfulfilled desire for adventure, for exploration, for conflict and drama, which propelled me toward an ultimate decision while brooding in my bedroom. I had to escape.
Impossible, I thought at first. I didn’t have any money. But that wouldn’t have stopped Tom Sawyer, who had once traded a chore for a plethora of nick-knacks and treats. I was just as clever, just as daring, and not a lick less resourceful. If money wasn’t an issue for Tom, nor would it be for me.
I had just begun to pack, stuffing socks and T-shirts into a backpack, when my mother came to the bedroom door. Her five-foot frame towered over me then and as she looked down at me from atop her stern aquiline nose, it occurred to me that the act of escaping might be slightly more difficult than I had anticipated. I was faster than her on foot, I calculated, but first I’d have to get past her. Those boney hands were nimble, capable of snatching an earlobe with the speed and force of a lightning strike.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked, eying the backpack.
“I’m leaving,” I said with indignation. There was no point in sugarcoating it. “I’m running away.”
Her eyes flashed and for a moment my muscles tightened, anticipating an imminent palm to the back of the head, but the strike never came. Instead, the corners of her lips drew wide, and to my surprise, she smiled.
“Well, let me help you pack,” she said.
I was reluctant at first, insisting that I didn’t need any help from anyone, so for a time she just watched as I packed the essentials: a compass, toy binoculars, sunglasses, and my cherished Swiss Army knife. But soon she reminded me that it was late September and would probably be cold at night. I hadn’t really thought of that. At her suggestion I packed a sweater, a pair of gloves, and a flashlight.
“Uhm, Mom? Do you think I could take some snacks, you know, just to get me started,” I asked with a sheepish grin.
A short time later I had my backpack on my shoulders, a plastic grocery bag full of edible goodies in one hand, and I was on my way.
“Dinner is at six o’clock,” my mother called after me.
“Don’t care,” I yelled back from the edge of the driveway.
Just like that, I was on my own, stepping out into the world like Holden Caulfield, a brave explorer in a world far larger than himself. Behind me was the life of ease and comfort, of simplicity and boredom. No more automatic can openers, fresh cleaned laundry, or my favorite home-cooked Italian meals. I was determined to be self-reliant from that moment on.
I daydreamed of the wondrous places I would see in my travels, of booming cities echoing with noise, and people, and struggle. I imagined lazy walks through the countryside, stopping to pet horses and chewing on a piece of straw between my teeth. I would meet fascinating people with fantastic stories to share, and their tales would become mine, and I would create my own, until I became one of those remarkable individuals.
Before I knew it, I was at the edge of the subdivision, and my feet hurt. I peeled off the wrapper of a granola bar and trudged on, veering into the woods. Better to keep off the major roads, I decided. Traveling through the woods would avoid any uncomfortable encounters with police officers or other pesky adults wondering where I was going or what I might be doing off by myself. I certainly couldn’t risk an early end to my expedition before crossing the state line.
Those Pennsylvania woods were familiar to me, even in their autumn state with naked trees like skeletons and all the crunchy leaves that a boy could step on. I had spent many days of my childhood exploring this marginal wilderness that separated one subdivision from another. On hot summer days I had met up with the neighbor boys and swung out into the creek, riding a rope tied to a branch, after a long game of capture the flag. But those could not have been true adventures since their locality negated the potential for grandeur. So I trudged on, intent on defying the life I was leaving behind. Everything significant was still ahead of me, I convinced myself through the boundless optimism of a child. Meanwhile, my shoulders were beginning to ache.
I decided to stop and take a break. The sun was creeping toward the horizon and the temperature was falling with it, so I decided to put on my sweater and have another granola bar. Sitting on the cold, hard earth and some knotted tree roots, hugging the sweater tight to my body, I began to consider that most of Huck Finn’s adventures had taken place in the summer, and considerably further south at that. Nonetheless, I gathered my few belongings and carried on walking through the woods and pondering the difference between perseverance and stubbornness.
I heard cars careening along the highway long before I reached the edge of the woods. Once there, I gazed out on U.S. Route 1 which my father had told me runs all the way from the northern tip of Maine to the southern tip of Florida. There before me were all kinds of vehicles full of all kinds of people headed all kinds of places and they were all moving so fast. How could I ever keep up? I didn’t even have the cash for a bus fare, but what was worse: I didn’t even know where to find a bus station, or how to purchase a ticket. The world that seemed so accessible to the fictional characters I admired was, in reality, vast and uncompromising in ways that I wouldn’t understand for years. I turned toward home, crushed under the weight of a paradigm shift that was only beginning to take form in my mind, and though my dreams of surviving a life on the run and living by own terms seemed impossibly distant, I swore over and over that I would most definitely make it the next time, when the circumstances were just a bit more convenient.
I arrived at home in less than an hour, just as the sky turned a deep blend of blue and purple, and arrived in time to see my mother bringing plates of steaming spaghetti and meatballs to the kitchen table. My father and brother were munching on salads and seemed not to notice my disgraceful return.
“Oh good, you’re back. Go wash up for dinner,” my mother said with a casual air, putting a plate by my place at the table. I gave a defeated nod and did as I was told.
“So, what did everyone do today?” my father asked a few minutes later, once everyone had settled into their meals. My mother gave me a sideways glance, but said nothing. I sat in abashed silence, refusing to make eye contact, prodding the pasta with my fork.