A very long night which was one of many in my journey as a teenage runaway.
I had been living on the street for over a month. I was tired and cold and finally ready
to swallow my pride and just go home. At the truck stop I asked around to see if anyone was heading to Atlanta. It just so happened there were two guys in an eighteen wheeler who said they would give me a ride all the way. "This must be my lucky day," I thought to myself as I climbed into the cab.
After we had ridden a few miles the driver pulled into a business park. "We have to drop off a load here first before we take you on to Atlanta," he said. I looked at his partner and he just grinned without saying anything. I should have known something was up, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt.
The driver parked the truck at one of the loading docks and reached back behind his seat. He pulled out a twelve pack of beer and popped the top on one of them. "Care for a cold one?" he asked. I just nodded my head sideways.
"So what time do you make your delivery?" I asked, hoping it would be soon.
"Not until seven o'clock," was his reply. It was only half past midnight and something told me it was going to be a long night. After a couple of beers the driver and his partner started making bets on who was going to have sex with me first.
"Wait a minute!" I stopped them. "I think y'all must have the wrong idea. I just want to get home to Atlanta to see my family."
The driver looked at me and smiled sheepishly, "Oh, we'll get you home all right. We just need to make this here delivery first, okay?"
"Okay, I guess," was my reply. I had to think of something fast. No time to regret how I got into this situation - I just needed to think of a way out of it. "Hey, lemme outa here. I need to go to the bathroom," was all I could think of.
"Not so fast," the driver said. "Leave us your shoes - that way we'll know that you're coming back."
"Okay, no problem," I told him as I slid down the seat of the cab toward the outside of the truck, and freedom. "I'll be back in a minute, don't you worry," I assured them. It was February and although there was no snow on the ground, there might as well have been because the ground felt frozen under my bare feet.
Once outside I walked as nonchalantly as I could to the other side of the building. When I got around the corner out of their sight I took off running as fast as I could into the dark woods. After a couple of minutes my feet burned with cuts and bruises, but I kept running until I came upon some railroad tracks, where I finally stopped to get my breath.
Surely by now they had figured out I wasn't coming back, but I felt a safe enough distance from them. I looked down the tracks both ways. It was dark and hard to tell if there was anything either way, but something told me to follow the track where I could see the farthest. I started walking on the cross ties, actually hopping because they were spaced far enough apart where I could not reach the next one at my regular stride.
I must have walked for an hour before I saw any sign of civilization. There were lights up ahead peering through the clouds; maybe if I walked a little faster I would reach them in the next hour. I picked up my pace as the lights grew nearer. At last, I felt hopeful again.
My bare feet were almost numb from the cold and the beating they had taken running through the woods and hopping from one creosote soaked cross tie to another. Nevertheless, I began to feel a small vibration on the bottom of them. It became more pronounced as I made my way from one cross tie to the next. There was a curve in the rail up ahead where I could not see what was around the bend. Suddenly the vibrations became strong and I realized there was a train coming. "How could it be so silent?" I wondered as I looked up and saw the approaching headlight.
Because it was moving very swiftly! As soon as I realized this the engine was upon me. I jumped to the side of the tracks into some briers and felt an excruciating pain on my legs and arms and face, as the train whizzed by without so much as a whistle to warn me of my imminent demise.
I waited as the train cars rolled by only a few feet away. The cars were humming along the track now, much noisier than when they were approaching silently. There was an ear-deafening loud screeching sound coming from one of the cars as it made its way past me. I thought that maybe one of its wheels wasn't turning properly. I waited until the headlight faded into the distance and the sound of moving cars stopped when the thought occurred to me, "I'm alive! I made it!"
There was a chill in the night air as my victorious thoughts of survival were short-lived. I was cold and needed to find somewhere to get warm. The lights of the city were still a couple of miles away, but I decided to continue my trek toward them, hoping that if I just kept moving it would help to keep me warm. "I've got to make it," I told myself. "I can't give up now."
Another quarter mile down the tracks I came upon several shorter tracks which appeared to belong to an industry. There were various cars on the tracks - boxcars, hoppers, gondolas and tank cars. I noticed that the door was open to one of the boxcars so I hopped up into it, and crawled my way to the back of it, trying to get warm. I inspected my feet as best I could in the darkness. They were black and red from bleeding, but I didn't care. I was just glad to be out of the wind, somewhere I could gather my wits about me before I proceeded.
I must have fallen asleep, not knowing how long I had been in that state, when I was startled awake by a very loud bang up against the side of the boxcar that I was leaning against. Simultaneously, the door swung to within two inches of the closed position. "This is just great!" I said out loud as I got up and went toward the door. I tried to push it back open but it would not budge. I put all my weight into it as I tried again, but again the door would not budge. Suddenly I realized the danger I was in and panic struck me as hard and as suddenly as the frightening coupling sound which had awakened me.
"Help!" I yelled through the small opening which was not even big enough to fit my head through. "Help!" I repeated to the cold thin air outside. I had gone into the boxcar to get away from the cold but now I would give anything to be back in it. I felt like a trapped animal and soon thoughts raced back and forth in my mind like a pinball running loose as the bells ring the score up higher and higher. Unwelcome thoughts of how they would find me came into my conscience. Would I freeze to death or starve to death first? How long would it take before someone actually opened the stuck door to find me inside?
Just then I heard footsteps outside. My first instinct was to put my back up against the wall which held the door which would not open. A man shone a flashlight in through the small opening. "Anybody in there? Hello?", he said questioningly.
Should I answer? What if he turns me in? I had to make a decision, and quickly. I put my body flat up against the wall, only inches away from the only help I knew. Then I made a decision which I would be lucky if I lived to regret. I could not let him know I was inside for fear that he would turn me in to the police. I kept silent as he retracted his light and walked away. I heard him asking the same question as he passed other boxcars. "Hello? Anybody there?" he said. Soon his voice grew more distant.
Minutes passed. I thought about yelling for help again, but decided against it. What would I do now? I sat down to think about it. Why had I even run away in the first place? Why had I not gone home when I had the chance? No sooner had I come to the conclusion that there was nothing I could do when I was startled again. There was a loud "Boom!" on the opposite end of the boxcar. This time another car coupled to the other side of the boxcar and suddenly the door slid open just as easily as it had seemed to slide shut. I looked around quickly to see if the coast was clear before I hopped outside - to freedom again!
I made my way down the tracks again toward the lights of the city. I thought about the predicament that I had somehow just escaped from. Had that conductor known that I was in that particular boxcar? Had he coupled those cars on the opposite side on purpose, or had I just been lucky? If indeed he had been the one who rescued me, and subsequently saved my life, I would never know it. I would never know his name, and he would never know mine.
Eventually I came upon some streetlights and left the tracks to investigate. They were in a neighborhood of small houses. It seems most railroad tracks run through the older sections of town, where the houses were built smaller than they are today. The asphalt was still wet from the night dew and my feet were cold again. I had to find somewhere to go to get warm, at least until the sun came up and warmed the air a little.
I continued walking down the street, up one hill and down another when I was met by two bright headlights coming my way. I recognized the two lights atop the roof of the car as it came closer. "Oh no, it's the police," I thought to myself, trying as fast as I could to rehearse what I was going to say if they stopped to talk to me.
The police car came to a rolling stop beside me and a gentleman in uniform rolled down his window. "What are you doing out this time of night?" the cop asked, with the authority of someone whose business it was to know these things.
"I got locked out of the house accidentally," I replied. I waited a few seconds for my response to sink in and to give myself more time to get my story straight.
"Really?" the policeman said. "How did that happen?"
"Well, you see..." I had to think fast. I had seen several newspapers laying in the yards of the neighborhood so I used that as my excuse. "I just woke up and went outside to get the paper, and I accidentally locked myself out."
"Well, where do you live?" he asked me.
"Oh, I don't live here," I told him. "I was visiting my cousins and they went out of town for a couple of days. I was just watching their house until they came back." Now I had to start remembering all the details of my lies, trying to make sure that my story "added up."
"So, where do they live?" he asked again.
"I'm not sure what their address is," I stalled. "It's somewhere down that way, a couple of streets down."
He looked at me in disbelief. "I'm going to have to take you in for questioning. Are you sure you're not a vagrant or a runaway?" he asked.
"No, sir. I told you what happened." I tried to look as honest as I could.
Once at the station, he introduced me to the deputy in charge. He was a stately man; not too tall but muscular just the same. I looked at the name tag on his shirt: "Mike (Somebody)" and I thought to myself, that name sounds familiar. Then I remembered where I had heard it. There was a kid that lived in the neighborhood where I grew up named Michael (Somebody). His mom was always riding around the streets asking if anyone had seen him. Michael was a friendly kid, although his learning disabilities made him the subject of all the other kids' ridicule. I looked back at the deputy... definitely not the same person, I noted.
"So what's this I hear, you were locked out of your cousins' house? Is that right?" He said to me as he looked up from his desk.
"Yes sir, that's what happened. Just like I told the officer who brought me in."
The deputy looked at me for a few seconds, as if he were expecting me to say something else. "And you don't know the address of the place you were staying?" He looked at me again as if to say he didn't believe me.
"No, sir. I didn't bother to write it down."
"Okay," he said. "Let me ask you a few questions." He put down the pen he had been playing with and folded his hands across his chest. " So, what is your name?"
"Susan Smith," I told him. It was just a name that came to the forefront of my mind that sounded halfway believable. This was long before that name was infamous; before a woman with the same name intentionally drowned her two beautiful young boys in the backseat of her car in that small South Carolina town.
"Okay," the deputy said. "And what is your cousins' last name?" he picked up his pen again and began writing.
"Their last name is Smith also," I said. "My uncle, Carson Smith, is my father's brother." Actually, I had known a Carson Smith a few years earlier. He lived two houses from our house in Decatur. We had taken a walk from my house to his one night back in late April of 1975, when he broke the news to me that my father's heart attack was indeed fatal.
"I've got bad news," Mr. Smith had said to me as he put his arm around me. "Your dad didn't make it," he said carefully, as if not to disturb me; but I already knew. I had seen the paramedics trying fitfully to bring him back to life. I had seen them perform CPR and then watched them bring out the paddles which they placed on his chest to try to shock his heart back to life; and finally I had seen one of them pull a hand drill out of his bag which he used to puncture my father's sternum so he could inject nitroglycerin into his heart, but to no avail. I knew when the ambulance left that there was no hope left of ever seeing my father alive again.
"Do you think he's listed in the phone book?" the deputy asked. His words almost startled me, as I was lost in thought.
"I'm not sure. He probably is," was all I could think to say.
I watched while the deputy looked through the phone book for a Carson Smith. As luck would have it, there were three of them. I sat there impatiently as he proceeded to call each one of them. I felt certain that I was about to get caught in a big lie and it would all be over with. I had wanted to go home on my own terms, not shamefully brought back home by the authorities. I wanted to go home of my own free will.
He dialed each number, letting it ring several times. I sat there in anticipation, waiting for the truth to be known. There was no answer at the first number he rang. Then there was no answer at the second. Finally he dialed the third number and I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins like a river after a long hard rain, when the banks are ready to overflow. I waited as he was silent again, listening for someone to pick up the other end. "There's no answer there either," he said as he hung up the phone. He looked at me again. "Are you sure you're not a runaway?"
"No of course not," I told him. "It's like I told you - I got locked out of my cousins' house when I went outside to get the paper. They have gone out of town for a couple of days and I was watching their house."
A few more questions and a few more reassurances and I began to believe that they believed my story. His partner asked me again if I had run away and I told him again that I had not, except this time I looked away through the window outside and I couldn't help but laugh to myself. I realized that the officer who brought me in reminded me of Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith show - well-meaning and friendly but little did he know I was pulling the wool over his eyes. I decided my story was clever enough for them to believe, but then I realized that if I was so clever, I wouldn't be in this predicament to begin with. My internal laughter subsided as I decided I wasn't out of the woods yet. I had to maintain my seriousness.
I feigned being upset about the whole situation of being locked out of the house when in reality it just felt good to be inside a building where it was warm again. I had told them I needed to go home because my mother had become ill suddenly. This was not far from the truth as I had just talked to my sister-in-law the day before and she told me that my Mom had overdosed on some valium and had to have her stomach pumped; and that I had better get home if I knew what was good for me.
"Well here's what we're going to do," the deputy came back in the room carrying some shoes and a coat. "I'll buy you a one way bus ticket to Atlanta... now I'm paying for this out of my own pocket, and I expect you to pay me back when you get back home, okay?" He looked at my eyes as if to say, "I hope you're telling us the truth."
"Okay," I said. I couldn't believe their generosity. A few hours earlier I was locked in a boxcar fearing for my life, barefoot and freezing; and now I had shoes and a coat and would soon be riding on a Greyhound bound for Atlanta. "I really appreciate it," I told the officers. One of them gave me a ride to the bus station and I was on my way. "I promise I'll pay you back," I said as the policeman drove away. It only took about twenty years for me to hold to that promise, but that is another story, for another day.