My brother and I were eleven and thirteen, respectively, when the unthinkable happened. My Mom got remarried to good old Ed. The way we learned of this event was that the happy couple came down the stairs together one morning for the first time. There was no mistaking the look on their faces as they broke the news, but the way they did it will always stick in my memory of horrors. “Hi, guess what we did yesterday.” “Here’s your new whatever” – wink, wink. “Ed will need some of that space in the attic for storage.” We’ve always thought that just a little forewarning might have softened the blow.
Ron and I were totally crushed by this revelation. We were still loyal to our Dad, whom we were certain would come back to us in time. After all, he had been gone fighting the war in Italy for three years. He needed time to adjust, to find himself. Anything but this horrifying development. We wouldn’t talk to Ed at all, despite the fact that he was a nice guy who treated my Mom really well. As we learned much later, he was also an army veteran and a survivor of the near-disastrous winter campaign in the Ardennes – better known as the Battle of the Bulge. He never talked about it in all the years we knew him after that, and he and Mom later had a little girl to complete the family.
But none of that could matter to us, the inconsolable young boys whose idol had been ripped from our lives by what we viewed as nothing less than a betrayal. We decided to do something about it; we would run away, that’s what we’d do! Planning didn’t enter into the picture in those moments of adolescent agony. We just got out my boy scout knapsack, packed the pup tent, with tie-downs, a blanket, some fishing line and a couple of sandwiches. Ron had inherited my very first bike: a solid-tire little beginner, with a bell. I had graduated to a balloon-tire Schwinn with a light and all. We were set for a new life somewhere, who knew where, and we set out early one morning for the river, about fifteen miles away. This was the Passaic River, which was known to produce some nice fish. We’d camp out in the nearby woods and live on our catch until we had a better idea. For now, all we wanted to do was vent our agony and our anger against Mom.
Ron had trouble keeping up from the beginning. That part of New Jersey is very hilly, and our first challenge was a mile-long climb to the top of Eagle Rock Mountain. I had to stop and wait for Ron at intervals, and the poor little guy’s face had turned beet-red before we’d traveled that first mile. But I’ll always admire my bro for his guts. He never complained, he just wanted to do anything I asked, and he did his very best. About halfway to our destination, we were pumping up a hill, panting, quads throbbing, when we actually caught up to a dump truck, which seemed to be laboring even harder than we were. So I had the bright idea to hitch a ride, so I reached back for a length of our tie-down rope, tied one end to my seat post and gave the other to Ron. Then I told him to snug his end to his handlebar and I’d grab hold of a cleat on the back of the truck. We’d get a free ride for the next mile or two. I secured the cleat in my hand, the rope went taut, and our little conga line was on its way.
For about five seconds.
The truck suddenly found new life, and began to accelerate as it hit a little dip in the road. In about half a heartbeat I was yanked violently sideways, losing my grip and almost having my arm pulled out of its socket. As the truck went nonchalantly on its way, we two lay in a heap on the side of the road, sobbing and moaning. We managed to crawl off on the shoulder, where we were able to assess the condition of our transportation. It seemed that the only damage we suffered, besides a few bruises and my aching shoulder, was a broken little headlight. What to do now? We brushed ourselves off and checked for torn clothes, and then told each other that we’d better try to make it to the river, where we could wash off and get a drink of good river water. (It was actually drinkable back then!)
We arrived at our destination around four p.m., totally exhausted and covered with road dust. A little wash-up in the river was really refreshing. By the way, it was mid-April and the water was still icy cold. Who knew what the ground would be like. We selected a likely spot under the trees and pitched the pup tent. I knew all about this stuff from boy scouts, so what’s to worry about? We ate our sandwiches and decided to supplement our rations with some fish from the river. It was no problem to dig some worms for bait, but the fish just didn’t want to cooperate. We had a few little tugs but couldn’t land one. No worries, we’d try it again in the morning.
But we came to believe that the morning would never come. One blanket between two shivering boys with light jackets just wouldn’t cut it, and we began to shiver in the advancing cold. By then it was totally dark, and we began to hear the night sounds as we huddle together for warmth. A branch cracked, something flew right by our heads on silent wings. We felt it more than hearing it. Spooky stuff! But Ron was depending on his big brother for guidance, and I couldn’t let him down. So I made him a promise that if we got thru the night, we’d get our little butts home in the morning, no matter how mortifying the consequences.
We hardly slept, naturally, and the dawn brought a cold mist from the river that seemed to cling to our freezing little bodies like a coating of ice. By then, we were both in the beginnings of roaring bronchial distress that would prove to last at least two weeks. But we had to get home, no matter what. The return trip took twice as long as the outbound leg, despite having lightened our load by abandoning the tent, knapsack, and all items that could produce weight or drag. If we had been tired in the morning, we were just about comatose upon our arrival. By then, we didn’t care if there were whips and chains awaiting us at home. The thought of total banishment wormed its way into my delirious little head.
But to our everlasting amazement, we were greeted by hysterical tears from Mom and mugs of hot chocolate from Ed. We were analyzed physically: poked, prodded and administered any and every tonic that Mom had in the house. I was so groggy I didn’t care if a whipping, lecture or permanent grounding was in my future, but no. What we got was unconditional, eternal love. The prodigals had returned, the fatted calf would be killed, there would be music and dancing and the neighbors would be invited to share in our family’s undying happiness.
And my brother and I never went anywhere on our bikes again. We took the bus or trolley anywhere we had to go, and turned into model boys who would never, ever aggravate their parents again. And that’s the end, except that I made up this entire last paragraph.
George Thatcher September 2022
George is an American Bad Ass. He grew up in Jersey, flew B-52s in Vietnam, taught English, Spanish and other languages to children around the world, makes his own salsa, has been known to enjoy a beer or two and has called Lubbock home for a few years, just to entertain the locals. Welcome to Raiderland, Major. We are going to feature some of his writings going forward. Some new, some old. Some rhyme, some don’t. When it comes to George, there’s no box. So… enjoy our friend and enjoy his writings! – Hyatt