The handwriting is juvenile with the fancy cursive capital D's taught to students years ago but the lines are regular without a slant, the letters clear if a bit uneven, suggesting care taken in the writing despite errors that are crossed out. The brief note is written on the back of a get well card that came from a grandmother; apparently the writer did not wish to spend time looking for unused writing paper. The message is simple and direct.
DDear Mom and Dad
I'v run away.
Please don't try to find me
P.SP.S. I love you
The note is signed with just a first name. Harvey. My first name.
I have no recollection what offense my folks might have committed six decades ago that prompted me to decide to leave a happy and comfortable life and set out on my own. From what might I have thought I was escaping?
Whatever the cause, I did not go far. But I was just eight years old.
Earlier that summer, my dad had set up a pup tent in our back yard; a World War II surplus tent, the typical small tent drawn in comic strips and cartoons that showed soldiers with their feet sticking out the end, a tent so low that a child might be able to sit up inside but not an adult, a tent the standard army canvas green. It made for a wonderful place for my friends and me to play, fighting off whatever enemy that threatened.
Close by the tent was a small vegetable garden that my dad and I had planted together. The crops had grown well -- radishes, tomatoes, and the like. My responsibilities included a bit of weeding and moving the sprinkler. Together we would pick ripe vegetables and proudly bring them into the house to present to my mom for her praise and appreciation.
A place to stay that first night. Food to eat. And best of all, freedom. I had run away to the back yard.
If I had a plan back then I do not know what it was. I took no clothes beyond what I wore, no blanket, no food, no money. Nothing. But when circumstance presents the opportunity for escape one makes do with whatever one has at that moment.
My folks gave no sign they noticed me ten yards from the house. There were two evergreens between the tent and the house and I must have thought that I was hidden from their view. I sat cross-legged in the tent waiting for whatever was to happen next. Just what was supposed to happen next, anyhow? I did know that it was getting to be dinner time and I was getting hungry.
I went out to the garden. By late summer the radishes were gone. As were the peas. We had picked all the ripe tomatoes just a day or two earlier. There were green beans but I had no way to cook them. Finally I found a small cucumber. I picked it, wiped it off a bit with my sleeve and took a bite. Sort of a bitter taste, I ate about half and threw the rest onto our compost pile.
Back to the tent. I could figure out the food thing in the morning. The sun was going down by now anyhow.
Dusk slowly turned to dark. I was alone in that tent, on the hard ground, thinking now was the time to go to sleep, thinking about that small spider web I had noticed in the far corner the day before. The noises of the night began to surround the tent and get louder as it became darker; not just the chirp of crickets but sounds of buzzing all around me. Crawling. Scraping. Chewing.
Inside the tent!
Maybe sleeping out here this first night was not such a great idea. Now what? Going home was out of the question. My friend's house was on the next street but his yard backed up to mine. That was where I would go.
I crawled out of the tent and wiped imagined predatory insects and arachnids from my body with hurried and jerky motions. Now I was at Mike's back door. I told him I had run away from home and needed to stay there. He had to ask his mom but that was simply a formality.
I can still hear her voice in my mind, whatever neurons that store the memory easily activated to bring up the silent sounds. A voice that combines exasperation, annoyance, ridicule, impatience, softened ever so slightly with amusement and motherly tenderness, "Harvey, just go home to your mother."
But I could not go home. Runaways do not just turn around and go home. What about Phil?
Phil lived in the next house down the street from Mike. He was also a friend and the three of us often played together. Not as close a friend as Mike but a friend nevertheless and what are friends for if not to help each other out when the need is there.
At Phil's back door I presented my dilemma to him and his mother. Unlike Mike's mom, I have no memory whatever of her voice or even of her face. But I do recall her words. "Yes, you can stay here if it's okay that I call your mother and let her know where you are."
That seemed fair. I agreed and happily and even with a bit of relief went inside. The bedrooms were on the second floor and I had never been up there before. I do not recollect just where I slept. In Phil's room, or maybe a spare room? I think I slept very soundly.
In the morning I put my dirty clothes back on. Hopefully my folks had learned whatever lesson they were meant to learn and I could allow them to have me back home with them. As Phil and I went down the stairs I noticed on the stairway wall a set of framed photographs.
The photographs were of Phil and his family carefully posed, his folks and his several siblings, dressed in coats and ties for the men, nice blouses and dresses for the women. There were three or four of these portraits with the children at different ages, the parents unchanged. I was seeing for the first time formal family portraits. I lingered just for a moment looking at what was to me a remarkable display.
I think I was offered breakfast. But I was anxious to get back home and see my folks. They must have been worried about me and I ought to go right home, straight home, now.
Sure enough they were happy to see me. And I was happy to be home. A bath and some clean clothes and all returned to normal. I apparently had been successful in achieving whatever I had intended by running away from home since I never did it again.
The pup tent stayed up through most of the autumn and continued to be a good place to play in daytime. The garden production gradually slowed, then stopped. Mike, Phil, and I remained friends for the next few years. My mom saved my runaway note and presented it to me on my fiftieth birthday.
The story should end there but does not. Thirty years later, a father myself and with that collection I had seen at Phil's home so long before still clear in my mind, I gathered wife and two sons for a visit to a photo studio for a formal family portrait, an exercise that has been repeated every few years. The most recent portrait includes a third generation. I look at the collection on the wall, celebrate my good fortune, and silently recall the time I ran away to my backyard.
First appeared in Clearwater Literary Journal.