Innocents in flight
††††††††††† My discharge from the United States Army in October 1969 ruined my fantasy about joining the French Foreign Legion.
††††††††††† Young, horny and confused, I joined the army slightly under a year earlier to escape love -- my heart so panged with undesired feelings no drill sergeant could shout out of me.
††††††††††† Rigid discipline and I mixed no better than oil and water, and I returned unchanged if not unscathed to a family unable to understand me.
††††††††††† At a troubled teen, I had lost my family's confidence. Too many police cars showed up at their door with too many reports about my misbehavior. While I managed for most of my previous life to escape serious criminal charges, my last batch of police troubles involved waving a pistol around in a train station and police sharp shooters pulling us out at gunpoint in handcuffs. Later, they discovered the pistol a mock up of an Army-style 45, a b-b- gun with which we had picked out the windows of patrol cars a few blocks away.
††††††††††† As an 18-year old army veteran (somehow I managed to escape with an honorable discharge) I was expected to "straighten up" and "fly right." My family actually expected me to get a job, pay rent and contribute to the welfare of the household -- deplorable expectations to my hazy mind.
††††††††††† The worst part of my return, however, involved the very girl I sought to escape, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed knock out that could have passed for a younger Doris Day. And since Doris Day had always played a huge part in my secret fantasies, my attraction to her could easily be explained. No magnets in high school science ever fell together so easily nor so difficultly drawn apart.
†Worse I couldn't find Louise anywhere. I went back to the printing factory where we had met and found she had quit. Finally, I took a bus up to the Packnack Lake section of Wayne, knocked on her parentsí door, asking to see her.
†"She's not here," her suspicious mother said, as if my remarkable short hair was a negative in the years after the Summer of Love.
†"Do you know where she went?"
†"She went to see her sister in Colorado," her mother said. "If you leave your name and address I can pass them along to her."
†I agreed, though it seemed an unsatisfactory solution. I had wanted to see her face to face in order to resolve the conflicts going on inside my head, to ask her about issues like love and desire. To send a message via her mother seemed a poor substitute, and I found myself wandering away, back onto the bus, this time for New York City, where I settled into the circle of Washington Square Park to ponder my ill fortunes -- all the time, my family thinking I was seeking a job.
†When I got a letter from Louise a few days later, I was shocked. Her leaving the state had convinced me she wanted no more contact with anyone in this part of the world, sentiments she had expressed often while I worked with her.
†"I hate them all," she kept telling me, though I only later learned she had burned too many bridges in this part of country, the mounting numbers of ex-boyfriends making it impossible for her to continue dating in a world where she had an equally mounting bad reputation.
†The return address on the letter listed a motel in Boulder, Colorado. I nearly lost it tearing open the envelop to read what was inside. The news was less hateful than I thought, but many times more desperate. She missed me, but would not be returning to New Jersey any time soon.
†"I don't have anything back there to come home to except for my parents," she said. "And they hate me. They want me to be some good little girl that becomes a good little teacher, and I can't do that."
†The most painful part was her inviting me West to see her.
†How the hell was I supposed to do that?
†Back to New York I went, and wandering lower Manhattan from river to river, struggling to find a solution to this dilemma. I had saved no money while in the Army, and I had no job that would allow me travel expenses to reach her, or worse, money to live on once I did.
†I sat in Washington Square Park and wrote foolish love letters to Louise, tore some of them up, stupidly mailed others. By best friend Hank tried to console me, but my mood was so vile that I nearly got into a slugging match with one of the local drug dealers when Hank tried to buy some LSD and the man tried to give him elephant tranquilizers.
†When finally Hank got the right drug and ingested it, I decided to go home. Hank later called it the ultimate bad trip, because he didn't see me again over almost a year.
†Somehow, the silly confrontation with the drug dealer had started a plan in my head, and during the bus ride home, the elements of the plan clicked together so that when I got to the house I knew exactly what I was going to do, if not exactly when. In fact, twice I had to put off the plan because one of my uncles woke at the wrong time. Finally, on the night of November 13, into the morning of the 14th, I slipped out of bed, dressed myself in a suit and tie, then eased into my uncle's bedroom where I lifted his pants from the back of a chair.
†The keys rattled the whole way down from the third floor to the first, my heart pounding with panic over each resounding clink. When I reached the downstairs hall, I dumped the pants, removing from them a heavy ring of keys -- one of which opened the outer door to the business safe, another, the strong box filled with cash.
†My hands shook as I carried that box into the downstairs bathroom, where I could lock the door and examine the box's content more closely. Bundles of bills filled the box to its brim, with as much as $50,000 sitting there for me to take. But I didn't need it all, I thought at the time. I just wanted a grub stake that would allow me to get myself out west, set myself up with an apartment, and allow me to eat until I could find myself a job. I counted out $10,000, stuffing the bundles into my suit jacket pockets, and when those were filled, into my pants pocket.
†A cough in the kitchen outside the bathroom door froze me. It was one of my other uncles who had come down for something to drink in the middle of the night. The bathroom door knob rattled as he tried to get in.
†"I'm in here," I said.
†"Huh?" the voice said. "Danny?"
†"You going to be a while?"
†My uncle grunted again, then made his way up the stairs to the second floor bathroom, me listening to every footfall as he retreated, my heart echoing each ready to stop the minute they made a sudden return.
†I did wait. Once I heard the upstairs door close, I dumped the cash box with the remaining money into the hamper and rushed out of the house.
†November cold greeted me in my thin suit jacket as I stumbled down the stairs to the street, my plan nearly lost in my panic.
†I had figured on taking a bus to New York, and then a bus from New York to Colorado.
†Now, it seemed such a weak plan that I hiked away from the nearest bus stop towards on eight blocks away on Main Street. I kept wondering what I would say if a police officer stopped me and asked what I was doing walking up Crooks Avenue in the middle of the night, and how I would react if that cop noticed my pockets bulging.
†At the corner of Main and Crooks, I waited for a long time, picturing my uncle's return downstairs to find the safe door open and the cash box gone.
†How long before would it be before he put two and two together even in his sleepy state.
†When no bus came after a half hour, I went to a phone booth, searching my pockets for a coin to call a cab with, finding only one thin time tucked in the watch pocket of my trousers. It was enough.
†Within minutes, the green cab pulled up to the curb and I got in.
†"I want to go to the Port Authority," I told the driver.
†"New York? That's going to cost you."
†"No problem," I said, wondering if I had just given the police the first clue by which they might track me later.
†"You're the boss," the driver said, and sped off towards the highway, leaving behind the neighborhood in which I had grown up, and a place I figured I would never see again.