The runaways

Opinion: Columns

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Bill Brown

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Clarence quickly answered the phone again. A railroad man, Clarence Brown was usually very pleasant, but not now. "No, I've heard nothing further. It's now 9:45 and we don't know where they are. Your son Bob was here this afternoon and he and our son Billy wanted to go to a movie. We said no."

Mr. Kimberly said he had heard nothing so far about Bob but would keep in touch.

Clarence was more angry than worried. Laura anxiously hoped for word about Billy and feared the worst: A kidnapping, a car accident or lying in a ditch. Calls to the police, hospitals, neighbors and friends had produced nothing.

How did this begin?

Dorothy was the oldest of the family. Red-haired, hot tempered, very opinionated. She was back living with the family while hubby was overseas during the war. She had always been difficult to live with. All of the siblings were intimidated by her.

At lunch, Billy had asked to go to the movies with Bob. Dorothy chimed in: "You should be caddying, no spending money on movies!" She often put in her 2 cents during family decisions. But Clarence and Laura finally agreed and said no. Billy went outside to tell Bob.

Angry, Bob shouted, "Hey, let's go to California!"

"Yeah, let's go," Billy agreed, though the two 14-year-olds knew nothing about hitchhiking across the country.

They quickly hitched rides through familiar local streets onto a very busy highway a few miles ahead. It was exciting to be starting an adventure with Bob. His left arm was in a cast from his heroic attempt to win at a grade school track meet. What a hero he was to Billy!

Hitchhiking was easy during the war years. They soon found themselves on a busy route that took them past the country club where Billy was a caddy. He felt a bit uneasy as he remembered what Dorothy had shouted at him. "You should be caddying!"

He quickly dropped that thought and told Bob he had a lot of money left from caddying. He rattled the coins in his pocket. They totaled $1.37, the very number he'd been assigned by the caddy master at the Country Club. Bob wasn't impressed. He showed Billy all his money. He had $9.40. Billy was impressed.

They finally hitched a ride to Route 41. Bob was so smart. He had so many answers to questions asked of him. He would tell the drivers, "We're a couple of Boy Scouts who got separated from our troop." Unfamiliar towns little drama for two kids with no travel savvy.

Route 41 seemed very busy to the young hitchhikers. Finally after several hours of walking and thumbing, a man stopped and gave them a lift. Same story: "Boy Scouts …" They rode with him for several miles; then he said he was going to stop at a local diner for a bite to eat. They were both hungry. He bought them each a hamburger. They thanked him and they said their goodbyes.

Back again on Route 41, Bob began to see they were not getting us anywhere close to California. "We can't go to California," he said. "I know someone who lives in Terra Haute."

As the day darkened, ominous clouds began to gather above and the wind picked up. They became a bit scared as darkness set in. Billy wished he was back home. He would be glad to see anyone from home at this moment — even Dorothy. The wind became very strong and suddenly they were being drenched and blown by the storm.

Cars splashed by and hitchhiking turned into a nightmare as they anxiously hoped for relief. They were desperate to find shelter anywhere — Bob with his cast and Billy with his hands together in a prayerful pose, hoping for the best. A farmer's truck slowed to a stop. They hopped in the open end. The wind and rain seemed to get worse, but they gave it little thought now that they were going to be with this farmer and his three kids who were riding inside the truck.

Of course, the same story: "Boy Scouts …" The talk with the family was awkward for the young boys. They wanted to go to sleep somewhere as it was quite late and they were still soaking wet. The Mrs. said they could use the bed in the attic.

They quickly went up to the attic and got out of their wet clothes, setting them up in the attic to dry. As they climbed into bed, they listened to the storm still blowing overhead. Billy said, "I hope when I wake up that I'm back in my own bed at home."

After a sound sleep, they awakened to a quiet morning. Billy was not in his bed at home, but the day was bright and warm — and very quiet. No kids around to be seen anywhere. And no farmer either. Bob and Billy walked downstairs and were greeted by the Mrs. in the kitchen. She offered some oatmeal which was very welcome and told them that the children were out doing their chores and so was the Mr.

They thanked the Mrs. for her hospitality and told her the Boy Scout story and left for nearby Route 41.

They started thumbing again to their new destination: Terra Haute. The friendly sun was a welcome change from the storm. Giant white clouds hovered overhead with smaller white clouds in between. The farmers seemed like a heavenly family. Billy thought about his family.

He noticed along the side of the road bright copper telephone wires that seemed brand new, just like the new day. Bob wasn't impressed. The bright wires stayed with them for many miles, their steady companions as the boys continued their adventure.

Hoping to get a ride to Terra Haute, they began to get discouraged as car after car passed them by

Then their luck changed. A big semi-truck slowed to a stop and the trucker said "Hop in!" They were happy to be part of the big rig as it rumbled down Route 41. The boys were glad to hear that he was headed to Terra Haute. Ahead was Turkey Run State Park. The trucker said he made this run many times and was very familiar with the ups and downs and the many treacherous turns in the Turkey Run area. The boys were impressed by how he handled all the turns and the hills on the way to Terra Haute. It was like being on a roller coaster. The boys had for the moment forgotten their problem of being away from home and enjoyed the ride.

After an exciting hour or so they arrived in Downtown Terra Haute. The boys said their thanks and the trucker went on his way. Bob said, "I know where to go now."

"I've been waiting for you dummies," said Grampa Kimberly as he answered the door. "You two jerks are in some real trouble." He explained that Mr. Kimberly figured the two might be headed here. They told Grampa all their hitchhiking stories and admitted to the trouble they caused. After offering a sandwich and some milk, Grampa said, "You guys take naps while I call your parents."

A quiet afternoon listening to the radio, they heard something about General Eisenhower and the war in Europe. Bob was not impressed. Grampa shouted at Bob, "Listen to this and learn something!"

Hours later, the boys went to bed wondering what would happen when they got home. In the morning, Grampa took Billy to the train station and bought him a ticket back home. Bob stayed with Grampa.

When Clarence met the train, he grabbed Billy by the arm and applied a rough slap on the back of his head.

On the drive home he didn't stop talking. "Your stupid behavior caused much worry and concern by your mother and me and the family. Don't you ever try that stunt again. You're going to pay for all the money we spent trying to find you. All the phone calls, the train ticket and the lost wages when I couldn't work, looking for you. You're going to pay for all of this from your paper route earnings!'

Finally home again. No spanking, only a hug from Mother, but put-downs all around by his siblings, especially Dorothy.

Billy went through high school, on to college for a business degree and eventually joined a major food manufacturing company. Billy, who at one time had only $1.37 to his name, became manager of advertising budgets, in charge of millions of dollars for his company. He often wondered what ever became of Bob. They didn't see each other again.

As the years passed by, Billy often thought about the trucker: Who was he? What was his name? Most often of all, he wondered about the friendly farmer's family. What was their name? What was their address along Route 41?

Billy married, had four children and seven grandkids.

And none of them ran away!

Bill Brown, 82, was born in Chicago and moved to Oak Park 55 years ago when he and his wife married. For 26 years he was the manager of advertising budgets for Quaker Oats. The event he relates occurred in June of 1944. He still hasn't learned whatever happened to Bob Kimberly.

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