Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Long Walk of the Stroller

The Long WalkI was eleven or twelve maybe. It’s funny that I don’t remember exactly how old I was because the incident was deeply imbedded in my mind. A permanent mark on an otherwise blank slate, so to speak.

It was summer time, and a hot one at that. I was spending a week with my Grandma and Grandpa Heavener at their home in Longview, NC. They lived on 21st Street SW in the single-story-canary-yellow-with-dark-grey-porch house, a couple hundred yards down from 1st Avenue.

The Circus Hall of Cream was right across an open lot in plain sight on 22nd Street. I wouldn’t be visiting that too often. I think only once all week. Maybe. It was a mighty temptation and a trial of patience to look at the people getting all that cold delicious ice cream on those hot summer days. I endured with the all the patience a young man could muster in that situation. That is to say I begged for ice cream like my life depended on it.

I’m sure I was on my Grandpa’s last nerve and it was getting kind of frazzled. So as a distraction he asked if I wanted to go swimming at the public swimming pool a few blocks over from their house. I jumped on that like a hobo on a ham sandwich.

“Well, get your swimming shorts on and ask your Grandma for a towel and I’ll run you over there for a few hours” Little was I to know that those words signaled the beginning of one of the longest days of my life.

Grandpa took me through a couple of backstreets a few blocks over to where the swimming pool was already beginning to fill with young people swimming away their Summer day. I was a little nervous since I was alone, but no big deal, I was just going to swim and splash and dive as much as possible. So, when he dropped me off and gave me a few dollars for admission and maybe a snack, I was ready to go.

Grandpa leaned over and pointed over toward the intersection of 17th Street SW, and 5th Avenue SW. “If you get tired and want to come home or something happens, all you have to do is follow that road and it comes out right behind our house.”

I never thought to ask which road he meant. 5th Avenue does go over two or three blocks and curves right behind Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house. 17th Street leads off into the vast unknown metropolis of the Hickory/Longview area.

I nodded and said “Ok.” Then I headed for the admissions gate. I paid my way in with something like two dollars, leaving me with about fifty cents. That was cool with me. I headed for the water.

I grew up swimming mostly in the Catawba River. It was a great place to swim and I wore it out every summer. It was a rare treat to swim in an actual swimming pool. I learned to wade, progressed to dog-paddling, then to a more conventional stroke, all in the river. There were no diving or sliding boards on the riverbank so we just ran and jumped as far as we could out into the water. Now here I was with a whole pool, all options included. The water was clear and sparkled with that aqua-blue tint that seems to only be found in swimming pools and no other body of water on earth. I often wonder if that color has a subliminal attraction to it that makes the water more inviting to the human mind. Do they add that on purpose? Or is it a trick of the color of the liner underneath reflecting back into the water?”

I sighted in on an empty patch of water and ran, jumped in a high arch and cannon-balled right into the deep end. The joy on my face must have glowed as I swam to the side and climbed out to do it again. And again, and again. I don’t know how deep the pool is, but I swam to the bottom, across, and up the other side. I rolled over and looked up at the bellies of all the people above me on the surface, then swam up, caught my breath and did it again.

From side to side and from one end to the other and back. Jump in, dive in, climb in and out. I made several trips to the diving board. Then something remarkable happened. I started getting bored. I did not know anybody there and what good was all this with no one to share it with? I went and bought a soft drink with my left over money, then went over and flopped down in one of the deck chairs to soak up some sunshine and rest for a few minutes.

Leaning back with the sun shining on me felt great, so I just relaxed and soaked it in. With my eyes closed the sounds became clearer. I could hear a constant unintelligible babble all around from the crowd of pool-swimmers and sunbathers all around me. Beyond that the sounds of various songbirds in the trees around the parking lot and the shrubs in adjoining yards were lending music to the mid-morning backdrop. The sounds of cars and trucks humming by on side streets around the pool were there also.

The only other pool I knew of at the time was the Catawba Pool in Marion. It had a booming juke box from the time it opened in the morning until it closed at night. I learned all the hit songs of the mid-seventies; it seemed from that juke box. I didn’t go to the pool; I lived across the river from it so we could hear all the music from it during the days it was open and we were outside.

No juke box was playing at the Longview pool. Maybe it was too early and they had an agreement with the neighbors.

Juke box or none, the next sound that assaulted my ears was a horrifying noise that snapped up my attention with the intensity of an explosion and scared me silly at the time.

Suddenly, out of the warm, peaceful morning, this new sound crashed with painful harshness. BLOP-POP-POP-OP-OP-BLOP-POP-POP-OP-OP BLOP-POP-POP-OP-OP!!!! It was about a dozen motorcycles, all pulling into the parking lot of the pool. I sat up to look at the new arrivals.

Now virtually all my exposure to motorcycle riders up to this point had included nothing other than seeing news and movies on TV that primarily spoke of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang and the violence and evil that they were involved in. They were depicted as the most dangerous, evil, low-life scum on the planet. Looking at these new arrivals did nothing to assuage that assessment.
They were mostly men, a couple with female riders on board. Their hair was long and stringy and oily looking, and all had beards of various lengths and degrees of unkemptness. Some had black leather jackets with various patches and emblems sewn on, while others wore denim jackets cut off at the sleeves. All wore dark sunglasses of different styles. Boots and jeans completed their attire.

I sat there in fear and awe, with my imagination feeding the various scenarios that my mind conjured up. All of them ended up with a massacre with me in the middle of it. The thought crossed my mind that maybe they were there looking for someone who was among the crowd around me here. I looked from face to face all around the pool. Most looked totally unconcerned, while others were looking through the chain-link fence at the new-comers with a bit of nervousness like myself.

The Motorcycle riders that were now dismounted and congregating under the trees were talking and laughing and saying words my young ears were not supposed to be hearing. The longer they stayed there, the louder they got.

My desire to continue swimming died without a whimper. I was ready to go.

I looked toward the road Grandpa had shown me as a way to get back to his house, and made a fateful, yet bold decision. I was leaving as quickly as possible. I was not going to hang out here and get swept into whatever these “Hell’s Angels” had cooked up for the hapless victims at the public pool on that sunny afternoon.

I got my towel and my tee shirt, (I had no shoes with me), and headed out the gate as nonchalantly as a kid can walk. Out the gate, turn left, down to the corner of the fence and turn left again. Then I was on 17th Street heading toward the intersection Grandpa had pointed out. I walked along in the edge of the grass, looking back occasionally to see if I had been followed.

I made a clean get-away.

So off down 17th Street I headed with the sun on my shoulders, the world at my feet, and Grandpa’s house right around the next curve. Or around the next corner. Or a few blocks over. It didn’t matter, I was on my way. I walked past the entrance of 5th Avenue SW and continued down the street, coming to 7th Avenue, and looking this way and that for a landmark I might recognize, decided that since we had made several turns to get there, then I must need to turn here.

7th Avenue goes east and connects to 14th Street which angles northwest to 2nd and then 1st Avenue. I followed each one until I stood on the corner of 1st Avenue looking left, then right, then left again. It looked familiar, but I just wasn’t sure which way to turn. Across the street Hickman Hardware was open and just up the street to my right was the old Snack Bar restaurant.

“I’ve been by that before, maybe it’s this way.” So I turned east on 1st Avenue and set out for my next land mark. It would be a long time coming.

I walked deeper into Hickory as the sun climbed and the temperature followed it. I was well on my way making great progress, going in exactly the wrong direction.

The street numbers were counting down as I walked, but I did not pay that any attention. I needed to find the right street, but really did not understand the numbering system at the time, plus I did not know that it was in fact 21st Street that my Grandpa lived on. I was simply searching for landmarks that I had seen before.

I spent all my young life playing in the woods and roaming the mountain and riverside around our house at Marion, and never came close to getting lost. In the woods, it seemed, I had a very accurate sense of direction. I was not finding this to be so in the city of Hickory.

I walked past the old bus station, and there was a furniture store diagonally across the intersection, with an awning and some wooden chairs beneath. I walked on. I looked for something to tell me where I was. I found nothing. I walked on.

I finally stood in front of an old house near where Hwy 127 crosses 1st Avenue. That house is no longer there. It was torn down many years ago, but that was the house that decided me: I must have gone too far and missed my street. It was there I turned back and for the first time all morning started walking in the right direction. It wouldn’t last.

I walked all the way back to 14th Street SW and stood there looking around. Why it never occurred to me to walk in Hickman’s and ask for help, I’ll never know, but I stood there for several minutes and decided maybe I had been going the right way after all. I turned back on the route I had already traced, determined to look a little closer at the streets as I passed them this time.

The sun had gone behind some clouds, which was a great relief for the moment. The intense heat of it shining down on my head and shoulders was getting very uncomfortable. A breeze began to blow and dissipate the heat which had been clinging to the city streets like a hot blanket, and the coolness of it seemed to boost my energy as I walked. It grew steadily dimmer in comparison to the sunlit morning.

About the time I passed the old bus station for the second time, I noticed that strange musty, dusty, damp smell of fresh rain on hot pavement. I trudged on up the hill to the next street and found the source of that smell, or rather it found me.

A few drops fell at first hitting the hot pavement to dry and disappear, and then more began to fall. I turned and headed back down the street to that little furniture store with the awning next to the side walk. There were several oak chairs under the awning for sale. They were in the dry; I was not.

“Hey mister, do you care if I sit down here for a few minutes until it quits raining? I don’t want to get soaked in this rain.” He told me sure if I was dry. So I climbed up in the big oak rocking chair and watched the rain fall on the hot street. The dry, hot pavement gradually gave in to the cooling rain as steam rose from the streets in low, wispy puffs that quickly dissipated in the breeze. The rain came in a steady patter at first, then harder. For a few minutes it came down hard and fast, by the buckets full. Then it slowly faded away. By that time I thought I knew where I had made my navigational mistake. I should not even be on this road; I should go back up to where I turned on to it and go back down that street, for surely that was where I missed my turn.

I thanked the guy who had let me sit on his new furniture, then headed west with a renewed sense of purpose. I marched steadily on until 14th street was once more under my feet.

I turned left on 14th and crossed those odd double bridges where 14th Street crosses 2nd Avenue and Highway 321 at the same time. The bridge looks like a “Y” with the intersection of the two streets actually starting on the bridge itself. I crossed 2nd Avenue and hurried on down 14th Street. When I got to the end, I wasn’t where I thought I should be, but I knew where I was.

14th Street SW comes out and ends on what is now just Highway 70. It was known in those days as 64/70 and was a busy four and five lane road that ran east/west through Newton, Hickory, and on westward through Hildebran.

I looked both ways and took stock of my situation. Little did I know that once again I was less than a half mile from my Grandpa’s house, but city streets were proving to be my undoing and I just could not pick out how to get there.

However, one thing I knew and knew for sure: from where I was at right now, I knew exactly how to get to my Aunt Randy and Uncle Mike’s house. Exactly that is, except I had no idea how far it was. There was just one logical decision in my not-so-logical brain. Go to my Aunt’s house and ask them to take me back to Grandpa’s.

By then I suppose it was around one or two in the afternoon. The brief shower that had helped so much to cool down the streets was gone and the sun was back, trying with all its might to make up for lost time. I turned east on 64/70 and set out, for that oh-so-long walk.

The roadsides of Highway 70 were not so much developed then as now and there were groups of businesses here and there, punctuated by long stretches of woods and weed patches. I was still in a fairly busy area as I started. I figured a couple of hours and I would be just fine.

With a fresh dose of confidence and a sure sense of direction, I stepped out. My feet were getting tender from all the walking but I was tough and it wouldn’t be much longer. Or so I thought.

It’s a long flat stretch from 14th Street to the small valley where the Kmart was located, but I trekked along at a good pace, and made a good deal of quick progress. Down that hill, up the next past the Howard Johnson Hotel. Then another little flat and there was the Village Inn Pizza place and an old hotel that I have never known the name of. All of these land marks were familiar to me. I wasn’t yet tired so I looked and walked and ticked off the landmarks I recognized.

I went under a bridge and down a hill, then under the set of bridges that carried Interstate 40 over top of Highway 64/70. There were a couple of small car lots and an auto parts store or something just east of the bridges as I climbed the hill. My bare feet were miserable, and by the time I reached the top of that hill I was not really looking at landmarks or anything anymore, except the traffic and where my next step would fall. It was very painful to step on sharp rocks or sticks so I had started selecting each footfall carefully.

I was also watching traffic in the narrow hope that I would see someone I knew. Mainly I hoped my Grandpa was out looking for me. It occurred to me that they might not even know I was missing yet. I can’t recall a time he had set for picking me up if I did not come home. The afternoon was wearing on but had he gone to get me yet? I thought maybe so. I hoped so.

One step after another, I trudged along, watching traffic and the roadside ahead. I was on the north side of the Highway, walking facing traffic. It was something they had drilled into us in grade school and I stuck with it without thinking about why. Startown Rd. passed on my right, then the college, known in those days as Catawba Valley Community College and Technical Institute; CVCC&TI. Long name. Who cares? On I walked.

I recognized 84 Lumber as I came to it. I looked back at where I had come from, forward to where I was going, and down the slope by the huge graveyard that covered the hillside from just east of the lumber store to the bottom of the hollow next to the Hickory Motor Speed Way. “Must be awful hard to rest in peace there when the track is open,” I thought as I looked at the smooth green lawns and flowers and marker stones. The very depressing thought hit me that that might be where they put me if I don’t make it to Aunt Randy’s. I think that’s where I began to lose hope, at least for a time.

I crossed the top of the hill where Fairgrove Church Road intersected 64/70. Stupid me walked right past the Highway patrol station and didn’t even realize it. At some later date, we drove by on our way somewhere and I saw all those Highway Patrol cars and thought how close I had walked to being rescued and went right on by.

At that intersection there was a lumber company called Moore’s and a couple of mobile home sales lots. The grass had been mowed and was stiff and sharp. Every step was painful as the stubby clipped stalks stabbed into my bare feet. I tried walking on the edge of the pavement, but the road surface was blistering hot. I walked on the balls of my feet trying my best to find a place to put my feet down that wouldn’t hurt. I was about ready to give up.

I stopped, looked around, stood there as forlorn a figure as you can imagine. I was right dead center in front of the mobile home lot on the north side of the road. The shoulder sloped up to a fence of some sort and was covered with that stiff, stabbing grass all the way. I looked east, then west. I stood there for a long time looking both ways. I was hot, tired, hurting and ready to quit. I don’t think I have ever felt so alone as I did there on that hot, dry, miserable roadside on that sun-scorched afternoon. I walked up on the slope of the shoulder and sat down in the grass and started crying. I really let it out for a while, all alone in the middle of nowhere and no one knew where I was at.

It’s amazing how many people can drive by an eleven or twelve year-old boy sitting on the roadside, miles from anywhere, crying his eyes out. Yet cars continually whizzed by. None even slowed down. Maybe that was actually for the best. People weren’t as weird or mean back then, but you never know.

Little did I know but by the time I was sitting on the roadside figuring I was lost for good, a full scale search was underway in the Longview area. They had the police out scouring the neighborhoods and friends and relatives of all kinds were combing the streets outward in every direction from the swimming pool. My uncle was an avid CB radio buff, and he was on the horn with truckers on the roads, and citizens around town asking if anyone had seen me anywhere. So far the answers had all been negative.

I sat until I got it out of my system. I am fairly certain that I was getting dehydrated by this time. My feet and legs felt heavy and I was running out of steam. I limped and hopped through the stiff, prickly grass to the roadside, turned east and started walking. The road ahead was sloping downhill into a small depression and a few trees stood next to the road providing some shade which felt good in the crushing heat. The sun had begun to feel like a heavy fire on my neck and shoulders.

As I neared the bottom of the depression, I looked up and my heart skipped a beat. Coming straight toward me was a North Carolina State Trooper in his cruiser. The black and silver car with the enormous “bubble-gum-machine” blue light on top and the State Seal on the door was just coming down the other slope. The cavalry was here, to save the day! I looked for just a second and threw up both hands and began waving to the officer. I had the towel in one hand and was waving it over my head like a flag on the Fourth of July. I tried jumping up and down but the grass and rocks stabbing into my feet put a quick end to that. The Officer, (God bless his heart), smiled, threw up his hand, and kept right on driving. I stood there in disbelief. “Where did they find that guy? I thought cops were supposed to help people. Did he think this was some kind of parade and I was cheering him on?” I didn’t get it. I stood asking myself these questions for a minute or so then, shaking my head, turned back to walking. So much for help from the cavalry.

Somewhere about this time, near as I can figure, or maybe in the next half hour, someone with a cb radio saw me, but did not know yet I was being sought in an all-out manhunt up in the Longview area.

I walked to the top of the hill and found a store with a long gravel parking lot. I looked at the gravel and my poor bare feet, and then at the store. I looked down the road and watched the heat waves shimmering on the blistering pavement. How much further? I had asked myself that question again and again all afternoon as I walked. The question was once again the foremost thought in my brain. I looked back at the store and that long gravel parking lot. Well, I would ask and then I would know.

I hopped and limped and picked every step with care as I headed across the gravel expanse toward the open doors of the store. It seemed like a mile to the safe, smooth floor of that building, but I was making headway. I only had eyes for the dirt in front of me, picking out the smooth spots and carefully stepping from one to the other to minimize the effects of sharp rocks, sticks, and even small pieces of glass. I made it finally and stepped onto the swept floor of the store building.

I waited a moment for the person there to finish some thing or another that he was doing, then asked my big question: “Sir, do you know much further down here it is to Newton?”

He only barely glanced at me. “I think it’s about four or five miles, maybe.”

My heart sank like a torpedoed ship. Five miles? Five more miles? That hurt. It hurt bad. I hated the thoughts of having five more miles. That is horrible. I hung my head and started to turn away, but some long drilled lesson came into play. I turned back, “Thanks. I appreciate it.” I don’t think I really did, but it was what I was supposed to say.

I stepped back outside and that Gravel Hell sat waiting on me. For some reason, and in some manner, it had managed to at least double in length while I was in the store for those brief two or three minutes. I set out carefully picking my way across the gravel toward 64/70 and the continuation of my journey. It was a long, long walk.

When I finally got back to the highway, and turned to my left and started walking, it occurred to me that that stand of trees on the opposite side of the road about a half mile ahead looked familiar. I walked along alternating between being on grass and the gravel of various drives. The more I looked at those trees the more I thought to myself that I was getting close to Newton. “That guy must not know what he’s talking about.” I finally decided. That determination lifted my spirits considerably, and they were lifted even more when I realized that that stand of trees was in fact the trees right next to the Hardees Restaurant next to the intersection of 321 and 64/70. 321 was the road I had to turn down to get to my Aunts house.

I went on steadily toward the trees. The ground was killing my feet so I decided to walk on the edge of the pavement a bit. Big mistake. The sun was still up and the pavement would have served up a crispy pile of bacon and eggs in short order had they been laid out on a smooth portion of the road. I hopped back off in the grass and kept walking.

I was hot, tired, miserable and hungry. But I was sure now where I was and how much farther I had to go. I felt better. I was going to win.

I got to a point on the road exactly across from Hardees and that stand of trees. I knew I had to get across, but the very recent memory of a few steps on the Asphalt Grill made me stop and consider how my bare feet could stand a seventy-five or one hundred feet stretch of the sizzling black-top.

My answer was to never let my feet set down for more than a fraction of a second between steps. I looked at the traffic and at the road, took several good deep breaths, and took off like the devil himself was nipping at my heels. Based on the heat, I think maybe he was. I know I must have looked a sight: an eleven year old boy with bare feet high-stepping across the road at speeds an Olympic track star would envy. I made a full-bore-linear dash across the road, up into the grass and under a tree to flop down in the shade and lift up my woefully misused and abused feet and wave them in the air. They cooled down from the temperature of the sun, to blast furnace temps, to stovetop levels, to a low burn and after a few minutes I stood up and headed for old 321 where I turned right, or south.

The trip down 321 was uneventful. There were a few landmarks that I remembered, but nothing really sticks out. I was worried again. Remembering the missed turns and wandering the streets of Hickory, it began to worry me that I might again miss a turn and end up just as lost as before. I determined in my head that if I was not absolutely sure where I was going I would not leave 321, but would just find me a place where I knew I was close, and sit down.

It was late afternoon, approaching evening by this time. I don’t know what everyone else was thinking or where they were. I knew that by now someone would be out searching for me, because it was well past the time I was supposed to be picked up.

The thought entered my mind: “Boy won’t Aunt Randy be surprised to see me.” I smiled at that. My spirits were picking up as I got closer to my destination. Soon I would be there.

I looked at one particular street, 16th Street, long and hard. That street looked very familiar. Very familiar indeed. Something about it said “This is it!” but on the other hand I was not quite sure. So I walked on. When I got down to 15th Street, no such doubts remained. That Street was very familiar, since almost every time we visited Aunt Randy and Uncle Mike that was the one we turned on. I knew once on that street it was just a couple of blocks and turn left. I made my turn and hustled across another two lanes of hot pavement, barely noticing this time.

Two blocks up, North Deal Avenue turned to my left. It was the home stretch. I began to try to walk faster but just didn’t have it in me. I was about whipped.

The driveway. Finally I was standing in the driveway. Alone.

There was no car at home. My heart sank; no one at home. “Well maybe someone is here after all and the rest are gone in the car.” I went to the small, closed in back porch, which was, thankfully, unlocked. I opened the door and walked to the kitchen entrance door and knocked. And knocked and knocked. No answer. “Where on earth could they be at this hour? Why aren’t they home? Oh well. I’m not leaving. I wait right here till they come home.”

I sat down on the step for a minute before thinking of the water hose. It rushed in upon my feeble mind just how thirsty I was. I had not had a drink since beside the pool that morning. I got up and walked around the house to the water faucet and turned it on. I let it run for a minute then got a drink. It felt so good going down that I got another, then another, and well, another. I drank until my belly was full of nothing but water. I was thirsty.

After turning off the water, I went back around to the porch and went inside the storm door onto the porch. I was tired. I sat for a while, and then lay down on the rug next to the door. It was getting darker as the sun set and twilight was fading. I pulled the second rug up over top of me and drifted off to sleep.

I awakened to bright headlights shining through the door and the sound of voices and car doors. It was late in the night, but the cavalry had finally come. I sat up and looked through the storm door at my rescuers.

My Aunt and Uncle and my Uncle Stanley if I remember correctly had come to find me here. Apparently the guy who saw me on 64/70 walking had finally gotten word there was a search going on and when he heard the description of the lost boy, he remembered seeing someone fitting that description walking along the highway, but that was all the way down a t Newton. So he got on the horn and told my Uncle Stanley who he was and where he saw me at.

My family had pretty quickly put it all together and figured out where I was headed, if that was me, and they headed down there as quick as possible. Lucky me, they were right.

I don’t recall much of the trip back. It was a whole lot shorter than my trip down had been. Before I knew it we were going past the end of 14th Street SW in Hickory. Imagine my surprise when two blocks later we turned up 19th Street SW and then cut over to 21st Street. I was that close and turned and went so far in the opposite direction.

I got a huge welcome at Grandpa’s house. There was quite a crowd there who had all been out looking for me. My Aunt and Uncle had not been home because they were out looking too. (I have often wondered how they missed seeing me walking down the road as they headed up to join the search, but I figure they probably passed by when I was in that store asking directions, or when I was across the road under the trees cooling my heels, so to speak.)

My Pop was there with Louis Shuford. He had driven like crazy to come all the way from Marion to search. When it was all said and done he asked if I was ready to come home, or if I wanted to stay and finish my week with Grandma and Grandpa. I chose to finish the week. It was only a couple more days. Surely I wouldn’t get lost again in that time…

They called me “The Stroller” for a while after that, but thank goodness, it didn’t stick. I occasionally heard stories about it along the way. There were things that I never remembered the way they have been told back to me, but that doesn’t matter. I know what happened.

The actual distance I walked that day totals up to fourteen miles on Google Maps. It seemed so long I would have sworn it was thirty miles easy. I would hate to attempt that distance now in the dead of summer.

I just found out that my Mom didn’t know I was missing. She was pregnant and very sick with my kid brother, Randy. They had hidden it from her so it did not cause any extra stress that she definitely didn’t need at that time. I had wondered why she did not come but had always written it down to having to watch my brother and sisters at the time.

Looking back, that was one long hard day. I made some stupid, childish mistakes, and I made a few wrong turns, but I survived, and I never really gave up, even though at times I desperately wanted too. The Long Walk, the sun, the heat, and my bare feet almost beat me down a couple of times, but I got up and kept going. There was nothing else to do. It’s sort of a metaphor for my whole life. Hey. Life will smack the heck out of you. Get up, get over it and keep going. I will guarantee you one thing though. I never walked off from where I was supposed to be again.

James Lee Frady (c) 3/24/2009