My favorite TV show when I was 15 years old was “The Fugitive.” Dr. Richard Kimble was my hero. I couldn’t help but to identify with the falsely accused doctor. I knew how it felt to be hounded about something you didn’t do. Kimble had to “run before the relentless pursuit of the police Lieutenant obsessed with his capture” (Lt. Philip Gerard). I had my old man ragging on me all the time. It was time for me to hit the road the way Dr. Kimble did every week. He usually hopped a freight train. I thought that was pretty cool. He had an idyllic life, it seemed: seeing a different part of America every week, and meeting new and interesting people. Kimble also got to make out with women like Angie Dickensen and Suzanne Pleshette. I always regretted that I was not as handsome as David Janssen who played Kimble. I gave up on the possibility of ever getting to make out with Angie or Suzanne.
But I did get a chance to get away from the relentless hounding by my father and ride the rails, ala Dr. Kimble, when I was fifteen years old. My best friend from junior high school had moved with his family to the Florida Keys. Once he was settled there, we established a pen pal relationship. He invited me down for a few weeks in the summer. Surprisingly, my father trusted me enough to let me go.
My life up to this point had been sadly devoid of interstate travel. There were occasional day trips with my family to Gettysburg or sightseeing in Virginia. But the journey awaiting me on this, my fifteenth summer, would be far more exciting. I would be traveling through six different states during a 24 hour train ride.
More importantly, I would be traveling alone! I would be like Dr. Richard Kimble, with just a small duffel bag with a containing a change of underwear and socks. Well actually, I didn’t have a duffel bag. I had kind of a fancy suitcase and it contained several pairs of pants and clean shirts and my first can of Right Guard. But the suitcase was a small one. The Fugitive would have approved. I also had the advantage of having some sandwiches my mother had packed for me.
While Dr. Kimble hopped freight trains, I was to travel aboard a passenger train which ran out of Baltimore’s Union Station. My brother’s wife’s father was a steward on the dinner car of the train I was to take to Miami. He had the same first name as I so to avoid confusion, I’ll call him “Uncle Bill.”
I took little money with me, because like Dr. Richard Kimble I had to “toil at many jobs,” most of which paid very little. I never had a lot of pocket money but on the day I was to leave, unbeknownst to my Dad, my mother snuck an extra $40 to me. Likewise, my dad slipped me $20 that my Mom didn’t know about. In his Ward Cleaver like manner he admonished me: “Don’t piss it all away the first day.”
Mom paid for my ticket at the depot in Baltimore. All aboard! I found my seat in the coach. The adventure was about to begin.
Uncle Bill found me immediately and told me to follow him to the dining car. It was then that I met his two female co-workers. This being the days in which employers could hire people, based upon looks, they were both very pretty. They also seemed very mature to me (probably in their mid-twenties.) One was a blond, the other a brunette. Upon meeting them, I immediately had thoughts of Angie Dickensen and Suzanne Pleshette. I was beginning to feel more like Dr. Richard Kimble with each passing moment.
Uncle Bill gave me a white dinner jacket to wear and ordered me to pass out menus to the patrons of the dining car. When the conductor came around to punch our tickets, he assumed I was an employee of the railroad and never punched mine. I was later able to cash in my unused ticket for a refund.
I never felt more like Dr. Richard Kimble. Here I was traveling alone (okay, Uncle Bill was with me) and I was being treated as an adult, something that didn’t happen at home, that’s for sure. More importantly, Angie and Suzanne began flirting with me. I couldn’t really do much to cash in on this female attention. At the tender age of fifteen, my savoire was only faire. Ah, if only I knew then what I know now!
I watched the Carolinas go whizzing by. This was as far south as I had ever been. Did it count as having been in another state if my feet didn’t actually touch Carolina soil? In spite of all the excitement and fun, I eventually grew tired and needed to get some sleep. I asked Uncle Bill if it was okay if I went back to the coach and caught some Zs.
“Grab your suitcase and follow me,” he said. He led me to his private cabin, complete with bunk bed. “I hope you don’t mind taking the top bunk.” Did I mind??!! This was a luxury I had never expected. To be tucked cozily away in a private sleeper car was as close to bliss as I had ever come. The staccato sounds of the rail ties beneath the train lulled me to sleep. The occasional plaintive wail of the train’s whistle woke me several times during the night, but it only reminded me of where I was and how happy I was at the moment.
I helped Uncle Bill, Angie, and Suzanne with breakfast the following morning. I passed out menus, seated customers and cleared tables. The rest of the morning was spent watching the beautiful Georgia countryside from the train’s observation car. What a spectacular and large country we live in, I thought. Yet, I had only seen a very small part of it. It was a defining moment in my life when I realized how much I loved to travel and how much I wanted to see the rest of the USA. I had now been in six different states. Only 44 more to see!
We arrived in Miami around 6:00 pm. My friend (also named Bill, I’ll refer to him as “Billy”) whom I was visiting lived in Tavernier, Florida which was about a two-hour bus ride from Miami. My bus left at 9:00 that night. I had three hours to kill. Uncle Bill invited me to spend time with him at his hotel until it was time to head south.
“Do you feel like taking a little nap before you head south or shall we call the gals over for a night cap?” he asked as a bottle of Jim Beam appeared from his suitcase. I didn’t drink in those days but the thought of spending a few hours in the company of two beautiful twenty-five year old women (and a sixty-three year old man) appealed to me greatly. I opted not to sleep, I could do that on the bus later.
I downed several bottles of Hires Root Beer as my adult companions drank their bourbon. The women were friendly and seemed genuinely interested in what I was going to do during my two weeks in the Keys. Uncle Bill seemed genuinely interested in the two 25 year olds! Let the good times roll!
But a fugitive must keep moving. There is little room in his life for long time relationships. It was 8:30 before I knew it and I bade goodbye to my kind uncle and my new found lady friends. I hailed a cab and rode to the bus depot.
It was late and I was tired. I slept on the bus. The driver’s voice coming over the loud speak woke me up. “Tavernier! Someone wanted Tavernier?” Thank God I heard him. I grabbed my small suitcase and departed.
There was Billy, standing along side the highway, waiting for my bus. It had been over a year since I had seen him. When his family had made the decision to go to Florida it seemed like he was moving a million miles away. But here we were, shaking hands along the side of Route 1, on a warm summer night in the Florida Keys.
Billy and his family lived in an apartment above the Western Auto store that his father owned. His parents were kind and hospitable toward me. He had an older brother who was cordial but didn’t really pay me much attention.
And there was Chrissy. She was Billy’s thirteen-year-old sister. She had eyes the color of chocolate fudge with matching tendrils of hair that fell to her shoulders. She did pay a lot of attention to me and we developed a good friendship. In spite of my recent experience in a hotel room with two beautiful twenty-five-year old women and a bottle of bourbon, I was still rather innocent and shy. My relationship with Chrissy remained just a friendship but I enjoyed her company and the talks we would have. I always encouraged Billy to include Chrissy on our outings but he usually just said, “Nah! She’ll just get in the way.” He just didn’t understand.
For the next two weeks I did adult things that I was never allowed to do at home. I rode down Route 1, on the back of Billy’s motorcycle, going from island to island, crossing the small bridges that connected them. Without my father there to warn me of the potential dangers of the ocean, I snorkeled with reckless abandon in the clear blue Atlantic Ocean.
There was a day trip to Miami where I bought a gold colored butane cigarette lighter in a pawn shop. The asking price was $20. The sleazy looking Cuban who ran the place sensed my reluctance to buy. No way was I going to “piss away” all my money. He lowered the price in small increments until at last I paid the paltry sum of $3.00. I would later brag how I had “talked him down.”
We went to Sealife Park where I petted dolphins, saw Flipper do his acrobatic stuff and bought my little sister Lynn a Flipper T-shirt which she treasures to this day.
And there were limes! Billy’s yard had a lime tree (as did every yard in his neighborhood) and every afternoon we had limes in our ice tea. After supper we would have Key Lime pie for desert. We made limeade. I ended up filling my suitcase half full of limes and bringing them home as gifts. I think I mailed my dirty laundry home to make room for the limes.
At night when the summer sun had finally set, Billy and I would take his small boat out and with flashlight and net, go hunting for craw-dads. The craw-dads, as I remembered looked a great deal like regular lobsters but had no claws. They tasted a lot like lobsters too.
This was Paradise! Free limes, free shellfish, motorcycling among the islands with my best friend, snorkeling, and a really cute thirteen-year-old girl who liked me. But there comes a time in the life of a fugitive when he knows he must move along. Friendships and other relationships are transitory. Besides, my mother was expecting me home.
My train was to leave Miami on a Sunday morning but there was no bus that would get me there in time unless I left Tavernier on Saturday night. “I’ll stay with my uncle in his hotel,” I lied to Billy’s parents. I wanted the adventure of fending for myself in a large city at night, the way Dr. Richard Kimble did.
Billy’s entire family saw me off at the bus depot. I shook hands with Billy, his brother, his father and his mother. I wanted to give Chrissy a hug but opted instead to just shuffle my feet, look down, and mumble simply, “’Bye, Chrissy.”
Now a pro at procuring taxi cabs, I flagged one down when I got to the bus depot in Miami. “Seaside Railway Company, please,” I said to the driver.
“You mean the train station? I don’t think they’re open this time of night., but I’ll take you over there.”
I had planned on simply sleeping on a bench in the train station but when we arrived, the station was indeed closed down for the night. A wrought iron fence forbade me access to the benches.
“There’s a hotel across the street,” the cabby said. “It’s not very fancy but you can get a room for the night if you want”
I thanked him, tipped him and with a suitcase half full of limes, began my night on the mean streets of Miami. I saw an all night laundromat, just the perfect place to sleep. There were benches galore. I had just settled down for a long summer’s nap when the sound of male voices speaking in foreign tongues awoke me. A gang of Cuban youths were headed my way. They’d surely beat me up, steal my money, my imitation gold butane lighter and maybe even my limes. I ran for the small hotel the cabby had recommended. It would be worth it to spend a few extra dollars for the safety of a locked room.
But this was no ordinary hotel. “I’d like a room for the night, please,” I said to the eighty year old geezer who was on the front desk.
“Hmmm…well we usually rent by the hour but I guess you can have Number Five at the top of the stairs. That’ll be $7.00 in advance.”
I was glad I hadn’t pissed away all of my money. Now I could afford the luxury of a private room in a whore house, deep in the bowels of Miami’s porn district.
“You want wake up service?” the geezer asked. “I can come knock on your door in the morning if you want. Ain’t got no phones in the room.”
I explained that I had an 8:00 am train to catch and a 6:00 am wake up would be appreciated. I really didn’t sleep much that night. There were there usual sounds of pleasures great and small, coming from the adjacent rooms and of course the occasionally gun shot or fist fight in the hallway. I also itched a lot that night. Morning mercifully arrived and I left the hotel quite early, cheerfully nodding good morning to the geezer. The train station was a short walk away.
Uncle Bill found me sitting on a bench in the depot and summoned me aboard the train. Angie and Suzanne were with him. The trip north was just as beautiful and just as much fun as my journey south, two weeks prior. It was also free again, as we fooled the conductor into not punching my ticket. And again I had the luxury of sharing the bunk bed with Uncle Bill. My accommodations were so comfortable, I overslept and nearly missed my stop in Baltimore. The train was continuing to New York so I said goodbye and thanks to my kind uncle.
Uncle Bill was one of those relatives (an in-law actually) whom I really didn’t see very often. We hardly knew each other. But his kindness to me on my trip was something that I shall never forget. When I wrote my thank you notes upon returning home, the note to Uncle Bill was an easy one to write.
No one from my family was able to meet me in Baltimore so more taxi and bus rides were in order to get me to my journey’s end. As I rode in a cab from the Annapolis bus depot to my house on Van Buren Street, I thought I could hear the stern voice of William Conrad narrating my odyssey as he did for Richard Kimble every week:
For Richard Kimble the running must continue as he searches for the one-armed man and untimately truth and justice. But Emerson Wiley has found truth, justice, and beauty. For a brief moment, his running can stop…until his father yells at him again.
© 2011 William Emerson Wiley