My dad said he had a big deal going that would make us rich, but he had to leave town to go to Mexico for a few days. He asked if we’d be all right, and we said yes. He gave me 50 dollars for groceries, hugged us, said good-bye, threw his sleeping bag into his ’67 Ford, and left. That was four months ago.
There are just the three of us kids. My name is Jed, and I’m 13. I have a ten-year-old brother Sam. My seven-year-old sister is named Marcie.
We’ve had a couple of mothers. My real mother died when I was nine years old. She was a Mormon and had me baptized when I was eight. Sam and I went to Primary until she died. It was the month of March when she died. I remember how much the wind tore at the flowers at the graveyard when we all stood around and watched them set the casket over the place where they had dug up the earth.
Our second mother was a woman my dad met when he was driving a truck. Her name was Joan, and she worked in a cafe before she met Dad. She could make real good hash browns. I don’t think she liked us children very much because Dad was still driving and he was gone a lot. I guess we caused Joan plenty of trouble.
Dad drove for a big moving van company. He went all over the country. He always brought us a toy or game from wherever he went. He went all the way to Maine once.
I’m not sure what went wrong exactly, but Dad and Joan didn’t stay together long. Maybe she didn’t like the responsibility of all of us kids.
Dad had to quit driving for a while. He got a job as a dispatcher for the company. I guess it didn’t pay much or else he didn’t like sitting at a desk. I don’t blame him for that because I’d hate that too. Anyway, after a few months he quit being a dispatcher.
Then we didn’t know what he was doing. He’d be gone for a few days and come back with lots of money. It was great when he came back because he’d take us out for pizza one night and to a taco place the next night. He bought us all new bicycles one time and camping and fishing gear another time.
He’d stay at home for a week or two and then be gone again. At first he paid a lady to come in and cook for us, but I told him he could save the money and I could cook as well as those women, who always wanted to feed us casseroles with plenty of noodles and cream of mushroom soup. Most women I’ve ever met would rather cook a casserole than just about anything.
Anyway he left for Mexico. We got along okay. We always have. But after three weeks, we were playing outside in this old, deserted car that Dad said he’s going to fix up sometime. I looked around and saw one of the neighbors standing at her curtains looking at us real hard. I couldn’t see how we were hurting her any because we weren’t even on her property, but she looked at us for a long time.
The next day a lady came after school looking for my dad. She said she was from the county and she was a caseworker. For a while I thought she meant that she worked in a canning factory and packaged cases of food. But that’s not what she did.
I couldn’t figure why she came at all because all she did when she was there was sit and look. We were all watching Gilligan’s Island. We like to do that after school, and we were having some peanut butter sandwiches and milk. She sat in front of the TV set, but she didn’t watch it much. She had a clipboard, and she’d write things down. She asked if that was our supper, and Sam said yes, and she wrote that down.
We had plenty of peanut butter. when Dad was still working as a dispatcher, he heard about a truck that had been in a wreck. He bought cases of peanut butter and vegetables at a good price. Our basement was full of good deals like that.
The lady with the clipboard asked where my father was. I told her that he was away on business and that he would be back on Friday. That’s what I always told everybody who asked because usually Dad did come back on Friday, and I guess he was away on business, although I didn’t know what business he was in.
The lady left even before Gilligan’s Island was over. When she stood up to go, she sort of brushed herself off like the couch was infected. I bet when she was a kid she never watched Gilligan’s Island or ate peanut butter.
The money Dad left didn’t last forever. I had to pay the light bill with part of it, and I had to get Sam a new pair of tennis shoes. It didn’t take long before we were down to five dollars. Of course, we had peanut butter, but we had to buy jelly and bread, and they don’t give that stuff away, you know.
I had a paper route, though, and made ten dollars a week.
One day after school I was working on an old lawn mower engine. I like to take things apart and try to figure out how they work. I don’t always get them back together. The engine didn’t work anyway, so I wasn’t really wrecking anything.
Since we all ate around the TV, and we had a perfectly good kitchen table that we weren’t using, I was using the table as a workbench.
It was about 4:30 because I remember hearing the Brady Bunch starting. I was working on this engine when the doorbell rang. I was afraid it was going to be that lady with the clipboard.
It was a boy about my age. He asked if I was Jed, and I said yes, and he said he was Kevin Gallagher. That didn’t mean anything to me. He said he was the deacons quorum president. That made even less sense to me. To tell you the truth, he didn’t look like any kind of a president to me.
“So what?” I said.
I could tell he was nervous. He cleared his throat and looked like he was either going to cry or sneeze.
“I want to talk with you,” he said.
“Suit yourself,” I said. “Come on in the kitchen. I’m fixing a motorcycle engine.”
He followed me in. I hoped he didn’t know enough about engines to know that it was only a lawn mower engine and that I wasn’t really fixing it. He didn’t say anything about it.
He sat down on another chair after he first moved aside some wrenches.
To tell the truth, I sort of enjoyed making him nervous. I tried to look tough. I banged the wrenches together like I was a mechanic and knew what I was doing.
He sat there as stiff as a board watching me. Finally he just blurted out, “Are you a Mormon?”
“What if I am?” I said, trying to sound mean.
“You’re old enough to be a deacon,” he said, his eyes still moist.
“We pass the sacrament and collect fast offerings.”
“Why would I want to do that? I don’t even know what it is.”
“You could be in our Scout troop.”
“What for?” I sneered. I was hoping maybe I could get him to cry.
“We do lots of things, like go camping and fishing, and we learn to do things.”
“What kind of things?” I figured I had him and that he would talk about something dumb like tying knots.
Instead he sat a minute and looked at me. Then I saw a smile come on his face, and he said, “Like learning to be a mechanic.”
“Oh.” I tried to sound as if I wasn’t interested and I already knew everything about engines and cars.
“If you come next Wednesday, we’ll be starting a new course on how to fix engines. We’ll have a mechanic who works at Olson’s Garage showing us some things. I could come by and get you.”
You see, I always thought that if I could ever get that engine to work, I’d attach it to my bicycle, but I knew I was never going to fix it the way I was going.
“I might go,” I said, as coolly as I could.
He really did come by Wednesday night. I think that if I’d remembered he was coming, I might have chickened out and left the house before he got there. But I forgot until he was there; so I went with him.
When we got there, he led me right up to a man in the hall and introduced me to Bishop Townsend. The bishop reached out, shook my hand, and said he was glad I had come. Then Kevin had me meet his Scoutmaster, who was a grown man but still wore one of those green Scout uniforms. But the Scoutmaster wasn’t so bad once you got to know him. I guess he just liked Scouting.
There were about 15 other boys in the troop. I found out that not all of them were going to learn about engines. In fact, Kevin and I were the only ones. I’ve wondered since if Kevin created this whole engine mechanics course on the spot just to get me to come out. I’ve never asked him, but he’s sneaky like that.
Anyway, we went to Olson’s Garage, and this old guy, Brother Olson, showed us a lot about engines and tools. Afterwards we washed up and went back to church.
The bishop asked me if I had a good time.
“It was okay,” I answered coolly. But when I thought of what I would have done at home, it was ten times better than that.
He asked if I’d come again, and I said maybe. He put his hand on my shoulder and told me that the quorum needed me. Well, it made me feel a little uncomfortable, but I couldn’t help but think that he meant it.
The caseworker came by the next day. She asked where my father was, and I told her he was coming back any day. She asked me what I would think about going into a foster home until he came back, and I asked, “All of us in one home?” She said that she didn’t know if she could find one home for all of us. I told her that we all stick together and that we’d rather stay home. She wrote that on the clipboard.
Then she left. I noticed that there was a small stain on the back of her dress where she had sat on an old piece of toast, but I didn’t say anything. If I had, she probably would have written it down.
The next day we ran out of peanut butter. We weren’t completely out of food though. We had some shortening, a package of noodles, and some tortilla flour. There was a case of green beans in the basement.
The problem was that I’d already collected from everybody on my paper route for the month, so I couldn’t raise any money there.
We found that there are plenty of ways to come up with money when you think you’re broke. The first thing to do is to go through all the couches and stuffed chairs and look between the frame and springs where money can drop. We found 65 cents that way. Then you can look for soda pop bottles in the basement. The grocery store will pay for them. If you check a phone booth every time you pass one, you can sometimes find a dime in the coin return because some people don’t know they get their dime back if they try to make a phone call and don’t get through.
Friday after school I rode my bike out to the airport, collecting empty cans along the way. The recycling center will pay almost a penny a can. At the airport there is a fountain, and sometimes people throw money in there. I’ve made a small rake that I can use to get the money without getting my feet wet. I got 19 pennies and 3 dimes and 4 quarters.
All in all, we got enough for another jar of peanut butter, two loaves of bread, and some pork and beans.
Saturday, while Sam and Marcie were still watching cartoons, Kevin came over and asked us to go to church with him. I wasn’t going to go, but he said after church his parents said it was okay to invite all of us over for supper. I said we’d go, and we did.
I don’t remember much about church except in priesthood meeting Kevin ran the whole show as far as the deacons went. He got up and welcomed everybody and told them just how many he wanted to pass the sacrament. He made a point to tell the rest of them about me. He told them I was a good mechanic and that’s what their quorum needed for their summer cycling trip to the mountains.
Kevin’s mom really is a good cook. Sam, Marcie, and I didn’t talk much, but we sure did eat.
On Monday after school the lady from the county came with a man. He had a clipboard too. He never spoke directly to us, and when he said anything to her, he talked quietly as if he were telling secrets that we weren’t supposed to hear.
“Is your father back yet?” the lady asked.
“He’s due back any day.”
One thing about cats, they seem to know when a person doesn’t like them. Our cat crawled over to the man and sat on his lap. I knew he didn’t like that.
“Could we look around?” the man whispered to the lady.
“Is it all right if we look around?” the lady asked me.
“Why?” I asked her.
“We want to evaluate conditions here.”
“Conditions are just fine here,” I said.
Most of the time adults never listen to you. The man stood up, tried to brush off the cat hair, and went into the kitchen. She followed him.
He opened the refrigerator and shook his head. He looked in the cupboard and shook his head. He looked at the engine on the kitchen table and shook his head.
“Deplorable,” he whispered to the lady.
“These poor children,” she whispered back.
“I recommend foster homes as soon as possible.”
“Look,” I said, “my dad is coming back on Friday. We’ve got cases of food downstairs. We just don’t keep it in the kitchen.”
I ran downstairs, got the last case of green beans, and lugged it up to the kitchen. “Look, we got cases of food. If you want, I’ll bring it all up.” I didn’t think they would go downstairs to check.
It was a lie about there being more food downstairs, and I know it’s wrong to lie, but I also thought it was wrong for them to just walk in and start shaking their heads and making plans about shipping us to other homes.
“Who could we use?” the lady said to the man.
“How many children are there?” the man asked her.
“Just the three.”
“The Johnson family could take one. Rosetti’s can take the girl. Maybe Palmer’s would take the oldest boy.”
“My dad said we could definitely expect him on Friday.”
The lady heard me. “The boy said his father is coming back on Friday,” the lady told the man.
“I guess we could wait until Friday,” the man whispered.
They left, but they sat in their car and wrote on their clipboards for five minutes in front of the house.
I knew what was coming. They were going to split us up and put us in three different homes, homes where we’d eat hot cereal for breakfast and casseroles for supper. They wouldn’t know that Marcie sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night crying, but if you go in and touch her forehead for a minute, she’ll fall back asleep. They wouldn’t know that Sam doesn’t like corn, and it doesn’t matter if you say that it’s good for him, he won’t eat it, not plain, not creamed, and not on the cob.
There were things about them that only I knew. If we were separated, we would stop being a family. I couldn’t let that happen.
I went with Kevin on Wednesday night to Mutual. They had refreshments afterwards, and I slipped two cookies in a shirt pocket to take home to Sam and Marcie.
I guess I’d told so many people that Dad was coming home Friday that I almost believed it myself. But when I woke up Friday morning, I knew we had to do something or else we’d wind up in foster homes. I got Sam and Marcie up early. While we were eating some toast and peanut butter, I turned off the TV and talked to them.
“We’ve got to leave town today. How would you like to go to California?”
“Why today?” Marcie asked.
“That lady who comes here, she doesn’t like us living alone. She wants to make us go away and live in somebody else’s home. We’d all be in different homes, and we might not see each other for a long time.”
Marcie started to cry.
“Don’t worry. I won’t let them split us up.”
We went downstairs and got our sleeping bags and packs. We put the rest of our food in my pack. Sam carried a hatchet, matches, and a flashlight in his pack along with his clothes.
We left about 9:00 in the morning. I figured that the caseworker wouldn’t go to our house until after school, so I wasn’t worried about hiding from them when we first started, but we wanted to get as far away as we could before night.
We took a city bus out of town as far as it went and then started walking. Sam and I could have walked faster, but Marcie slowed us down. By night we were only ten miles out of town.
Before we left, when I planned about us leaving, I pictured us in the mountains catching fish and eating berries and trapping animals for our food. Things never work out the way you picture them. Ten miles out of town we were still in the suburbs with miles and miles of shopping centers and auto dealerships. There were no trees to chop down and no berries to eat. I did find some pretty good lettuce in the garbage can behind one grocery store. It just had a couple of brown spots on it.
During the day when the wind blows, it’s one thing. But at night when the wind blows and it’s November, that’s another thing.
Finally we found a small park. Somebody had left some empty boxes that they store chicken in for picnics and some other paper in a trash container. We burned them to heat up our beans.
Then we unrolled our sleeping bags and tried to sleep. The wind was kind of spooky, and Marcie was afraid, but we had her put her sleeping bag between Sam and me and told her how much fun it was to be camping out.
It was cold, and it took us a long time to get to sleep.
Sometime during the night I woke up because there was a flashlight shining in my eyes.
“What are you kids doing?” a policeman asked us.
“We’re just sleeping out,” I said. “We do it all the time.”
“You can’t sleep overnight at this park.”
We put our shoes on, threw things into our packs, grabbed our sleeping bags, and walked quickly away.
He got back in his car and started to talk on his radio.
“I’ve just found three kids sleeping in Rock Creek Park. Have you got anything there on any runaways?”
We started to run.
He jumped out of his car and yelled after us, “Wait! I need to ask you some questions!”
Marcie fell down. I could see the man in the police car backing up so he could turn around to chase us.
I dropped my pack and sleeping bag and picked Marcie up in my arms. We ran across the street, through one yard, along an alley for a few feet, and then into another yard across the alley. We found a garage with the door open, and we ran in and quietly closed the overhead door and waited.
There was a small window on the garage door, and I looked out. The police car moved slowly past the street twice, shining his light on everything as he passed.
After half an hour he quit circling the block.
I left Sam and Marcie in the garage and went back to see if I could find our packs and sleeping bags. The policeman had taken them and was parked behind a hedge waiting for us, but I didn’t let him see me.
I went back to the garage, and we stayed there for a few hours. I let Marcie and Sam sit on my coat so they wouldn’t be cold sitting on the concrete. I told them I wasn’t cold.
Marcie began to cry. She cried softly because she knew we’d be in trouble if the people in the house woke up. We couldn’t stop her. She must have cried for half an hour.
We were beaten, and I knew it. We only had 75 cents, and we were out of food and a way to sleep. Sam and I could have gone on, but Marcie was too scared, and we wouldn’t ever leave her.
It was turning gray when we left the garage and walked back to the bus stop where we had gotten off the day before. As soon as the buses began to run in the morning, we took one back to the city.
We got off the bus near our home and walked through backyards until we were close enough to see our house. I wanted to see if Dad had come home yet. He hadn’t, but while we were watching, a police car drove past the house slowly.
We ran to Kevin’s house, went to the back door, and knocked. Kevin opened the door and let us in.
Kevin’s mom asked us if we’d like some pancakes. Sam and Marcie both said yes, and she made us some.
They didn’t ask us any questions, but when Kevin’s mom put some pancakes on Marcie’s plate, she touched her head lightly, the way mothers do to little girls. I guess it was the wrong thing to do because Marcie broke down and started crying again.
Kevin’s mom sat down and put her arms around Marcie. Marcie kept saying as she cried, “Don’t let them break us apart.”
Then Sam started to cry, but don’t think badly of him because he’s only ten years old.
We finally told Kevin and his parents what had happened. Kevin’s dad called the bishop and asked him to come over.
The bishop came and took me to his office in the meetinghouse. He left Sam and Marcie at Kevin’s so they could watch Saturday cartoons.
I told the bishop everything, and he promised he wouldn’t let anybody split us up.
Then he got on the phone and made five or six phone calls. After he was through, he asked me if we would like to stay with Kevin’s parents for a while. He said it was okay with the people from the county.
That was a month ago. My dad hasn’t come back yet, but he will. One of these days he’ll come back with toys and games from Mexico.
When he does, I want to tell him about the Church and about family home evenings and about the priesthood. I’m a deacon now, and Kevin and I work together in Scouting. It’s not bad, Scouting I mean. You have to learn about knots, but I guess even that could be useful someday.
I’ve gone to priesthood meeting enough to know that what I was before I started going to church is what they call an inactive. Now I’m what they call an active. I also found out that there are more inactives than there should be. Kevin says we have to keep working to turn the inactives into actives. We talk plenty about that in priesthood meeting. I guess that’s why Kevin first visited us—to turn us into actives.
You know, he really is a good president of our quorum.