I was hitching rides making my way from boarding school in Massachusetts to my home on the Connecticut coast. I was sixteen going on seventeen and had about had enough of the school. Of course, they’d had about enough of me as well so it made it even. The school had its ideas on the way things should be done and I had mine. Suffice to say we were light years apart in our perspectives. Here’s an example: On weekends they wanted us to stay on the school grounds and amuse ourselves with ball games, reading, or listening to the radio. On weekends I wanted to explore the towns nearby and meet new people, preferably girls, and go to movies, eat pizza and generally hang out. Almost invariably faculty member would spot me in town where they had gone to enjoy the weekend doing similar things to what I was doing. I guess they found the school grounds as boring and tedious as I did. The teacher or whatever would see me, I would see the look of recognition form on their face and they would call out something like “See here! You aren’t supposed to be here!”
I would reply “I’m not!” and then would zip off, leaving them to mutter things to themselves like “frump, frump,” or “ahem.” Later on at school I would invariably be called to the headmaster’s office where I would be placed on restriction, as if I wasn’t already on restriction for my previous demonstrations of impudent independence. Of course, their demands of me to honor their restrictions were summarily ignored, as I continued to do as I pleased outside of classroom hours. I say with some hubris that I was a straight A student, something that perplexed the teachers who wanted to see me as a juvenile delinquent. “You have such potential!” they would say to me. I agreed completely, which is why I was forever trying to explore my potential. It always perplexed me that they saw me as “such a smart young man,” yet thought I should be afforded the liberties of a drooling and mentally challenged two year old. Then again, they were reacting to what they knew of my actions; I’d done much more and got away clean.
So here I was walking down the side of the road near Torrington, Connecticut, making my way home and trying to figure out how I was going to explain to my parents why I was not at the school they were paying so dearly for me to attend. An approaching car slowed and pulled over. “Where ya headed?” asked the seemingly nice man. I said I was on my way to Darien and he told me to hop on in and he’d see what he could do to help me get where I needed to be.
The way he said that rang alarms. I recognized it as one of those statements that, while true, made the speaker a liar, liar, pants on fire. But the car was already moving down the road with me in it, and there wasn’t much I could do. Then I saw the radio mounted beneath the dashboard and saw him pick up a microphone and mumble something illegible into it. We drove in silence for a few minutes and I finally spoke. “So, who are you?”
“I’m a state police trooper.” he replied. “In plainclothes because I’m off duty.”
“I’d like to get out of the car now.” I said.
He smiled and told me that I’d be getting out fast enough, but not quite yet. “You seem a little young to be out and about on your ow, especially thumbing rides.” he said. I did look young, most people guessed my age at 13 or 14, not just a few months shy of my seventeenth birthday. Three blocks later he pulled into the parking lot of a building with a sign saying “State Police Barracks.” We got out of the car and I started towards the doorway. He said hold up, this might not be the final stop and opened one of the back doors of his car. “Why don’t you hop in here and wait for me a few minutes while I check in.” He said it like an invitation but it was actually an order. This guy played with words deceptively. I sighed and slid on into the back seat. He shut the door and strode into the building. I looked around and didn’t see anyone nearby, so I figured I would take my leave. The guy didn’t know who I was, so perhaps I could shake him and get a ride with someone less, I don’t know, cop like? I tried to open the door and found that the interior door handles were inoperative. I was horrified for a moment and then calmed myself to think.
I climbed over the seat into the front of the car, opened the door on the driver’s side and stepped out of the car. I was two blocks away when he caught up to me. He didn’t say a word, just leaned across the seat and opened the passenger door. Defeated, I got in. I expected to be taken to the police building but we turned around and went the other way. “What’s your name?” he asked. I told him. He asked me where I lived and I told him that too. Again he mumbled into the microphone of his radio and a moment later, I heard the radio say my address at home and the name of my school amongst a number of noises and codes.
Our destination turned out to be the railroad station. We both got out of the car and he led me to the platform. He bought me some peanuts from a machine that took nickels and I ate them one at a time while we talked about fishing. After a while, a train came into the station and stopped. The cop spoke to the conductor, occasionally glancing my way and the conductor nodded. “Well, sport. I can’t let you hitchhike home it’s too dangerous. But I can put you on a train. Your parents will meet you at the station.”
“I don’t have money for a ticket.” I said. It was true, I had no money at all.
“That’s no problem,” said the conductor. “I think the New Haven Railroad can afford to let you use a seat for a while.” he looked at me closely for a minute, concentration etching his face. I know you.” he said. “Your name is Bob and you and your father used to commute to Grand Central from Darien. That was my train up until a year ago.” I was surprised and realized that the man did look familiar. He certainly recognized me.
“Looks like he’s in good hands.” said the off duty cop. “Stay safe, son, and good luck to you.” He held out his hand and I shook it. I guess they were letting me go because being sixteen didn’t have the same rules as for someone younger. The conductor put a friendly arm on my shoulders and guided me to the steps to the car. I climbed aboard and had pretty much a whole car to myself. Only a guy dozing with an open newspaper on his chest shared it with me. I took a seat by a window and saw the state cop driving away and thought, this is how the world should work.
The train pulled into the station in Darien and I recognized my father’s car parked by the platform. I’d hoped my mother would have been there, my dad and I have never seen eye to eye. The reception wasn’t particularly warm, my dad just told me to get in the car. As we drove he explained that the school was sending my diploma through the mail and felt it best if I didn’t attend the commencement ceremony. Fine by me. I was just about to say that when I noticed that we drove right past the turnoff to the Tokeneke neighborhood where our house was. “Did you just miss your turn?” I asked.
“We’ve lived here for quite a few years, I think I know where I’m going.” he replied.
“And where’s that?” I asked. He told me I would see. We drove on in silence up to New Canaan and he turned into the driveway of a large, gated property. Set back from the street by a football field sized lawn sat an imposing brick building. It had the typical New England architecture with a columned portico and all of the windows had shutter. The windows also had, I noticed, bars on them. A sedate sign stood in the moat of ivy that surrounded the building and crawled up tis walls. The sign had only one word on it. It read “Sanitarium.” My stomach immediately felt hollow and my ears began to ring. “What are you doing?” I asked, hoarsely.
“I’ve tried everything with you and nothing has worked. You refuse to accept my authority –or anyone else’s for that matter. I have decided that you need therapy. Conditioning. You need to learn your place.” As he finished speaking, three orderlies came to the car. My door was opened and I was taken by the arm by one of them, a pretty big fellow, and guided to the door. Just inside I recognized a woman who was a friend of my mothers. She’d been to the house many times and was part of my mother’s “stitchin’ and bitchin’” group that met every couple of weeks. The meetings had no purpose save friends visiting friends.
“Hello, Mrs. Hill.” I said. She gave me a sad smile and said hello back. The orderly led me through a door on the side of the hall. It opened into a living room looking area with a series of doors to rooms along the front wall. I could smell food cooking somewhere. The orderly led me into a room and had me sit down on the bed. A nurse came in and smiled at me. She was pretty and blonde with green eyes that seemed to smile.
“We know this is an upsetting event, so we’re going to give you a little something to relax you.” she said, rolling up the sleeve of my shirt. She produced a syringe, seemingly out of nowhere, and poked it into my arm. I asked what she had just given me but I didn’t hear the answer. All I saw was an explosion of stars and then darkness.
To be continued…