Adoption Series: Escape
With Dad’s hammer tucked into my belt, a length of rope looped around my waist, and a bunch of large nails in my pockets pressed against my thighs, I was ready to leave. I hadn’t figured on the roughness of the nails on my skin through my thin pockets.
(My writing is personal. I write to help others and so readers and my clients come to know me better.)
He wasn’t my bio dad. I’m adopted. But I called him dad and still do.
Once on my bike, I pushed my nail-filled pockets to the sides of my thighs as much as possible and headed for the river, hoping my pockets would hold. Visions of Huckleberry Finn danced in my head.
A beautiful day.
Acting out was something I made a habit of growing up. I now know that acting out is a typical response to childhood trauma. And dad was the source of much of my trauma.
The upside of my acting out is the adventures and the stories they gave me.
I knew the river’s location well. Dad had found an abandoned sawmill on the banks of the Duwamish with mountains of leftover wood chips and sawdust. He and Mom made many trips there to fill the car trunk with the chips they used on the planting beds in our yard as a decorative cover while I played along the river bank.
The Duwamish is Seattle’s industrial river; factories and workshops line the banks. Tugs towing barges, and commercial boats ply the channel.
While my parents worked, I noticed the scraps of lumber and short logs among the discarded wood chips and thought they’d be perfect for a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn-like raft. I’d been reading about their adventures and escapes from the adult world. This seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to escape mine.
So, I planned my escape over the next few days. I did a series of raft drawings. It only needed to be large enough to support me, and I’d just build it, try it out, and then make any refinements needed.
Plans well in mind. Tools collected, I peddled across the flats with that comforting feeling of being in control once I’ve launched an endeavor that I’m sure will bring success.
Arriving at the river bank, I found an old tarp under which I could hide my bike. Plenty of homeless men would steal it for the few bucks it would bring, so I covered the bike and the tarp, too. Using a discarded shingle as a shovel, I spread as much sawdust and chips as needed to make the bike nearly invisible.
I quickly found that some of the logs I’d counted on were so waterlogged they wouldn’t float. But there were short timber-sized chunks of finished lumber sticking out of the mounds of sawdust. I figured they must have been discarded ends, maybe too short to be useful. Light, too. Cedar, I thought.
After much digging out and dragging promising chunks to the shore, I began to nail it together, using the boards I’d found earlier as decking.
It must have been noon before my raft was ready. I pushed her partly into the water, and yes! she floated. Using my rope, I tied her to a handy piling and began my search for a pole. Tom and Huck used long poles to control their raft.
It didn’t occur to me that the Duwamish was unlike the Mississippi. Much deeper.
With no suitable poles handy, I needed to search elsewhere.
Leaving my bike and my new raft seemed okay; no one had taken any interest in what I was doing. The bike was hidden, and my raft was so crude she looked like everything else discarded on the riverbank. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring a saw, so my decking was of all different lengths, making the raft look more like randomly discarded lumber than the escape vessel she was.
I walked back through the neighborhoods just beyond the commercial zone along the river. I figured the alleys were the best place to find discarded building materials or an extra-long garden stake like Dad used for his pea vines.
Sure enough, I found a whole stack of long garden stakes. As I was pulling one out, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and…
“What ya got there, kid?”
He must have been retired to be home on a workday. “Just my luck,” I thought. I needed a story fast.
“The Fourth of July is coming up, sir!”
“Yes,” he said, holding me by my arm. A strong grip. I knew I could outrun him. He was old, but he wasn’t letting go.
“Yeah, so the Fourth’s coming up.”
“I wanna make a flagpole.”
“Well, that’s my garden stake, you’re stealing.”
Then he thought for a minute. And I figured I might have a shot when he asked, “Why do you want a flagpole?”
I’d recently seen the famous photo of the soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima and took inspiration from the memory. I hoped the old man was a vet.
“I want to put up a flag for my Dad on the Fourth.”
The grip loosened. I looked him in the eye, and his hand fell away. Now I knew I could run. But I wanted that pole. I wanted him to give me the pole.
“You don’t need a pole to put up a flag, kid. You can just tack it up on the side of your house.”
“Sir, my dad was injured in the war.” Now, I thought I needed just a little more. “You see, he’s in a wheelchair, and he’s been having a hard time sleeping through the night. Mom says it’s the memories that…”
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Tommy. Tommy Charles.” My middle name is Charles; that’s why I thought of it. Figured it was common enough that there must be a million Charles families around.
“Live around here?”
“Yes, over in Georgetown.”
“What’s your old man’s name?”
“Thomas J. Charles, sir. He was a Marine, sir.”
“Take the pole, kid; enjoy the Fourth.”
And I was on my way, feeling the blush of pride at getting away with it. Always a danger, that pride. Now, I was fully into it. I’d built the raft. And I’d conned my way out of a tight one for the pole. Huck would be proud.
Back to the shoreline, I found that my raft was fully afloat. Tide must have advanced. Good thing I’d tied her up; I’d not considered the tides.
It was hot now. Midafternoon. The whole thing had taken way longer than I thought it would. My bike was still there, hidden and undisturbed.
I was in a hurry now, anxious to shove off and head down the river. Stepping aboard, I was thrilled to find that she supported my weight just fine. Seemed stable, too. I pulled myself up to the piling, untied the rope, and gave a shove.
It must have been the combination of my craft’s lightweight, buoyancy, and my energetic shove because we were immediately midstream. Then came the deafening blast of a tugboat horn. I turned to see the tug bearing down on me, pulling a huge barge. I grabbed my extra-long garden-stake pole and endeavored to pole myself to safety.
The water was too deep. Deep enough to be well beyond my pole’s reach. The tug blasted its horn again.
I was terrified.
I dropped my useless pole and lay on the deck, hands over the side, and began paddling as fast and as hard as I could. And the raft moved. And I kept paddling.
Paddling hard, getting soaked, fear driving every stroke.
The tug passed by. Guy on the deck yelling at me. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.
Kept paddling, managing to miss the barge. God, it was immense. A massive black wall of steel passed me by. Then, the wake washed over me, pushing me back toward shore. That was good.
I was sort of out of the way of the river traffic but soaking wet. It was a hot day, but the water was cold. Really cold and smelled of oil.
I tried the pole again, but still couldn’t find bottom. And we’d drifted a long way. I couldn’t see the point where I’d launched.
I figured I needed to get to shore –– ditch the raft and try to get home before Dad got back from work. Tell Mom we kids had been out playing with the hose.
Just then, I saw the harbor patrol boat. “This isn’t good” immediately flashed through my head.
They pulled up gently, and a big guy reached out with a boat hook and pulled the raft close enough to pull me aboard. Then, using the boat hook, he tied my raft to their boat.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Please, sir. Please don’t call my parents.”
“Kid, you almost died out there. That tug could not stop, turn, or do anything to avoid you. You’re lucky to be alive. What’s your name?”
I figured the Tommy Charles bit wouldn’t work with these guys: “Teddy Leonhardt.”
The jig was up.
I’ve always been creative and full of energy for a new project. Often, my projects suffer from too much energy and too little planning. And I start more projects than I finish.
The vision and the allure of building the raft overwhelmed any truly thoughtful planning, which was typical of me then. I’ve tried to be a better planner as an adult, but I still find myself falling into the same old traps.
Making up a story often helped me get out of stuff I’d gotten into. Sometimes, I’d get caught in the lie, and there’d be Hell to pay.
I knew the harbor patrol guys wouldn’t buy one of my stories. So, I told them the truth: my fantasy of becoming Huck Finn and my dream of escape.
I was very proud of the story I invented to get the pole –– and for getting away with it.
Standing aboard the harbor patrol boat that day, I knew this was a time for truth. After all, even Huck knew when to slip in a little truth.
I’ve found that telling stories is helpful when teaching and also as a negotiation tool. If you want someone to remember something or buy into a concept, a story helps. A good story makes things more memorable. And stories that involve some aspect of failure seem to me to be the most memorable of all.
By the way, the guy who scooped me off my raft didn’t call my parents. I’m still grateful.
(Book a call with me by email if you’d like help building your creative practice: email@example.com)