When I was four or five, I began to run away. At least that’s how my parents saw it. I’d nip out of the house, follow my nose, and wander hither and yon through our small town neighborhood. Their concern was understandable—the street in front of our house was the main highway through town, to say nothing of other possibilities for random mishaps. Once or twice I managed to reach the long downhill slope into downtown—I wanted to see if I could find my dad’s newspaper office—but more often I was found heading for the edge of town.
My actions should have come as no surprise to them. I’d spent my first few years of life living in Europe, where we alternated between cold water flats in Geneva and London—while my dad did graduate study on the GI Bill—and the bliss of the open road. We camped our way across the continent from Sweden to Spain—and then tackled the British Isles. We’d be out on the road for weeks, even months, at a time. During these periods, I spent the driving days straddling a sleeping bag in the back seat of our tiny Renault. It felt like riding a horse, and later fueled my cowboy obsession.
Life flashed by outside my window, ever changing, ever fascinating. “Mommy, take picture old cathle,” was my common refrain. But it wasn’t just the castles that held my imagination; it was all the animal life we encountered on the roadside. We camped in pastures with herds of sheep, with goats, with enormous lumbering cows who licked the dew off our tent flaps. Whenever the car halted, I would dismount my rolled-up steed and slide out the door for adventure.
Oftentimes the other folks we encountered on our back lane expeditions were Gypsies, and I grew accustomed to temporary playmates, all of whom seemed marvelously adept in the wild—and remarkably dug in on whatever patch of land they occupied. It never occurred to me that a handful of caravan spots might be the only territory they knew.
Whatever their ages, genders or numbers, I fell in alongside the junior set for the duration. We might chase sheep, or play some arcane version of tag, or (my biggest delight) run off down the seashore looking for washed-up treasures. There was also the unfortunate incident of the Glaswegian chicken coop, where I was attacked by thousands and thousands of fleas, and lived with the bites and torment of itching for weeks. But that, as they say, is another story.
Then we moved back to the States.
I was not yet four, but the long boat trip back across the Atlantic had firmly embedded the idea that this was indeed a far and distant land. By the time we were temporarily ensconced in my grandparents’ parlor in Minneapolis, I knew this great land needed me to discover it properly.
A week or so later, I was sitting on the front stoop when I saw the teenage boy from next door bounce out of his house and head off towards the far street corner. This neighbor was one of the few people I’d been introduced to in the new land and, as he seemed an interesting sort, I determined to follow him. Perhaps he’d let me walk at his side to wherever he was going.
But he was fast, and willing to dash across the street at a funny angle, which I had quite clearly been told not to do. Soon he was almost out of sight . . . and then he turned a corner. I hurried after him.
But when I got around that corner, there were other people. I did my best to pick out my prospect from the crowd, trailing the wake of one tall man, and then another. But eventually I had to accept that I had failed in my reconnaissance mission. I took stock, and determined that walking forward was the most desirable option. Indeed, I could think of no other. I turned down an empty alleyway and continued my search. This was not going as well as I had hoped.
As I wandered, peering into backyards and wondering why there were no cows anywhere, a lady entered the alley and put a bag inside a metal can. I kept walking, but with a gentle lurch in her direction. I only spoke English and experience had taught me that the people we encountered rarely did. She might be able to help, but on the other hand . . .
And then she spoke. “Hello, little boy—who are you?”
“I’m an American.” That had always been a useful phrase.
“Hah, hah. Of course you are.”
It must have been my cowboy hat that gave me away, I thought.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m following Donny. He lives next door.”
She looked up and down the alley. “There’s no Donny here. Where do you live?”
Hmmm. We’d only been at my grandparents’ house a short time. Street? House number? These had never been mentioned. I waved vaguely in the direction I’d come.
The nice lady brought me into her house, and offered me a hot bath while she made some phone calls. That seemed a fair enough deal. It was deepening dusk by now, and I’d been walking for some time. I remember, vividly, playing around in that bath and the contentment of no longer having to figure out my next move. She gave me a grilled cheese sandwich and some plastic figures to play with, and I was so taken with an emerald green spaceman with a round molded helmet that she gave it to me to keep. I had that spaceman for years.
So when I began running away, it wasn’t because of some imagined problem at home. It was just me taking an interest in what might lie the next street over. But after a dog bite, a complaint from the owner of the corner store, and the nearby occurrence of a traffic accident on that same stretch of highway-rolling-through-town, my parents felt they had to crack down, once and for all.
I was put on a leash.
My dad got a twenty foot length of rope, tied one end to the oak tree in the middle of our yard, and put a bowline around my waist. It was explained to me, at great length, that it was not acceptable—and was not safe—for me to dash off our property at any time. I could play in this spot; I could play in that spot; but I could not go beyond the boundaries.
This I took as an affront to my sense of adventure. Bound to borders? Leashed like the Olysheskis’ dog? I could feel a low burn of resentment begin to spread across my face. After my dad went back inside, I marched to the full extent of the rope and plopped myself onto the grass, glowering and glum.
My mom watched from inside the house. Years later she would tell me, “And you sat there at the end of that rope, determined to show us who was boss. We must have used that leash for a week or two, but it was always the same. You sat right at the end, like a pointer waiting for the hunt.”
She wasn’t all that happy about the situation, “But all the child-rearing books were telling us to do that. ‘You must be the one in charge. Your child cannot control you; you control the child.’” She shook her head. “We never did break your spirit.”
And why, exactly, would they have wanted to? Both parents shared the same joie de vivre that drew us all towards the open road. Indeed it had been their example from which I first drew inspiration. So as I sat there glowering, with just the slightest bit of tension humming through the taut, outstretched length of rope, I turned my face to the wind and dreamed of Gypsies riding bareback and a backseat steed that left no saddle sores. In my pocket was a talisman of promise: an emerald-green spaceman with a mission to discover the earth.
Daniel Gabriel’s published work includes a novel, Twice a False Messiah (Florida Academic Press), a short story collection, Tales From the Tinker’s Dam (Whistling Shade Press), and hundreds of stories and articles. Another short story collection, Wrestling With Angels (New Rivers Press) is forthcoming in 2015. His work has previously appeared in Issues 14 and 17 of Outside In. He is also a lifelong vagabond traveler, who has taken camelback, tramp freighter, and third class train through 100 different countries. Currently, he is statewide Arts Program Director for COMPAS.