Scooby-Dooby-Doo, Where Are You? (R)

SET IT FREE

 

Once, when I was seven years old, I ran away from home.

I had been caught in the empty choir loft at the First Lutheran playing “doctor” with my best friend at the time – who just happened to be Becky Travers. We didn’t know there was anything wrong with it, but from the look on our parents faces as they frantically jerked our little flowery dresses back on, it was made abun­dantly clear that we were the worst little girls in the world. No words, none were necessary. Where once I believed I’d be celebrating my eighth birthday at the Winter Fantasy Ice Rink, it was now for sure I’d be blowing out my candles in Hell. I don’t think I cried, but I know I blushed hot and red – not only embarrassed but angry at not knowing what it was I should be embarrassed about. It was the start of a shame that took years to vanquish.

So I decided I had to leave not only my parents and my com­fortable room, but the whole of Plum City as well. I would leave that very night, but I had to be extra clever about it. Not every second-grade runaway has a sheriff for a father.

With the utmost guile and secrecy I packed only the most neces­sary of my belongings into my old tartan plaid Aladdin lunchbox. Jar of peanut butter, sleeve of crackers, my 45 of “The Monster Mash,” The ABC Murders in paperback, and, of course, my toothbrush and tube of Crest. I folded plenty of clean undies into my pink plastic Barbie suitcase so that my Mom would be somewhat sated. Then I was ready to go.

I waited until the light under my parent’s door winked off and gave it another fifteen minutes for safety. The way was clear at last.

I slid open my window with trembling, sweaty hands. Sweaty because I happened to have been wearing my winter mittens throughout the operation. No fingerprints, see? I was a bright youngster for sure, too hip to the ins and outs of crime and punish­ment, there was no way the coppers would be able to pin my own disappearance on me.

I was feeling a mite proud of my criminal genius as I slipped easily from my window to the friendly waiting branches of the oak beside our house. My plan was unfolding with Swiss watch precision. Next stop – Canada – where, under my new name of Ramona Eloise D’artagnan (exotic and mysterious, n’est pas?) I would instantly fall in with the wrong kind of folks, the rough crowd. All the thieves, cut­throats, and thugs would accept me as one of their own, and, in time, Sheriff Martin Dinkley’s little girl would be recognized as their natural leader: the Moriarty of Montreal. I would even send maddening clues of my nefarious plots back to the Plum City police department and watch them scramble. Someone’s snatched all the gold in Fort Knox! They’ve yanked the Crown Jewels right out from under the Queen’s snoot! Some fiend has kidnapped Peggy Lee and is demanding a trillion dollars ransom! Who?!! Why Ramona “The Devil” D’artagnan of course – arch supervillain who can sleep late every day and play doctor with anyone she pleases.

It was a beautiful scheme and it probably would’ve worked too – if not for the appropriately named Mr. Stinks, a neighborhood cat so foul of stench that it should have never sur­prised me in a million years. One could, normally, have smelled Mr. Stinks coming from miles away, but this happened to be the day of Mr. Stinks’ annual tub washing. When that furry shadow leapt onto the branch in front of me with a luminescent blur of sulphuric yellow eyes, I jerked back with a squeal and toppled from my perch, mercifully avoiding concussions and bone breaks on the way down.

Dad was outside in a policeman’s hurry, holding not his work piece but his recreational .20-gauge shotgun he’d affectionately dubbed “Twitchy Tess.” He made the corners of the house in a crouching run and brought T.T. to bear on the clump of hydrangeas that was shrieking and wailing to wake the dead.

After checking me over to make sure I hadn’t done any per­manent (i.e. expensive) damage, Dad gripped me hard by the shoulders and locked eyes with me while Mom, arms crossed in front of her chest, stood by firing off stern questions with just a sprinkling of panic. His eyes and her questions – a formidable combination. I found I couldn’t answer them, not the simplest question in the bunch, and I couldn’t stop crying. Faced with my hysteria, shame, and inability to communicate the reasons behind my flight down the oak with a lunchbox, a suitcase and a pair of mittens, my father did the only reasonable thing he could do: He put me in jail.

Yeah, I’ll admit it was an odd, almost medieval form of punish­ment. If it had happened in this day and age I no doubt could’ve sued my parents right out of their comfortable sub­urban splendour or., at the very least, earned myself a spot on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show. To our over-sensitized ears, the idea of locking a 7-year-old girl in a jail cell sets off our media-fuelled “CHILD ABUSE” alarms, but, let’s face it, it was Wisconsin at the end of the ‘50s and this was how my father decided to teach me a lesson. And, really, I came out of it just fine.

It was a tidy cell having held barely a dozen folks in the previous five years, but it seemed like the dark, gray pit of some evil duke’s castle from which I would never again venture forth. Never again to bask in the light of day, the taste of an Eskimo pie but a far distant memory. I cried for the entire length of my grueling 20-minute sentence.

My father turned the key and swung the door open. He came to me and wrapped me in his big, big arms. It felt like I was hugging a mountain with scratchy five o’clock shadow. He shushed my whimpering and said, “Do you know now? Do you know how much we love you? Enough to lock you up forever.”

It’s a strange thing to hear echoing back from across the years, stranger still the way it comforted me.

“Sometimes, Vel, when you love something so much, you have to hold onto it and never let it go.”

Apparently the old man had never heard the one about “if you love something, set it free…,” and I was a bit too young to argue the case for free will. But I felt safe back then.

Until the summer of ’67 when we all ran away from home. Together. And it didn’t feel safe and it didn’t feel sure, it just felt right. We kept driving because we had all tandemly realized that it was up to us to free ourselves.

Though that didn’t keep me from looking over my shoulder from time to time, sure I would spot Plum City’s sole police cruiser, cherries lit and spinning.

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