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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

Running Away From Home

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

[This is a combination of actual journal entries, and explanatory passages written seven years later, edited somewhat. Names have been changed and the statute of limitations has run out. It's a true story of chuckleheaded adolescent derring-do, executed with what I now observe was a breathtakingly sanguine disregard for the expectations of the community of adults who were raising me. I was resolute in my goal; I wanted to venture out into the world on my own terms, and in this I certainly succeeded]

Spring snow was falling past the window of Jennifer's bedroom, dusting the roof of her parents' house. She watched the flakes drifting among the branches of the ash tree in the backyard, heard the purring of the central heating switching on, her mother's voice downstairs, muffled, business-like, talking on the phone. Early afternoon light filtered through the window, and Jennifer Shaw, seventeen years old, unemployed and out of school, lay on her bed in her flannel nightgown and wrote in her journal.

"March 16, 1976. Last night I drove into town. Visited Jack at the pizzeria and ended up going with him and Kyla to this guy Beard's house. There were a bunch of people there. They all drank beer. Kyla and I were bored so we went for a walk up through the campus, talking, mostly bitching and moaning about this town. Kyla really hates Potsdam, but she gets so involved with everything here."

Both of Jennifer's parents taught at Potsdam University and the family had lived there for eight years. Jennifer had spent eight icy upstate winters and eight long gray springs riding the school bus, carrying books, getting good grades. Now she was receiving recruitment letters from various colleges around the country. She kept all the letters in the bottom drawer of her bureau, and when her parents asked her which ones she wanted to visit, she could only stare at them blankly.

Jennifer had a boyfriend in Illinois. She had met him at her summer job in Maine and they had fallen in love, among the spruce trees and granite boulders of "Camp Wilderness". They wrote impassioned letters to each other, and schemed of ways to be together. Bruce had spent a month in Potsdam, living at Jennifer's house until her parents icily suggested that he rent a room in town, which he did. After a few weeks he had driven his VW beetle to California, to investigate a place for he and Jenny to live. Jenny was waiting to hear from him.

"Today I'm sitting around in a state of mental enebrium and reading my old diaries," she wrote. "They make me laugh, and I begin to see the progression from a child- an innocent, bratty, melodramatic, self-righteous sort of creature- slowly changing into whatever monstrous manifestation of the human state I could define myself as now. Going to the bars and parties last night was OK, but I got no good advice and stayed out until 2:00 am, which was too late. It's snowing hard.

A long time ago, two years ago or so, I wrote of my condition, 'Well, someday I will be OUT of this and I will never come back, they'll never get me back.' I was talking about school, I guess."

The next time Jennifer wrote anything in her journal, she was sitting in a house trailer in Macomb, Illinois, in Bruce's parents' trailer on the flat, windswept midwestern plain. She opened the black and white exercise book deliberately and wrote.

March 25. OK. I'd better describe this scene by scene. On March 19, being a good girl, babysitting Danny Davis, a little blond squirming one year old, just sitting their innocently in his parents house when the phone rings, mad scramble, drag Danny downstairs and it's


He's home in Illinois. And as Danny scampers away and back upstairs I say I'll catch the 5:55 pm Greyhound out of Malone tomorrow and be there Sunday night, and he says fine and I hang up and go crazy sitting there waiting for Mrs. Davis and planning, leaping around to use up the adrenaline oversupplied by my ever ready endocrine system, and that night, all packed and ready to go, some guests came over for dinner and it was a social evening and I was going NUTS. After they all left, I went into town.

I was going to search for Jack to enlist his aid. Unlike my other friends, he had access to a car. I checked the pizzeria first, and there he was, just finishing up work. Talked to him while he made and weighed a bunch of pizza dough. He gave me a letter from his girlfriend to read. We played pinball. I needed him to get me and my stuff over to Malone timed to catch the bus without my parents having enough time to, etc., and he said he would and I said I would rely on him.

I was out until 2:00 again that night, and woke up at 6:30 in the morning. At 9:00 went for my normal Saturday morning housecleaning stint at the Millers'. I cleaned their house. Helped them plant a tree. They fought. I became encrusted with dirt. They gave me a check for twelve dollars and took me into town, where Jack [who had been communicating with me by phone at various times during the morning] was waiting.

We cashed the check at the pizzeria and hitch hiked to Jack's house to get his Dad's car. After cleaning the car out a little, and propping up the seat, we drove up to my house to get my bag. No one was home.

I was just coming downstairs with my stuff, ready to make some phone calls, when Mom drives up. Jack freaks out, gets this mournful expression on his face and says nothing.

I tell Mom we're just on our way out, staying vague on detail. We talk a few minutes. She goes into her bedroom for a second and I put my Dear Parents note under the third plate in the cupboard. Babbling some feasible excuse as to why I'm carrying a large bag and some rubber boots, I retreat to Jack's car, Jack following. The damn car wont start. Finally it does, and we drive back to Jack's house where I use his phone to call all my employers saying I wont be babysitting anymore.

Jack drives me to Malone. I buy my ticket. It's only 2:30 and Jack is paranoid about driving alone, since he only has a permit, so I leave my stuff under the watchful eye of the Greyhound lady and Jack and I go get milkshakes.

He then drives back to his house to get ready to go to a David Bowie concert. I hitch back to Malone, which doesn't take long, and wander around stores for awhile and wait in the Greyhound waiting room. Paranoid images of my parents discovering the note too early and swooping into Malone to snatch me from the vicious, long-awaited jaws of freedom. The bus comes. I get on, and sleep my way to Buffalo, alea jacta est.

Buffalo bus stop from midnight til 2:00 am. The first bus driver, whose blonde little fiance' sits in the front seat, looks at my ticket and says,"Boy, you got a ride." In Buffalo I sit around, stare at people. Walk into the Ladies' room about 12:30 because I don't like the look of things downstairs.

Walk in. Thin old lady sitting in a corner, fat short young one wandering around babbling. "Anyone want a pie?" She gives me a little pie and half a donut. Her name is Maria. She's half Sicilian and half French, once was a dancer, married at seventeen, two kids, Catholic, divorced, dating a black man. Pulls three wigs out of her purse and tries them on. "Say, I'm glad you came in here. I love to talk to people." She asks me if want some more food, brings me some pumpernickel bread from the missions. A girl comes in, then leaves. "She's a prostitute," whispered. "Do you want to come down to the mission with me, get some food?" The old lady, who rarely speaks up, says. "No, you don't want to go down there, honey, there's just drunks and winos passing out all over the place."

"They never bother me," says Maria, who says she got grabbed and dragged into the bus station Men's Room one morning a few weeks back, so she's off again and I have to get my bus and the old lady says, "Bye now, and have a good time." I tell her I will.

Bus at night. Sleep. Attempt to sleep while these two infuriatlingly loudmouthed Bostonians in front of me talk on and on into the night towards Cleveland. One of them tried to talk to me but I told him I had gotten on the bus in the city where novelists send their heroes to die and he didn't bother me again. At first he and his friend talked about mildly interesting things like garbage collectors who had pet rats named "Rat" and died of pneumonia, but then they got to talking about consonants and different pronunciations of the lettter S and I could have kicked them.

4:30 a.m. get into Cleveland and my bus doesn't leave until 6:00 so I plunk myself, gear and boots down next to this large young woman who looks at my boots and asks,"Going fishing?" and I say maybe, and we talk. She's 23, works in a noodle factory, in the process of a divorce, got a daughte, going to see her old man after three years in the Navy. I tell her my tale, she feeds me twinkies and hostess cupcakes, talks about dope and dolls she used to throw under passing cars when a child, gives me the solemn advice. "Live with them, but DON'T marry them", takes my address and gives me hers, tells me how much I remind her of some friend of hers in San Diego. My bus comes and I sleep to Columbus Ohio and the sun rises, Sunday and I'll be there tonight.

At Columbus the wait is only an hour. At about 9:00 I call home collect. Talk to Mom. She's furious. I let her yell at me over the phone, arrange to call back that night. Realizing what I've done and knowing with a degree of frightened, instinctive calm that nothing will change it now.

Bus from Columbus to Indianapolis. Scrawny blonde college girl gets on at Dayton and talks to me about tornadoes and England. Feeds me M&M's and oreos and says goodbye in Indianapolis where I have a three hour wait: drinking water, studying "Field Guide to Animal Tracks". Falling asleep, talking briefly to a backpacker just up from Tennessee. The the bus. My last bus.

Sitting with a black girl going to Champaign who feeds me potato chips and talks, but not too much, we cross the Illinois line and the sun sets again. At 10:30 I get to Peoria. Bruce and two friends named Dickie and Brenda are there to get me in a Lincoln Continental [Land of] borrowed for the occasion and home to this trailer where I now doth sit.

Called home again. Bruce and I talk about the future here in the midwest which contrary to unpopular belief IS flat, and abounding with strip mines, tornado damage, good hospitality, demolition work, making love on a bed of plywood in a half finished house watching the sun rise out the picture window and I'm all right, really I am. It's hard for me to believe I could adjust so quickly; my entire being just took about a 90% turn but I'm living through it fine so far, enjoying it even and with hope of more turmoil to come. "

[Jennifer's parents decided against hauling her back home and were supportive, if not overjoyed at her choice. They confronted Jack's parents, and Jack denied any knowledge of Jenny's plan to run away. She was never to live with her parents for any length of time again. She always kept in touch with Jack, her getaway driver. Decades later, they became lovers, and remained lifelong friends.]

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