Updated: Mar 4
In 2009 I returned to the small southern town where I hid from my Dad in the 1980s. This article has a sequel called Smith Epilogue: The Art of Vanishing. It details how I found my half-brother who had done his own disappearing act...and for the same reasons.
The party is a surprise—a quiet dinner for two at the Iron Wood Café where several of my friends happen to have shown up.
The gifts are hilariously embarrassing. Some suggest imminent decrepitude and the end of physical prowess. Then I notice a small box.
In it is a pair of shorts built for an 11-year-old—and a particularly skinny one at that. Obligatorily absent from the festivities, Mom had sent me a present.
Instantly I’m on the second-to-last turn of the 800 meters, leaving behind a string of galloping adolescents as Coach Carter leaps excitedly at the finish line.
My significant other asks me if everything is okay.
In August of 1983, my brother and I floated down the narrow country roads of Stamford Connecticut in my gregarious father’s Pontiac land yacht.
I saw the weariness in his eyes even before I heard the heavy sigh. Eight years of knock-down, drag-out court battles, private detectives and calculating charges against my stepfather had yielded only a modicum of visitation rights. Dad was not winning, and that was cause for alarm.
“Boys, how’d you like to stay with me a while? I mean, I’m not bringing you back to your mother tomorrow.”
I knew it.
My father could be smolderingly cruel, and usually, he left the impression that violence was a distinct possibility. At some point, we had stopped being children in his eyes, and instead, we had become possessions he must take back. Neither my brother nor I had any desire to live with him. It had been an ugly visit.
Days later his possessions disappeared.
My brother and I rode our bikes to a small market near the New York border. I pumped the payphone full of quarters, had the owner of the market give Mom directions from the Merit Parkway, and an hour and a half later we were running to her outstretched arms.
Dad laid low for weeks.
Late into the fall semester, and just days after I’d set a record in the mile fitness run, Dad tried to abduct me from Goshen Middle School—he was well aware that I had orchestrated the great escape.
Mom saved us by running south.
I arrived in Seven Lakes, North Carolina a nervous fugitive with little use for amenities such as lakes and pools. At the time I was not much for horseback riding or golf either. What I did have a use for were freedom and open mileage.
The north side features a much younger population now, but in 1984 an 11-year-old speeding around Lake Sequoia in 25 minutes or less on foot was noticeable.
It wasn’t long before I was introduced to Nat Carter. He eventually took me to two AAU national championship meets with his Sandhills Track Club.
Coach gave me confidence. Seven Lakes gave me years of peace and normalcy. I traveled to track meets, built tree forts in the woods with the Bartletts, watched videos with the Maroun boys, had serious discussions about the A-Team with Rob Erwin, and I never looked over my shoulder.
In 1986 a state trooper knocked on our door and handed us a summons. My father had found us using the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The court proceeding created a media stir and ended life as we knew it. Each night my brother and I watched ourselves on the news.
The judge reinstated summer visitations with Dad. My brother’s one-week reunion went off without a hitch. My visit with Dad lasted three days, and the Stamford police had to be called.
I never heard from my father again.
For Mom, the reason for being in the South had expired, and I could not convince her otherwise. We returned to New York, and at age 16 I left home despondent and troubled.
In 2009 I bought a cottage on the north side of Seven Lakes.
The party at Iron Wood concludes, and I drive home to thank Mom for babysitting and for finding my shorts.
In the evenings I run around Lake Sequoia as my daughter Reilly babbles and coos from the jog-stroller. I pass the Bartletts and the Marouns and the street where Rob Erwin lived.
I’m a little older and a little slower, but I’m at peace.
It’s good to be home.