Rez Stories: Runaway

09/18/2008 By Shawn Burns

While we lived on the rez my father attended law school in Kingston, about an hour and a half away. He hated the rez and would usually stay in Kingston all week long and come home on the weekends. I got into trouble one day when I was eleven years old: I missed the bus back to the rez from town after school and instead of calling my mother I just went off with one of my townie friends. We went to the mall for a while and after a couple of hours of frantic searching my mother and her twin sister found me in the mall arcade: a little bit of luck and a little bit of just plain knowing me.

My mother was livid, and she let me know it. But as impressive as her righteous rage was, I was much more terrified of my father’s imminent return: my father lectured. He could lecture for minutes.

I was grounded, of course, and I had a couple of days to wait for my father to get home; I stewed in my own panicked juices until Friday night. While “Wait until your father gets home,” never made its way into the the air from my mother’s lips, it was on a continuous loop in my head.

Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more. The future was too bleak to face: a lecture the likes of which I would never forget. So after dark on Friday night, before my father came home, I slipped away.

I knew that if I was going to get away successfully I’d need money. Enough for, say, a bus ticket from upstate New York to Louisiana (which in my mind was going to have to cost something less than $60, because that’s all I had from my paper route). Never mind that I had no idea where to catch a bus that would take me where I wanted to go.

I also knew that the world out there could be a dangerous, scary place for an eleven-year-old kid. So, being the resourceful lad that I was, and ever-practical, I grabbed an old cavalry saber that my father had hanging in the living room and I tied its scabbard to a waist-seam cord from an old pair of jogging pants, and then I fastened the cord through the belt loops on my jeans.

I was so ninja.

I dressed mostly in black so I’d be less conspicuous in the dark (or as inconspicuous as an eleven-year-old with a cavalry saber tied to a string around his waist could be). I had a tough row to hoe, since I decided that my best chance for getting away lay in a southern route rather than northern. North would take me from the island, across the great Seaway International Bridge, into Canada and the small industrial town I had disappeared into once already only to be found a couple of hours later. North also meant lights, and traffic, and “easily-spotted-juvenile-with-a-sword”. South, on the other hand, meant farms, rural upstate New York, and no lights, which meant easy access to the warmer southern states where, in my mind, I’d be more likely to survive on my own even if winter set in while on my travels. But the difficulty with going south was that after crossing the southern bridge from the island I’d have to somehow get by the U.S. Customs and Immigration checkpoint guarding the border.

I suppose I thought that I would just walk through Customs and announce, as everyone I knew did when they went through, that I lived on the rez and I was just going to the U.S. side of the rez. There’s an old treaty, the Jay Treaty, that enshrines the Mohawk right to freely cross the border, and for my entire life until that point the U.S. border was just a glorified toll booth, but one that didn’t require an actual toll. So, despite carrying an actual weapon with me I was just going to brazenly walk through Customs and no one was going to say anything about it.

You know what happens next, right?

No. You have no idea.

My father had a dog, a black German shepherd bitch he had perversely named “Whoopie”. She was a very loyal dog. So when I slipped away from home to make my way slowly south to New Orleans or Alabama or Orlando (Disneyworld!!) she trailed along, asking me with her doggy eyes to let her in on the joke. Every five minutes I’d wave at her and tell her to go home, but she was very good at ignoring the eleven-year-old with the sword sneaking through ditches on the island at night.

She followed me to the bridge. And she followed me over the bridge. And I thought, finally, practically, realistically, “They are never going to let me through with a dog. They are going to ask questions. She is making me look suspicious despite my innocuous black outfit and harmless-looking cavalry saber.”

So at the foot of the bridge I came to a crisis point. I had been a runaway for about 45 minutes, and I was pretty committed. But I also didn’t want to get caught and sent home, and I didn’t want Whoopie following me all the way to Texarkana. It was one thing to steal my father’s cavalry saber; quite another to steal his dog. I might get two lectures. But in the end I was still itching to see the world.

I decided to use my stealthy ninja skills to try to hide both myself and my dog from the vigilant eyes of the U.S. Border guards and circumvent the great northern boundary keeping all of the despicable Canadians out of the U.S.. There were no ditches to hide in, and the southbound side of the road led straight into the floodlight-illuminated station. So I crossed the road onto the northbound side and sneakily went south along the shoulder.

They had no contingency plans in place for such a brilliant invasion tactic. Their resources weren’t nearly up to dealing with the likes of an eleven-year-old ninja with a cavalry saber and a vicious guard dog.

I made it through without so much as a “Hey, Jim? Was that a kid with a sword?” tossed into the air behind me.

I walked along a road I’d never been on, in a direction I’d never been in, passing houses I’d never seen, cloaked in the darkness. Whoopie trailed along beside me, happy to be away from home perhaps; happy to just see what the insane little person was doing out so late at night, since it was bound to be interesting.

I walked, and walked, and passed a house with a woman standing at her door, peering out, and she was so motionless and standing in such an awkward way that my overactive imagination convinced me that she was dead and hanging from her door frame, her corpse preventing the screen door from closing all the way. So I drew my sword and crept forward, ready to deal with whatever villain had left her there, swinging. There was a floodlamp lighting up her driveway, and it ruined my night vision enough that I couldn’t make out her face. So I was startled out of my wits when this corpse-woman who had been motionless for minutes as I walked closer and closer to her driveway suddenly challenged me: “What the hell do you want??”

I hypered out of there, ninja skills forgotten as adrenaline saturated my system and powered me through my flight away from the zombie. Finally at a safe distance I sheathed my weapon and settled back into my mile-eating stride, Whoopie beside me.

Eventually, the fact that Whoopie was still with me began to niggle. Surely I had no business trying to bring her along. She was an innocent, and my life was going to be a harsh one of zombie-fighting (or fleeing) and walking the roads. Plus, I was pretty sure they weren’t going to let her on the bus if I ever found one (I thought if I kept walking long enough I’d find a bus station, because that’s just how it worked in Montreal, where I’d spend a week or two every summer when I was a kid). So I turned back toward home.

I never really admitted to myself that I was going home because I’d been gone for two hours and I didn’t really want to run away after all and I was really doubting by that point that I’d ever find a bus station somewhere among the farms. No, I turned back home because I wanted to protect the dog. I’m sure I even told myself that once I’d figured out a way to get Whoopie to stay home I’d be off again, alone.

I made it back to the bridge, and once again used the little-known “walk on the other side of the road from the Customs building” trick to remain unnoticed by the U.S. agents, although since I was going north they could not have cared less even if they had noticed me.

But on the north side of the bridge I faced an even greater challenge. Because on the north side, on the island itself, Canada maintained its own Customs and Immigration station, and they were always on the lookout for smugglers bringing goods across the border. They were always the more aggressive of the agents when I was a kid. I’d seen cars pulled over and practically torn apart as the agents looked for drugs or contraband cigarettes. They were formidable, and I feared getting caught so close to home. It’s just embarrassing to be caught running to home, especially with a cavalry saber and a stealthy black German Shepherd. I concocted a plan to get by, and then I took a deep breath.

And I walked around the building, on the southbound side of the road going north. Ninja. So ninja.

I stepped onto the main road on the island and I hadn’t gone a hundred yards when my father’s white Ford Mustang Cobra (with a red cobra painted on the hood) pulled up alongside me.

“Get in.”

And we all lived happily ever after.