Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Running away from Linton Hall

I never ran away, because I had nowhere to go. If I had gone home I would have been sent right back, and I had no sympathetic grandma or adult older brother living on his own who would let me stay a few days, much less until I turned eighteen.

Besides, it didn't make much sense to run away from Linton Hall; it would have been much easier to go AWOL: to run away from home while there for the weekend.

So, although I hated that place, I decided early on to make the best of a bad situation, follow the rules, and enjoy the positive aspects of the school -- the oft-cited trio of academics, friends, and camping/hiking activities.

Although I never seriously thought about running away, that didn't stop me from fantasizing about it, or about discussing how best to do it, from a theoretical viewpoint, with one of my friends; how to run away was our favorite topic of conversation.

Although there were no fences to keep us in, there were several major barriers to overcome.

First, there were headcounts at formation, with a "report" that generally was "all present or accounted for" (the conjunction is or, not and.) The term "accounted for" meant that those not present at formation had a legitimate excuse for being absent, typically being sick in bed. Occasionally, the report was "all present." Rarely, one or more cadets were not present and not accounted for, which was when things got interesting. While everyone else stood at attention, whether shivering in the cold or perspiring in the heat, the battalion commander, his adjutant, and the five company commanders would try to figure out if there was a mistake in the count or whether someone was truly missing. In some cases the missing one(s) had run away.

In addition to the headcounts, there were times and places where you had to be present: in the dorms, classrooms, and cafeteria, to cite a few examples, and where your absence would have immediately been noticed and reported. Thus, it was best for a runaway to get as much of a head start as possible before being reported missing. Free play periods were such an opportunity, especially on a Saturday on the weekends when we did not home, since there was a long play period between meals. An even better opportunity was at night, after everyone else had fallen asleep, especially if you could make your bed look occupied by putting something under the covers. You could, of course, leave your bed at night to use the bathroom, but if anyone happened to wake up and see your bed unoccupied and that you weren't in the bathroom, they would have quickly noticed your absence.

Running away during the day presented its own problems, different than the problems of running away at night. My friend and I would often debate the relative advantages and disadvantages of each.

During the day, we were "out of bounds" if we went away from the blacktop or nearby grassy area (or to the bathroom in the basement.) It would not have been easy to leave that area without someone seeing. It was worse than having ubiquitous video cameras; there were over two hundred pairs of eyes ready to rat you out. The easiest route away from Linton Hall and towards D.C. (where most of us were from) was to walk on Linton Hall Road towards Gainesville. The quick drive to and from the intersection of Route 29 and Linton Hall Rd. to the school would have lulled many prospective runaways into a false sense of how close that intersection actually was; I never thought to check the odometer when I was taken to and from Linton Hall, but a quick check of Google Maps tells me that it's 4.2 miles, which Google says can be walked in one hour and twenty one minutes, though I expect that a motivated cadet running away from Linton Hall would cover the distance much more quickly.

But after four miles of walking you'd only have reached the intersection of Linton Hall Road and Route 29. Alumni of my generation would find it hard to believe that there is now a large shopping mall there, just as current students would be surprised that at the time I attended, during the late 1960s, there was only an Esso (later renamed Exxon) gas station and a diner at that intersection. From there, you could have either used the payphone to call a sympathetic older brother with a driver's license and a car (which I did not have) or hitchhike on Route 29, hoping that you would get a ride before being spotted by the Commandant or a local policeman. For someone to come from the DC suburbs to pick you up would take an hour, more or less, and hitchhiking might take just as long, and carried the very obvious risk of being picked up by a pervert or murderer. I have to be blunt about this so any young people reading this are well aware of the significant potential dangers of running away.

Needless to say, anyone reported missing during the hour it took to walk to Route 29 would have been quickly apprehended, since it would not take long for the Commandant to cover that distance by car. I know of one cadet who was apprehended on Linton Hall Road; since this was the easiest route, I would expect that many of those who ran away were caught there.

Public transportation was not an option at the time. There existed bus service to Washington, but that was from Manassas, several miles away.

At the time, Linton Hall Road was a two-lane paved rural road, with no shoulders, ditches along either side, and overgrown vegetation (trees, bushes, thorny brambles and poison ivy often coming up almost to the edge of the road. Many places along the road had a barbed wire fence. The area was sparsely populated (there were maybe half a dozen houses, excluding Bill's and the Commandant's, between Linton Hall and the Route 29 intersection, and traffic was light. Nevertheless, during the one-hour walk, there might have been a couple of cars passing by. There was really not much room to hid along the sides of the road, and you would have had to have really quick reflexes to do so before being seen by an oncoming car; even more difficult to react in time if a car was coming from the opposite direction. Thus there was a strong likelihood of being seen, and with Bristow being such a small town that everyone knew everyone, even if you somehow managed to wear something other than the tell-tale Linton Hall uniform, it is likely that the driver would have stopped to investigate (the term "mind your own business" does not apply in small towns) or reported you to the school as soon as he got to a pay phone. Cell phones did not exist back then, but the couple of extra minutes it would take for someone to make that call wouldn't give you much time.

Running away at night would address many of the risks of being seen; you can see headlights before someone in a car sees you, and there is almost no traffic; Bristow wasn't exactly a hub of night life.

The big risk of running away at night was when you left the dorm. It was somewhat easy to make your bed seem to be occupied (with a pillow and the second blanket bunched up under the covers, though of course at close range it would be clear that there was no face poking out) but once you left the dorm there was a big risk. It would be difficult, but possible, to retrieve clothes from your locker during "rest," hide them under your pillow, then put them on under your pajamas while in bed after lights out, after everyone else was asleep. That way you would be safe if discovered while getting out of bed, or even going down the stairs. In that situation, you could concoct a story about feeling sick and going to the infirmary. Of course, the infirmary wasn't staffed twenty four hours a day, and in an emergency the logical thing to do would have been to knock on the prefect's door, but it was a semi-plausible excuse if nobody noticed that you were wearing clothes under your bathrobe and pajamas. But you couldn't walk four miles to Route 29 in your slippers or in bare feet. You could have put on the boots you wore every day (but that would have seemed inconsistent with going to the infirmary) and the boots would have been a military component that would have been somewhat incongruous with civilian clothes -- that is, if you had somehow managed to have a set of civvies available; more about that later. Tennis shoes (which we used for gym class) would have been less obvious, but if stopped on your purported trip to the infirmary they would have been another hole in your story. And you couldn't conceal a pair of tennis shoes under your clothes, or throw them out the dorm window before running away, without being noticed.

The big hole in my plan was that Linton Hall had a night watchman. I did not find this out until a few years ago, when I read Louie's obituary and read that in addition to maintaining the school's landscaping, he was also night watchman. And I thought my fantasy plan was so well designed!

I've mentioned civilian clothes. When I first arrived, I had, like other new students, worn my own clothes. But once uniforms were issued, we were expected to take our other clothes home on the next weekend home. There was nothing to stop us from bringing back a set of clothes, maybe a lightweight pair of pants and a nylon windbreaker. Those weren't prohibited items and there was no inspection of our belongings upon returning to the school on weekends. Money was prohibited, but easy to conceal and useful when running away. But those items required planning, and anyone thinking about running away so far in advance would have simply gone AWOL during a weekend home, where civilian clothes, public transportation, food, and money, as well as the sympathetic grandparent or adult sibling (which I did not have) would have been available.

Walking on Linton Hall Road was the easiest and quickest way to get away, but also the most obvious and the one with the biggest risk of getting caught. Not everyone left that way.

In Military Science class, we studied the topographic maps of the area which we used for map-reading instruction. While studying the maps I (and who knows whether the same thing was on the mind of others) looked for possible escape routes. There was a railroad line that led to Washington D.C., and I fantasized about hopping on a freight train, like a hobo. I did not know yet of the dangers of trying to do so, which I only happened to read about many years later. Hopping onto a moving train is only possible when the train is moving very slowly (as at railroad yards) and extremely dangerous. Dangers include slipping and falling under the train, barbed wire or baling wire which gets hooked on the train and is almost impossible to see, but will drag you to your death, hobos on the train, as well as railroad security guards, many of whom take a sadistic pleasure in beating train-hoppers. Fortunately I never tried this.

But there were other ways.

Two cadets who attended while I was there took a different route. I only found out about how they had done this a couple of years ago, when one of those cadets shared his experience with me and other alumni on Facebook. On the way to and from Linton Hall, he had noticed high voltage power lines crossing Route 29. On the Linton Hall campus, he had noticed what he assumed to be the same power lines, and his deduction was correct, and brilliant, I might add. The two cadets followed along the power lines through woods and fields to Route 29, then turned their black LHMS shirts inside out, in order to conceal the school seal and name, which would have been a dead giveaway, and then they hitchhiked a ride from some hippies to D.C.. This being the late 1960s, there were hippies around and the Vietnam war was in full swing, and the hippies' antiauthoritarian and antimilitary views would have made them sympathetic to runaways from a military school, though I don't know whether the two runaways revealed that fact to them. Though the cadets made it to D.C., they were sent back to Linton Hall, presumably by their parents, and received a severe beating as punishment on their return.

Another cadet, who should have been the eponym for persistence, attempted to run away many times; I think the total was seven. During one such occasion, the seventh and eighth grade classes were enlisted to go looking for him after school. I was a member of that search party. The Commandant had us comb through a field of tall grass, each searcher about five feet from the other, close enough that we would not have missed him if he happened to be located precisely between two searchers. I was not the one who found him, but at the time I heard that he had been found asleep in the grass. At the time, I took the report that he had been asleep with a grain of salt, suspecting that he had concocted a story about playing out of bounds and falling asleep, which would have been a far less serious offense than attempting to run away. Only recently did I find out that he had actually not been trying to run away on that occasion, and had actually fallen asleep. That cadet, Augustus Cho, has written more about this incident in his memoir, "Great Light Will Shine vol. IV: Linton Hall Military School, which is available on Amazon and elsewhere. At the time, if I had been the one to discover him, and knew that nobody else had seen him, I would have pretended not to have seen him either. But in retrospect, I am convinced that it was better for him to have been caught. Unlike the two cadets cited earlier, who were thirteen or fourteen at the time, Cho was at the time only ten years old, and younger children are more trusting and less street-wise than teenagers, and he faced risks of which most boys that age are not aware. Furthermore, he had just arrived to the U.S. from South Korea and spoke almost no English; the same language barrier that made it very difficult for him at Linton Hall would have also been an obstacle to his being able to run away. Also, being Asian, he would have stuck out from others in Prince William County, where at the time there were almost no Asians.

Another two cadets ran away together, and I was one of the officers at their court martial. The older of the two, a fifth grader, had tried to find another fifth grader to run away with him. Unable to find an accomplice, he had asked several fourth graders, and then the third graders until he found someone in the third grade to accompany him. After running away, they had gone to somebody's house, said they were runaways, and asked for food. While they were eating cookies and milk in the kitchen, the lady of the house went into another room and called the police. My gut reaction was disappointment that she had ratted them out, but then I realized (still at the court martial) that they had done something extremely risky by going into a stranger's home; had they gone into another house they might have never come out alive. The verdict (as usual, we officers voted in accord with the Commandant's wishes) was to punish the older cadet (I forget what the punishment was) and not the younger, who had, it seems, been entrapped into running away. Although I agreed with the verdict for the older cadet, I felt (at the time and now) that some relatively minor punishment for the younger cadet would have been in order, instead of no punishment at all.

The last incident which I recall might not have been a case of running away. There was a cadet who entered as a seventh grader (not a good age to enter Linton Hall, since you have younger, but higher ranking cadets giving you orders, and you feel and, in fact, are, too old to have someone tell you when to brush your teeth or have a nun watch you take a shower.) He went on a hunger strike, refusing to eat, so that he would get sick enough that they would be forced to send him home. At first they let him, then finally Bill force fed him a popsicle. I was there when it happened, when Bill had other cadets hold him down by force, while Bill tried to cram the popsicle into his mouth in such a way that I thought that he was going to break that cadet's teeth, and then when that cadet wouldn't open his mouth one of the other cadets pinched his nose shut until he needed to gasp for air and thus opened his mouth. A couple of days later that cadet was nowhere to be found. It took a long time to find him, and it is not clear whether or not he was running away. To protect his privacy, I will not say more in this post, though I have written about him in greater detail on Facebook, where my comments are visible only to other LHMS alumni.

I never ran away. Others did. I understand their motivation, so I cannot judge their decisions.

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