I had gotten most of myself outside the window and was hanging onto the only thing I could, the drainpipe that ran up the side of the building.
It was an old-time Austin jailbreak.
It was a jailbreak marriage, actually. The term was one of many pop sociology/psychology terms batted around 50 years ago. “Jailbreak marriage” was an appropriate description for those times, though, because for most young women the only acceptable and/or available way out from under their father’s roof was to marry.
That same 50-plus years ago, my family moved to Bergstrom Air Force Base from somewhere or other up north. Inside the windows of my high school classroom across the highway from Bergstrom, Austin beckoned in the distance. I didn’t know very much about it. Just another town our family got transferred to… there had been so many. This time was just a bit different, though. This time I would turn 18 in six months. This time I might have a say in where I would live next. This time I was paying attention.
First things I learned about Austin: UT was a destination, Tarrytown was where the rich kids lived, and Interregional Highway was the “color” line for all practical purposes. The west side had the hills and lakes, so the wealthy clustered out there. More working families were moving into North and South Austin. The southeast and east sides were already a blend of races even though Del Valle High School looked all white to me.
Austin youth had a car culture, a rodeo culture, and a college culture.
Austin youth had a car culture, a rodeo culture, and a college culture: the reason for the beatnik clubs popping up around the Drag I had my eye on. The Happy Days-style weekend “drive around/look around” that went on ad nauseum in every American city at the time was for us in Austin the route between the South Austin Pig Stand on South Congress to the North Austin Pig Stand just north of UT.
It was our “strip.” You drove a car if you had one, rode with your friends if not. Dates were made and drag races arranged. Much more beer drinking than drugs. First base, second base, third base… a girl was “loose” if she went “home.” Late evenings brought a crop of fist fights.
Not being a rodeo gal, I fell into the car culture because it went with the rock and roll culture. That, and I had a natural appreciation for what people created with their hands and always did see beauty in a well-tuned engine. I knew self-taught hot rod mechanics who modified their cars for the Friday night matches and Sunday afternoon races and some who built stock cars for racing on the oval tracks like Speed-o-Rama (out on Airport Boulevard, I think).
Back then on our side of town, Pleasant Valley Road was a dark street on a country hill with a quarter mile painted on it by teens for the local Friday and Saturday night drag races. It was perfect: outside of town but still close in, and the cops could be seen coming for miles.
My hot rod hero was a local Montopolis legend of the day and a senior at Del Valle High School with me and 31 other kids. I noticed early on that he got a lot of personal satisfaction from breaking school rules and smoking the frat guys good when they brought the fancy cars daddy had bought them for life at UT out to Pleasant Valley Road at night, or to the famed Oak Hill Drag Strip on Sunday afternoons.
Which brings me to the jail break.
Which brings me to the jail break. I dated the young hot rodder that spring until I had been forbidden by my father from seeing him further. So of course we had been sneaking around. When we got caught I tried to explain he was just a kid from school who happened to be a hot rod genius but my parents pronounced him “unacceptable” anyway.
Being the last “acceptable” guy was a grab-hands son of a Colonel, I wasn’t impressed with their opinions, so I defied them and they responded by ordering me confined to my upstairs bedroom until I came to my senses. That did not happen. Instead, I doubled-down, got a message to Mr. Hot Rod and we made plans for him to spring me. (Oh, did I mention I had turned 18 by then? Yeah, my father did not realize he was the Don Quixote of controlling parents.)
And so the scene was set. On a certain Saturday night in a certain cul-de-sac inside Bergstrom Air Force Base, I sat waiting for my hot rod hero to break me out of my father’s jail. It was all very romantic.
I had spent many nights waiting in that upstairs bedroom for the particular set of headlights I had come to recognize so well and I was expecting them that night.
The part of the base housing we lived in had boxy concrete multi-unit buildings with parking and turn-around circles in between. Our parents were big partiers and, as they did every Saturday night, they were sitting with their friends and neighbors out in lawn chairs around the edge of the cul-de-sac drinking and smoking. I was going to have to be ready; he wasn’t allowed on the base at all any more, but he was coming to get me anyway. Howz that for young romance?
The story of why my hero wasn’t allowed on the base at all any more had to do with an angry officer’s daughter. That girl’s father reportedly had the guards at the base gate refuse to allow her to leave or him to enter. Guess it worked; he wasn’t going with her when I met him.
And then my dad tries the same damn thing, which is when I found out about the other girl, and my dad found out he didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of not having enough rank to order guards to discriminate against people. My father delivered this news to me with an “aha!” It was the unfortunate posture of a man who thought he had won.
If my dad had been concerned about more than his public persona and ruling the “roost” at home, he might have pointed out my guy had a reputation with the ladies. (That’s how we said it back then. It meant he was a “hound dog.”) He had been very successful too, I heard, which is why I wouldn’t go out with him for the longest. But my hot rod hero didn’t think his rep could take letting one “get away” — so you could say he and my dad were on a fateful in-law trajectory.
I had been taught religiously that my virginity was the only thing of value.
Anyway, I knew by then rebels were my thing. I had been taught religiously that my virginity was the only thing of value I had in life and I won’t go into details about the loss of said “treasure.” Let’s just say by the time my hero spent the amount of time it took to get what he wanted combined with how impressed he was that I defied my father for him, he decided to just give up and marry me. (That’s what we did back then; only trashy people “lived together.” The sixties were just around the corner, though.)
Later, I would also understand that because he was a practically-minded young man who had come from real poverty I was a particular “catch” because I was a woman with a job who did not plan on having kids right away. As it turned out, his plan for the marriage was for me to pay our bills so he could spend all his salary from the garage on his hot rods. Men have romantic fantasies too, you know.
Meanwhile, back to my own romantic fantasy. Warm June night, perched anxiously at my upstairs bedroom window, locked-in like some friggin’ fairy princess. Bags packed. Watching for those particular car lights. Going to have to get out the window, down to the ground and into his car while avoiding direct confrontation with either parent (especially my dad) or their tipsy friends. And going out the window was complicated.
I still hate casement windows like the one in that bedroom. It had two parts that rolled out on either side of a stationary pane of glass. The only way out was going to be to squeeze through one of the sides, so I began turning the little hand crank on the encasement until it creaked out to its full 90 degree width — just barely wide enough for the body I had at the time.
Not realizing then how lucky I was to be skinny, I focused instead on squeezing my bag through the window and onto the ground without anyone noticing. As I said, getting caught was not an option.
As I breathed a sigh of relief to see the bag plop safely behind a hedge on the ground underneath me I realized I had an audience. “Our” row of apartment buildings was on the outer edge of the complex and so happened to sit on the street directly across from the base hospital. Several airmen had stepped out of the hospital on a smoke break that night. They had spotted me and were not being quiet about it.
Through a series of desperate hand signals I got them to quit making so much noise, but they wouldn’t shut up entirely. By the time they understood what was going on, they definitely weren’t leaving, settling instead into nonchalant poses from which they watched intently while I struggled to get myself through the opened side window.
My dad out-ranked them, of course, and I didn’t know if they would turn me in or not. They would be in a lot of trouble if they didn’t. But they just kept watching (best show in town?). Then I got a bit stuck at one point and they encouraged me on in hushed tones; the tide had turned, I felt, and now they were on my side. (Of course they were, they probably weren’t much older than me.)
I had gotten most of myself outside the window and was hanging onto the only thing I could, the drainpipe that ran up the side of the building. There was a tall bush also but it was a reach so I had gone with the drainpipe. Shouldn’t have. Almost immediately screws started flying loose and the pipe separated from the building at the top. Dangling at a dangerous angle, holding onto the falling pipe, I wondered if I would break bones when I hit the ground.
Then the cavalry arrived.
Then the cavalry arrived.
One airman had stayed on the sidewalk across the street as lookout while the other two rushed over to help me. They formed an “arm” chair and I dropped into it. We giggled and shushed each other. They headed back across the street while I got my bag and, keeping an eye on the now nearing headlights, scrunched along behind the hedges hoping nobody would notice me, or the open window and hanging drainpipe above my head.
Then one of those moments happened: you know the ones, where several things happen at once and time slows down to permit it all. I saw the headlights all right, and several sets of flashing colored lights right behind. And sirens. Lots of sirens.
I ran flat out for the cul-de-sac, casting one eye toward the blur of gaping adults, hands all in the air with drinks and cigarettes. I passed them on a dead run toward the old green ’40 Ford with the jackrabbits painted on it sliding sideways across the pavement toward me. As he screeched the tires and skidded into a perfect 180 degree-controlled slide that lined us up for escape, his big old passenger door flew open.
“Get IN!” I heard him yell amid the noise of the sirens on the base cruisers trying to box him in.
In two giant steps I got my bag and then myself into that car. We knew the jurisdiction of base police ended at the gate so we just had to beat them there. No problem, with that souped up flathead ’48 Mercury motor he had under the hood.
It was a wild, short ride to the gate. We roared out onto highway 71, leaving the sirens — and Dad — behind. Free, we headed for the lights of Austin.
[Beverly Baker Moore, an Austin-based writer, teacher, and activist, is a contributing editor to The Rag Blog. Find more articles by Beverly Baker Moore on The Rag Blog.]