PLA Book Project: Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – Leaving

My life abruptly changed the night I let my best friend die in a gruesome phone phreaking accident. A change for the better or the worse, it was hard to say, but there’s no doubt that it was abrupt. The accident wasn’t exactly my fault but I kind of assumed that the whole thing would be blamed on me since I was there and did nothing about it. So I panicked and I ran away. Looking back, I realize I could have handled it differently, but this is what I did instead.

It began in the Spring of 1989 in Edwardsville, Illinois. It was around 3 o’clock in the morning and I sat upon a hill in someone’s back yard, overlooking the back of the phone company building. My job was to keep a lookout as my partner in crime, Scott, rummaged around in a dumpster next to the building. We were behind the Illinois Bell building where they parked all the phone company vans and stored a few old broken phone booths. It wasn’t a fenced in area but it should have been. It’s a wonder that any phone company would leave their dumpster wide open like they did. Phone phreaks had been using the “trash” found in dumpsters for decades now to get confidential information from the phone companies, yet very few bother locking their trash even today.

Sometimes we would both climb into the dumpster, grab a few bags and throw them in my car. Then we could take the loot home and sort through it for anything valuable. Scott liked to find passwords and phone numbers to modems so he could log in and attempt to gain access to Illinois Bell’s computers. I was more into just the coolness of having secret phone company memos and other papers.

Employee time sheets and records were boring, but they were useful when we wanted to call Illinois Bell and impersonate an employee there. Since we had their employee number or technician ID code, they had little reason to doubt our lies.

Sometimes we would find huge printouts full of customers’ voicemail passwords and phone numbers. The fun never ended with those; we could set up our own private mailboxes, we could completely take over someone else’s box by changing their password and locking them out. Or we could silently watch a box, checking a person’s messages and never letting ourselves be known to them.

Tonight we were doing things a little differently. Scott was sitting in the dumpster sorting through papers and looking for anything good while I sat under a tree keeping an eye out for anyone who might interfere. Police would sometimes pull into the parking lot and employees would occasionally venture outside for a cigarette break, so it was good to know when to keep still and wait for them to leave. We kept in touch with a couple of Radio Shack walkie talkies. I was tired and was only half listening as I cranked up Love and Rockets on my Sony walkman.

“Kyle, are you there?” I heard Scott say through the walkie talkie.

“Yeah, I’m here. Are you almost done? I’ve been sitting here for almost an hour.”

“Five minutes tops. I’ve found something here that you’ll like,” he replied, “Keep a lookout when I get out.”

“Gotcha,” I said as I turned my walkman back up and lay down in the grass, staring at the full moon and the clouds rushing past it. Once the song ended I would sit back up and give Scott the all-clear to climb out.

Right about that time must have been when the garbage truck started rolling up. By the time I sat up I was horrified to see it holding the dumpster in the air with its giant metal hooks, shaking the dumpster violently. I stood up and screamed for them to stop but they didn’t hear me. From my walkie talkie I could hear Scott yelling my name. As the garbage fell out of the dumpster and into the back of the truck his voice turned into static.

I threw down my walkman and walkie talkie and began rushing down the hill and towards the truck, hoping that I could stop them from crushing Scott alive. By the time I jumped onto the pavement, the garbage truck was already pulling away, out into the street.

“WAIT! STOP!” I screamed as loud as I could but they didn’t respond.

I ran down the street and after the truck for several blocks hoping to catch up to it and jump on but I never made it.

Any moron would know to immediately call the police. The police could have stopped the truck wherever it went and gotten to Scott. But how would that conversation go?
“Yes officer, me and my friend Scott were working together to steal phone company secrets when out of nowhere this garbage truck shows up…”

The problem with getting the police involved was that Scott and I had caused so many problems in the past with our phone antics that the police were sure to piece it all together if they knew what we were up to. The police had been called because of our activities so many times over the past couple of years, yet they’d never managed to figure out that a couple of innocent-looking, nerdy high school kids were responsible. In my panic, I was only thinking of myself and the trouble I would be in.
Scott was surely dead. The crushing mechanism would have gone to work immediately after the trash was dumped, right? I had to face it, Scott was dead and I was solely to blame for it. My whole future was completely screwed if I told anyone. And what if I didn’t tell anyone? Would they ever find his body? Surely it would come back on me somehow. We were best friends after all. How could I look anybody in the eye and tell them I didn’t know where he was?

So I ran. I ran back to the Illinois Bell building and up the hill to gather my backpack and my walkman. I eyed my walkie talkie, which was still lying on the ground. Should I even try? It was a 5 watt CB walkie talkie so if Scott was still alive he would still be in range.

“Scott?” I said nervously into the walkie talkie. “Are you there, Scott?”

Nothing but static. I felt tears coming on as I began to realize the severity of the situation and that I would never talk to Scott again. I threw the walkie talkie against the side of a garage and watched it break into several pieces. A kitchen light turned on in the owner’s house so I grabbed my backpack and headed towards my car, which was parked a few blocks away.

If the police stopped me on the way to the car I wouldn’t be capable of lying to them. I’d confess everything. I’d tell them that we’d been stealing phone company trash and I watched my best friend get crushed to death and did nothing to prevent it. That we’d been tapping into various neighbor’s phone lines for years to avoid long distance charges to computer bulletin board systems. That our troublemaking had been featured in the paper so many times that Scott was keeping a scrapbook of the articles. But I wasn’t stopped. I climbed into my car and began to drive towards my home in nearby Wood River.

A million thoughts and questions raced through my head during the 20 minute drive. Should I just go home and sleep as if nothing happened? Should I go to school in the morning? How long would it take before authorities or parents or teachers came to me asking about Scott? What were the chances of his body even being found? Wouldn’t they just dump all the trash into some big pit and nobody would ever see it? What would happen if I just confessed to everything? I’d end up in jail for sure. If not for Scott’s death, they’d link our being at the phone company dumpster somehow with all the other things that we’d done over the past several years.

Breaking into voicemail boxes was nothing compared to all the chaos we’d caused since we started playing around with the phone company. There were too many newspaper articles to count that we’d been responsible for. And both of us stupidly kept clippings of every one of them. How was I supposed to get those articles out of Scott’s room? Once they decide that Scott is really missing they’ll find a notebook full of headlines reading things like, “Local Resident Hit With $50,000 Phone Bill” and “Pay Phone Stuffing Scammers At Large” and my personal favorite, “Vandals Opening Phone Boxes, Ringing Up Big Charges.”

That was just the stuff that actually made the papers. There were countless incidents that had to have been investigated at some point. Every time we made a new enemy at school we would disrupt their phone service in some way. My favorite was to program a random person’s voicemail box to call a number and notify them that they had a message. I would use the number of a classmate I disliked. Since the computerized voice calling them would ask them for a pass code that they didn’t know, they would be helpless against the calls. The voicemail calls would occur every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day for days at a time. Our philosophy was, “That bully can cause pain that might last me a day in school. But I can screw with his life via the telephone for years with very little effort.”

As I got within a few blocks of my home I switched off the ignition and headlights of my ’79 Dodge Colt, coasting down the street and through a few stop signs. This was to avoid waking my parents with my loud engine or the backfiring that sometimes occurred when I switched it off. I rolled to a stop in front of my house and headed for the basement window which I’d left unlocked. My parents weren’t too crazy about me leaving the house so late into the night and I’d found it easiest just to come and go quietly through the windows.

By the time I’d gotten home I decided that I would leave. Not only leave the town, but the state. I could leave a short note for my parents telling them I had run away and everyone would just assume that Scott came with me. Scott absolutely hated his parents and fought with them constantly whenever I visited his house. In a way I was saving Scott’s family a lot of grief, I reasoned. They’d be a lot better off thinking Scott had run away with me rather than knowing he was rotting away at the bottom of a nearby landfill.

Running away was something I had wanted to do for a long time. Not to run away from any problems really, but just to get out and see some more of the world. I’d been on a few out of state camping trips with my parents when I was younger but really, you’ve seen one campground and you’ve seen them all. I wanted to experience more. I wasn’t too terribly close with my parents, I was doing horrible in school and my best friend was now dead. So what was left to stay for?

Earlier in the year my girlfriend and I had been making plans to drive a U-haul down to Texas and live. She was set on moving to an island called Galveston, which wasn’t too far from Houston. I’m not sure if we would have really gone through with it or not, but we spent a lot of time planning it. And then our year-long relationship ended just a few months ago. Maybe I could just make the trip there myself. I had no idea what Texas had to offer but it had to be at least a little cooler than Wood River, Illinois. So I figured I’d head south and see what happened.

I wanted to travel as light as possible, but ended up making about twenty trips to my car, filling it with all kinds items I thought would come in handy. I had hundreds of cassette tapes and if I had to drive for a few days then I may as well have my music. I ended up bringing about half of my clothes, my laptop computer, all my disks, phone equipment, photos, a travel atlas, binders full of hand written information and printouts on the phone companies that I’d collected over the years. And of course I gathered up all the newspaper articles related to our activities, just to make sure that nobody else would find them.

I jotted a quick note on the kitchen table which simply said, “Mom & Dad, moving south. Be in touch someday. -Alex” I was careful to leave out the word “I” so they could take the note to mean “Scott and I are moving south” whenever Scott turned up missing. I wondered if they’d even notice the note sitting on the table covered with old mail, newspapers and napkins. It could be days before they even notice I’m gone since I’m not home that often.

I stopped by a 24 hour grocery store to cash my paycheck from the movie theater I worked at. I didn’t want my manager telling my parents that I cashed my last check in Texas.

After that I was off. It was 5am and the sky was just beginning to light up. I had no idea how I was going to drive all day since I hadn’t slept the night before but somehow I managed to go on until that next evening. I spent most of the day driving and finally stopped at a rest stop somewhere in Mississippi, parking my car and almost immediately falling asleep in the front seat.

I ended up arriving in Galveston, Texas early the next day. I’d slept off a good 4 hours or so at the rest stop and spent a few more hours just hanging out, eating and relaxing before hitting the road again. I was dead tired when I got into Galveston but still managed to drive myself around the island for most of the day, just checking out the sites. Spending my entire life in a small Midwestern community really made me appreciate a place like Galveston. Just seeing all the beaches, surf shops and palm trees was quite a culture shock to me.

Around 8pm that night, as it started to get dark, I pulled my car into a grocery store parking lot, reclined my seat and went into a deep, dreamless sleep. I worried that the police would notice me there, find out that I was only 17-years-old and then send me back to Illinois. I couldn’t afford to sleep in a motel, though. As I woke up later during the night I noticed there were several other cars, vans and RVs parked around the same end of the parking lot. I later learned that they were also sleeping in their cars every night. I decided to keep sleeping there until I secured some income.

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