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THE I.O.U.



"It's been two days now and all we've had is a couple of candy bars. We need to get some real food inside us," said Johnny Nash.

It was late on Sunday evening and it was very cold. Three of us boys all ranging in ages from 10 to 11 had once again run away from the Children's Home Society Orphanage in Jacksonville, Florida. We made our planned escape shortly after the Spring Park Elementary School bell rang on Friday afternoon.

When leaving, we had a total of 75 cents among us. We each had saved our ‘milk money’ for five days. We hoped that 75 cents would be enough money to feed ourselves, until we could find jobs and get a place of our own.

The orphanage was nothing short of a living hell. The beatings, the abuse and the molestations took place almost on a daily basis. I am not exactly sure if that is actually why we ran away. Myself, I ran away because I felt I was entitled to. It made me feel safe when I ran away. Though I was not very smart doing school things, there was something inside my head that told me what was happening to me was wrong. I was smart enough to know that somewhere, someday, someone would come along and help me.

We boys made our way along Park Street, weaving our way in and out of buildings and trying to stay one step ahead of the police. The officers knew us well and we knew they would be looking for us.

As we rounded one of the buildings, someone yelled out at us.

"Hey, kids. Come here," said a young man who was standing by an old, black car.

"Yes, sir," I replied.

"Do you boys know where to get some gasoline?"

"At the gas station," said Johnny.

"I know that," said the man. "I mean some gas to siphon."

"You mean steal some gas with a hose and a can?" I asked.

The man turned to Johnny and held out a package of Graham cracker cookies.

"It's almost dark. You fellows get some gas and you can have these here snack crackers," he said.

We agreed that after dark, we would try to find a car from which we could siphon gas. The man gave us a five-gallon can and a long piece of black rubber hose. He got back into his car and the three of us hid in the bushes behind one of the buildings. When it was dark, we made our way down one of the side street hunting for gas.

"LOOK! There is a truck with ‘Shell’ on the side of it. That has to have gas in it. It's from a gas station," whispered Donald.

Slowly in the darkness, we made our way up to the truck. Very carefully, I opened the gas tank lid and stuck the hose into the vehicle. When it hit the bottom of the tank, I began to suck on the end of the hose, until the gas started running out. I placed the end of the hose into the gas can and waited.

"WHAT YOU DOING, BOY?" yelled someone. Then he grabbed me by the back of my neck and raised me off the ground. When I looked up, I saw the biggest black man I had ever seen in my entire lifetime. He looked bigger and meaner than a giant I had seen in that Jack and the Bean Stalk book at the orphanage. I just shook with fear. Johnny and Donald took off running back toward Park Street.

"BOY! Do you like taking what don't belong to you?" he asked as he sat my feet back down on the ground.

"We were just trying to get some food," I said.

My eyes were open as big as saucers.

"Looks to me like you’re trying to steal my gas," he said pointing down at the gas can.

I explained to him that we were hungry and we were trading the gas for crackers so we could eat. He took the gas can and the hose, and sat them in the back of his truck.

"Give me your shoes and get in the truck," he ordered as he unlocked the door.

"Yes, sir," I said.

I immediately hopped into the truck. My heart was beating 90 miles per hour as I took off my shoes and handed them to him.

"Where them other two boys at?" he asked.

"I don't know."

"Looks like them right there."

He pulled over to the side of the roadway.

"Tell them to come over here," he demanded.

"DONALD, JOHNNY, you got to come here," I yelled out the truck window.

Slowly, they made their way over to the truck.

"Why you boys want to take what don't belong to you?" the man asked.

"Cause we was hungry," said Johnny.

"Get in the back of the truck."

"I'm gonna kick your ass," said Johnny as he pointed his finger at me.

The two boys climbed into the back of the truck and off we drove.

"Are you going to turn us in to the cops?" I asked the man.

"I should, but I ain't."

Several minutes later, he pulled into a small restaurant and parked.

"Let's go inside and get a bite to eat," he said as he got out of the truck.

We all walked into the restaurant, where the man bought us each a sandwich and an order of French fries. After we had eaten, the man went back to his truck and came back in with a clipboard. He tore off a piece of paper and wrote something down on it.

"I want each of you boys to sign this here paper." He pushed the paper across the table.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's called an I.O.U.," he said.

"What does I.O.U. mean?" asked Johnny.

"It means that you owe me for this here meal. And if you don't pay me, you will go to jail," he advised.

The three of us signed the paper. The man folded it up and stuck it in his shirt pocket. Then he got up from the table.

"You boys finish your meal and then you head back to wherever. Understand?" he asked looking over the top of his glasses.

"Thank you for the food," I said.

He winked.

"You come out to the truck with me and get your shoes," he said.

He and I walked out to the truck where he handed me my shoes.

"I'll pay you for the meal one day. I really will. I am going to be famous. Just like Al Capone, except I ain't never going to hurt nobody," I said.

"Why would you want to be like Al Capone?"

"Cause he's got lots of money and clothes. I bet he's got lots of food too!"

"Maybe you could be a movie star and become famous?"

“I can never be a movie star, 'cause the orphanage says I got big ears that make me look ugly,” I said.

The man reached into his pocket and took out the paper we signed. He pushed the small note down into my shirt pocket.

"Don't say anything to the other boys. Make them sweat it for a while," he said as he got up into his truck.

I was in Jacksonville, Florida day before yesterday. I drove over to Park Street to have a look around. That restaurant was no longer there and the lot was vacant, except for the tall weeds. The old machine shop, which had belonged to my old friend Mr. Lewis was now vacant, as were the rest of the old, brick buildings in the neighborhood. There was now a paint store on the corner where Donald Watts and his mother had lived in an old shack.

It is strange how we humans tend to think and feel. I suppose I now buy Shell gasoline, because of a feeling placed inside of me by a strange, black man more than 45 years ago. I suppose I have never been prejudice, because a stranger that was black took the time to be kind to me and my friends.



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