I was twelve years old that summer. I had a little buddy named Perry. Perry was ten and had a medical problem, so his heels didn't touch the ground and he walked funny. I didn't care. He was my buddy. Both of our moms worked at the courthouse. We were courthouse brats, making it our playground. The old courthouse sat on the edge of Currituck Sound and is now a national historic site. I lived about a 1/4 of a mile from it and Perry lived closer to the huge red brick building. It really isn't that big, but to us, it was gigantic. The courthouse was built adjacent to the ancient jail, which was constructed in the 1700's. It's iron bars still visible and irresistible to two imaginative kids. We were sure pirates had been held there in chains.
I drank my first beer with Perry. We found one floating in the sound, hot, the tin can faded. We went to the old country store across from the courthouse, bought a grape soda and mixed that beer with it. It was nasty and we vowed not to try that again. I also smoked my first pot with Perry. We weren't bad, we just found some pot the deputies dropped while taking pictures of it for court. We dried it up, stole some rolling papers from some older kids, and fired that puppy up. Nothing happened except we coughed a lot and vowed not to do that again, either.
We would sneak into the balcony and peek at the court proceedings, until the bailiff would give us the evil eye. Perry and I were privileged to watch people be led in cuffs into the mysterious belly of the jail, where we were never allowed to go but damn if we didn't try often enough. We did finally get to see it when a deputy took us and locked us in a cell, just to scare the crap out of us. It worked and we stopped trying to get in there. Sometimes the inmates would offer us money out the windows to bring them smokes and drinks. Back then you could buy a pack of cigarettes, even beer, if you told the old man at the counter it was for your mom or dad. We never lied to the old man, because he would ask your parents about your shopping habits if he were suspicious. We never brought the prisoners anything either, because the Sheriff said if he caught us, he'd tan our hides. Ah, but then there was this one time.
Just down the road from the courthouse was the Maple Prison. It was a medium security prison. My dad even taught some classes there for extra money. He was a school principal and still had to work part time to make ends meet. Escapes were frequent and they often ended up breaking into the school cafeteria to get food. We lived on the school grounds and my dad always got a call when there was an escape. (More on that later.) The prison also provided the county with workers, menial labor jobs, like janitors at the courthouse. That's how Perry and I met Abe.
The first time I saw Abe, he was talking to my mother. Okay, he's talking to my mother, he has to be a good guy, right? We had been around so many prisoners, one more wasn't a real shock, but Abe was different. Abe looked like Paul Newman, at least in my twelve-year-old mind. He could have stepped off the screen and walked right out of "Hud," as far as I was concerned. He was wearing a tight white tee-shirt and the white prison pants with the stripe up the leg. Abe was charming and smart and didn't mind us tagging after him as he cleaned the courthouse floors and bathrooms. I always felt important when he'd ask me to check the ladies room so he could go in. I asked him why he was in prison. He told us someone stole his tools and he stole them back, 'cept he got caught. That didn't sound fair to us, so we never looked at him as a thief or criminal. We three became fast friends.
We liked to swim and Perry and I were subject to just jump in anytime. The water was right there and nobody cared that we swam without adult supervision. Hell, you had to walk a 1/2 mile out to just get over your head in the shallow sound. Unless you jumped off the ferry dock, which had I done so, would have resulted in my tail being whipped "till you can't sit down." I did it once to say I did and prayed my daddy wouldn't find out. He never did. I swore not to do that again, either, after I watched my dad and some of the men fish one of my friends from the depths of the ferry dock, dead. Anyway, as it turns out, Abe loved to swim too.
The prisoners were always dressed in the white prison attire. Abe was no different. He had only that set of clothes with him. He could not get them wet, so we acquired a bathing suit from Perry's dad's wardrobe and spent hours splashing alone with a state prisoner. We were sworn to secrecy, because Abe wasn't supposed to be swimming. He was our friend and we decided he needed to have a little fun. I know what you're thinking, but he was never more than the big brother we both wished we had. I never felt in danger with him and he was so much fun, throwing us in the air, playing ball, hunting crabs. We had a blast that summer.
Abe had five years to go on his sentence. That fact alone makes me wonder now if he was just in prison for a simple theft, but back then we didn't care. As the summer drew to a close and school loomed ahead, Abe started complaining about always having to wear that white uniform. We were sad that we wouldn't get to see Abe every day, because he would be gone by the time we got home from school. We wanted to buy him a gift. Perry and I had a little birthday and grass mowing money saved up. We pooled our stash and went to the little store to see the old man. The store was almost as ancient as the jail, with wooden floors that creaked when you walked. The old man sold farm jeans and flannel shirts. He even had underwear and white tee-shirts.
The old man eyed us suspiciously when we made our purchases. I had Perry look in Abe's clothes while we were swimming, so we knew what sizes to get. We bought a pair of pants, underwear, tee-shirts, and a flannel shirt. The old man wrapped our gift in brown paper from the butcher counter. He asked who the clothes were for and we said it was a gift for Perry's uncle. Somehow we knew not to tell it was for Abe, even though we saw no reason a man couldn't have a change of clothes. That afternoon we gave Abe his present. He was so happy. He hugged us both and we all cried on that last afternoon together.
A week later, my father got a phone call about an escaped prisoner. I listened as he commented and repeated back what was being told to him about the prisoner's particulars. After a few minutes, I heard the name and my heart stopped. Dad got off the phone and told my mom, "You know that fella that works at the courthouse, Abe, well he walked away from there this afternoon. They found his white uniform in the bathroom. He must have got hold of a change of clothes somehow." Well, our secret didn't stay secret too long. The old man ratted us out in no time. There I was, all of twelve years old, an accomplice to an escape. We didn't get in too much trouble. I think the adults saw how stricken we were for being duped.
I never heard about Abe being caught. I think about him from time to time and wonder if he remembers those two kids that looked past his criminal record and saw a friend. I hope he changed his life for the better and has lived a good one. He may not remember us, but I'll never forget helping Abe escape. I like to think of him as Cool Hand Luke on an adventure. Hope it was worth it.
(R. E. Bradshaw is a writer of fiction. The names and events here may have been changed to protect the innocent.)