It’s probably about time to come clean. To let family and friends know I “have a past.” It’s finally time to admit to four stupid transgressions, the memories of which I can recall in minute detail decades after they occurred.
Simply and plainly, I have an undetected record as a trespasser. I invaded private homes, without the owners’ permission, on four occasions. I do not like to think what may have happened if I had been reported to the authorities. Trespassing, breaking and entering? Who knows?
The first two offenses happened in my teenage years, another in my 50s and the final one in my 70s. Some might say I had “a problem.”
So here are the stories.
I grew up in a small colonial town—Haddonfield—in Southern New Jersey. It was a bedroom community for people working in nearby Camden or, across the Delaware River, in Philadelphia. In those days Camden was home to manufacturing facilities of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The fathers of many of my friends worked for RCA. In the mid-1940s RCA was designing and building the earliest television sets. Engineers there were permitted to take their handiwork home to test it and experiment with it.
The father of my high school friend, Bill,was one of those engineers. One day Bill asked me if I would like to see his father’s TV which had been installed in the family’s nicely appointed attic (It probably had been placed in the highest point in the house in order to receive strong signal reception). Of course I wanted to see that exciting invention. So I rode my bicycle to his house where Bill led me up two flights of stairs to see the set. It displayed programming on just one channel, transmitted over the air from Philadelphia. Even though I cannot recall what I saw that day, I was floored. It was a miracle to see folks moving around and talking on the tiny screen which was perhaps 6 by 8 inches in size.
The next day was Saturday and Dad did not have to go to his office. I told him about seeing Bill’s TV and asked if he would like to see it. My enthusiasm was so great he could not resist saying “yes.” He drove the two of us to Bill’s house. We went up to the walk, rang the doorbell and knocked on the door but there was no reply. I tried the doorknob. It was unlocked. Opening the door, we called loudly “Hello!” but, again, there was no response. No one was home. What to do?
“Come on Dad, “I said, “Let me show it to you.” In an instant we bounded up to the second floor and then up another stairway to the attic. There it was, just like I had seen it the day before. A small, rectangular, metal box-like device with that tiny screen. I turned it on, just like Bill had done, and we watched whatever was on the screen for a few minutes, exactly how long I cannot remember. Then we retraced our steps, down to the second floor and down one more to the center hallway and the front door and walked to the car. I do not recall that my father ever spoke to me about our illicit venture. He might have found it too embarrassing.
It has been more than seven decades since Bill and I were in high school together. I would see him from time to time, most often at our 1949 class reunions. However, I never told him what happened one Saturday afternoon, so many years before, when two people, anxious to experience the earliest thrill of television, entered his family’s home without permission. Perhaps it is time to do so.
I was just a few weeks into my freshman year at Johns Hopkins and about to turn 18 later that fall. All the undergraduates at Hopkins in those days were young men. If one did not have a car it was difficult to meet young women at Goucher College or at the Hopkins School of Nursing across town. Someone told me about a youth group at the nearby Second Presbyterian Church. It was reported that Baltimore high school girls attended Sunday evening meetings there. So, on Sunday evenings, I began walking to the church at the corner of Charles and St. Paul Streets. And, in short order, I met a nice girl. A few weeks later I worked up my courage to ask her for a movie date.
She lived in the Northwood section of the city, east of the campus. I did not have a car so the logistics of dating someone beyond walking distance from the campus were complicated. Getting to her home meant taking a bus from the campus neighborhood east to Loch Raven Boulevard, leaving the bus near where her street intersected with the boulevard, and walking to her home about a block away. And that is what I did on our first date. We met at her front door and walked back to the bus stop and rode to the intersection of Greenmount Avenue and 33rd St., the location of the popular, art deco styled Boulevard movie theater. After the show, it was back to the bus and her Northwood neighborhood. I did all of that because I had visions of future dates.
Suddenly, however, what had been a pleasant evening almost turned into a disaster.
As we approached her dark, brick, colonial style home she reached for her purse and gasped. “What’s the matter?” I said. “My keys! My keys! I don’t have my keys.” My calm and confident reply was “Can’t we just knock on the door and ask your mother or dad to let you in?” “Oh no,” she said, “they would kill me if I woke them up.” “So what can we do,” I asked.
“See that window up there on the second floor?” she said, pointing to a window on the upper right corner of the house. “It’s unlocked. You could get a big ladder from the garage, go up and climb through the window and come downstairs and let me in. I cannot recall my precise feelings at that moment. But today, more than 70 years later, my palms still break out in a sweat when I think about doing what she had suggested.
Nonetheless I quickly thought that I knew how to put an extension ladder up to a second floor window. I had done it many times at my home, in southern New Jersey, as I helped my father put on and take off screens and storm windows from our second floor windows. So, whatever my thoughts at the time, I followed her down a driveway to the rear of the house, entered a two car, detached garage, found the large, heavy, wooden, ladder and carried it to a spot below my date’s bedroom window.
I extended the ladder so the top was just under the window sill, climbed up, raised the unlocked window and crawled in. Guided only by the dim glow of an exterior street light I found my way through her room and into an upstairs hall. I scrambled down a wide set of stairs leading to the entrance hall and the front door. I unlocked the door, opened it, ran outside, lowered the ladder, took it back to the garage, came back to the front step where she was waiting and said goodbye. I ran, almost flew, down the street to the bus stop. I still wonder what would have happened if her parents or her sister had heard me only inches from them, just outside their bedroom doors. My palms become moist again. Another date? Not a chance. That was a “one and done.”
Sometime in the late 1970s or 80s my neighbor and friend, Ted, introduced me to duck and goose hunting on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Our normal routine was to crawl out of bed, in our Baltimore homes, about 3 AM and drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, to a rural area near Easton where he had reserved some hunting spots from local farmers. One time, however, Ted said a friend had invited him to use his house the night before we were to hunt. He would not be home and we were welcome to use it and save ourselves that early morning drive from Baltimore.
We were enthused about the prospect of having a nice place to stay before a day of hunting. We planned to leave Baltimore about three in the afternoon but Ted was delayed by a business issue. When we finally left it was almost 9 PM. Everything went smoothly. Traffic was light at the time of the evening. Ted said all we had to do was travel down Route 50 toward Easton and that he had directions where to turn off the highway to the house where we would spend the night.
Not far from Easton Ted turned onto the designated well paved road that led us through several miles of farm land which was well hidden by the dense darkness of that night. “One more turn and we’ll be there,” Ted said, reassuringly. Sure enough, he found the road, this time a narrow dirt trail winding through more acres of fields that had been loaded with corn in the summer months.
“I haven’t seen any houses along here,” I said. “Don’t worry,” Ted replied. “His place is a couple of miles up the road. I was here before.” And, sure enough, in a few minutes, a ranch style house appeared on our left. The lights were on. “Nice of him to leave the lights on for us,” I said. “Great guy,” Ted responded.
We pulled into the drive and as soon as we stopped we began unloading our hunting clothes so we would have them ready when we dressed before sunrise. Warm hats, gloves, heavy jackets, wool shirts, long underwear, thick socks and boots. We locked the shotguns and ammunition in the trunk.
On the way up to the front door Ted said his friend “always has some deli stuff for sandwiches and beer in the fridge.” As son as we opened the door to the fully lighted room we were greeted by a friendly, tail-waging golden retriever. No barking, he just wanted to be petted. We lay our gear on the floor and Ted went toward the kitchen. I lingered a bit and looked around the attractive living room that was decorated tastefully with Eastern Shore décor, dark wood paneling, waterfowl paintings, duck decoys and the like. I also looked at a handsome antique desk and noticed some envelopes on it, apparently addressed to the owner.
“What did you say your friend’s name was, Ted?” I asked. Coming out of the kitchen with a bottle of beer and sandwich in his hand he told me the name. I had a sudden heart palpitation. “Ted,” I said. “That is not the name on these envelopes. I think we are in the wrong house.” Ted looked at the mail on the desk and blanched. “Oh, my God. We’ve got to get out of here,” he said.
We grabbed everything we had brought in, left in an instant, and once again headed down the road. “I was sure that was his place,” Ted said. “I guess we didn’t go far enough.” We continued on the dirt road until we spotted another ranch style house, this one with no welcoming lights.
“This is it,” Ted said. Once again we unloaded our hunting gear and walked through an unlocked front door. No lights, no dog. We did not take time to explore the kitchen. There was a bedroom off the living room with twin beds. Not bothering to undress and so exhausted by the events of the evening and the late hour, we simply lay on the beds and went to sleep. Morning would arrive too soon. We would rise from our “guest house” beds, gather up all of our hunting gear and head for the duck blind along Skipton Creek. “I wonder if the family in the first house will notice that a bottle of beer and some deli meat and bread went missing over night,” I asked Ted.
For many years my wife, Lynn, and I owned a summer cottage on Wellesley Island in the St. Lawrence River in Upstate New York. It was in a small community of mostly gingerbread styled Victorian homes built in the latter part of the 19th Century. It is one of those little summer enclaves where everyone knows everyone else and no one worries about home security. Doors are never locked except at the end of the season when the electricity is shut off and the water drained from the pipes and folks head to a place they call home where they will stay until migrating back next spring.
So it was on a lazy, summer day in August, some years ago, when we were awaiting the delivery of twin-bed mattresses for the two old iron beds in the green room, aka the front room, upstairs. We had placed an order a few weeks earlier with Mary Reinman in nearby Clayton, NY (pop. 3,000+) She, with her husband, Bill, are the proprietors of Reineman’s Department Store in Clayton, a true throwback to the days when “department store” meant “If you need it, we’ve got it or we will get it for you.” For more than 40 years we were loyal and grateful customers of Mary and Bill and, before them, Jimmy and Gloriann, Mary’s parents, who managed the store for more years that even the local, year-round residents can remember.
The Reinman’s were dependable. If they said a delivery would be there on a particular day at a a particular time you could count on it. In this case the mattresses were due at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon. So, after cleaning up from a late lunch, we decided to sit on the porch and keep an eye out for the loud, lumbering Reinmann truck to come to the house. It was “high season” and things were very busy at the store. Bill might make the delivery himself. We passed the time by watching the boats zooming about the river a short distance away. Friday always signaled the beginning of the weekend and greatly increased boating activity.
Three o’clock came but there was no sign of the Reinman truck. “Must be very busy,” I said to Lynn. Then it was 3:30 and 4:00 PM. “I’m going to call Mary,” I said with a twinge of annoyance.
“Hi Mary, It’s Ross. We were supposed to receive our mattresses this afternoon. Remember?” “Yes, I do, we put them on the truck this morning and Dave said he delivered them.” “Well, we have been waiting for them and they are not here.” “I can’t imagine where they are.”
Suddenly I remembered that a new family named Jones had just moved in to a house up the street. Coincidentally they had bought a house that used to belong to my mother and stepfather, a house we knew very well having spent many summer vacations there. “I bet they delivered the mattresses to the new Jones family,” I said to Lynn. “Let’s walk over and see.”
We went to the house, opened the screen door to the large wrap-around porch, and knocked on the front door. No answer. Turning the knob, I opened the door. “Hello, anyone home?” Silence. “Let’s check upstairs.” So we went up to the second floor and, sure enough, the two mattresses, still wrapped in their protective coverings were leaning against the walls of the hallway that was so familiar to us.
“Let’s take them to the house,” I said. Lynn picked up the end of one of the mattresses and I took the other end and we carried them down the street, into our cottage, and up to the second floor where the old beds were awaiting their new companions. We repeated the same journey to retrieve the second mattress.
I phoned Mary and explained what happened. She was nonplussed and there was a tone of annoyance to her voice. It was the last thing she needed to deal with on a busy Friday afternoon in the “high season.” “Glad you figured it out,” she said. As for the new Jones family, they never knew what had happened.
Ross Jones is a former vice president and secretary emeritus of The Johns Hopkins University. He joined the University in 1961 as assistant to President Milton S. Eisenhower. A 1953 Johns Hopkins graduate, he later earned a Master’s Degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism