She escaped one night in the
dead of an uncommonly bitter West Virginia winter. The temperature
was falling from the high of 20 that day and about 10 inches of snow
lay on the ground in the valley. This was before anybody had thought
about computing a ‘wind-chill factor’. God only knows what that was.
High in the mountains that surrounded Alderson the wind had pushed
the snow into drifts three or four feet deep and made travel on foot
difficult and especially dangerous at night.
There were no signs that she
had had an accomplice, no signs of a getaway car. According to the
horde of law enforcement and prison officials that came in and out
of the Snack Shack to get coffee to carry back to their respective
stakeouts, the inmate, like most of those before her, had fled the
reformatory on foot and alone and very likely for reasons known only
Escape, however, had to be the
least of her reasons for that was unlikely given the terrain, the
weather, and the lack of help on the outside. Dying was more likely.
She wasn’t a native of the area which would make unfamiliarity with
the lay of the land certain and finding bearings impossible unless
she were a skilled reader of the stars. Neither would she have had
access to proper footwear and clothing to withstand the elements. Or
at least that’s the way my friends and I had it figured.
You see, these woman hunts were
some of the most exciting experiences we young denizens of Alderson,
West Virginia had growing up there. Alderson then and now is the
home of a rather large Federal Reformatory for Women. Or at least
that’s what it was called back in the 50’s. I think they just call
it a federal prison now. Since Martha Stewart just passed through
they may have renamed the place Martha's Vineyard for all I know.
Anyway, at that time it was the only exclusively federal prison for
women in the country. It may still be. I don’t know for sure.
In any event, the facility at
Alderson houses over 1,000 women inmates and has been the residence
of some of the most infamous female lawbreakers in the nation’s
history, including Tokyo Rose, George “Machine Gun” Kelly’s wife,
Kathryn, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of the best known of the
Charles Manson girls. Almost every year one or more of these inmates
will walk away from this prison without walls and set in motion a
highly orchestrated manhunt (or woman hunt) in Alderson.
Back then a $50 reward was
always offered for a capture or information leading to the capture
of the runaway, but it was never the money that motivated us teenage
boys. What motivated us was the fantasy of walking up on this
beautiful and worldly woman and having her teach us the art of love
before being handed over to the authorities.
Every escape ignited an
anticipatory fire in our bellies and we would set out through the
mountainsides that we knew like the back of our hands, looking in
every cave, down every ravine, in every abandoned barn and shelter
for the lonely goddess of love. Summer hunts were just short of
revelry for we knew the young woman of our dreams could, if she
wanted, cross the Greenbrier River that, in the winter, locked the
prison’s western perimeter. The image of a woman in a wet T-Shirt
was not a foreign concept to us back then and coupled with the idea
that the green grasses and warm summer breezes would be there to
embrace our frolicking was indescribably tantalizing. If only we
could run up on her!
Women on the lam in the dead of
winter, however, posed a different set of images, not to mention
problems. But if we were anything we were optimistic. For one thing,
the circle of escape routes was cut in half by the freezing river.
She would have to go east and she would have to seek shelter before
the sun came up or freeze to death. We knew where all those shelters
were and so this night we headed up the mountainside to wait for the
fulfillment of our fantasies.
At the mouth of a large cavern,
the entrance of which was overhung with a large rock formation with
icicles hanging down like enormous teeth, we built a small fire by
which to warm ourselves and boil some coffee in a small pot we kept
at this particular hideaway. We reasoned that the fire would also
serve as a beacon to our love object, struggling out there somewhere
in the woods and the cold, and would eventually bring her unto our
warm and loving company.
We waited and listened and were
encouraged by every snapping limb under the weight of the ice on
them and talked quietly about what we would say to her when she came
and how we would wrap her in our coats and warm her and give her
some steaming coffee and ask her about life in the underworld. We
argued about who would be first on the altar of love when she asked
for male companionship and decided that we would let her choose.
Along about midnight we were having trouble finding enough dry wood
to keep the fire going and we had gotten cold despite our heavy
mackinaws and boots. We also grew more and more worried about her
being out there all alone for so long but knew it was too dark to
find her frozen body even if we went looking. Soon some of the guys
put in to leave claiming waiting longer would not be worth the
parental wrath that was surely already in their future. Against very
little serious opposition the leavers won out and we trucked down
the mountain to town.
The stakeouts were gone and the
Snack Shack was closed, two conclusive signs that the woman had been
apprehended. The fire in our bellies went out and everybody mumbled
their good nights to each other and went home. Tomorrow was another