AFTER TWO YEARS IN CALIFORNIA, ELIZABETH Wiles, 16, was ready to go home. She missed her family. She missed her friends. She even missed school. But because she had been just shy of her 14th birthday when she ran away from her Lamar, Ark., home to hitchhike to San Diego with her then 18-year-old boyfriend, Elizabeth believed they couldn’t go home again. “I was afraid Ron would get in trouble,” says Elizabeth, who, with Ron, worked various odd jobs to survive.
Last May, though, Elizabeth was watching MTV at a friend’s house when she happened to catch the video of “Runaway Train” by the Minneapolis-based rockers Soul Asylum. Between the usual performance shots, the video flashed photos of missing and runaway children. Suddenly she saw her own face on the screen. “It was like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t look!’ ” she recalls. “I was so scared, I didn’t feel any other emotions.”
But as fear gave way to homesickness, Elizabeth phoned home. “I talked to my mom, and we both started crying,” says Elizabeth, who flew home to Arkansas five weeks later. “The video brought me home.”
In fact, since “Runaway Train” made its debut in May, it has brought several kids home. Besides Wiles, two other runaways (one in the U.S., another in Britain) have been reunited with their parents, three more have talked to their families by phone, and another called authorities to ask that they tell his parents he was okay. “The results have been astounding, and frankly we think there will be more,” says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va., which supplied the photos for the video.
That’s music to the ears of Hollywood commercial and video director Tony Kaye, who hatched the notion of turning Soul Asylum’s song about lost love into a video about kids who had disappeared. “I’d always been aware of the milk cartons that feature pictures of missing children,” says Kaye, who’d been hired by the band to make the video. “One thing led to another for mc, and I started thinking that aside from making it visually interesting, I could give this video a little more depth. We could do some good with this.”
Presented with the idea, Soul Asylum quickly signed on. “We wanted to get the band out to the public, but we wanted something different,” says bass guitarist Karl Mueller. “We just wanted to put an equation in front of people and hope they could solve it.”
Four months after its debut, “Runaway Train” is still played regularly on MTV (it was the cable channel’s No. 1 video for two weeks in August), and Kaye has been besieged by parents wanting to get photos of their missing kids onscreen. Kaye has now created three U.S. versions of “Runaway Train,” using photos of 30 different kids, and has also made British, Australian and German versions. “The video makes the child something of a celebrity,” says Kaye, who hopes that sudden fame will persuade the kids to take charge of their lives and return home. “It’s sort of manipulative but in a good sense.”
As for Wiles, she is happily read-justing to home life in Lamar, where she has moved back in with her mother and stepfather, Debra and Randy Davis, a substitute teacher and a machine operator, and her brother, Nicholas, 17. Once she has completed her high school equivalency diploma, she hopes to fly to Clements, Calif., to see her father, Duane Wiles, who works for the California Department of Transportation. “He was glad to hear from me, but he was mad that I didn’t call before,” says Elizabeth. And she still sees Ron (who is starting community college this fall), but only on weekends and this time with her parents’ approval.
In August, Elizabeth met the band responsible for her homecoming when the center surprised her with tickets and backstage passes to a Soul Asylum concert in Little Rock. “They were really nice and told me to keep in touch with them,” she says. It may be the musicians themselves, in fact, who were most affected by the meeting. “It was exciting,” says Mueller. “I was nervous to talk to her. It was such a great thing, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
LINDA SATTER in Clarksville and CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles