Sometimes you see something on TV and it hits home. A couple of weeks ago, I caught part of the show, 60 Minutes. They were interviewing two young ladies who had been kidnapped as children but were miraculously able to escape a few days after their abduction. That virtually never happens…escaping.
The abuse they suffered permanently altered their lives in very negative ways. They still struggle today to overcome the memories of what they endured at the hands of their kidnappers. As I watched the show, memories came flooding back from my childhood. I was almost abducted. Twice. They were failed attempts but they definitely left an impression that’s stayed with me all of my life.
The First Time
Forsyth Street, Macon, Georgia
I was only 7 years old and I had walked the block to the corner gas station to buy a drink and some candy. With a small, brown paper bag of candy and a cold bottled drink clutched tightly against my chest, I started the walk back home. I was about half way home when on one of the busiest streets in Macon, Georgia (Forsyth Street) a man pulled up to the curb in a really big car. He stopped his car just on the other side of a giant tree that was growing right up out of the sidewalk. To this day when I see a big tree growing up out of the sidewalk, my mind goes back and I’m 7 years old again…for just a moment.
Suddenly, I found my path blocked by a very tall, thin man. At first he played being nice. Looming over me, he told me to get in his car and he would take me to the store and buy me some candy. Something inside of me said, he’s the one, the bad guy you’ve been told about.
When I was growing up, I was told by my sister and the other grown-ups in my life, “Never get in the car with a stranger.” That was it, the sum total of my education about strangers. When I was raising my son, I also told him NEVER get in the car with a stranger. But I went a lot further because the bad guys have a whole bag of tricks in their arsenal.
I told him if they say they have lost their dog and need helping find it, RUN. If they say your Mother or Dad are sick and have been sent to pick you up, RUN. If they stop to ask you for directions, RUN. Every time I heard a new trick on Oprah or read of a new scheme in the newspaper, I passed it along to my son, trying to always stay one step ahead of the bad guys.
As I stood there on the sidewalk, cracked and heaved sky-ward by the huge tree growing up out of it, the tall man told me if I would get in his car he would take me to the store and buy me lots of candy. The tape played in my head, “Don’t get in the car with a stranger.” Those 8 words were my armor, the only defense I had against this giant of a man.
Too afraid to look up, I told the gray pants in front of me I had already been to the store and I had candy. It was the truth and I hoped he would hear it and go away. He did not. Instead, he told me to get into his car and he would take me to buy more candy. I told him I didn’t want any more, I had enough already.
The cars raced by on Forsyth Street. He didn’t give up.
His voice became more urgent, more insistent. He changed tactics, telling me to get in the car and he would give me a ride home. The tone of his voice scared me as the words played again in my head, “Don’t get in the car with a stranger.” I didn’t budge. I stared at the gray pants in front of me; I couldn’t bear to look up. I told the stranger I just wanted to walk home.
He began to fidget, shuffling his feet. Perhaps he was worried someone would notice the tall man talking to the little girl on the sidewalk behind the tree on the busy road. His patience was running out, he was done playing nice. He leaned his face down, down, down…until his mouth was just a few inches from my ear. In a stern, angry sounding voice he said, “I’m going to get in my car and you had better come get in it.” I’ll be waiting!”
I heard the car door slam. I stood hiding behind the big tree, too afraid to run. I had been having this dream every few nights. In the dream I was being chased by a ferocious lion, and always the lion could run at normal speed, but I couldn’t. In the dream I was always stuck running in sloooow motion, as if through molasses, while the lion ran at full speed quickly closing the gap between us. Thankfully, I always awoke before he caught up to me.
As I stood there, hiding behind the tree, I was sure if I ran he would know. He would know, that I knew, he was a bad guy and then he would chase me. I was sure he would be able to outrun me, just like the lion. I stood paralyzed behind the tree, afraid and trying hard to be invisible, just wishing he would go away.
Then, it happened. He drove off. When I was sure he was gone and wasn’t coming back, I continued toward home. Within a few minutes of getting to my house, the police arrived. They asked me all kinds of questions. What kind of car was it? What did he look like? I could tell them very little since I had been too afraid to look into his face.
When I was older, my sister told me, the woman who lived across the street from the big tree saw what was happening and called the police. I never saw her come out and she never called out to me or to the man, at least not that I heard. Maybe she came out onto her porch and that’s why he drove away. I’ll never really know, I just know I was very, very lucky.
The Second Time:
Forsyth Street, again
I was either 7 or 8 and we were still living in the same house on Forsyth Street. I was walking home from school, a distance of about 3/4 of a mile, when a car pulled up along side the curb. The back door of the car flew open and an older looking man called out to me, telling me he was a friend of my Dad’s and would give me a ride home. He was around the same age as my Dad and I remember how friendly he was, smiling and so nice. There were at least three men in the car, two up front and the one in the back.
I wondered, is he really a friend of my Dads? The man reminded me of some of my Dad’s friends who occasionally came by our home. He was so nice, smiling from the back seat of the car. But the voice in my head said, “Never get in the car with a stranger.”
I politely thanked him but said, “No, I’d better just walk home.” He asked again, coaxing, smiling. He said I should really let them give me a ride home and that my Dad would want them to give me a ride. Again, I declined, feeling kind of bad because he was so nice and friendly. I remember worrying I might hurt his feelings if he really was a friend of my Dads. The men eventually gave up and sped off and I continued the walk home.
When I got home, I told my Dad what happened. My sister tells me he and my uncle were furious and immediately left to go look for the men and the car I described. They never found them.
As I grew older (and wiser) I thought back on that day and realized there was no way any friends of my Dad’s that I may have met once or twice briefly as a child, would ever recognize me walking down the side walk on a busy road. The scariest part now is remembering how I had felt bad turning them down, worried they might really be friends of my father’s and I might be hurting their feelings by declining their offer of a ride.
I wonder sometimes how I was so lucky when others have not been. It’s only by the grace of God, some luck and maybe a miracle or two, that I am still here. You know how folks say it’s more dangerous for kids today? I’m not sure it is any more dangerous now than it was “back then.” Perhaps we just hear more about it now because we have TV and the Internet.
Why Am I Sharing This?
So, why am I sharing these two near-abductions with you? I want to encourage you, if you have young children or grandchildren, talk to them frequently about what they should do if they are approached by a stranger. Don’t ever allow them to walk anywhere alone, no matter how short the distance…at least until they are way too big to be taken against their will.
*Update: So much good information is being shared today in the comments on this post. If you have a moment, please read those, too. Thanks everyone for sharing your stories and such great information about keeping our children safe. Such excellent advice!
Here are some tips for keeping your children safe. These are from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Know the Rules®…Summer Safety Tips to Teach Children
•Always CHECK FIRST with your parents, guardians, or the trusted adult in charge before you go anywhere or do anything. Be sure to CHECK IN regularly with your parents, guardians, or a trusted adult when you’re not with them.
•Always TAKE A FRIEND with you when playing or going anywhere. It’s safer and more fun.
•Be aware of people who offer you treats or gifts. Never accept anything from anyone without your parents’ or guardians’ permission.
•Stay SAFER when you’re home alone by keeping the doors and windows locked; not opening the door for or talking to anyone who comes to the home unless the person is a trusted family friend or relative, you feel comfortable being alone with that person, and the visit has been preapproved by your parents or guardians; and never telling anyone who calls that you’re home alone. If your parent or guardian cannot be reached, have a neighbor or other trusted adult you are able to call if you feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused or there’s an emergency.
•Always TAKE A FRIEND with you when using a public restroom.
•Always TAKE A FRIEND with you when going to malls, movies, parks, or entertainment centers. And always CHECK FIRST with your parents or guardians to make sure it’s OK.
•Identify the safest place to go or person to ask for help in reuniting you with your parents or guardians if you become lost. Safe helpers could be a uniformed law-enforcement or security officer, store salesperson with a nametag, person with a nametag who is working at the information booth, or mother with children. Never search for your parents or guardians on your own, and never go with anyone who is trying to reunite you with them.
•Be careful when you play outside. Stay away from pools, canals, and other bodies of water unless you are with a trusted adult. Don’t play near busy streets or deserted areas, and never take shortcuts.
•Leave clothes or items displaying your name at home and don’t be confused just because a person you don’t know calls out your name.
•Say NO if anyone you don’t know or a person who makes you feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused offers you a ride. CHECK FIRST with your parents or guardians before taking a ride from anyone.
•Be careful playing outside as it gets dark. Sometimes it is difficult for people driving to see you. Wear reflectors and protective clothing if your parents or guardians say you may play outside after dark.
•Say NO and GET AWAY from any person or situation making you feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. TRUST YOUR FEELINGS, and be sure to TELL a trusted adult if anything happens to make you feel this way. And it’s never too late to tell a trusted adult what happened.
Please share these tips with friends and family…because it only takes a second for a child to go missing forever. And forever is a very, very long time.