It was a long walk for a 4-year-old.
It happened in 1966. My older sister Krissy, eager to get me out of her hair, gave me a coin she’d made from a piece of cardboard.
“You can buy candy with it,” she said.
Candy was a rarity in our home, but I knew where to buy some.
I slipped out the back door and made my way through the woods and onto Diane Drive. It was another 200 yards to the “little store,” the mom-and-pop shop at the bottom of the hill.
I entered the store and reached my grubby hand above my head and set my fake coin on the counter. Beneath the counter, through the glass, was a spectacular display of penny candy. I stood there mesmerized by the incredible potpourri of sweets.
Unbeknownst to me a great hullabaloo was taking place at my house. Krissy and Kathy, 7 and 9 respectively, had been instructed to keep an eye on me while my mother went downstairs with a load of laundry.
When my mother returned a few minutes later, I was nowhere to be found. Kathy, apparently, had gone upstairs to her bedroom. Krissy and I were left together for only a few minutes — just enough time for her to cut out the coin and give it to me (though I don’t think she expected her runt brother to walk all the way to the little store).
Panic overcame my mother as she searched the house — though she’d soon have the situation under control.
This story came to mind as I read a recent article in The New York Times on kids and walking. Today’s parents are in such a state of worry, most won’t let their children walk anywhere alone.
It’s routine for parents to drive their kids to and from school — even if they are 10, 11 or 12 and even if the school is only a few blocks away.
At some schools, there is a rigorous process for picking children up. Parents display their kids’ names on their dashboards. A school official radios to the building and the kids are escorted, one at a time, to the cars.
Parents who attempt to buck our worry-prone culture — one lady allowed her 10-year-old son to walk a mile to soccer practice — face the wrath of family, neighbors and local authorities.
When a police officer saw the boy walking alone, he stopped him and drove him to practice. The officer reprimanded his mom and told her she would have faced child endangerment had anything happened to her son.
To be sure, we’re an uptight, control-freak culture these days. Our paranoia is stoked by sensationalistic news stories and 24/7 coverage about children who have been abducted, but our fears are not entirely warranted.
The Times offers an interesting statistic: There are roughly 40 million elementary school-age children in America. Each year, 115 children are abducted — but more than 250,000 are in car wrecks.
Which shows how times have changed – and not necessarily for the better.
When I was 10 in 1972, I was permitted to roam all over the place, so long as my mother knew where I was going.
I am certainly sympathetic to the challenge parents face today. A friend of mine is determined that both her children experience some of the freedom she knew as a child.
She allows her kids to go into the woods to play – but she is filled with terror as she attempts to monitor them, unnoticed, from the window.
In any event, on the day I disappeared in 1966, my mother finally got my sister Krissy to fess up. Shortly after I arrived at the store, my mother pulled our station wagon into the store’s parking lot and rushed inside to hug me.
Lucky for her this happened in 1966.
Had it happened now, she’d have to deal with the police and child welfare officials and maybe even an embarrassing report on the evening news.