Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Going AWOL Before You Start to School

A news report this morning featured a small boy, 21/2 years old, who apparently wandered away from his rural family home in South Texas last night, apparently following the family dog. An area Equine Search team volunteered, along with law enforcement and other community volunteers, with no success. They searched all night.

About 8:30 this morning, a report went out that the family dog had come back. An hour later, the good news came that the boy was found, apparently unharmed. It was a chilly night, probably in the 30s or below, and he was dressed only in a shirt and jeans, but he was fine.

It took me back to a time when I was about 4, living near the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains in southern New Mexico. It was probably November, sunny but cool, and I was wearing a red sweater with a shirt and jeans.

I was allowed to walk alone in the greasewood and cacti around our home, but I was supposed to stay within calling distance and come back promptly. (In retrospect, I was probably called back about every 10 minutes. That seemed really long to me then, but apparently not long enough.) I had the two family dogs with me. I deliberately decided to disobey and go further out to explore. I did this on purpose, I distinctly remember. I wanted the freedom of uninterrupted exploration. I was tired of staying in the same old close perimeters and wanted to see new territory.

I ignored my parents' calls and made a beeline for an arroyo (deep dry wash), where I could duck in and disappear from sight. Pretty soon I couldn't hear them anymore, and happily I walked on. I had a fine time.

The dogs disappeared twice, and my parents told me later they went back to the house, probably for water, but they always came back to me. No one could follow them.

I know I was gone for a number of hours. After awhile, I became aware there were people looking for me. Uh-oh. Still intent on my adventure, I walked on, with a vague notion that there was a lot of commotion over my Walk in the Wild Side that was probably not going to end well for me. I had been very naughty, I realized that. But I stubbornly also wanted the freedom to explore on my own. So I just kept going. I think I had some vague idea about spending the night in the foothills, about two miles away. With a low, desert landscape and mountains, I knew exactly where I was. I knew where my house was. I just wasn't ready to go back there.

Finally I reached a dirt road about a mile and a half from my home and debated crossing it to get to the land beyond. I stepped out, looking left and right, and spotted my daddy's car moving slowly down a hill about a quarter-mile away, coming towards me. I ducked back into the bushes, but he had seen the flash of my red sweater, and he found me. I knew the jig was up and didn't run. I was resigned to a spanking and a scolding.

This, remember, was the 1940s. We didn't even have a private home phone, just a party line (027-J1). So he had to drive home with me before my mother knew I was safe, and then they personally had to notify the searchers. To my astonishment, they even held me up in the air to a low-flying plane. They had called in a friend who was a pilot to look for me. He waggled the wings and flew off. Boy, that was COOL!

I was astonished. I had been just fine. I had had fun. They were so relieved to have me home they hugged me and hugged me and no mention was made of a spanking and they were so happy to see me, at age 4 I had no idea of the stark terror they had been through. Because it WAS November. I wasn't dressed for a night out, and I was prone to bronchitis. Predators came down the mountains at this time of year to search for snacks in the desert. Coyotes. Mountain lions. Wolves? Too cold for snakes, at least. I could have fallen somewhere. I could be injured. I could....well, later when I became a parent, I understood.

So they told me I couldn't go outside the fence. The gates were locked. BOR-ing.
I spotted a hole in the chicken wire fence to keep in the chickens, and a few weeks later, when my grandmother had come out to take care of me for the day, I took off again.

Unfortunately (from my point of view), a man Dad hired to do farm work was on hand that day. All I remember is that his name was Braulio, and the only English he spoke was to call me "Baby," which I hated, and when my lip went out, he would laugh and call me that again. And then my daddy would laugh with him, and I would really be enraged.

So I scrambled under the fence and had just set out when Braulio came up and caught me, swinging me up onto his shoulders as we headed for the house. I remember he smelled of oreo cookies. And my grandmother called my dad. This time, he came home from work, and this time he lectured me loudly and spanked me proper. So I didn't do it again.

Years later, when my younger son was 3 or 4, he took advantage of my distraction while I was writing a check for a purchase at the mall and took off. I turned around, and he was gone. His older brother had seen nothing. So we searched the store and finally headed into the mall, where I did find several people who had seen him running by. They had noticed such a young child on his own.

"Why didn't you stop him?" I desperately asked one witness.

"Ma'am, he was running like he knew just where he was going."

And in my fear and approaching terror, I related nevertheless. Oh, yeah. He knew where he was going. To freedom, and adventure, and to run as fast as he wanted....

It only took us about a half-hour to find him. Reflecting on my own experience, I spanked him immediately and scolded him all the way to the car. (He had reached the far end of the mall when we found him.) In contrast, I had been missing for hours.

The little boy on the news today was gone overnight. About 15 hours. But a happy ending.

It's no wonder a belief in guardian angels is so popular. It's darned wonderful, all in all, that any of us grow up.

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