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Playing out front with some neighborhood kids one sunny Saturday afternoon last month, Apollo asked if he could go around the block on his bike.
We live in a newish North Texas subdivision. Nothing fancy but nothing scary either. You don’t see a lot of for-sale signs. Just mostly nice, mostly well-maintained lawns and the occasional “TCU” flag (and one Steelers banner). Apollo had never made the half-mile trip on his own before. He’s done it a billion times with his mom and me, on foot and on bike. But never on his own.
From my foldout chair on our driveway, I looked up at my wife, who was standing in a semicircle with some of the other moms on that strip of our neighbors’ lawn that I am required to mow for some weird reason. Dana, after a brief deliberation, said okay, no problem, Apollo, but come right back.
I had kept my mouth shut to let her make the call, because all I could see was our faces on Dateline. “It’s a nice neighborhood. We never thought anything like this would happen to us. And now our precious little boy is gone. Gone.”
Dana thinks I’m way too paranoid. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m not. But I still can’t fathom why anyone would run errands without her cellphone. “What if your car breaks down?! What if someone tries to kidnap you?! What if you need to ask me which kind of lunch meat I want?!”
You think everything’s hunky dory, and the next minute, your life is in shambles.
And why anyone would keep the living-room lights on with the blinds open at night is beyond me. “You want to let the whole world watch us watching TV?!”
I also don’t know why my wife won’t let me buy a knife. “I’d rather take on an intruder with a real weapon instead of a Maglite.”
And off Apollo zoomed.
In between nervous sips of a cold, frosty adult beverage, I was approached by one of the other adults. All of the other kids — about 10 total — were accounted for.
“Where’d Apollo go?” asked Tammy, our next door neighbor who with her husband has 3 grown children and several grandkids.
“Right around the block,” I said, trying to keep calm and carry on.
“With who?” she pressed.
“By himself,” I said, quickly stuffing the lip of the bottle back into my mouth.
I wouldn’t call Tammy a busybody, but she knows a lot about our neighborhood, including its name. (“Twin Creek?” “Lost Creek?” “Lost Twin?” I dunno. The names of all the subdivisions around here sound the same.) A country gal, she also isn’t afraid to lay into people, including the transplanted Pittsburgh dad who lives next door.
He’s done it a billion times with his mom and me, on foot and on bike. But never on his own.
“Do’nchew know how many child molesters live around her?!” she yelped at me. “Do’nchew see how many people race down this street in their souped-up cars?! Din’ju hear about that little girl in Florida who was snatched right out of her bedroom?!”
Tammy must not read The Washington Post. In the 2015 story with the headline “There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America,” the Post says that “reports of missing children are down 40 percent since 1997” — despite the fact that the overall U.S. population has “risen by 30 percent over that same time period, meaning that the actual rate of missing person reports for children has fallen faster than 40 percent.”
In 2014, the Post continues, roughly 96 percent of all missing person cases (adults and children) were runaways. “Only 0.1 percent of missing persons cases,” says the Post, “were what we think of as ‘stereotypical kidnapping,’ [in which] a complete stranger tries to abduct somebody and carry them off by force.”
However, the Post acknowledges that perhaps all of these falling numbers are due to one reason: stricter, smarter, savvier parenting.
Tammy was twanging loud enough for Dana — and some of the other adults — to overhear.
“Yeah, Anthony,” added neighbor Renae, who is around the same age as my wife and me (mid-40s). “It’s not like when we were growing up.”
Renae also must not read the Post. Like her, I guess I was lucky, I and all of the other kids in my cramped, crowded, suffocating Steel City neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s. My dozens of friends and I sometimes traveled miles away from our houses on foot or on bike, hunting for collectible beer cans, scouring wooded areas for foul balls, playing Release, just exploring our terrain, and somehow we all managed to return home safely every night.
The Post acknowledges that perhaps all of these falling numbers are due to one reason: stricter, smarter, savvier parenting.
With Apollo now completely out of sight and hearing range, I started freaking out. As calmly as possible. And calmly is how I lifted myself from my chair and began walking in the opposite direction of my son’s departure. Dana, cool as ever, went back to her conversation.
Walking — calmly — down the street, I was struck by the kinds of horrible visions that can make you want to puke. What if our child, our beautiful child, is now gone? This is how it happens, isn’t it? You think everything’s hunky dory, and the next minute, your life is in shambles. Because of a poor, stupid, poor, bad, horrible, deadly poor parenting decision you’ve made.
When I finally saw that sweet little boy racing toward our crowd from around the corner, I admit I became a little angry with myself for feeling as cool and confident as my outwardly cool and confident demeanor may have conveyed. Was I really worried about my son, or was I glad I didn’t end up looking stupid in front of a bunch of people with whom I have little in common except for geography?
As Apollo approached, I wanted to race to him, scoop him up off his bike, and squeeze him like a life preserver tossed into a frigid ocean. But I stayed cool. And calm. And when he finally got off his bike, I had a little talk with him.
And that was the last time he will ride around the block by himself.
At least until after he graduates from medical school.
Anthony Mariani is Editor of the Fort Worth Weekly.