Kids from my generation, the last of the Baby Boomers, walked to school alone at five or six years old. We ran errands for our mothers, and often disappeared to play outside in the neighbourhood for the whole day with instructions to return at dinnertime.
I don’t remember my parents ever warning me about strangers. Somehow they got the message across without threatening me with tales of the Boogie Man or child snatchers (my mother did threaten to send me to Timbuktu on occasion, but that’s another story).
I wasn’t frightened to be out and about on my own when I was young. I was aware, but didn’t cringe with fear if a car crawled along the road beside me: presumably the driver was looking at house numbers, trying to find an address, or not wishing to startle me by pulling into the driveway in front of me.
In fact, it wasn’t some nebulous fedora wearing shadow (my take on the Boogie man, in those days) that worried me. It was other children who proved to be the most troubling.
When I entered grade one, for instance, there was an older boy who would sit in wait for me like a wayward bird of prey on my walk to school. Every morning I had to pass his house and every single morning he would steal the hat right off my head. I remember the doom-like, here we go again, feeling come over me as I prepared to chase him and my hat around and around his front yard for the umpteenth time that week. He had one of those girls’ names like Valerie or Marion. (I figure we both had our own crosses to bear.) When I begged my mother to let me just skip the hat and go to school bare-headed, she wouldn’t hear of it. That would have meant he’d won. She insisted that I stand up for myself and continue walking past his house, hat and all.
My first experience with bonafide strangers occurred when I was six.
It was a sleepy weekend afternoon. I was riding my scooter home along the sidewalk. The trees were all in bloom up and down our street and my father was mowing the lawn; possibly the first cut of the season. I could see him in the distance — brown flannel work shirt, trademark cigarette in his mouth — as he pushed our heavy gas mower back and forth through the grass.
I’d been to the Shopping Plaza a few blocks away where there was a Safeway, a laundromat and variety store. It’s likely I’d been sent there to mail a letter, and even more likely that I’d stopped outside the Variety store to eye the Pink Pearl erasers and Green Hornet water pistols in the window.
I was only moments from home when a big old brown car came down the street towards me and pulled up to the curb.
“Now wait a minute…” I thought.
The lady in the passenger seat had a sad look in her eyes. She was a bit younger than my mother and the man driving looked like he was her husband. The engine was running and the lady opened the car door. She got half way out and motioned me over to her. I stayed on the sidewalk with my scooter and didn’t approach the boulevard.
She asked if I knew where the grocery store was. It seemed odd that two grown-ups would be asking me, a kid, for help. I answered yes, and pointed down the street — in the same direction they were headed.
“How far?” she asked.
I didn’t know how far, but told her it was close, that I’d just been down there.
“Come, get in,” she said. “Get in the car and show us.”
“But I have my scooter,” I said.
“We’ll put it in the trunk and you can ride it back later.”
“Huh?” I thought. It didn’t make sense. Why would I go back to the store if I had just come from there?
At that moment, my father happened to appear in the distance; he rounded the lawn intently with his mower, backed it over a swath of grass and moved out of sight again.
“But I’m almost home,” I said. “My Dad’s over there, you could ask him.” I motioned to my house up the street.
The woman swung her legs back into the car, shut the door and the couple drove off without a word.
It didn’t scare me then, but it scares me now.
Photo courtesy of www.JMLFfoundation.com