The Saint Valentine’s Day Manhunt

So it seems that one of the California wildfires was started by a boy playing with matches. The police won’t release the name or age of this kid, and who can blame them? Half of L.A. and a large part of Mexico would be hanging him from a tree right about now. While reading of this, I was reminded of a “situation” that occurred in my family several years ago, when the police had to protect our identities too. I raised my children in this small college town in Arkansas. For seventeen years, I was a fish out of water, but it was the best pond in the world at the time. Clean, safe, and friendly, and nothing much ever happened there. I never thought my family would be the talk of the city, until…

It was Valentine’s Day, and my son was fifteen. My mother lived in some apartments a little down the road from us, in a complex that was separated from ours by a park. The park was nothing much, just a pretty little patch of grass with a few benches, some playground equipment, and a creek that ran through the middle of it.

I love February 14th, and whether single or attached, have celebrated it with exuberance, shopping for just the right candy and stuffed toys for my children, a big box of chocolates for my mother, and sometimes, if I’ve been good, a little box of Whitman’s samplers for myself. On this particular Valentine’s Day, we swung by my mom’s house with a big red truffle-filled heart and some flowers. She wasn’t home. My son said he would take the stuff in (we had a key) and would wait for her (translation: play on her computer). He said he’d just walk back to our apartment.

It was beginning to rain. Well, it had been raining for several days, so actually it was restarting. As my daughter and I drove home, it began to pour. We parked, ran up the stairs to our little abode, and I soon started making dinner.

About an hour later, there was a knock at the door. There stood my son, looking like a drenched Labrador Retriever; his hoodie, jeans and shirt were soaked, and he was missing a tennis shoe. He had decided to walk home from my mother’s, and took a shortcut through the creek. He fell in, and the current was strong. He’d pulled himself up by grabbing onto a tree limb, but one of his black Converses had decided to go its own way.

I briefly lectured him about the strength of the currents (a few local people had recently drowned) and told him to go change clothes while I finished making dinner. Soon, he reappeared, dry and happy, and joined my daughter in the living room to play a video game.

Another knock on the door. This time it was two police officers, a man and a woman, rain-spattered official raincoats covering their uniforms. “Ma’am, we don’t mean to bother you, but we’re doing a door-to-door search of everyone in the area. You don’t have any teenaged boys who’ve been over by the park recently, do you?”

I kind of non-chalantly pointed to my son, and said, “I sure do.”

He looked at me incredulously. “Lady, don’t you watch T.V.?” I was confused. He asked if he could use my phone, and without waiting for an answer, came inside and called his boss. “You can call off the search–we found him,” the officer said. He asked for my son’s name, and gave his description and our address to the person on the other end of the phone. When he hung up, he proceeded to relay the following story:

A passing driver had seen my son fall into the creek, but didn’t see him emerge. The driver called 9-1-1, and thus began one of the biggest search-and-rescue missions in our town’s history. While my son was walking the short distance home, lamenting the loss of his shoe, newscasters were interrupting regularly scheduled programming to announce his possible drowning. Hundreds of people were dispatched from all of the local emergency agencies, including a special team of experts. It was the top story on the five-o’clock news. “We were trying to send out our new emergency helicopter, but the weather was too bad,” the policewoman told us.

The other officer asked my son, “What were you thinking, going through that creek to get home?” He almost made it sound accusatory, as though my son had stopped in the middle of an intense current in the middle of a storm to make a sinister drug deal on his way home from Grandma’s house.

My eldest offspring, in his usual communicative manner, just shrugged his shoulders. Knowing him as I do, this was a good enough answer for me. He really didn’t know. He just decided to do it. His heart’s as good as gold, but his brain works in mysterious ways sometimes.

I thanked the police officers and before they left, said, “If anyone comes across a black Converse tennis shoe…” I tried to ignore their angry glares.

The ten o’clock news announced that the Mystery Boy had been found. By this time everyone in town knew about this story. It made the front page of the newspaper the following morning, and my children were celebrities at their schools. All of the kids in town had been talking about it on the Internet. My daughter was thrilled because a teacher had bribed her with candy to get up in front of the class and regale her fellow students with the entire scoop.

The newspaper tried to slant their cover story to make it sound as though my son had been up to no good, which really infuriated him. But I tried to explain to him that they had to, because in actuality it was a huge non-story, “The Big Lebowski” of our town. Nothing had happened. He didn’t get washed away by the current. He didn’t drown. The candy got delivered. Hundreds of people had gathered to look for someone who wasn’t missing. I wanted to write a letter of thanks to the local paper for everyone’s concern and kindness, because if something had actually happened, it was good to know that they’d taken such quick action. I wanted to write this letter anonymously, knowing that we’d just wasted a whole lot of taxpayer dollars for nothing. The paper wouldn’t let me stay anonymous, and the Chief of Police advised me against ever using our names in association with this event. They’d even held a special meeting and changed their rules about releasing names to news organizations, in order to spare my family from the publicity and the possibility of angry throngs of citizens who’d be banging on my door with a battering ram, torches in hand, ready to run us out of town.

So my son was a big fish in a little pond for a moment there. A big, anonymous fish in a raging current. And we never did find that shoe. But he’s alive. Happy and healthy, and one of my greatest joys.

Somehow, I don’t think the kid in California is going to fare so well.

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14 thoughts on “The Saint Valentine’s Day Manhunt

  1. Brian says:

    What a story! I was riveted.

    I hope that the kid in California doesn’t get in too much trouble with the police or the public. I’m sure none of the resulting devastation was intentional.

    Brian, I can’t imagine how traumatized he and his family must be. The amount of loss and devastation caused by that little stunt is incomprehensible.

  2. narnie says:

    We had huge coverage of the fires on our news and the effect seemed to be devestating. All too often the consequences of a simple prank gone wrong has huge ramifications on others and there is no going back from it. We kids always played around building sites ignoring the warning signs. We soon stopped when Greg got his arm ripped off by a cement mixer. We were 9 years old. Ugh.

    The story of your son is so gentle and full of proud grins that it’s a joy to read. Lovely stuff.

    How horrific, Narnie. That must have permanently traumatized all of you– especially poor Greg. What a horrible story. We used to get into all sorts of things when we were kids too. I guess it’s just the luck of the draw on who gets through it safely.

    Thanks for your comments– I’m glad you stopped by.

  3. randomyriad says:

    Sometimes you just gotta wonder how people get to be so old when they where all teenagers once. I know I did some incredibly stupid life risking stuff for little or no reason, but here I am. My kids are mostly more sensible than I was, much to my relief. What a great story. Thanks.

  4. This story was bananas! I couldn’t stop smiling, and I actually laughed out loud. What a thing to be the center of. Such a great story, MB, and I’m glad you kept the newspaper clippings. Does he laugh about this now, or is he mortified?

  5. Little Miss says:

    Wow. In a twisted way – that is, my twisted sense of humor – that story is kinda funny. Makes me think of a bunch of Columbos running around. Or Keystone Cops. Or something. Glad he was okay and things didn’t turn out horrific.

    When I was a kid one of my brother’s friends died playing with matches. He blew up a gasoline can or something like that and died. I was about nine, I think. It was my first encounter with someone I knew dying, other than a pet dog.

    I pray for the poor child in California. Hopefully people will learn forgiveness. Kids don’t think things through. That’s a job requirement of being a kid, isn’t it? It’s completely tragic.

  6. CuriousC: Wow is right!

    RM: Not just teens, but early twenties! I was such a careless idiot until oh…wait a minute, um…last year, I think. My kids are smarter too. Even with that whole creek thing.

    LWB: After the shock wore off about how dangerous that water really was, I thought the whole thing was hilarious too. I was sending e-mails out to all of our friends and family, giving them daily updates on everything. The newspaper ran follow up non-stories for about a week after the original non-story.

    My son doesn’t laugh about it, and he isn’t mortified, either. He just shrugs. ;)

    Little Miss: It was very much like that. Not so much with the police, but with the newscasters. They were waiting for something much more interesting than what they got. It almost seemed as though we were letting them all down. And the police didn’t get to fly their big new helicopter, which I think was kind of sad.

    That story about your brother’s friend is horrible. As a parent, it shakes you, because you remember being a kid yourself. Looking back, you wonder how you made it through. We pulled some really dumb stunts when we were kids!

    I hope that child in CA is okay, and that he has some really good, strong parent.s


    I can’t decide how to do my comments– I mean, I don’t know if anyone can track comments if I answer directly on individual comment, or if it can even be read. If anyone knows, please tell me.

  7. K says:

    That was a fantastic story! I love “truth is stranger than fiction” tales and that was a doozie. :) Your son will be telling this one for many years to come, I’m sure — he’s just being modest now. :D

  8. Little Miss says:

    MB – with WordPress, there’s an option called “My Comments”. It shows all the comments I’ve posted on WordPress blogs and it shows follow-up comments, so when you post a folow-up reply, I see it as one of the many comments to the post. I see other people’s comments too without having to go to all the separate blogs to see them. And then, to reply to your reply (LOL) all I have to do is click “reply to thread” and it takes me right to your blog post. So either way you reply to comments works – at least for me. For me, it’s easiest to reply to people’s comments on my blog as an additional comment.

    Does that help?

  9. @ K: I think he will be telling it– or at least thinking about it for years to come. I’m going to have to ask him about what he thinks about this whole event from his current perspective as a twenty-one year old.

    @ Little Miss: Thanks for the information. I do use the “My Comments” feature, and what you’re saying makes sense. I think I prefer typing into each comment to answer, because A: I don’t miss responding to anyone, and B: I don’t have to keep scrolling up and down to read what I’m responding to. On the other hand, everyone is used to the “@ so-and-so” method, so maybe I’ll just stick with that.

  10. Alyson says:

    I keep going back and forth on the comment thing too.

    Very interesting story (or lack thereof).

  11. Brian says:

    re: Responding to comments

    I’ve tried several ways and have decided to go with the @John Doe method, unless I’m responding to a single comment.

    I actually asked about this on the WordPress support forum a while back and most of the people thought a separate comment would be more in order. Some said when they comment on a website and then return to look for an answer, they often glance at the “Recent Comments” in the sidebar to see if they got one. If you respond inside the comment, visitors can’t tell by looking at the comment widget.

    It’s all personal preference, I suppose. Some authors don’t respond to comments at all, but I like the interaction! :)

  12. Alyson: Thanks!

    Brian: Thanks for the information. I know this is all way off of the subject of the post, but I really appreciate knowing the preferred way of responding to comments. I like the interaction too!

  13. Update: I talked to my son last night, and told him that inquiring minds want to know how, looking back after almost seven years, he feels about this event. He said that he thought it was very funny at the time, and he thinks that it’s very funny now. My sentiments exactly.

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