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.