When I was a kid growing up in the ’80s, I was terrified of ending up on the back of a milk carton. My mother did an excellent job of instilling this fear in me.
Parenting was a little different back then.
We did live in a small town, but as young as 7 or 8, I was free to roam the neighborhood or ride my bike as long as I didn’t go on the only two busy streets in my hometown.
“Just be back home by dark!”
But even though I had more freedom than my own kids have ever had, it was crucial for me to be mindful of kidnappers and their scary kidnapper vans (especially the ones with curtains). And really any beat-up, old car driven by a man with a look of evil and/or lust in his eyes. Which was just about all of them.
He might look very scraggly or very normal. There was really no way to tell. As my mother said many times as I was growing up, “Just remember Ted Bundy was very good looking. ” And he drove a cute, little VW bug too!
Every time we would watch “America’s Most Wanted” with John Walsh, my mother would say, “It’s just horrible what happened to that poor man’s son.”
And then she would tell me exactly what did happen and how his son was found. And it was truly horrible, and I have never forgotten it.
“I wouldn’t be able to live another day if that ever happened to you,” she would say. “You can never, ever, ever get into anyone’s car. They may try to use puppies or candy to lure you. And if anyone ever tries to grab you, you scream and flail your arms and try to run away as fast as you can.”
I guess everyone was sort of terrified of this back then. At least the milk-carton paranoia was widespread enough that the local police department offered a service where they would fingerprint kids, you know, just in case they went missing. My mom took me to have it done.
I guess it was supposed to work something like this: Perhaps your kidnapper would take you to the Five & Dime for some post-snatching toys to calm you down. A suspicious clerk with good intuition would feel something was just off about the situation and call the police with a description. They would come take the prints off the bubble gum machine the clerk was certain you had touched and your parents would run down with your prints to see if it was a match. If it was, the police would have a solid lead. If not, call the dairy company!
I don’t know. I don’t remember feeling like this was a strange practice at the time. It was before DNA or Amber alerts, so I guess it was just the thing to do. But when I think about it now, it seems really weird.
My mom had also read some article or watched something on TV warning that kidnappers would tell children that their parents had sent for them, and they were going to take the child back to the parents wherever they happened to be. Sometimes these devious criminals would even say the parents were in the hospital. (Did they learn this technique from some sort of kidnapper newsletter?)
This article or program suggested parents should come up with a password to share with their child. That way, if a stranger told you some story, you could ask them the password and if they didn’t know it, you would not go with them under any circumstance. Period.
My mother and I, of course, had this system in place. And there was only one time I employed it. It was when I accompanied her to a summer convention for her work. I was waiting for her in the hotel lobby when one of her bosses came up and very kindly said, “Oh, hey Ashley, your mom’s just getting out of a meeting, I’ll take you to her.” And he motioned for me to follow him. I didn’t know this particular boss of hers very well, and this seemed like exactly the moment we had been training for, so I blurted out nervously, “I can’t go with you unless you know the password.”
He did not, and I did not follow him. He went and told my mother what had happened. She came and got me and was just mortified. “I can’t believe you asked my boss for the password,” she said. “He is just so embarrassed by this, Ashley. You are only supposed to use it on strangers!”
I said something about not really knowing him and being sorry. She said it was OK and I did what I was supposed to do, but I could tell she was still not happy with me. I was embarrassed every time I saw him again until he finally retired. And needless to say, the password system was never used again.
With a healthy and robust fear of vans and strangers and apparently even people I sort of knew, I managed to never end up on the back of a milk carton. But like most parents, I am terrified something awful will happen to my own kids, and I have given them the whole “stranger danger” lecture just as my mom did to me.
The first time I let my son walk our dog around our neighborhood on his own (which was about the same age I was allowed to go anywhere), I was fine with it … at first.
I was getting ready for work, but as I was putting on my makeup, terrifying images of kidnapper vans and our dog running back up to the house with her leash still around her neck but without my son started popping in my head. I hurried outside to check on him. And he was fine. But my heart was still racing.
Unfortunately, in this day and age of parenting, we don’t have to worry just about the kidnappers in creepy vans, but also the horrible people who are lurking online who want to harm our children. Actually, the latter is far more of a threat these days. And it can happen under our own roofs while our children are just a few feet away.
After reading last week’s installment of Lynn Oldshue’s terrific-but-terrifying series in Lagniappe on human trafficking in South Alabama, I felt like my mother must have after watching “America’s Most Wanted.”
Lynn’s story recounted a 13-year-old Fairhope girl who was preyed upon via Instagram on her school-issued computer by a convicted sex offender from Mississippi who corresponded with her for several weeks before setting up a meeting with her at the Fairhope Public Library, where he promised to “jump her bones” and touch her in inappropriate places.
If that doesn’t send shivers down your spine, I don’t know what will.
Thankfully, her mom found this out before the meeting and called police, who, along with the FBI, met and arrested the man instead. Police say they found materials in his truck that could have been used to dispose of a body.
With this in mind, I immediately went to my kids and tried to terrify them as much as possible.
“Don’t talk to ANYONE online, ever, but just in case you do, even if you think they are a kid your age who wants to talk about “Fortnite” or whatever, just know it’s probably a nasty old man who is just trying to be your friend so he can come get you and hurt you and kill you. So just don’t talk to anyone at all. EVER! Do you understand me?”
They nodded. And looked sufficiently scared. But I am still considering just throwing their devices — the creepy van full of candy and puppies of our kids’ time — in Mobile Bay.
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