I was a worry wart as a kid. I’m a worry wort as an adult, but I was a lot worse when I was much younger. “There’s a thunderstorm warning, which could lead to a tornado watch which could easily become a tornado warning…we’re all going to die tonight in our sleep”, I would usually start to cobble together in my large-ish head when the sky became a yellow-ish hue with a topping of carbon black. “Mom and dad are fighting over a game of Skipbo at 11:30pm on a Saturday night after one too many Strohs…my parents are getting divorced and I’ll be a latchkey kid”, I’d usually begin to assume whenever my parents argued. By morning I’d already have my multiple holidays figured out with each parent, widening the pit in my stomach even further(my parents are still
happily married to this day after nearly 51 years together.) “They said I could go blind if I did this too much…I can already notice my sight fading”….
Well, you get the point.
I don’t know if this worrying thing was implanted along with the pale Germanic appearance and eventual thinning of my hair at conception, but it’s embedded and as much a part of me as the freckles on my face and the hearing loss in my right ear. My mom is a worrier as well, so maybe she gave me some of that which she carries around. But I’m of the opinion that a lot of this worrying was something I developed as a kid growing up in the 80s. Sure, the great fear in the 80s was that we’d get into a nuclear pissing match with Russia and we’d all be cruising the open roads with Mad Max looking for gasoline and unopened cans of dog food. But number 2 on the list of ways children would die in the 80s was kidnapping and murder.
The 80s was full of these horrific stories of child abductions. Every other TV movie of the week was about child predators preying on children at the ball pit at Showbiz, or as they perused GI Joes or Barbie dolls at the local Kmart. Ever heard of Adam Walsh? This poor kid was the poster boy for NOT leaving your children unattended at the store(it was also another TV movie of the week that terrified me to no end.) Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted, and countless talk shows and magazine articles filled my elementary school-aged head with nightmarish tales of parents who’d lost their kids after turning away just a millisecond. By the time I was 8 years old I was convinced that every stranger looking my way was some mouth-breathing child predator monster looking to use my bones for game pieces. I trusted no one unless they were family, or were close family friends that knew who my favorite superhero was.
By all accounts the 80s were an incredibly dangerous time to be a young kid. I can remember countless times going into town with my parents and my dad pulling into the liquor store to grab beer before we headed home. They both would head into the liquor store and leave me defenseless, alone, and vulnerable to the miscreants of society in the backseat of the 1981 Omni Miser. The windows weren’t tinted. I was in there practically naked to the world, waiting for my horrific fate to befall me. Just as I thought the end was nigh, the front doors would open and in would pop my parents, handing me back a Slim Jim or piece of jerky as some sort of consolation prize.
There was also a time when I had gotten home from school and nobody was there. I was in the living room with a Capri Sun and a Nutty Bar when someone knocked on the door. I froze, but then quickly got up and looked through the peep hole. It was some stranger. Some guy looking kind of frumpy in a worn out winter jacket and a wool cap. I was instantly terrified. There was talk on the news of some guy trying to pick up kids in a town about 35 miles north of us. My mind instantly went there and assumed this frumpy guy was the creeper looking to grab kids(i.e., me.) I was as quiet as I could be and snuck into the hallway where I was at the only spot in the house where a window wouldn’t reveal my location. I made my way to my bedroom and creeped over to my window. There was the guy, seemingly looking for a window to peek in searching for some sign of life. I thought for sure he was going to try and open a window. I sat in the hallway waiting for the nightmare to end. Eventually the garage door went up and my parents returned home. I scolded them for leaving me all alone. I’m sure they both wondered what in the Hell was wrong with me. Looking back, this guy probably had car trouble and was looking for some help. These were the days before cell phones, so your only chance to contact a loved one in the event of an auto-emergency was with the kindness of strangers.
An anxiety-ridden 9-year old boy was not going to be that kind stranger, sorry to say.
There was the time my mom took me clothes shopping just before the start of 7th grade. I was convinced this guy was eyeing me in Sears and I figured he was going to try and nab me. He gave me a creepy look as my mom and I walked out of the store. I told her I was ready to go home, so the entire 45 minute drive home I had the front seat leaned all the way back so in case he was following us he wouldn’t see me in the car and follow us(I realize how absurd and neurotic that sounds.) It was an overwhelming fear. I let that fear ruin a stop at the record shop for the new David Lee Roth cassette and even a stop for some ice cream before leaving the mall. That anxiety of stranger danger beat out any need for dessert or Eat ‘Em And Smile.
The sad thing is that by today’s standards, the 80s were like the wild west for kids. Despite that fear of the creeper in the creeper van and the grocery aisle nabber, it was still a pretty freeing time to be a kid. I can remember going to my cousin’s house in the summer. He lived in town. Granted, it was a small town but it was still in town. We’d ride bikes all over the place and all day. We’d adventure out and about in the evening as well, hanging in parks and setting off “Works” bombs(yeah, we were idiots.) Then my best friend and I would hit the asphalt and head over to the small lake town of Oswego to the corner store and belly up to arcade games and gorge ourselves on candy and soda, not worried in the least about the freakazoid working behind the counter. Maybe it was just a matter of vulnerability that made it all so scary. Strength in numbers. Strength in stupidity. Maybe I was just a nervous kid with an overactive imagination. Maybe?
Fast forward to last night.
I’m driving my oldest over to her friend’s house where a bunch of her old school crew are getting together for snacks and a Disney movie. As we drove over my daughter’s phone rang. It was one of her best friends calling. She was at a local grocery store buying snacks for the night. She was scared because some guy in a wheelchair had cornered her in the store and wouldn’t let her leave. He initially asked her for money for a cab and she kindly(and naively) gave him $5 hoping he’d leave her alone. He then began talking about Jesus and how Jesus has affected him. He had her cornered for over 40 minutes when she called my daughter. We were on the way to the party when I changed gears and headed to the store. By the time we got there my daughter’s friend had made her way out and was in her car heading out of the parking lot. Apparently this guy had come out into the parking lot as she was leaving, made his way to a van(creeper van, I’m sure), and gotten in. He drove around the parking lot, parked, then got back out and into a wheelchair and made his way back into the store. No cab needed? My daughter’s friend was shook up but okay. She knew enough to call someone.
I may have been a paranoid, nervous kid growing up, but I think it served me well. I don’t think it’s any more dangerous now than it was when I was growing up. There’s just easier ways to get to kids now. Creeper vans have been upgraded to message boards and social media. The toy aisle and the walk home from school has been upgraded to coffeehouses and fake profiles. It’s good to raise your kids to be thoughtful, kind, and helpful human beings. But with just the right amount of trepidation, doubt, suspicion, and caution towards the “friendly stranger”, that can go a long way, too.
Just look at me. I’m doing great.