It was probably an 8-10 block walk from my home to school when I was in kindergarten and first grade. I don’t recall ever having to walk to school, but I was under instructions from my mother that I was to start walking toward home when school was out. She would watch for me along the designated sidewalks and pick me up for the ride home.
I was operating under two rules. First, I was never to get into the car of someone I didn’t know. Second, I was never to turn around and walk back once I got started. I’m not sure why that second rule was important but I didn’t ask questions in those days. I just did as I was told.
Our school had kids from kindergarten through the eighth grade in it so you can imagine the chaos that ensued when classes were dismissed at the end of the day. Scared the bejeebers out of me as those big kids ran down the staircases from the upper floors and didn’t stop at each landing. They just kept going. As a kindergartener it wasn’t such a big deal because I attended school in the morning and got to go home at noon. But as a first grader I was just thrown in with the madding hoards always doing my best to get to a banister and hang on tightly as I made my way down one flight of stairs and out the door.
I didn’t have any siblings in the school. The only older kids I knew were our back door neighbors, the youngest of whom was two years older than I. Roger always kind of looked out for me at home and we often played baseball together in our family’s big yard. I have fond memories of Roger in those days and I have no idea where he might be today.
One day when school was dismissed, the city was in the midst of a huge rainstorm. I had no umbrella or rain apparel and Mom was nowhere in sight. But I knew I was supposed to just start walking regardless. I had maybe gotten about 25 feet down the street and I heard Roger calling to me. His mom was there to pick up her kids and they were inviting me to get a ride home with them. It was a simple and kind gesture. Mrs. Mcpeak was a nice lady. But there I was already a few feet down the street with my mother’s words echoing in my head, “Don’t go back.” I paused briefly and looked to see if I could see her car – it was unmistakable: a ’49 Ford, big and black – but she wasn’t in sight. By this time I was drenched and Mrs. Mcpeak got out of her own car to come get me. When I said I would get in trouble, she said, “Gretchen, come with us and get dry. I can talk to your mother when she gets back home if we don’t get there before she leaves.”
So I climbed in with the Mcpeak family and headed home. Sure enough, we got there and Mom was gone so I just went to their house and waited. And waited. I knew Mom was searching for me. And I knew I was going to be in trouble.
I was right. I caught holy heck when she got home and I called her from the Mcpeak’s to let her know what had happened. Mrs. Mcpeak got on the line to offer her own explanation. But it was to no avail. I have in my head the sounds that adults make in the Peanuts and Charlie Brown cartoons but this time it was my mother’s voice yelling at Mrs. Mcpeak.
Never mind that I was soaking wet because she wasn’t there on time. I broke a rule. And I got a spanking for it.
There’s an old song we used to sing (and it was written early in the 20th century) that went something like:
School days, school days,
Dear old Golden Rules days.
Reading, and ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick. (Edwards & Cobb, 1907)
Corporal punishment was perfectly acceptable. And I came under the back of a hairbrush on more than this one occasion.
So on a bright sunny day when I was making my way home in the first grade, a spanking became again foremost in my mind when a strange car pulled up along the sidewalk where I was walking. I was blocks away from the school by this time and there weren’t any other kids around. Mom hadn’t shown up either.
The woman driver leaned across the front seat and rolled down her window. I stopped because she clearly wanted to talk to me. She said, “Come on. Get in. I’ll give you a ride.”
I looked down the street and back at her and I said (kinda hollered really, because the sidewalk was at a higher grade than the street), “I’m not supposed to take rides from people I don’t know.” Ever polite, I do remember thanking her for the offer.
I don’t remember her car or what she looked like, but I do remember that she kept looking over her right shoulder, I assume to see what cars might be approaching.
She said, “Come on. It’s hot. I’ll give you a ride home.”
I replied, “My mom is coming to get me.”
She said, “Your mom told me she was busy and asked me to pick you up.”
This was odd, I thought. I hadn’t ever seen this lady before. And she didn’t call me by name. Again she looked over her shoulder.
“Come on. Hurry and get in!” she said.
“I better wait for my mother,” I said. “I’m not supposed to get into a car with strangers.”
She looked over her shoulder again, stepped on the gas and she was gone.
Now, even as a first grader, something didn’t feel right. I wasn’t sure what to do but I knew I wanted to get off that street in case she came back. But I also had my designated route home and I was not to divert from it. I was still several blocks from home.
The only family I knew even a little bit lived a block and a half ahead, but not on my route. I picked up my pace and when I got to the corner where I would turn right and cross the street toward home, I looked around to see if that lady was coming back. I was scared. So I made a snap decision to make a left turn and I turned my walk into a run, straight up that steep hill and almost collapsing on the front porch of the home of the family I knew. I knocked on the door. I wasn’t going to feel safe until I was inside a home of people I knew even vaguely. I didn’t think they were ever going to answer, but they did. I explained what happened and they let me inside immediately.
Of course, when I called home, Mom wasn’t there because she was in the car looking for me. It took a long time before she answered and when she did, she was spitting mad. I’m not sure she even heard my explanation. As I recall, she told me to just get back out there on the street and walk the rest of the way home because she wasn’t going to come back and get me.
So I did. And I made it home safely.
But I’ve never forgotten.
There were no Amber Alerts in 1958. No pictures of missing children on milk cartons. No such thing as a cell phone.
And as I read again this week of a mother who was arrested for allowing her child to walk to a neighborhood park, it reminded me again of what could only have been a very close call for me.
I’ve pondered again about what would have become of that little girl had I gotten into that car or was forced into it. And had I lived, would I be alive today to tell the story? What would I be like?
The irony, of course, is that while I was ever cautious of strangers wanting to pick me up, after I mastered my bicycle I rode it all over the city of 70,000 people. I walked to the public bus stop and rode the bus downtown to the public library and back on a regular basis. That one incident that day didn’t stop me from going where I wanted to go.
But I always knew that if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be when Mom came looking, I was facing the back of a hairbrush on my bare bottom.
I think now that maybe Mom was the one who should have gotten a taste of corporal punishment. And, yet, she was a product of her own times and experience. She did try to keep me on the beaten path – even when it turned out to be unsafe.
O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might
to all the generations to come.
Your power and your righteousness, O God,
reach the high heavens.
You who have done great things,
O God, who is like you? – Psalm 71:17-19