It doesn’t often happen, but when I hear a news story or get an Amber Alert on my phone about child abduction by a parent, grandparent, or even more terrifying — a stranger — and I immediately feel my pulse begin to race.
Most recently, it was the story of a 3-year old in Northern California, who was abducted at the playground while with her grandfather, that sent chills down my spine.
“There was basically a tug-of-war over the granddaughter,” Sgt. Gary Hopping of the Auburn Police Department told The Washington Post.
While the details of this particular story — a tug of war between the kidnapper and the grandfather — are horrific, it’s hard to truly understand how genuinely terrified this child was during this chaotic experience.
But, as a child survivor of stranger abduction, I understand.
As a fourth-grader at Del Cerro Elementary School, I loved three things: my teacher Mrs. Goddickson, reading, and tetherball. One day during recess, a man walked onto our quad, up to our tetherball match, and just stared at us.
One of the kids ran and told the teacher on recess duty about the stranger. We’d been warned about strangers since kindergarten, and now it was happening on our playground.
Suddenly, this stranger grabs me like a sack of potatoes, his hand between my legs and onto my chest, and starts running towards the open field behind our school.
The other kids started screaming, and one of the male teachers began running after him. I was terrified beyond belief. I remember my heart beating so fast. I had no idea what was happening. It was, in every sense of the word, an “out of body” experience.
Just as the kidnapper ran onto the field, one of the teachers grabbed my leg and tried to pull me loose. The kidnapper stopped, reached back, and elbowed the teacher in the face. The teacher fell to the ground, disoriented and bloody from the blow.
Meanwhile, the kidnapper paused, pulled me closer into his body, his hand still through my legs, and my side tucked into his armpit. He held my other shoulder down and continued running.
At the end of the field, there was a steep slope that backed up to a cul-de-sac and the freeway. As he headed up the hill, still carrying me tightly under his arm, my weight shifted, and I finally was able to look up and see the bouncing silhouette of his profile. While I couldn’t see his face, I could feel his anger.
From the moment he grabbed me on the playground, time and sound stopped. Everything seemed frozen and confusing. As we headed towards the slope, I suddenly could hear Ms. Goddickson calling my name, along with the other kids screaming and crying.
Hearing her voice was like waking up from a dream, and suddenly I comprehended, the best an 8-year old can, what was happening.
Just as he got to the top of the hill, I could see his waiting car, the door open, with both rope and a bag on the passenger’s car seat. I knew from all our “stranger danger” training at school that this was a bad situation. I started to punch, kick, and scream. I knew I couldn’t get in that car.
Suddenly I heard the police pull up in the cul-de-sac. One officer ran down the slope, where a tug-of-war ensued until the police officer was able to forcibly snatch me away from my kidnapper.
The other police began appearing at both the top and bottom of the hill, wrestled the man to the ground, cuffed him, and, just as suddenly as it started, it was over.
As the police officer carried me up the hill, I started to look back at the kidnapper. To this day, I’m still amazed that he had the foresight to turn my head away and tell me, “Don’t look at his face.” I’m forever thankful that I don’t have a clear image of this man’s face burned into my memory.
After they took the man away, the policeman who had rescued me, stood between the kidnapper’s open car door and me, brushed me off, patted me on my shoulders, looked me right in the eye, and told me I was going to be okay.
We got in his patrol car, headed for the school office where the principal, more police, and my teacher, Ms. Goddickson, were waiting for me. I answered a few questions and then, remarkably, sent back to class. Back to California history and other school stuff until the bell rang, and it was time to go home. Every kid in the class saw what happened to me, but nobody talked about it or asked how I was doing. Nothing but awkward silence.
I walked home with my friends and when I got home my mom asked, “How was school today? Anything interesting happen?”
Nobody called my parents to tell them that I was kidnapped at school that day. Not the school. Not the police. It was 1970-something, so all’s well that ended well. However, once I finally and quietly spilled the details of my abduction to my shocked mom and dad over dinner, there were some rapidly placed phone calls to the school.
News reports of other kids being kidnapped, make the memory of my kidnapping bubble up, but for the most part, it has stayed in the past — where it belongs. That said, from that moment forward, it fundamentally changed me.
To this day, I’m still wary of “strangers” — from the Starbucks barista to new work colleagues — it takes time for me to feel safe and extend my trust to people who have proven themselves to be trustworthy.
However the older I get, the more I read and hear about how these types of stories end, I realize how incredibly lucky I was to have those cops standing at the top of that hill to rescue the quiet, shy boy who just wanted to play tetherball.