Snow day: A gift from the childhood gods. Our expansive front yard, the hillocks facing Lime Kiln Road and the neighboring cornfield were carpeted in a blinding white sheen. We woke up that morning to the sight of it—the gods must have worked all night—and heard our school’s name on the kitchen radio.
It’s winter in Maryland, where snow days were no endangered species. So my brother Aaron and I, ages 8 and 6 respectively, knew the routine well. We bundled up in snow pants, taped produce bags around our boots, and put on the jackets with whale tail-shaped hoods that zipped closed to create cover. We stomped outside, leaving small concave ovals where our feet had been.
This snow day was no different. We bundled, we stomped. On this particular morning, I wandered around to the back yard, aimless, clueless. Aaron stayed in the front yard. He was the big brother, which made him less aimless, less clueless.
That’s when Aaron saw the rusted-out cargo van hustle down Lime Kiln Road. It cut a hard right turn into our driveway. The snow, the ice, made it such that the van could not stop gracefully, but slid violently into the yard. The side door cracked open.
It is not unusual for the National Center for Missing or Exploited Children (NCMEC) to send out a tip sheet at the beginning of the school year, i.e. right now. Like it has in years past, the tip sheet highlights ways to help kids avoid abduction: Never take short cuts to or from school. Stay with a group while standing at the school bus. If anyone should try to take them somewhere, your child should resist (in the tip sheet, RESIST is in big bold black caps) by kicking, screaming and yelling. I am the father of two boys who go to school, who ride a bus, so this information is relevant to me. But it’s a statistic in the tip sheet that really catches my attention, and reminds me of something I hadn’t thought about for some time.
The man barreled through the van’s side door, and headed directly for my brother. Aaron stumbed back, startled. He turned and ran. He tried his hardest, but felt slow, sluggish. The boots, the jacket, the foot of fresh snow. It was like running in a dream. Stride by stride, the little legs were losing to the big legs. The man was only three steps behind when Aaron reached the front door. He slipped inside and turned the lock. Through the front window Aaron saw the man, and the van still parked in the front yard. That’s when he realized. Shawn.
The statistic I’m referring to comes from a new NCMEC study that analyzed more than 7,000 attempted (read as: unsuccessful) abductions over the past seven years. It found that children escape abductions 81 percent of the time through their own means: 53 percent ran or walked away from the suspect, and 28 percent yelled, kicked or pulled away. (Like this girl did.) Less than one in five attempts are broken up by a nearby parent, adult or good Samaritan. The kids—the kids—were their own best defense.
I couldn’t help but think about my brother, and how he saved us from Who Knows What. Earlier today, I asked him if he could recount the events of that day. He said sure. He remembers it vividly, he tells me.
Aaron runs through the kitchen, through the laundry room, to the back porch. Shawn, he yells. Nothing. There is no sight of me. There is no sight of the man. Heart racing. The taste of aluminum in his mouth from the adrenalin. He yells again. Shawn! My head pops up from behind a snow pile. Aaron doesn’t want to scare me, so he keeps the rhetoric calm. Come inside, he says. Why, I say. Let’s play in the house for now, he says. I listen, and follow him inside.
Aaron returns to the front window. He sees the van, still in the yard. It’s stuck. Wheels spinning. Slush flying. The cough of exhaust. Finally, its treads find a grip, and the rusted-out cargo van pulls out onto Lime Kiln Road.
My mother walks out shortly thereafter. She’s been in the back office working, with no idea of what’s happened. She sees us pulling off our boots and jackets. This is a cute moment, she thinks, I’m going to grab the camera.
The NCMEC can tell you too many things about the nature of abduction. Preteen and teenage girls are the most common targets. The most common time of day is between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. And most often, the suspect is someone you know. Of the 797,500 children that were reported missing last year, only 115 were the victims of a “stereotypical” kidnapping: someone the child does not know who holds them overnight, demands ransom or intends to keep the child permanently. That means .00014 percent of all kidnappings are like the ones in movies and TV shows.
Ten years ago, my mother was going through boxes in my brother’s room, and found his college essay. It asked: Name the three most meaningful events in your life. The attempted kidnapping was one of them. All the details were there. Our family home on Lime Kiln Road. The rusted-out cargo van. My mom freezes. Disbelief. Tears. She knows that van. She can’t believe it was him. She can’t believe it was family.
It’s hard enough being a kid. And for too many of them, they have the added responsibility of fighting off us, the adults, the grown-ups, imposing giants who loom over them like oaks. If they’re lucky or smart or fast or all of the above, like my brother was, they get away. But then what? What does something like that do to a kid?
“For years, we were exactly the same. Happy, silly, no worries,” Aaron says. “But that event changed everything for me. For years, I wouldn’t take my eyes off you. At malls, grocery stores. I never lost sight of you. I became paranoid and nervous. That event instantly shot me with the realization that there were bad people. I guess you could say I lost my childhood innocence after that. It made me weary of the world.”
Aaron carried this alone for decades. To this day, he has only shared the story with three people. Sadly, this is no surprise. When events like this happen in real life or online, approximately 60 percent don’t tell their parents.
I have to talk to my boys, ages 8 and 6 respectively, without taking their childhood innocence or making them weary of the world. I need to teach my boys that they are their own best defense. They need to tell me when something seems strange or wrong, no matter who it is making them feel that way. We all have to do this. Eight hundred thousand gone in just one year.
Today, that family member is still alive. He has been saved, found Jesus, the ultimate reset button. We have seen him at weddings and funerals. We have talked to him, even laughed with him. Does he even know what he did? Or why he did it?
Today, there is a photo album back home in Maryland. In it, there is a picture of my brother and I. We are taking off our winter boots and jackets. Aaron looks at the camera, half a grin on his face. He had just saved his life, my life, like the thousands of other children who fought, kicked, screamed and got away. He is a hero, my hero, but in the picture, he is just a sweet boy at home on a snow day.