My 11-Year-Old Instincts Were Right

I just got an email from my mom. She was responding to my column in this week’s paper. I wrote about the time I was 11 years old and a man in a tan sedan pulled up to the curb close to where I was playing and motioned for me to get in his car. I ran home, told my mom, the man came to our door, said he was from the local paper and looking for paper delivery kids, she told him to go away, she called my dad, dad called the paper and then what I thought happened was that the paper said they’d talk to the man when he got back to work.

WRONG, said mom. The people at the paper informed my dad that they had no one in our area that day.

Holy shit. All those years I belittled myself for overreacting. All those years thinking I had no real reason to be afraid of that man in his car. And now I find out the bastard really actually might have wanted to hurt me? What if my mother hadn’t been home when he came to our door? My stomach is in a knot and I might lose my lunch in a minute.

While my stomach decides what it wants to do, I need to give myself some props. Good for me for running away. Good for me for listening to my instincts. Good for that 11-year-old scared girl who spent years frightened of strangers. Thirty one years later, I feel vindicated.

Mom didn’t know I didn’t know that. She didn’t know how scared I was for how long I was. I hid it all so well. Wow. All these years and she didn’t know.

Here’s this week’s column as it ran in the paper today:

I wasn’t afraid of much growing up in a small town in Minnesota. I walked alone to school, to piano lessons, and downtown to my dad’s grocery store. I fished alone at the creek, climbed trees, and sat on the fence of a nearby stable and talked to the horses and fed them sugar cubes. I had no reason to fear the world until an encounter with a man in a tan sedan.

One winter day, when I was 11 years old, I was building a snow fort on the corner near my house. I was on my knees, forming a large snow brick, when a car slowly drove around the corner and stopped. I looked up and the man inside motioned for me to come to his car, his finger curling and uncurling slowly, then he leaned over the bench seat and reached for the door handle. I stood up as fast as I could and started running home. But it’s hard to run in snowmobile boots, a parka, and snow pants. I felt smothered, like I was drowning, fighting against water to get to the surface to breathe. My legs were weak and bogged down, my arms felt rigid at my sides. I saw our house just yards away yet it seemed like a mile because I was so afraid the man was running after me. I was screaming for my mother, but no words came out of my mouth.

We were not to use the front door in the winter and it was always locked, but it was the closest door of our house. I rang the doorbell over and over and pounded on the door. When Mom opened the door, I fell inside, crying.

“What happened?” she asked.

I looked out the window and saw the man drive his car slowly down the street and park a few houses up.

“That man wanted me to get in his car!” I cried, coughing and gulping in air and snot.

“What man?” she asked.

“Him!”

He was out of his car and walking slowly toward our house. He was 30ish, a bit unkempt, and had dark hair and a mustache.

Mom, mad as hell, told me to go to the living room, and she confronted the man outside. He said he was from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader newspaper and was recruiting kids for local paper routes.

“You recruit them by scaring them?” she asked. “Go away! She’s not interested.”

She called my dad at the store and told him what happened. Dad called the paper and reported what the man had done. All they said was that the recruiter shouldn’t have used that tactic and that they’d “talk” to him when he got back.

I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d have gone to his car, and some people might think I overreacted by becoming so frightened so fast. I still question it myself sometimes. But something deep inside told me to run away. Instinct, I suppose. Either way, in the end, that short, frightening encounter left me fearful and suspicious for years. I was afraid to walk anywhere alone, and when I did, and I heard a car behind me or saw one approach me, I would hide behind a tree or walk to the back of the nearest house until it passed. I didn’t go fishing alone or climb trees alone or visit the horses alone again. The worst part is that I didn’t talk to anyone about my fears. I felt like I was acting like a big baby. I didn’t know that I was truly traumatized and needed to talk it out with someone, anyone. Instead, I kept it inside and spent years hiding from strangers.

This fear got under my skin, embedded itself in my mind, always uncomfortable, always leaving me feeling smothered, drowning, the same way I felt running away from the man in the tan sedan. It was very difficult to not pass on this fear to my children, to allow them to walk places alone or ride their bikes alone or to play outside alone.

I hadn’t felt that fear in a long time until I saw the video of Cho Seung-Hui pointing a gun at the camera, his cold, hateful face a hundred times worse than the man in the tan sedan. While he inflicted horrendous and inexcusable damage to Virginia Tech students and teachers, he also came out of nowhere and frightened us as a nation, too.

We could hide from our fear, deny it the same way I did as a child. We could allow our fear to restrict our rights, in the same way I wanted to restrict my children’s freedoms. My hope is for a national dialogue that motivates us to think deeply, demand answers and enact real change that can help keep us safer from individuals like Cho, and not imprisoned, suffocated and drowning in fear. We must put our fear into perspective and not start a knee-jerk chain reaction of finger pointing, false blame, and Patriot Act-like restrictions that deepen our paranoia.

The man in the tan sedan can be anywhere. How will we choose to face him?

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2 thoughts on “My 11-Year-Old Instincts Were Right

  1. Gavin De Becker wrote “Protecting the Gift.” (The gift being our radar.) Laureen told me about this book, and it’s a gem. You knew, and you didn’t doubt yourself in that moment. De Becker would be proud. love, V

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