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Thoughts on Amber Alerts

Central Virginia, 1981, I rode shotgun-once-removed. JD sat in the front passenger seat due to his status as the driver’s roommate, I tucked in behind him for our three-hour trip. Scott drove us home for winter break. Scott, or Checks as we called him based on his propensity to bounce them, only stuck around that one year. He fell into a serious relationship his first week of college. It ended abruptly in early Spring when his girlfriend left him for the guy in the next dorm room. Scott broke down in a spectacular fashion. He drank into blackouts, smashed furniture and his closet doors, and wandered our dormitory floor in his bathrobe screaming for Mary to show her “whoring face.”

But this was only Christmastime, and Scott was still relatively sane. I sat lonely in the backseat, unable to hear the conversation above the blaring stereo. I stared out the side window assessing the rundown businesses and the drivers in the cars we passed. As we neared Charlottesville, I saw a Cadillac preparing to make a right turn two lanes over. A couple in their seventies, gray, stooped and wrinkled, sat in the front seat. A young man sat behind them, his arms propped up on the bench seat before him. He held a gun.

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This was more than a decade before I would own my first cell phone. I doubted my eyes even though I knew I saw an abduction. Unsure what was true, unsure what I would say if I even found a police officer, I said nothing. Not to JD and Scott, not to the cashier at the McDonalds we stopped at a short time later. Not even to my parents when I got home. This might be the first time I’ve ever brought it up.

~ ~ ~

On Sunday, Susan and I made the nine-hour trek home after visiting Sophie in Burlington, Vermont. The weather was beautiful, traffic was light, and we made it home on one tank of gas. A smooth trip. I shouldn’t complain, but, man, nine hours! It’s a rough drive even in the best conditions.

When we hit New York, every thirty miles or so, we saw an electronic sign reading Amber Alert – Call 511 for Info. After more than two hours of this, I turned to Susan and asked “Do you think these signs do any good?” I envisioned bored travelers being told by a recording to keep an eye out for a silver sedan or a black SUV or some other generic car description that someone might see every ninety seconds if they’re paying attention.

It seemed unlikely that someone would dial 511 and then see the car in question, assuming anyone even got a look at the car when the abduction occurred. Later that evening, I googled Amber Alerts. In the twenty-seven years since the program’s inception, 1,127 children have been rescued as a result of the Amber Alert system, an average of forty-two kids a year. Forty-two of the two hundred thousand children abducted annually. I started to wonder if it’s even worth it. But as a parent, I know when it’s your kid who’s rescued, of course it’s worth it.

It wasn’t until Monday morning that I learned that a nine-year-old girl was snatched off her bike in a New York state park. This hit home. My kids rode their bikes alone around our block when they were nine. When I was a kid, my bicycle meant freedom. As soon as I could ride, I had free reign over my neighborhood. So long as I didn’t cross Greentree Road, I could go anywhere I wanted. As I stepped out the front door, I could just catch my mother’s trailing voice. “Have fun, be home by dinner.” Did children even get abducted in the sixties?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the chaos of the morning bus stop in front of my house. This morning, the bus stop was in full action as I left for work. Eight or more kids played on bikes and scooters. Moms and dads rocked younger siblings in strollers and circled close to talk. The guy who drives his son to the bus stop every morning always opens his hatchback and sits on the tailgate. He’s an older dad, almost my age. He gave me a knowing wave when he saw me leaving my house.

After I drove off, I realized I forgot my coffee. I headed back home on a different road imagining the silent gibes I’d endure as I popped back into my house to grab my cup. That’s when I saw her. A tiny girl, five years old? Certainly not more than that. Five is when kids start taking the bus in my neighborhood. She looked more like an oversized doll than a child. Her long blonde hair and frilly dress reminiscent of the doll collection my mother-in-law creepily organized in her attic. The girl leaned against a stop sign on a street corner, no one in sight in any direction. She was so small, you could pluck her off her feet with one hand without breaking stride.

I almost stopped to grill her: Where do you live? Are your parents home? Are you the only kid who comes to this bus stop? Like the parents in front of my house, I always accompanied my kids to the bus stop. First because I felt they needed an adult present, and later because I liked to hang out with them. This girl, I thought, shouldn’t place herself predictably and alone on a quiet street corner daily.

Now my question is what do I do about it? Do I embroil myself in the next national debate over whether a school age kid should walk to the bus stop alone? The easiest thing for me to do is nothing. Nothing like I did forty-two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nothing because she’s not my kid and her parents have already determined what’s right for their child—just like I did when I let my kids ride their bikes around the block. Or do I seek out her parents and let them know my concern? I’m hesitant to even approach this girl standing by herself to find out where she lives. The best outcome I see is an argument and an admonishment to stay in my lane. If I let my mind run wild, the other scenarios I imagine involve violence.

What would you do?

Jeff Cann lives, works, and writes in Gettysburg Pennsylvania. His essays and stories have appeared in Like the Wind magazine, the Good Men Project, and other websites exploring mental health, running and culture. His two books, Fragments: a Memoir and Bad Ass - My Quest to Become a Back Woods Trail Runner (and other obsessive goals) can be purchased from Amazon.

Jeff is married with two adult children. When he isn’t working or writing, he can be found biking or running the roads and wooded trails surrounding Gettysburg, trudging to and from work with his Spotify playlist cranked to eleven, or reading novels and biographical essays. Additional essays and stories can be found at www.jefftcann.com.

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Fran K. Ingram
Fran K. Ingram
6 months ago

Being a good Samaritan always comes with a price. Sometimes it is your time or risk of being misjudged by others. No matter the benefit is peace of mind that you TRIED your best. I was at a shopping center and was in a rush to get home on a very hot, humid day. I noticed people walking by this car, stopping as if in deep thought, and then continuing on. I thought it may have been a dog in the car. As I approached, I saw a frail lady sitting in the front seat of a very hot car.… Read more »

Mary Diner
Mary Diner
6 months ago

I believe I would have parked my car within sight distance of the little girl and watch to be sure she safely got on the bus. You don’t know her circumstances…perhaps a harried mom was watching from her window as she was trying to corral two toddlers (one feverish and vomiting) and picking which were the least bad of the choices before her. I have been there, having too few hands in that before-school rush. Afterward, it still bugging me, I would have called the school and let them know the place and time — most have rules against children… Read more »

Jeff Cann
6 months ago
Reply to  Mary Diner

Mary, checking in with the school is an excellent idea.

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