The would-be kidnappings I escaped

REPOST NOTE: All the buzz about the t.v. series In Plain Sight had been confusing me, because I thought it was the same NBC special about Jaycee Dugard’s kidnapping and that was definitely not new. But I felt uneasy every time I saw it mentioned. Anyway, I had recently been thinking about this and found an old post from a few years ago and figured I’d repost it for #TBT.

[November 2009] I just finished watching Oprah’s show on kidnappings.  A week or two ago I sort of watched the NBC special on the Phillip Garrido “In Plain Sight”. I say “sort of watched”, because I couldn’t really stomach it except in small chunks and so I kept flipping channels. I kept coming back to it, because it is gruesomely compelling. I was almost kidnapped twice, once when I was six or seven in Sacramento (1977) and once when I was eight in Reno (1979). I outsmarted the kidnapper in Sacramento. He underestimated me because I was so young and I figured out how to keep him talking until I could run away. Thank goodness he didn’t grab me, and thank the powers-that-be that he’d used a stupid tactic to try to lure me to go with him to his “house”. Otherwise, I doubt I would have made it. The second one, I spotted, recognized as a threat and ran like hell, but not before he tried to grab us (I was with a friend).

Over the years I’ve been haunted by the way these men looked. Partly because I can’t shake the feeling that they looked so similar as to have been the same person. But that defies any rational explanation, so I chalk it up to the faulty nature of childhood memories. And I do recognize that my memories probably are faulty, regardless of how clearly I can see the first man crossing the street and waving me down, calling me by the wrong name, correcting himself and apologizing in this fake, nervous way that sent hackles up my spine when I told him that wasn’t my name. “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s my niece’s name, you look so much like her. What’s your name honey?” I lied and gave him a made-up name and he quickly took hold of that name like a life-preserver and said that’s what he’d meant to say. “That’s right, that’s right. Well look honey, I work with your mom and she got real sick at work and my place was closer so she’s at my house and asked me to come get you at school and bring you back there. I was late though, so I’m glad I found you in time.”

My mother wasn’t working, and I think she was on welfare at the time, so any credibility he could have held was totally gone. I calmly said, “Well, I’m not allowed to go anywhere with strangers and she’d get mad at me if I did.” I can remember the quick decision I made to walk one way instead of the other, feeling it would be safer, that he wouldn’t be able to just grab me because there were more people around if I called for help. So I crossed the street and was leading him, while going the general direction he’d indicated his “home” was at, but letting him think I was following him. He continued to try to convince me, while we walked. In reality there weren’t very many people around, so I was scared no one would hear me, and quickly abandoned any idea of running or calling for help. “Where did you say you lived,” I asked him. “On 55th just near the dead end,” he said, clearly thinking I was following him there. But, I lived on 54th, a block away, why would mom go a block away from home if she were sick?

“I know,” I said, “we live nearby, I’ll go home and you have mom call me and tell me it’s ok and I’ll come right over.” My whole thought process seems crystal clear to me, including thinking that he was stupid and if I could just keep him talking I’d figure out how to get away. When we got to the point where he had to go left to get to his “house”, I told him to hurry home to have my mom call me and I’d run right in the house and wait for her to call. He reluctantly agreed, and I went a few steps down what I’d led him to believe was the way to my house and I pretended to go into the closest gate and hid; waiting to hear him walk away. As soon as I was sure he was gone I took off and ran home – which was very close by – to find my mom watering the front lawn. “Mama, mama, this man tried to kidnap me!” I remember yelling. I remember seeing her with so much relief. I remember her confusion as she tried to make out what I was saying, but I know that all of these memories could be tricks of my mind. That it happened, and that I outsmarted him, I am 100% certain, but what details are real?

I can remember being in the squad car, after I’d told mom what had happened and she’d called the police. All the controls and radios and things in the car were alien and looked like something from a space ship to me. Since Star Wars was still fresh, I was more excited about being in the squad car than consciously aware of being freaked out about having escaped …. what? My six year old mind couldn’t really comprehend what I might have escaped, it was just something really bad. That I knew. I also remember the next day being called into the principle’s office and thinking with mild outrage that I’d done nothing wrong so why did I have to go to the principle’s office? I don’t remember now, but I think it was probably to ask me questions, probably a therapist or someone to talk to me. There were more than two people besides the principle in the office and I do remember thinking that they were more “official” than the principle because of the way he acted around them. My adult mind says one of them was a detective. They were nice to me and I felt kind of special, but uncomfortable with the attention. I mean after all, that all happened yesterday, which to a six year old could be a year ago or two seconds ago depending on things arbitrary and fleeting.

The memories from the second incident are stronger – I was older – but it happened so quickly it hardly matters. And because I wasn’t alone, my memories aren’t clear about the whos. Who did he try to grab? Who noticed first? At random times in the last couple of decades I am called up short by the image of this man leaning against the passenger side of his truck and his arm reaching out toward us as my friend and I are passing by him. In this case, my friend and I had seen him parked across the street from school. Had seen him drive slowly past us as we walked; seen him park half a block ahead of us, get out and walk around to the other side of his car and open the passenger side door. At first he seemed to be looking for something in his car and I relaxed, but then he stopped and leaned against the car and I remember thinking “he’s waiting for us”, even though for all intents and purposes he didn’t look like he had even noticed us, but there was something in the way he was standing, too tense maybe, that made me feel like he was as focused on us as I was on him. Either my friend or I whispered low to the other one “do you see?” and the other of us said “yes, we need to run” and the other said “not yet”. So we walked, and acted like we didn’t notice him and did that thing girls seem to learn how to do instinctively and use throughout their lives as a coping mechanism. We exaggerated “normal” behavior to show we were perfectly unaware of the very person we were completely focused on.

I remember our arms were linked, like Dorothy and the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz; hands on hips, elbows bent. We may have even been skipping. Just as we were about parallel with him, I saw his hand reaching toward us, one of us said ‘now, run!’ and we broke into the fastest run we could. He cursed. At the end of the block the street ended in a T intersection. We ran across the street and ran through someone’s yard, and jumped over a fence. I glanced back and he was climbing into the driver’s seat. We went through back yards and ways we knew he couldn’t follow in a car. After a few blocks, and no sign of our would-be snatcher, we split up and ran for the safety of our respective parents.

I remember those things like they happened recently, but someone cut holes in the memory. In particular, I can’t remember these men’s faces. I see their hair, their arms, their legs, the general shape of the clothes they were wearing, the color and type of that damned truck. But not their faces. There are other things I can’t be sure of that occasionally bother me. In Sacramento I used to be sure that the day before this happened to me the school had just given us the talk about what to do if a stranger approached you. In Reno, I feel certain that we were warned that there was someone suspicious around school and that we needed to keep an eye out and use the buddy system if walking home. (It was the 70s, kids roamed relatively freely everywhere starting as young as six.)

I also remember that in Sacramento they found that someone had been camping out in the basement of an empty house on 55th. Before this, some of the neighborhood kids had started telling tales that the house was haunted. I remember going to the house and looking at the boarded up basement window and feeling panicky and avoiding that whole block like the plague until we moved away seven years later. In my mind’s eye images of a sleeping pallet, lamp, and pictures of little girls looms large. I know I never saw that, but was it described to me? Did they really find someone was camped in a local basement? Or did the children, me included, build pieces of the story to entertain and scare each other? The clumsy attempts of young people making sense of the world they occupy.

I remember that aside from not liking that block of 55th street, it really didn’t have much impact on me a the time. I didn’t have any specific nightmares about it, didn’t have any extra wariness of strangers – but maybe that’s because I was already wary and thought most adults were ridiculous. But really, it’s that I don’t remember being bothered overly by these experiences that convinces me I wasn’t. But maybe I was. I mean I have a lot of trust issues as an adult, how could it have not affected me, right?

In the last couple of years I’ve been writing some more of my personal stories. I am frequently told that I should write something about growing up surrounded by the AIDS crisis in the heart of the Castro, and having the specific and particular artistic, intellectual, counter-culture upbringing I had.

This story has been nagging at me, because I have no proofs, no one I know now who was there to corroborate my flawed memories. I don’t know if anyone was ever found in either case. All I have are these fragments that are forced into the forefront of my mind by the countless hours of coverage Jaycee Dugard’s kidnapping is getting and the noxious feelings I have as my adult mind completely and horrifyingly comprehends what that six year old me couldn’t. What’s that saying? “But for the grace of god…”

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