Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Terror of the Lost Child

For these things I weep; my eye, yea my eye, sheds tears, for the comforter to restore my soul is removed from me; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed. Eichah—Lamentations, 16

Leiby Kletzy vanished early Monday evening while walking home from a Borough Park day camp alone for the first time.”

The depth of the sorrow of the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah cannot begin to express the agony of a young child who is lost. And when that lost child wanders unprotected into evil and is murdered, humanity is stunned into disbelief. I found myself weeping watching the international news in my Sintra, Portugal hotel room. Then if Leiby crossed my mind unawares I found my eyes welling up in restaurants, in rehearsal, on a palace tour, anywhere, because I was a lost child once. Just like Leiby, I got lost walking home from a neighborhood day camp by myself for the first time, when I was 5. It’s one of the most vivid and terrifying experiences of my life.

Lost in Your Own, Safe Neighborhood
We lived just under a ½ mile from East Lake Elementary School, which meant I got a bus to kindergarten but would have to walk to and from school from first grade on.

The summer between kindergarten and first grade I went to day camp at the school, so that’s when I first started walking the ½ mile path. But I never walked alone. My older brother was going to the day camp too, and an older neighbor. My brother walked with me in the morning, and the neighbor walked me home at midday. The 5-year olds only stayed for the morning session.

One day we had a bus trip that got back at 2:00 pm, after the morning break and before the 5:00 end of the afternoon session. This detail had fallen through the cracks. There was no one to meet me at 2, and no one to walk home with. My mother thought the bus was getting back at 5:00, so she wasn’t concerned when I didn’t get home at noon.

The speed with which everyone dispersed after getting off the bus was something right out of a movie. In a matter of moments I was standing literally all alone at the wire gated entrance to the kindergarten rooms. I did understand that my big kid neighbor was already gone. I thought I might be able to find my brother, so I started walking further onto the school grounds, around the whole building. Over by the parking lot I turned a corner and saw teenagers sitting along the school wall, smoking. I think there were 2 girls and 3 boys.

I knew this wasn’t good. At 5 I was pretty small, and I remember feeling particularly small near them. I wanted to turn back but was afraid that doing that would provoke them to come after me. So I started to walk on past them and they started harassing me, asking me if I had any cigarettes, or any money. I kept walking. One of the boys got up and stood in front of me and said “all we have is this apple with a thumb tack in it.” I remember that apple as though I saw it yesterday. One of the girls said,” leave her alone” and he stepped aside and I kept walking, unharmed but rattled. I forgot about trying to find my brother.

East Lake is a big, sprawling school, and I finally got back to where I had started, the main gate. Still there was no one in sight. I started in the direction I thought was toward home. This part of Massapequa is pretty much a grid, but since we were nearly ½ mile away there were quite a few turns to get from the school to home, and everything was looking the same. I got to the corner of the school property, and had three choices. I knew turning right was wrong, but I just didn’t know between continuing straight on (East Lake Avenue) or turning left (onto Connecticut Avenue).

I stood there for what felt like an eternity. I had a feeling I should turn left (which was in fact correct), but that was a short block, and I would have to make another left/right decision again. I was afraid to cross the street at all, I hadn’t done it by myself yet. When you grow up in suburbia you are told from day one not to cross the street without holding someone’s hand.

Straight ahead, but far in the distance, I saw the railroad tracks. I knew that whenever Daddy drove us back from anywhere we ended up driving alongside of them. So I thought if I walked all the way down there, I could walk along side them, and get home. And so I continued straight on.

The houses started to feel quietly menacing, and as I got further away from the school panic started to overtake me. Maybe the train tracks weren’t right. They were pretty far away. As the panic grew I got more and more confused. I walked a half block toward the tracks, then turned around and walked back toward the school. As I walked away from the tracks I felt, no, that’s the only way home, and turned back toward them. At some point I started running, back and forth in this strange path that I couldn’t get further either way.

Then on one of the laps toward the tracks I tripped on the broken sidewalk and fell, really hard. I scrapped open my right knee and shin. Now I’m sitting on the sidewalk, bleeding, crying and crying. The panic is overwhelming and I can’t think at all but I get up, because I’ve got to try to get home. I’m so afraid of just being left there.

I start toward the tracks again, barely able to see through the tears, when suddenly, a little boy is running toward me, with his mother behind him. It’s Arthur Parker, a boy from my kindergarten class. He’s telling his mother, “It’s her, it’s her, she’s in my class.” The look on his face was extraordinary: so much concern, and a little bit of super hero! He really was saving me.

Their house was a little further down toward the tracks. I remember the kitchen so well, where Mrs. Parker cleaned the bleeding leg and gently talked to me. She asked me where I lived, but I wasn’t sure of my address. Thank goodness I knew my telephone number, and she called my mother.

I sat on that kitchen chair, stunned, whimpering. Arty’s sister came in and gave me some plastic bracelets. He stayed by me, still puffed up from his savior role.

Then my mother walked in the door, and my whole world was given back to me.

My heart keeps aching when I think of Leiby getting confused by the streets of his own neighborhood. He had even practiced the route with his parents, but I understand how that wasn't enough.

(Google Earth takes me back to the very streets that confused me. They haven't changed much at all.)


scribbler50 said...

I felt your confusion and fear, M.A., every step of the way, a truly powerful account of a child lost. Thus it strains credulity to imagine what little Leiby went through. It makes your heart ache.

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Scrib, great to see you. My heart also could not ache more for Leiby and his parents. His loving community turned out enmasse to look for him, but it was too late.