Monday, May 20, 2013

The Time I Accepted a Ride from a Stranger ... and Lived to Tell About It

This is not a story I typically share with others. In fact, I’m fairly sure I’ve kept it to myself till now. I should ask my mom if she remembers that day. It has been on my mind ever since Charles Ramsey heard a cry for help and got involved in rescuing the Ohio women who had been captives in Ariel Castro’s home for around ten years. For two of them, the nightmare began when they accepted a ride from a stranger. For the third, it was accepting a ride from a friend’s father—someone she thought she knew and could trust.

My 9th grade school picture
My story occurred in 1976. While “stranger danger” had not been drilled into students as thoroughly as it is nowadays, I had certainly been made aware of the need to be cautious—and never to accept candy from a stranger. Since I was shy and quiet, there were no worries that I might be led astray by strange men who had anything but my best interests at heart. I never went anywhere alone. I wasn’t just a Mama’s Girl—I was a Hide-Behind-Mama Girl. Dad too, when we were on a family outing. Nothing bad could happen with my parents there.

I had just survived my first day of high school. When I went out to board the bus for home, I couldn’t remember my bus number or the name—or face—of my bus driver. It was chaotic outside. I wandered around looking at buses and the students piling into them, but in the end, the buses all pulled away without me. And so, I started to walk home. I believe it would have been a seven-mile trek. School was in town, and I lived way out in the country with a cornfield behind my house.

You might wonder why I didn’t (1) ask the bus drivers for help, (2) ask someone in the school office for help, or (3) call home. Well, I’ll tell you. In addition to being shy, I struggled with pride. I was too embarrassed about my predicament to tell anyone that I felt lost and confused. I enjoyed being the smart girl. I didn’t want to appear stupid and baby-ish on my first day of high school (or any other day, for that matter)! And with Dad at work in another town and Mom babysitting a horde of children way out in the country, asking them to come get me would have been fruitless, though looking back, I’m sure they would have figured something out.

So, trembling inside but wearing my poker face, I headed down the street toward the edge of town and the highway that led to my home.

I think a few tears had trickled down my cheeks by the time I made it out of town. I had never walked such a great distance and wondered whether I and my heavy books would make it home by sundown. I wanted to click my heels together and be transported magically to my bedroom! The companionship of a little dog would have been nice.

A car slowed and then pulled over onto the shoulder beside me. A nondescript man I didn’t recognize called me by name. My heart nearly stopped. He offered me a ride home. Scared but desperate to get home, I got in his car and hoped for the best.

As it turned out, he was my bus driver. He had completed his route and was returning with the bus so he could get his car and go home, when he saw me trudging along the other side of the highway. So he hurried to get his car and came back for me. He wanted me to get home safely. And he wanted me to remember which bus to get on the next day so that I wouldn’t miss my ride home again.

And that was that. He took me straight to my house. He was a good man. The next day I had no problem identifying the right bus and never again attempted to walk home.

When the news of the Ohio rescue broke, I joined countless others in seeking out updated stories. Then I made the mistake of reading comments posted by readers under those stories. While most were thrilled and supportive about the girls’ rescue, there were disheartening posts mixed in. There are some sadly deranged fools out there. Some couldn’t wait to suggest that the girls could have escaped much sooner had they really wanted to. One said that Amanda was “stupid” for loving the daughter she gave birth to as a result of rape, unwilling to admit that Amanda’s love for that child was likely the force behind her never-ending quest for freedom and what ultimately saved them all.

There are also self-righteous folks who have apparently never made a bad decision or a mistake in their entire perfect lives. They spitefully condemn anyone who does to “deserving” the result of that decision or mistake, whether it be death, loss of job, or torture and rape in a basement. Maybe those commenters are only trolls seeking to yank a few chains for their own amusement. But I have a feeling some are ignoramuses who believe in their own “wisdom.”

We all make mistakes and suffer from at least occasional lapses of judgment. Sometimes, as in my case, there are no consequences; I was very lucky. Sometimes, the consequences are horrific. We can’t be perfect, no matter how hard we try. But we can learn from our mistakes. We can learn from the mistakes of others. We can look out for each other. We can criticize less and commend more often. We can extend grace, as we would want grace to be extended to us. We can remind ourselves that Love can free us from darkness. Love covers a multitude of sins. Neighborly love saved me from a long walk and perhaps a less-benevolent offer of a ride from someone else. Mother love saved Amanda and her little girl.

I tell my children not to accept rides from strangers, no matter how decent they seem. And if they want to catch a ride from someone they know, they need to call me with the name of that person first. I raised them as best I could as a single parent. Most importantly, I let them know that if they make a mistake, they can admit it to me, and I will still love them. Having that constant in a chaotic world can make all of the difference.

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