One upon a time kids played outdoors. Most kids, in fact, if my own recollections are any indication, burst out of the house early in the morning and had to be cajoled or even threatened to come back inside for any reason, even the dark of night.
I’d started leaving the block when I was nine years old. I’d discovered a bunch of cool kids who lived on the adjoining street. At any moment after school or, during summer vacation, all day long, my mother had no idea where I was. If push came to shove, she’d have to hunt me down, which wasn’t all that difficult. We were outside playing, in the sunshine and fresh air, running and making a racket. All she’d have to do was look for a bunch of kids and I’d be sure to be among them.
The kids I hung out with on Natchez and Nashville avenues on the Northwest Side of Chi., drank water surreptitiously from neighbors’ garden hoses and knew where all the most hidden-away niches were when the urge to get rid of said water arose. Drinking and peeing at home were ill-considered choices — moms had a tendency to say outlandish things like, “Why don’t you stay in for a change as long as you’re here.” In my neck of the woods, an otherwise sweet-sounding mom suggestion carried the authority of a Tsarist ukase.
As I approached my teens, I’d hop on my bike — with my baseball mitt hung on the handlebars — and race to either Amundsen or Riis parks where dozens of us would play ball from morning to night. In fall, we’d play football. In winter, we’d make snow forts.
Never once were we concerned about any dangers from kidnappers or murderers. And, quite frankly, neither were our parents.
There was a societal understanding that kid-snatching was as likely an occurrence as a lightning strike.
That was true then — and it’s still true today.
Yet, talk to anyone and you’ll hear about how bad and dangerous it is out there these days. The fact of the matter is, it’s all bullshit. Violent crime has been going down for decades. The rate of child abductions has remained at a steady level for nearly a century. And missing kids generally are snatched by one or another estranged parent.
Nevertheless, parents have turned to helicoptering. Today, kids don’t ride bikes to soccer practice. They don’t saunter over to their friends’ houses and yell out, “Yo, Jimmayy!” as we did. Sure there are devices and mind-numbing electronic games to be played in the dark of the basement but much — maybe most — of this change has come about because Americans believe the world of 2017 is inherently dangerous, that kidnappers lurk around every corner, and that bad men would infiltrate every gang of kids playing softball in order to sell them packets of heroin.
The genesis tale of this delusion occurred in 1979, the morning of May 25th, to be precise. At 8:00am, six-year-old Etan Patz of the SoHo neighborhood in New York City, was sent off by his parents to catch his school bus a couple of blocks away. They’d never see him again.
When little Etan did not return home that afternoon, his parents called the school and learned he hadn’t shown up. The police were notified and a door-to-door search was conducted. A police helicopter hovered overhead as bloodhounds sniffed every nook and cranny. Radio and television stations broadcast a number the public could call with information about the kid’s whereabouts.
Nobody had any idea what’d happened to Etan for more than three decades until a guy who lived near Philadelphia called them and said he suspected his brother-in-law might have had something to do with the disappearance. The brother-in-law, Pedro Hernandez, a New Jersey factory worker, was brought in, grilled and copped to the kidnapping and murder. He was tried in 2015 but acquitted when a lone juror bought the defense argument that Hernandez was mentally unstable and so his repeated confessions could not be trusted. Hernandez was tried again beginning late last year and Monday the jury finally returned a guilty verdict.
In the weeks after Etan’d gone missing, television stations in New York and then throughout the region gave nightly updates on the case. Eventually, Etan Patz became national news. Etan’s face was the first to appear on a milk carton. For nearly a half century now, kids — and their parents — have been confronted by the smiling, innocent faces of kidnapped kids as they crunch their breakfast cereal in the morning. In 1983, President Reagan declared the date Etan disappeared National Missing Children’s Day. The disappearance of Etan Patz led to our so-far decades-long national obsession with missing children.
Etan’s photogenic, grinning face touched our hearts. Even though kids had been snatched and killed in the past, Etan’s case hit us and hit us bad. After him, common knowledge had it — has it — that allowing a kid merely to leave the house is to invite kidnapping and murder.
The only truth to emerge from this sad tale is not that kids are especially at risk but that we are awfully prone to believing untruths.