Feb 21, 2009

On Fate, Guilt, and a Night of Horror that Never Happened

While reading Mark Z. Danielewski's chilling 2000 novel House of Leaves, I came across a passage in which a character recalls a long-buried memory, and as I pondered this plot twist, my mind wandered back to an incident from 1973 when I was a 9-year-old kid in Detroit. To this moment I have never shared this incident with another human being, not because the memory brings pain and shame, but precisely because I suffered no lasting effects, and the incident just sort of faded from my mind.

No harm, no foul; move along folks, nothing to see here.

I had recently moved to a new neighborhood when my parents purchased their second home in an area known either as Warrendale or "Little Warsaw," depending on who you asked. This had long been an urban Polish enclave, but by the 1970s Warrendale was a melting pot of working class whites, Lebanese, Armenians, African Americans, and almost any other group that you could imagine. It was also something of a magnet for cops and fireman, given its lower crime rates and higher housing values.

At my new school I joined up with the Boy Scouts, in part to make friends and in part to appease my parents, who thought a kid should do more than read books and watch reruns of the Three Stooges on television. It was while walking home about 9:00 pm on a cool October evening that my path crossed with that of a pair of men driving around looking for a kid to... do stuff to.

A dark-colored muscle car, like one of those late sixties GM Malibus, Cutlasses, or GTOs, pulled up next to me as I walked the last of the four short blocks from my Boy Scout meeting to my house. A much older voice boomed through the still fall air and posed a wholly unexpected question to me.

"Hey: do you want a blow job?"

I could intellectually understand the concept of a "blow job," knowing that the proposed act involved certain body parts, but as a third grader, I was still several years away from the rush of hormones associated with puberty. But what I did pick up on was an imminent sense of danger, and the realization that a four-foot-something kid stood no chance of fighting off a pair of grown men.

I would like to say that I had the presence of mind to know that running as fast as I could was an excellent decision, but I acted on instinct. Without saying a word, I turned, ran through the nearest yard, and cut through someone's driveway to get to my street. I began considering houses I could approach if the car came closer, looking for lights or any signs of a human presence.

But what I really wanted was to get home. Fast. Now.

I looked back just before crossing the street to my house, and there was no car. There were no perverts, no monsters, no bogeymen, just the distant hum of traffic on the Southfield Freeway. There were not even any of the usual dogs barking, a time when I would probably have been thankful for the howl of what on any other night would be someone's annoying mutt.

It was almost as if the moment never happened.

I went in the house feeling a combination of guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. My Mom asked me how the Scout meeting was, and I mumbled something like "fine," and I went up to my room, never telling my parents about the creepy men in the car who were cruising for a kid to abduct. This was 1973, of course, when parents were much less fearful of roaming pedophiles, and when social awareness of deviant sociopaths was rather limited.

Especially in "nice" neighborhoods, whatever those were.

As an adult, of course, I shake my head and shudder at the near-miss that might have forever altered my life, perhaps with me even winding up dead. It is puzzling to me that I lacked the willingness to tell my folks about what had just happened, but I have to try and remember what it is like to be a defenseless kid.

But what if I had spoken up? What if my Dad - the Detroit homicide detective and one of the most all-time righteous bad-asses to put on a badge, a guy who made Dirty Harry look like a mild-mannered traffic cop - what if my Dad had jumped up from the couch and hunted down these bastards? Maybe by keeping quiet I allowed these sick freaks to harm other children, and that is some serious guilt I carry, friends.

Sure I was just a kid, but Anne Frank was just a kid, and she was a hell of a lot more brave than I will ever be, and infinitely more brave than I was on that night in 1973.

Then there is the twinge of guilt I feel about cheating the death, or at least managing to avoid falling victim to the pedophiles who accosted me. Why did God see fit to let me dodge the sorts of horrors faced by the countless other unlucky children?

Or maybe life is completely random and chaotic, and there is no "plan" by God to decide which kids get snatched by pedophiles and which ones make it home to live otherwise normal lives. Maybe creepy bastards - like the pair of freaks who chose not to chase down my 9-year-old skinny ass in 1973 - are like unpredictable forces of nature, like rampaging chimpanzees or wintertime tornadoes. Maybe it was just sheer dumb luck that my would-be predators drove away that night, or maybe the Boy Scout uniform was less of a turn-on than would be a dress or a football uniform to my almost-assailants.

Who the hell knows.


Anonymous said...

You shouldn't feel guilty, Mike. It's like not being the person struck by lightning at a picnic, it just wasn't your time.


microdot said...

Exactly. The actions of creeps now resurface to give you guilt and angst almost 40 years later.
You did what you were supposed to do, run, get the hell out of there.
Too bad that the actions of others can haunt another persons life years later.
That's a crime.

Randy said...

Mike, what Anonymous and microdot said.

I would add that, if you had told, things may not have gone as well as you now think. Suppose you had told someone--what would have happened? Would they have been arrested? Would they even have been found? This sounds like it might be a difficult kind of case to prosecute, so maybe the system would have done nothing. If your dad had done what most parents would want to do in that situation and turn those creeps into puree, what would have happened to him? Sued, canned from the force, or left with a big black mark in his personnel file?

You did the smart thing--you ran, and denied them a victim. Don't be a victim of your own guilt.

Anonymous said...

Randy speaks with persuasive intuition...a very wise perspective. My concern is that you have repressed this memory and would recommend that you speak with a UT psychologist in the medical center. Good luck, Mike.

historymike said...

Thanks for all of your kind words and advice. It was useful to vent this bitterness and regret.