The monsters are real
I grew up on the west side of Springfield, Missouri. If you look on the left part of Springfield’s gridded streets you will find the map of my childhood. It’s where I rode my bike, learned to drive, and fell in love.
It’s the place where on Tuesday, according to police, a man named Craig Wood—a public school employee—kidnapped Hailey Owens. Witnesses say Wood yanked her off a neighborhood street, drove her to his house, and shot her in the base of the skull.
Hailey Owens was ten years old and she lived less than ten minutes away from my childhood home.
The crime and its impact are the kind of things we, as a society, call “unimaginable.” For parents like me, a random kidnapping and murder of a child is the one thing we cannot bare to consider. My hometown—though large and spread out across a big county—is suffering a kind of collective grief I’ve never seen. The crime has left an entire community mourning and helpless to do anything about it.
That twisted place in everyone’s stomach is the physical manifestation of the question, “What can I do?”
My late father had an answer that I learned just in time. I don’t know how he came about it, but I feel like it’s because he had seen some of the worst of the world. I don’t know, nor do I really want to.
For the past 48 hours, I’ve been thinking about my dad’s advice. I’ve been thinking about the west side of Springfield, that sweet little girl, and what happened to her.
We call it unimaginable, but that’s not quite right. People my age have been imagining it as long as we can remember.
In the summer of 1981, I was seven years old. Everybody I didn’t know was a monster who crept out of Hollywood, Florida and spread out like a virus of fear across the country. Every man with a “different” face was the creature that took six-year-old Adam Walsh and left him in a way a boy shouldn’t be left. Back then, one only needed to say the name “Adam” to make any parent’s heart stop for half a second.
That monster went everywhere. He made sure kids’ faces ended up on the sides of milk cartons. There was no forgetting he existed. What we called unimaginable was actually a part of our collective imaginations every time we rode our bike a little too far from the house. When a van parked at the end of our neighborhood road and the man inside called for my friend to come closer, the fear could’ve lit the whole neighborhood.
Everybody was supposed to be afraid when I was a kid. It was part of the culture. The President told us the Russians wanted to kill us. The First Lady told us drugs wanted to kill us. Our milk told us somebody was killing us.
And yet, we played, we ran, we stayed out until dusk, and we defied the monsters in the only way we knew how. We ran sweat lines through the dirt on our faces, and we pretended our mothers weren’t scared. Our parents pretended they weren’t afraid, and somehow we all survived. Apparently, there weren’t enough monsters to get us all.
Living through it without losing any friends to the monster was a blessing, but it also numbed the part of my brain that kept watch. Surviving the years of fear was enough for a man of my generation to forget that the monsters were still out there.
I couldn’t figure out why Janice was crying.
I barely knew her. I’d worked at the TV station for just eight days. She was one of my new bosses. Now, on a beautiful 80-degree day in April of 1999, Janice was in tears at her desk.
For the better part of the next few weeks, the story of the Columbine High School massacre would dominate our news. It would affect me as it would affect anybody, but in those days, Janice’s tears made no real sense.
Columbine was halfway across the country. It was an admittedly terrible story, but Janice was a professional who had seen and heard enough death that more tragedy shouldn’t mean breaking down in the middle of the newsroom. I would learn that it was not Janice’s failing, but her humanity, one that I lacked. I was 25 years old and unmarried. My then-fiancée and I had a couple responsibilities: the rent money and the care of a 13-pound mutt. We didn’t cry. It simply didn’t touch us.
Two years later, I stood outside on a March morning. It was 30 degrees and dark, and I shivered as I looked at a nice little suburban house where a man named Michael Hiderbrand had killed his wife and two children. It was among the worst cases I ever covered. Two people I cared for deeply were within a stiff breeze of getting blown up by Hilderbrand’s improvised building-sized bomb in downtown Greer, SC. As sad as I was during the entire story, it never occurred to me to feel anything other than base-level disgust and professional responsibility. Nothing more. No matter how much hell I saw, I felt untouchable.
As odd as it seems today, I still remember looking into Hilderbrand’s backyard and thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen to those dogs.”
So, imagine me in a diner. A clean one in a safe part of town where the pancakes are pretty much the best you’ll ever eat and the waitresses are the kind who consider it a profession.
My son is not yet in grade school, but he knows he is among men and wants to prove it. I’m with my good friend and his son, a world-wise fourth-grader. Both of the kids need to go to the bathroom. My son wants to go with his friend, and they don’t need any help from their dads.
It’s no big deal for the big kid to cross the 100 or so feet to the other side of the place. He’s done it by himself many times before. It’s no big deal. He’ll keep an eye on my boy.
But as I watch my son weave through the brunch crowd, my chest tightens up and my mouth gets dry. I lose all track of what my friend is saying, and I feel sick. My eyes are on the other side of the room. I’m not hungry anymore. It’s a foreign feeling, like becoming a father has somehow triggered some hormone that makes fear real again.
Too much time passes. I’m on my feet and making for the bathroom like it’s a house on fire. I know for a fact something is wrong. It’s a dad’s intuition.
And of course…everything is fine.
In retrospect, I probably gave my kid just enough time to find his zipper before bolting after him. It’s funny now, but funny in a way that still makes me sick to my stomach, because it was a reminder of the monster I hadn’t thought about since I was a kid. It was a monster that had been hibernating until I was old enough to understand what real fear really felt like.
DAD’S ADVICE, HAILEY’S LEGACY
This week, if police are correct, that monster took the form of Craig Wood, a mandolin player in a little bluegrass band, and the type of guy no one expected to be the kind of creature he apparently turned out to be. He’s in jail now, and there is little chance he’ll see a child again. There is precious little comfort in that.
When something terrible happens to a child, there is the gut reaction to fight. We look for someone bigger to blame, someone we can hurt worse than we can hurt the man we’ll lock in a cage. Sometimes the fight can take on real meaning, but in a case like this, we’re left only with a mugshot and the unsettling understanding that he is only today’s face of a fear we can’t control.
That’s really the point of it. Random kidnappings are exceptionally infrequent. They are lightning strikes without a god to blame for them. They are preciously-rare reminders that we have reason to be afraid.
That’s really the worst thing: despite all statistics to the contrary, we have reason to be afraid, and there is nothing we can do to change that. No amount of legislation, no focus on mental health, no Neighborhood Watch is going to change the fact that we will always have to be afraid.
And so, helpless, we ask, “What can I do?”
I look at my children—the sole reason I can live as I do—and I want to see them run. I want to see them smile because they are independent and can do things on their own. I leave them at schools. I let them run at the pool. I try to let them build their lives without building walls around them. I sit in muted terror and hope there aren’t enough monsters to get us all.
What can I do? I can heed my dad’s advice:
Make sure your children know you love them every day.
It sounds like simple advice, but in a world where we live in constant fear of what might happen, there is peace in knowing your child knows he is loved right now.
Today, I’m still thinking about Hailey and what her death will mean for her family. There is very little comfort in it, but there is this:
Thousands of children are hearing their parents say I love you a little louder and a little more often, and that’s because of a little girl named Hailey from my hometown.