It’s been 32 years and I thought I’d gotten past it. But one brief moment yesterday watching a breaking news story brought it all back to me. I saw a few little children exiting a school bus, wide-eyed and frightened beyond belief.
My son is today 37 years old and 6’-3” tall, but during the Atlanta Missing & Murdered Children era he was just a 5-year old little boy, wide-eyed and frightened beyond belief. From the summer of 1979 through the spring of 1981, a minimum of 28 African American children, adolescents and adults were randomly selected and killed. It was a stressful time for all parents, but particularly black parents. Despite the difference in ages, the victims fell within the same geographic parameters of Atlanta. We didn’t know whom to trust or what areas were safe so, as a result we kept our children indoors and away from any potential harm. The two-year nightmare eventually ended, and smiles returned to the faces of the children in the area. But parents of those children have never forgotten.
Parenthood is a partnership, but as a father you take it upon yourself to be the protector. If harm is gonna grab your child you feel – no, you know – that it will have to go around you, through you or over you before it reaches your child. Every father wants to feel that he can shield his child from harm, and every child feels that he is safe and protected by his dad. The serial killings changed everything. No one was safe; no one felt protected.
Of course, you are confident you can handle it. You tell your kid that the Boogey Man that lurks in dark shadows is fantasy. The assurance eventually becomes a two-way covenant, with your brave little child assuring his dad that everything is okay. But sometimes late at night you peek into his room and you see those big beautiful eyes staring right back at you. At that instant you both cop to the charade and hug each other. And instinctively you know it will be a long night.
Yesterday, after a madman walked into a local elementary school armed with an AK-47 assault weapon and a bulky arsenal, parents, teachers and police scrambled into emergency mode. It’s no surprise that they were ready; they had 32 years of preparation. The children of 1981 now have children of their own, and they remember. The gunman had parked at the front entrance of the school, and there was a fear that the bomb-sniffing dogs had picked up the scent of explosives. So the school buses had to be parked on a side street behind the school. Police cut a hole in the fences and led the kids safely away from the scene and helped them board the buses for the short trip to a nearby Wal-Mart parking lot. The FBI was there; so was the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and local police. But the powerful agencies made it clear that they were there in support of the local police. It avoided the “Die Hard” scene where each agency wanted to see whose, eh, jurisdiction was longer. It was an organized, highly effective response.
In the final very touching scenes of children being reunited with their parents, there were very few dry eyes. – including my own. I telephoned my kid, now a grown-assed man, and I told him I love him.