(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2012)
“If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.” Pearl S. Buck
Reading Bruce McEwen’s tragic Hug A Kid, Go To Jail, I thought, “My God, there but for the grace of luck and chance and (in my system of belief) the intervention of angels, I, too, might have been arrested for child molestation and been sent to prison and labeled a sex offender for the rest of my life—on several different occasions. What? How?
When I was in my late thirties and living in Sacramento, I played basketball every morning at a neighborhood park. Three days a week I met my friend Bob there for rousing games of one-on-one, and two days a week I shot around by myself. Along with the basketball court, the park featured a big lawn and a swing set and a public bathroom. So one morning I was shooting hoops and these two moms showed up, each with a cute kid in tow, and they wandered to the far end of the park and spread out a big blanket for playtime and snacking and reading and whatnot.
As I continued shooting hoops, one of the kids, a girl, skipped across the lawn to the restroom adjacent to the basketball court and entered the little cinderblock building on the side marked WOMEN. A moment later she let out a blood-curdling scream, and in the next moment I was on my way into the restroom to rescue her. But some unseen power grabbed hold of me, and a loud inner voice said, “Don’t go in there. Whatever you do, don’t go in there!”
The girl screamed again—bloody murder!—and I turned on my heels and sprinted across the lawn toward the moms, waving my arms and shouting, “Your little girl is screaming in the bathroom.”
One of the mothers jumped up and raced to the restroom and found her daughter bruised and bleeding from a head wound sustained when she slipped on the wet floor and smacked into the ceramic sink. The mom carried her daughter out into the sun and said to me, “Thanks so much. We couldn’t hear a thing over the leaf blowers. We’ve got ice. She’ll be fine. You know kids. Always falling down.”
Then the mom and I exchanged long looks, her look saying, “I understand why you didn’t go in there,” and my look saying, “I didn’t go in there because I was afraid I might be accused of trying to harm her.”
But what if I had gone in there and picked up that little girl and…well, I didn’t, though she might have been bleeding to death. Or she might have been in the clutches of a child molester. I was furious for days after, thinking about how if I had tried to help a hurt child I might have…I mean, what if she had said to her mother, “He touched me.”
“I am fond of children—except boys.” Lewis Carroll
In 1969, twenty years before that Sacramento restroom incident, I was traveling around America in an old GMC panel truck with my friend Dick Mead. On a blistering hot August day we pulled into Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, got a camping spot, and went exploring. That was when I saw fireflies for the first time. There was a huge old swing set overlooking a beautiful meadow, and I was swinging on a swing, marveling at the hundreds of little blobs of light floating and flitting over the meadow in the waning light of day, when suddenly a cute little pigtailed girl took the swing next to mine.
“I can go higher than you can,” she said, kicking off and swinging hard.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, being twenty. “We’ll see about that.”
So we swung together, going higher and higher, and she laughed and I laughed, and then we stopped pumping and allowed our swings to go lower and lower until we were barely swinging, and then she started pumping again and going higher, and I pumped, too, and caught up to her. Then we let ourselves swing to a stop and she said, “Hey, you want to do the spider? Me and my dad do it all the time. It’s so fun.”
“What’s the spider?” I asked.
And before I could blink, that cute little pigtailed girl was straddling my legs, facing me, gripping my wrists and shouting, “Okay, go!”
And I was instantaneously consumed with terror. “Uh, no,” I said, standing up and shaking free of her. “I have to go now. Nice meeting you.”
“But it’s so fun,” she said plaintively. “You’ll love it.”
What if I’d gone ahead and done the spider with her and her father had come looking for her and caught us in the act? What if a park ranger had seen the longhaired stranger from California spidering with that little girl? Or what if that little girl had gone back to her family and when her mother asked, “Where were you, honey?” the little girl had replied, “Oh, I was playing with a nice man on the swings.”
And during further questioning the little girl had admitted, “Yes, we were touching there because we were doing the spider.”
“What is a home without children? Quiet.” Henny Youngman
I worked in a Day Care Center when I was in my twenties and again when I was in my fifties. There are many truths about little kids, but one of the largest truths about them is that they are keenly interested in genitals, their own and those of others. They, the children, are particularly interested in the genitals of adult males, which are the most obvious of adult human genitals. Little boys are particularly interested in these larger versions because little boys possess smaller versions and are fascinated by the size discrepancy and the possibility that they, too, might one day have larger equipment.
I remember during my initial indoctrination as an employee of the day care center, how we were told that when a child touched us “there”, it was imperative to instantly put an end to such touching, and to make sure the children knew that such touching was absolutely verboten. Never mind that a large part of my job was helping kids pull their pants down so I could wipe their butts and then help them pull their pants up. Never mind that when the kiddies wet their pants or spilled paint or juice over themselves, it was my job to strip off their sodden poopy pissy clothes, to render them naked and wash them clean and clothe them anew. Never mind that any one of those delightful creatures at any time might have reported to a parent, “He touched me,” which report might have led to my arrest.
“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Helen Keller
For five years in the 1990’s I ran the Creative Writing department for a summer school for the arts. Ambitious and talented teenagers fifteen to nineteen-years-old were my charges, and among these teens were many sexy young women. I had never taught at any level before then and so had not previously been on the receiving end of the romantic crushes of students.
I will never forget one particular summer evening on the campus of Mills College where our school was being held, a one-month intensive wherein the students lived and breathed their art and the influence of mentor artists. I was walking across the greensward on my way to the music building to find a piano to play, when someone called, “Todd,” and I recognized the voice of Dawn, one of my students.
I stopped, and a moment later Dawn was beside me. I thought her the most beautiful and alluring of my students, and I knew of her crush on me because when I worked with her group of writers she responded to nearly everything I said as if she might at any moment have an orgasm. Then, too, she would linger after class and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me as I tried to concentrate objectively on the excellent erotica she’d written and about which she very much wanted my feedback.
“Hey,” she whispered on that memorable evening, her honeyed breath warm on my cheek. “You and me alone in the dark. Finally.”
“Hey, Dawn,” I said, trying to be cool. “What’s going on?”
“What’s going on is I want you,” she said, pressing close. “And you want me. And you know it. And I know it. And I’m way over eighteen and I’m on the pill so we’ve got nothing to worry about. Please? Please take me somewhere and make love to me? Please? Or we can do it right here and I’ll make you feel so good you won’t believe it.”
“Nope,” I said, breaking away and running for my life.
And had she been crazy or vindictive, she might easily have gone to the school administrators and said, “He followed me last night and touched me.”
Thankfully she was not crazy or vindictive, though she did show up the next morning for our short story section wearing practically nothing, and brazenly handed me a note—crimson ink on lilac-scented stationery—that said, “Any time, any place. I am so ready for you.”