Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Do You Know Your Neighbors?

How well do you know your neighbors?

Mike and I watched a movie last night, The Lovely Bones. I read the book a few years ago, but the movie took it from black and white into full living color. Most of the time, I prefer the book to the movie, and The Lovely Bones was no exception. But, for me, in this case, the movie added to the book.

I had an experience as a young girl of 16 that left me totally shaken for about year. I had just made Junior Varsity cheerleader before summer vacation. During the hot months in Ohio, way back in 1970, we had very little to do other than lay out on our favorite beach towels, listen to Diana Ross and the Supremes on our transistor radios, and eat concession stand food at our local swim club.

There were no cell phones, personal computers, or places to hang out like shopping malls or even a local soda shop. For a small family fee, you got a summer pass that allowed you to swim in a dirty lake, complete with diving boards, life guards, a grassy beach, and sliding boards. Man-o-man.

But it was heaven to me, because all my friends were there. My world was very, very small back then.

I was completely fearless at 16. After all, what did I know of the big, bad world? Not much. The Vietnam war raged on our television sets, as well as the civil rights movement and hippie protests, which were all promptly turned off in my home. We watched more enlightening shows, like Lawrence Welk, The Andy Griffith Show, and Mike Douglas.

All I knew is that every day I got to put on my over-sized t-shirt over top my two-piece (not bikini) bathing suit, throw my swimming paraphernalia into a hot pink patent-leather beach bag, and trudge a mile to the swim club every day. I walked down a long side street, then cut across a small field, around a camping area and ended up at the entrance to our favorite summer hang-out.

One particularly hot day, walking past a stretch of houses under construction, I got whistled at by some of the crew. (Girls got whistled at a lot in 1970.) But I kept on walking, ignoring the snide remarks, and made my turn into a more desolate patch of overgrown bush, weeds, and little trees. I had just walked down a small dirt and gravel hill when I heard something behind me. Thank God I turned around. There behind me, about twenty feet away stood a man with dark sunglasses hugging his head, his black hair slicked back, and all he had on was his watch. His hands covered his privates.

I had plenty of time to run. But I didn't. I was a sheltered girl, unfamiliar with the horrors of humanity. I stood there thinking I'd accidentally caught one of the campers taking a leak in the field. I had plenty of time to run from this would-be rapist, but I froze. Literally, I froze. Because this guy walked up behind me and began to grab at me from behind. Then, I realized what was happening to me.

I began to fight and kick like a wild cat. With him behind me, digging his dirty nails into my chest and shoulders, we fell backwards and with him being naked, I think it hurt him. Because I felt him loosen his grip, but we were both still on the ground. He never got to do to me what he wanted to do, because I remember that I had cried out for God's help. And whether you believe in divine intervention or not, I really don't care, because literally, that's what happened next. I felt myself pulled to my feet. I took off like a bullet.

Little did I know, my neighbor, a boy my own age but tall and strong, was following the same path and heard me scream. He ran toward the commotion, but got there in time to see this lunatic pull on a t-shirt and run bottomless the other direction. I recall that my neighbor said he took off after him, but lost him in a cornfield or something like that.

I ended up in shock, my knees bleeding, my hands full of dirt and gravel and blood. There were other cuts and bruises, but I sat in the office of the people who owned the swim club and shook until way after the police were called, and for days afterward.

But that was it. Two detectives came to our house, questioned me, and wanted me to walk the path over again while they followed me. My dad said, "Are you out of your minds?" That summer, Daddy built us an inground 20 x 40 swimming pool. He had three younger daughters. He would continue to shelter us for years afterward.

Despite the fact that I had a witness, the owners of the swim club started rumors that I made the whole thing up to "get attention." Man, I didn't need that kind of attention. I wasn't the type to mangle and bruise my body for just attention. Ha! The kids at school eyed me warily for months, not knowing who to believe. Obviously, the idiots who owned the dirty lake didn't want bad publicity. But it didn't matter, the place went downhill even farther after that.

I spent the summer in seclusion. I couldn't even go to the store without seeing this guy in my head, possibly looking for me. But it taught me some very valuable lessons. I learned how to defend myself after that, and I never took my innocence for granted again. Even that same summer, my mother sent me to spend some time with my grandmother. My aunt and I walked to the library one day, and a man exposed himself to me in the library. What a summer, huh?

I couldn't get away from it. The world had changed from Leave it to Beaver to The Streets of San Francisco overnight.

So when I watched The Lovely Bones, this all came back to me. I was fortunate not to have ended up like the girl in the movie, but it's something that still occasionally haunts me, all these years later. In fact, I still carry the small, faint scar of this guy's fingernail curve in my shoulder.

Our parents lived in a world of closed minds and rose-colored glasses. We could ride our bikes or walk for miles, play alone or with friends anywhere we wanted. That stopped with my generation. My children were never out of my reach. I knew exactly where they were at all times. Today, it's even worse.

My question is, do we really know our neighbors? The rapist-murderer in The Lovely Bones lived across the street from his victim in a nice middle-class and well-cared-for home. I know, the book was fiction, but is it really? I don't say live in fear, I'm saying be fearless and find out who lives next to you, or who is working in your neighborhood. Your neighbors may be wonderful people. It's nice to think we give them the benefit of the doubt. But after watching that movie last night, and with what happened to me, I understand why most of America can live beside a person for twenty and thirty years, and still never know their first name.

Blessings and God's protection to you and yours.

1 comment:

Dena said...

Pam, I never heard that story before. That is TERRIFYING. Thank God you got away. Fascinating post.