It’s been many moons since I was a 5-year old, but there are some memories, whole and fragments, that seemed to be carved in stone. Such is the case regarding my “abandonment” by my mom. Before any of my relatives get riled up and jump to the wrong conclusion, just hear the story out.
The alleged abandonment happened in the Summer of 1956 before I started first grade. We lived in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. My dad was a civil engineer, mom stayed at home raising me and my 2-year old brother Wayne. After church on a Sunday afternoon, mom loaded us up in the car and drove to visit her parents about twenty minutes away in an area that is now part of the Hartsville-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
We always had a good visit with Mama Frances and Papa. There was always a fresh pie or cake. When we left, mom stopped off to visit a friend who lived in an apartment complex about five miles from my grandparent’s home.
It was a moderately sized complex and there were a lot of kids playing in the courtyards between the buildings. Mom’s friend had a son near my age and he and I went to play with some other kids. Mom kept Wayne with her during the visit.
We joined one of the pack of kids and were having fun. Eventually, my new friend decided to go back to the apartment. I was having fun and continued playing with some other kids. When I had my fill of fun, I headed back to the apartment and knocked on the door. No one came to the door so I knocked on it again, this time harder. Still no answer. I figured they had to be around here some place, so I trekked around the apartment complex looking for mom and Wayne. I eventually gave up the search and walked to the parking lot. The car wasn’t there. Now what?
I figured she had forgotten me. The funny thing is I wasn’t afraid. Fear didn’t register at the time, just surprise. But I was a bit annoyed.
It was time to make a plan of action. Got it, I’ll walk back to Mama Frances and Papa’s house. No problem. I was a smart kid and remembered how we got here. It was an easy route with five turns and only took about ten minutes to get here by car. Of course, I would have to be extra careful when I crossed the double set of railroad tracks and the busy four-lane industrial road that was a main drag to the airport.
With the decision made, the journey began. It wasn’t long before a sense of contentment took over. The plan was in play. All was good. Contentment was eventually replaced with pride. I knew the way and could take care of myself.
About ten minutes into the journey I picked up a couple of sticks and lodged them in my arm pits like the man I had seen recently walking with crutches. They weren’t very comfortable, but they made do.
To that point, the journey had been uneventful, except for spotting a large snapping turtle at the edge of a small pond next to the shoulder of the road. That was worth stopping for a couple of minutes. Thought about seeing if the turtle would bite at one of my sticks. Can’t remember why I didn’t try. Probably because it was a big one.
Traffic was sparse on that hot Atlanta summer afternoon. From time to time I passed houses with postage stamp sized front yards. Most of the old wood framed houses had covered front porches replete with empty rocking chairs. The thought of taking a break and sitting in a rocker seemed mighty inviting, but I didn’t know these people. It would have been rude.
Boy was it hot. Sure wish I had an RC Cola. Although Atlanta is the home of Coca-Cola, the RCs were my favorite. Their bottles were also bigger.
After a couple of miles, my pace slowed as my legs started to ache and my thirst got worse. That’s when the journey came to an abrupt end. A man driving an utility truck for the power company pulled over, got out, walked over and started talking to me. He figured I had to be lost. But I remember saying I wasn’t. I was just walking to my grandma’s house.
He wasn’t having any of my story and told me I needed to go with him. He would drive me to her house. I wasn’t too sure about the offer and was reluctant to accept it. The next thing I know, a car coming from the other direction slams on brakes. Mama Frances jumped out of the passenger side of the car and came running over. That was the only time I recall seeing her run. She didn’t drive herself. She grew up on a farm and had no need for a driver’s license. She never did get one.
She was crying hard and gave me a bear hug. What was that all about? Before she had let go of me, my mom drove up behind me from the apartment complex. She looked scared, real scared. Then she also started crying and joined the bear hug.
Why were they upset? After all, I was the one who should have been upset. I was the one who had been abandoned and had to make that long trek on foot. It never occurred to me that she had been frantically looking for me. Or that I had gotten mixed up and returned to the wrong apartment building after playing with some kids.
That journey left an indelible memory in half a dozen lives. My trek was a hot topic for many weeks. It joined the litany of stories recalled at holiday gatherings and reunions. Not a small feat for a five year old.
I’d like to say that I learned a valuable lesson that day. But being who I am and having enjoyed being the center of attention, the next day I decided to walk off and hide from my mom and grandma while they were shopping in a big department store in downtown Atlanta. I chose my moment and ducked under a large round clothing rack.
My absence was duly noted almost immediately, and a frantic search commenced. The search came to a halt within a minute and the ending wasn’t the one I wanted. Apparently, I was overheard saying, “They’ll never find me here.” What happened next left a really indelible imprint – on my rear-end. Back in the ’50s public spanking was no cause for alarm, perhaps a quick glance, but nothing more. Learned a big lesson that day!