Column: Being wary of strangers was probably never more crucial

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 25, 2002

It happened more than 40 years ago. An incident it was that claimed five or six minutes of my attention and lingered in the back waters of my mind for decades.

I didn’t like the mother. Almost always I like people I meet. Not because I’m particularly amiable, but because for the most part people are usually likable. I met the threesome I’m writing about in an elevator in a large and elegant department store in Minneapolis.

There was the mother and her little girl, a child of about three or four years old. Separate from them was a well-dressed man, well past middle age. The man had apparently been in some sort of an accident. Half of his face was covered with a bandage somewhat like the one worn by the phantom in the title role of the musical, &uot;Phantom of the Opera.&uot;

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The little girl, although blonde, had much the same expression and charm that comes across in the photos we see of the little five-year-old Samantha so recently and so tragically molested and murdered in California. The resemblance is, of course, why the recollection surfaced so sharply to my mind.

As for the child’s mother, she should have been attractive, good figure, pretty face, but there was something so up-tight, so tense about her that it was exhausting just to be in the same elevator with her.

Then as the elevator descended, the man stepped up to the little girl, pulled a candy bar out of his pocket and offered it to her. Probably it was the bandage on half of his face, but the child was terrified. She clung to her mother’s skirts, screamed and burst into tears.

Her mother gave her a shake, pushed her away toward the man, gave her a smart slap on her rear end and said sharply, &uot;How can you be so silly? Take the candy and thank the nice man.&uot;

It seemed to me that the man was embarrassed at having spawned such a scene. Without meaning to I evidently expressed disapproval. My gambling father once told me that I must never, but never, play poker for money.

&uot;Anyone who plays cards at all,&uot; he said, &uot;Has only to look at your face when you pick up your hand to know every card you’re holding.&uot;

I had no idea that I was silently indicating my feelings, but the woman pounced on me at once.

&uot;I suppose if she was yours you’d want her to be a nasty little snob, not having anything to do with people trying to be kind to her.&uot;

&uot;Most mothers,&uot; I said, stung by her turning on me, &uot;Spend a great deal of time teaching their children not to take candy from strangers. You seem fortunate in having a daughter intelligent enough to have figured it out for herself.&uot;

&uot;He’s not that kind of a stranger,&uot; the woman snapped, &uot;He’s a good respectable man.&uot;

&uot;I’m sorry,&uot; I told her, unable to resist, &uot;I hadn’t realized the two of you were acquainted.&uot;

The elevator stopped at that point and though it wasn’t my floor I got off. I felt a snarl coming on. I don’t know how things went in my absence. The child probably got her candy. Poor little tyke deserved it with a mother so obviously wanting. Maybe the three of them, feeling put upon by a common enemy, drifted into a beautiful friendship and went out to see a movie together.

The whole incident left a bad taste in my mouth. My least favorite sin is self-righteousness and where there is criticism of another person there is always self-righteousness.

It doesn’t seem to me that there were as many kidnappings and murderings of children in that era as there are now, but I could be wrong.

What seems horrible to me is that children have been deprived of the wonderful freedom that so enriched the lives of children in previous generations.

There was a time when a child playing in his own yard was secure. Now there is no security for a child sleeping in his own bed.

Things being as they are I don’t think any abuser, once convicted, should be allowed to again be at large.

Love Cruikshank is an Albert Lea resident. Her column appears Thursdays.