It happened in 1974 or 1975, and I would have been 7 or 8 years of age. I was in suburban Milwaukee — in Waukesha County somewhere near the city of Elm Grove, Wisconsin to be exact. The exact details of when and where are blurry, but the events of that day remain clear in my memory.
My mother was driving me to a tennis match I was supposed to play at some club I had never been to before. My coach and teammates were supposedly waiting for me there. I wish I knew what the name of this club was.
On a day with picture perfect weather I remember my mother pulling over in front of the club, dropping me off at the curb, and driving away. I remember standing there reading the sign posted near the front entrance: “PRIVATE CLUB. MEMBERS ONLY.” There I was, a second or third grader, reading those ominous words while holding my tennis racquet in my hand.
I read them again and again. “I am not a member. I can’t go into this club. I am not a member! I can’t go in!” I remember thinking to myself with alarm. I can’t go in there. But my mom had just driven away and I had no idea where I was. I had never been there before. I didn’t know anyone. What should I do? I wanted to go inside, but I could not break the rules.
Of course, my coach and teammates were inside and I was expected, but I could not get past the words on the sign. I could not get beyond the fact was that I was not a member of this club: the sign commanded me not to enter. I could not enter.
After standing there for a few confused minutes with growing alarm, I started to cry quietly. I stood there not knowing what to do next. Finally, in frustration I walked away from the tennis club and back down the main highway where my mom had driven away. I began to realize I was moving away from where I was supposed to be, and if anyone came looking for me I would be almost impossible to find. I walked down the highway a stretch further and then started running. Now I was crying loudly. Panic was near.
I ran and ran. I grew more and more upset. Even at that young age I knew the more I walked, the more I moved into tierra incognita — the more I became totally lost, the more upset I became. It became harder to think clearly what to do next. I remember exiting the busy main highway and going down a quieter side street. Panic had taken over and tears streamed down my face. Picture in your mind this kid running and sobbing while holding a tennis racquet in his hand.
I remember the next part clearly. I came across an old man who was raking leaves in his front yard. I approached him through tears and told him I was lost and asked him to take me home.
“Where do you live?” he asked me. I told him my address, but he did not know where that was. I knew we were relatively far away from my home. This was long long before the advent of cell phones and GPS mapping.
“Do you know where Watertown Plank Road is?” I asked him. That was the main thoroughfare near where I lived at 1005 Longwood Avenue in Elm Grove.
“Yes,” he said.
“If you can drive me there I can guide you to my house,” I said.
And so we got in his car. I remember looking straight down at my feet while this perfect stranger drove towards where I lived. By nature I would rather walk for miles than ask a stranger for help, so you can imagine how scared and desperate I was. I think I had stopped crying. I looked out the window desperate for familiar landmarks that would suggest home was near.
Sure enough we got to Watertown Plank Road and I gave the man directions to turn right here, left there, and my house is down that street. I remember seeing my home and getting out of the car and running to my front door. I hope to God I thanked this kind old man as I got out of the car as quickly as I could. My main memory is of overwhelming relief at seeing my home and knowing I would be safe. I ran to my front door. I don’t think I even turned around to see him drive away.
I was still scared, though. Where was my mother? What would she say? Embarrassed, I sort of hid on the floor of room near my bed and gathered my blankets around me. I did not know where my mom was. I nervously waited for her to come home.
Finally, she entered the house and called out my name. She came to my room and found me semi-hiding in the corner. She was upset and said my tennis coach had phoned to inform her I never arrived for my match. Nobody knew where I was or what had happened to me; everyone was looking for me. I started crying again and told her what happened and she held me tight. Both of us started to relax, realizing everything would be ok. There I was crying while she was holding and kissing me. I had been scared; she had been scared.
Some 45 years later my mother is long dead and my father dimly remembers the story, even as I remember it clearly. I asked my father if he was upset that my mother had not watched me enter that tennis club with her own eyes to make sure her little boy got in there safely. “Yes,” he says. But I don’t think he was that upset. He barely remembers the incident. And I can’t really blame my mother for what happened. It was just one of those things.
But as an adult I think about that day not infrequently. The man I am now reflects back on how at risk the little boy was running through tears down some street in search of help. I was not really even searching for help — I was just running. With more than a little horror, I wonder what might have happened to me if I came across a child molester or some other predator instead of a kindly old man. Later as a grown adult I would have known how to deal with such a monster, but as a little boy I would have been defenseless.
Decades later I would like to seek out my saving hero and thank him properly — or thank his children, for he is surely long dead. I would like to thank his family, and hope that the good deeds of the father are visited upon his children and grandchildren — hope that karmic good vibrations might emanate through the decades down to his descendants.
My family moved to southern California in 1976 and we never returned to Wisconsin. But I have thought to travel thousands of miles back to Elm Grove, WI to search through law enforcement archives for any mention of this incident. Was there a police report? Who was this old man? Where was this tennis club? What facts might I discover? After so many years have passed, what would I learn? Not much, I suspect.
So I have taken the time and effort to communicate this incident onto the Internet, hoping against hope that some family in Waukesha County might read it and remember something. That this message of thanks and grateful remembrance of an old man raking leaves who took a scared, lost little boy under his protection and got him home safely might evoke a memory. So that maybe I could get a name and have the chance to say —
Thank you, kind sir. I only wish I could have thanked you properly at the time. Thank you.
I will try to re-pay you by helping someone else out, if I could. I was 7 or 8 years of age when this took place and am now 51 years old. It was a long time ago, but I don’t forget. This is a debt I would pay, if only I could.