These days I wonder about the sense of sending a 7-year-old alone to the liquor store to pick up a pack of Salem menthols, as this practice pretty much exemplified my upbringing. But in my parents' defense I have to say that maybe they were just products of the times. In the '60s there were probably as many sexual predators as there are now, but the difference is that today we have full media-detailed knowledge of their exploits. So today I literally will not let my own 7-year-old play in our fenced front yard unless I am right there to throw myself onto the hood of the car of an escaping kidnapping child-molesting masturbator if need be. Now my girl is training in martial arts just in case, and when she is not practicing her stances, she is yelling at me to leave her alone.
But I just can't. I am a lot different from my own parents, who, when I was 7, I doubt could have located me even if they had a homing device. Unless, of course, they'd just dispatched me to the liquor store to restock their dwindling supply of cigarettes, in which case they knew to expect me back within a certain time frame. During the rest of the day they entrusted my big brother to look after me, as Jim was adept at instilling people with the idea that he was a capable caretaker. Take the time he responsibly assured my parents that he would escort my sisters and me to see Disney's Aristocats at the local Cineplex, only to herd us into Tales from the Crypt instead. Afterward I could not stop clutching my head, and I was 12 before I figured out that the human brain doesn't really bleed that much.
So maybe my brother had them thinking he kept an eye on us. He worked at a nearby tennis club, where the owner allowed him free reign of the courts in exchange for odd jobs around the clubhouse. Often my parents would drop my sisters and me off there for Jim to watch us, and Jim would promptly plant us by the pool and disappear, materializing intermittently after feeding the lunch money our mother had given to him for our sake into the vending machines that dispensed orange soda and a hard candy called "Charms."
But at least I already sort of knew how to swim, owing to how I had fallen into a different pool when I was 22 months old. I remember it even though you're not supposed to remember things from that early in your life, but experiences like that create permanent impressions. Like I remember how the sun cast a lovely mosaic of reflections underwater and how uncomfortable chlorinated water feels when you breath big bunches of it straight down into your lungs. Eventually my brother, after it became evident I wasn't going to resurface on my own, must have concluded that a dead baby sister would be problematic for him in the long run, and he dove in to retrieve me. So I guess there is that; at least my brother didn't let me finish dying when I was doing it right in from of him.
But I don't know how good Jim was in protecting me from predators during all the cigarette-fetching excursions I performed for my parents in grade school, seeing as how I was alone at the time. I used to walk across an abandoned field and then the length of an access road along the freeway to get to the liquor store, where they also sold other household essentials, such as Butterfingers and fried pies. I would stock up on these items as well, but it always seemed that my brother would intercept me before I got home and demand I turn the goods over to him, leaving me with nothing but the carton of cigarettes to deliver to my parents.
"Leave me alone!" I would yell at him, and he would retreat.
In all those excursions I only ran into two child-molesting masturbators that I can recall. One was the actual owner of the store, whose nickname became "Horny Pete" due to his habit of sitting behind the counter and taking an inordinately long time to tuck in his shirt. The other was a knife-wielding rapist biker, or at the very least he was a biker who had a pocket knife strapped to his boot, which the officer confiscated after he'd pulled him over for failing to signal. My brother, who had materialized from nowhere -- he was always materializing from nowhere -- had pointed the knife out to the officer after coming to ogle the encounter at my side. Whenever I recount this out loud it always ends with my breathtaking escape from rape and mutilation, and how self-sufficient I was as a 7-year-old alone.
So in the end I think a 7-year-old alone today faces generally the same dangers as a 7-year-old alone back then. And when my girl demands to be left alone, I just retreat to where she can't see me, to where she thinks she's alone, but she's not alone.
Hollis Gillespie authored two top-selling memoirs and her third, Trailer Trashed, is due out this summer. To attend Gillespie's Shocking Real-Life Memoir Writing workshop in Charlotte April 13, go to www.hollisgillespie.com.