Certain family stories embarrass the kids, and I try to be courteous and protect their privacy as much as possible. However, some stories are simply too good to keep to myself.
For the first time since 1990, we were attempting to set up housekeeping and reside in the United States in 2002. We had just completed the journey from southern Mexico to northern Ohio with seven children, ages four, almost six, seven, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, and seventeen. Four of the children had never lived north of the border, and only the oldest two had vague memories of our other furlough. We soon discovered a huge difference between visiting the United States for a quick summer trip, and actually settling in and trying to Americanize our kids.
One concern for the older boys, in particular, was their lack of mobility in the States. With no cheap public transportation like was available on the field, they would have to walk a lot. Back home they were free to roam as they pleased, with no real dangers aside from malamujer (a poisonous plant), or a very occasional snake or scorpion, with which they were equipped to deal. With guaranteed sunshine almost 365 days a year, there was almost never a day they were not outdoors. That was in Mexico.
After a couple days of unpacking and rearranging the furniture once we got to Ohio, the boys began getting antsy with cabin fever. Knowing how cold, wet, and nasty the Cleveland weather was, I allowed the thirteen- and fifteen-year-old boys to go “exploring,” as they called it. I figured they would walk around the block, get their bearings, and come home freezing and wet within the hour.
When they did not return right away, I assumed they had found their way to some friends’ house a few miles away, where my husband had taken the younger kids to play while I organized the house. When he returned after dark without the boys, we were concerned. After he had searched the streets for an hour while I prayed frantically at home, I was imagining all the possible scenarios.
About 8:30 PM a policeman showed up at the door. Having seen my share of TV shows, I knew what this meant. Something bad had happened. It was one of the lowest milliseconds in my life as a parent. I remember the policeman standing there speechless, oblivious to my agony. Finally I blurted out, “Just tell me quick: what happened? Are they dead? Tell me where the boys are. God will give me grace to handle whatever you tell me, but please tell me quickly. Are they dead?”
What happened is that the boys had gotten lost. The police simply refused to believe that these teens honestly did not know their address, and that we did not have a telephone of any sort in our home. So much for the “nice community helpers” I had described in Social Studies. The boys were found inside a public building, trying to use a phone book and deciding who to call for help; they ended up at the police station, being patted down and questioned about “guns, needles, and knives.”
The police, alternating between good cop and bad cop, proceeded to interrogate them, all the while refusing to accept any of their consistent replies.
Imagine the line of questioning:
Where do you live? “We don’t know.”
What is your phone number? “We don’t have a phone.”
No cell phone? “We’ve never owned cell phones.”
Where are you from? “Oaxaca, Mexico.”
Where were you born? “Guatemala.”
What do your parents do? (Silence. Unsure if it was safe to divulge our occupation, they only added to the suspicious atmosphere.) “We don’t think we should answer any more questions without our parents or legal counsel present.”
Fine. So tell us how to reach your parents! “We don’t know how to reach our parents.”
And on it went.
Right! Every answer was inconceivable to these policemen who presumed all “juveniles” are liars. They could not even believe the younger boy’s age, since he was already over six feet tall at age thirteen. It did not help that the boys were wearing an odd assortment of ill-fitting, slightly hideous winter clothing people had donated. With that, not to mention their longish hair and their clearly-non-Cleveland accents, the officers concluded the whole story was fabricated, and that the boys must be runaways. After all, they had not even known one person’s local phone number to call. The situation did look sketchy, I admit.
Apparently we did not exist on their computer data base, not having Ohio drivers’ licenses, and not having been enrolled in any school in the U.S. What the policeman found the most ludicrous of all is that the boys were picked up ten miles from the landmark across the street from our house, where they insisted they had started out. Even after coming to our house (exactly where the boys described it), confirming the story with me, seeing the packing boxes, and reviewing my passport, the police officer still refused to believe these kids had actually WALKED ten miles. What American teenager walks anywhere in this day and time?
Ah, but that was his first mistake. These were not in any way “typical” American teens. I assured him that these boys frequently hiked that far in Mexico. Besides, what self-respecting man of any age or cultural background would ask for directions until absolutely necessary?
Welcome to America, kids!