I lost my son at a Wal-Mart.
It was 20 something years back. Don’t worry I eventually found him. He’s alive and well out there making his mark on the world, and still, so he tells me, making life miserable for his mom. Still though. I lost him once. And I can tell you for certain that in the couple of decades since then that nothing has ever compared to those 40 minutes or so in terms of sheer terror and gut-wrenching anxiety. Nothing. Not chasing bad guys or knocking down doors not knowing what was behind them. Not getting your life threatened by gang members. Not watching your life flash by you at the wrong end of a knife or shot gun. Those were easy. I’d do those every day all day long rather than relive that day at Wal-Mart.
I don’t even remember what we had gone go get that day. He was about 4 or so and I normally held his hand nearly everywhere we went. But at Wal-Mart I’d generally would let him walk next to me for a bit so he could look around. Kids that age love stores. I guess I would have had him in a cart, but I guess we weren’t there grocery shopping, or he would have been in it.
I remember the moment it happened. We had been there not even 10 minutes when we made it to the toy section. We weren’t there to buy toys, and it was my fault for going past there because you can’t go past the toy section and not look around for a bit. We were walking down the main aisle by the cash registers when we reached the toy aisles. Right in front of me an older lady dropped her driver’s license and didn’t notice. I instinctively reached down to get it while at the same time getting her attention. At the same time my son darted off to the right and went into one of the toy aisles. I swear I followed behind him 2 seconds later. The isle wasn’t a long one so he must have run to the end of it and took off another direction.
I thought nothing of it. I sped up thinking I would catch up with him moments later. There are limited places he can go, and I was aware of all of them. This wasn’t the clothes section where he could hide under the clothes racks, he had done that before too. But he wasn’t around any corner I turned. I called out for him and nothing.
I swear I checked half the store in 2 minutes. I sped up, but time slowed down. It’s strange the things you think of when something like this happens. You search your mind for what the actual definition of “lost” is. He’s not “lost” lost I told myself. He’s not. He’s here somewhere. Probably just hiding. Or lost. Or someone took him. Shit. What am I going to tell his mom!
All that happened in the first 2 minutes. I rushed to one of the exist of the store and told the door greeter to call a “code black” on her radio and gave her the description. She told me she didn’t know what that was. I told her “I’m a cop. Just call it out. “. She did and 2 managers rushed to our location. I gave them the information they needed and in seconds everyone in in the store was alerted to the situation. People were placed on all exits and the police were called. In less than a minute there were several officers there searching the building and the parking lot. The place was literally shut down.
We searched frantically for nearly 40 minutes and nothing. I was sunk. I didn’t know how this could have happened. My kid was gone. He was there and then he wasn’t. I hadn’t called my wife yet either. That was going to hurt. I mean, he could still be somewhere in the store hiding right? I still didn’t know. But with this many people searching we should have found him by now. I had officers checking the video footage. We were going to find out very soon what happened.
The exits were covered by officers, so I had been waiting at the customer service desk for news and to make a phone call. I decided I finally had to call my wife. How much longer could I wait? Just as I was using the phone at the desk I looked up and saw this elderly white man come through one of the cash register aisles. He was pulling a cart full of toys and groceries. Behind the cart was a young boy being dragged along. It was my son. He was actively pulling back on the cart from the back as the old man pulled forward from the front of it.
I put the phone down.
I finally took a breath for what seemed like forever.
The older man, a winter Texan, came up to me and said, “I think this belongs to you”.
I grabbed my son and gave him the biggest hug he had ever had up to that time, and likely ever since. He had no idea he was lost. Not one clue. He was just mad that this old man was trying to steal his stuff from him. Apparently when he took off running, he went to go look for an empty cart and then came back to the toy section and started loading up. When he couldn’t find me, he then found the candy section and loaded up there too. He somehow ended up in the electronics section when the old man came up to him and asked him his name (they had announced it over the intercom). When he told the old man his name the old man tried to take his stuff and he fought back as hard as he could, until finally I showed up. He said he wondered where I had been.
Few things punch you in the gut like when your child goes missing. I cannot imagine what it is like for the people who endure this for much longer periods than I did, or forever. I can’t come close to imagining that.
When everything cleared up, I took my son home. I never told my wife what happened. She was extremely pissed (and suspicious) that I had spent all our grocery money (100 dollars) on toys and candies that day. My son told her about the old man that tried to take his stuff from him and how I fought him off. Yep, I was his hero. Of course, I bought everything in his cart home. How could I not?
That was just a bit over 25 years ago. I still feel lucky. I got off easy that day.