By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
No man could have missed her. Dressed, if you want to call it that, in a hot little “nurse” costume — snug white dress covering not a bit of her long legs, pert little cap pinned atop blonde head, high-heeled white boots — she caught my eye from a block away.
“Somebody’s got her Halloween costume on,” I started saying to my wife with the least-interested tone I could muster. But something was wrong. The girl was teetering in a way that went beyond the impracticality of her boots. She barely made it across Main Street to the northwest corner of Main and Blossom, where a temporary tunnel guides pedestrians past high-rise construction.
As she disappeared into the tunnel, my wife said, “Pull over.” My first chance to do so was beyond the construction, almost to Assembly. My wife hopped out and headed back, in full Mom-to-the-rescue mode.
She found the girl with her dress hiked up to her waist, panties fully exposed, looking for a place to relieve herself.
“No!” my wife ordered, reaching out her hand. “Honey, you just can’t do this. You cannot walk down the street staggering in a little nurse uniform in Columbia, South Carolina. I’m going to take you home.”
The girl obediently dropped her skirt, took my wife’s hand and cried, “Oh, thank you, thank you for helping me!”
Seconds later, I glanced in the rearview mirror to see my wife marching that statuesque woman-child by the hand toward the car as though she were a preschooler who had wandered away from the group. I reached back to clear space for her on the back seat. She got in, my wife got in, and I pulled back into the traffic on Blossom, moving toward the river.
I asked the “nurse” whether she had been headed to one of the nearby sorority houses. No, she slurred, her dorm was beyond the Greek Village. I pondered that in confusion. My wife got her to tell us the name of her dorm — which was three or four blocks back, at the heart of the campus, 180 degrees from the direction in which she had been staggering. I did a U-turn at my first opportunity.
“I’m so sorry,” she kept saying, alternating between that and “Thank you, thank you so much!” She was extremely grateful. She had been one lost little girl, and she knew it. She was a freshman, just weeks away from home.
“All my friends are older, though,” she offered as an explanation of her condition. She said something vague about guys making assumptions, which seemed to be her way of accounting for being alone.
My wife, determined to have the girl learn something from this experience, pointed out that young girls have disappeared from the streets of Columbia. “Oh, I know! I’m so sorry,” she repeated, adding plaintively:
“I’m trying to be a responsible freshman!” She was so earnest that we didn’t laugh, not until later, after we had deposited her back at her dorm and could feel like maybe, for tonight at least, the child was safe.
But it was only a feeling. She wasn’t safe, in the way a parent would define it. Just before we let her out, she was on her cell phone trying to tell a friend how to come to her dorm — the place she couldn’t find herself. Despite having just been so lost and frightened, despite being so grateful for her deliverance, somewhere in her besotted mind floated the idea that the night was young.
Once they leave home, we never can tell ourselves that they are safe, can we?
That same night, six of the “nurse’s” fellow USC students, and another from Clemson, would die in a beach house fire in North Carolina.
That may seem a wrenching transition, from seriocomic little episode that ended well (we hope) to a tragedy that has consumed our community for a week and touched hearts across the nation, but to a father, the two things have an awful lot in common. They both evoke the constant, gnawing fear that comes when your children are no longer in your sight, no longer under your protection.
That “nurse” was exactly the age of the youngest of my five children, who is off on her own and far away. Just over a month ago, our daughter’s boyfriend — her only close friend in the entire state of Pennsylvania — was killed in a car wreck. He was a passenger in a car with three other boys. It was broad daylight, and they were moving safely and legally down a quiet, Shandon-like residential street when another car ran a stop sign and hit them broadside. David was thrown from the vehicle.
When the third of my five kids was 3 or 4 years old, he had a maddening habit of slipping away on little adventures. But after mere moments of sheer terror, we’d find him and scoop him into our arms, and the universe would resume its proper shape.
It’s so easy when they’re little. It’s when they get tall, when they take on a deceptive semblance of being men and women — like the “woman” I thought I saw in the nurse costume — that it gets really tough. It’s when they have every excuse to be out of your sight, and everybody tells you that you have to let them go, that the real terror begins.
My mother used to have a quotation cut out and taped to her kitchen cabinet, to the effect that having a child was “forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
That is exactly true, and of course it is impossible to go on living like that. But we do. I don’t know how. God somehow suspends the physical laws governing the universe to make it possible for us to get up, put one foot in front of the other, walk on ice thinner than an eggshell, and keep doing it as though we actually believe what we’re doing is within the realm of possibility.
And most of the time, it works. It worked that night, for two parents somewhere in the Upstate. That little “nurse” was going to be picked up by somebody, because she was never getting home on her own. Why did she take my wife’s hand? Is it because she recognized her as a Mom? I hope so. On behalf of her real parents, out there walking on their own thin ice, I sincerely hope so.
The terror of having to let our kids out of our sight
By BRAD WARTHEN
Brad, that is one of the most powerful stories I’ve read.
I had a similar experience walking a student home to her dorm at USC – drunk girl lost and helpless. My guess is it happens every week at every college. There are a multitude of bad outcomes many of which are not reported.
Sadly, this is no surprise. We read about this happening to our HIGH SCHOOL students. A former student of mine was killed in the Midlands recently in an alcohol related accident.
In a survey of students, the respondents listed the top influences in their lives. 50 years ago church was in the top 5. Now it’s barely in the top 20. Kids are now raised in an era of partying being glamorized and immediate gratification in all aspects of life.
The U.S. faces tremendous domestic issues. The infrastructure was the hot topic a few months ago. The water shortage is now the crisis du-jour. We may be the modern Roman Empire having overextended ourselves and allowing the foundation of our society crumble.
Brad: It’s not that often I agree with you, but this commentary was your best. I agree with you 100 percent. I am hopeful this commentary will be picked up nationally. This message needs to reach as many parents of college aged kids as possible. I am so sorry for your daughter’s loss of her friend, David. She will not “get over it with time” as so many naive, but sincere and well meaning friends will say to her. She will learn to live with the daily pain with the support of good parents, her extended family and friends. My son was a friend of Emily Yelton, the Clemson Ocean Isle victim. We told him that he can best celebrate Emily’s life, by living his life with a conscious respect and appreciation for every day, by fully working to have a passion in his life for whatever he wants to do and with a zest and quest for love and happiness that she and those other six would want him and all of their friends to do. I would hope your daughter can do this for her friend, David. Thank you for this message. Homeboy
Kudos to your wife and to you for your on-target editorial re our acting police chief. I’ve heard his excuses. They don’t cut it. It’s an issue of morality.
This is a needlessly confusing story. Are we equating a 6 year old wandering around while her mom is busy at a mall jewelry counter, or a college student? The way you put it suggests that by the time someone reaches college age they haven’t learned the importance of keeping their wits about them and need to stay close to their parents.
It’s confusing only if you think college kids are adults. Anyway, thanks for breaking the tension. I was wondering when one of my “Aww, Dad! Leave us alone!” correspondents would be heard from. Now we can go on with our day, knowing all the forms have been observed…
Randy E. wrote:
“Kids are now raised in an era of partying being glamorized and immediate gratification in all aspects of life.”
I agree that, anecdotally, this appears to be true. However, it seems to imply that today’s youth are drinking more (due to the post it is a response to…not anything Randy E. says directly). However, there is direct evidence that today’s youth are drinking LESS than in previous years. I have pasted a key table into a .pdf file and put it on my website. It is from a report by Monitoring the Future I urge you to check out the full report( there is a link on the page).
Some substance abuse is up, but some is down (drinking, for example, is down).
Today’s youth aren’t the narcissistic trolls they are sometimes made out to be. For example, did you know that research shows that this generation of young people volunteer in their community at higher rates than ANY generation EVER?
Do I wish that some of that volunteerism would translate into voting and political activity? Of course. However, let’s not write these kids off. They’re not so bad.
Old enough to die in Iraq, but not old enough to make it through college without Mommy and Daddy?
It’s the kids who are walking on the thin ice, not the parents. Ignoring all the signs that say “Danger, danger, go back!” they proceed forward, drink in hand, to try and make it to the next party.
>> David was thrown from the vehicle.
I wondered this when I read your original post. Was this boy not wearing a seatbelt?
Ironic isn’t it? It’s very obvious that a young lady is lost and needs assistance. Yet we can’t see what a waste it is to send thousands of young people to die needlessly in a land half way around the world for a totally false cause. The year of the “surge” is now the deadliest year in this whole stupid Iraq occupation:
U.S. Casualties By Calendar Year
Year US Deaths US Wounded
2003 486 2,411
2004 849 8,003
2005 846 5,948
2006 822 6,398
2007 851 5,411
Total 3854 28171
My impression, Doug, is that David was not wearing a seatbelt — but I have no official verification of that.
bud is employing the "troops as victims" thing that I wrote about previously. I still feel the same way about that now that I did when I wrote about it in 2005.
Here’s a digression, based on the similar thing that Doug said: It reminds me of the argument, "If they’re old enough to be in the military, then they’re old enough…"
There’s a logical fallacy in that argument when you apply it, say, to voting. Perhaps 18 year-olds are old enough to vote. I have doubts about that, but at the same time, I know 18-year-olds I’d much prefer to see voting — based on judgment as well as factual knowledge and understanding — than a lot of 50-year-olds.
But the discernment and maturity required of a private soldier who’s been conditioned to follow commands out in the field is very different from the sort of discernment to make political decisions that we hope comes with maturity. Think about it: A voter in a presidential election is making a choice between candidates who represent differing approaches to national security policy. That means that in the command structure, the voter is functioning (theoretically, ideally — and that’s what we’re talking about, who theoretically makes a good voter) at a higher decision-making level than that of any four-star general.
So it doesn’t naturally and logically flow.
What we’re really doing is making a moral decision regarding citizenship, not a logical one. If a person is old enough to make a commitment at this level, then they should be allowed to vote. In that light, I have a proposal to consider: How about if we let 18-year-olds vote if they are currently serving in, or have served in, the military?
Just a thought.
Brad, similar logic was used in years gone by to disallow women, blacks and non-property owners from voting. The whole “currently serving” criteria is highly insulting to those that choose, correctly in my opinion, not to serve for reasons of conscience. It’s very clear that serving in our military today, as run by the current incompetent chickenhawks in power, is immoral given that they are likely to end up actively supporting an illegal and counterproductive occupation of a harmless nation many thousands of miles away.
Actually, bud, the historic discrimination you refer to bears no logical resemblance to what I just said.
Speaking of logic, though… if the problem with these “chickenhawks” you speak of is that they failed to serve, then what again is your objection to service as a condition for enfranchisement?
I thought we were way beyond requiring citizens to pass a test in order to be eligible to vote. In fact I believe it is unconstitutional. By requiring “service” as Brad calls it, one must qualify to be a member of the armed forces meeting certain requirements for physical and mental competence. This could be mitigated somewhat by allowing other types of non-military service but the “test” aspect is likely to still exist. That’s one problem.
But the bigger problem with what Brad proposes is simply that military service should not be regarded as a virtue in and of itself. Brad, along with many hawks, seem to worship those in uniform far beyond any real good a soldier actually accomplishes. To me a soldier has no particular virtue above any other person who is performing a job. A fireman, accountant or pizza delivery guy all perform a valuable service and as long as they do their jobs well and honestly they serve an important need. So why not require service as an accountant before granting the right to vote? It would make just as much sense.
Um, to get the comments back to the actual article, this is one of the few times that I have been moved by one of Brad’s pieces.
I read your article and wondered if it was one of my students. It seems that almost every weekend one or more than one of my students is “busted” for something either in a car or at a party. I am terrified every Friday. Being caught with cigarettes or alcohol is one thing; being killed in a moving bullet while driving drunk or riding with someone drinking drunk while motoring out of control down a dark highway is another.
My youngest is at CofC. I hear her stories every week about the students on her hall coming in drunk or stoned. It’s terrifying. They could be mugged or kidnapped. Killed.
Thank you for getting that young lady home. Her parents will never know, I am sure, but I’ll thank you from the bottom of this teacher’s heart for caring.
I wish the students at Ocean Isle had been smart enough not to smoke (if that’s what it was). 🙁