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I Ain't Lost, Just Wandering

I was reminded recently of this quote: "Not all who wander are lost.” I think that’s true. But then again, sometimes you get lost. Literally. Like, really I have no idea where I am or how to get home lost. I’m great at this. It’s a core strength. I started young and kept at it.

There's this picture of my Dad and me- I'm about 3 years old and we're out by the pool in a beach motel at the the Jersey shore. I'm leaning towards him and he's got his hand out in a come on come on gesture. But I've gone as far as I can go because I'm wearing a leash. Well, a harness really. It looks a bit rigged up like it's made from some left-over fabric. One end is wrapped around my chest and the other, I assume because it's out of frame, is tied to a deck chair.

As a child I was always wandering off, getting lost. Especially at the beach- I'd just see something interesting - some sea shells, another kid, and off I'd go. I guess sometimes I'd be scared when I realized I was alone; on the beach everyone sort of looks alike. All those legs and colorful beach towels and umbrellas. But it always ended well - usually I’d end up with the lifeguards, sitting up high on their big wooden chairs and eating an ice cream cone. This happened so often that the harness became a thing. I don’t know for sure, but I think the harness tactic came into effect after a particularly scary wandering story. This one didn’t happen within the relative safety of the sleepy beach town where we spent our summers, but at home, in our neighborhood.

Our family home at that time was in a nice neighborhood in Havertown, Pennsylvania. Havertown was a middle-ish class place mainly populated with Irish and Italian first generation American families. Lots of Catholics. Our house was pretty big, 5 bedrooms, three stories, plus a basement. And there were lots of hidey-holes, closets, crawl spaces to explore. After all we were 6 kids, 2 parents, the occasional grandparent/uncle/sleeping it off bar customer, not to mention the dog. There was almost always a dog.

My sister and I were the only 2 kids who weren't in school yet. Kimmie was about 5 years old and i was a toddler, maybe not even 2. Normally we’d be at home with our mom while my dad was at the bar but recently my grandmother, who helped run the business, hadn’t been feeling well and needed help. So my mom would go in a few days a week to hostess and help out. My dad would come home to watch us and catch up on his “bookwork.” Which, in layman’s terms, means “take a nap.”

It was during this nap (before which my dad had cleverly covered his bases, telling Kimmie to “watch the baby” before dozing off) that i must have decided to blow that joint and toddle out the front door to find my next great adventure. Dad woke up and found Kimmie playing by herself. When he got an unsatisfactory answer to “where’s the baby?” they searched the whole house, opening broom closets and crawl space doors, checking the clothes dryer, the weird bathroom upstairs that nobody would use because that one time the water came out brown, under beds, in the back yard. Just as my mom was pulling into the driveway, he had to conclude that I was not in or around the house. I was lost again.

My mom said that when she got out of the blue bomber (her trusty station wagon) she knew something was really wrong because Dad was standing outside waiting for her. I can only imagine how panicked she must have felt. Losing me at the beach was bad enough, but at least there the ground was soft, and there were other kids and people around and - most importantly - there were NO CARS. At home, we lived on the corner - one side of our home was on a very busy street where the speed limit was a near-Autobahn level 35 MPH. My brother had recently been hit by a car in that very street. He recovered fully, but the doctor told my mom and dad that he was lucky because his bushy, you -need-a-haircut hair probably saved him from getting brain damage. But living on that street with 6 kids was tempting fate, and with people driving like maniacs, really, how much longer could their luck hold out?

My dad called the police.

Meanwhile, I was having a grand old time. My memories of this day are slim to none - the slim portion probably just the result of having heard the story so often. By all accounts I’d gotten out of my crib (was I an acrobat?) and left the house wearing my diaper and little else- maybe a t-shirt. I’d taken a left out the front door, headed to the big scary main road and turned right heading toward the town center.

This was the 70s so while kids did run wild and helicopter/attachment parenting was decades away , it was still a bit unusual to see a 2-year old on her own. It didn’t take long for someone to stop and check out the situation. A woman pulled over, put me in the car and drove off.

I can imagine that she asked me where I lived and who my parents were, but I didn’t know the specifics and I don’t think kids really start carrying ID until at least 3 years old so I wasn’t much help. Like a good citizen, the lady took me to the police station.

It should be noted here that this part of the story differs depending on the teller. Some say the lady put me in the car and drove me directly to the police station. Others claim that she was running late for a doctors appointment and took me with her there first. Still another claims there was a birthday party and she needed to stop there first. That last one really seems unlikely, but that's how it goes in big families.

My Dad knew every cop and fire fighter in three counties, and was well acquainted with the chief of police, Frank Pulaski. I guess Frank must not have known me, so when the nice lady dropped me off, Chief Pulaski had no choice but to plop me onto the desk and wait for the inevitable call of alarm from some poor mom (or in this case, hapless dad) who turned their back “for just one minute” and let me escape. When my Dad finally did call, probably saying something like, “Well Frank, we have a little problem over here. You see, it’s the damnedest thing, but the baby went missing.” The Chief was able to tell him not to worry, I was safe and sound and waiting for him at the police station. My Dad said he arrived and there I was, in all my glory, surrounded by cops and eating a McDonald’s hamburger. After this incident, the harness and vigorous training sessions to help me memorize my name, address and phone number were put into effect.

What is it about getting lost? Is it just that I have a very poor sense of direction (true), that I don’t pay attention (sometimes true) or is it about seeking out and toddling after new experiences? Or is it about escape? My sister Lynda once told me that if I ever write my memoirs I 'should call it “anywhere but here” because I was always running off somewhere.

I’m the traveler of the family. And with those travels come the inevitable joys, heartaches, wonders, and dangers. I took off to live in NYC without a real plan. I lived in Japan for 5 months and spent an entire day hopelessly lost and sweating in the Osaka train station. I moved to London for a year, traveling all around western Europe trying to help my company from losing a major account. On vacation in Southern Africa, we were nearly charged by an irritated elephant. Recently, exactly no one in the family was surprised to hear that while on vacation to Costa Rica I took over control of the hopper flight from the pilot for a few minutes. They were only slightly surprised when they got a text from me that on that same trip saying I’d been thrown from a horse, medi-vac’d to the hospital and diagnosed with a broken back. To their knowledge I’d never expressed any interest in flying airplanes or riding horses, but they’d come to expect the unexpected where I’m concerned.

All this to say, despite the getting lost, I’ve never lost my love of wandering. Next stop: Thanksgiving in Trinidad and Tobago!

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