By WENDY HODGE
When last we met, I was parked on the access road next to the local park in my town — the Monkey Park, as all Opelikans know it — where animals seemed to roam and enjoy summer days and the occasional snow flurry as often as children have over the decades.
Today, though, I close my eyes and I’m back in the summer of 1974. It is a quiet afternoon with an exhausted sun sinking slowly behind the trees. There is a hum in the air, a mechanical song made by air conditioners laboring in the 100 plus degree weather. In the distance, from the other side of the park, the laughter and shouts of kids in the rec center swimming pool echo through the trees. This side of the monkey park is quiet. Behind me is an elementary school with a tennis court attached to the grounds.
I am here with my sister, Carol, and her best friend, Donna. They have come to play tennis, and they’ve been sweet enough to let me tag along. They often included me when they went shopping or took walks or came to the park. I adored them both — Donna, because she made gorgeous ball gowns by hand for my Barbies, and Carol, because, at 14 years older, she was the woman I wanted to grow up to be.
Carol was a student at Auburn University. She was smart and well-read; she was sweet and patient; and she was funny. I envied her age and her luggage (they had stickers from several countries she had visited stuck on all four sides). Someday, I often told myself, I will own luggage like that and drive myself to the park any time I want. Carol humored me and often let me pack a few things in her suitcase with wheels and then play “airport” with me. She even made me a passport of my own one year and “stamped” it with the names of all the countries she taught me about. She loved me as much as I loved her, and she made sure I knew that.
Some of that particular day is hazy, I admit. It’s been decades. I remember that the thrill of chasing the tennis balls as they rolled around the court soon became a hot chore, and so we had decided to walk down to the park and walk barefoot through the creek and then see who could swing the highest with arms outstretched to the sky. Even though they were college girls, Carol and Donna knew how to swing just like I did.
And, in an instant, the day changed.
As we crossed the street from the tennis court to the park, a girl ran out of the park and toward us. She was wrapped in a towel and screaming words I couldn’t understand. It took all three of us a moment to process what was happening. Carol put her hands on the girls’ shoulders and calmly asked her what was wrong.
“He took my sister!” she yelled and pointed frantically towards the woods that ringed the other side of the park. “He ran out of the woods and grabbed her. They’re gone!”
Donna and I froze. But not Carol. She began running towards the direction the girl was pointing. In what felt like only a moment, she was through the park and disappearing into the trees. To say I was stunned would be an understatement. Why would she run toward the danger? What will happen to her if she finds this man who kidnapped a girl in broad daylight?! When did she learn to run like that??
The three of us stood there, Donna, the frightened girl and myself, huddled together and straining to see what wasn’t visible to us. A car horn made us all jump. Pulling up beside us was an old pickup truck with a driver who had a beard like Santa Claus and wore an Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirt. His hound dog was halfway out the passenger window, trying to catch the breeze. The driver and the dog both stared at us for a moment. We must have been a confusing sight.
Donna seemed to snap awake and told the driver that we needed help. “A man has taken this girl’s sister and carried her into the woods,” she said.
“And MY sister ran after them,” I said quickly.
The driver grabbed his CB radio — that ancient artifact from a time long forgotten — and barked out a message:
“Channel 9, we need the police ASAP over by the Monkey Park. Girl has been kidnapped. Standing by.”
Within seconds, responses began flying in. Police and other CB users alike answered back stating they were on their way or close by. The girl next to us shivered in her beach towel and cried quietly, wringing her hands and looking over her shoulder at the spot where she’d last seen her sister.
“We were swimming and decided to walk home. We were just walking, and then he took her,” she kept repeating. I don’t remember her name, but I remember that her towel was pink with purple polka dots and that her hair was braided and dripping pool water on her bare feet. And her eyes were round with terror. I will never forget her eyes.
At the exact moment a police car pulled up at the curb, we heard a yell and a crash echo through the park. Every eye turned toward the woods …
TO BE CONTINUED