Thursday, October 8, 2015

Flash non-fiction

This week, Chuck Wendig challenged us to write, not fiction, but creative non-fiction. I certainly nailed the non-fiction, but this one is not so creative. It might even be a little flat. There's a reason for that.

In this story, I refer to my sons as Eldest Son (or ES) and Second Son (SS). From the beginning of my involvement in social media, I have declined to use their names, and it seems only fair that I give them that small token of privacy.

March, 2002

Spring break, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We have come, as we do most years, with our two sons and my husband’s parents, to do some camping and hiking and look for spring wildflowers. This time, the first thing we do nearly changes our family forever.

Sunday, 10 a.m. We join a ranger-led hike to explore an area with Native American artifacts. Eldest Son (4 ½) is being a little difficult, and won’t put on his sun shirt or sweatshirt. To avoid holding things up, we let it go, insisting only on his sun hat. The first stop for the group is yards from the parking lot, and next to our son’s favorite kind of playground—a giant pile of boulders. He starts climbing around, and I decide that he needs his sun shirt, and run back to the car to get it, calling to him to come back down.

When I return, there is no sign of ES. Leaving our 3-year-old with his grandparents, my husband and I search all through the pile of rocks. Did ES fall into a gap somewhere and get stuck? It is completely not like him to wander off. After 10 minutes, we tell the ranger and get more help. Immediately, the ranger calls off the hike, collects our best guesses as to where our son might have gone, and asks hike participants to search if they are willing. Everyone searches, but we do not find our son. The wind is blowing hard, so that shouts cannot be heard more than a few feet away. It has been a fairly wet winter, and the plants are tall—taller than a petite 4-year-old.

Somewhere in the next two hours the ranger calls in reinforcements, and the S&R team asks all the amateurs to come back in. We thank them, and begin the really hard part: sitting and waiting. My mother-in-law puts aside her own worries, and makes sure we all eat lunch, including Second Son, who behaves incredibly well through the entire day. Then we wait some more.

The crowd in the parking lot grows, with us on the edges, more observers than part of it all. A volunteer S&R team comes in with horses. An airplane and chopper fly over, but high winds soon ground them. S&R brings in a giant RV to use as HQ, and sets up a tent to provide shelter for the searchers. I find myself standing at the edge of the desert, peering into the brush in hopes of seeing…something. Someone comes to offer me comfort. I think it might be the Park Superintendent. He says nothing, just offers silent comfort. There must a hundred people involved, many of them volunteers who dropped everything on a Sunday afternoon to come to our aid.

Various members of the team come to us from time to time, to ask questions. What is ES wearing? We all know it’s a t-shirt with stripes, but no one can agree on which shirt and what color the stripes are. The blue sun hat is easier. They ask about anyone who might have left the parking lot while we were all out. They are starting to wonder if he’s out there at all, or if someone snatched him. That seems too far-fetched to worry us. No, he’s out there somewhere.

It is fairly late in the day when the Border Patrol dog team arrives. They ask for something with our son’s scent, and we have to hunt a bit to come up with something he wears and his brother doesn’t, since the two are the same size and share clothing.

Later, they tell us that the dogs and the trackers found and lost the trail repeatedly. ES wandered in loops and circles and twists, searching in the tall grass (over his head) for the way back to us, and a small boy doesn’t leave a lot of spoor. Teams of dogs come and go, and it seems like they are making no progress.

It is nearly 5:00—almost 7 hours from when we lost track of our son—when my husband see a group of Border Patrol trackers coming towards us across the desert, a bundle in the arms of the leader—a bundle wearing a bright blue hat. We leap from the camper where we have been waiting, and sprint across the desert, dodging cacti and ignoring calls to be careful.

My husband is faster, so he reaches the searcher first, grabbing our son. When I reach the group, I snatch ES from his father (mothers can get rather possessive at such times, I find!). We are immediately hustled into the S&R ambulance, where an MD checks him over. I stay there, hanging onto my son, while my husband stays with the searchers, to learn more, and to thank everyone.

ES is dehydrated, and edging toward hypothermia, thanks to dropping temps and the chilling wind, but he perks up quickly as he sips rehydration fluids from his own sippy cup. Eventually, the doctor lets me carry ES outside, so that all the searchers can see that he really is okay. We have our pictures taken with the searchers, and with the dogs (I think I kissed the dogs. I may have kissed their handlers, too). Everyone needs to see him, to reassure themselves that this search has had the right outcome.

It is 7 p.m. before we return to our campsite and make dinner. We decide the next day to continue with our vacation as planned, since ES seems to have recovered fully. Over the next few days, we learn that he had tried to return to us, been unable to climb down the way he went up, and gotten lost in the tall brush, full of apparent trails that “went the wrong way.” He stopped to use a cat-hole, and tried to eat ants (which were NOT tasty). He rested a lot under bushes, out of the sun and wind. That made him harder to spot, but possibly saved him by slowing dehydration and chilling—as did the hat, which he never took off.

Some might wonder that we continued with the trip, and continued to let our sons test their limits and explore their world (though we kept a somewhat closer eye on them!). But to us, that was important. You prepare your child for the world, but you can’t keep them from the world. The incident left scars on us, but not on our sons. As it should be.
 ©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

I have blotted the names of family members. I am happy to print the names of rescuers, who deserve all the praise and love we can give them!


  1. Oh, boy.

    I went off to the swimming pool on my own when I was about three. I know my parents got all the neighbours out, but I only remember my dad finding me at the letter box at the end of one of the roads on the way back from the pool, since they hadn't let me in on my own. We didn't go swimming that day. You know, I never thought of how my parents felt when they couldn't find me before. I am an insensitive, selfish person, but I've known that for years.

    You've written it brilliantly. I'm glad you carried on with the vacation. What does ES remember of that day now, I wonder - and SS as well (I must ask my brother about my event).

    1. Second Son was not quite 3, and doesn't remember it at all. Eldest Son remembers a few things--he tried, at one point, eating ants, and he still remembers that they tasted awful. Mostly he only remembers now what we have said about it. Which is interesting, because for years we didn't talk about it--it made us too upset. Many of my friends here that I've known since the kid started grade school have never heard the story.


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