The Van, and Seeing Shadows

Friday, October 5, 2012

It looks like one of two things is going on this season. Either we have a mega-creeper putting a whole lot of mileage on the mini-van freaking out one town after another around northwest Iowa, or, we've let a scare get to us, and now we're just freaking ourselves out.

Either way, it's a shame.

We're losing something of our innocence here, and it isn't just a handful of reports of some old guy in a van calling out to kids and women. It's the whole climate we live in today, and it's sad.

There was a time in northwest Iowa, when, if you saw neighborhood kids straggling along on the way home from school, you stopped and gave them a ride home. You wouldn't do that any more. Maybe now, you wouldn't even dare pull up and wave or say hi.

There was a time in northwest Iowa, if kids were playing in your yard with your own, you fed them, whoever they were, played a little catch with them all, maybe. A call home was all it took to arrange a sleepover, or if it was getting dark, you loaded the whole batch in the car and just dropped them back home. Not any more.

There was a time in northwest Iowa, when neighbors knew each other, and neighborhoods were full of people to be treated as second families. When I was growing up in this part of the state, darn near every house was a "blue star home" - if they had one of those in the window, you knew it was a safe place to go if you needed any kind of help. Even when my children were younger, it wasn't considered a suspicious thing if an older person stopped to talk to the kids.

Trust was always the rule in idyllic, close-knit rural communities. Grown-ups were there to help kids. In a very short time, we have had to become a suspicious society that assumes the worst.

The innocence began to disappear with each report of children, even in quiet Iowa, going missing, being physically or sexually abused, often by those they trust and rely on the most. In the big picture of things, those cases are very-very-very rare, but they are real, unthinkably sad, and we see them in our very own courtroom.

With every case, a little more innocence and trust goes away. We need to fight for what we have left.

And now we have "the van." That's all you have to say at this point and everybody knows what you are talking about. In a few short weeks, "the van" has become the stuff or urban (make that "rural") legend, though the fear is based much more in rumor at this point than it is in fact.

A local scout leader friend tells me that he was speaking to one youngster who swore that he knew that children in Storm Lake were being kidnapped. What a thing to be on the minds of our children...

Of course, we have to educate our young people not to talk to strangers, and certainly not to accept rides from anyone they do not know well.

As a parent, I know the drill. Real or imaginary, if there is the slightest hint of danger, you err on the side of caution and you provide vigilance and security that would make maximum security prison guards jealous. So much as a sneeze in the night, and you leap out of bed on auto-pilot in a jiu-jitzu pose.

But perspective is needed, too.

The fact is that a few widely-spread awkward or troubling encounters have been reported. A vehicle seeming to follow someone, a driver calling out a "hey" or "hello" or "come here," or offering a ride.

And that's it. No one was has been kidnapped, no one has been harmed, no one has even been threatened. There's not really any evidence "the van" incidents are even connected.

As always, yes, parents, schools and law enforcement should keep a close eye out for our kids (the one Storm Lake report, which turned out to be nothing criminal, involved a 12 year old after 9 p.m. - what are kids doing out on the streets in the dark alone at that hour anyway?). Perhaps we should even employ the good old buddy system for adults who might normally walk in isolated places. Being careful is being smart.

But we can't let our entire lifestyle, outlook on where we live, and even our basic sense of trust be taken away from us by a very few twisted people in this world, who, if we let them, would abduct our appreciation of all that is good in the people and communities around us.

There are a few thousand white vans in the region, and we can't jump out of our skin every time one goes by.

Eventually they will catch some nut and figure out what if anything he's been up to, or they won't.

Consider. There's been half a dozen or more reports in half a dozen communities spread over a 100-mile area or so. A driver described by various witnesses as anywhere from 40 to 70s. Long hair, short hair, gray hair, dark hair, bear, no beard, glasses, no glasses, hat, no hat. A van that is white, gray, silver, tan, light blue, depending on the witness, with or without a dent, with or without a stripe, and after all these witnesses, no one has even for certain been able to say what county the plate is from or even noticed for certain what make it is?

What exactly do we expect law enforcement to do - stop every van in northwest Iowa? "Excuse me sir, were you planning to abduct people today?"

There's every possibility it will just fade away and we'll eventually conclude we were mostly seeing shadows, or that maybe at least some of these people in vans were simply trying to stop someone to ask for directions or offer a well-meaning ride.

I've spoken to both police and sheriff's departments here - they are doing all the right things, just in case, you can be sure of it. That's all any of us can do, too - remind kids to do the right things to be safe, try not to put ourselves in situations of risk, be aware of the realities of life today, but then keep it in perspective, avoid spreading rumors, and move on with living and enjoying life in our still statistically-quite-safe little communities.

I'm darn glad I don't drive a white mini-van right about now. Talk about an uncomfortable feeling. I'm also glad that the innocence we have left as a society will survive "the van" scare just fine.