One day, driving back from a zoo in rural Oklahoma, I spotted what looked like three small children sitting on the edge of a state highway. It was a two lane road, on a long flat stretch way out in the country--semitrailers were roaring by at 80 miles an hour. I glanced back and didn't see a car, or any sign of an adult. I looked again in the rearview mirror and finally pulled over, hundreds of yards past where the kids were huddled together--three of them, their heads bent, staring at their feet. I backed up in the breakdown lane as carefully as I could while my boys were freaking out, yelling MOM WHAT ARE YOU DOING MOM WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHAT ARE YOU DOING???
After pulling as far from the road as I could, I got out of the car and approached the three children. The oldest, I swear, was no more than five years old. The other two looked about two and three. They stared at me with big eyes, terrified.
The oldest boy was gripping a cell phone in his hand.
"Hi, " I said, keeling down. "I'm a mom --I have my kids in the car--they are about your age. We just went to the zoo." I pointed to my boys, who were hanging their heads out the window staring. The kids said nothing.
"You guys should not be out here by yourself," I said, as another tractor-trailer whizzed by just a few feet away. "Where do you live?" (teaching public school had taught me not to ask "Where's your mom" without getting more information.)
"Down there," said the oldest boy, gesturing toward a deep ditch and an impenetrable hedge of vines and barbed wire. I couldn't see where they had gotten through, or any houses.
The little boy held up his cell phone.
"Our dad said he won't come get us. He said if we got lost, we can find our own way back."
"Well, can you call him again? You can't stay here."
The little boy dialed again. I could hear a voice barking on the other end.
"He's not coming," the boy said again. His little brother and sister looked utterly dejected. I peered again at the hedge. Not too far down the road, I could see a road that curved back toward this way--maybe it would lead to their house.
We waited. More trucks went by and the ground shook. Most were going so fast they didn't even notice our odd little group. I looked at the little boy clutching his phone, his tiny brother and sister each gripping an arm.
"You can't stay here," I said again. "It's too dangerous. It's dangerous for my kids to be sitting in my car up there. If I drove you, could you show me where you house is?"
At this the poor kids looked absolutely petrified. At least someone had told them not to ride with strangers--but what a joke--they maybe weighed 50 lbs all together! I could have wrestled them all into my car--but only at the risk of frightening them to death, getting bitten, or by the looks of these poor kids, getting arrested for kidnapping at the request of some seriously scary-ass redneck dad when I did get them home. As for that cell phone keeping them safe--all I would have had to do was take it out of the little guy's hand.
We waited. After maybe fifteen minutes, I had finally decided to call the police to come get them when I heard a man shouting from other side of the ditch. One massive red forearm punched through the bramble hedge, pushing down a strand of barbed wire. A face appeared under a tattered baseball cap. There were teeth missing, and tattoos. It was the dad. He yelled something incomprehensible at the kids. I gave him the nastiest look I could. Then I bent down and to the oldest boy.
"Listen, " I said, "You can't ever come back here. Don't ever come near this road again--okay? Next time, it might not be a mom who stops--anyone could have picked you up. Do you understand?" He stared at me and nodded seriously.
His dad, trapped in the hedge, yelled something that sounded like "Frickin dagnabbit y'all!" I stood up. The three kids scampered for the opening in the hedge. I watched them climb over the barbed wire and disappear. The dad didn't give me a backward glance.
I thought, You're welcome! You total disgrace to Oklahoma fatherhood!
Letting three preschoolers go free range with a cell phone!
I got back in my car. My boys were silent. I did not normally pull off the highway and confront abandoned children. All I could say the whole ride home was "Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God."
Palmer finally said, "Mom! Why do you keep saying that?"
I tried to explain. They glazed over at "Parents really should never...."
I promised myself I would try to teach my kids sense instead of cell phone skills. Whether or not I have succeeded-- the jury is still out. If anyone sees my kids on the side of a highway, please let me know.