Hit the Road Jack

Written by Robert Parish

Just like that, our four-year-old son Jack had left the building. He exited through a sliding glass door. It was cold and dark outside. We weren’t sure whether he was wearing his sneakers. We had no idea where he’d gone. Or, what inspired him to leave. We did know, however, Jack wouldn’t be coming back on his own. He was off and running somewhere in his own little world, which unfortunately, isn’t always totally connected to ours.
This wasn’t the first time Jack had vacated the relative safety of the comfortable home he’s known for most of his short life. His maiden unannounced voyage happened a year ago. I found him about a half-mile away at a construction site, happily playing in a pile of rocks. A few months later, he strayed into our detached garage, where I discovered him trying on empty cardboard boxes.

Jack has left us in his cloud of dust other places too — the mall, the park, his grandparent’s cavernous house. He never gets much of a head start. He doesn’t need one. Jack accelerates like Michael Johnson. He’s as elusive as Barry Sanders. And, his fearlessness would awe Indiana Jones.

We love Jack deeply. We watch him like a hawk. And, our split-level is a child-proofed fortress, complete with a sophisticated alarm system and double-locked doors that often befuddle the most rational adult.

Our handsome little blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy is prone to unsupervised wanderlust, and other risky endeavors, because he’s afflicted with a perplexing communication disorder that — in the opinion of several renowned national experts — resulted from persistent ear infections and medically-misguided overtreatment with antibiotics.

Jack’s condition — which has many unpalatable labels, including “Multi-System Developmental Disorder” and “Autism” — has placed him way behind his chronological peers when it comes to relating to reality. Although he’s probably the most affectionate child I’ve ever had the pleasure to be around, Jack has no sense of danger. He knows his name, but rarely responds when it’s called.

Jack looks like a “typical” pre-schooler. And, when he’s not operating at his usual Road Runner-like-250-miles-per-hour, he’s entirely capable of acting like one. Those fleeting moments — when the “real” Jack swoops down from the clouds and firmly plants his spirit right in front of our faces — are the ones that keep us focused, and inspired. We’re working with a team of the best health care professionals in the country to ensure his complete recovery. And, we have every reason to believe he’ll join us for good someday.

However, as the minutes ticked by on this terrifying night, his mother, sister and I coped with the harsh reality that we might never see his smiling face again.

Our frantic search began almost immediately after my wife Diane, in the kitchen cooking dinner, felt a draft coming from the playroom where Jack had been watching one of his favorite Disney movies, “The Fox and the Hound.” Somehow, Jack managed to open a very secure patio door. He’d been off to the races for maybe five minutes. Knowing that was plenty of time for him to vanish in the darkness, we acted quickly. Diane grabbed a flashlight and began combing our yard and the surrounding wooded area. Our five-year-old daughter Courtney and I ran through the house to make sure he wasn’t playing somewhere inside.

After 10 minutes, the three of us had come up with nothing. Hands trembling, I picked up the phone and dialed “911.” Diane alerted the neighbors — who wasted no time joining our effort — and then took off toward the elementary school, a place where Jack spends several hours during the week in a “special” pre-school.

Moments after my call, a very calm police officer arrived on our doorstep. I explained the situation. He called for back-up, a “K-9” unit, and a heat-seeking helicopter. Before long, patrol cars from three other jurisdictions arrived. Two dozen Boy Scouts appeared out of nowhere. In all, probably 40 people were now fanned out looking for our son.

30 minutes after Jack’s escape, his big sister started sobbing. She was the first to express the horrifying thought that was lurking in the back of all our minds. “What if Jackie gets hit by a car?” she wailed. “Will he die?” A visiting grandmother enticed Courtney into her daughter’s den with the promise of cartoons. I took four newly-arrived policemen through our house, and then showed them some of Jack’s favorite outside haunts.

My wife returned from the school out-of-breath and empty-handed. It was her turn to cry. We exchanged reassuring hugs. Then, at Diane’s urging, I jumped in my car and raced to a backyard that Jack was especially fond of. Arriving there, I inspected every nook and cranny, even crawling inside a dog house. No Jack. I hopped the fence, got back into my car, and began speeding around the tree-lined streets of our community.

Now, a little over 60 minutes into this surreal nightmare, it was my turn to crack. As I stepped on the accelerator, I was overcome with a feeling of helplessness. Several blocks down the road, my entire being was transformed into a teetering mass of panic and hysteria.

Gruesome images swept through my mind. What if Jack had fallen into a ditch, a septic tank, or some other god-forsaken abyss? I recalled Courtney’s heartfelt “hit by a car” remark, and immediately thought of a bordering unlit highway, where vehicles of all shapes and sizes generally travel well above the 50 mile-per-hour speed limit.

Slamming on the brakes near Jack’s school to gather myself, I tried as hard as I ever have to tune into my occasionally solid intuition, praying for a much-needed clue. But, I couldn’t get past my swarming imagination. I looked at my watch. Its hands were unkind. Elapsed ordeal time: two hours. I could think of nothing else to do but go home. Driving up our usually quiet cul-de-sac, I noticed a commotion at the end of the street. Something was up. My heart began thrashing again.

I parked the car, and hurried to Diane, hoping for good news. Even though she was crying again, I could tell by the way she embraced me that our little nomad had been rescued.

My relief quickly turned to disbelief when Diane told me where Jack was discovered. A passing motorist found him almost two miles away, scampering around in the dark, in the middle of that perilous adjacent highway. Somehow, Jack survived another head-on collision with reality. No thanks to Walt Disney, the hounds had won again. And, our little fox was safe for another night.

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