Horrors We Live With Every Day

I was born and raised in New Jersey.  We lived in a couple of sleepy, small towns before moving to a mid-sized town when I was 10.  One of the towns we lived in, Clayton, is in the news this week because of the disappearance and probable murder of a 12 year old, sweet-faced young lady named Autumn Pasquale.  This morning a body was found in a recylcing bin, near where she disappeared and it is believed to be her.

My heart sunk when I first heard the story.  Child abduction stories rarely end well it seems.  Few children are found and reunited with their parents and just by looking at the pictures of this girl, I could imagine the horrors she endured.  Where my imagination takes me is one of some experience.  Not the exact same, mind you - obviously but experience nonetheless.  I am always reminded that God must have had bigger plans for me because I think back over my childhood and I wonder how I made it to adulthood.

One friend has posted two teenagers have been arrested on suspicion of her murder, a third is being sought.  If that is true, this case is going to get uglier and sadder by the minute.

What is getting to me, though, in addition to her death, is the description of Clayton as being a small, quiet town.  People are always shocked when such things happen in such places.  My question is why?  Why are we surprised?  It is the quiet, small towns where people still let their children ride bikes to friends' houses and walk to school unaccompanied.  They think of themselves as living in safe neighborhoods, safe towns.

No - I do not advocate living in fear.  Never.  But I do advocate living in awareness.  The awareness that small towns in a small world do not equal safety.  Too many lions roam among the lambs and until the day everyone bends their knee, the lions are going to feast on lambs whenever they get a chance.  Those lions have different faces, too.  If teenagers truly are to blame for the death of this young girl, what does that say about the kids living in that town?

That brings me back to my memories and wondering why people think small towns are safe.  I always get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I hear of a child gone missing but this one actually made that sick feeling a physical reality.  This little girl rode her bike to a friend's house, probably along a route I'd ridden as a little girl.  Clayton is not a town full of fond memories for me.

It is a town riddled with arson and murder and scary experiences I've only thought about briefly through the years.  We lived on Maple Street and just on our street I can remember three distinct incidences that involved quite a bit of violence.

The first - the end of Maple St. was a dead end.  The train tracks ran right through town, right past the end of our street and on one side was an old warehouse for a furniture store (whose name I can't remember) with a field next to it running right up to the tracks.  As kids we used to play in that field.  It's where the boys would hang out to watch the trains run over their pennies...

I was in that field one day, alone.  Picking flowers.  Such beautiful wildflowers grew in that field.  I happened to look up at the warehouse and in the window I distinctly remember a man pointing a shotgun (or rifle...I was about 7 and I don't know guns) at me.  Was he debating pulling that trigger?  I don't know.  Was he thinking how stupid us kids were playing down there - especially coming alone?  I have no idea.  I just know I dropped my flowers and ran.  Ran for home so fast.  I never looked back and I never again went to that field.

The second incident involved a neighbor's brother.  Or neighbor's sister & brother-in-law.  I don't recall the exact relationship.  I know one neighbor lived two houses up from us and the brother lived at the other end of the street, past the funeral home (yes - I lived on the same street as the town's funeral home).  That brother (in-law?) stabbed his wife and then killed himself.  My parents did a pretty good job of keeping that one from us but I do remember the police and ambulance activity at the house the night in question.  And I remember only walking on the other side of the street after that...

Funny what happens to memories, isn't it?  They become fuzzy...  For some memories, that's a good thing.

Around the corner from us, an abandoned house burned to the ground.  Arson.

And shortly after that, a neighbor girl was out walking.  Probably to the store to grab some groceries (back in the day when Mom gave you $5 and you took her short list to the store for her..) and on her way home she was viciously attacked by a group of young men, teenagers all of them.  She was beaten so bad she spent many days in hospital - perforated liver or ruptured kidney or...  I don't remember but it was something like that.  She was a mass of black & blue marks on her face and body when she could come home.

While she was still in the hospital, those boys were still roaming the streets together.  One day, that neighbor girl's sister and I were leaving school (our old elementary school is now a senior home, I believe) and a group of young men surrounded me.  Michelle was smart - she ran back to the school when she saw them.  I was totally unaware they were even there until I turned to say "hey... where you going?" to Michelle's back and they circled me.  They started pushing me around, bouncing me off each other and saying that I looked like a fun one, etc.  I just kept begging "Guys... please leave me alone, guys..." And I don't know why that struck them.  I called them guys.  Not boys.  And they thought that was cool.  "Guys.  She called us guys."  They left me..and started walking away.  I just stared at their retreating backs for a few minutes, still in a bit of shock, until I realized I needed to run.  I ran for the school and Michelle and we sat outside for a while, until we figured for sure they weren't coming back.  And then walked the back way home from school...

That was the end of it, though for my parents.  Clayton was no longer the town in which they wanted to raise us.  They told us we were moving to be closer to my father's work but when I was in my 20's, my father told me the real reason they left was fear for our safety and what the town was becoming. 

We moved in June, 1978.  My sister was 9 months old and we moved to Marlton.  Shortly after we left?  Our former next door neighbors were killed when someone threw a molatov cocktail (I believe that's what they're called) onto their back porch and set their house on fire.  Rumor was that was meant for my old house - a police officer and his family had purchased our home.  The three people living in that house, Stephen, Babe & Jeffrey Crane died trying to get out the front door.  If I remember the story correctly, they had a dead bolt on their front door that used a key to lock and unlock it.  In the smoking darkness of their fire riddled home, one of them knocked the key off the top of the TV onto the floor and they couldn't find it to get out.  I don't know why they didn't break a window.  Panic?  Smoke inhalation?  I don't know.  All I remember is they found the three of them inside the front door, together.

The last thing I heard about?  My church - the Methodist Church on Delsea Drive burned to the ground.  Also arson.  The man they arrested?  The husband of the daughter of neighbors who lived directly across the street from us.  She was a bit older than me but I played with her sister a lot.

This was the late 1970's.  Unless Clayton made great strides to clean up, they had serious problems 40 years ago.  It doesn't surprise me at all that this happened. 

It just makes it more than ridiculously tragic to me.  My heart aches for this family.  Aches.  I can't imagine all that they are feeling but I think about all that happened to me and wonder why her - why not me so many years ago.  It wasn't for lack of people trying way back then.  Whatever will happen in Clayton now?  How many more changes will be made?  Who will leave?  Who will stop letting their kids ride their bikes alone...  Security shattered.  Lives altered in ways no one can fathom.  What will people do?

How do we take back our towns?  How do we protect our children while still allowing them to be kids?  When will we actually accept that we don't live in a world where a child alone is ever safe?  The days of leaving our kids in their strollers, sleeping, while we shop (my mother used to do that with me in a town not too far from Clayton) are definitely LONG gone.  But.. the days of our kids riding their bikes to their friend's house are gone, too?  How sad a society are we, really?

UPDATE:  Was just reading an article about Autumn and one of her friends quoted had the last name Doughty.  That was the name on the side of the furniture warehouse at the end of our street...  Small town.  Small world. 

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