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I was just five-and-a-half when Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped. In February of 1974, three people forced their way into her apartment in Berkeley, California, and used guns and muscle to wrest the heiress out of the arms of her fiancé. Hearst was feared dead at first, but her parents, who had not given up hope, went on television and begged her abductors, the "Symbionese Liberation Army" to let their daughter go.
The story was headline news for months. Regularly scheduled broadcasts were interrupted to air new developments along with expert speculation as to their significance. The audio tape recording of Hearst in which she claimed that she did not want to leave her captors because she had joined their fight was huge news. Naturally, her parents believed none of it; they said their daughter had been "brainwashed," and more experts were called in to give their opinions about what was happening to the heiress. About 10 weeks after the abduction, Hearst was captured on film as she robbed a bank in San Francisco with a machine gun.
Hearst's story aired nightly on San Francisco's CBS Eyewitness News at Six, and my mother, sister and I sat in our tiny apartment watching our ancient black-and-white television (a gift from one of the "brothers" in our congregation) as the story unfolded. My sister and I would not have chosen to watch the news, but we had no choice. Since it was February, it was dark by six, so we couldn't play outside, and our only television was in the living room, which was where we kept our toys as there was positively no room to play anywhere else in the apartment.
Mom's double bed (another gift from a member of the congregation) was wedged into the tiny single bedroom so tightly that it abutted our Goodwill bunk beds. My sister had to crawl across my mother's bed to get to her bottom bunk, but I could climb up the foot and then hoist myself with an alley-oop onto the top bunk. One night, a bad dream made me want to sleep next to my mom, so I simply rolled off my bed and landed on hers. Mom must have known I was awake; I had dropped onto her bed with a jarring thud. She called my name a few times, but I knew that if I responded, she would send me back to my own bed, so I kept my mouth shut and pretended to be asleep. She eventually gave up and let me stay there.
Our apartment complex was nothing more than a parking lot flanked by two dingy, white stucco buildings; it looked like a cheap motel without a pool. My playmate, Candy*, lived in an apartment kitty-corner from ours. Hers was near the front of the complex, and one of her windows overlooked its most picturesque part: a small patch of lawn between the front of the building and Elm Street's sidewalk.
Despite the fact that my mother did not like her, Candy and I played on the lawn together. Mom felt that Candy, who was not a member of our religion, was therefore "worldly", had "some mouth on her" and was disrespectful to adults. Once established, Mom's opinions don't change.
Nonetheless, I thought Candy was super-cool. She knew so much about life and animals and books. Pets were not allowed in the apartment complex, but her family did not seem to be overly rule-bound, so she got to have a cat. My mother would never break a regulation like that, so besides Candy's cat and kittens, the only animals I encountered were cockroaches. I was awed by Candy's literary knowledge and her understanding of the code of the school yard. She taught me the rhyme that goes "eeny meeny miney moe, catch a tiger by the toe..." which was widely regarded in our neighborhood as an accepted means of resolving disputes — and a fine piece of literature as well.
Candy disappeared from our complex's front lawn in April of 1974.
When the reporters came out to cover the story, I recognized the channel 5 Eyewitness News logo, and wanted to go see the action. No way. Mom kept us hidden inside the apartment because she was afraid my dad might see us on the news.
Two years earlier, Mom had left Dad with only my six-month-old sister, me, and the clothes on our backs. Dad had known for a while that Mom wanted to leave, so he had taken me with him whenever he went out; he knew Mom would not vanish without both of her children. My sister was too small to go out for long, but I was old enough to sit in the front seat and entertain myself while he worked odd jobs as a handyman. One day, at Christmastime, Dad left without me in the family's only vehicle. Mom seized her opportunity. The minute his tail lights disappeared, she frantically called "brothers" from the Kingdom Hall and they came and got us. They asked, "city or country?" and she chose city because a big metropolis is a better hiding place than a small town. We drove across the Golden Gate and spent that night in San Francisco with some "sisters" we had never met. Mom got us on the government-housing waiting list and we eventually moved to our own apartment in the "projects." With the aid of public assistance and the congregation, Mom eked out a living, which included food, clothing, and shelter sufficient to protect us from the meteorological, if not always the criminal, elements.
The evening Candy disappeared, we watched the news as usual. Patty Hearst was the headliner, of course, and then the station broadcasted the story of my friend's abduction "live" from our parking lot. For the next few days, Candy's story aired shortly after Patty's.
They stopped airing Candy's story after about a week, but Patty's continued to headline. Her family moved from that place, and since the most my mother could muster for them was a threadbare tolerance, we didn't keep in touch.
At the time, I could not comprehend how strongly my mother disliked Candy. Mom said that the kindergartener had brought that fate upon herself.
"Yep," Mom would say, her bottom teeth flashing as they did whenever she felt strongly about something, "That little brat probably mouthed off to the wrong person. That's probably what happened to her. That girl was just asking for trouble."
Mom did not seem any more worried about Candy's disappearance than she was about Patty Hearst's. I thought that kidnappers "brainwashed" and that "brainwashing" was probably like the dental cleanings we got every six months, so I didn't worry much about Candy either.
We continued living in that complex for about a year after Candy's disappearance, and Mom continued allowing me to walk unescorted to my school bus stop four blocks away. Mom decided it was time to move after the manager tried to let himself into our apartment with his key one night. Luckily, she had long been in the habit of keeping the chain on the door whenever we were inside.
The next day, she requested another public housing apartment. When our name came to the top of the list, we moved to a two-bedroom place in a marginally better neighborhood across town. I never saw my playmate again, and I never learned her fate.