Through my seminary training and years as a pastor, I have learned the value of documentation. It is vital for the integrity of a theological paper: list your sources. It is vital for a sermon shaped to challenge and inspire those listening for God’s Word: cite your sources to give credit where credit is due. It is vital in effective pastoral care: help yourself remember the significant people and events of individuals and families, and protect yourself professionally, by keeping a record of some sort. Documentation is a vital tool of integrity, this I have learned well.
So why have I never tried to document my own life? To hunt down the sources that have contributed to who I am? To give credit where credit is due? To keep a record of significant events and people? The short answer: too busy. The long answer: too painful.
But early retirement and the sudden death of Juan, my husband and best friend of 40 years, had provided both the time and the impelling force to learn to become my own best friend.
That was why I found myself in June 2010 sitting in front of a microfilm machine in the downtown public library of San Diego, California with my youngest sister Mary, diving into my first deep excursion of personal documentation. Together, we were trailing the sources of a long-buried tragedy that had seared us both with guilt and shame since June 2, 1967.
It didn’t take much searching to find the newspaper accounts for the three days following the event. Under a school photo of first-grader Ricky, the front page headline in the national news section for June 3rd read, “Slaying Hinted in S.D. Boy’s Icebox Death.” The June 4th headline in the local news was, “Boy’s Death in Icebox Shakes Area: Clairemont Neighbors Stunned; Fatality Believed Accidental.” And the final account on June 5 stated, “Game Blamed in Refrigerator Death of Boy.”
We started with the June 3rd account. It related the massive search that “first centered in the canyons that lace the area,” by “about 40 policemen,” neighbors and the Boy Scouts of Troup 246 after his worried mother first reported to her husband, and then later to the police that little Ricky had failed to come home from school. I also said that eventually the search narrowed to our house.
What it didn’t say was that it had narrowed down to our house because as soon as I heard of the search from a Boy Scout who had come to our door asking if we’d seen him, I said “yes.” I told the young man to go get the police and waited in front of the house for them to come. Fear was gripping my 18 year-old heart. What if Ricky had decided to swim in a backyard pool kitty-corner to our yard? What had happened to him after he went through the door from our garage that went into the back yard? Fear, fear, fear.
I had just moved back home the day before, running away from fear. During my second semester of college, I had tried living in an apartment with a good friend. But her invitation to some marijuana-toting stevedores to join us after dinner one night sent me scuttling back home in fear as soon as my lease ran out. Home was also full of fears for me, but at least they were familiar fears and terrors that wouldn’t lead to a felony offense for possession and several years of jail time. (This in the state that now boasts of legal “medical marijuana” clinics!)
So, my new plan was to live at home, get a job to pay for some much longed-for braces, and continue my journalism studies in night school. I had my plans and a little pipsqueak friend of Mary’s was certainly not part of them, no more than the pot-smoking dock workers were.
What I did remember as I was waiting to show the police into our backyard, was that I had been busy painting my desk and listening to my favorite Rock and Roll radio station when Ricky rode up to me on his little bicycle. He said that he wanted to play with Mary, but I told him that Mary was changing from her school clothes. Perhaps he had told me that he would wait for her in our back yard. I may have hollered into the house to Mary that he was waiting for her, but his search for her barely registered with me, so that later I couldn’t even remember if I had looked up at him.
What Mary remembers is hearing him call her name several times as she was in her room changing her clothes. She considered him somewhat of a pest and it bugged her that he was bugging her. She yelled out that she would go out there when she had finished changing her clothes, which is what she did. It certainly did not strike her six-year-old mind to wonder why his bike was there but he wasn’t. It didn’t strike my 18 year-old mind either.
That paper says that Mary Beth, 6, had been playing with Ricky earlier in the day. Mary Beth, in fact, set out on a bicycle to search for Ricky after telling her sister, Fay, 18, that ‘I can’t find Ricky.’ She had NOT been playing with him earlier, but not finding him in the backyard, she had searched for him. His family (his parents, an older sister and a younger sister) lived five doors down us. Had Mary gone to his house or her other playmates’ and friends’ houses? We don’t know. Neither one of us even remembered that part until we read it. All she and I remember is that she gave up looking for him, then hopped in my car with me to go to the bank before it closed.
Why hadn’t the searchers come to our door in the intervening hours? Daddy was home sick with the flu that day. Was he also drunk? My 14 year-old sister, Melody, had walked Mary home from school and was in the house somewhere. Had someone knocked but nobody heard? Why had it taken our family so long to hear about his disappearance? What difference would it have made had we known sooner?
I don’t know what time it was when I sent the scout to the police with the news that Ihad seen Ricky, but it was June 2, only 21 days away from the longest-day of the year. I remember that it was mostly dark in that driveway and while I was waiting for the police, I was telling Mama the sequence of events because she had not come home from her job as a lab technician until 5:30.
I tried to give her a clear accounting of what I remembered, but it was such a non-event, my memory of it was already unclear. But what I told her and what I suspected about the pool sent Mama into a panic.
Two officers and some other searchers finally came and we led them through the gate at the side of the house. As best as I could, I was relating to the them my encounter with Ricky and my fears about the pool. Mama had moved ahead of me, anxiously leaning toward the fence that blocked our view of the neighbor’s pool. One of the searchers noticed the refrigerator that was parked next the sliding-glass door of our living room. He shone his powerful flashlight on the old appliance that my alcoholic father had bought six months earlier to keep beer cold in case he ever had a patio party. The man pulled back the long-handled lever and opened the door.
At the sound of the lever snapping open, I looked over, Mama looked over, the policemen looked over, and everything went over into slow motion: the searcher immediately closed the door; Mama’s legs gave way and she screamed as she rolled over and over in the grass; I stood stock-still, trying to figure out what it was that I had just seen; and the policemen went into action. One of them headed toward the vicinity of the refrigerator while the other scooped Mama up and ushered us both back through the side gate and into the house via the front door.
Ricky had been found and life as we knew it was over.
Will you pray with me?
O Life-Force of All that Is,
Darkness is as light to You, and night as bright as the day. But You are God and we are not. You share Your Life with us for a time, and you bring us to a world--a world of Your own making!--where silent tsunamis can knock us off our feet, toss us into the sea, and deposit us in a strange land. And we find ourselves on paths fraught with perils and traps that we cannot see. And we are lost.
Have mercy, O Brightness of Day, have mercy. Where darkness is suffocating and light seems to flicker, let Your Face shine. Where fear leads the way, give us self-confidence and courage. Help us to remember, O Life, that our plans are written in sand and that we live, and we die, in You. May we always remember that as Your creatures, we have our being and our non-being in You, and as Your children, we never walk alone.
In Your Holy Hope I pray. Amen