The Long Bus Ride Home

A five year-old boy named Ethan was supposed to get off the school bus on Tuesday afternoon. Supposed to go home and play and have his supper. And the bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, was supposed to drop off all the kids in his care and go home as well.

But those things never happened.

The kindergartner, who reportedly has autism, was forced off the bus by 65 year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes, who then shot and killed the driver. Known by neighbors as a volatile, anti-government survivalist, Dykes is holding Ethan hostage in a 6 x 8 foot bunker outside his home in Midland City, Alabama.

I say he’s a damaged human being, his neurology altered long ago by a wretched upbringing. Tell me I’m wrong.

Who else beats a dog to death with a pipe and threatens to shoot children who set foot on their property?

Well, people like my former neighbors, a couple of miserable souls from my childhood. As a kid, I felt surrounded by meanness. On one side was Mr. Damon, a scrawny, hunched-over piano tuner in his seventies who wore wife-beater undershirts and couldn’t get over the fact that Hitler lost the war. On the other side of our two-story cream and brown house was Mr. Smith, a scowling former railroad engineer in his eighties. Both men shook their fists and yelled at children for stepping on their precious grass – even by accident. And both confiscated any type of ball that we didn’t catch in time.

Once I went out after a snow storm and started shoveling the Smith’s sidewalk. He stuck his head out the door and told me to go away. I didn’t want anything for it. Only kindness, maybe – something he didn’t understand.

Dykes lives in a mean shack. The news said he walks his property at night, guarding it with a flashlight and assault rifle. Just last month he shot at a woman, her son and grandchild, over damage he alleges they caused to a make-shift speed bump near his house. The son speculated that the murder and kidnapping may have been due to Dyke’s paranoia over the upcoming court date. Why didn’t the police pick him up right away? I mean, isn’t shooting at people enough of a crime? He had shown himself to be a danger to others.

I am reminded of the afternoon my 6 year-old son didn’t get off the school bus. At first I didn’t realize the bus had already come and gone. Wondering where D. could be, I took my three-year-old by the hand and together we walked along the dirt drive, past the goat runs and barn, up to the road. A dead end road. A road where children were supposed to be safe.

The only neighbor kids who rode the bus, brothers from across the way, were already out riding their bikes. “Where’s D?” I asked. “How come he didn’t get off the bus with you?”

They didn’t know. I called the school, but they didn’t know either. Even if we’d had a second car, I wouldn’t have gone searching for him; what if he came home and I wasn’t there?

Never had an afternoon seemed so long. I stood on the edge of the road where the bus should have delivered him an hour earlier, my stomach in knots. Our only phone was in the house and I went back and forth checking for messages. Something in me refused to believe a crime had been committed and I did not call the sheriff.

When the bus finally pulled up at our mail box, I was overwhelmed with relief. The image of him stepping down from that bus is as clear today as it was then, back in the early ’80s. He was the only child on the bus. I quizzed the driver. What happened? Where has my son been?

The driver said D. got on the wrong bus. It had taken him forever to figure out where we lived. Something about the man’s answer didn’t sound right, didn’t fit.  I wondered why he hadn’t called the school or the bus barn. He had a two-way radio; he could have asked for help. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he did all he could.

We were lucky. We got our boy back.  He didn’t really say what happened. I think at that age events can be kind of foggy, happenings unclear and muddled. Kids form a main perception but details are often lost. Sometimes they have bad dreams, or become afraid of people and situations due to the frightening experience. D. showed no signs of trauma.

Ethan will not be so lucky. The victim of this horrible man’s retribution, Ethan will likely suffer pernmanent scars. There’s also a chance he witnessed his bus driver’s murder, as if that were not trauma enough.

Reports say Dykes could stay holed up for more than a week. He has food, TV, electricity.  There’s no telling what magic words offered by negotiators will bring about the boy’s release. And although it seems counterintuitive, I’m thinking that empathetic responses may only make things worse, make him rebuff their efforts, as Mr. Smith did mine. There’s not really time for psychoanalysis, though, is there?

Like the Newtown shooter, I think Dykes is on a suicide mission. A hardened heart doesn’t understand the language of love. Did he have any friends at all? Or did he hate himself so much that he felt completely unworthy of human relationships? So much that he needed to hurt children who are cared for and loved, children like Ethan. Isn’t that what happened in Newtown?

We can fight about gun control, we can pass more laws. But the root of the problem is ignoring our kids. Parents need to realize one thing: words and actions have the power to create positive, trusting human beings; or human beings who despise themselves and trust no one. It’s up to each of us to decide. Day by day, minute by minute.  Prove me wrong. FFG

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