There are some places we may assume are safe, but no place is absolutely safe. I learned this lesson when I was 16.
I lived with my mother and stepfather in a very large apartment complex. The layout of this complex included about a half dozen, two-story apartment buildings, all surrounding a swimming pool. One might think a swimming pool encircled by all those eyes, ears, and windows, would be a safe place for a dip in the chlorinated water.
My mother and stepfather decided to have a pool party. My stepbrother and his wife, and a couple of my stepfather’s friends and their wives, attended this soiree. The festivities began with beer and snacks, inside our tiny apartment’s living room. After the mind-debilitating effects of the poisonous alcohol began working its magic, the revelers debouched from our small habitat and headed for the pool.
It was a cool, overcast day in San Diego, that November afternoon. All the other tenants were snuggled indoors near their wall furnaces. So we had the lukewarm pool to ourselves.
A volleyball net bisected this outdoor natatorium, and one of the tipplers grabbed a volleyball and called for a game. Sure, what the hell, they all shrugged. I joined half of them on the shallow end, while the other half squared off against us on the deep end. I didn’t swim well, so I was glad to be on the side where my feet could touch the concrete.
After a few sets of knocking the ball around, things began to drag. No drunk at a party can stand for that, so somebody livened up the action, and I got one of the shocks of my life. My stepbrother sneaked up behind his dad, grabbed his swimming trunks and yanked them down.
I gasped. My stepfather was a prideful, crosspatch of a man, whose sense of humor did not abide this sort of affront. Especially when he’d been drinking. I expected a harsh backlash that would spell a sudden end to the party. So I got my next shock when he responded with laughter and just pulled his trunks back up, with a grin.
Next thing I knew, everyone was getting pantsed in the water. Except me. I was 16, and very shy about my body. I felt mortified about the prospect of my bare ass being exposed, even if underwater. So I held on tight to my trunks whenever anyone approached, especially from behind. There were a few abortive attempts, but the pranksters soon realized that I meant business, and gave up.
After about a half-hour of this frivolity, the drunks were ready to get out of the pool and go back inside where the beer was. But I opted to remain in the water. I’d been learning to swim, and wanted to practice a few laps.
One of my stepfather’s friends also decided to stay behind.
He was a big, husky man in his early-40s. He trained greyhounds to race at the nearby Agua Caliente racetrack, in Tijuana. And he had lived for awhile in the motel near the border, that my family had managed, until we moved to this apartment complex a few months before. That’s how he had become friends with my stepfather.
He was always friendly to me, but I tried to avoid him. He was a little too friendly, and I’m wary of people like that. And he talked about sex a lot, whenever he was visiting my stepfather. I thought he was a little weird.
But he kept to himself, in the pool, and I was able to swim my laps without much interaction with him. I felt safe there. After all, this was a public place, surrounded by many homes.
I was improving at swimming, and enjoyed getting in a little practice. But finally I tired of this exercise, and headed for the ladder at the deep end. I didn’t notice him swimming up from behind.
Halfway up the ladder, he yanked my swimming trunks down, then threw his arms around my waist. He pulled hard on me, trying to get me off the ladder. I shouted a protest, something like, “Hey, I don’t want to play that game! Let me go!” But this was no game. There was no laughter. He just kept pulling on me.
I felt terrified. I instinctively realized that if I reached down for my swimming trunks, he’d be able to drag me off the ladder and into the deep water. There, I would be helpless for whatever he was planning, which I could only imagine with dread. So instead of reaching for the trunks, I wrapped my arms around the bars of the ladder and held on tight while shouting, “Help!!!”
I cast my gaze desperately about, at all the windows of all those apartment buildings. Surely someone would hear me, peer through their window, and see what was going on. There was no way this creep could get away with this in broad daylight, in such a public place.
But to my dismay, nobody responded to my cries for help. No alarmed faces appeared in windows. It was as if the apartment complex was abandoned. Nobody came to my rescue. I was alone in my struggle against this assailant.
He angrily commanded me to let go, but I held on tight to my one and only savior. The ladder. He was much stronger than me, but when you wrap your arms around the bars of a swimming pool ladder, it probably requires a team of mules and a crowbar to pry you off.
Finally he must have realized I wasn’t going to budge. And that the longer I kept yelling for help, the greater the chance somebody would hear me and catch him in this criminal act. So he released me and swam away.
I instantly pulled my trunks up and scrambled up the ladder. Then I fled, running for the safety of my apartment. Once inside and safe, I headed for my bedroom without saying a word to any of the drunken partiers.
I figured nobody would believe me anyway. Hell, they’d take his side. And I realized he could pass this off as a misunderstanding, arising from an innocent continuation of the pantsing game. I felt no confidence that my mother or stepfather would take me seriously.
I heard him enter the apartment a few minutes later and tell his wife that it was time to go home. I stayed in my bedroom until I was sure they were gone.
He was a smart one. He’d been around my stepfather long enough to realize what an abusive asshole he was. So he must have calculated that I was an easy target. When kids have a bad relationship with their parents, they rarely share their vulnerabilities. An embarrassing thing like an attempted rape is nothing one would want to divulge to a person who has belittled and demeaned them most of their life.
So my stepfather’s friend was safe. I never told on him. This left him free to find new targets and new victims. I regret that, but at the time I felt too afraid to talk about it to anyone. I trusted nobody.
I finally told my sisters about it when I was 53. And they understood, because they had been molested as children also. I was just another member of the club. Though not a full member, like them. Their predators had succeeded, so I was pretty fortunate. They shared some of their experiences, and their stories were much more horrifying than mine. I felt aghast at what some men do to children. And these men were trusted family members.
I doubt our society will ever be rid of the crime of child molesting. I think it’s been going on for thousands of years, and will likely continue for thousands more. But I believe there are things parents can do to reduce the likelihood of it happening to their little loved ones.
I think one of the best ways is to always maintain a strong level of mutual trust. When it’s clear to family members, friends, neighbors, and other acquaintances that the children of a household feel safe to tell their parents anything, I think those children are far less likely to become targets.
And of course another way, is to never assume that a public place is a safe place.