This is Jacob Wetterling. 1978-1989.
I first caught up with Justin, “a quiet guy in the Midwest, waiting to be seen…” after I read something he wrote on the now-defunct Open Salon. I liked it so much I asked him if he’d be interested in writing a guest post occasionally for this site. Shortly thereafter, he sent me this insightful piece, a memoir of Generation X childhood and youth.
by Pensive Person (a.k.a Justin)
The trip was long, several miles, and we’d play tag through residential neighborhoods and race each other to specific landmarks along the way. My friend Chris and I would talk about his latest Lego creation, and Geradine and I would talk about the latest Garfield books we had checked out from the library. Our parents let us roam free and explore; the one rule: Do not cross Highway 10.
Jump Rope, Melting Candle
Mostly, though, we stuck close to home. Group games had been implanted into our heads seemingly from birth: Statue maker, T.V. Tag, Bombardment, Chinese Jump Rope, Melting Candle Tag, and even old classics like Capture the Flag and Kickball. For fairness, our tennis shoes would be placed in a circle—“bubble, bubble gum in a dish”—to determine who was “it.” Who would be the victim of circumstance?
And then, we would play, non-stop, until it started to get dark and around the neighborhood mothers and fathers would open front doors of their townhouses and yell out a name of a kid to go inside. Despite a collective groan and a head hung low, each kid would leave knowing that tomorrow would be another day.
The year was 1989, and though those plumbers Mario and Luigi had been around for several years, it hadn’t quite become the rage with us. It was something to do at night, the time of day when “outside” was not an option.
But then, with the changing of leaves and a chill in the October air, everything changed.
Fliers arrived in our mailboxes, on doors, brought home from school, and every night on the news was a picture of a young boy. He was just an average looking kid, he could have been my friend even though he was two years younger, and his school picture had the same background coloring of the one I had picked for myself.
His name was Jacob Wetterling.
Kidnapped at gun point while he and his friends were biking home from the convenience store in their small community of St. Joseph, Minnesota—60 miles from where I lived. I’m closing in on 36; Jacob would be 34. He is still missing.
At first, the changes were subtle. Parents would call us in earlier, ask us more questions, demand for “check-ins” every 30 minutes. Long bike trips to the Food N’ Fuel or to the city dam or to the video rental store were slowly phased out—there wasn’t enough time to get there and back.
Tag: You’re It.
Kids started getting more gifts from their parents: the new Zelda game, the huge grey box that was the new GameBoy, and my parents even bought me a Vic20 computer with games at a garage sale. Kids were invited to each other’s homes to play video games, to watch Fraggle Rock on HBO, and to eat Mac-N-Cheese or pizza rolls. We were inside, safe, secure, and video games slowly replaced games of tag or trips down to the creek.
Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum…As time passed and hope for finding Jacob dwindled, we couldn’t help but look out windows and see a different world. Every strange person who walked passed on the sidewalk was a tad shady, cars seemed to slow down as they passed us, and bikes were replaced with demands for rides—not because our parents insisted, but because we did.
In that world wide game we call life, with all our feet in the circle, the often cruel “bubble gum, bubble gum in a dish” selection process landed on Jacob’s innocent foot to endure a tragic fate—and it forever affected how we all played the game.
Do you remember the case of Jacob Wetterling? How did his abduction impact you?
[Pensive Person (a.k.a. Justin) is a single, introverted Sagittarian who embodies very few of the characteristics implied by that particular astrological sign. He grew up in many different communities, from a town of 200 in northeastern Wisconsin to the city of Minneapolis, and currently resides in a rural community in southeastern Wisconsin. Being a bi-centennial baby, he does not have many memories of the 1970s, but he still cringes at the thoughts of rolling his pants and having spiked hair to resemble Robert Smith from The Cure. He writes mostly to pass the time, wishing to hold on to little fragments of the past before they slip through his hands, or to write about observations on life that he may have witnessed out in about in this crazy world. But, above all else he aspires to be a “nice guy.” To best know him is to read his stuff. ]
Editor's Note: For two more posts from Generation X bloggers featuring missing person themes, visit Fourth Grade Nothing's post about Etan Patz and The Shape of X's post, Sail On Silver Girl.
Update: The murder of Jacob Wetterling was finally solved on September 3, 2016, when this monster admitted to killing.