Growing up my sisters and I would spend summer days roaming the neighborhoods on our bikes, heading home when the street lights started to buzz or my dad whistled with his index fingers.
Then when I was around 8 or 9, my parents gave each of us a dog tag bracelet. It was a shiny piece of rectangular metal, on which was inscribed our home address and telephone number. We wore these around our skinny suntanned wrists.
I don’t remember being given an explanation. I don’t remember asking for one either. I assumed it was in case I kicked the bucket. (Even in death it’s good to be useful, or at least considerate of your first responders.)
When school was back in session the metal tag proved to have upsides. My peers assumed I was diabetic or allergic to bees. I let them think this for a while because it was nice to see their look of concern and soak up sympathy. I imagined them realizing in their heart of hearts that they’d taken my presence for granted. But never again. The school lunch room would be my new kingdom. Here, Aaron, sit by me. No, Aaron, over here by me. You can have my chicken nuggets.
The tag was useful for other purposes. Slouching in my homeroom desk, I could fidget the tag when I grew bored. I’d flip it over and back again. I’d twist it around until it pinched my arm hairs. I was a dog with its favorite chew toy.
Some 30 years later it occurred to me that my parents bought the identity tags shortly after Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped. Jacob Wetterling lived in a similar small town not all that far from mine. He and his friends were roaming on their bikes, much like my sisters and I would. He got in a car with a stranger and was never heard from again. I remember seeing his school picture on the back of the milk carton. He was on the bulletin board at Dairy Queen. I remember eating an Oreo Blizzard and thinking he looked like my friend’s older brother.
Buying identity bracelets was probably my parents way of braving a new world. Until Jacob Wetterling, peddling your Huffy bike unsupervised all day was childhood 101 in a small town. But times change, the world gets meaner in some ways (kinder in some ways, too). Parents are left with the hard task of figuring out how to extend the proverbial playpen.
I don’t remember when I didn’t wear the bracelet anymore. It’s one of those memories that’s hard to pinpoint, like trying to remember the last time your mother held your hand while crossing the street One day she just didn’t anymore. But looking back, you’re thankful to be on the other side.
And I wonder if someday our kids will remember this time in the same way. Maybe they’ll come across a picture of themselves wearing a mask, or they’ll be driving (flying?) the car and something will cue a memory: masking a stuffed animal or pretending to be a robber.
It’s likely they won’t remember the last time you put the mask on them. I bet, though, they’ll understand you were a parent trying your best to brave a new world.