While I would love to end our vacation story with the image of me watching my children soak in the beauty of the balloon launch, the truth is that there is more to that day. I honestly don’t really care to relive the experience that happened just after the balloon launch; however, I hope that our experiences and mistakes will help others to be better prepared.
Let me set the scene: Gary decided to leave me and Morgan at our original viewing position and take the other three boys into the balloon field to get a closer look. This was our first mistake. In the past, when we had three kids four and under we would stick together, thinking that two parents had a better chance of keeping up with three small kids. As the older boys have gotten older we have relaxed this somewhat, which led to trouble on this day.
I had just pulled out my cellphone to text Gary when it rang. “I can’t find Aidan. I need you to come to me.” And then the service faded. My whole body felt as if it were made of lead. Even now, I can feel the pit in my stomach. After three or four tries, we connected again and Gary told me where he was. I turned to get my bearings and realized our second mistake. Having never been to the balloon festival, we underestimated the size and behavior of the crowd. At a balloon festival, people are not milling around. Mostly, people stand in one place. As it turned out, we were at the end of the balloon launching field, so the crowds from every other field had moved into that area and were standing and watching.
I realized that I could not easily move through the crowd and it was almost impossible to move with the stroller. I abandoned the stroller in the middle of the crowd, and began running with Morgan on my hip. That is when I had an even more terrifying realization. If I couldn’t move, then neither could Gary, which meant he could not look for Aidan, especially since he had two other children in tow.
I called again. “Where are you,” I asked. “We, we are by the Wells Fargo balloon,” he fumbled, “but I can’t move.” I knew the feeling, but fortunately I could see the balloon and I wasn’t far away. “Just leave the boys there, I am almost there,” I said. Being a fast thinker, Gary had already asked for help and a grandmother had taken it upon herself to dart through the crowd and find a policeman. As Gary saw me round the corner, we caught each other’s eyes. He took off with the policeman, as I found the boys sitting in the shadow of the balloon. We moved together into a less crowded area with each of the boys holding on to my back pocket. Then we sat to wait. A couple of times my mind wandered to the thoughts of the worst case scenario, but I forced those thoughts out of my head and continued to wait.
I can tell you now that we found him, and it turned out with the many mistakes we had made, we did at least one thing right. Though, the biggest mistake happened just before he went missing. We have formed a habit when traveling of forming some sort of ring of parental protection around the kids. Usually, we will walk with one parent in front and one parent behind with kids sandwiched in the middle. Following that pattern, Gary had sat the three boys in front of him to watch a balloon launch. Aidan had started throwing grass at his brothers to properly fill his role as little brother, so Gary moved him from in front of him to his side. Then, in the five seconds that he looked away to take a picture, Aidan ran. Gary saw him slip away, but couldn’t move through the crowd fast enough to stop him. The one good thing was that we began at an early age to teach the kids what to do if they were lost. Aidan found a mom pushing a stroller and asked her for help and she helped him find a police officer who took him to lost kids.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably 10 minutes or less, my phone rang. “I have him,” Gary said. When I saw Aidan moving through the crowd, holding Gary’s hand, I finally started breathing again. Gary looked as if he had aged five years, but Aidan looked unscathed. I ran to scoop him up and sank to the ground and held him while we both cried, me more than him.
Later, his grandmother asked him if he had been afraid. “No,” he said, “I wasn’t alone.” Who had been with him, she wanted to know. “God,” he said innocently, although he seemed a bit annoyed that he had to explain something so obvious.