In those days, I lived in Zion, Illinois on Lake Michigan a few miles south of the Wisconsin border and commuted south to Evanston on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad (C&NW) for my job at Northwestern University.
As I think back on it now, I’ve forgotten the two children’s names. I thought I never would. And I no longer remember the year–late 1970s probably.
My landlord, Brian, and I were having a few beers after supper when the radio station said volunteers were needed to look for two missing children at nearby Illinois Beach State Park. We grabbed our flashlights, got in my Jeep and drove past the C&NW tracks to the park. When we arrived, organizers were dividing volunteers into groups starting out from the point where the two, grade-school children were last seen.
Brian and I were in a group searching dense forest in a line of people several arm lengths apart. We stared from the road and moved straight ahead through the woods calling their names and covering every square foor of ground with the lights from dozens of flashlights. After several hours, all groups returned to the temporary HQ empty handed. The groups had covered the maximum area in which the two children could have walked.
We were released from the formal search as divers began working their way across a small lake. Most of the volunteers went home since it was past midnight. Those of us with off-road vehicles began checking out various areas where the kids might be if they’d been running. Some followed the dunes, others checked out marshes, and Brian and I followed Jeep trails north of the lake.
Every time we called the children’s names, we expected an answer. We thought we’d see movement within the beams of the Jeep’s headlights or our flashlights. Flat nothing.
When we got back to the staging area, we found out why. The kids had drowned in the lake. Even now, I remember the sense of desolation and defeat all of us felt. Those of us who had cigarettes, lit up two or three as we all talked out our feelings. There was much to say.
We got home late, maybe 3 a.m. or so, went to our respective apartments, and fell into bed. The following day, it would be work as usual because–as it always does after a tragedy–normal life always goes on.