It was after eleven o’clock the night of January 28, 1995, when Roland and I finally reached the dirt road leading to the campgrounds in the Ocala National Forest. Our two grandchildren, Eric and Joel, ages three and six, had been missing in the dense forest since ten that morning. A rescue center had been set up on the campgrounds by the sheriff’s department, and there we found my son and his wife, frightened and exhausted.
Michele rushed to us, her voice choked with tears. “Tim and I were cleaning rooms for the Elderhostel,” she sobbed, “and the boys were right outside collecting moss for a school science project. Not five minutes later, they were gone. It was like the forest just swallowed them up.”
“We’ll find them,” I told her. “Don’t lose faith.”
Not being allowed to venture into the woods, we stayed near the rescue center in a camper trailer. Tim, Michele, Roland and I prayed into the wee hours of the morning. Finally I walked outside to stare at the black wall of trees. An occasional rustle of leaves or burst of birdcall would send my mind spinning, imagining my grandchildren huddled somewhere out there in the darkness, towheaded Joel, the big-brother protector, and brown-eyed, quiet Eric, cold and afraid, both of them curled up under the brush together to keep warm.
How could I convince Tim and Michele to trust their children to God’s care if I wasn’t sure how they would survive that forest all alone? My mind went back 30 years, to when I watched Tim’s two younger brothers succumb to hyaline membrane disease. The vicious pain of that loss returned to me. I knew exactly the helplessness my son and daughter-in-law were feeling. Was I strong enough to help them through this?
The black forest wall stood before me like a prop from a fairy tale. I recalled the image that had come to me as we drove through the rain to get here, of Eric and Joel walking hand in hand on a path. They will be okay, I’d thought. I wanted to hold on to that image, that hope. God, send angels to watch over them and keep them safe, I asked now.
Sheriff Knupp came from the rescue center before dawn to update us. “We’re sorry we couldn’t search more in the night, but within the hour we’ll be sending out Humvees, horses, volunteers and dogs.”
“What do you think our chances are?” asked Roland.
“Well, we know the older boy had wrapped candy and the little fella was in diapers. We feel certain the dogs will be able to locate those items soon.”
“The boys don’t have any jackets on,” said Michele, her face flushed from crying.
“It’s been a warm night,” the sheriff offered. “Hopefully, we’ll come across those candy wrappers or the diaper. Your sons can’t just disappear into thin air.”
When dawn finally came that Sunday, the search team assembled. Military crews arrived, as well as hundreds of volunteers. At one point, a three-mile line of cars and trucks inched bumper-to-bumper along the dirt road. I saw housewives, farmers, nurses, paramedics, business people, a pregnant woman, and men and women of every age. Were these the angels I had prayed for?
The sheriff organized people into groups and briefed them. Walking arm’s length from one another, they were to look for footprints while calling out the boys’ names. Again and again these human angels went back to search deeper and deeper in the damp, mucky, vine-entangled woods, and each time I prayed for their safety.
Throughout that long second day, people in the camp brought us blankets and food; many reached out to hug us or pray with us. At the same time, the FBI was putting Michele and Tim through a long, torturous interrogation. As parents, they were suspects in the boys’ disappearance. Michele was subjected to a lie-detector test, which she failed when the agent asked, “Do you know where your boys are?”
“Haven’t slept yet,” I said, “have you?”
His bottom lip quivered. “Mom, Michele and I think our boys are dead. We don’t think we’ll ever see them again,” he said.
I put my arm around his shoulder and held him close. “Don’t say that, Tim.”
“I believe it’s true,” he said, “and what’s worse is that they think Michele and I are to blame.”
Gently I rubbed his back. “If we close the door to faith, God can’t do his job. He can work with us only as our faith will allow.”
“We can’t go on without Joel and Eric, Mom,” he cried. “What are we going to do?”
I held Tim and watched the moths circling the lamps. “God knows our needs, and I know he will be with our boys,” I told Tim. “He’ll keep you strong and give you the courage to get through this, if you’ll let him.”
Monday dawned with weather reports of rain and freezing temperatures. I couldn’t let myself think of the approaching cold or give up my vision of the two boys walking along a path. Meanwhile I watched rescue workers search Deerhaven Lake, not far from the campgrounds. Helicopters lifted to search and set down again with nothing. I struggled within myself. Were my faith and hope only a fairy tale?
The day wore on, the third of our ordeal. A sad quiet seemed to blanket everyone and everything. Tim and I walked along the edge of the moss-covered trees and rocks, where Joel and Eric must have gone days before. The sky clouded over. A cool breeze began to push at the trees, turning their leaves pale, a sign of rain here in Florida. I slipped my arm around Tim’s waist for comfort. Again I tried to envision the boys on the path.
As we returned to camp, we heard a man shouting happily from the rescue center. People were cheering. “They found them!” someone yelled. “They found the boys!”
Michele ran up and leaped into Tim’s arms, and he spun her in circles while the entire crowd clapped for joy.
“One of our searchers heard a faint cry,” Sheriff Knupp explained, “and the man macheted through a patch of saw-toothed palmettos to find the boys standing there, holding hands. Joel said in a hoarse voice, ‘Please take us back to the campgrounds to where our mommy and daddy are.’”
“Where were they?” I asked. “Are they okay?”
“The little rascals got more than two miles away, behind Deerhaven Lake,” he said. “They’re mosquito-bit and a little dehydrated and hungry, but they seem to be okay.”
The boys were carried first by horseback, then by truck, to camp, where they rushed into the waiting arms of Tim and Michele. The candy wrappers were tucked in Joel’s pocket. “My mommy told me not to litter,” he said. The diaper had been buried for the same reason. “And we didn’t drink out of the dirty lake or eat any bad berries,” Joel said.
“Were you real scared at night?” I asked.
“No, Gramma. When it got dark, we curled up together and went to sleep, and when it got light, we tried to call out to the helicopters to come and find us.”
Joel and Eric were the center of a statewide television broadcast, during which our family thanked the earthly angels who came to our rescue. On live TV I watched Joel reach out to rub the back of Eric’s neck while he spoke very plainly. “I was the onliest one to rescue both of our lives,” he said. “He’s my brother and I love him.”