Posted by: Brenda Kula | February 23, 2008

Imagine This

Img_2255In a previous entry for this blog, I wrote: "Someday I will tell you."

Today I decided to begin…

Imagine this:

Imagine you are a mother. Your daughter has just turned 13 years old. Sixteen days before. Yesterday she went to the state fair with her friend, Deedee. Another friend, Cinda, has asked her to go with her again today, a Saturday. You decide to let her go. After all, she is considered a teenager now, and is allowed a bit more freedom. It is September 26, 1981. Yes, twenty-seven years ago…

Charlotte has been up since 8 a.m. Her mother, Pearla, plucked her daughter’s eyebrows for the first time that morning. She has eaten a bowl of cereal. She has called her cousin, who is planning to spend the night. They decide they will make popcorn and watch television. When Charlotte and Cinda get back from the fair. Tonight. Just hours from now. Mere hours. Pearla hears her daughter’s laughter as she makes plans and chats on the phone.

Tonight comes, as it always does. But Charlotte and Cinda do not. Imagine that your child never walks through that door again. Thirteen years young.

This is the story her mother, Pearla, told me three years later. When all traces of her daughter and her friend were just dust in the Oklahoma wind. An unsolved mystery to this day.

Me, a young mother myself. For some reason, I could not let this mystery alone. Not after I spent a day with her anguished mother. Not after I spent time in her shrine of a room. The one her grandmother had planned to come over and help her repaint. The bedroom that gets dusted, but never changed. Not a damned thing got changed.

I recaptured that story, the one that had fallen from the headlines, while other more timely stories replaced it. I did it for me. For Pearla. For all mothers. Because I could not let it go either. I published an article about it in an Oklahoma newspaper. It was long and very detailed. Filled with every fact I could find about this child and the day she left…                                                                            

Charlotte is wearing a burgundy v-necked t-shirt with a white stripe around its border. A pair of jeans. Her blue and white Nikes. She has a comb in her back pocket for her long blond hair. She has on two rings and a necklace. She has changed clothes several times on this particular Saturday morning, as girls do in anticipation of an outing.

Cinda’s brother pulls his car up in front of her house. Charlotte tells her mother that she is leaving. Pearla felt something in her heart twist just a bit, she told me. She tells her daughter that maybe she should skip the fair today, stay home with her. "I wish you wouldn’t go," she remembers saying. Her daughter said, "Mom, I feel I should go." Pearla watched her get into the car. Charlotte slams the car door. Smiles at her.

Cinda’s brother drops the girls off at the fairgrounds. Charlotte and Cinda play games amidst the cacophony and barking of the carnival workers trying to draw in customers. The sun was veiled by gathering clouds. The temperature reaches 90 degrees that afternoon. The two girls were riding the Enterprise together when one of Cinda’s teachers snapped a quick photo of the two. The last photograph.

A man approaches them. He has a dark mustache and beard, and wore silver wire-rimmed glasses. His hair was graying. He is wearing Western-themed clothing, boots, and a tan, straw cowboy hat with a feather band. The name "Joseph" was tooled into his leather belt. He told the girls he was expecting a truckload of stuffed animals soon, and needed kids to unload them. He’d pay $5 an hour. A lot back then. They hesitated. Charlotte had turned down a job at the local drive-in because, she said, "You never who is in those cars." They have been taught not to go anywhere with strangers. They tell him they’d better not.

But, he tells them, you won’t be the only ones there. I have two boys helping. There will be a crew of workers. He walks away momentarily and brings the boys back with him. See? The girls say they will have to call their parents. They head for a phone booth. Pearla remembers that phone call well. Charlotte was so excited about making that kind of money. Pearla was skeptical, just as she’d been when Charlotte left home that morning. Charlotte pleads with her mother. Pearla relents, on the condition that her daughter call her back in a few hours to check in. She glances at the clock. It is 5:37 p.m…                                                                           

It is February 1984. I am in Charlotte’s home surrounded by her family. A coffee table is laden with freshly-baked bread and hot coffee. Her aunts and grandparents have all come to talk about her. On the coffee table is an envelope, thick with meaning, addressed to Charlotte. Recently postmarked. It came in that day’s mail. It is from T.E.E.N. pageant. A random mailing.

Charlotte’s grandmother tells me that her granddaughter wouldn’t admit it to just anyone, but she still believed in Santa Claus. Or wanted to, anyway. There are presents waiting for a child who will never open them. In the family car, Charlotte’s favorite radio station is still tuned there, as if awaiting her return. Her cousin still has a can that he and Charlotte were saving coins in to buy a pet. It sits untouched. He remembers something Charlotte once said to him when his family was planning to move away. "Even if you go far away, just talk to me. And I’ll always hear."

Pearla tells me that her daughter had the habit of bringing home ugly dogs. "We always had the ugliest dogs!" "She use to say – the pretty dogs are easy to love. The ugly ones aren’t so easy to love. But I love them anyway." Her grandmother remembers them watching television together one day. The show was about someone dying, the family grieving. Charlotte turned to her. "Grandma, I wouldn’t want someone to grieve about me that way. If I was gone."

The family, feeling helpless, began the organization called National Child Search. Seven children had been found at the time of that interview, due to their efforts. All family-related abductions. Not strangers. They are the difficult ones to solve. In February 1983, House Bill 1173 was passed, mandating that it is the duty of law enforcement to initiate an immediate search for a child under the age of 16 who is reported missing. A National Missing Childrens Day was organized. With the help of the National Guard, Charlotte’s family fingerprinted 15,000 children at the Oklahoma State Fair in 1983…                                                                            

Nine-thirty p.m. Charlotte does not call. Pearla is worried, and begins to make phone calls. The ordeal officially began in earnest. The parents tried to convince the authorities that their daughters did not run away. What was a simple Saturday at the state fair is heavily scrutinized, taken apart like a puzzle. The fairgrounds were searched. Fliers were distributed. Charlotte’s father sold some land in order to put up a $10,000 reward for information about his daughter’s disappearance.

Her grandmother recalled handing one flier to two ladies. One of the women said, "Why do you keep handing out these fliers? Those girls are dead." "Hope you’re wrong," she told them. "That’s my granddaughter you’re talking about."

On Wednesday, four days later, a phone call was reported. Charlotte’s older sister Lisa had an ex-boyfriend named Curtis. He had been like an older brother to Charlotte. Curtis said that his phone rang. When he answered it, a voice screamed, "Curtis, help! I can’t get hold of Lisa!" Curtis says he recognized the voice. He shouted into the phone: "Charlotte! Where—!" He said the phone went dead in his hands. No one knows if it was Charlotte’s voice. And it was never fully substantiated. 

Twenty-four hours. That’s how long you had to wait in 1981 to file a missing person’s report. The two boys who reportedly last saw the girls, the ones who were planning to help unload stuffed animals with them, came forward. They gave a description of the man who drove the four of them to a truck stop, where, he told them, they would wait for the shipment of stuffed animals. He made some phone calls. He paid the boys $10 each, and told them to wait there while he and the two girls drove around to see if the truck had gotten lost. The girls left with him in the backseat of a beige late model car with a vinyl top, believed to be a Pontiac Grand Prix.

The two boys said they waited for quite some time. Just as the man told them to. Then they phoned their parents, who came and waited with them. The man who had taken Charlotte and Cinda did not return. 

The tents folded. The fairgrounds emptied out as they do every autumn, and left for another town…                                                                            

Winter 1984: I stand in the empty lot. Trash bounces along the concrete. I hear a single chain clanging up against a flag pole. No other sounds except that and the wind whipping around corners, chasing bits of debris. I close my eyes and try to envision the sights and sounds Charlotte and Cinda experienced that day. Tried to imagine their excitement. The earliest inkling of apprehension. And then fear. 

The day I spent in Charlotte’s home became an epiphany of sorts for me. When the long interview was over, and I got up to go into her bedroom, Pearla could not follow through as promised. Charlotte’s grandmother was the one who got up and led me down the hallway.   

After awhile, the family did go ahead and paint the walls lilac, as Charlotte had planned. A shelf with a television stood in one corner of the bedroom. There was a Miss Piggy bedspread on the bed. Worn stuffed animals were grouped on the pillow. A brand new Ziggy gown was folded neatly on the bed, a price tag tucked inside the sleeve. There was a stuffed clown, held together in back with a single safety pin. His name was Pe-Pie. There were scribbled notes and hair ribbons. A "Jesus Loves Charlotte" sign. Cheerleading honors hung from a Raggedy Ann bulletin board, with the words, "I Need Tender Loving Care" written in the corner. A Tootsie Roll piggy bank, filled with coins. A card that read: "Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday."

One entire dresser drawer was filled with notes and letters, scraps of importance to a 13 year old girl. A "Wake Me When It’s Over" Ziggy poster adorned one wall. Hair curlers were laid out on the rickety dressing table. Baseball caps were hanging from the window. "I am loved" Ziggy buttons were scattered inside a cup. There was a baseball glove on the bedside table. I noticed that there was a thin film of dust on the furniture. Her grandmother began crying softly in the corner, Pe-Pie clutched to her bosom.

Every night when Charlotte got ready for bed, she’d reach for her brown bear. And then her mother would listen while she said a prayer: "Goodnight. Sweet dreams. Say your prayers. And don’t forget your God blesses."

(Note to reader: Tomorrow I will finish the second installation of this true story, due to its length and the time it has taken to collect this information from my files.)

 

 

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Responses

  1. My worst nightmare.

  2. I started reading and didn’t even hardly breathe until it was finished. It is our biggest fear. You have done a great job with the article. It is written so it makes you want to go out and look for that innocent child. In my heart, I believe she is alive. I have hope. It affects me deeply. It stops me in my thoughts and actions. It is a subject that needs immediate prayers and concentration. I will do that for this child, this mom, grandmother, father, friend, and for you who has taken it on as your part of helping.

    This is a story you don’t expect to run across but it brings you full face with life. I am grateful you are on the story. Please keep me up to date. I think you are the key to hope. Hugs to you for so many details and keys to help.

  3. Oh, this story makes the hairs on my arms stand at attention. I was so frightened when it happened. I was only 17. I went to the fair with my friends all the time. Now, as a mother, it scares me even more. A follow-up, cold case story ran in The Oklahoman earlier this year (fair time, of course.) My oldest daughter read the story. It gave me the shivers. She handed the paper to me, and I said “No thanks. I know the story.”~~Dee

  4. Big breath… O.k. wow! That is incredible, I was there with you…. Your words came alive. I will be praying for this family, I cannot imagine the heartache… God Bless Them.


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