It’s a little unclear whether I did this to them, or they did it to me, but I stayed outside while they went inside.
My family and I were in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany (as it was then known). I was looking in a shop window, and my parents went into the store next-door. They didn’t notice I stayed out on the sidewalk, and I didn’t notice that they’d gone inside.
Did I mention that I was three years old and did not speak any German?
I looked up, the parents were gone, the street was empty. I figured they went on down the sidewalk and around the corner, so I ran after them. Nobody there.
We had a very simple rule in our family: if one of us got lost, he was to go back to the car. It seemed simple enough, but it had never been needed before, and now that it was, there was a complication: our car wasn’t in Frankfurt, we had parked it at the train station in Hanau about 25 km away and come in by rail.
No problem: I remembered where the train station was in Frankfurt. I could take the train back to Hanau and wait at the car until my parents returned. The station was only a few blocks away, and I found it without difficulty.
The train that had taken us from Hanau to Frankfurt was #18, so I reasoned the reverse trip would naturally be on train #81. I guess you have to be three for that to make sense. There was a train #81 waiting, as it happened, and I boarded it. I was probably on my way to Düsseldorf or somewhere.
I should point out that I wasn’t alarmed in the slightest. My parents were more than old enough to take care of themselves, and once they realized they were lost, they would meet me at the parking lot of the station in Hanau. I was annoyed and angry that the confusion might (and eventually did) cost us the trip to the zoo we were planning for the afternoon, but other than that, I was calm.
My parents, I found out later, were somewhat less calm. My mother was a child of the ’40s. Her first awareness of Germany came from newsreels about the liberation of Dachau. Now she was in Germany, in the very belly of the Beast, and her child was missing. He was probably in a soap-dish already.
It turns out, in West Germany at the time, three-year-olds were not allowed to ride trains alone, so as soon as I got on train #81, some good citizen summoned the conductor, who took me back on the platform and summoned the police. The police took me, not to the police-station but to a travel agency. I never found out why; perhaps because someone there spoke English, perhaps just because it was close.
The travel agency was very pleasant. One of the staffers gave me an ice cream cone and introduced me to a large boxer dog, about as tall as I was. The dog and I sat down beneath a conference table to chat and split the ice cream, and eventually the police found my lost parents.