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Column: The art of the teenage con

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Children grow up. We spend the first several years of their lives in a hurry for them to act their age, and the next several years regretting it. As they grow up, one of the problems of parenting is putting enough tension on the rope to hold them in the nest and out of harm's way, yet giving enough slack in the rope to let them find their wings with a minimum of danger.

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15, our oldest daughter, had been out with her girl friends the night before, one of whom--this is where the "slack" part comes--had her driver's license. They went to a movie and were home quite early, so her mother and I, who were basking in the post-traumatic complacency of a fledgling's first successful flight, were suddenly alarmed the next day at the dinner table to hear the following tale unfold.

I'm telling it so that those of you now with similar-aged children may be warned. Perhaps this telling will help you avoid what we had to go through. For those parents for whom this is too late, I extend the shared sympathy of mutual experience, the empathy of overall understanding, and the frustration of knowing that you have very little hope of controlling what happens to your kids once they're out of the nest.

In other words, good luck. 15 said that after the movie, they drove around town a little, saw some kids they knew, waved and hollered, drove some more, and so forth. Since the only place in town open at that time of night was a combination convenience store-gas station, they decided to stop and check it out.

Inside the brightly-lit apparent safety of the quick stop, they all three got Mountain Dews from the large glass cooler. On the way to the checkout counter up front, they dawdled and giggled over various items for sale on the counters. They were having fun, my daughter said. They were, in other words, enjoying their freedom.

An older lady came up to 15, 15 said to us. And how old is this "older" lady, I asked 15, wishing to get ahead of this unfolding drama.

She told us that her hair was about half grey, anyway, the lady came up, and said: "You look just like my daughter. I miss her so; she died of cancer last year after an awful time in the hospital."

The lady, 15 said, seemed so nice but so sad that what could she do but listen. Her girl friends had moved away to the counter up front, leaving her alone with this woman. The woman continued to pour out her somber story.

As this story came out, my mind leaped ahead to discover all the ways a total stranger could take advantage of a teenager on her first night out alone in the world. I kept a calm look on my face. Kept my trembling hands beneath the table.

I could picture any young women listening politely, as they had been taught, to an adult. What danger could they suspect?

After a bit more of the story, the lady said to 15: "You have been very kind to listen to me. Would you do one thing for me?" Right here, I wanted to leap to my feet and do something. But what? Apparently, no one is safe here on the northern end of the prairie anymore, when things like this can happen.

15 said, yes, sure, what can I do for you?

The lady said, "It would mean so much to me if my daughter had had the chance to say goodbye to me. As I go out the door, would you wave at me and say, "Goodbye, mom?"

Sure, said 15. As the lady went out past the checkout counter, she said something to the clerk, turned around, and waved.

15, in a voice loud enough to be heard, said, "Goodbye, Mom." The lady waved again, and left. Suddenly, 15 said, the three of them weren't having that much fun in there anymore, so they went to the cashier to pay for their stuff, but when 15's turn to pay came, the cashier said, "What about your mother's gas?"

15 said, oh, she's not my mother, and realized how lame that sounded.

The cashier said, "Very funny, that'll be $40.00."

Through the window, 15 saw the lady just reaching for her car door, and said that she cannot remember anything except sprinting out the door, running for that car, scattering people left and right.

At this point, having listened intently, 15's mother looked upon the verge of having a heart attack. Enough said.

To myself, I thought: Oh, no. Con artists are mostly harmless until you corner them. What was my daughter thinking? I'm a failure as a parent. Why didn't I warn her about stuff like...

15 continued. "Stop! Wait!" she shouted as she raced for the lady, who, when she saw 15 coming, hurried a bit too much and fumbled just enough with the door latch to slow her entry into her car.

"Stop!" 15 shouted again, as she ran. The lady was all in except for her leg.

15 said she couldn't think of anything else to do but grab the lady's leg in a bear hug and begin pulling on it.

Just like I'm pulling yours.

Just like she pulled ours.

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