My parents bought a house during World War II in one of the oldest but still presentable sections of Des Moines, originally settled by Scandinavians. Certain blocks had maintained their desirability because they were adjacent to Union Park, which gave its name to the immediate area. One might speculate because of its name that it was built just following the Civil War, but it actually dated to 1892, one of the city’s fivc original parks.
It was a favorite haunt for residents, having not only extensive grounds and lush plantings, but also most every amenity adults and especially children could wish for. We splashed in the wading pool until we were old enough to travel a perilously narrow and lonely road along the lagoon (on which we skated in the winter) to the big pool a half-mile away. Next to the wading pool was an open rock structure with enclosed rooms for supplies, the domain of parks employees who conducted summer children’s programs. Picnic areas with shelters, ranks of tennis courts and playground equipment, seasonal gardens, and broad grassy stretches ringed by myriad trees comprised the balance of this haven.
The official entrance, sitting catty-corner to the roughly triangular park area, had elaborate plinths upon which tall columns rested with brass plaques that announced the park’s name and founding officials. Lovely and inviting, Union Park seemed unlikely to constitute a threat to youngsters who routinely romped through its grounds. Then an incident took place one sunny summer day when I was eleven years old. It was the late 1940s, an uncomplicated time when the world was safe again for democracy and everything else. A neighbor girl, Mary Rasmussen, and I had set off to play Let’s Pretend in the main area of the park.
We had earlier discovered a natural arbor formed by over-arching tree-like shrubs. Inside this secret place we cagily hid our bikes for the duration while we moseyed here and there and pretended to be detectives, as I recall. We’d spied two young women sunbathing on blankets, screened from the main road beyond the park by thick trees on one side, and by a huge planting of brilliant cannas and fruit trees from the main park area on the other side. As we walked farther afield, we saw several teenage boys shooting baskets in the enclosed basketball court and a young couple playing tennis. Roaming from one end of the park to the other, we amused ourselves for at least an hour with stories from our imagination about the people and things we passed. We had just decided to call it a day, when at twenty feet or more from the sun-bathers we rounded the bed of cannas to see a strange sight.
In the middle of an open area next to the road that wound through the park, a man was standing alone, fiddling with something near his stomach. We stopped and peered wonderingly at him for a few seconds, looked at each other in puzzlement, and then turning aside, we trotted off to fetch our bicycles, entering the shaded recess. But then everything changed about this perfect day in the park. Upon the seat of my bicycle a thick milky substance had pooled. I may have been young and inexperienced as to the seamy side of life but it suddenly came to me what the man had been doing while we watched.
I had seen something similar when I was five years old. It happened while Mother was attending a meeting at church and I had been playing outside on the sidewalk with a little girl my age who lived next door. We had been taking turns on her tricycle, but as it was a hot summer day, she suggested we go into her rather shabby small house for a drink of water. We had no sooner entered the hallway, when above us from the stairway, a man stood glaring at us. “Get out of here or I’ll ram this down your throats,” he yelled, brandishing something through an opening in his trousers. It was a sight I was to bury but not forget.
We turned and ran outside. “Who was that?” I asked the girl.
“He’s my uncle,” she whispered.
I left her there and went into the church to tell my tale that shocked the ladies and broke up their meeting. I have no idea what transpired about the nasty man or his poor niece. But that day in the park as I looked with horror at my despoiled bike seat, I somehow knew what the man had been doing as we watched, and what he had done in our secret place. We ran back to the young women sunbathing and gave an excited account of what had happened. They said we should dash to the drugstore across from the entrance to the park and call the police. When the pharmacist-owner heard our breathless request, he made the call himself.
The patrol car was there within minutes and drove us into the park to the area in question. The man had disappeared. The officer got out and looked around, including where we had stashed our bicycles. The women, who had grabbed their blankets, were heading out of the park themselves. They hadn’t seen the individual, but it was reasonable to assume a pervert had been frequenting the area. Eventually, the policeman took our names and addresses, leaving Mary and me to claim our bikes and get ourselves home.
I balked at riding mine with the mess on the seat and would have left it there forever, but Mary was brave and wiped it off with a Kleenex she had in her pocket. I rode my bike standing up the entire three blocks to my house, abandoning it in our back yard. My mother, maintaining her usual calm in the face of such a traumatic adventure to her daughter, made little of the incident, even when I dramatically threw myself on the studio couch in the solarium just as a heroine from any of my favorite novels might. Mother did seem somewhat startled the next day, however, when a detective arrived seeking more information, which I was unable to give. I don’t know if the man in the park was ever caught, though for a time, the police regularly patrolled there during daylight hours. But I never again played so freely in the park, its charm tainted by the incident. My bicycle could not get clean enough to suit me and it stayed outside the rest of the summer through pelting rain and blazing sun. Eventually, my dad bought a new seat for it.