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I’m not sure when and how it happens, but somewhere along the way, those red flags that pop into our consciousness and grab our attention become faded and limp. There are a number of reasons, I guess. No one wants to overreact and deal with the humbling consequences. You know, the doctor visit for what most certainly was a melanoma is merely a bug bite. Or the suspicious guy next door turns out to be the meter reader.

We’ve all gotten caught up in the excitement and then learned over time that those warnings were false alarms, sort of like the boy who cried wolf. But a recent encounter supercharged my detectors and forced me to reassess the importance of being alert.

It was a quiet Sunday morning in August at our local nature preserve. My granddaughter wanted to “do that thing at the park where we say what we’re thankful for,” and it was a good day to do that. We always stop by to see how Papa Jim’s and Uncle Bob’s trees are doing, throw some stones in the creek and then tell each other what we are thankful for, here in the midst of nature’s serenity.

I couldn’t help but notice the little girl with the backpack who climbed down from the play area structure and followed our every move. “We do that ‘thanking thing’ on Saturdays and Mondays,” she said when she asked us what we were doing. She wanted to fit in. She needed a connection. Obviously alone, I felt her vulnerability. Pink flag. We talked some more and I realized that she was quite the storyteller. She had moved here recently from the South and would start fourth grade soon. I got a sense of a conversation that was aiming to be distracting. Orange flag. That backpack never left her and she told us that her mom told her to just “go out and walk all day.” Red flag.

For a split second, I pictured a frenzied mom who needed to get some work done. How awful to let a little one be out on her own like this. But something was off. Where she told me she lived was almost three miles away. She said she was very hungry, but her backpack was full. She was either a severely neglected child or those stories were just a cover-up.

I stopped thinking and just made a phone call. The police verified my suspicions and the little runaway was reunited with her frantic family in no time.

There were others at the park that morning, but she chose to interact with us. She went undetected by the other families because she made herself almost invisible by blending in. Maybe she was lonely. I’m just glad we were there.

In Idaho this summer, a man contacted the police when the man and girl he saw hiking looked like the two on an Amber Alert. It turned out to be the kidnapper/murderer and his victim. He was killed during the rescue, but the teenager was safe. Maybe the informer wasn’t sure – quick glances on a hiking trail don’t give you too much time to remember detail. But he made that call anyway.

If the neighbors of the monster in Ohio had reported their suspicions more adamantly when they saw questionable antics next door, those three women held for 10 years may have been freed sooner.

Pay attention to those feelings of “something being off” and nurture that red flag radar that we all possess. It may save a life. You’ve got nothing to lose.