It was a summer day in July 1976 when 26 kids between five and fifteen years of age boarded an elementary school bus to go home. Many of the children were still dripping with water from the water balloon fight they’d just had. Spirits were high as the bus drove along. None of them could have imagined that a few hours later they’d be involved in the biggest kidnapping in United States history.
Suddenly, a van blocked their path. The bus driver slowed to a stop and asked if the three men in the van needed help.
The men in the van had something terrible up their sleeves. With pantyhose over their heads and guns in hand, they boarded the bus.
The men drove the bus to a rock quarry owned by one of the kidnappers’ fathers.
The masked men planned to ask for $5 million in ransom money in exchange for the safe return of the children. Their plan would soon backfire. The entire town was making calls trying to find their children, so all of the phone lines were busy. The kidnappers never got a chance to make a call.
In the meantime, they forced the children and their bus driver to climb down a ladder into the back of a tractor trailer that was buried six feet underground.
Inside the truck, the children were terrified. But one boy in particular was not. Fourteen-year-old Bob Barklay took action. With the help of their heroic bus driver, Bob organized the other children in a plan to escape. They stacked the mattresses they’d been sitting on, one on top of the other. Then, they began to dig up and out of a hole in the truck’s roof. With time, they had a hole big enough to escape from.
Covered in dirt and completely worn out, the children and their bus driver stumbled to a small building where one man sat. Upon seeing them, he said, “The world’s been looking for you!”
The three kidnappers were arrested. Thirty hours after the start of the kidnapping, the children were reunited with their parents. They were physically healthy but not without a painful memory of the ordeal. All 26 children showed signs of psychological trauma, with one exception. Bob Barklay, came out of the nightmare not only a hero but with fewer signs of trauma.
Psychologists have since studied Barklay’s case. Many say that the other children experienced a level of helplessness that Bob did not. Because he kept moving and believed that his actions mattered, he kept his nervous system from being traumatized.
Barklay showed that hope and belief in the power of taking action is the key to safeguarding mental health in the face of danger.