YOUR ATTENTION, please," blasted the tinny-sounding public address system interrupting the afternoon festivities. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a missing child."
It was a typical summer weekend crowd gathered around the lake at Greenbrier State Park. A conglomerate of picnickers, sunbathers, swimmers and campers stopped their activities and fell mute with the repetition of the message. "The missing child is a black, 4-year-old female named Brittany," the message continued. TonyMyers"She is wearing a blue and white, striped bathing suit. Please leave the water immediately. The lifeguards need volunteers to form a search line. Please follow their directions."
A search line, we soon discovered, was actually two lines. One walked toward the other through the roped-off swimming area of the lake. The purpose was grim: One line or the other would come upon the submerged body of Brittany.
The volunteers began their solemn procession. Those on the beach were solemn, too, hoping, and no doubt in some cases praying, for the well-being of the little girl.
As the beseeching call of "Brittany" sounded and resounded from the picnic grove and woods, those in the lake, some with arms locked, some holding hands, continued their deliberate march.
The procession put me in mind of the civil rights marches of years ago. But this was a racial mix only dreamed of in those days. The search line mirrored the Greenbrier crowd -- an almost equal division of blacks and whites and a smattering of Hispanics and Asians.
It is distressing to consider that in the 30 years since those marches, our headlines still, if less frequently, describe the acts of racial and religious bigotry. Sometimes, there appears to be no end to ignorance and small-mindedness. And yet, as I looked around me on the beach, the multitude of faces, regardless of their color, showed but one concern. These people worried for a little girl whose blackness served not as label but as a description no different from "4 years old" or "blue and white."
Soon there was a commotion at the south end of the beach. A couple of people nearby hoped aloud: "They found her!" Within seconds, a little girl wearing a blue and white, striped bathing suit seemed to float magically down the beach, above the heads of the crowd. We broke into applause as Brittany, blinking in the sunlight, rode the shoulders of a grinning lifeguard.
On that day, empathy for a little girl's plight temporarily broke down our self-imposed barriers and brought us together. I can't help but believe such an unconditional outpouring of love reflects our true nature. Hatred and intolerance are not inherent; they are aberrations. And if such defects can be overcome by concern for a single missing child, there is hope that someday we will see that lost child in all her forms.
Brittany hungers in a drought-stricken countryside. She lies in a street, wounded by a soldier's rubber bullet. She puzzles over the odd-looking symbol spray-painted on her synagogue door.
Oppression is her birthright in a land of apartheid.
Elsewhere, she is lost in a concrete maze of poverty and violence where needles are plunged into atrophied arms.
And Brittany lies dying of AIDS -- ravaged not only by a deadly and yet incurable disease, but just as surely from depersonalization, apathy and resignation.
That we will collectively come to this understanding any time soon is unlikely. But at a mountain lake on a recent Saturday a significant event occurred. A group of strangers acted as though they weren't strangers.
Only a simple but elusive realization needs to follow: Brittany is the child of us all.
Tony Myers writes from North Linthicum.