‘Circle of care’ for little boy lost

Chicoans coalesce to help a child in need

LEAVE NOBODY BEHIND <br> Vietnam veteran Chris Curtis knew he had to do something when he saw a little boy crossing a busy street alone. The people inside this Taco Bell joined him in protecting the child.

Vietnam veteran Chris Curtis knew he had to do something when he saw a little boy crossing a busy street alone. The people inside this Taco Bell joined him in protecting the child.

Photo By Meredith j. cooper

Chris Curtis was driving on East Avenue in Chico one afternoon last week when he saw something that frightened him: a little boy—“half naked, no more than 5 years old”—walking alone across the busy, four-lane street.

“I thought I was hallucinating,” Curtis said, relating the story a few days later. After passing the boy, he looked in his rearview mirror and, to his horror, saw the child crossing the street again, in the other direction.

“The ex-Marine in me thought I had to do something, so I flipped a U-ee and went back,” Curtis continued. He’d seen the boy go into the nearby Taco Bell restaurant, on the corner of Pillsbury Road, and followed him in. What happened next restored his faith in humanity.

Curtis is a veteran of the war in Vietnam, one of three brothers who saw combat there between 1967 and ’69. The experience changed him forever, and he’s struggled with post-traumatic stress as a result, but he also “learned a lot about love in war,” he said. “As a Marine, you don’t leave anybody behind.”

Inside the Taco Bell, he said, “the kid was running from table to table, grabbing people’s food.” Not seeing anyone who might have been his parents, he proceeded to tell everyone in the restaurant what he’d seen outside, on the street, and that he thought the child was “at risk of getting killed” if he wasn’t protected.

The child, he said, “was incredibly manic. … This kid was all over the place. You couldn’t talk with him, couldn’t look him in the eyes. He was just gone.”

Two men from Aero Union, the firefighting airplane company based at the Chico Airport, were eating in the restaurant at the time. They got up, and each went to one of the store’s two doors to keep the child from going back outside.

Meanwhile the little boy had gone into one of the restrooms. From the noise being made, Curtis thought he was tearing up the place, but a Taco Bell employee, David Bracewell, said he actually was playing there, though in the urinal.

Bracewell is a large man with a silver moustache whose nametag identifies him as a “service champion.”

Bracewell said he went into the restroom after the boy, found him playing in the urinal, helped him wash his hands and brought him back to the dining area. To him, the child seemed “mentally challenged” and because of that unable to speak, but not emotionally disturbed.

The child sat at a table with a Hispanic woman and two boys, Curtis said. They offered him food, and Taco Bell employees brought him milk and more food.

The police had been called but hadn’t yet arrived, so everybody focused on the boy, making sure he was safe. Curtis then saw a man standing on the corner, across East Avenue, who looked like he might be related to the boy. “I could see the distress on his face,” he said. So he signaled to the man that the boy was in the Taco Bell.

The father did not make a good impression on Chris Curtis: “He’s angry, he’s cussing, saying bitch this, bitch that.” Watching him leave with the child, Curtis was “very uncomfortable.” Fortunately, just then the cops showed up and began talking to the father.

At that point Curtis felt he could relax, that the incident was over and he was no longer responsible.

As it turned out, according to police records, the child was autistic. He’d been staying with his grandmother, who lives in a nearby apartment. When she fell asleep, he wandered out of the house.

The police report noted that one of the responding officers had to bear-hug him to get him to calm down before returning him to his grandmother’s house. He was out of control, but he was safe, thanks to the folks in the Taco Bell that day.

“I was very proud of the people of Chico,” Chris Curtis reflected. “They formed a circle of care around this child. … This little guy, for one day, for 25 minutes, was surrounded by people who wanted him to survive, and that’s a good thing.

“That’s the power of kindness. I just hope this little boy understands some day that these people saved his life.”