A childhood lost

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RICHWOODS, Mo. – He vanished wearing an orange Little League jersey. It was a resonating detail in the search for Shawn Hornbeck, a clue repeated again and again over the years. The shirt was a symbol of All-American boyhood, of innocence, of humid summers spent playing with friends.

But it also became a symbol of what was lost.

An 11-year-old Shawn played outfield and second base for the DeSoto Astros. They went 9-6 in 2002, that last summer he was home. A new season and three-a-week practices began in April without him. The team dedicated its season to their missing teammate, stopping every inning to touch a jersey with his number. Shawn’s parents attended the games. The Astros went 15-1. Shawn never knew.

“All these other boys got to be kids, got to grow up together,” said Chris Armbruster, who coached the team and whose son played with Shawn. “He missed that.”

All the interest in what Shawn went through – the revelations about his life as a kidnapping victim – stands in sharp contrast to a young boy’s simple curiosity about what he missed: the baseball games and school days and birthdays and friends. All the things taken for granted as a part of childhood, of growing up, the tiny details and small events that add up to a life.

“It’s very comforting knowing that I’m back with my family,” Shawn said last week when he and his family appeared on the “Oprah” show, “but then I’ve missed out on a lot of stuff.”

When he was kidnapped, Shawn was in the fifth grade, one of just 17 kids in Ms. Miley’s class.

He is absent from his fifth-grade class photo in the Richwoods Elementary yearbook, a thin booklet of 16 pages.

He is not in the sixth-grade class photo.

Or the seventh-grade.

Or eighth.

He didn’t get to go on the fifth-grade field trip to the Gateway Arch, 65 miles from the tiny rural town he grew up in. He never made the field trips to the City Museum and Six Flags. He wasn’t there when the rope broke during tug-of-war between the schools in Richwoods and Lonedell. Students still talk about that event.

He didn’t know that six of his former classmates had moved out of the school district. He never knew the four students who replaced them.

He vanished before he could reach the sixth grade, when students finally get their own gray metal lockers inside Richwoods Elementary, a two-story stone building on Highway A with about 190 students.

He never got to play Richwoods Wildcats basketball. For young boys, Wildcats basketball looms large. “It’s all we got,” said eighth-grader Zach Littrell, 13.

When Shawn was in the fourth grade, he used to stay late to watch the older kids play, recalled Carla Glatczak, a school secretary. Shawn was a couple of months from getting his shot at Wildcats basketball, on the fifth- and sixth-grade team, when he was kidnapped. He never got to see the new blue-and-white uniforms.

“I know he would’ve loved that,” Glatczak said.

Shawn returned 51 months later to the town of about 500 homes. There’s a new restaurant, Bardenheier Wine Cellars. But Cobbs Grocery still sells penny candy for a penny and beef jerky for 89 cents and soda bottles for $1, just as it did four years ago. There’s a new motocross track a few miles away, and the new Twisted Minds haunted house along Highway 47. Farther down the road, the Starlite Drive-in Theater still shows movies during the summer.

His parents look older, weathered by time and the stress of searching for their son all these years. His stepfather, Craig Akers, lost part of a leg due to circulation problems. Shawn’s baby nephew is now a preschooler. One of his sisters got married. A new nephew and niece were born.

The last birthday he celebrated with his family was on July 17, 2002. He was 11. The family went to Swing-A-Round Fun Town, a place of mini-golf, bumper boats and go-karts. But it might not be the kind of place a 15-year-old boy would want to go.

In May, Shawn’s class graduated from the eighth grade. His classmates donned blue caps and gowns to receive their diplomas. An empty chair was set aside for Shawn.

His classmates are now freshmen in high school. Class of 2010. Many of them attend Potosi High, where last week students prepared for winter homecoming.

The Richwoods School District plans to hire a tutor so Shawn can catch up on the four years of school he missed, said principal Randy Boyer. He hopes Shawn is able to join his friends as a high school sophomore in the fall.

One measure of how much Shawn lost can be found behind the Richwoods Lions Club. His family planted a red maple tree there on the one-year anniversary of his kidnapping. Shawn liked to climb the red maples in front of his home.

More than three years later, the tree has grown. The spindly starter tree now stands more than 15 feet tall. But it is still too small to climb. It will be years more before it is ready.

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