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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Early Years – The Not So Sunny Side

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

“I form light and create darkness;

I make well-being and create calamity;

I am the Lord, who does all these things”

(Isaiah 45:7).

While the Boulder area was clothed in beauty and light exteriorly, socially and spiritually it was not always so bright for me. Even though now I can see how some dark experiences in my childhood helped to emphasize the light of God later on in my life; at the time these experiences were just confusing, and I didn’t know what to make of them.

One overarching, social-related memory I have that belongs to my early years is in relation to Boulder’s parks—and their deterioration and eventual closure for what seemed like a long time during my childhood. Although this is a less traumatic memory than others; nevertheless, it has had a strong influence on my outlook in life.

One of my favorite parks when I was younger was Scott Carpenter Park. It was named after the astronaut and featured a four or five-story cage or “rocket” in the playground that kids could climb up into. It also had a huge public swimming pool where I had my first swim lessons. Us kids were so sad when, eventually, we could no longer roll down the perfect grassy hill there because of the sticky drinks, gum, and trash that had been deposited randomly everywhere in that park by the older kids that hung out there late in the day.

At Chautauqua Park there was a full-size train engine in the playground that we could climb all over. However, we got to go there less and less often because of the growing predominance of teen and college-age kids who would hang out there too.

We didn’t get to go to Boulder Creek Park near the public library very often. This park had a beautiful, tree-lined creek that came rushing and flowing from the mouth of Boulder Canyon. We only went there in the summer when my mom took us to the library. Even then, we only walked through the park to get to our car. This park was a regular hang out for C.U. students and people traveling through Boulder.

Even though we rarely visited that park in Boulder, it was crushing when we were told, we couldn’t go to any of the parks anymore. They had all been closed. Gradually they had become completely overrun by “hippies” who were camping, doing drugs, and having “love” festivals—going naked and sometimes having sex in public. Apparently, these people in their “freedom” didn’t clean up after themselves, and because of their trash, their needles, and their urinating and defecating in the bushes, the parks had all become a public health risk.

Boulder is home to Colorado University, which in the 60’s and 70’s had a major influence on the town’s social and spiritual atmosphere. The tone set by the university was one of extreme permissiveness. People were embracing sex without any restraints (they called it “free love”), experimental drugs, and alternate paths of spirituality—any and all forms of open rebellion against perceived authority and norms. This movement was sweeping across the United States, but Boulder was one of the major hot beds.

As a child I was mad at these people whose “freedom” penalized and so thoroughly took enjoyment from us. They were worse than naughty children because no one would do anything to restrict them—not even the “fuzz” (police), whom they hated and whom they were always protesting and mistreating in one way or another. I couldn’t understand this. Even my mostly permissive parents disciplined me on occasion. And whether I liked or agreed with their discipline or not, I was still in awe of their authority and the rules that we lived by (mainly based on our church’s standards), which provided some stability in my life.

What was going on in Boulder didn’t seem fair and it was threatening to me as a vulnerable child. The idea of grown people throwing off any self-control and not allowing any outside control was disturbing. What would people not be allowed to do? Though I wouldn’t have expressed it in these terms, there weren’t any boundaries for them that could be relied on. They were “free” to destroy our parks, themselves, each other, and our community.

When it was the worst, my parents avoided taking us anywhere near the downtown area or the university. I was super glad when my parents moved us out to the country while these “free spirits” were towards the height of having their way. I think this was the beginning of a strong “us” and “them” complex in me that I still fight against in myself. I don’t fight against the strong abhorrence that this and other experiences created in me towards extremes, especially hyper-permissiveness.

The pervasive social and spiritual atmosphere in Boulder filtered into my own childhood. I still wonder at how some of the children I grew up with must have learned some of the “games” they played.

One game that circulated in our neighborhood that I became aware of when I was just a child of about four or five years old was “drop your pants.” Another was “touchy-feely.” It wasn’t just a matter of two-year-old natural development or four-year-old curiosity. It was the teenage boys who were promoting these games. A young male friend around my age invited me a few times: “Hey, come over to our backyard. You’ll really like this game we’ve been playing with the kids on our block—even kids from the next streets are coming over. My older brother and his friends are playing too…”

Somehow, despite my very strong, natural curiosity and conflicting desires, I knew even as a young child I should not to play these games with the boys in our neighborhood—including one young man who was our babysitter. At least he was our babysitter until my parents started to understand, from our limited communications, something of what he was up to.

My two younger siblings did not seem to know they should not play the game our babysitter was inviting them to play. I remember being in the lighted front room when he shuffled them down the unlit hallway into one of the back bedrooms. I didn’t know exactly what it was that he was doing, although I was pretty sure it was wrong. I wasn’t old enough to know what to do about it and only felt powerless at the time, not knowing what to do or even if I should really be concerned. After all, my parents were trusting him as our babysitter. Maybe the game he was playing with them was harmless, and I was missing out?

Confusion mixed with defiance rose up in me when he kept telling me not to tell my parents anything about this “game” he had been playing with my siblings and about how much fun I was missing. He was very friendly and tried several times to convince me to join them. It was all very distressing. So much so that I finally got the courage to tell my parents I didn’t want him to be our babysitter anymore. When they asked me why, I felt low and mean telling them, “He is nasty” (my word for sexual inappropriateness). I wasn’t really sure he was. He had only been nice to me. And I couldn’t tell them any more than that.

Years later, I am just beginning to understand some of the possible ramifications of his “babysitting”—and the lasting effects it’s had on many lives since then. It’s not unreasonable to assume that what he did to my siblings is behind the mental and social disturbances of at least one of them, who is now serving time for sodomy and sexual abuse of minors. There doesn’t seem to be any other viable explanation for these and other of this brother’s behaviors. Do they have their origins in this influence being so early and so deeply embedded in his life? For many years our family has been bewildered by some of his actions. Yet it’s taken decades for some of us to begin to make connections.

There was another incident that happened a little later in my childhood. I was walking alone on a deserted sidewalk, late to a summer program being held at the school. A car full of older teen or college age boys pulled up alongside me and began creeping alongside me as I was walking. Their car windows were all rolled down. “Come for a ride with us. We have some ‘candy.’ Come over here and see. You can have some.” God was surely watching over me that day. Though I don’t think they were offering me candy as I was picturing it, my parents’ warning that I should not accept candy from strangers flashed through my mind causing me to be alarmed. I was able to discern something more was maybe going on. I backed away saying as politely as I could, “No, thank you,” then turned and started hastening in the opposite direction. They drove off both laughing and cursing at me.

Flustered even more by this, and now afraid they might turn around and come back, I ran as fast as I could, shaking, and crying so that I could hardly see, with my side aching for lack of breath, until I reached my house. I didn’t think my mom would be home. She had been getting ready to go somewhere before sending me off to the school earlier. I was also afraid she’d be mad at me for not going to the school like I was supposed to.

She wasn’t home. Both doors were locked. I thought of hiding in the back yard till she got home, which I did for a little while. Then I grew even more scared being alone. I worked up the courage to try our next-door neighbor who had kids around my age, but they weren’t home. I was too frightened to venture further.

I went back to our backyard, and that’s where I was when my mom returned home from wherever she had gone. When I came through the carport opening to greet her, she was surprised to see me. I was surprised and relieved when she wasn’t mad at me. After I explained as best I could what had happened, she hugged me and held me close. She was proud of me for doing the right thing. I never did make it to the school that day. Later, my mom told my dad, and they were both proud of me and extra attentive.

Not long after this, I overheard my mom talking with some other ladies about another little girl who had been kidnapped around that same time. I don’t know if I understood correctly, but what I remember about it was that the little girl was gang-raped (whatever that meant), tied by a rope and dragged naked behind a car for a short time before the young perpetrators were apprehended.

Compounding my alarm, in hearing what I understood of this news, was being reprimanded for listening in when I wasn’t supposed to be. (I think I was supposed to be taking a nap.) The reproof began when I began asking questions. I think I wanted to know what “gang rape” was. The reaction I got for asking questions seemed very unreasonable. It made me both angry and, for the first time, distrustful of my mom and of adults in general—beginning with the two ladies who were visiting my mom.

Their chastisement aside, as I walked to and from school each day, both of these incidents were in the back of my mind, and sometimes in the forefront. My young mind couldn’t grasp how anyone could do such a thing. From then on, even though I was mad at my mom, I wanted her to walk with me or drive me if I was late and there wouldn’t be other kids around. This was about the time “Helping Hands” signs were posted in the windows of homes offering a safe refuge for kids walking to and from school, but I didn’t dare trust even these “safe” places. This incident ended up inspiring many desperate prayers to Heavenly Father for safety on my way to and from school. This was true sometimes even when there were other children around.

It was during my second-grade year that my family moved from the city into the country. For a while at my new school, I was left out of the games the other children were playing at recess. (I don’t think it was malicious on the part of the other children, they just didn’t know me.) Then, some of the more popular second grade girls invited me to join them in playing a game called “Light as a Feather” in a darkened bathroom.

This was a game where one person was supposed to lie down flat like a board. The rest of the group would gather around and lift the person with their hands, while calling on the spirits to help, until the person being lifted was literally as light as a feather—which presumed the spirits were helping. When this would happen, the girls would all scream from the thrill and all but drop the person they were holding, even though they had heartily promised at the start not to. Then they would run out of the bathroom in a mix of excitement and terror.

At first it seemed a little contrived. But after two or three recesses, I sensed there were very real spirits involved in this game. To me, these spirits felt like a cold void and wind at the same time, darker than the normal darkness around us. They gave my young soul chills. Even if the others didn’t seem to sense them, I certainly could. After a few times, I told a couple of other girls this, and that I didn’t want to play, hoping that they might join me in playing something else. They said they felt it too, but they kept playing the game. And as much as I wanted to belong, I didn’t have the heart or will to participate in this particular game anymore. The other children still didn’t invite me into any of their activities. So, after that, I felt twice as lonely during recess, knowing I could join some of the others but wouldn’t.

Of all the things that happened to me as a child in Boulder, these were some of the most unwanted and confusing. I’m grateful that my parents and the L.D.S. or “Mormon” church that I grew up in, clearly associated these kinds of things with evil, as being against what is right.

Because of this, I have also grown to appreciate the need for standards of right and wrong in life, and that the truer the standard the better. Although my standards of right and wrong have changed since then, as a child, and as a human being, I would have had no anchor, no security, no confidence at all, going forward without them.

I’m glad now, even though I am no longer affiliated with the L.D.S. church, that I wasn’t left without some degree of light to guide me and to show me the most dangerous rocks. Especially during the much greater storms that came later on in my life—when I was tossed and battered by waves of temptation and despair that could have easily destroyed me.

Also, even though I don’t comprehend why God allowed one of my sisters and one of my brothers to be molested when they were so young, I still trust God is good. Even when people are not good, He can, and will, when people allow, redeem what happened and turn it into good for them and for the other people whose lives have also been affected. I trust this because I have seen Him do this in my own life and in the lives of others—including my sister’s. She has unbounded sympathy and a desire to help others heal. She has expressed repeatedly to me how much she loves Jesus who fully heals and redeems all (who feel their need and sincerely call out for Him). Without this “handicap” she wouldn’t have grown to have so much sympathy and care for other people or to love Jesus so much. I also have hope for my brother, that one day he will also find full healing and redemption through our one true Savior, Jesus. We have all been damaged in the process of life and have hurt others out of our own hurt as well. But, I believe that as long as we are alive, there is hope for us through Jesus.


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