The first time it happened, I was 6. My brother and I were asleep on the screen porch while my parents were at a yard party next door. The screen door banged, and my parents looked up to see a man race out of our house.
I didn't catch a glimpse of the intruder, but a week later, I reported to my mother that a man was looking in my bedroom window. The police arrived, and I told them, yes, he was wearing a blue shirt, and, yes, it was red, and, yes, it was yellow (all witnessed in the pitch dark). And, I added dramatically, this man was taller than my 7-foot-high window sill.
My credibility was seriously suspect, but I was convinced for months afterward that bogymen were lurking behind every door and under every bed.
Our next burglar appeared when I was a teen, and we were staying in a motel unit. My father awoke to find a dark shadow fumbling through the change on the top of his dresser. He shouted "What are you doing?" leaptt out of bed and chased the man down the hall past my bedroom. I awoke to racing footsteps and my mother's laments of "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear," as she trailed behind my father. My brother and I fell into step, and together the four of us herded the intruder back out the kitchen window.
In retrospect, our burglaries have all the slapstick of a 1950's comedy hour. Time has diminished the fear and the anger we felt at having our privacy invaded and our property stolen.
Yet, just a headline can recall that cold feeling of apprehension and transorm a creak in the basement and a scrape on the window into the stealthy movements of an intruder.
People's reactions when they suspect someone breaking into their homes seldom reflect the cool rationality we like to imagine.
One woman climbed into her clothes hamper with the phone and dialed for help. And, there is the man who sheepishly admits to charging toward a suspicious sound one night, armed with a toilet-bowl plunger.
The woman who, when her husband is away on a business trip, takes a flashlight and explores every corner of her home before she can relax enough to eat dinner is not uncommon.
Our apprehensions, our panic and our precautions all are rfeinforced by the edge-of-the-seat thrillers which fill the best-seller racks, prime-time TV slots and movie theater marquees. And, as if fantasy were not enough, the media supplies us regularly with the latest crime-rate statistics.
So, what should you do if you are at home, someone is breaking in and you are about to become another burglary statistic?
"Run like hell," says D.C. Police Information Officer Joseph Gentile, only half jesting.
"But don't try to resist. If you are in direct confrontation with a burglar, tell him to take what he wants, because most of the time he is only interested in getting your property. You have to weigh the value of your life against the value of your property."
While the burglar is busy throwing your silver into a bag, note what he looks like, adds Gentile. "If he is standing near a wall, draw an imaginary line so you can measure his height later."
If the ransacking is occurring downstairs, and you are upstairs, you should dial an emergency number, provided, that is, you have installed a phone on each floor. Next, throw open the window and yell.
"Don't yell 'thief' or 'rape,'" says Gentile. "Yell 'fire.' That gets a better response. If you really fear for your life, if you think someone is coming upstairs to get you, then take a heavy object and crash it through the window to attract attention."
However, yelling to frighten an intruder who is in the room -- say you awaken to discover someone groping through your dresser drawers -- can be dangerous.
"You could frighten a burglar into taking your life," says Gentile. "It would be better to pretend you are asleep until it is safe to call the police." w
Never, never, he advises, point an armed weapon at an intruder. "You may hesitate in using a weapon, and the burglar could take it away and use it against you."
Your best defense, say police, is suspicion.
"Don't open the door to strangers," says Gentile. "If it is someone in uniform, ask them to slip their identification under the door. If someone asks to use the phone because their car broke down, tell them you will make the call for them.
Ultimately, protection from burglary involves a change in life style. A property owner who follows all of the police advice must trade open-door hospitality for chained-door suspicion. He or she must ask:
Are all the windows locked?
Did I remember to switch on the timer for the front-room lamp?
Is the silence at the end of the phone a test to see if someone is at home?
Are those two women at the door saleswomen or are they professional thieves?