By John Thomas Tuft

And the word went out to all corners of the known world…Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, local television, podcasters, satellite radio, and cell phone alerts that Fred and Mabel Tutwiler were missing. They started driving from Pittsburgh at 8am that morning and gave themselves ten hours to get to Moneta, Virginia. Fred carefully mapped out the route, scheduled stops to rest, where to eat lunch and dinner, and even where to buy gas. When you are ninety years old you leave as little to chance as you can for these kinds of events. Phooey on GPS gizmos that ordered you where to turn. They were having none of it. Maps and old AAA Trip Tiks were good enough for the 1970s, and by god, they still worked in the 2000s and required no batteries.

By six that evening, there was no sign of the Tutwilers. Meredith, their daughter whom they were coming to visit, called her brother in Pittsburgh. Yes, they left on time, thermos of tea in tow and a boatload of cheese and crackers for the journey. No, he had not told them her news, the diagnosis of life-threatening disease. Did not want to worry them. Seven o’clock came and went. No sign of them. It was August so the light would be around for a while. But when eight came and went with no sign and no word, the worry turned to panic. Posts were placed on Facebook and Instagram. Tweets went up on Twitter. A plea on TikTok. The Sheriff for Bedford County asked if the couple had a cell phone. It was the only time Meredith laughed that long evening. Soon half the eastern seaboard and the states east of the Mississippi knew of the missing Tutwilers.

By 8:30 Facebook users were responding to the Prodigal Parents story. Folks in the towns along the supposed route were contacting neighbors and circulating pictures of the couple. Intrepid helpers live streamed their search up and down the Pennsylvania turnpike and I-80 on Instagram. A Twitter user started a hashtag thread called #FindMopandPop and soon over 1000 users had tagged themselves all along the supposed route. At 9:30 a searcher went live on Instagram. “Hi, I’m Trixie,” said a young woman, holding a cigarette, with eyes that looked twenty years older than the rest of her. “I was working my truck stop here…I mean, ya know, a girl’s gotta…anyway, Mop and Pop showed up around noon. I know it was them cuz they offered me cheese and crackers. Mop was so sweet. Told me about her girl, she’s so proud of her. Pop was a bit tired, kinda confused, so I suggested they get off the Pike and use back roads. I hope that was okay.” She looked into the lens, tears welling, “Be safe, Mop and Pop.”

The internet exploded with critiques of Trixie, her profession, her advice. Criticism of the couple for making the trip. Criticism of Meredith for whatever. A newly formed Facebook group, Prayers for Prodigal Parents boasting of 672 members, by 10:15pm, tried to bring some order to the confusion. Users of TikTok started posting live shots outside hospitals along the routes in Virginia, starting an instant dance craze of doing an update of the Virginia reel to a Billie Eilish tune. Onstar called Meredith, looking for their next feel good commercial, but the old Oldsmobile predated such enemies of the lost. Two teenaged boys logged onto Twitter to post: “Saw Mop & Pop in church lot Hsnbrg, think scared them, took off old 511S.” The first comment underneath was some wag, “It’s dark outside. Do U know where your parents are?” which got tons of hearts/likes right away.

Around 11pm, the good folks at the Moneta Baptist Church had a prayer vigil up and going. Live streamed of course. Boats on Smith Mountain Lake turned on all their running lights, a sign of nautical hope. Find Mop and Pop! chatter filled the internet sphere. Cell tower usage jumped a good fifty per cent as people all over began calling their parents, just to make sure they were safe and found. When a report went out of an accident outside Roanoke, emergency vehicles en route, the internet held its collective breath. Online doctors speculated on possible injuries, trauma in the elderly, complaints were voiced about letting old people still drive, some speculated whether the president could have done more.

Meredith watched and fretted, helpless to do anything. Friends and neighbors stopped by to encourage. She sat in her mother’s favorite rocker on the front porch, not daring to take her eyes off the end of the lane. At 12:30am two headlights turned in. An old pickup rattled its way up the lane. It stopped and old farmer Ben slowly climbed out and stretched his aching knees. “Went to check on my cows,” he said with a deadpan tone and a slow wink. “Found this young couple down by the pond, tires stuck in the mud.” He opened the door and Mop and Pop climbed out, clutching a thermos and a baggie of cheese and crackers. “Think they might’ve been sparking!” Ben added with a grin and a small bow to the Tutwilers. Meredith ran down the steps and threw her arms around the prodigal parents, too relieved to feel anything but joy.

The top topic that night on the search engines was: Will Ben and JLo make it…this time?

Words are magic and writers are wizards.