NEW YORK — A generation of sheltered American children grew up in the shadow of anxiety that fell over this country one day in 1979, when a little boy with a charming grin vanished from a Manhattan street corner.
They never knew his name or saw that angelic-looking face. But their parents would never forget it.
For some, their caution was simply a result of what they read in news reports. Others, including Jim Stratton, had an immediate and very personal reason to be afraid.
"It sent a chill through everybody," said Mr. Stratton, 73, whose son was in the same neighborhood play group as Etan Patz, the 6-year-old who never boarded his school bus on May 25, 1979. "You could not leave your child for a minute. Anywhere. It was like a dark cloud had come over the neighborhood."
Before Etan disappeared, the notion that a child could be abducted right off the street, in broad daylight, was not familiar. Children roamed their hometowns freely, unencumbered by fear. They could walk to school and the bus stop and just about anywhere they pleased all by themselves. That all changed after Etan set off for school in his favorite pilot's cap and corduroy jacket and did not return.
A new age of paranoia had grabbed hold of the national psyche. And so many years later, that paralyzing sense of fear has yet to fully release its grip.
"In many ways, it was the end of an era of innocence," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children. "Parents suddenly became much more protective and much more hovering over their children."
Etan was one of the first missing children whose face would appear on a milk carton. In the coming years more faces would follow, mutely appealing for help from a public that began, for the first time, to mobilize on a grand scale in its efforts to find them. Even now, after more than 30 years, authorities still haven't given up hope for a resolution, for answers to every parent's worst nightmare.
Last week, authorities began ripping up an old basement near Patz's SoHo loft with the aim of finding his remains, spurred on by a cadaver-sniffing dog that picked up a scent there.
"He was here the whole time for all of us," said Cass Collins, Mr. Stratton's wife, who has been haunted by his disappearance ever since. "He was always in our thoughts."
But how to shake the fear? Mrs. Collins, a writer, has two grown sons, one of whom was a rather anxious child, often fretting about venturing off on his own, she said. Last week, when she read about the renewed search for Etan and felt that old familiar gut punch to her stomach, Mrs. Collins decided to apologize to her son.
"I said to him, 'If you got a sense from us that the world is a scary place, it came from Etan Patz,' " she said, her voice choked with tears. "That's where it came from. And I'm sorry if we did do that. Because it's not a good thing to imbue in a child."