Give the kids a sporting chance — not a freakin’ complex

Here’s something they don’t warn you about before you become a parent: Having a kid forces you to mingle with other parents.
If you want your kid to be sociable, you’ll have to be sociable yourself. Oftentimes, you’ll find yourself in close quarters with complete strangers. And, you don’t get to choose your company.
Take watching sports, for instance.
Your kid ends up on a team, usually randomly. Suddenly, you’re working a food stand with four other parents … stuck under a tiny tarp waiting out a rain delay … butt-to-butt in the bleachers … expected to bond simply because your kids are all Tigers or Lions or Bears.
Basketball bleachers were always among the tightest quarters I recall — especially when the kids were little and played in older gyms with limited seating.
During one of my daughter’s games I learned the hard way that I had to tone it down. Basically, my outside soccer voice did not fly in an indoor, crowded gym.

What can I say? I was excited. Carla, only about 12 then, was scoring — a lot. Seemed every time her team went down court, she got the ball, and drove to the basket successfully.

Carla about the time she earned a new nickname playing girls' basketball.
Carla about the time she earned a new nickname playing girls’ basketball.

“Go Bubba!” I shouted loudly, with enough decibels to turn heads, mostly friendly but I got a couple glares, too. I was not only too exuberant but I used her old nickname. As a baby, she crawled with a distinctive butt wobble. Fast-forward to the basketball game; it was not cool to be shouting from the sidelines references to my almost-teen daughter’s backside.
The next time she scored I cheered more softly and I altered that nickname to “Zubba.” Then, “Zubbalitta.” She kept on driving and the game was close. She had 12 points, then 14 and she wasn’t done. She wasn’t hogging the ball, either. She had assists. I added a new syllable every time she did well.
The crowd was with me. I became less a boor and more a stand-up comic.
The other team couldn’t stop her; I could’t stop myself.
By the time the game ended, she had 21 points. Her nickname at that point, to the delight of most in the crowd, was something like “Zubbalittalubbalubbalitta.” And it has stuck. To this day.
I recently saw a scary movie.
It wasn’t billed as horror, or even suspense or drama. It was a documentary about parents watching their kids play sports. Correct that — a documentary about insane parents watching their kids play sports.
Called “Trophy Kids,” the Netflix film followed some parents who were very involved — to put it as nicely as could ever possibly be put — as they helped train and coach their kids. Two dads wanted their sons to be great basketball players; another believed he was grooming his young daughter to become a pro golfer; a fourth father wanted his son to excel at high school football. The latter, an angry but determined guy, continually warned his boy that success or failure at football would equate with success or failure at becoming a man.
Yeah, it was that sickening.
At one point, as the football dad lectured his son in their minivan, I wised I could reach through the TV glass and flick the guy’s naked eyeballs — anything to give the kid a chance to flee from the merciless harangue.
While watching this movie, I repeatedly wondered about the paperwork the filmakers must have gotten these parents to sign beforehand. I presume the release forms were so ironclad that these dads simply couldn’t pull out of the film once they saw for themselves the unhealthy nature of their obsession. Or, maybe they never realized how crazy they were behaving. Maybe they were blinded by arrogance.
The movie made me think back to moments like Carla’s 21-point basketball game.

My wife and I watched our five kids play a lot — from the bleachers, the sidelines, peering through all that chain link fence. We spent a gazillion hours trying to see through those little diamonds of chain link to the big diamonds of baseball and softball beyond.

Our oldest, Luke, made it to wrestling at the state level in Pa., a wrestling-crazy state.
Our oldest, Luke, made it to wrestling at the state level in Pa., a wrestling-crazy state.
Scott, our middle son, played football well enough to start as quarterback in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Scott, our middle son, played football well enough to start as quarterback in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Adam, the youngest, didn't like baseball but went on to do very well in wrestling, like his big brother Luke.
Adam, the youngest, didn’t like baseball but went on to do very well in wrestling, like his big brother Luke.

Our children played many different sports, so we sat through some boring games. But rewards were great, too. We witnessed many moments of great excitement, thrills, suspense. But Trophy Kids got me wondering whether my wife and I were actually blind to our own antics. Did we pressure the kids too much? Did we embarrass them? Were we fanatics?
I asked the kids, who are grown now and have no reason to sugarcoat history. They have also never been shy in offering us, well, constructive criticism.
Fortunately, they gave us good report cards. They thanked us for coming to so many events, even if we didn’t always know all the rules for what we watched. My wife’s screaming during wrestling matches was more fun to watch than the matches, several kids said. Still, despite our obvious enthusiasm, we got good marks for not taking anything all too seriously, even though the kids did well enough to compete in some fairly high-stakes matches and games.

Carla, left, and Mia played many sports together from an early age.
Carla, left, and Mia played many sports together from an early age.

Most importantly, they said, was that we showed up. We cared, without caring too much.
Sorry if this seems self-serving. I didn’t set out to write with braggadoccio. I am actually trying to figure out how — or why — we avoided getting too sucked in, maybe pass on a few tips.
Based on the kids’ comments, the input from my wife, my observations of Trophy Kids and what I saw in real-life parental excesses, here are some ways to avoid getting booted off the bleachers. And, to keep your eyeballs from getting flicked.
— Get real. Your kid most likely isn’t a superstar. If he is, get out of the way and get him or her a real coach. The worst excesses I witnessed involved dads trying to coach their own sons. Either they were way too hard on them as examples or they coddled them, ruining any chances these kids had at making friends while making baskets.
— Goof around. It’s play! Remember! Be a clown if you’re good at it.
Some of my girls’ best memories were times I helped out as coach, wearing half a basketball on my head, teaching girls how to slide on plastic tarps in the rain with Dawn dishwashing detergent, making up goofy signs for running basepads, like a flamingo standing on one leg.
— Learn when to shut up. Who says you have to dissect every play? Kids know when they screw up. What good does it do to revisit what just happened, especially the bad stuff, unless your child really wants to engage, or something serious has gone wrong?

— Do talk about the outrageous behavior from the stands and bleachers and make it clear it’s not acceptable.
Interestingly, when asked to think back to their playing days, my kids recalled very specific bad conduct by parents and athletes from back then, or what they are seeing now as they transition to parents on the sidelines.
The coddled boy who tried to go after a fan in the stands, a teammate’s mother, with a bat. The little league coach who criticized and threatened parents, expecting the boys not to rat him out. The former minor league baseball player coaching 9-year-old boys like they were 29, openly criticizing individual kids until they were red-faced and ready to cry, cursing loudly as he did so.
The dad screaming “Plow him over!” to his 6-year-old son learning how to run around the bases. The parent shouting “Why do we pay for baseball camp if you’re just going to strike out every time?”
The immature girls’ basketball coach who got so angry he broke a white board over his leg, cutting his hand bad enough to need stitches, and on, and on.

My point is that the conduct didn’t go unnoticed. Kids are impressionable but not stupid. They recognize when someone’s acting outside the norm, like the dad making a scene over a stupid missed tackle. The kids need to talk about that kind of behavior so that, together, you can set the bar for what’s OK, and what’s not.
One thing that was apparent in Trophy Kids. The parents lectured and the kids stayed silent. You really want to teach your kids to let adults get in their faces and say whatever they want, no matter how ridiculous? I don’t.
My wife and I agreed early on that courage is one of the greatest attributes to try to instill in a child. I think all parents should teach kids to be brave enough to stand up to — or get away from — a parent acting like an ass.

Especially if that ass happens to be you.

How neighbors tried to make the Isemans move

Back then, we sometimes put playing cards in the spokes of our bicycles to make them sound like motorcycles.
We roared with our fake mufflers around tight corners, cruised up and down sidewalks, bounced over curbs. With old-time foot brakes, we could skid to a stop quickly, and send gravel flying with great accuracy.

We jumped small walls, could ride three on a bike if needed and could go for hours with little nourishment, even in the dead of summer.
The lady living across the street didn’t have a chance.
She was one of the evil neighbors, one of the enemy forces. She sealed her fate this particular day by opening up her front door, with me sitting there on my bike’s banana seat, staring in at her through the screen door. She put her hands on her hip and screwed up her features to make an ugly face at me.
With bulging eyes and jowls, she was already pretty sad looking, before she did her contorting. I immediately thought: “Frog Face.” Her surname started with an “F,” too, so the alliteration was a bonus.

I hatched a plan.
With my little brother a shoo-in to help, I only needed a couple more cohorts to launch this attack. I found volunteers easily. No respectable kid in this neighborhood liked this lady or her husband. They had called the cops on us for simply playing touch football in the street. (Well, OK. The statute of limitations has passed; we might have hit the husband’s fancy-schmancy car once or twice.)
In a half hour, five of us were ready to go. I would lead, and sound off first. The rest simply had to follow me, mimicking my taunts as they felt the urge and staying in tight formation. She needed to see our discipline and commitment to ruining her afternoon.
The route was easy enough. Up one driveway. On to the sidewalk. Past her front door. Down another driveway. Circle back around to fly past her door again. “F-rrr-o-o-o-o-g F-a-a-a-ce. Fro-o-o-g-g-g-g Fa-a-a–ace.” Each and every time my body lined up with her screen door, I would growl the insult loudly. Behind me, my gang would repeat what I said or throw in a “R-i-i-i-i-bbbb-b-bit” for variety.
The first time, I’m sure she didn’t actually hear what I was saying. Because she stood there smiling, even daring to contort her face at me again. By about the time we completed Circle 99 in front of her home, she had closed the main door and begin to try to peer out at us nervously from behind her kitchen curtains, phone in her ear.
We were really into it by then, ready to go another 99. We had drawn an audience, and more kids joined in.
I could be recalling this in a romantic way, now that so many years have passed, but I believe we stayed out there circling for hours, until dusk. She deserved it, and more.
Hey, we didn’t know then that she had thyroid disease. It would kill her much much later. No, I didn’t really feel bad when I heard.
I had a pretty strange childhood. And, while you’re having a strange childhood you don’t actually realize you’re having a strange childhood.
You tend to think you’re just like everybody else.
Yup, you actually think every kid has the cops called on them. Every family has surrounding neighbors that hate them. Everyone’s mom has stood on the front porch yelling to her all-white neighbors a threat to sell the house to black people.
OK. I know. That last one did get me wondering back then. It was odd. Really odd. I don’t think it happened that often. Not even in the ’50s. Not even at the height of white flight.
Except it happened to me and my five siblings.
To understand, first you have to know a little about where we lived. A couple years before our notorious “Frog Face Ramada” my family lived in an apartment in a more urban part of the City of Pittsburgh, where everyone or most everyone was pretty poor and noone had a lot of land. We had fire escape in our all-brick backyard.

When we got a chance to move into a long-established neighborhood in a nicer part of town, we jumped at it. Our new house had a long backyard, so we felt like we had made it to the suburbs. We actually only made it to a small, aging borough in transition called Mount Oliver.
It was surrounded by the city and faced significant angst — a large part of which stemmed from a public housing project about a mile away that had almost exclusively black tenants. That housing project was built on a giant slag heap and anyone who wanted out and didn’t have a car would have to walk through Mount Oliver.

The borough wasn’t affluent, either, with pockets of poor and a main street that had seen better times. But to us — I cannot stress enough — this was a big step up. We took over a shoddy, former tiny schoolhouse with four downstairs rooms and two upstairs. My dad and mom and some friends and relatives did their best to fix it up and make it respectable. But, my dad was not the most handy guy and worked long hours as an accountant.

The neighbors saw a small house crowded with kids with a crumbling front wall and worn asphalt siding — it was supposed to look like red brick. They worried about property values and were not quiet about it. Some were both gossipy and judgmental and — unfortunately in the tinderbox that was developing — of German descent.
My mom was biased against Germans. One of her brothers was killed in WWII. Another suffered in the war. She blamed Germans and not just the ones overseas. She called our dictatorial neighbors “Krauts” who cared more about their lawns than their kids. Early on, she only used that “K-word” inside our house, mostly with my dad and us kids. She only began shouting that insult directly at the neighbors much later.
If you excise the bigotry from her statements, some of what she said held water.
Some neighbors had manicured yards and pretty, flowering bushes. But they routinely sent their kids away from home to play. Oftentimes, because I had good-looking, creative and funny siblings and our house had a streetlamp right out in front of it, these neighbor kids ended up at our house, the corner house with the six kids, the narrow, long backyard and the young parents willing to make Kool-aid and popcorn and join in playing badminton, wiffleball and kickball.
In the early years, this all played out fairly well, with some neighbors happy that their kids played close to home. Some neighbors for a time even hung out with us, socializing with mom and dad and relaxing while all we kids played and, for the most part, got along.
Not sure when it went really sour, or what triggered the fallout. But fall out it did. And before we knew it, the Isemans were blindsided with “THE PETITION.”

It started something like: “We the undersigned believe that for the following reasons, the Isemans should remedy the following conditions at their home or be forced to move.”
Among other things, it accused my sisters of hanging out with boys late in the evening in our backyard, with those boys flicking cigarettes two stories in the air on to the roof of a neighboring home; they called the appearance of our home ghetto-like; we created danger by playing in the street; and I was the “sassiest” kid in the neighborhood.

Seriously. I’m not exaggerating.
Six surrounding neighbors signed this thing and presented it to the mayor. Not sure what he was going to do with it, but my dad found out because he did some occasional bookkeeping for the borough. I forget who leaked it to him. A quiet guy who grew up in the country, my dad planned to try to handle this thing logically, wisely and diplomatically.
As for mom, well …
The day we received the petition burns in my memory. Mom took it out to the front porch and, holding it in her hand while she shook with anger, shouted the threat about selling to a black family. It was something like:

“Move? They want us to move. Well sure, we’ll move.”
“I’ll sell this place to the biggest, blackest garbageman I can find.”
I was angry because this upset her so. I was proud of her, too, not understanding at the time how impolitic her statement was. At the opposite end of the racial spectrum, I also didn’t immediately realize how mom’s diatribe would be taken by the tough guys down the street — white guys all.
It hit me soon enough. So did they.
I got grabbed, smacked around a bit and threatened. I had to do some fast talking to avoid a major beat-down.
The threat certainly did nothing to advance my mother’s reputation for cool-headed, rational compromise. Nope. She might as well have declared war. It was on.

And who would lead us? Me.
As the oldest boy, it seemed like my duty. I would become the general in this campaign. I had little brother Bob I could shanghai at any time, and my sisters helped to a degree but quickly became distracted by fashion, the 60s and boys.

Still, I was able to recruit, as you can tell from the story about the “Frog Face Ramada,” kids from poorer homes like ours.

The petition came when I was only 10 years old. My brother was 8.
Not old enough yet to drive or date girls, we had an advantage the complaining neighbors did not have or realize until it was too late.

We had all the time in the world.

Part 7: Seeking respite but finding Harley — and his rifle

The encounter with the female Aquavian sent Agnon and Jadeion scurrying with the twins up the mountain. Climbing atop a huge rock in a clearing, Agnon could make out the movement on Moonshine Beach.
He and Jadeion considered returning with the twins to the other refugees near the lake but decided against it. The whirling sky machines. The dark-clad Aquavians running and shouting. The searchlights. All signaled fear, and with fear came danger.
They looked for a place to rest, to feed the twins, to dress their wounds, to think. Scouting ahead, Agnon saw the small square structure with the pitched rooftop reflected by a tall light on a post. Pushing his life-blood to his longest finger, he used it like an orange beacon to summon Jadeion to come to him.
The window on the second story of the structure proved too high for Agnon to reach but, once Jadeion folded her body into a square like a stool, Agnon was inside easily. He helped his family through the doors and placed a metal chair against them. He hoped for the warning sound of it falling if someone entered while they rested.
Jadeion had already found a spot in the hay loft to sit. She wasted no time opening her robes to allow the twins to nurse from her body. Agnon found water from a spigot on the lower level and they both were able to drink and get some sustenance from shoots of sweet hay. Agnon wrapped their wounds with the balmcloth he pulled from pockets in their robes.
He was nearly finished when they heard a vehicle outside slide on the gravel to a stop. They froze and Jadeion kept her hands ready to silence the twins if needed.

The radio blared as Velma got out of the truck and left her door ajar. But Harley killed the ignition and pulled her door closed, quickly. He had lost the argument about waiting to air out the barn until morning. He planned to wait in the truck, shut his eyes for only a few seconds  and relax while Velma opened the big barn doors. He settled in to his seat, happily drunk, still humming that George Strait song.
The falling metal chair did more than startle Velma. It hit her in the bad knee, and she fell, shouting for Harley before she hit the ground.
Harley jumped so quickly he twisted his bad shoulder, sending pain all the way to his neck. Grabbing his rifle he stepped out to the driveway and, still teetering from the booze, had to catch himself from slipping on the gravel. He stood beside his wife and shouted into the barn for whoever was inside to come out with their hands up.
Velma, meanwhile, used his right arm to pull herself to her feet. “I’ll get the phone in my purse,” she whispered. “I’ll call 911. Stay right here, Harley. It’s probably just kids.”
But Harley was ready to defend his property. He already had his weapon raised and a round in the chamber.
The mud trail up the ladder to the loft caught his eye, even in the low light streaming in from the outside pole lamp. Disobeying his wife, he moved further inside, shouting again for the trespassers to show themselves and raise their hands.
“I’ve got a rifle,” he said as steely as he could while simultaneously hitting the switch for the fluorescent lights.
Recognizing the weapon as a danger, Agnon tossed his loudest and lowest voice in a funnel pattern at the Aquavian, while puffing his body into its largest, widest, tallest form. Harley heard what sounded like a monster truck and looked up to see only an attacking cloud of gray and orange as he fired the .30-30 twice.
One round hit just above the twins, sending oak splinters on to them. The other tore through Agnon’s secondary neuron center and then his primary brain, killing him instantly.

His outstretched body, though, hung in the air above Harley.
Dropping the rifle, the old man pulled his Ruger .38 Special from his hip holster and fired it also, as quickly as he could, while retreating toward the door.
Once Agnon finally fell, Jadeion threw her highest pitched shrieks in a direct line at Harley’s upper body. He fell backward with full force, his head hitting the tines of the rotating cultivator he had left upended during a cleaning the weekend prior.

The gunfire came as Velma tried to tell the 911 dispatcher  what was happening. Seeing Harley fall, she dropped the phone and limped toward him as fast as she could. Staring up at Jadeion, who had now puffed her body to its fullest form, Velma fell and crawled to her husband, who was not moving.
Jadeion, flapping her outstretched form in a frenzy, pushed everything she touched toward the Aquavians. A sawhorse, chains, a wooden crate and the long rake all missed Velma. The pitchfork did not.
As cobwebs and hay floated to the barn’s dirt floor, they fell on to inert bodies. Jadeion, trying to get to Agnon, had to make two trips to bring the twins down the ladder.
By the time she reached her breedlove, separate streams of red and orange flowed on the earth toward her sandals.

Performing the ancient rite to send his lifeforce home, she removed his robes and wrapped her glowing arms around him a last time before swaddling the twins in his garments and moving quickly out the barn door.
Stepping past Velma’s cell phone, Jadeion heard the dispatcher’s insistent voice asking again and again for someone to return to the line.

If a swimmer dives in, and no one is around to hear, does he still make a splash?

Scott Iseman sitting on the board he used to achieve some notoriety as a diver.
Scott Iseman sitting on the board he used to achieve some notoriety as a diver.

It figured to be a big afternoon.
Our son Scott, a junior in high school, was competing as a high school diver, with a chance to win a medal in a district-wide competition. There was even a remote chance he could move on to states. He was skilled at this and my wife and I were lucky enough to be able to watch him, as well as our other sporty children, compete on many occasions.
This time, though, would be special. My parents, who rarely saw the kids do sports, would be able to come. They would get to see their grandson in the spotlight, to show his expertise in a sport that took practice, skill and a measure of grace.
I was especially proud sitting there in the deck above the pool, my mom chattering about how excited she was, my dad just taking it all in, asking a question or two about the specifics of the competition.
Swimmers raced in several rounds before the divers did their thing. Watching the kids kick and pull through the water took me back to when I swam, in high school as a junior and senior. As the 100-freestyle race started, I pointed out to my wife and parents that I used to compete in that event, and that — if I remembered correctly — I had a respectable time and a couple good showings back in my day.
My parents didn’t respond, making chit-chat or staring down at the pool, trying to see Scott. My wife had heard enough of my swimming tales to try to get a second opinion on whether I was actually any good.
She said something like:
“Was Dave impressive as a swimmer in high school? I saw the photos and he looked pretty skinny.”
Neither parent answered her. I chimed in to break the awkward silence. Back then, I explained, parents didn’t go to as many kids’ events and, remember, I was a middle child of six. Again, my mom and dad remained silent.
Suddenly, it hit me like a face-plant in the water after a failed double somersault: Had they gone to any of my swimming meets?
My high school, a big-city school, was miles from the actual neighborhood where I grew up. I wasn’t good enough to make the teams for the more popular sports, like baseball, basketball or football. Swimming was it for me, but I actually did well enough to help win some meets and was awarded a letter, a big yellow “C” for Carrick High School.
We had time before my son’s rounds of diving began, so I got my mom and dad’s attention to ask, seriously, if they had actually ever seen me compete as a swimmer.
“When, honey?” my mom asked, as my dad looked over, also curious to what I would answer.
“In high school.”
“We saw lots of baseball games when you and Bobby were little,” mom answered, deflecting by launching into a detailed recounting — I had heard this one many times before — of how they had to choose one summer day between seeing me play pony league ball and my little brother Bobby at little league. I won their attention, but lost in the end. I played poorly and he ended “nearly pitching a no-hitter” — with no parents there watching.
I interrupted. “You do remember that I was a high school swimmer, right?”
Neither of them spoke. My wife looked at me with eyebrows raised and mouth open. She waffled between consoling me and laughing out loud.
I couldn’t believe it. So, I decided to press.
“You have no memory of me swimming? Well, where the heck do you think I went after school on all those days? Sometimes I didn’t get home til after dark.”
My dad shrugged; he had an out. He could always claim he had to work long hours.
Mom tried for cover. “Oh, who knows? You were always going somewhere. There were six of you. I was lucky to keep you all fed and out of jail.”
“But, don’t you remember how my eyes were always bloodshot?” It seems bizarre now, but I swam quite a long time before I got goggles. “How my hair was wet — sometimes frozen — when I got home?”
Mom saw a real opportunity for deflection this time. “Bloodshot eyes? You really want to talk about bloodshot eyes? Yeah, I remember lots of bloodshot eyes …”
Her complaints of pot, beer kegs and drunken friends ensued, with a couple verbal whaps for my dad for not doing enough to keep kids sober when they hung out at our house. Forget that she was recalling college-day activities and later, not high school.
I gave up. My wife held off saying anything. The diving competition, luckily, pulled my head out of the past.
Scott was doing well.
The competition involved a series of dives, and his scores had him in a good spot to possibly win a medal — at least. State qualification was still a real longshot. Still, this was a big deal for him; this year was his first as a diver. The previous two years he had wrestled, like his older and younger brothers.
My wife and I watched proudly but quietly. Silence was the rule with this sport. It was very different than wrestling. During those matches, you could yell as loudly as you wanted, and many people did. My wife’s vocal chords were legendary.
When Scott went to the board again, something went wrong. As he hit the water, a murmur started in the crowd, and he came out of the water shaking his head. It was a failed dive. It was an attempt at a two-and-one-half forward somersault. I could tell he hit the water poorly.
The next time, a similar result. It was a reverse double flip. Again, that murmur and this time Scott got out of the water obviously upset. Surprisingly, though, he grabbed his towel and stormed out of the pool area.
This was not like him at all. Our kids hated showy and pouty athletes. They had seen enough spoiled kids making scenes that they had vowed never to act similarly.
My wife asked me what happened. I said it looked like another failed dive, but his other scores were still strong, and I was certain that, with more dives to yet perform, he still had a chance to end up among the top scorers.
He didn’t return from the locker room. I headed down to make sure he wasn’t hurt.
As I walked in, he leaned up against a wall with both hands near a hair dryer, mounted above him. Just as I called to him, he punched the dryer with a closed fist.
“Whoa. Whoa. What’s going on?” I shouted. “This isn’t like you Scotty.”
His eyes were red; his nose was runny. He buried his face in his towel.
He said he wasn’t hurt and I tried to console him, spitting out a soliloquy quickly, but softly, reassuringly.
“You don’t walk off like that. C’mon pal. You were doing great. You’ll do better, you have a few dives left, there’s a chance to catch up and maybe get a medal. Don’t get down on yourself. Those were hard dives. Your next ones aren’t as difficult. You’ll nail them.”
He finally spoke. “Can you please stop talking.”
I didn’t understand and started getting angry. Then, he broke the news.
Two failed dives means no more chances, he said. It was a dreaded rule in district competition that, had I been an attentive sports dad, I would have been aware of.
I felt like a true idiot. All I could do was give him a hug and tell him just that: I feel like a true idiot.
He regained composure and said he would be fine. I gave him another hug and said we’d see him later.
Upon return to the upper deck, I explained the problem, though I didn’t admit my lame attempt at cheerleading that had gone so embarrassingly sour.
I didn’t want to give my parents any ammunition to fire back at me.
I wasn’t done giving them grief over how they missed my entire, illustrious swimming career.
I wondered how hard it would be to find my high school yearbook.

Me, the skinny one, second row, third from left, with Carrick High School swimmers.
Me, the skinny one, second row, third from left, with Carrick High School swimmers.

Part 6: Harley and Velma, heading home as the strange aircraft keep coming

IMG_1638Velma knew she would lose this argument, but she had to try.
“Harley William Higonbotten the Third, you old mule, you should not be in that seat. Get out. Have some sense.”
“Now now, my beautiful, dear Velma. You know your knee is acting up. It’s only a few miles. I’m OK. Look, I still have my coffee from this morning. I’m drinking some now.”
“My knee is better than your brain, you ol’ fool. If we left when I said … but no, you had to sit there at the bar with Everett for all those gosh-dang hours.”

“I shouldn’t have to nag at you like some old biddy.”
He stayed quiet and started the truck.

He could tell from the tone of her voice — and the sound of her seatbelt snapping into place — that she wasn’t going to push the issue. He figured he’d just stick to the back roads, guzzle that coffee and get back to the vacation house as soon as possible.
On the first turn out of the rod and gun club, though, he miscalculated and had to jerk the wheel so hard that he hit a hole on the berm of the road, bouncing his rifle in the air behind him, almost up and out of the worn old rack he had refused to replace. Velma just tsk-tsked loudly, clutched her purse on her lap and stared straight ahead.
Harley turned on the radio. KRSW Outlaw Country announced itself and, after a Kubota Tractor commercial, played the 10 p.m. news.
“Federal authorities had promised a news conference at 9 p.m. but that time came and went without new word on the crash of the strange aircraft into Table Rock Lake. Numerous news agencies are reporting that tall gray creatures were killed in the crash, and many more survived. Again, we have not confirmed any of this but at least two reporters from our area have sent images from the scene that appear to show living, moving non-human creatures along Moonshine Beach.
The FBI and federal transportation authorities have taken control of the scene and have not yet made an official statement. Miles around the area have been cordoned off. Meanwhile, at least three other aircraft have been reported down in other Missouri and nearby lakes, the closest being Bull Shoals in Arkansas …”
Static interfered as the pickup rounded the bend toward a high limestone escarpment.

“Well, I’ll be damned. Creatures!” Harley said loudly. “What in the name of all things holy do they mean by that?”
Velma ssh’d him, trying to hear more.
But the Outlaw had moved on to George Strait now and Velma knew the mountains wouldn’t let her pick up any other stations at least until they got to what she called the “cabin.” It was their summer home away from home, small enough to be easy to maintain but big enough for their daughter Jill and her husband Dan to visit with the grandkids.
The boys actually loved staying in the little barn just south of the cabin. They said they felt like they were cowboys in the Old West. Harley had fixed up the barn just enough to be secure, with new swinging cedar doors and a hay loft, but left it rustic enough to preserve its character.
Velma told herself she would open it up when they woke up tomorrow, air it out for a few minutes at least, in case Jill drove the kids up to visit this weekend.
“In all the world, you’ll never find …” Harley started singing along with the radio.

With an arm flourish, he bowed toward his wife and belted out: “…a love as true as m-i-i-i-i-i-ne!” She had to shout at him and smack his arm when he veered within inches of the rocks off the east berm of the narrow road.

…to be continued 

Yes, it was a big fat mistake — my wife’s

Usually, I have great cause to boast about my wife, especially how well she did raising our kids.
However, this time, I type with a heavy heart. I have to indict her.

Even the baby was subjected to this woman's twisted, politically incorrect behavior.
Even the baby was subjected to this woman’s twisted, politically incorrect behavior.

As you can see from the photo above, she trained our children to ridicule people who are overweight.
Not only did she encourage these impressionable children to stuff their clothes with pillows, she taught them to strut and shake and bounce about. Then, she wasn’t happy to keep her heartless impresario behind closed doors, she paraded the kids down the street.
This was a lot of years ago. But, I will publicly apologize for her regardless.
If you witnessed this iniquity, these children harangued into this entourage of insult, please accept this long overdue mea culpa.
Still, you ask, why?
How could this otherwise lovely and caring woman be so inured to the suffering of the obese? What triggered this abomination? How could she do this?
On her behalf, I plead post-traumatic stress. She endured intense years of child-rearing; she obviously flipped out. We just had too many kids too close in age. Sorry twins. But, yes. It is your fault.
The birthing cycle began in early 1983 and ended in the Spring of 1989.
From birthdate to birthdate, that’s six years, 25 days — for five kids.

So, as you might expect, this deranged mom was stuck at home without another large human many days (I worked a lot of overtime back then) with five children 6 years old and younger. Twins add a measure of tension and pressure not easily understood, too.
Hopefully, you will find it in your hearts to grant her at least a small measure of forgiveness. She was obviously not in her right mind.
Again, however, I will not try to sugarcoat her misdeeds. She, and she alone, perpetrated this politically incorrect outrage.
I implore you, do not blame the children. They were only hapless pawns — crudely manipulated marionettes in the grip of a madwoman.
And, unfortunately, she’s still mad.
I informed her of my plan for this public plea for absolution, this soul-baring, my hope to post an apology for all to see.
I asked her to join me. I wanted her to at least try to wipe this black mark from her soul. You can probably guess the response.
Essentially, it was: “Fat chance.”

Part 5: Bodies floating like timber on a river

As Hattley approached the crash scene, she fiddled with her high beams to be sure they were on. The TV crew had stopped to inspect the pouch so she had sped along ahead of them. She looked for other TV trucks and saw none.
She saw the aircraft but little of it was still above water. From the earlier tweet from rescue workers, she knew those must be gray bodies floating alongside what appeared to be a mostly submerged hull. But they were so tall and still they looked like logs on a river awaiting the push of the current.

She looked for survivors and saw none.
Along the shore, the scene confused Hattley. She thought she might have taken a wrong turn until she saw the firefighters and ambulance workers with flashlights. But where was the clear swath of rocky sand? Where was the swimming area? Where was Moonshine Beach?

All she saw was a line of scraggy trees where the beach should be. They were not very tall and some appeared bent or fallen, like you see after a tornado whips along a roadway.

Then,  several of the trees moved, some collapsing in the sand and the others embracing each other like lost lovers. It hit her and she ran toward them. They were the passengers, out of water, standing or crouching, for some reason trying to form a line along the beach. Others stood in the low water, grabbing bodies that floated by and checking them for life.
Hattley’s tweets, with as many photos as she could shoot and send, traveled rapidly — around the world.

“Hundreds appear alive after crash. But, hundreds of bodies floating, too. @MissouriLeader #bransoncrash”

“Moonshine Beach lined with, well, survivors. They do not appear to be human @MissouriLeader #bransoncrash”

“Fire, ambulance workers trying to help but wary @MissouriLeader #bransoncrash”

After sending at least a dozen photos and two videos, and being rebuffed by the fire chief when she asked him for comment, Hattley texted her editor. By then, the TV crew was walking the beach, sending video, too.

“Holy Crap! You getting all this?” she texted.

“Yes. Keep it coming. Anything you can. We’re sending Pete and Julie, now. Trying to get others. “

“Want to talk to them. Will try now.”

“Whoa. You feel safe?”

“Yes, they are hurt, not danger.”

“Use caution. I repeat: Caution. Any hostile sign, back away.”

“Hear ya. Caution.”

But Hattley felt like she knew these creatures. She had felt their touch. She sensed, actually felt in her bones, what they had fled.

She lowered her phone as she walked toward the shortest creature she could find along the beach; it had a white beard and was partially bent at the waist. It held tightly to what appeared to be a female of about the same height.

As she got within 5 feet, she recoiled as both of them collapsed at the same time to the ground. Their legs folded like those on a card table and their torsos folded at the waist. They immediately curled their arms around their legs and kept their faces down.

 She heard them murmur and saw they were shaking, and she backed quickly away. Moving to the next group farther down the beach, they also collapsed, as if puppets controlled by a common set of strings.

Down the beach, firefighters were having the same problem. She took quick photos and remembered the ship in the water. She had no images of it, yet. She tried for video but worried the exposure was wrong and nothing would be seen. The orange glow was now so faint it looked like a campfire on the opposing shoreline.

With her focus so far out on the water, Hattley didn’t see or hear the FBI agent until he had her by the shoulders.

“Hey, easy! I’m a reporter. I’m just trying …”
“This is a restricted area, ma’am. Please come with me.”
“C’mon, leggo! There’s no tape. This is a public …”
A helicopter swooped in low to drown out the rest of her futile plea, as the agent half pushed and half carried her toward her car.

Dozens of other men, all wearing dark jackets and hats, now scurried along the beach. More helicopters looked for a place to land. Some of the men inside used ladders or cables to disembark; some carried weapons. The TV crew, also being corralled, shouted to no avail as they were also pushed back. Even firefighters and rescue workers were put in their vehicles and moved to the beach entrance, too far to see what was happening with the tall gray creatures and their sinking ship.
… to be continued

You can take the kid out of the city, but …

Eugene, age 10
Eugene, age 10

The 10-year-old said he was afraid, but I had him pegged for a bit of an actor, a showman. I prodded him onward.
“C’mon, it’s not scary. Just some trees. It’s pretty back there.”
“C’mon, I have a baby here. I’m carrying Luke. I wouldn’t take him anywhere dangerous.”
“Nope. Too scared. Bears.”
“All right. Let’s just to the edge of the yard. A few more feet.”
Of course, a bird and a squirrel would choose just then to make just enough ruckus in the brush for Eugene to convince himself that yes, a giant grizzly was rising out of the leaves to maul him to death right there, right then, before he even got to see what the heck living in the country was all about.
I caught up to him about 50 yards later, at the house, and he was sniffling, with tears welled in his eyes. And that wasn’t the only spot that was wet.
I couldn’t believe how frightened he had gotten, and so quickly. We were still in the backyard.
A tough New York City kid did not fare so well in the backyard of our little rental house that backed up to the thick woods. I apologized many times and my wife made sure she reprimanded me loud enough for him to hear while he cleaned up — and put on new dry pants — in the bathroom.

My wife and I spent several years in New York City when we were very young, before we decided to have kids. We loved much about the city and it was good to us. But the prospect of raising children there — without a lot of money for things like day care or a bigger apartment — seemed daunting.
Being a poor kid in the big city could be tough, from what we saw. Thoughts of those kids stayed with us when we moved away.
Eventually we landed in western Pennsylvania, where I got my start in the news business, in a quaint borough with lots of surrounding land and parks and farms and ranches.
It was then that we decided to pay it forward as the saying now goes, through a program called the Fresh Air Fund. For more than a century it has been organizing trips for underprivileged NYC kids to the “country,” defined as almost anywhere not as crowded as the Big Apple. They get taken in buses to host families and stay two weeks.
Welcome Eugene, the first Fresh Air Kid exposed to the Isemans, and vice versa.
Luckily, Eugene did not hold a grudge.
I think I won him over by taking him to the county fair. (I saved some of his thoughts from back then and discovered them the other day rummaging through old keepsakes.)
“What do those pigs eat? Mud? … Are the bugs eating the dirt off them? … Yes, those horses are big. They stink, too. I know another name for that, Jack —.”
He grinned while he formed the second part of the word with his mouth. But he didn’t say it.
He was also intrigued by cemeteries. He kept counting them, especially the day I got, well, a little lost picking him up for the first time.
“We went past a cemetery like that on the bus. That’s the eighth cemetery. How can people live so close to them. They’re scary.” (Later in the week.) “Look, that’s the ninth cemetery. Oh, now I know. There used to be people around here, right? That’s why there are so many cemeteries and no people.”
The Fresh Air Fund organizers advise host familes not to pry too much with the Fresh Air kids. Some come from tough, complicated situations.
Eugene offered up that he and 11 relatives live in an apartment with five rooms. He wasn’t complaining, just explaining. He spoke of his “maniac class” at P.S. 147, an elementary school. The teacher didn’t care what anyone did. One kid threw a desk chair right through a window, Eugene said. And what did he do? Well, he might have run atop a few desks but it sounded like he didn’t get caught.
He spoke of warnings he had been given by his family about being sure he was in the apartment on time, usually by 8 p.m.
“The only time it’s real bad is on Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday, when they’re burning on the corners. That’s when people get arrested. They get this powder in paper and they heat it up and then put it in their veins. And that’s called a drug. My father says it’s poison.”
Sometimes, I’m sure, visiting us must have seemed like he had been dropped on another planet.

Quiet, dark, lots and lots of cornfields. He giggled out of the blue one day as he drew this conclusion: “I know. People just ate and ate too much corn, so they had to be put in the cemeteries, right?”
“Is President Reagan the president here, too? … people in New York don’t like him. He’s closing down the schools for breakfast and lunch.”
One rule of the Fresh Air program is the kids must write a postcard to their parents upon arrival with their host families. The notes are primarily meant to reassure parents. In his note, Eugene ratted me out for not having the directions down pat. “The peoples got lost. The people’s number is 814 27-53757.”
He also included this line: “I was going to cry but stop it.”
He was referring back to when he got dropped off by the bus from New York. When I first met him, after he was pointed out to me by a Fresh Air Fund representative, Eugene looked very upset.
The representative rushed off to help someone else so I couldn’t ask her why. I put on my best friendly Dave face and — after telling him some cool stuff we would do in the country — I asked what was wrong. Between sobs, he said simply: “My sister.” Then he pointed to another family picking up a kid.
I corraled the representative who explained that, yes, siblings do get split up like that. It seemed heartless, but she said the agency cannot usually get hosts to agree to take more than one child. She turned to Eugene and spoke in a way that showed she had been through this, many times.
Your sister is going to have a great time, the rep told him. She’s in good hands. You’ll be so busy you won’t even notice how fast the time flies.
If you’re lucky — she spoke more to me than him with this part — your host family and her host family will come to the party we’re having next week. The kids get to spend time together again and the host families get to know each other, too.

I told him I saw no reason we would miss that.
The two weeks flew by. Eugene befriended a couple neighbor kids and, when we didn’t have an excursion planned, he played til dusk on a big wide street with little traffic and expansive front lawns.

Me, my wife Lynn, our firstborn Luke and Eugene in 1983
Me, my wife Lynn, our firstborn Luke and Eugene in 1983

His street smarts paid off, too, even in our small town.
I saw him coming in for the night one evening with his pants hanging low from his waist. And this was 1983, long before that was the fashion. As he got to his room, I noticed he dumped coins from the pockets.
I whispered to my wife to ask if she knew where he got the money. She said no.
We hurried in to his room before he began to change. (We had previously agreed that the room was his to control, and he never changed his clothes in front of us.)
“Where did you get all that money, Eugene?” I asked.
“Betting,” he said, looking up at us and smiling like a grizzly who had just scared the crap out of a city kid.
“Betting? Like playing cards? Poker? Dice?” I had visions of the nice old gramma down the street emptying her piggy bank with Eugene grinning widely, ready for another round of black jack.
“No,” he said. “Those kids just wouldn’t believe me.”
“Believe you? About what? Being from New York?”
“Nope. About this.” He pointed to his stomach.
My wife and I just stared. We must have looked as frozen and dumbfounded as the big-headed cows on display at the fair.
“About not having a belly button.”
He lifted his shirt. Only a scar.
Sick as a young kid, he had to have surgery, he said. But now, it’s a good way to get some money.
Oh boy, I thought. My wife and I would have to have an odd talk with the parents of the neighbor kids.
Not now, though. It was getting dark. I still had time to try to convince Eugene to retry that walk in the woods.

Part 4: No choice. Send more ships.

Agnon’s father Caliphnon coughed so violently that orange spittle flew from his gray lips to the screen he stared at so intently.
One of the four elderpriests gathered with him in the observatory handed him a towel, and all ignored the interruption. They knew Caliphnon was very sick, and there was little they could do.

More important was whether the ships landed safely on this new planet the priests called Aquavia.
The rickety transports had been slinged at full warp speed to the green-blue planet and were the latest and most desperate of the escape attempts thus far.

Ships with little maintenance. Rushed takeoffs. No time to double-check calculations of landing coordinates.
Caliphnon held his cough back with the towel in his fist as he watched the red, flashing pins on the screen. They showed, at least, that most transports had landed on Aquavia, that most were not destroyed. But, the pins also signaled a problem: the transports were not moving. The smugglers had planned to drop the refugees and get back in the air for a return trip, quickly.
They were grounded. They must have crashed. Damage was impossible to tell without communication lines. And there were none.
The ships were also not as close together as hoped. It could take days for all those aboard to reunite, those that lived at least.

The priests did not speak often in the observatory. Most of their race conveyed simple, basic, emphatic thoughts through touch. When they did speak, like ventriloquists, it was the old language, tossed in the air at different heights and breadths, depending on the seriousness of the message.
“But the ships’ sensors add certainty to our calculations,” one priest said loudly, and as broadly spaced as he could muster. It echoed in the high-ceilings of the observatory.

“Our people can breathe there. And the largest of the poolfluids at the landing site is neither too hot nor too cold.”
Caliphnon patted this priest on the back with a shaky, long, gray hand, saying:
“Yes there is hope. We have no choice. We must send the remaining ships to the same coordinates.”
“There is no time.”
He bowed deeply to each priest and each saw — but did not mention — the orange that now stained much of the front and back of their leader’s long white robes.
They watched quietly as he retreated from the observatory, a dark-pillared dome streaked with shimmerstone reflecting the steady flashing of the red pins.