Substitute Dad

© 2006 - 2011 By Scribe1971 (

Chapter 63 - Holidays to Remember

Author's Note: David of Hope has really come through for me again and has done a tremendous job on this chapter. This chapter is about two-thirds David's work and I am greatful for his continued assistance with this project - especially during this difficult time with my family.

For the next two weeks, Bryan and I did spend our time with light housework, laundry, dusting, and vacuuming. We got a feel for what the housekeepers were going to be up against once we started work in January. Between times, we scooted into Calgary and did some Christmas shopping and checked on the progress at the office building.

One morning, on the spur of the moment, while we were going around the office building with Harold Stemming, we invited him and his family out to the ranch for dinner and a chance to see the Christmas lights.

"In fact," I said, "why don't you fly out and see the lights from the air. It's that spectacular."

"I'll phone Verna right now and make sure we have nothing planned," he replied as he pulled out his cell phone and called home. "Hi dear," he said into the phone, "what have you got planned for dinner tonight? .... Good, I'm going to take you and the kids out for dinner tonight to a very special place." Turning to me he asked, "What time?"

"Six-thirty.... seven o'clock," I replied as Bryan nodded in agreement.

"OK Verna, we'll be leaving the house at 5:30 and we should be sitting down to dinner by seven. .... Strictly casual dear.... I know you'll enjoy it. .... You bet, see you then."

As he closed his phone, he said, "This will knock their socks off.... I've never taken them up for a night flight since I've owned the plane. They'll love it..... and I've never told them anything about Serenity because it was only a short assignment. They've been here to the office building though, but all I've told them is a bit about what your business will be. Now I have to warn you though, Verna is somewhat outspoken. Sometimes I wonder how our two kids turned out so good."

"That's OK Harold, there's a few of our family members that don't hesitate to say what's on their mind." I said smiling at the thought.

"Give us a call from the air when you see the air strip." Bryan added.

"Your air strip number, right?" Harold asked.

"You've got it!" Bryan replied.

Once we got home, we went into the security shack and informed Quince what was going to happen, so the security staff wouldn't go off the deep end when they saw an airplane buzzing the property. Before Bryan and I started the preparations for dinner, we phoned everyone else to warn them too about the event that was going to happen and suddenly, at Mom's insistence because Harold was one of the most important people within our organization, it turned into another family gathering at the main house with everyone bringing food, turning a quiet dinner into a festivity. Bryan and I were relegated to providing the roasts - one kinda rare, another medium and another well done. We also spent an hour peeling spuds and filled four large pots on the stove for mashed potatoes. The microwave got a lot of use defrosting the meat in a hurry and then both ovens cooking the roasts that afternoon.

As soon as the boys got home and we told them about Harold and his family flying in for dinner, Mark went out and turned on the runway lights.

I had no idea how Mom and Susan organized it, but on the dot of six-thirty everyone appeared with bowls and dishes of food. Bryan and I had just finished mashing and mixing the potatoes with just a small amount of creamed cheese in them.

Five minutes later our special 'air strip' phone rang. Mark answered. "Serenity here.... Roger that CFLXK, you're clear to land."

While Bryan, all the kids and I went out to the hangar to greet our guests, the others stayed busy in the kitchen, setting up the serving dishes, the dining room table, carving the roasts, and setting up the china and cutlery. Their Cessna did buzz the ranch three times before landing and parking near the hangar where Bryan and the rest of us had lined up.

"WOW!" Harold shouted as he got out of the Cessna. "Who needs runway lights when you have a display like this!"

The co-pilot's door opened and I heard a woman's voice exclaim, "HAROLD! Where the hell are we?"

"We're at Serenity Verna.... this is where the owners of Davis-Callahan live," he replied. "Come on out kids, you're about to be surprised."

As soon as the four of them were out of the plane, Bryan and I approached them. "Welcome to Serenity Mrs. Stemming," I said as I extended my hand, "I'm Tom Davis and this is my partner Bryan Callahan."

Her look of shock was priceless as she shook my hand and then Bryan's. "You two young men own this big place and that huge office building? You're not much older than my son Garret here. Oh Harold, this is another one of your jokes, isn't it?" She said with a laugh. Suddenly it was hard to keep a straight face as the kids and Bryan started laughing at her response. Their son was standing behind Verna, about six feet tall with a slim build.

"Mrs. Stemming, I apologize for laughing, but we've never had a response like this before." Bryan said with a broad smile. "I assure you we are the owners of this property and the office building."

"Holy crap! I wouldn't want to be making your mortgage payments!" Verna exclaimed. Laughing, a very infectious laugh, she continued, "Next you'll be telling me that you're the father of all these kids!"

"Actually Tom and Bryan are my Dads, Mrs. Stemming." Josh said giggling as he reached forward and shook her hand. "I'm Josh Chambers."

"My Dads too," Mark added as he shook her hand. "I'm Mark Callahan."

"NOW I KNOW IT'S A JOKE!" Verna responded laughing. Her attitude was so positive and happy and right away I liked her. "These two young men would have to have been about eight years old when these two boys were conceived."

I shook my head while trying to control my laughter, "First off, there is no mortgage payments, Mrs. Stemming and we didn't conceive our boys nor have we legally adopted them, but in a way they adopted us and they call us 'Dad'."

"Harold, this is priceless!" Verna said with a new round of laughter. "I can't believe you went to all this effort to pull one over on me, but I'll go along with it. And who are you young man?" she asked as she offered her hand to Michael.

"I'm Michael Burton, Mrs. Stemming." Michael replied with a big smile, trying very hard to be serious. "My Mom and Dad live at the east side of town and they'll be moving out here as soon as the new house is built."

Trying very hard to control her giggles, Verna said, "Oh isn't that nice? And you my dear... you're the only girl here. What's your name?"

"I'm Shelly Mason, Mrs. Stemming. Josh is my boyfriend." By now the giggles had subsided to broad smiles. "I live with my Mom and Dad and my brother Eddie at the other end of the property. This is Eddie here."

"OK Verna, it's my turn now," Harold announced as he took Verna's hand. "Believe me dear, this isn't one of my jokes. This is Eddie Mason, next to him is Kevin Brown, his Dad is with security company and next to him are the Davis twins, Richard and Matthew.... their Dad is in charge of marketing. Before you ask, you have to know that they all live here on the ranch." I was surprised that Harold remembered so much about our family just from our design meetings.

"You'll be meeting their parents in the main house for dinner." I said to confirm what Harold had already said.

Once again Verna burst out laughing. "The main house? Good grief kids, your Dad has flown us into a commune for dinner! What an experience this will be!"

"MOM! You're embarrassing us!" The young lady said. She stepped forward and introduced herself to Bryan and I. "I'm Lorret, Mr. Davis.... Mr. Callahan. My mom's always making a joke of everything. I'm sorry."

"Please don't apologize. Your Mom is a breath of fresh air and please, call me Tom." I said.

Lorret and Garret shook hands with Bryan and I, before going down the line of kids bumping fists and doing a number of hand twist and grab salutations.

"OK everyone, supper's probably on the table, let's take the short walk up to the house." Bryan announced as he and the kids led the way.

"Garret," Harold shouted, "Go back and get that box out of the Cessna, and bring it with you."

"Right on Pop!" Garret replied as Mark and Michael followed him back to the plane.

"We better chock the wheels." Mark said as he passed us.

As we got closer to the driveway, Verna's giggles and laughter slowly turned to quiet comments of amazement as she took in the spectacle of the lights around the main house. Once inside the front door, Verna was awed. Mom, Susan and Darren came into the foyer and started taking their coats and introducing themselves. Harold followed through with the introductions as he explained their place in the organization. The kids were quick to get out of the foyer and pull Lorret into the family room. Although a senior in high school, she was closer to their age than she was of all the adults. When Garret, Mark, and Michael came in, Harold announced that the carton contained nine bottles of various wines that he found to his favour.

Right away Susan ushered us into the dining room with the table fully extended and all the leaves put in it. The food dishes extended down the centre of the table from one end to the other. I was astounded at how hard everyone had worked during the short time we'd been out at the hangar greeting Harold and his family.

When offered a glass of wine, Bryan, Darren, Susan, Harold, Trevor, and I were the only ones who accepted. Personally I didn't know a good wine from rot-gut, so it was wasted on me. Verna refused wine because she said she was having such a good time without it. I had wondered at one point if all her exuberance came from alcohol. I was happy to find out that my thought had no basis.

Throughout dinner Verna was the hit of the gathering. Her infectious laugh and the hilarious stories she told of the many jokes that Harold had played on them in the past had all of us in tears at one point or another.

In his own defense, Harold had to explain that he had to listen to all the depressing things that people lived with at the apartment building he managed and he just needed a break from it all, so when he came home, he'd turn off the 'work' switch, and make his family laugh with a number of practical jokes. Verna's acceptance of his jokes was one of the things he loved most about her.

At one point I overhead the kids talking. "Garret, except for Eddie, none of us have had a sister," Kevin said. "What's it like to have sister?"

"Most of the time it's pretty cool except when she won't listen." Garret answered smiling.

"Listen to you!" Lorret exclaimed. "You're always nagging me. All the time, nag, nag, nag. How can I help but listen to you."

"Hey sis, I only nag you when you're going to do something wrong and when you do it right, it makes Mom and Pop happy."

"Well yeah," Lorret answered, "but you still have poor taste in girlfriends."

Garret laughed, "There ya go Kevin.... that's what it's like to have a sister."

"All I can say is I'm glad he's going to university now and he doesn't keep track of my every move at school." Lorret said.

"U of C?" I asked.

"Yeah," Garret answered, "I want to get my masters in medicine and go on to become a doctor. I'm not sure what specialty yet."

"I'm in my last year of computer science at U of C." I added.

Right away Verna started laughing. "If that isn't the icing on the cake! Harold, I don't know how you arranged this charade, but you've really outdone yourself this time. Tom I can't believe that you're still going university and you're going to run a multi-million dollar business at the same time. I just can't wait for that office building to open with all the staff and walk in there and meet the real Tom Davis, but you are playing the part so well."

Bryan and I were starting to giggle as we looked at each other, which only added fuel to Verna's laughter that all this was some kind of joke. The rest of our family was all smiles and quiet giggles.

Lorret stood up. "Mom! Look at Tom! Look at him carefully. Don't you recognize him?"

I looked at Lorret and winked as Verna studied my face. Harold muffled his giggles into his hand.

"I see so many faces selling real estate," Verna said, "but there is something vague."

"Mom, September 11th. We were watching the news on the 14th." Lorret said seriously.

It took a moment before Verna's face sobered, her mouth dropped, and her eyes bugged out in shocked surprise. She jerked her head and looked at Harold who burst into laughter together with most of the other people at the table, then back to me. I smiled and winked at her. Her shocked expression hadn't changed.

Within a moment, she started breathing again. She looked at the table and gathered her thoughts before she looked back to me. "You.... you saved that girl.... uh.... Val.... something or other.... Goldman. GOLDMAN! Enrich Goldman....? He.... he's behind all this?"

I nodded my head smiling. "Yes he is Verna. Together with a generous reward for saving his daughter, he appreciated the business plan I had with me at the time and he has a great deal of confidence that our venture is going to succeed."

Verna turned to Harold. "....and you let me go on and on like that?"

"Sweetheart, I did tell you it wasn't one of my jokes." Harold replied. "There's no way I could have set up something this elaborate. You carried the ball on this one and I had to let you run with it."

Turning back to Bryan and me, Verna continued, "I should be very embarrassed, but I'm not, however Tom.... Bryan, I do apologize if I said anything that offended you in any way. I think I've actually overwhelmed myself."

"Verna, you're an amazing lady," Bryan said, "believe me, we aren't offended in any way.... more than amused for sure, but definitely not offended."

"That goes double for me Verna," I added. "Bryan and I are very lucky to have met a lady like you, but I must say, I'm glad you weren't our real estate salesperson when we were buying the ranch and the office building. I'll bet you could sell a melting igloo to the folks in Florida."

"Well I'm not that underhanded," Verna replied, "but I suppose I have sold a few extras to a client or two that were above their essential needs. If I could be so bold, I'd really appreciate a dime tour of your home before we leave. From what I've seen so far, I'll bet it's a real gem. It will definitely give me a different perspective."

"It would be our privilege," Bryan replied.

After dessert, Bryan and I escorted the Stemming family around the house starting with the basement and the first floor and although the second floor bedroom wing was the same as the one on the first floor, Verna still wanted to see it. After showing them the boy's rooms and their bathroom, we took them into our master bedroom.

As we were leaving our bedroom, Verna stopped at the door, turned and smiled at Bryan and me. "Gentlemen, the two of you make a great couple. I was going to say charming, but you're far better than that."

"Mom... Pop!" Garret called from the hallway, "Come look at this." Garret was carefully studying the gallery of medals and awards.

Cautiously, Verna silently pointed to each one of the awards, medals, and pictures. When she finished with the last one, she put her hand by her side, took a gulp, and looked at me. "Far better than great. You've made your piece of this world a better place to be."

I was a bit embarrassed by that comment. Bryan put his hand on my shoulder. "Verna, Tom just does what comes natural for him."

"The dog too!" Verna said with a giggle.

"You bet!" I answered. "Brutus got that award for saving Josh, Susan's and my life. I'd have had a bullet right between the eyes if Brutus hadn't showed up and grabbed the assailant's hand that day. I think he has better instincts than many humans."

By 8:30 we got back downstairs to find most of the crowd in the family room relaxing.

"Well ladies and gentlemen," Harold announced, "I hate to eat and run, but tomorrow is another big day for everyone. School for the kids and work for me at the office building and I'm not home yet. Saying thank you for such a great meal and the hospitality seems so shallow, but honestly, this has been an evening to remember."

"Before we get back in the plane, I'd like to walk along the road and take in all the lights and the houses," Verna said.

"Good!" Mom said. "You'll be able to walk along with all of us on our way home. It's a beautiful way to enjoy the lights."

All of us took in the walk all the way to Hamish and Irene's house expressing our gratitude, saying our goodnights and hugs for everyone as they came to their homes, even my brothers.

As the five of us accompanied the four Stemming's back to the hangar, they were silent as they took in the enveloping magic of the Christmas lights while I told them an abbreviated version of how our family had developed. After we left the road and started heading toward the hangar, Verna finally spoke.

"I could only dream that there was such a loving family in this world. To watch all of you hug each other as you said goodnight... even with your brothers was very moving. Even with you Bryan.... there's no blood connection between you and Tom's family, yet they accept you, male and female, as if you were the most precious human being on the planet. After all the embarrassment I caused, I even got hugs and best wishes from everyone... including the children."

"It's what we do Verna," Josh said. "It's who we are. It's how we gain our strength from one another. After 9/11, I realized the strength each one of us has to contribute to one to another. It's like an invisible, yet very strong unity."

"That's right bro," Mark added, "and the bond was there long before the money came along."

"I wish my parents had been here tonight," Michael said, "maybe they would realize the real strength of what's in a family."

"Don't you worry about that," Bryan said as he grabbed Michael into a hug and rubbed his back. "They'll learn soon enough once they start working with us at the office and finally move here after their new house is built."

"I'll bet there's a lot of people that would pay to come here and tour this spectacle of lights." Verna said.

"I'm afraid that's not in the cards Verna," I said. "We have this for the enjoyment of our families and our close friends. Our security staff have had their families through to enjoy it, but to open it to the public is pretty much out of the question."

"You have a security staff?" She asked.

"Yes we have. Every move we've made on the grounds has been observed from the Serenity Shack." I answered.

She nodded her head. "Considering the way things are in the world today, I guess that makes sense."

"Well here we are kids, time to hop in and get buckled up." Harold said. "Tom.... Bryan.... what I thought was going to be a simple dinner turned out to be a banquet and an evening full of surprises for my family and me. We'll be talking about this experience for a long, long time. It really feels good to know that my employers have a lot of heart behind their business decisions. Thank you so much for inviting us."

He extended his hand and I shook it and pulled him into a brief hug. The same procedure was followed with Bryan.

"Thank you Tom.... Bryan," Verna said, "for opening my eyes to a magic that I thought only existed in fairy tales. The Christmas spirit is alive and well in your family and now you've shared it with us. Thank you." She kissed my cheek and then Bryan's as she hugged him. Then she went to Josh, Mark, and Michael, giving each of them a hug and wished each of them a Merry Christmas.

"Folks, it was really our privilege," I said. "You've opened our eyes to what may be a future common reaction to Bryan and I."

"Now that you know where we live, don't hesitate to come back at any time," Bryan added.

As we waved goodbye to them during their takeoff, I came to the conclusion that there were many personalities in this world, but Verna was extraordinary and I knew if we ever met her again, we could never duplicate the experiences we'd had this evening.

Come December 20th, it was Mark's fifteenth birthday. Because the 20th fell on a Thursday, we celebrated his birthday on the 21st. We made sure that it was a special day for him. Again, we had the entire family present and he was able to invite a bunch of his friends from Air Cadets and from his school to attend the celebration. Dinner was a feast and the whole gaggle of boys took over the basement for the night and camped out in sleeping bags while watching movies virtually all night long on the big screen television. We'd kept his gifts modest because Christmas was just a few days away. He really loved the remote control F-18 jet fighter that Jake and Sean had given him. He spent more than a half hour on the phone thanking them before he went downstairs to join the others.

"That was the best birthday ever," Mark said the next morning when he emerged from the basement. I was alone in the kitchen sitting at the table sipping my morning coffee. Even though he was now fifteen years old, Mark sat on my knee and snuggled warmly against me. "I've been dreaming about having you here with me for a long time," he said.

"I've been dreaming of being here," I replied and gently kissed his forehead.

"I love you Dad," he said and kissed my cheek before hugging me and heading down the hall to the bathroom.

When he returned to the kitchen, he began fixing himself a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal with a large glass of orange juice.

"Want me to make you something?" I asked.

"No, it's ok. Maybe later when everyone else wakes up," Mark replied.

Before long the other boys began waking up and I found myself struggling to keep up with making enough eggs and bacon to feed that hungry hoard. Fortunately, Bryan woke up before too long and joined me. The two of us put the big kitchen to good use and managed to feed the ravenous bunch.

I was at my desk in our basement office later that evening when Josh, Shelly, and Kevin came in to see me.

"Hey Dad, we have an idea for a really cool Christmas present for Mark and Michael. It would be sort of a family present, but mostly for them."

"Oh yeah, what do you have in mind?" I asked.

"It involves that old bunker and it's kind of expensive," Josh said.

"But not too expensive," Kevin added.

"Not too expensive for Mark," Shelly added.

The three of them showed me a number of magazine pictures and did a walk-through of the old bunker space and explained exactly what they had in mind. By the time they were done, I was as excited as they were. "Let's see what Bryan thinks," I said finally.

We called Bryan down to the basement and went through the same spiel with him. "I love it!" He said after the kids finished their pitch. "I was wondering what we could do with that old space, but it a complicated set-up. Can we get it done in just these few days before Christmas."

"No problem, all the suppliers are here in Calgary." Josh said, "and I phoned them and they said that if we placed the order today, they said it could be setup in a day."

I handed Josh my Mastercard. "Ok kiddo make it happen, just be sure that all the deliveries come and the workers are here when Mark and Michael are not.

"That'll be the easy part," Bryan said. "We've got to take them Christmas shopping tomorrow."

With that the three kids went off to put the wheels in motion for what I hoped was going to be a huge Christmas surprise for Mark and Michael. I knew that we'd all get a lot of use of it as well, but it was primarily those two that we had in mind for it's use.

The next few days were a flurry of epic activity around the ranch as we prepared for Christmas. The plan was for everyone to have Christmas morning at their own houses and then congregate for a big Christmas brunch at the main ranch house. We'd spend the afternoon together as a group and then top the day off with a huge family Christmas dinner.

Just when I thought things couldn't get any more hectic, I received a phone call that would give me even more to think about.

"May I speak to Thomas Davis please?" the voice on the other end of the line asked.

"This is he, what can I do for you?" I replied.

"Mr. Davis, this is Beverly Brydges from the office of the Governor General. We've been trying to contact you for a while. We didn't realize that you had moved. The Governor General has approved the awarding of the Victoria Cross posthumously to your uncle and we would like to do the presentation on Saturday March 2nd. I know this is short notice, but as I said we have been trying to contact you.

I was floored. "That's wonderful news," I replied. I spoke to Ms. Brydges for a few more minutes to finalize arrangements and to let her know how many guests would be coming. I figured on having the whole family there as well as at least some of the Netherlands crew and it would be appropriate to invite the Burgers along with their family since Sean and Jake had worked on the website that made it possible.

We also had to decide who would receive the medal on behalf of Uncle Ryan. Either James, Andy or I would be the one. We had to decide amongst ourselves. I spoke to them about it later that night.

"I don't think there is any question as to who should receive it," James stated emphatically.

"I don't have any doubts either," Andy agreed. "You deserve this Tom,"

"I appreciate it guys," I replied. "I had to ask. James, you're the oldest so the honour is yours for the taking."

"I want you to do it," James replied and that settled it.

That Friday night we were blessed. It finally snowed! Until then all we'd had at the ranch was a skiff of snow, which wasn't enough to turn the grass and the fields to white. The next morning everything was white and serene and it was supposed to continue falling for the rest of the day. However, by late afternoon, it had quit and there was almost two feet on the ground. Hamish was out in his glory clearing the road from the north gate to the south gate with the tractor. The boys were all gung-ho with snow shovels clearing everyone's walk and driveways from their house to the roadway. The dogs were in another heaven of their own as they romped and played in it. I was thinking we should have a snow ball fight, but it was too cold and the snow wouldn't pack, so Bryan and I enjoyed a walk from one end to the other. The laden snow on the spruce trees was a scene out of a travel brochure.

After the cold walk, I settled down to read a book next to the warm fireplace.

"Hey Dad," Josh said as he came entered the living room.

"Hey bud, what's up?" I asked as he sat wedged himself into the easy chair with me and snuggled in.

"We were kind of thinking about something we'd like to do on Christmas. Something kind of special," Josh replied. "Something that us kids want to do for other kids."

"What do you have in mind, son?" I asked.

"We'd like to go to the Foothills Medical Center on Christmas Eve and deliver gifts to the kids in the pediatric ward."

"Joshy, that's a wonderful idea," I said choking up. I put my arms around him and pulled him tight against my side. "You are the most caring and generous boy that I've ever met."

"It wasn't just my idea," Josh replied as he returned my hug. "Shelly and the rest of the gang were wanting it too."

"Somehow I'm guessing that you were the leader though," I laughed. "I think leadership is definitely something in your future."

"You never know," Josh replied with a grin. "So can we do it?"

"Of course," I replied.

"Thanks Dad! I love you," Josh said before kissing my cheek and bounding out of the room nearly bowling Bryan over in the process.

"Where's he off to in such a hurry?" Bryan asked.

"Evidently our boys and the rest of the kids have thought up a new Christmas tradition," I replied and filled Bryan in on the details.

Little did I know that it was indeed to become a new tradition for our family. We didn't know it then, but this Christmas Eve was to be the first of many in which Josh would play a secret Santa to seriously ill children even when he held the awesome weight of responsibility that his future career would bestow upon him. He would never miss a single Christmas Eve as a secret Santa at a children's hospital or pediatric ward.

After dinner, the five of us took another walk along the road to the north end. Instead of sparkling as they had before the snowfall, now they glowed through the snow-laden branches with their various colors adding a different magic to the landscape. When we got to the North gate, we found that everyone had the same idea and there we were, ready to start our stroll back - all 23 of us - enjoying the wonder of Grant's idea to it's fullest.

The next day, Sunday, Bryan, Darren and I hopped in our vehicles with all the kids and headed for the toy store to get all the gifts they wanted to give the kids at the hospital. By the time we finished, all the vehicles were packed to the brim.

Christmas Eve arrived on a bright and sunny Monday morning and the ranch was a beehive of activity. Gifts were wrapped and placed under trees, food was being prepared in every kitchen, and all the kids in every house busied themselves wrapping special gifts for the children at the hospital.

We'd decided as a family that we wouldn't go overboard on material gifts for each other and instead we would focus on togetherness in our celebrations. We had some significant gifts planned such as the family gift for Mark and Michael, but for the most part we kept a cap on Christmas spending not wanting to use our newfound wealth as an excuse for extravagance.

That evening we had a potluck buffet dinner at the main ranch house where everyone brought their own special dish to contribute. It turned out to be a wonderful meal that was made all the better by the company of friends and family. When the meal was over, we all pitched in to assist with the cleanup and while the kids prepared to pile into the various vehicles and head downtown, Bryan and I put on our coats and walked to the gate house.

Quince Morgan and Jessie Elliot were just coming on duty while Mabel Wilson and Arnold Horvath were just signing out. We timed it perfectly to meet all four of our full time security people.

"Bryan! Tom! Merry Christmas," Quince said jovially as we entered the security shack.

"Merry Christmas to you too, Quince. To all of you," I replied.

"A Merry Christmas is why we are actually here," Bryan said. "We want to thank you for the wonderful job that you've been doing here at the ranch and we wanted to share a little token of our appreciation."

I pulled four envelopes out of my pocket and handed one to each of the security people. Inside each were 10 crisp new $100 bills, a Best Buy Gift card for $500, $200 worth of movie theatre gift certificates and $300 worth of Tim Horton's and Swiss Chalet gift cards.

"Thank you so much!" Jessie said as she briefly hugged both Bryan and I.

"You shouldn't have," Quince added.

"We wanted to," I countered.

"We do appreciate it," Arnold said and offered his hand.

"We certainly do," Mabel agreed.

After exchanging a little more small talk with our security staff, we headed back to the main house where the kids basically dragged us into the vehicles. With eight kids, three dogs and more than a hundred gifts, we enlisted the help of Darren and Susan with the Durango and Grant and Ethel with their 3/4 ton crew cab, Andy with his Jeep, together with Bryan and I in my Jeep.

"We don't want to be too late, but we want the kids to be asleep," Josh said. He was dressed in a red Santa Clause suit. He was a good Santa albeit a skinny one. With him Shelly was dressed as Mrs. Claus and the other kids were all decked out as elves. Even Brutus, Daisy and Freddie came along and gladly suffered the indignity of wearing "Reindog antlers"

We'd called ahead to the hospital so they knew that we were coming. When we arrived, they sent out orderlies with what looked like laundry bins to load up all the gifts. All of the adults basically stepped back and let the kids do their thing.

We watched in awe of all of them as they made their way through room after room and ward after ward leaving gifts and loaded Christmas stockings beside the bed of each sick child.

In some of the rooms, mostly those with older kids, the kids were awake and they spoke to our boys and to Shelly. With the nursing staff's permission we were allowed to take the dogs into those rooms, each of them bringing just that extra bit of cheer to those kids as they were allowed to pet them.

The dogs were totally wise to the situation. Quiet, not overly exuberant, yet it appeared, full of understanding of the children's need for their compassion.

When we left one room, Grant said quietly, "Now you know why Freddie's been so special to me."

In more than a few rooms, the child was sound asleep while worried looking parents paced the floor.

One room in particular I will remember for the rest of my life. Josh gently knocked on the door and walked in with Shelly at his side. Inside the room, a haggard and worried looking woman sat next to a bed surrounded by IV pumps and other equipment. All over his room was a theme of airplanes - on his nighstand, hanging from an IV stand and pictures on the wall. In the bed lay a small boy who looked no older than maybe 8 or 9. I watched as Josh chatted with the little boy's mother before reaching into his bin and pulling out a large jet airplane and placing it on the boy's bed before gently wrapping the little guy's arm around his new treasure. The child's mother burst into tears and hugged Josh and Shelly tightly. None of us had a dry eye after that scene.

"This is such a sad case," a voice said from behind us.

I turned around as a kindly looking man in a white coat approached.

"I'm Dr. Wallenburg," he said and offered his hand. "This little fellow, Jimmy Norwood is his name, is in the final stages of brain cancer. All we can do is keep him comfortable. His mom is a single mother and she spends every second she can with her son. So much so that she lost her job. He doesn't have long left. In fact, it's a miracle that he's lasted this long. I think maybe you guys will brighten up his last days just a bit for him."

I felt like I had been punched in the gut. The little guy looked so peaceful as he slept and it make me sick to think that he had only days to live. It was a stark reminder that the world can be a cruel and unfair place at times. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a business card and handed it to Dr. Wallenburg. "Would you please see that she gets this? I don't know what skills she has, but I'm sure we will have a job for her somewhere at our new company."

"I will indeed see that she gets it," Dr. Wallenberg said with a smile before leaving to complete his rounds.

Susan nodded her head. "I'll keep a note of it Tom and I'll work something out."

Contrasted with the boisterous ride to the hospital, the ride home was much more subdued. The kids were physically tired, but more than that, they were mentally and maybe emotionally tired too. Seeing so many sick and injured children was quite a burden on all of us. We hoped that we had injected a little bit of happiness into each of those children's lives. We were certain of that, but what none of us knew, except maybe for Josh, was that on that night, we'd set in motion a series of events that would for all intents and purposes change the course of human history.

I got my first clue of that later that night after everyone had retreated to their own homes and only Bryan, Josh, Mark, Michael, and I were left in the main house. I went into Josh's room to tuck him in. As was our custom, we had some dad-son time.

"Dad, cancer can be beaten can't it? I mean really beaten for good so that nobody dies from it anymore right?" He asked.

"I think so kiddo. It's going to take a lot of time and money, but I think it could be done given the right inspiration and the right leadership."

"I think I know what I want to do in order to help people and change the world," Josh said. "I want to be the person who inspires us to beat cancer. I read that when they went to the moon, they spent 5% of the whole US government budget for more than 10 years on that project alone. Why don't we spend 5% or even 10% of the Canadian government's budget to fund research into beating cancer?"

"That's a good idea Joshy but it's a huge amount of money. It would take very strong inspired leadership to pull it off."

"Someone should try." He said with some assertion. "It could really pay off in a huge way too. Curing cancer once and for all would be even bigger than landing a man on the moon. Besides, it would make Canada the number one medical research country on earth. Scientists and doctors from all over the world would want to come here."

I leaned down and hugged him and rubbed noses with him. "Maybe one day you'll be the one to make that happen."

Josh smiled at me, "You never know," he said. "Goodnight Dad. I love you."

"Goodnight son, I love you too," I replied. I kissed his forehead and left the room passing Bryan on my way. He had just come from Mark and Michael's room.

"I think Josh caught a glimpse of what he wants for his future tonight," I said with a grin.

"I can just imagine what that'll be," Bryan said as he entered Josh's room.

I entered Mark and Michael's room and carefully reached up to ruffle Michael's hair and gave him a hug as he lay in the top bunk. "You guys did good tonight kiddo. I'm proud of you."

Then I leaned down to kiss Mark's forehead in the lower bunk. "Ready for the big day tomorrow kiddo?" I asked.

"I can't wait. It'll be so cool having everyone all together for a happy day."

Christmas morning was bedlam at the ranch. Josh, Mark, and Michael were up at the crack of dawn and spent the first part of the morning boisterously opening their Christmas stockings. By the time they were done, they didn't need to come wake Bryan and I, we were already wide awake.

"Merry Christmas boys," I said as we entered the present and wrapping paper strewn living room. Bryan and I were both rewarded with tight three-way hugs before being presented with our own Christmas stockings to open.

By the time we were done unwrapping our stockings, the Burton's had arrived. The plan was for them to come over to spend Christmas day with us and their son.

"Dad, can we show Mark and Michael their special gift now?" Josh asked after all the gifts had been handed out and unwrapped.

"I don't see why not," I replied.

"Guys, this gift is from all of us and is sort of a family present," Bryan added.

Josh excitedly grabbed Mark and Michael by the hands and led them down to the basement. The rest of us followed closely behind. This was to be a surprise to us too. So far only the kids had seen it.

Josh tugged open the door to the former bomb shelter and motioned us all in. Inside it was dark and we had to cram ourselves in around bunches of equipment. Josh flicked on a flashlight and I could hear keys tapping on a keyboard. A moment later, the room seemed to roar to life.

The room had been divided into two halves by a sliding partition that hung from the ceiling. The front wall contained projection screens and set in the rear portion of each half of the room were "simpits" - simulated aircraft cockpits.

"Those are real ejection seats," Josh said as he motioned for Mark and Michael to each take a seat. "No rockets in them of course. We got them from a surplus store. They used to be in CF-104 Starfighters. We had those control panels custom made and hooked up to the computers that run the simulators. That way you can use the real controls rather than having to press keys on the keyboard."

"This is amazing!" a shell shocked Mark said as he climbed into the nearest simpit. In front of him, computer touch screens displayed the various controls and instruments. Between his knees, there was a very realistic looking reproduction of the control stick from a CF-18 Hornet.

"This is too cool!" Michael agreed as he climbed into the second simpit.

"It runs different flight games like Microsoft Flight Simulator and Lock-On Modern Air Combat and you can play cooperatively or go head to head. If you get tired of being fighter pilots, you can do this," Josh said enthusiastically as he unlatched a pair of latches on each simpit and then rolled them together to form a single dual seat simulator. A few keystrokes later and the touch screens displayed what appeared to be the flight controls of the space shuttle and the two projection screens displayed what appeared to be the International space station floating outside "the windows".

"It's like we're really in space!" Mark shouted happily.

"Josh you guys have really outdone yourselves this time!" Bryan said.

"Yeah, this is even more incredible than I imagined," I agreed.

"We wanted to make it full motion but there wasn't enough room and it was just too expensive," Josh lamented.

"This is just perfect as it is," Mark said as he leapt up and hugged each of us in turn.

"This is the best present ever!" Michael agreed and also made the rounds, hugging each of us in turn - even Howard and Angela.

"Check out the sound system," Josh announced as he showed Mark and Michael how to load up various scenarios. He chose an Orbiter Space Simulator scenario that featured Space Shuttle Endeavour blasting off into space. He handed Mark a cue card. "Just follow the steps on the checklist and you'll launch the shuttle"

Michael and Mark took their seats and began to work through the checklist pushing buttons and entering values into the flight computer and before long, the final countdown began. The room almost shook when the solid rocket boosters ignited and the shuttle leapt off the pad.

"That is so loud!" I laughed.

"Stand outside and close the door and see what you think," Josh giggled.

We did as he instructed and the instant that I closed the door, we couldn't hear a sound from the small hidden room.

We went back into the simulation room as Mark loaded up a new scenario. This one featured an Apollo lunar module on final approach to the lunar surface. "These graphics are amazing!" Mark said happily as he took the controls.

Just as he passed the 5,000-foot mark, an alarm began to sound and the big red "abort light" began to flash on the screen.

"Uh oh!" Michael said. "Looks like we lost the autopilot and we're dropping like a manhole cover! Better abort before we crash!"

"I think I can land us," Mark said as he grabbed the control stick in one hand and the throttle control in the other. He quickly pitched the plummeting spacecraft vertical and fired the engine at full throttle. That immediately arrested the out of control descent. He then began to throttle down the engine to start a slow and deliberate descent to the surface."

"Two minutes to go-no-go," Michael announced from the co-pilot seat.

Mark pitched the spacecraft forward gently like a helicopter causing it to move slowly horizontally as he sought out a safe landing spot.

"You sure you haven't done this before somewhere Marky," I asked with a laugh. "You're doing really well!"

"It's kind of like that old lunar lander video game," Mark laughed.

"500 feet, 1 minute to bingo fuel," Michael reported.

Mark chose his landing spot, stabilized the spacecraft, and began to descend to the surface.

"Contact light!" Michael shouted as Mark cut the engines and was rewarded a second later with the playback of a recording of Neal Armstrong saying "Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed."

"That was unreal Mark!" Bryan said proudly.

"Yeah bro, you guys did great!" Josh said.

"Mark did most of the work," Michael replied.

"We're a team!" Mark said. "Can we phone Sean and Jake?"

"By all means," I answered.

Once we left the bomb shelter, Howard pulled Bryan and I aside, while the others went upstairs. "I think you've spoiled our son."

"Our son?" I questioned. "No Howard, we may have spoiled him a bit with our love, but he's your son."

"He's changed." Howard said flatly.

"Howard, if you've seen a change in Michael," Bryan said, "it's a change that he wanted to make.... needed to make. From our point of view, it's a change for the better because now he's more comfortable with himself. Bit by bit, he's come to an understanding of what you're feeling."

Harold, looking uncomfortable, thought for a moment. "I.... I wasn't brought up with that kind of father. Strict respect was always more important than love, so I guess I never understood the meaning of a father's love for his son. Maybe if Angela and I had had more children it would have changed me."

"Give your self a chance Howard." I said. "Change is easier when you're young. You know in your heart that Michael loves you."

"Yes, I know that now." Howard said thoughtfully. "Our future together is going to be interesting." Smiling, he added, "Let's get upstairs and join the others."

Once upstairs, we found the boys busy talking to Sean and Jake on the speaker phone in the family room.

"Yeah, the last game of the tournament is on Sunday morning," Jake said.

"Great!" Josh exclaimed. "Then do ya think you guys could take a morning flight out here on Monday?"

"Can we Mom? Can we Dad?" Sean pleaded.

"Well we'll have to speak to Tom and Bryan about that," we heard Al Burger's voice.

"Merry Christmas Dana.... Merry Christmas Al!" I interrupted.

"Merry Christmas to all of you," Al and Dana replied in unison.

"Are you sure you fellas can handle these two out there for New Years?" Al asked.

I could clearly picture Sean and Jake rolling their eyes at that point and barely stifled a laugh at the image.

"We'd love to have them!" Bryan replied. "We have a great family oriented New Years celebration at Olympic Park in Calgary that I know they'd enjoy being a part of.... much like what they have in Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto."

"OK then," I heard Dana say in the background followed by Sean and Jake yelling YES!

"I'm sure they'll be no problem Al." I said. "We even have a pile of snow for them to enjoy, not to mention a few machines."

"Lucky for you Tom," Al said. "Toronto's Christmas is green again this year and the temperature is 8 degrees."

"Well you better make sure the boys are dressed warmly," Brian said. "Here, it's minus 18 right now and going down to minus 25 tonight."

"That definitely makes it sound like a real white Christmas." Al said. "I don't like to cut this short, but we have to get the boys out to the Jake and Sean's Place and start distributing some presents and cheer. I'll be calling you to tell you what flight arrangements I've made for the boys."

We ended our call with best wishes and before long our house was full of family, fun and laughter. The exchange of gifts was just a small part of it. It was the togetherness of such a big happy and very unusual family that made the day. That night with the entire group crowded around the huge dining room table, I stood up and hoisted my glass. In order to be fair to Grant and the kids, this was an alcohol-free Christmas and all of our glasses contained grape juice.

"I want to propose a toast," I announced. "This year has been a huge adventure for all of us. It has seen its ups and its downs but through it all, we've come together as one united and happy family here at our new home in Calgary. I know we have challenges ahead. I know that things won't always be perfect, but I also know that together we are strong enough to get through everything that life throws at us. With that in mind, my toast is to our united family."

After everyone clinked glasses and took a sip, Darren stood up. "That was a wonderful and heartfelt toast Tom and on that theme of family, I have something to add. The best reward of this last year that I experienced was in finding a new love of my life at a time when I was beginning to think that it could never happen again. Susan, to me, you're a piece of heaven here on earth." With that he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small velvet covered box and dropped to one knee in front of Susan. "Susan, I love you with all my heart.... will you marry me?" he asked as he opened the box.

Susan was completely speechless as she gulped for air. She struggled to find the right words and finally nodded her head and croaked out, "You never cease to overwhelm me with your love. I'd truly be honoured Darren."

With that the whole table erupted into cheers and glass tinkling as they kissed.

"Congratulations Mom!" Josh said enthusiastically. "Hey Mark! We really are going to have another Dad!"

"Yeah and this one is house trained." Mark said laughing.

Right away Bryan and I jumped up, each taking our turns giving Mark a head burner as everyone laughed.

"Another comment like that young man and I'll be taking you across my knee," Darren said laughing.

Still laughing, Mark replied, "Just don't taze me man. Please don't taze me!"

As the laughs subsided, Darren replied, "No chance of that Mark, you aren't twenty-one yet and I doubt very much that you'll ever break the law."

"Seriously Darren," Mark said with a smile as he stood up and walked to stand beside Darren, "It'll be an honor to call you Dad...." then with a giggle, "can't call you Grandpa, you haven't enough grey hair yet, but I know that if you take your lessons from Tom and Bryan, you'll do a great job at being our Dad." Then he reached down and gave Darren a hug.

"Here! Here!" Josh exclaimed as he got to his feet and came over and gave Darren a hug as well.

That got everyone in the mood and especially the women in the room, giving Susan their hugs of congratulations and of course, admiring the ring, before going to Darren as well.

That night, as most of the family began to make their way back to their own houses and the Burton's left to drive to their home, the rest of us were sitting around the living room. Darren approached me with a small silver box.

"Tom, I've been holding these since your Dad died and I always figured I'd pass them along to one of you boys sooner or later. I think you're the one they should go to," he said as he handed me the surprisingly heavy box.

He also handed me a small silver key that I slipped into the lock on one end of the box before unlatching it and lifting the lid. For a second, I stared at the contents, not sure what to say.

"Those were your dad's prized pistols. We'll legally transfer them into your name after Boxing Day," Darren said.

Inside the box was a large nickel plated revolver and a big semi-automatic pistol with two spare magazines. I lifted the semi-automatic pistol and, after removing the mag and ensuring that it was unloaded, I examined it closely. The pistol was a modern copy of the classic Colt Government 1911A1. It was made by the well-known and highly reputable Italian firearms manufacturer Tanfoglio. The .45 pistol, called a Tanfoglio Witness 1911A1, had a beautiful smoky grey finish with hardwood grips.

"This is a beautiful gun," I said.

"That is really cool!" Josh said enthusiastically as I handed it to him and then smiled as he carefully repeated what I'd done before - properly cleared and safed the firearm after accepting it.

Then I removed the second pistol from the box. It was a custom nickel-plated Smith and Wesson model 29 chambered in .44 Magnum. Other than being nickel-plated, it was the same pistol that Clint Eastwood had carried in the Dirty Harry movies.

"Darren I don't know what to say," I said finally.

"You don't need to say anything. Your Dad would want you to have those guns."

"Now you can be Dirty Harry!" Mark laughed.

"You know what his last name was don't you?" Michael asked with a giggle. "It was Callahan!"

"No it wasn't! Was it?" Mark asked.

"It sure was!" Bryan replied and we all laughed.

The next day, Boxing Day, I was up bright and early. Not because I wanted to go shopping for Boxing Day bargains, but because I wanted to start to run off some of the massive dinner that I'd eaten the night before. Not surprisingly, by the time I dressed in my cold weather running gear and made my way towards the kitchen for a small glass of orange juice, I was joined by Mark.

"Morning son," I said and hugged him tightly. "No Michael this morning?"

"He's still out like a light," Mark chuckled.

"Just the two of us again eh?" I replied and squeezed his shoulder.

"Just the three of us," Josh said as he came up behind us, also dressed in cold weather sweats.

"Hey Joshy, you decided to run with us this morning?" I asked as I hugged him tightly.

"Yeah, after all that food we ate yesterday, I figured I'd better work some of it off!"

"Yeah we can't have you getting fat for Shelly!" Mark teased his brother.

"Wise guy eh?" Josh laughed as he poked Mark's shoulder.

We headed out into the cold morning air and after adjusting to the temperature and doing some stretching exercises, before we took off on our normal route around the property.

"Hey! Where's Mom and Darren going?" Josh asked as they drove by us and waved.

"It's Boxing Day Josh.... you know your Mom and her Boxing Day bargains." I replied.

"Right.... poor Darren. Hey Dad, can we put up a temporary skating rink over here?" Josh asked as he approached a good-sized flat area just north of Susan and Darren's house that was otherwise unoccupied just off the main driveway. "Shelly likes to skate and she said she'd teach me."

"I like skating too.... I'd love to play hockey so the practice would be nice," Mark added. "Maybe Sean and Jake can give me some pointers while they're here."

"I think we can arrange something," I replied. I made a mental note to speak to Hamish about it when I saw him.

After our run, the three of us retreated to the showers and then met once again in the kitchen for a hearty breakfast. By the time we were done, we were joined by a pair of zombies in the form of Michael and Bryan.

"Morning," Bryan mumbled as he kissed my cheek and accepted an offered cup of coffee.

Josh and I smiled and glanced at each other as Mark and Michael repeated pretty much the same ritual.

After breakfast, I picked up the case containing my father's pistols and headed to the range. Darren, knowing that I would want to try them out, had purchased a couple of cases of .45 ACP and .44 Magnum ammunition and stored it with our other ammunition in the indoor range. I carefully loaded the 1911 pistol and sent a target down to the 25-yard mark on the range and opened fire. The pistol was a joy to shoot. It was accurate and it was obvious that my dad had taken great care of it. The two handguns were really the only substantial items from among his possessions that I had and I knew that I would treasure both pistols for as long as I lived.

After I ran through a few more magazines of .45 ACP, I loaded up the big Magnum revolver and sent a few rounds down range. As I retracted my target, I realized that I was no longer alone on the range. Josh had come in and was standing behind me.

"Hey Dad," he said with a sunny smile on his face as he removed his ear protection.

"Hey Bud, want to try it out?" I asked and offered him the Magnum after removing my own ear protection.

"Maybe the 1911 instead," he laughed. "I don't want to break my wrists with the magnum recoil."

We each picked up a 1911 magazine and loaded them up with seven rounds before Josh set himself up in the next range bay. He did pretty well with the .45 shooting a nice tight grouping.

"Dad was really proud of these guns and he took really good care of them. One day they'll be yours Joshy," I said.

He looked at me and smiled wanly. "I don't want to think about a day when I inherit anything from you. No matter how much it is, I'd rather have you around."

"I know kiddo," I replied. "What did you think of Christmas this year?"

"Amazing!" was all he could say in reply. His huge grin said the rest.

"It's nice having everyone together at last," I said.

"For sure. It's great having Shelly around and having Mark, Michael, and Bryan around all the time too," Josh agreed.

"It's what family is all about," I replied.

"That's true." Josh said thoughtfully before pausing. "I hear these politicians on TV talk about family values, but most of them get it wrong. Most of them don't realize that family isn't just about a mother and a father and kids. There are all kinds and types of families and they're all perfectly fine. Family isn't what some guy on television says it is, it isn't just DNA. Family is what you want it to be, family is what you make it. That's what real family values are."

I looked at my intelligent and handsome son and I never felt prouder of him than I did at that moment.

On the way home, we found Hamish out with the tractor - he said he was going to get most of the snow off the runway just in case. I approached him about the skating rink. He said he'd be glad to do it - today he'd plow the snow from the area and put up some temporary 2x10 edging. Hopefully, after a cold night, he'd be ready to start flooding it on Thursday morning from a water line at Susan and Darren's house and it should be ready for skating on by Friday morning.

"How about a liner to hold the water," I asked.

"That'd be good Tom, but where are ya gonna be getting' one?" He asked.

"I'll check the net.... the Internet and make few phone calls and let you know," I answered.

Josh was ecstatic. As soon as we got home, he phoned the Burgers and left a message that Sean and Jake were to bring their skates with them.

Bryan and I went onto the Internet and found a local supplier that specialized in skating rinks. After a phone call, they said they could deliver the liner today and that it would be the size of a regular North American hockey rink - 26 meters x 61 meters. They also said that if we had the area cleared and leveled, they could install it and they could start flooding it tomorrow. That was sure going to save Hamish a lot of work. We went out and told Hamish what our revised plans were for the rink and he was all happy about it - all he had to do was clear the area for the rink and a road between the trees wide enough to get a vehicle to it.

That afternoon, after a lot of coaxing from the boys and Shelly too, we were ushered into town to get fitted for skates at the sporting shop.

Bryan and I were very skeptical of our abilities on the ice rink because of the number of years since we'd been on ice skates, but to please the boys, we went along with it and got fitted with skates as well. Josh said that if he was going to be falling on his butt learning how to skate, he didn't want to be alone. While we were there, Michael and Kevin talked us into getting two nets for the rink and a number of hockey sticks, helmets, and masks in case we got a hockey tournament going. With Sean and Jake coming on Monday, I was sure that would be a certainty.

By the time we stopped for lunch and did all our ice skating shopping, Bryan and I had both the Jeep, the Explorer filled with eight kids and skating equipment, and the boxes with the nets tied down to the roofs of both vehicles. As we were driving up to the main house, we saw the delivery truck just poking its nose from between the trees north of Susan and Darren's house.

I hopped out of the Jeep to flag them down. I wanted to know how the installation went. They explained with the ground frozen, they couldn't secure the perimeter twelve-inch high boards into the ground properly, but once it was frozen, the ice would hold everything in place for this year. When I asked if we could start flooding it right away from Susan and Darren's house, he laughed. He explained that it would take four days for the rink to flood with a garden hose and it would probably turn out rather uneven. Instead, he said to wait until tomorrow and he would be sending in a water truck with enough water to flood the surface to a six-inch depth. He had a good point. They also added that they'd call us in the summer and if we wished, they'd set it up as a regular hockey rink with boards and benches.

Susan and Darren were just getting home.

On Thursday at 10:00 AM, the water tanker showed up and started flooding the lined area from three four-inch hoses. It only took a few hours to empty the big tank. The rink didn't have the rounded corners like a regular hockey rink, but considering this was a temporary setup for this winter we didn't mind. It was surprising how well Hamish had leveled the area. Over the 61-metre length, there was only a two-inch variation. At one end we ended up with four inches of ice and at the other there was six. All the kids were as anxious as they were on Christmas Eve as they watched the operation - just itching to try out the new rink - but they knew they couldn't use it until tomorrow. They had that sad longing look on their faces as we invited them all to the house for lunch.

Shortly after two on Sunday afternoon, we were just cleaning up after our late lunch, when my cell phone rang. My caller ID indicated it was Al Burger.

"Hi Al, did you manage to survive all the Boxing Day crowds?" I answered with a smile.

"Oh none of that nonsense for me Tom. You wouldn't catch me near a shopping mall this week! I just phoned to tell you that the boy's team came pretty close to winning the tournament and I'll be putting them on private jet headed for your destination at 9AM tomorrow and they should arrive at Serenity at about 10AM local time. I used the same company you did. It was really the only way to get them to you on such short notice."

"WOW!" I exclaimed. "We're looking forward to seeing them. The runway is all cleaned and ready for them to touchdown. Hey Al, if they came close to winning the hockey tournament, then they did better than the Toronto Maple Leafs," I laughed, knowing that Al was a big Maple Leaf fan.

"I didn't think you followed hockey that much, but you're right.... I'm really proud of those boys. Jake was superb, almost acrobatic in net and Sean managed to score a number of goals," Al replied.

"I'm sure you're just as proud as Bryan and I are of our boys. I'll get the boys to phone you as soon as they get in the house."

"That's good Tom. I hope they aren't too much trouble and you and Bryan have a good time with them. We'll be waiting for their call. Bye for now Tom." Al said.

"Bye for now Al." I said as I hung up.

As soon as I hung up Josh was standing in front of me all jittery holding his fists to his waist. "Well, when are they getting here? When are they getting here?" He asked excitedly.

"Well Josh, they just finished their hockey tournament and I'm pretty sure that's got them pretty pooped, and after that maybe they have to pack and get to the airport.... Mr. Burger is going to put them on a plane first thing tomorrow morning."

Mark let out a deep sigh, "Darn," he said, "I wish they could get here sooner.... and we can't skate on the ice that isn't frozen yet."

"Well, if you want something to do, you guys could go upstairs and do some homework," Bryan teased with a grin.

"You're a bad Dad." Mark deadpanned. "I'm gonna go next door and live with my new Dad. I feel like getting tazed."

"OR," Bryan exclaimed laughing with the rest of us, "you could go down to the dungeon and shoot down some bad guys. I'll bet the twins and Eddie would like to have a go at it."

That got everyone of them moving right away. Once the kids had cleared the room and were downstairs, I said, "Bryan, we have to speak to the security folks.... Sean and Jake are on a Bombardier Regional Jet and it's due to land here at around 10AM tomorrow morning and we also have to make sure the runway is spotless."

"We'll have a nice brunch after they get here." Bryan said. "I can cook up a mess of breakfast type stuff. That together with some biscuits should fill up a small army."

"Or our boys and the Burger boys!" I laughed.

With that we went to see the folks at the Serenity Shack and told Quince about the plane arriving the next morning. Our inspection of the landing strip went fine, except we had to get Andy and Hamish to help us dig out around the landing lights along the edge of the pavement so they were very visible. The four of us were finished in an hour. There was a lot of them.

With the landing strip lights lit, we headed back to the house, but we couldn't find the kids in the living room or kitchen. A quick glance in the family room and they weren't there, so we went down to the dungeon and they weren't in their either. Checking upstairs, we looked into Mark's room and we saw the boys' jeans and underwear laying on the bed, but no bodies - the same in Josh's room. We called out, but there was no reply.

"The pool!" I exclaimed.

Bryan and I rushed down the stairs and into the family room and opened the door to the corridor that led to the pool. We looked through the glass door at the pool and there they were with Trevor and Debbie having a great time. Each of the older boys had a younger boy on their shoulders and Debbie was teaching Shelly how to dive.

We'd thought of joining them, but Bryan wanted to start getting some biscuits ready for the stew.

That afternoon I learned the secrets to Bryan's magnificent biscuits as I helped him. I wasn't sure if this was going to turn into another big family get-together or not, so I suggested we pull a roast out and start it going just in case. Although we didn't like them, we did have some frozen vegetables to go with it. We decided to also make a fourth batch of biscuits just in case - we could always use them for snacks later - they'd be great with butter and jam after we rewarmed them.

By five-thirty, we were just pulling the last batch of biscuits from the oven and were going to pull everyone out of the pool, when they all showed up, running hurriedly towards bedrooms on the first and second floors. The first to show up in the kitchen was Trevor.

"Guys, that was the greatest workout I've had in a while!" he exclaimed smiling. "Shelly said she was over here and they wanted to go swimming, so we grabbed their swim suits and our own because we didn't want them to be swimming without an adult. Hope you don't mind."

"Not at all," I answered, "those were the rules right from the get-go when we moved here." I said and then glanced up and saw the twins, Eddie, Josh, Mark, and Michael come racing down the stair, I said, "Bryan and I haven't tried it out yet. How was it?"

"Excellent size and just the right temperature.... it's amazing, it's minus 18 outside and yet really warm and humid in the pool." Trevor answered as Debbie and Shelly came in from the downstairs bedroom.

"I loved it!" Shelly exclaimed, "and Mom taught me how to dive properly."

"When's dinner Dad?" Josh asked.

"I would say it won't be ready until 6:15.... do you think you can wait that long?" I asked.

"Well, it's only fifteen minutes away, so I'll make it," he replied. Bryan and I were startled as we looked at the clock - where had all the time gone.

The next couple of days past quickly as we spent our time swimming in the pool, playing on the new flight simulator and enjoying the other facilities of the ranch. We tried as much as possible to not do much work related stuff and instead concentrated on enjoying the holidays. Just before 10AM on New Years Eve, the airstrip phone rang.

"Serenity airstrip," I answered.

"Serenity, this is Western Air Charter Flight 705 at 1000 feet, two miles out, we have your lights in sight, requesting permission to land."

"Permission granted 705," I answered and hung up.

"Let's get our coats on everyone, our guests from Ontario are arriving." I said with a laugh as Josh, Mark and Michael all took off as if shot out of a cannon and began to bundle up in their coats."

"Have you got the hats?" Mark asked seriously as we prepared to leave the house.

"Right here," I replied. We decided that this time we would welcome Jake and Sean to Calgary with a proper Calgary welcome - we were going to "White Hat" them. As we went out the front door and heard the jet make a low pass just in front of us. By the time all of us got to the hangar, the jet was just touching down at the north end of the runway and Darren, Susan, and everyone from the north end of the settlement arrived.

Everyone was on pins and needles by the time the aircraft finally slowed enough to make a u-turn on the runway and come to a stop in front of the pavement leading to the hangar. Slowly, the side door opened, the steps unfolded, one of the crew came out, and then the smiling face of Jake appeared at the door.

"JAKE! SEAN!" the kids screamed almost in unison as they ran toward the parked jet.

By the time I shook hands with the two boys, I really felt that our family had expanded again. I didn't realize that I'd been so anxious to see them again.

The pilot told us that he'd be back on Tuesday at one PM to pick them up since they had to be back to school on Wednesday.

"Ok guys, before we go inside and get out of the cold, we decided to give you a proper Calgary welcome this time. It's a tradition out here that important guests are presented with a gift that truly represents the spirit of this city," I said solemnly as I motioned for Mark and Josh to present the hats. I had spoken to Dana a few days before and she had supplied me with the boy's correct hat sizes.

"Welcome to Calgary!" Josh said as he placed a white cowboy hat on Sean's head.

"Yeah welcome back," Mark added as he placed an identical hat on Jake's head.

"You guys have been officially white hatted!" I said with a laugh.

"Cool, thanks guys!" Sean said with a big smile.

"Yeah thanks," Jake agreed.

With everyone grabbing a piece of luggage, we headed for the main house. All the kids and Andy stayed for dinner, but the parents decided to go home and enjoy the calm away from the bedlam and chatter that may ensue with a bunch of teenagers. I called Al and told him that the kids had arrived safely.

All through dinner, it felt like we were back at camp again although the environment was definitely different. The stories we reminisced had all of us laughing and kept us happy. After dinner, and another hour of chatting, the whole gang said they were going to escort all the kids back to their homes at the north end while Bryan and I did the clean-up.

Before long it was time to head to the Olympic Park for the New Years Eve celebration.

Howard and Angela had made all the arrangements for the adult New Years Celebration at their favourite hotel downtown. He showed up at the ranch at 8:00 PM with an extended limousine and picked up Trevor and Debbie, James and Anne, Mom, and, Susan and Darren. They were looking forward to a night of dancing and drinking that couldn't include the kids. Hamish and Irene were gracious enough to babysit my youngest nephew Timmy. At the same time, Shelly, Eddie, and the twins showed up at our place with their overnight bags.

Andy, Grant, Ethel, Bryan, and I were in charge of all the kids. The fourteen of us climbed into the Jeep and Grant's extended cab truck. It was a tight fit, but it was easier than trying to get three vehicles coordinating with each other.

We headed for the Olympic Plaza where they had figure skating professionals putting on a great show. It was a fascinating evening - watching the fire spinners everywhere, looking at crafts, ice sculpture demonstrations. They even had a few warming areas where we could get out of the cold and enjoy coffee and hot chocolate for the kids.

"Check this out," Josh said as he pointed to the ski hill and the mountain bike trail that wrapped around it. "We went down this when we were hear a couple of summers ago. It was really cool."

"That looks like a heck of a ride," Jake said. "I'd love to try it one day."

"Me too, as long as I don't break my neck in the process!" Sean laughed.

"Look at these!" Shelly exclaimed as she ran up to a series of plywood cut-outs of winter athletes in the midst of various activities such as ski jumping and even luging. Each cut out had a hole where its face was supposed to be so that you could go behind it, put your own face in it and have your photo taken. The kids had spent a few minutes hamming it up with the various cutouts and their laughter was infectious.

The evening ended with a countdown to midnight as everyone screamed 'Happy New Year' and everyone hugged everyone else while singing Auld Lang Syne. Naturally, Josh and Shelly wouldn't pass up a chance to have a passionate kiss.

After a fantastic fireworks display, we headed home.

"It's amazing how flat Calgary is," Sean observed. "It's like you can see the whole city from up at the Olympic park."

"Yeah, it's pretty spread out too," I replied. "We really enjoy living here. We wish you guys were closer, but since it's not a big deal to fly you back and forth, it works out ok."

"I wish you guys still lived closer too, but I really like visiting Calgary," Jake added.

"We like having you," Bryan replied.

We arrived home at one AM. That night we put Shelley and Eddie in the separate bedrooms on the first floor and the twins were relegated to the basement bedroom in twin beds. Josh offered his upper bunk to Jake and Mark invited Sean to take his upper bunk. That made it obvious where Michael was going to sleep - on the lower bunk with Mark, but we didn't mind and neither did Sean.

Bryan and I didn't get to bed until two that morning because of all the goodnights and hugs we had to share with a house full of kids, but it really made us happier than we'd been since Camp Tonawonka.

The next morning, I woke up tightly squished against Bryan because I had someone cuddled to my side. I nudged Bryan awake and he looked at me with one eye open.

"I've got a problem," I said.

He opened his other eye and looked to his side. "I do too," he said with a smile.

Both twins had apparently not liked being alone in the basement and decided that Bryan and I had lots of room in our king-sized bed. I glanced over and saw that it was already 9:30.

During the short few days that Sean and Jake were with us, we had never been so active. Morning runs and after breakfast we'd hit the skating rink. It took both Bryan and I a while to get our ice legs back in shape and Shelly was great with Josh, although at times, I thought maybe Josh was faking his ability, just so he could hang on to her longer.

On the afternoon of New Years Day, we had a hilarious hockey game. We split Sean and Jake up into different teams as well as Bryan and me, the twins, and we put Shelly and Eddie on different teams. I had Josh and Bryan had Mark and Kevin. Andy decided he'd be the referee.

Most of the time, the experienced players, Sean and Jake, and the adults and older teens were acting dumb, wanting so much for the younger twins and Eddie to get the goals. When we were doing that, Andy was directing the youngsters to the location of the puck. No one was keeping score and everyone laughed if someone fell on their butt. Andy never called any penalties, but he would call an offside if he saw there had to be a rest for the youngsters. Offside? We had no lines to go by, so Andy and I got into a loud fake argument about one of his offside calls. Finally, with both of us laughing, he said he'd throw me out of the game if I didn't play by his rules.

We spent a lot of time swimming or hitting the outdoors on the quads - making trails through the woods and fields. In the evening, the boys enjoyed the games on the simulator in the old panic room. Bryan, Andy, and I were really in our element - making our boys and their friends happy.

In one epic simulator battle, I went head to head with Mark. To make it even, we were both flying the same aircraft - F/A-18 hornets. The scenario started with us going head to head at a range of 40 miles.

"You're going down old man!" Mark teased from his simpit.

"You'll never get me, little one!" I replied.

I engaged Mark with my AMRAAM medium range missiles at about 20 miles out and not surprisingly he did the same. Both of us employed various maneuvers and countermeasures to avoid the incoming missiles and before we knew, it we had closed to dog fighting range.

I jammed my throttle forward to light my afterburners and went into a steep climb as the distance between our aircraft disappeared at over 1,600 knotts. To my amazement, Mark didn't take the bait, rather he dove for the surface in an attempt to get me into a high energy, high-g dive to pursue him. Knowing that he was probably planning something, I positioned myself to put the sun behind me and then throttled back my engines to almost idle and began my dive, trying to wind up on Mark's tail.

As I got close to Mark's altitude, my screen began to dim as if I was blacking out and a voice kept repeating the phrase "Over-G" over and over again. I eased off and avoided a total blackout, but discovered that Mark had executed a flawless hi-low yo-yo maneuver which used my superior speed against me and right at that second he was coming around on my tail to try for a Sidewinder heat-seeker shot.

I jinked my plane left and right and performed a split-S followed by a Cuban eight that got me out of Mark's gun sights and I just barely managed to roll out of the way as a stream of cannon fire from his plane streaked passed me. Instinctively, I hammered my throttles to put some distance between us and that was my mistake. As soon as I lit my afterburners and accelerated away from Mark, he had me in a perfect firing position for a heat-seeker missile. I heard the missile warning tone less than a second before my screen erupted in computer simulated flames and my control stick began to shake violently.

By the time it was done, I was sweating from the exertion and realism of it, but I was utterly amazed when I climbed out of the simpit to congratulate Mark and saw that he was a cool as a cucumber. Not a bead of sweat on him.

"That was amazing Mark!" I said.

"You were pretty good too. You lasted longer than most of the computer simulated pilots," he said with a grin as he shook my hand.

"Watch this Dad," Josh said as he loaded up a new scenario. In this scenario, Mark was flying the futuristic F-35 Lightning II and he was ambushed by three enemy aircraft flying MiG-29 fighters.

All of us stood and watched in amazement as Mark engaged and one after the other, defeated all three enemy pilots. He did it without breaking a sweat.

"That was on the high realism setting with the enemy pilot skill set to above average," Sean said incredulously.

"Dude, we've got to send you to Top Gun or something," Jake said.

"Your flying is calm and cool and precise. You wait for the enemy to make a mistake and when they do, you make them pay for it," I observed.

"Thanks Dad," Mark replied and blushed slightly.

We fired up another dual scenario where Mark and Michael engaged five enemy aircraft with Mark flying lead and Michael as his wingman. The two of them won the battle handily.

That evening, Sean and Jake treated us to a mini-concert with their acoustic guitars which they had brought along. The whole family gathered in the huge family room of the main ranch house and we had a beautiful fire going in the fireplace. They played a selection of Bryan Adams music including "Summer of 69", "Everything I Do, I Do It For You" and "On a Day Like Today" as well as some classics such as "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd, "Sunshine On My Shoulders" by John Denver and a beautiful acoustic version of the Crowded House classic "Better Be Home Soon" as performed by up and coming Canadian country star George Canyon.

"This last song is dedicated to Tom and to everyone else who has served or is serving in the military to keep us safe," Jake said and then he and Sean delivered a stirring rendition of American country star Lee Greenwood's tribute to Canada called "God Bless Canada."

"Thank you so much boys," I said all choked up when they finished. "You guys have tons and tons of talent and that little concert was just incredible."

"You boys sure we can't convince you to stay?" Susan asked with a big sly grin.

"We can't stay, but we will come back," Sean said with a wink.

Sadly, Tuesday morning arrived all too quickly and by the time we got up, the aircraft would be here in 3 1/2 hours to take Sean and Jake back to Toronto. I wanted the clock to go backwards so we could relive this whole Christmas season all over again.

All the kids began to filter into the kitchen of the main house as Bryan and I were starting to prepare a feast of scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, peameal bacon, and of course, the biscuits left over from last night's supper. All of them looked happy for the time they had spent together, but also sad that it was coming rapidly to an end.

Just as I cracked the last of a dozen eggs into the mixing bowl, Kevin and Freddie came through the front door. "Where's all the runners?" He exclaimed.

"We're all in the kitchen," Josh shouted as Freddie came bounding in greeting everyone as he usually did.

"Come on in Kevin. Have some breakfast with us." Bryan said.

I started cracking a few more eggs into the mixing bowl when I saw that Andy was with him. "Where's your folks?" I asked.

"They're still sleeping.... I left them a note." Kevin replied.

As soon as Andy walked in the room, he got hugs from all the kids as well and a thank you from each of them.

For the few days that Sean and Jake were with us and the rest of the kids most of the time, we'd been eating in the family room around the fireplace. Once Bryan and I had breakfast served up, that's where we all headed.

"What time did Mom get in last night?" I asked.

"I'm not sure, but I think it was around two-thirty when I heard the door open," Andy replied. "I'm sure all of them will be lights out for another couple of hours."

I had to do a second take when Josh said, "I wish I could turn the clock back a month and do this Christmas Season all over again."

"What was the best part?" Bryan asked.

"I thought Christmas Day was the best.... the very, very best, but these last few days with Sean and Jake here topped it all."

"It was that way for me too," Jake said. "Spending Christmas with Mom and Dad and all the kids at the Foundation was so sweet, and being here with friends like all of you, has been great."

"AND," Richard said, "You made me a good hockey player. That was the most fun."

"Yeah and we learned how to dive!" Matthew exclaimed.

"How about spring break, does everyone want to come and work at the office?" I asked.

"We're going to be in Naples, but maybe near the end of the week," Sean exclaimed. "We really want to start working with those new programs you're going to be developing. You guys should come back to Toronto for a visit too."

"We will for sure. Wait 'til you see the computers you'll be working with," Mark said. "It's right out of Norad!"

"What.... better than the simulator in the dungeon?" Jake asked.

"Dungeon?!?" I exclaimed. "It was a bomb shelter or something. Not a place where we kept people locked up!"

"I didn't mean it like that!" Jake protested to howls of laughter from everyone in the kitchen.

"You guys serve better food than a jail," Sean added with a sly grin as he shoveled a fork full of egg into his mouth causing us all to crack up.

"No, our office computers are not quite as good as what we have downstairs, but they are a better set up than anyone else has in the office. Josh, Michael, and I came up with the idea together." Mark replied.

"It's really cool," Eddie added.

"Yeah it is Eddie," Andy said, "but we all have a tough road ahead of us. Tomorrow at this time, we'll all be in school or back to work."

"It seems impossible," Jake said. "Here we are all these miles away from home and yet here it's 11:00 AM and in Toronto, it's one PM and this time tomorrow, we'll be back in school and just finishing our lunch, getting ready to attend afternoon classes."

"Time stops for no one," Bryan said, "but does it have to go so quick? Last year Mark and I had to go to Toronto to be with our family for Christmas and this year, here we are all together, thinking about what the next year will bring. If things turn out the way they're supposed to, next year at this time, we'll be that much richer again for having known each other."

"I agree with Josh, spending these few days with you Sean.... Jake.... here at Serenity even topped our Christmas together." I added. "I can't remember when I've had so much fun and learned so much about the pride your Mom and Dad must have in you. Both of you are a genuine pair of winners."

"Thanks Tom," Sean said with a sombre voice.

"Come on Sean," Jake said quietly, "we better go get our bags packed."

By one PM, all of us were waiting at the hangar watching the Bombardier jet come to a complete stop once again, only this time it was a sadder occasion, dear friends of our family were departing. All the kids were sad as we watched the plane drift out of sight.

As all of us turned to head back to the main house, Bryan said, "OK Mark, Josh, Michael, we're all on laundry detail starting with the bedding in the basement."

"Well if that's the case," Kevin said, "I'm outta here."

"ME TOO!" Richard and Matthew exclaimed in unison.

"I love you Josh, but I don't want to spoil your family fun," Shelley said laughing, "Eddie and I might see you later."

"What a bunch of deserters!" Mark said. "Once the good times are over, down the road they go."

As we approached the main house, we saw Darren and Susan leaving with the Burtons - it yanked at my heart a bit when they didn't stop and let Michael talk to his parents.

We got to the front door and I embraced Michael. "It's OK Michael, they probably had a lot to catch up on. Give them some time."

Michael pulled away and shrugged his shoulders. "Don't worry about it Tom..... It's just the way they are. I'm used to it."

"Then get used to this," Bryan said as he pulled Michael into a hug.

Michael let out a deep sigh into Bryan's shoulder, "I want to get used to it.... I don't want to grow up to be like him.

I thought it would be a good thing to talk to Susan about how things went on New Years Eve at the fancy hotel. Aside from what Howard had told us on Christmas Day, I wondered if there was more to it.

After I called Al Burger to let him know that the boys had left, I joined the others. We did get all the bedding changed and the beds made in the house that afternoon, washed, and put away, together with all our own personal laundry. The boys were super and very cooperative as they learned the proper way to do the laundry - they had a good idea before, but Bryan and I were still able to teach them a few tricks.

All of us showered and crawled into bed with fresh sheets early that night. In spite of the melancholy that any of us might have felt because of Jake and Sean's departure was still there, but we were looking forward to a new year full of great expectations and achievement.

"I'll miss you tomorrow while you're at school," Bryan said as I snuggled up to him.

"I'll miss you too," I replied, "but it's for a good cause.... those boys in there, and the future we'll all have together."

I knew that Bryan and I were on the same page that night before we finally closed our eyes to start a new year full of great expectations.

"Better Be Home Soon" - a beautiful cover of the Crowded House classic by George Canyon:

"I Believe In Angels" - this uplifting song fits very nicely with the story:

"Just Like You" - a really neat father-son song that George Canyon wrote for his young son:

"I Want You To Live" - this is a moving song that George Canyon (an honourary Colonel in Canada's air force) wrote to honour our troops in Afghanistan:

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