The horrible screeching sound of the plane's aluminum skin scraping on the runway seemed to go on forever. The pilot had cut the engines just as the plane touched down but the absence of their roar went unnoticed as we spun around down the concrete.
"Is this the way I'm going to die? Am I going to go the way my parents did in an airplane accident? God, please don't let anything happen to my boys," I prayed.
The noise finally subsided to deafening quiet as the plane came to rest. The next thing I became aware of was the steward and the captain trying to open the door of the plane. It seemed to be stuck, probably from the distortion of the airframe slamming into the ground. After a short struggle they were able to force the door open and inflate the emergency escape slide.
"Quickly, get the kids out of their seatbelts and bring them to the door," the captain shouted to us as the steward exited the aircraft.
Hildy and I immediately unfastened our seatbelts and began working on the boys' restraints. Joel was closest to me so he got my attention first and then TJ was second. I grabbed their hands and hustled them to where the captain was standing next to the open door. I saw the steward standing at the bottom of the slide waiting to assist the boys when they slid down.
"Joel, grab hold of TJ and then jump on to the slide. When you get down go as far away from the plane as you can," I said and gave them both a hug.
As I turned back to the others, Hildy was trying to release Chris' seatbelt. Larry and Lenny were standing there waiting for their brother to be freed from his restraint. Looking over I saw that Becky Sue was sitting in her seat sobbing uncontrollably. She had not moved since the plane had come to a rest. I turned back to Chris just as Hildy got his seatbelt released.
"Come on guys. Let's get you out of here. Hildy will you see to Becky Sue?"
I quickly led the three remaining boys to the door where I gave them the same instructions I had given their brothers. Then each jumped onto the slide one at a time to be caught at the bottom by the steward.
"Crane, can you help me?" Hildy shouted.
I looked to see what was going on only to see Hildy trying to lift a now clearly unconscious Becky Sue out of her seat. I rushed back to help and at the same time the copilot emerged from the cockpit and ran to help me. Although Becky Sue was not a big person, her dead weight was not easy to lift and carry in the confined spaces of the plane. We managed to get her to the exit. I wondered how we were going to get her down the slide when the copilot wrapped his arms around her and expertly jumped onto the slide making a perfect landing at the bottom and carried her away from the plane.
Hildy hesitated as she approached the exit door. "Ma'am, if you will sit down on the edge of the slide we will give you a push to get you started," the captain said realizing her reluctance to jump.
She thanked him with her eyes as she complied and soon joined the rest of the family on the ground. The captain then indicated that I was to go next. I did and he followed quickly behind me.
In all of the commotion inside the plane I was unaware of all the activity going on outside. When I started away from the plane I realize that we were far from being alone. The airport fire apparatus surrounded the airplane and there was an ambulance with paramedics who had the boys in tow. Their main concern seemed to be Becky Sue who was lying on a stretcher with an oxygen mask covering her mouth.
I ran to the boys and Hildy to make sure that they were okay and to see how frightened they might be. To my surprise the boys were laughing and giggling about their adventure. The fireman who was there with the boys looked at me, shook his head and smiled.
"That slide was fun, daddy," TJ said as I gave him a hug.
"I'm glad that you liked it but I don't want to try that again anytime soon," I said. Then turning to the rest of the boys, "Is everyone okay?"
"I skinned my elbow," Lenny said as he showed me his right arm.
"We'll have the paramedic take a look at it, but it doesn't look too bad," I told him.
When one of the paramedics seemed to be free, I led Lenny to him and asked if he could take a look at the boy's elbow.
"You know you guys sure as heck are lucky to get out of that plane with no more than a scratched elbow," the paramedic said as he applied an antiseptic salve and a bandage to Lenny's arm.
"I know," I answered as it all began to sink in what we had gone through. "I think I need to sit down."
It was then that I noticed the fire trucks spraying a foamy substance on the undercarriage of the plane. My only thought was I hope they don't get our luggage wet. It's funny what my priorities were at a time like this after I realized everyone was safe.
Becky Sue was sitting up being attended to by Hildy and the other paramedic. She still looked a little shaky, but at least she was conscious.
Joel came and sat down beside me. I wrapped my arms around him and he laid his head on my chest. "How are you feeling, son?"
"I'm awful tired," he said quietly. "My legs feel so weak. I haven't run in a long time. But I had to get TJ away from the plane like you said."
"You did a good job, son. I'm proud of you," I said kissing the top of his head.
It wasn't long before all the boys were sitting with us on the ground. We sat there a few minutes watching the firemen finish spraying foam on the plane and then begin putting their equipment away. As we sat there another vehicle approached. When it got closer I saw that it was a small bus that had come to take us to the terminal. It had never crossed my mind how we were going to get there. I guess my thinking was not too straight yet.
Becky Sue decided that she was well enough to ride with us and declined the paramedic's offer to take her to the medical clinic. She did appear a little sheepish when she climbed into the mini-bus.
It took us several minutes to get to the private air service's terminal where the mini-bus let us out. Thank goodness the limo was still waiting there for us. After I got everyone situated in the limo I went into the office to make arrangements for getting our luggage. They assured me that as soon as the authorities made the plane available that they would retrieve our luggage and have it delivered to the house. I thanked them and left to join the family in the limo for the welcome ride home.
I had completely lost track of time in all the commotion until we got on 281 and started for home. I wondered why the traffic was so heavy until I looked at my watch and noticed it was after five o'clock, peak rush hour. All I wanted to do was to get home as quickly as possible and make sure that my boys were safe. When I turned to check on the boys, Joel had his head on Chris' shoulder and appeared to be asleep. I'm sure that this ordeal had severely taxed his weakened condition. I just hoped that it didn't have any lasting effects. Hildy was holding TJ close to her breast and stroking his hair. Larry and Lenny were sitting side by side doing their humming thing. It had been a long time since I had noticed them doing that. Becky Sue was still pale, but seemed to be recovering from the incident.
It seemed like it took a long time before the gate to our property came into view. I don't think I was ever happier than I was when I saw it. I stepped out of the limo and punched in the code to open the gate before we proceeded on to the house.
I was surprised to see Eric's car parked in front of the house as we drove up, but then I remembered that I had asked him to bring Samson back when he got off work. Evidently they heard the limo coming up the drive and as we stopped I saw three boys and a dog running at full steam around the corner of the house toward us. As I opened the door, Samson took one sniff at me before leaping into the limo and landing in Joel's lap who was just waking up.
"Samson! Boy have I missed you," Joel said as he hugged and got his face tongue washed by one happy dog.
The other boys quickly released their seatbelts and gathered around their dog receiving the same treatment that Joel had. Soon there were three additional boys crowded into the vehicle. It was a large limo, but eight boys along with Hildy and Becky Sue made for a tight squeeze.
It took a while before we got the boys out of the limo and started toward the house. Eric had joined us by that time and asked why we were so late in getting here.
"It's a long story, Eric. Let's get Joel and the boys in the house and I'll explain everything. I think that Joel needs to lie down for a while."
I helped Joel into the house and got him settled on the couch. He didn't want to lie down. He wanted to play with Samson. I relented but made him promise to let me know if he was getting too tired.
"I'm hungry," TJ said to Hildy looking up at her with those beautiful eyes.
"Well little one, let's see what we have. I'll bet that there is some ice cream in the freezer. Would that be all right?" she asked leading him into the kitchen followed by seven other boys with Chris and Larry helping Joel.
"What do Bran and Benny think of the Hill Country?" I asked Eric. "I know what they think of ice cream."
"Except for Benny's very brief trip to Mexico, I don't think either of them has been out of the Houston area. Both are fascinated by all the deer. They were in the back yard chasing them when they heard the car drive up. Bran couldn't believe it when a roadrunner raced across the yard. I think he expected it to go 'beep beep' and be chased by the coyote," Eric chuckled. "Now what is this I heard your boys say about a plane crash?"
"Well it really wasn't a crash, but we did make an emergency landing with the gear up..." I started as Mary Jane arrived to pick up her sister.
"Hi, Mary Jane," I said. "Your sister is in the kitchen with the boys. I think they are eating ice cream. Feel free to join them if you want."
"Thanks, Mr. Johnson, but I think I'll pass. I know that my folks are anxious to see Becky Sue so we'll take off real soon."
Becky Sue must have heard her sister talking because she rushed into the living room and hugged her. "It's great to see you again. I didn't think I was ever going to see you again," she said.
"How come?" asked a puzzled Mary Jane.
"I'll explain on the way home. Good night guys," she said waving at the boys still enjoying their ice cream. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Becky Sue," I said, "why don't you take tomorrow off? I think you need a little time to recover from our experience. We'll see you on Monday."
"Thanks, Crane, I think I could use a little time with my mom."
"Okay, are you ever going to tell me what happened?" Eric asked impatiently.
I went through the whole story with Eric leaving nothing out. I could see that he was horrified by the story.
"My God, Crane! I can't believe that the boys are acting so nonchalant about your experience."
"I know. When I got to them after I got out of the plane they were laughing and having a good time. I expected that they would be in shock. They may yet have a reaction to it. You know some type of post traumatic shock. I may see if Dr. Adams will see the boys as a group. Joel is scheduled for an appointment next Thursday for one of his follow up sessions."
"That would probably be a good idea. They do draw strength from each other but I'm sure that Dr. Adams will be able to tell if there is anything that might surface later."
"Dad, can we go swimming?" Chris asked as the boys came back into the living room.
"I guess so. Does Bran have a swim suit? I think that JR could wear one of the twins' suits. I don't know about Benny. I don't suppose it would be a crime if they swam in their underwear."
"Thanks for the offer, Crane, but we need to get back home. Mom and dad will be wondering what has happened to us. We have been here longer than we expected," Eric said looking at JR. "Next time we come you guys can bring your swim suits. Now say goodbye and we'll be on our way."
"I'll follow you home in the Land Rover. I promised your dad that he could borrow it while they were here. It will be big enough to carry all three of the boys. Also, if you would stop by and pick me up on your way to work, I need to pick up my car at the airport." I said. Then turning to Hildy I said, "I think I'll stop by Canyon Pizza. Why don't you give them a call and order three large ones for me to pick up. I'm sure the boys won't mind eating pizza tonight."
"Good idea, I didn't know what I was going to fix for supper. Everything is frozen," Hildy replied. "Pick up a couple gallons of milk while you're at it. We don't have anything to drink except soft drinks and I don't think they need caffeine to rev them up."
I was right. The pizzas disappeared in a flash almost before I brought them into the house. At least our excitement today didn't affect their appetites.
After we finished eating and the table was cleared, Hildy said she was going to her Thursday evening church meeting and I gathered the boys in the living room to talk to them about the airplane incident. Joel and Chris sat on either side of me on the couch while TJ climbed onto my lap. Larry and Lenny sat on the floor facing us.
"Tell me what you guys think about what happened on the airplane this afternoon," I said trying to make my voice calm.
"The noise was awful loud and kinda scary," TJ volunteered.
"Yeah, and when we started spinning around it felt funny. It was like being on that thing at the fair," Lenny said.
"How about you, Larry?" I asked.
"The scariest part was when it banged on the ground and bounced. I didn't like the noise either. I could feel it in my teeth," he said with a grimace.
"I guess the noise was the worst, but jumping down that yellow slide was kinda fun," Chris said with a grin. That got agreement from TJ nodding rapidly.
I looked over at Joel and saw that he was asleep. I guess I'll talk to him later. From the sounds of things it didn't seem that the boys were unusually traumatized by the airplane incident. For that I was very happy.
It wasn't long before it was time for the boys to get ready for bed. Since we had eaten supper so late they didn't have time for a snack. The day's events seemed to have started to take their toll and they didn't complain when I sent them off to shower and get into their pajamas.
I let the boys sleep the next morning although I had to get up early to meet Eric so that I could recover my car from the airport parking lot. I would much rather have stayed in bed. It was a little bit surprising that I didn't have any of the boys in my bed when I woke up. It was a good sign that they were handling the airplane incident better that I had anticipated. Hildy was already in the kitchen humming to herself and trying to see what she could scrounge for the boys' breakfast.
"Crane, I need to go to the grocery store. I think I have enough frozen orange juice and some sausages that I can fix along with pancakes but there is not much else. Lunch could be rather slim if I don't get to the store," Hildy said.
"As soon as I pick up my car, I'll come back so that you can go shopping. I should be back by 8:30 or 9," I replied. "You seem very happy this morning. Any special reason?"
"No... No, it was just good to get back to my church and be with my friends," she said, but I could detect a slight blush on her face.
I hadn't quite finished my second cup of coffee when I saw Eric's car on the security camera as he drove through the gate. I poured my half empty cup of coffee into a thermal mug and filled the mug from the pot before heading out the back door.
Usually after we got to 1604 and headed west toward the office the traffic was not too bad, but today we had to continue on 281 to the airport and the traffic was horrible. There was probably an accident somewhere ahead so we hopped off onto the access road and slowly made our way to the airport. I would like to have killed the idiotic civil engineer responsible for the interchange (or lack of interchange) where Loop 410 and 281 intersect. The Marquis de Sade could not have designed a more tortuous or devilish intersection.
We finally made it to the airport parking lot and I was able to get my car. The last logistical obstacle had been hurdled. Now to get back home so that Hildy can go get the groceries.
Hildy was still in unusually high spirits when I entered the house. I knew something was going on but I didn't want to pry any more than I had earlier.
"Hi, dad," TJ said and jumped up into my arms, "I missed you."
"I missed you too," I said giving him a hug and carried him back into the family room where his brothers were.
"Dad, are we going to get to play baseball this summer?" Chris asked.
"I don't know why not. You signed up for it. You guys have missed about a week of practice, but that shouldn't be too hard to make up," I said as I rummaged through my briefcase for the team assignments and schedules. "Chris, your team the Redbirds are scheduled to practice at two o'clock. Larry, Lenny your team the Roadrunners practices at four. This is going to be fun trying to keep up with your schedules. TJ, thank goodness your T-ball team doesn't practice today also. That would really confuse things."
I glanced over the equipment that the players needed to have and noticed that we were lacking a very important piece of equipment for my three baseball players. As soon as Hildy returned we would have to make a quick trip to the sports equipment store in New Braunfels. I was glad that they were interested in getting involved in sports right away thinking that it would occupy them so that they would have less time to think about yesterday's airplane incident.
Hildy returned around 10:30 with her car loaded down with sacks of groceries. It took the four boys and I almost ten minutes to carry them all in. TJ was more of a hindrance than a help and Joel didn't participate. Looking at all the food that Hildy had purchased made the boys hungry, as if they needed a reason. Hildy washed some apples and gave them to the boys telling them it was too close to lunch for anything else.
I explained to Hildy that I had to take them to the sporting goods store to get some needed equipment telling her we would be back around noon. Joel decided he would stay home saying he was tired. Although TJ didn't need to go, there was no way we could go anywhere without him.
"What do we need to buy, dad?" Lenny asked. "We have our shoes and gloves and everything."
"Well, according to the rules of the league you have to wear a cup."
"How do you wear a cup? That's stupid. I never saw anyone wear a cup," Larry chimed in as Chris doubled over laughing.
"What's so funny?" Lenny asked.
"Son, the kind of cup we are talking about is one that you wear to protect your testicles. It fits in a special jock strap," I said trying to control a chuckle. "Chris knows what they are because he had to wear one last year when he played."
"Oh... We never had a jock strap before," Larry said.
"Can I get one, too?" TJ asked.
"You don't need one to play T-ball," I started, but when I noticed his face drop I continued, "Sure, I don't see why not."
The young salesman nearly cracked up when TJ walked up to him and announced in a loud voice, "I want a jock strap and a cup."
The other boys turned red in the face and quickly looked around to see if anyone heard him. Thankfully there were very few customers in the store and they were middle age men looking at golfing equipment on the other side of the store.
I explained to the salesman what we needed and he led us to the section where there was a display of athletic supporters. He grabbed a measuring tape and took each of the boys' waist measurements. Looking over the display he selected the appropriate boxes containing the supporters and then selected the protective cups that would fit in them.
"Would there be anything else?" our salesman asked.
"I think we should get three baseball bats and some baseballs so that you guys can practice at home. Oh, and a T-ball tee, a couple balls and bat. Can you guys think of anything else you might need? How about you?" I asked the salesman.
He didn't suggest anything so we paid for our purchases and left for home.
It was just past noon when we arrived back at home. TJ had to run in and show Hildy what he got and explain to her what it was for. It was all that she could do to keep from laughing at his explanation.
"That's nice, son. Go put it in your room and get washed up. Lunch will be ready in a few minutes. That goes for all of you," she said to the rest of us. We quickly complied.
After lunch the boys went to get changed into their practice clothes even though it was about an hour before it was time for Chris' team to practice. Hildy packed a cooler with bottled water, soft drinks and most important a snack for later in the afternoon. I put it in the van while the boys were changing. TJ insisted on wearing his new equipment along with Chris and the twins. I added a pair of his underwear just in case he decided that the supporter and cup were uncomfortable.
Joel decided that he wanted to go with us so I put some folding lawn chairs in the van and added an old golf umbrella that I had been given that would keep him from getting too much sun. I figured if he got too tired he could always sit in the van since the seat backs reclined and he would be fairly comfortable.
After we arrived at the ballpark and got everything unloaded I took Chris over to meet his coach and explain why Chris wasn't able to practice with the team before now. The coach introduced himself as Phil Leonard. He was very understanding and welcomed Chris to the team. I like the coach immediately. He appeared to put the kids and their having fun ahead of winning at any cost. He took Chris aside and asked him what positions that he liked to play and what he thought he did best. Then he asked him to throw a ball as far as he could to see if he would be better in the infield or the outfield. I was surprised when Chris was able to throw the ball much farther than what I remember he could last year, and straighter.
"You guys have been working with Chris, haven't you?" I asked turning to Larry and Lenny.
"Yeah, he was really bad," Lenny said.
"We threw a ball with him every recess at school," Larry said. "He finally learned how to throw long."
"I'm proud of you," I said giving them a hug. "You guys are something special."
The coach was really impressed when he pitched a few to Chris and saw how well he hit the ball. By that time all the other boys had arrived and practice began. I could have sworn that either Jack and I copied his coaching style or he copied ours. Each kid on the team regardless of skill level received his attention and encouragement. The kids responded to him and not only had fun but listened to him when he asked them to do something. The only time he raised his voice was when he was telling the kids in the outfield to do something or change their position and only then so that they could hear him. The more I saw of Coach Leonard the more I liked him. He certainly had a way with young boys.
Chris' practice lasted for ninety minutes. That gave the team time to get all their equipment picked up before the next team came in to practice.
It was time for a snack when Chris came off the field so I dug into the cooler and handed out soft drinks for the boys and checked out what kind of snack Hildy had prepared for us. It turned out that she had sent a couple dozen peanut butter cookies. I hoped that would be enough to feed the famished boys and me.
When the twins' coach arrived I took them and went to introduce us and explain why they hadn't been to practice before. Craig Latimer was the exact opposite of Phil Leonard. He indicated that he didn't appreciate the fact that the twins hadn't been to practice even after I explained to him the reason. I didn't take an immediate liking to him, but was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
His coaching style was one of yelling at the kids, berating them when they did something wrong. It was all I could do to hold my tongue. He had some of the boys crying when he humiliated them in front of the other boys.
The twins' practice was about half over when Joel asked if he could sit in the van. He was getting very tired. I helped him to the van and started the engine so that the air conditioners would keep the van cool. Chris was playing catch with TJ. When I returned I approached one of the other dads who was there watching his son practice.
After I introduced myself and finding out his name was Peter Hammond, I asked, "Is Coach Latimer always this way with the kids?"
"Yeah," he said disgustedly. "He knows a lot about baseball, but he sure doesn't know how to deal with kids."
"How come the league lets him coach then?" I asked.
"No one else wants to, so he gets to by default. I'd like to but I don't know enough about baseball to coach. I never played. I grew up in England and all we ever played was soccer or football as they call it," Peter said.
"I hate to see the kids being treated this way by the coach. If I could find someone to coach the team how would I go about replacing him?"
"I'm sure if you could find someone, the league president, Jason Calloway, would replace him in a minute."
"Listen Peter, if I volunteered to coach the team would you be willing to help? I am not going to bring my twins back to be berated by that man again. This game is supposed to be fun for them and from the looks on the kids faces it sure doesn't look like they are having fun," I said.
"Have you ever coached a team before?"
"Yes, I coached a police little league team in San Antonio for three years with a policeman friend. We never won a league championship, but at least the kids enjoyed themselves."
"You have yourself a deal. I'll call Jason tonight and have him contact you. I feel the same way that you do about not bringing my boy again as long as Latimer is coaching."
I gave Peter my business card after I wrote my home number on the back. He gave me his card and we shook hands sealing our deal.
"What have I gotten myself into now?" I mused to myself as I walked back over to where Chris and TJ were playing catch.