I made sure that I was up and dressed before any of the boys woke up. The coffee pot had not started perking when I got to the kitchen so I started it. Hildy had not made an appearance either. When I went to get the Sunday paper from down the lane, I noticed Manfred's car parked in the driveway. "Good for her," I said aloud as I walked to get the paper.
Hildy, looking a little flustered, entered the kitchen just as I was pouring myself a cup of coffee. I sat my cup down and walked over to her and gave her a hug.
"What's that for?" she asked.
"Oh, I don't know. I guess I'm just happy for the both of us," I responded.
She cocked her head to one side with a questioning look on her face until Eric walked out of the hallway and entered the kitchen. "I see," she said blushing and then her face took on a knowing look.
"It's Sunday, you don't have to fix our breakfasts today. I usually take care of it while you go to church," I said.
"I know, but..." she said trailing off.
"Let me help you. You tell me what to do. I don't want you to miss your services."
"We... I mean, I think that I'll go to the late service this morning," she said as she started stirring up a large batch of pancakes with more concentration than was necessary.
Eric poured himself a cup of coffee and gave me a one armed hug and sat down at the table. I smiled at him and then turned to the refrigerator to retrieve a three pound package of link sausages and began to brown them in a large skillet. When Hildy was about half finished with the stacks of pancakes I asked Eric to watch the sausages so I could wake the boys and get them ready for breakfast.
While I was gone he set the table and poured each of the boys a glass of milk and one of orange juice. I put the maple syrup in the microwave to warm up when I returned. Manfred poked his head in the back door to the kitchen.
"Manfred, welcome to the morning madness of the Johnson household," I said. "Come on in and join us. There's plenty of food for everyone."
He looked at Hildy and when she gave him a nod he joined us in the kitchen. To my surprise he walked up to Hildy and gave her a kiss on the cheek before going to pour himself a cup of coffee. She turned a bright red and playfully pushed him away.
Hildy was taking the last of the pancakes off the grill when the boys started rushing into the kitchen. Everyone, including Manfred, received a hug from each of the boys. Manfred was a little surprised when JR gave him a hug also.
"Dad, did you stay here last night?" JR asked as he hugged his dad.
"Yes, I did," Eric answered without any further elaboration.
"How come you're here?" TJ asked Manfred.
"TJ, don't be rude to our guest," I scolded.
"That's all right, Crane. Ah... I... I'm going to take Hildy to church," he said.
TJ shrugged his shoulders and went back to eating his stack of pancakes which quickly disappeared along with the rest of his breakfast.
After breakfast Eric and JR left for their house saying that they would meet us at the marina around ten o'clock so that we all could go fishing. Hildy and Manfred took off for church and I began putting together some sandwiches to eat on the boat. The boys finished getting dressed and ready to go.
When Samson saw the fishing tackle being loaded into the van he got all excited and started running around and barking. He knew we were going fishing and that he would get to go. Although he didn't like the boat that much he did like to go with us. I think he just liked to go in the van with the boys. Before we left I made sure that the boys had a liberal coating of sun-block. The sun can be murderous in July in South Texas.
Everyone put on their life jackets before we got on the boat. Even Samson had his on. Darrell had serviced the boat when I called him earlier so it was all gassed up and ready to go when we got there. He even had the bait on board for our fishing expedition. We had everything loaded and ready to go when Eric and JR arrived apologizing for being late. Eric's parents had called saying that they planned to bring Bran and Benny up next weekend for a couple of days to get away from the heat and humidity of Houston. I was sure that a sleepover was on tap for all the boys next weekend as soon as the rest of the boys heard the news.
I backed the boat out of our slip and slowly ease it out of the marina area before I gave it more speed. While I steered the boat, Eric worked with the boys to get their tackle ready to fish. When I got to a spot where we had some luck fishing the last time I cut the engine and let the boat drift. Since there was not much current in the lake, we barely moved from the spot. I did keep watch to make sure that we weren't in the way of the speedier boats and jet-skis. The lake was quite crowded and I didn't expect that we would catch many fish. It turned out I was wrong. The fish seemed to be hungry and shortly after the boys resumed fishing after lunch they had nearly caught their limit. We had more fish than I really wanted to clean but I didn't think that any of them would take kindly to throwing them back. I hadn't told them about 'catch and release' fishing.
I was surprised and pleased that Joel held up as well as he did. Every once in a while he would reel in his line and come sit beside Eric and me to rest for awhile before going back to join his brothers.
When I suggested that we head back to the marina, I received some dark stares until I said that we could stop and get some ice cream at the marina snack bar. That was received with enthusiasm since I had not packed anything for an afternoon snack.
Samson made a bee line for the nearest tree as soon as we walked off the dock with Chris running after him. I didn't think that Samson would run away but Chris wanted to make sure. When they returned I told Chris to put his leash on. Comal County has a leash law and I didn't want to get fined for Samson running free.
We said goodbye to Eric and JR after everyone had feasted on ice cream and we had divided up the fish so they would have enough for their supper. Also, I didn't relish the idea of cleaning all of them. We were left with more than enough for our supper after they were cleaned and filleted.
As we drove up the driveway to the house, Manfred was leaving in his car after dropping off Hildy. I stopped the van and spoke briefly to him through the rolled down window before driving on to the house. Samson jumped out of the van as soon as the door was opened and raced around the yard, happy to have a chance to stretch his legs after being cooped up most of the day.
I told the boys to go in and take a shower while I took care of the fish. I was still working when they started trickling out to watch me. I was nearly finished and thankful that I was. I never really liked the messy job of cleaning fish. However, I liked the final results. I had to keep reminding myself how good fresh fish tasted all the time I labored over them.
I had planned on grilling the fillets on the outdoor grill, but as I was getting ready to start it the weather decided otherwise for me. One of South Texas' famous afternoon thunderstorms blew up and ruined my plans.
Hildy came to my rescue and although it was her day off, she took the fillets from me and said she would bread them and fix supper for us. I thanked her profusely and went to take a much needed shower. I stunk to high heavens from fish offal.
As I entered the kitchen feeling much fresher, the boys were rushing around setting the table. Hildy was putting a large pan of deep fried fish in the oven to stay warm. A large bag of frozen French fries were waiting their turn in the deep fryer. When they were finished they joined the fish in the oven and Hildy began dropping spoon sized dollops of hushpuppy batter into the hot oil. When the first batch of about twenty hushpuppies was ready she told Joel to get the milk out of the refrigerator and fill the glasses. Chris was instructed to retrieve the tartar sauce and the catsup and put them on the table.
Since everything was hot I decided it would be prudent for me to serve the food. I loaded each plate with fish, hushpuppies and French fries and passed them to the boys. Hildy set a basket of bread on the table followed shortly by another heaping plate of hushpuppies which quickly made their way onto plates around the table. It was not the healthiest of meals but it sure tasted good. I'll bet that Hildy will ensure our diets are healthier in the coming week.
Since it was still raining when we finished supper I asked the boys if they would like for me to read to them. That met with unanimous approval so I went to my study to pick out a book that I thought they all might like. I selected one of Mark Twain's lesser read books called A Horse's Tale. I had always thought that it was one of Twain's better stories, but I also understood why it didn't have as wide appeal as some of his other works. I believed that the boys would enjoy it. I think more that anything we all just liked sitting around together sharing a quiet time.
TJ took his usual spot on my lap, Joel sat on my left and Chris on my right. Larry and Lenny took their positions on the floor on their stomachs with their heads propped up on their hands. I read to them for about an hour and a half before they began to get restless. My leg was also going to sleep from having TJ sitting on it.
We watched a little TV until it was time for a snack. That was quickly followed by preparations for bed. As I tucked the boys into bed I told them that I had to work all week but that I would be home for their baseball and T-ball practices.
It seemed strange to walk into the office after almost a month. The first thing I did was to check with Carol to see where my office space was. I assumed that someone from the new owners had my old one.
"Carol, how are you?" I said as I came up behind her.
"Crane," she said turning to greet me, "it's good to see you. How have you been?"
"Oh, I'm doing fine. It's just a little strange to be back in the office again. Which office am I supposed to use?"
"The one next to your old office is set up and ready for you. You're looking good. Retirement must suit you."
"Well, I'm not really retired. I'll be in here a week every month and then there is the foundation that we are just getting started which will take a lot of my time. Then there are five young boys that keep me on my toes," I said laughing.
"If the foundation every needs a good secretary, let me know," she said in a hushed tone.
"That I will," I said as I gave her a quizzical look. "Is there something wrong?"
"No, not really, it's just not the same around here anymore," she sighed. "Go check out your office and I'll bring you a cup of coffee. Brandon Hines, the new manager, is not in yet. I'm sure that he will want to meet with you when he arrives."
I did meet with Brandon Hines when he arrived about a half an hour later. He looked to be around forty, graying around the temples and the start of a paunch. He impressed me as being highly intelligent but also a bit abrupt with those around him. We spent over an hour talking about what the new owners expected of me in my one week each month at the office. That turned out mostly to be working with young project managers helping them in developing project plans and staffing schedules. I was also to advise projects that appeared to be veering off schedule and helping to get them back on track.
After I met with Brandon, I worked with a couple of project managers that had come with the new owners. It seemed that they were both managing their first project and they needed help. Both appeared to be competent but a little overwhelmed at everything that they had to juggle to keep a project on track.
I hadn't made plans for lunch so I decided to call Jack to see if he were available. Unfortunately he was in court testifying and I was unable to reach him. As I was leaving the office to get some lunch, Carol was on her way out also. I asked her if she had plans and when she said she didn't I suggested that we eat together. I would have invited Foster but he was out of town.
By the time lunch was over I could tell that Carol was not happy with the new management. She didn't say so in so many words but I got the distinct impression that she was not happy. I made a mental note to discuss with Darcie whether we needed a secretary for the foundation.
I had no more than sat down at my desk when Ronnie, one of the new project managers, stuck his head in the door to see if I was ready for our afternoon session.
"Give me a few minutes," I said. "I need to make a phone call before we start up."
"Okay," he said leaving me to make my call.
I took out my address book and looked up the number I wanted to call. I used my cell phone since this was a personal call.
"Hello, Karen," I said when she answered. "This is Crane Johnson. How are you?"
"Oh, Crane, it's nice to hear from you. We are doing fine. Tony asks about Joel all the time."
"Joel talks about Tony, too. They developed quite a friendship in the hospital. That's one of the reason I'm calling. The Levins are going to be visiting their son this weekend and are bringing Benny and Bran. I was wondering if you and Bill would like to come up this weekend and visit us. It would give the boys a chance to see each other again. We have plenty of room for you. I'm sure that all of the boys will be staying at the house Saturday night. They like to have a sleep over."
"Thanks for asking. I'll talk with Bill when he gets home this evening. I know what Tony's answer will be. I'll call you after I've talked to Bill," Karen said.
We talked for a few more minutes before we hung up and I got back to business. The rest of the afternoon went by quickly as I worked with Ronnie on his project. I was ready when it was time to go home. It seems that my three weeks off had gotten me out of the habit of putting in a full days work.
I drove home as fast as the traffic would let me which wasn't that fast. Not being the boss anymore I had to wait until four o'clock before I could leave the office. Becky Sue was still at the house when I drove in and parked the car. As I entered the back door I was attacked by TJ jumping into my arms.
"Hi, daddy, I missed you," he said giving me a kiss on the cheek.
"I missed you too," I said giving him a squeeze and returning the kiss. "What have you been doing all day?"
As I carried him into the family room he told me in detail everything that he had done all day including what he had for lunch. We were greeted on our way by Joel and his brothers who surrounded us in a group hug. God, how I loved these boys. We sat on the couch and they all told me about their day until Becky Sue came in to tell them goodbye.
Tonight's supper was much healthier than last nights, but the boys seemed to enjoy it as much as they did yesterday's. Hildy had fixed us roast chicken, wild rice and steamed broccoli along with a mixed greens salad.
We had just finished with supper and had all the dishes loaded into the dishwasher when the phone rang. It was Karen phoning to say that they would be happy to come for a visit. I gave her the directions to get to our house and told her to call if they got lost. The directions were not that complicated until the last couple of miles before you got to our house. I told her if they left by nine in the morning they should be here by noon and if the weather held we would have a cookout. I also mentioned that if they wanted to swim to bring their suits.
After we hung up I call the boys and told them that Tony was going to come for a visit this weekend. That was met with enthusiasm by all of them. It had been quite a while since they had seen him. Even Samson seemed to be excited.
"Dad?" Joel asked quietly.
"John called today and wants me to come over to his house tomorrow. Can I?"
"I guess that would be alright. What time are you supposed to be there?"
"He thought maybe ten."
"Well you know that dad will be at work. Have you figured out how you are going to get there?"
"I thought if you said it was okay maybe Hildy would take me and then you could bring me home when you got off work."
"Okay, let's go ask Hildy if she will take you," I said getting up off the couch and heading for the kitchen where Hildy was still cleaning up from supper.
"Hildy, Joel has something he wants to ask you."
"Um... Could you... ah... Could you take me to John's house tomorrow? Please?"
"Of course, sweetheart. What time do you want to go?" Hildy replied.
"Thanks, Hildy, you're the best," Joel said giving her a big hug. "Could we go a little before ten?"
"Sure, I'll get the directions from your dad," she said returning the hug.
When I gave her the directions she said, "I know where that is. One of my friends from church lives on that same street. In fact, from the address it should only be a couple of houses away."
"Something else I wanted to talk to you about. I have invited Tony and his foster parents to come visit this weekend and was thinking of inviting several others also for Saturday afternoon. If everyone comes there will be about twenty-six people including twelve kids. You do enough around here and I don't want to put you to the trouble of all those people. I thought we could have it catered. There's that barbeque place in Bulverde that caters that is pretty good. What do you think of that?"
"That would be easy enough. Why don't we have them cater the main meal and I'll take care of the desserts?"
"That's fine if you want to do that. Would you work up a menu and give them a call to see if they can do it? Although there will only be twenty-six at the most we should plan to have extra food since there will be a dozen kids," I said smiling as I thought about the amount of food that my tribe could put away.
The rest of the week went fairly smoothly. I picked Joel up at John's house on Tuesday. Wednesday I had to take Joel for his chemo treatment at Dr. Greene's office. I had to make arrangements with the office to come in next Wednesday to make up for missing one of my scheduled days. I made all of the boys' practices including coaching the twins' team. TJ was making surprising progress. I suspected that either Becky Sue or the other boys were helping him during the day while I was at work. I was proud of him as I was of all of the boys.
Saturday morning was going to be rough. Chris' team was playing the twins' team that I coached. Before the game started I took the twins and Chris aside and talked to them. "It's not important which team wins or which team loses. What is important is that you all play the game the best you know how. If you do that nobody is a loser. I love you no matter what the outcome is. Now let's go out there and have fun." I gave them all a hug and sent Chris over to his team.
Both teams played their hearts out, but in the end Chris' team came out on top by a score of 5 to 4. My team may have been able to win if I had left the starters in the whole game, but I had a strict policy that everyone of the team got to play at least three of the six innings. The rules of our league only require that every team member had to play at least one inning.
We made it back to the house in time for the boys to get cleaned up from the game before our guest started to arrive. The caterers had arrived and were setting up the tables when we got there. I went to check on them and to see what was on the menu. Hildy had taken care of that and I hadn't even thought to ask what it was. Jeremy, the caterer in charge, told me we were having brisket, ribs, and chicken for the entre and cole slaw, ranch beans and potato salad for the side dishes. There would also be pickles, sliced onions, jalape¤os and all kinds of condiments. He indicated that they would be ready to start serving around one o'clock.
Since it wasn't quite noon, I went back in to check with Hildy to see if she needed any help. Before I was able to ask her the phone rang. It was the Boise. Bill wanted to check the last part of the directions with me before he started down some winding road. I laughed but assured him that he indeed was on the right road. I told him he was only about a mile and a half from the house.
When I told the boys that Tony and his mom and dad would be here in about five minutes they all went out on the front porch to wait. Samson went too. I monitored the gate security camera and when I saw them approaching I activated it so that they could get in. The car had barely stopped when it was surrounded by excited boys. Tony was the first to emerge and was swallowed up in the hugs from the boys. Karen and Bill receive the same treatment as they stepped out of the car.
I noticed that Tony had some hair growing again although it was a little spotty. Joel noticed it too and ran his hand over his friend's head. He said something to Tony that I couldn't hear that brought peals of laughter from the six of them. Then they ran off to show him the lake with Samson circling them as they went.
I embraced Karen and shook hands with Bill. "Let me help you with your luggage. I'll show you where your room is."
"I must say that you have a beautiful home and the view is fantastic," Karen said. "This is the first time I've been to the Hill Country and I've lived in Texas all my life."
"That goes for me too," Bill said. "I've been to San Antonio several times but never ventured far from the downtown area. It's difficult for us 'flatlanders' from Houston to drive up and down all these hills."
"Dad! Dad! Come quick! They've got deer in the back yard and you can get real close to them. Come on!" an excited Tony said grabbing his foster dad's hand and dragging him around the side of the house.
I chuckled and grabbed their two suitcases and started for the front door. Karen and I had started up the steps to the house when Hildy appeared at the front door. She stepped outside and gave Karen a big hug and started chatting away like long lost friends. I took the suitcases to the spare bedroom and then went outside to join Bill and the boys. Joel was giving Tony the grand tour of the yard and pool, showing him the lake. He had his arm around him pointing out the dam when I arrived.
"This is spectacular," Bill said. "This is so much different than where we live. It's so flat in Fort Bend County. How much land do you have here?"
"We have thirty-five acres. It is mostly covered with trees, Live Oak and Mountain Cedar. Not much good for farming or raising cattle. The deer manage quite well, in fact, too well most of the time," I said.
As we were standing there admiring the view, Eric and JR arrive in their car followed by his folks with Benny and Bran. When Tony saw his brother he ran to him and lifted him up in the air in a bear hug. They were quickly surrounded by the rest of the kids, everyone talking at the same time.
Before they were done greeting each other, Jack and his wife and three kids showed up. They weren't out of the car yet when Darcie and Mel drove up. By this time the boys had noticed the food being set up by the caterers and were beginning to circle them like a flock of vultures.
"Hey guys, the food won't be ready for about another half hour. Besides not all of our guests are here yet," I told them.
I was kept busy making sure that everyone got introduced to everyone else. The boys pretty much took care of their own introductions. Sara, Jack's little daughter, ran up to TJ and gave him a hug. TJ looked at me like a trapped animal. I just shook my head and smiled at him.
Dr. Sam and his wife Carol arrived and were closely followed by Manfred driving up. When Manfred got out of the car he carried what looked to be a large cake into the house before joining the rest of us on the patio.
Jack Jr. and Bran seemed to be hitting it off. They were the same age so it seemed natural that they pair up. Since Benny had his brother to look after him Bran didn't need to act in the protector role that he usually maintained.
It was nearly a quarter to one but I could see that the boys were getting restless and kept gravitating toward where the food was being set out. I went to talk to Jeremy to see how soon they would be ready. When he indicated that it would only be a few minutes, I yelled at the boys to go wash their hands. They didn't need to be told twice and all ran off to get cleaned up. I would be willing to bet that all five bathrooms were used to produce clean hands.
I noticed as the boys were returning from their clean up that Darcie and Karen were having a serious conversation. "Good," I thought. Since they were going to be the foundations first potential recipients it was good that they get better acquainted. I wanted Darcie to be as sure as I was that the Boises were good candidates for our assistance.
The food was set up buffet style. We let the youngsters go through the line first with the help of the adults to make sure that they didn't spill their overloaded plates. The rest of us followed with Manfred and me bringing up the rear. The caterers had set up some extra tables so that all twenty-six of us could sit down to eat. Hildy was fussing over everyone making sure that they had everything they needed until I insisted that she sit down. Manfred had saved a seat beside him for her.
I had barely set down and started eating when Lenny came up to me and whispered in my ear, "Can we have some more?"
"Of course you may. Help yourself. Try not to spill your plate though," I told him.
He ran off almost before I finished talking waving to the other boys that it was alright to get seconds. They quickly joined him in trying to deplete what was left of the food. A number of the adults also went back for seconds. It was a good thing that we had ordered extra because there was very little food left when everyone was finished eating.
When Hildy announce that there was dessert, I think all of the adults just groaned. The reaction of the boys was the exact opposite. As much as they had eaten I don't know how they had any room left. She instructed them to bring their paper plates and plastic utensils and dump them in the garbage bag she was holding and then go inside and wait for her.
I went to check on them and to see what kinds of desserts she had prepared. I was amazed at the selection. There was a chocolate cake, a white cake, apple pie, peach pie, apple cobbler and a big bowl of chocolate pudding. In addition she set out a gallon of vanilla ice cream to top things off.
Manfred came in unnoticed and began helping Hildy speed up the process of handing out the desserts. He manned the ice cream scoop while she dished up whatever each boy wanted. I grabbed another gallon of milk and took it out to the boys' table to fill their glasses in case they needed more.
Ethel, Carol and Karen were busy cleaning up the dishes from the adults' table. The caterers were busy wrapping up in foil what few leftovers there were. Jeremy motioned me aside and handed me the bill for the food. I led him back into the house to my study where I wrote him a check and thanked him for the excellent job that he and his crew had done.
Hildy came out onto the patio, coffee pot in hand with Manfred right behind carrying a tray with coffee mugs and cream and sugar. Several of the adults refused the coffee but most accepted. We sipped our coffee and watched in disbelief as the boys ate their desserts.
The afternoon went by rapidly. We let the boys go swimming about an hour after they finished eating. Many of the adults joined them at times in the pool. Eric and Mel were having a ball playing with the kids. So was Bill. Tony and Joel took frequent breaks from the goings on in the pool to rest but they were never far from each other. Their bonding in the hospital still seemed to be strong.
Dr. Sam had Karen engaged in an animated discussion of which I'm sure Tony was the subject. I saw him motioning toward Tony as he talked.
Hildy and Manfred had disappeared shortly after she had brought the coffee out but I hadn't really noticed with so much going on. It wasn't until they returned that I realized they had been gone. I thought that was a little strange. Usually Hildy hovered around all of us like a mother hen tending her chicks. I guess they just needed some time away from the crowd.
Around five o'clock I decided to start the grill. It would take a while for it to get hot enough to cook on. I planned to fix hamburgers, hot dogs and bratwursts for everyone who wanted to hang around. We could also bring out the leftovers from lunch if anyone wanted them.
Dr. Sam and Carol thanked me and Hildy for the hospitality but they had to leave to get ready for their bridge party this evening. Darcie and Mel also said that they had to leave. They were going to the movies with another couple.
Jack and Carolyn decided to leave also saying that Sara was getting a little crabby and needed to get home and go to bed. They didn't leave until they admonished Jack Jr. and Timmy to behave themselves and reminded them that they would be picked up around ten in the morning.
That left eight adults and eleven boys to feed. While I started getting everything ready for the grill, I told the boys to go jump in the shower and wash the chlorine off. I told them they would probably have to shower in shifts since I didn't think there was enough water pressure for all the showers to be used at once. I later learned that they all climbed into two showers, the big one in my bedroom and the big one I had built upstairs. I thought that I heard a lot of giggling from inside as I worked at the grill.
Eric walked up to me at the grill and put his arm around my shoulder, "Thanks for a great day. JR is in heaven. He wants a brother so badly. He loves being here with your boys. It's the next best thing since I'm pretty sure he won't have a natural brother."
"I'm pretty sure that Chris would adopt him," I said as he withdrew his arm from my shoulder. "Chris really takes him under his wing when he visits. It reminds me of Joel and TJ's relationship."
Ethel and Alan had been talking to Bill and Karen while Eric was talking to me. When I turned to them Bill and Karen were looking at us strangely. I let it pass. I didn't think that they needed any explanation.
After supper all the boys went upstairs to watch some videotapes that we had rented. The adults retired to the family room except for Hildy and Manfred. They went up to her apartment after she had served us coffee.
When it came time for bed I sent everyone to get their teeth brushed and get into their pajamas while Eric and I pushed the three queen size beds together. He had brought two sleeping bags and I had two if we needed them.
Jack Jr. and Bran decided to use a couple of sleeping bags on the floor. Tony and Benny wanted to put two of the sleeping bags together so that they could sleep together. That left only seven for the beds. It was after ten when they were all hugged and tucked into bed.
Eric and his parents left shortly after all the boys were bedded down. I wished that he could stay, but from the questioning look we got from the Boise I didn't think that would be a good idea. It would just complicate things too much.
Karen and Bill soon decided that it was time for them to get to bed so I showed them where everything was and made certain that they had clean towels and washcloths. I went back out and started to button the house up for the night.
I was just getting ready to turn out the lights and head to my bedroom when Hildy came into the kitchen.
"Crane, I need to talk to you," she said cautiously.
"Okay," I said.
"I don't know how to say this... Manfred asked me to marry him," she blurted out.
"Oh," I said groping for a chair to sit down.