It was nearly 2AM when we arrived at Eric's house. It was another 45 minutes before I drove into my garage. It was with deep regret that I left when I did, but I was sure that Hildy and Manfred would like to get into their own bed. I let myself in as quietly as possible, not wanting to wake the boys. Hildy was asleep on the couch in the family room. Manfred was sleeping in the recliner. As gently as I could, I shook Hildy to wake her. She was instantly awake.
"Oh, it's you. I thought it might be one of the boys."
"Sorry I'm so late. I'll explain tomorrow. Thanks for staying with the boys." I hugged her as she got up.
"Did you have a good time?"
"We had a great time. Did the boys cause you any trouble?"
"No, but TJ wanted to stay up until you came home. He finally got tired and fell asleep in my lap. Manny picked him up and put him to bed. What happened to your tux?"
"What do you mean?" I said looking myself over.
"There's a tear in the knee of your trousers. How did that happen?"
"I never noticed that before. It's all part of the explanation I owe you tomorrow. I need some sleep. See you in the morning. Goodnight."
I stripped off my clothes as quickly as I could and threw them into the dry cleaning basket. I'm not sure if I were asleep before my head hit the pillow or not. The next thing that I knew, I felt something in bed with me. As I slowly opened my still tired eyes, I was confronted by a pair of eyes staring at me no more than two inches in front of my face. At first I didn't recognize which one of the boys it was until they spoke.
"Hildy said you have to get up," TJ said before kissing my cheek. "She's gotta go to church."
"Good morning, little one," I said, returning his kiss and then wrapping my arms around him, giving him a squeeze and a tickle that produced a giggle. "Let dad up and you go tell Hildy I'll be right out."
"Okay," he said and with all the energy of a seven year-old, jumped off the bed and ran out my bedroom door.
I looked at the clock as I rolled out of bed. It said 9:18. "Well, I got about 6 hours of sleep. I guess that will have to do," I muttered.
When I entered the kitchen, Hildy, Manfred and John were all dressed and ready to leave for church. I apologized for sleeping so late and hoped that they wouldn't be late getting to the church.
"How come you slept so late, dad?" Joel asked as I sat down to my breakfast of cold cereal and a cup of coffee.
I gathered the boys around and had them sit at the table before I began telling them about what had happened last night as Eric and I were leaving the dinner.
"Why did they want to beat up those old people?" Larry asked.
"They probably wanted to rob them," I answered. "Some people think it's all right to steal from other people who are richer. They would rather steal than work to get money."
"Why? It don't belong to them," Chris asked.
"That's a difficult question to answer, son. Psychologists and social workers and politicians and cops and religious leaders all have different explanations for why some people would rather steal what other people have worked for rather than work themselves. I really don't have a good answer. I just want you to know that stealing is not right. I would be very disappointed with you if any of you ever stole anything. I'd also be disappointed if you saw someone else stealing something and didn't tell me or your teacher or Hildy or someone in authority like a cop."
"But, isn't that being a tattletale?" Lenny asked.
"Boy, you guys are full of hard questions this morning. I guess it is kind of like being a tattletale, but... If someone stole something of yours, wouldn't you like it if someone who saw it being stolen told the police so that you could get it back? What if it was Bandit that they took?" I asked looking at TJ.
TJ looked shocked at the thought of someone stealing Bandit. "No, I'd want 'em to tell. I'd want my Bandit back," he said, going over and picking his puppy up and holding him in his arms.
"I guess the best answer I can give you is, try to think of what you would want someone else to do if it were happening to you. Before you tell on someone, you want to consider whether it is something that really matters. If someone is being hurt or if something is being taken from them, then you should probably tell someone about it. If the only reason to tell on someone is to embarrass them, then you need to think about what you would want someone else to do if it were you. If you can't decide what is best, tell an adult and let them decide. Sometimes that kind of decision is best left to an older person."
By this time my cup of coffee was cold and my cereal was completely soggy. I decided that the cereal was beyond hope, but the coffee could be salvaged in the microwave.
After the other boys had drifted away from the table, Joel came up and sat beside me. "Can we go shopping for Chris' birthday presents today?"
"I almost forgot. Let's go to San Antonio right after lunch. I'll see if Hildy will stay with him while the rest of us look for his presents."
When Hildy came home from church, she brought John in and sat down on the couch in the family room where I was reading the Sunday paper. "Now, tell me about your torn tux."
I explained to her about the attack on Doris and Nathan Woods and what Eric and I had done. Then the cops kept us around for nearly an hour before they took our statements. All the while she was shaking her head and clicking her tongue.
"I think I know the Woods," she said. "I think her father owned a successful furniture manufacturing company in New Braunfels when I was growing up. I think that was where my father worked before he set up his own shop. I was quite young at the time. She was nearer my mother's age. She must be in her eighties, at least. Nathan ran the business after her father died and left it to Doris. They sold the business and retired at least 25 years ago. I heard that he got involved in land development in and around San Antonio and made a ton of money. I don't recall that they ever had any children."
"They were a nice old couple, but very hard of hearing. It was almost impossible to carry on a conversation with them," I told her.
As I had expected, Hildy was agreeable to stay with Chris while the rest of us shopped. Chris on the other hand was less pleased until I explained that unless we went shopping without him, he wouldn't get any birthday presents. After that soaked in, he was more agreeable to the plan.
I had forgotten what a task it was to take five boys shopping all at once. Joel and John were pretty good about staying near me as we shopped. That was not the case with the twins and TJ. As soon as we entered a store they seemed to head in different directions and evaporate. I spent most of my time rounding them up and reminding them that we were only here to buy Chris a present. I think we visited nearly every toy store, electronics outlet and sporting goods store on the north side of San Antonio before everyone had finally picked out a present.
Chris was excited to see us when we drove up to the house. Of course, he wanted to see what his brothers had bought him, but they wouldn't let him see.
The week started out to be rather hectic. Monday, Joel had to see Dr. Greene to get a blood test and his latest round of medication. In the afternoon, he had his appointment with Dr. Adams. Between his appointments he stayed at the office with Darcie and me.
Tuesday was John's turn to see Dr. Adams. He was amazed at John's change in attitude and his renewed positive outlook on life. When I talked to Dr. Adams, we both agreed that John had made great progress, but that I would still have to keep an eye on him for any changes. He wanted to see John one more time before he made any changes in his appointment schedule.
Wednesday, the workmen came to install the dome over the pool. They did the preliminary work of installing the tie-downs and all of the electrical works. They promised to be back on Thursday to finish installing the dome with the related blowers and heater.
I also got a call on Wednesday from a Ryan Ridgeway who had been assigned as John's Guardian Ad Litem. When I asked him what that was, he explained that he was a volunteer with CASA of Central Texas and that he had been assigned by the court to act as an advocate for John in matters before the court and to be a special friend to see that his needs were taken care of. He asked if it were possible for him to drop by the house that evening and talk to John.
I explained to him that tonight we would be having a small celebration of one of my son's birthdays, but he was welcome to drop by around 7:30. He agreed, and I gave him directions on how to get to the house.
At exactly 7:30 the buzzer announced that there was someone at the gate. I saw on the security camera that it was a new, white Lincoln Town Car. I asked who it was over the intercom, and confirmed that it was Mr. Ridgeway. I opened the gate and went to the front door to greet our visitor.
Ryan Ridgeway was a tall, heavyset man in, I guessed, late fifties or early sixties. He was dressed casually in slacks and a knit sport shirt.
"Mr. Ridgeway, I'm Crane Johnson, welcome to our home."
"Thank you, please call me Ryan. My, you have a lovely place here. I'll bet you have a fantastic view in the daylight."
"Yes, we do. Please come inside. I told John you were coming. You said you volunteered with CASA of Central Texas?"
"I've never heard of it. What is it?"
"Well, CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. Our primary mission is to help neglected, abused or abandoned children in the foster care system, navigate the courts and to see that all their needs are met. We are independent of CPS, reporting only to the court."
"That's interesting. When I adopted my five boys, they didn't have a CASA volunteer."
"Unfortunately, there are not enough volunteers to go around. We are assigned from one to five children each year and even with that we can't reach every child in the system. Some are left to fend for themselves. It sounds like your five made it through the system all right."
"If it hadn't been for some very good lawyers that I hired, I don't think the outcome would have been what I hoped.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"No, thank you."
"I'll get John."
John and Ryan talked in my study for nearly an hour before they came out. John was smiling, so I assumed that everything went well.
"You're just in time for your snack. The rest of the boys are already in the kitchen. You better hurry or it might be all gone before you get any. When you're done I'll help you with your homework."
John laughed, but he took off in a hurry for the kitchen, not waiting to find out whether or not I was joking. Ryan and I talked briefly as I walked him to his car about the psychological counseling that John was receiving. He also asked if there was anything that John needed. I told him that I didn't know of anything he needed. I assured him that I was able to supply John with what ever was necessary.
The small birthday celebration that we had for Chris with our supper on his real birth date left him so excited that I was barely able to get him settled down and into bed when it came time. I don't know how he was going to be after the bigger party with all of his friends on Saturday.
The workmen returned on Thursday to finish setting up the dome over the swimming pool. It was a good thing, too. The weather forecast for Chris' birthday party on Saturday was for colder temperatures. The highs were only supposed to be in the upper 50s. That would make it a little to cold to have the party in the pool without the dome.
I met the boys when they got off the school van. After they greeted their dogs and me, they asked if they could go swimming. They knew that the dome was supposed to be installed today.
"Wow! That's neat," Joel said, as he walked out the patio door toward the now covered pool. "How do you get in?"
"Come here guys and I'll show you. See this big zipper? When you want to go in or out, all you do is unzip it and step through. Once you have gone in or out, it's important that you close the zipper. If you don't, it could let the air pressure drop inside the dome and it might start to collapse. TJ, you try it first."
I had each of the boys operate the zipper, then enter the dome and then zip it back up. It took a little while, but all six of them got a chance to try it.
We had swum and played for a little over an hour when I saw Hildy approaching the pool. I got out of the water and went to the opening to show her how to get in and out of the dome. She stepped inside for a moment and looked around before she told us that supper would be ready in about twenty minutes. After she left, I told the boys to come out of the pool. They were having so much fun that it took more than a little persuasion to get them out of the water. Finally, I think the thoughts of supper more than my entreaties persuaded them to get out.
Friday morning, I received a call from Karen Lin. She informed me that the hearing for John was scheduled for two o'clock on Wednesday of next week at the court house in New Braunfels.
"Have you been in contact with his new caseworker?" she asked.
"No, I just assumed that Melinda Cassidy was still his caseworker."
"A new caseworker was assigned at the same time his case was transferred to Comal County. I think I have the name in my file someplace... Yes, here it is. Her name is Betty Borden. I'll get in touch with her to see what's going on. I'll get back to you," she said and hung up the phone.
Jack stopped by just before noon with the results of a couple of investigations that his agency had completed on proposed recipients of the foundations assistance. Both turned out to be free of anything in their background that would keep them from receiving our assistance.
After he went over the reports with Darcie and me, I asked him if he would join me for lunch. There was a new Jewish deli down the street that had opened about a week ago that I was anxious to try. I had heard that their cheese strudel was out of this world. He agreed and we decided to walk the couple of blocks. On the way I asked him if Jack Jr. and Timmy would like to come over Saturday afternoon. I told him that we were celebrating Chris' birthday.
When he started to protest that Jack Jr. was so much older than the kids at the party, I explained that Bran and a boy name Brian would be there and they were almost as old as his son. When I told him how many boys there were going to be there, he responded that I was out of my mind. I couldn't disagree with him on that point. Before lunch was over, he agreed to bring his two sons over on Saturday.
The cheese strudel was excellent. If I had room for it I would have had a second piece.
It was later Friday afternoon when I received another call from Karen Lin. She sounded a little upset when I greeted her.
"Typical CPS screw-up," she said. "John's caseworker didn't even know that she had been assigned his case until I called to talk to her about it. It seems her supervisor had assigned it to her but never told her about it. Then, he went on vacation and the file was locked in his office. Betty had to get his secretary to open his office to retrieve the file. She should be contacting you sometime today to set up a home visit and to talk to John. If a lot of the people working for that organization could be any more incompetent, I don't know how."
After we hung up, I went to ask Darcie if she knew anything about Betty Borden. As it turned out, she did know her. Darcie said that Betty was competent, but not overly bright. She worked hard and tried to do a good job, but sometimes got a little overwhelmed by the workload.
During the afternoon, I fielded several calls from parents of boys coming to the party wanting to know if their sons should still bring their swimwear. I explained to them that the pool was covered, so despite the weather it would be warm in the pool. I also reassured them that there would be two Red Cross certified life guards on duty to watch over their sons.
I was about to leave the office in time to be home when the boys arrived when the phone rang. I almost let it roll over to Darcie, but at the last minute I picked it up.
"Crane, it's Jack. I'm glad I caught you before you left."
"I was almost out the door when you rang. What is it?"
"I just found out through one of my contacts in another agency that you are being investigated. My contact couldn't say why, but it looks like it's a full blown, thorough investigation. I just thought you might want to know. If I find out anything else or who the investigation is being done for, I'll let you know."
"The only thing I can think of for anyone to investigate me is because of John being in my foster care. Thanks for the heads-up. Keep me informed. Gotta run. Goodbye."
I tried to think of why anyone would want to run a background check on me other than CPS. They should have all the records of when I adopted the boys, so they shouldn't need to do anything except update their records. The thoughts quickly left my mind as I approached the gate to our house and the boys' school van was slowing down to stop in front of it. I activated the gate opener as the boys piled out of the van waving goodbye to their two friends still on it.
When they saw the gate open and no dogs waiting for them, they looked around and saw my car. The BMW was not meant to carry seven people, but we managed to squeeze us all in, even if seatbelts were not used. All six of them were talking at once, trying to tell me how their day at school went. All I could do was to nod my head in agreement with whatever was being said, even though I couldn't make out the individual conversations.
I stopped the car in front of the house to let the boys out before I parked it in the garage. I received numerous hugs and kisses as they exited the car. They soon forgot about me as they ran to release their dogs.
By the time I parked the car and gathered up my things from the office, the boys were sitting at the kitchen table enjoying their after school snack of peanut butter cookies and milk. They looked so good that I snatched a couple cookies from the platter as I headed to my bedroom to change.
"The party rental place called this morning," Hildy told me. "They said they would be here to set everything up around ten o'clock. They should take less than an hour to do it all."
"How about the caterer?"
"They confirmed that they'll be here at 2:30 to begin their set-up. I told them that there would be two extra from what the original order was for and they said it would be no problem. I think I counted right," she said. "Eighteen boys and six adults, isn't that right?"
"Yes, that sure sounds like a lot of people. This is the last of the boys' birthdays until next summer. That is, unless John has a birthday in the near future."
"No," Hildy said. "I asked him. His birthday is in April."
"Thank goodness for that."
The boys were especially wound up after supper. I had a difficult time trying to get them to settle down when it came time to tuck them into bed. Chris' enthusiasm had infected them all. Finally about ten o'clock, after I had gone upstairs to try to get Chris and the twins to quiet down and go to sleep for the third time, I decided to take Chris downstairs and put him in my bed. At least that way, he wouldn't bother anyone but me. I didn't want a bunch of crabby boys on my hands tomorrow because of lack of sleep.
Even away from the twins, it took Chris almost another hour before he went to sleep. At that, his sleep was restless. He tossed and turned and even mumbled incoherently in his sleep. I know I got a lot less sleep than he did.
He was still asleep when I got up. I decided to let him sleep as long as he could. It was going to be an exciting day for him and I wanted him to be ready for it. I finished up in the bathroom and went to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee. It wasn't long before Joel and John joined me at the table while I was reading the paper. I got a hug from each before they sat down. Hildy placed a plate of pancakes and sausage in front of them and then filled two glasses with orange juice.
It wasn't long before Larry and Lenny stumbled down the stairs and made their way to the table.
"Where's Chris?" a sleepy Larry asked.
"He's in my bed. He didn't get to sleep until after eleven, so he needs his sleep."
That seemed to satisfy them as they poured maple syrup on their pancakes and began devouring their breakfast.
I was about finished reading the paper when a little body climbed onto my lap. "Good morning, little one. Did you sleep well?"
"Uh huh," he yawned.
"Are you ready for the party this afternoon?"
"Yeah, Chris is really, really excited," TJ said, nodding his head.
The other four were finishing up their breakfasts, so I told them to take their dogs outside for their morning walk. It was chilly outside so I made sure that they put their jackets on before they went out. "Take Bandit and Rusty out with you."
The boys and dogs were just coming back in the house when Chris wandered out of my bedroom and headed for the kitchen.
"Good morning, birthday boy," I said, giving him a hug. "Are you ready for your party?"
His answer was a nod of his head, but his eyes were more expressive.
"Good morning, sleepy head," Hildy said, as she placed his plate of pancakes and sausage in front of him. The plate had a single lighted candle sticking up in the middle of the pancakes.
"Thanks, Hildy," Chris said, as he began to dig into his breakfast, but not before he blew out the candle.
David and his fiancé arrived at 1:30 and began preparing for the party. They had volunteered to plan all the games and entertainment after the swimming part of the party was over.
I don't know how many times Chris asked me what time it was once we had eaten lunch. He nearly wore out the carpet as he made a path from the security monitor to the front windows. Finally, at about ten minutes before two the first car drove up to the front of the house.
I had coached Chris on how to greet his guests and their parents and how to introduce his friends to me. I was proud when his first introduction went off without a hitch.
After he greeted his first friend, he turned to me and said, "Dad, this is Willy Sanders. Willy, this is my dad, Crane Johnson."
Eric and his two boys were the next to arrive. They were greeted enthusiastically by all of the boys.
The introductions were repeated with the five other boys that I didn't know. Chris did a very good job, but I could tell he was glad when it was over and he could start acting like an eleven year-old boy again.
As each of the parents brought their sons to the house, I invited them to come in for a cup of coffee and to make sure that they were comfortable leaving their sons here. Each was informed that the party would break up around 6PM and they could pick up their charges at that time.
Helen was the only one to accept the invitation for the cup of coffee when she brought Roger and Brian. I was happy to see that Roger was walking without the aid of crutches. His walking was not completely normal, but he was able to take the steps at the front of the house with only a little difficulty. I could see a hint of tears form in Helen's eyes as Roger made his way into the house on his own.
Although the sun had come out from behind the clouds, it was still chilly outside. The temperature was probably somewhere in the mid 50s. That didn't stop 15 of the boys from donning there swim suits, wrapping themselves in bath towels and racing to the pool.
Eric volunteered to engage in a game of touch football with Bran, Brian and Jack Jr., while I helped out in the pool with David and Celia. Although the pool is large, by the time 15 active boys and three adults got in it was crowded.
For two hours the boys played games in the pool. They had relay races. They played dodge ball. They had contests to see who could swim the farthest underwater. All in all they had a great time. At least, that's what it sounded like from all the noise that was generated. They were unhappy when we told them it was time to get out of the pool.
I made sure that they dried themselves off completely so they wouldn't get too cold as they made a dash for the house. It took a while for all of them to shower and get dressed again. The football team had long ago given up their game and settled down in the house to play some of the boys' video games.
The caterers had done a great job setting up the refreshments and favors in the upstairs game room. There was even a pinata hanging from the ceiling.
When everyone was dressed and had made their way to the upstairs, I told them all to take a seat at the table. Chris was seated at the end with everyone else finding places along the sides of the long table. A moment later the caterer wheeled out of the elevator, a large rectangular cake with 12 lighted candles arranged in a small area to make blowing them all out easier. As the cake approached, everyone began singing Happy Birthday. When the song finished, I whispered to Chris to make a wish and then to blow out the candles. He closed his eyes for a moment and then taking a big breath blew all the candle flames out to the applause of the rest of the boys.
The cake was quickly cut and served with ice cream to everyone. It was a happy and noisy bunch of boys sitting around that table. The refreshments were quickly devoured and the games began. The first, of course, was the breaking of the pi¤ata. Chris was blindfolded and turned around several times and handed a long stick. The pinata was lowered and Chris attempted to hit and break it with the stick, while everyone laughed and yelled instructions to him.
After a few frustrating moments for Chris, we took pity on him and stopped pulling the pinata up and down and let him hit and break it. As the candy spilled onto the floor, the boys rushed to grab as much as they could. After all the sugar that they had just consumed, I didn't know how they could find room for more.
David and Celia did an excellent job of organizing games to keep the boys occupied until almost six o'clock when the first parents arrived to pick up their son. They were soon followed by a stream of other parents.
Again, I was proud of Chris for the way he thanked his guests for coming and helping him celebrate his birthday. At last, it was just Eric and me and our boys left. The caterers had cleaned up and departed shortly after everyone else had left.
I collapsed on the couch in the family room. Eric sat down beside me. The eight boys were playing upstairs.
"Thanks for your help," I told him.
"I was happy to help out. I think you got the better deal with the kids in the pool. The game of touch football was rough. Those boys played for real," he said, putting his arm around my shoulders and pulling me toward him.
"Can you stay for supper?" I asked, leaning my head on his shoulder.
"I'm afraid that we can't. Darcie is bringing dad by later this evening to stay a couple of days. I'm taking a few days off work so that I can be with him."
"How's he doing?"
"Better, but he's not back to normal by a long shot. I'd better get the boys and start home. I think Darcie said they would be at the house around seven. I'd rather stay here, but..."
We all gathered to say goodbye to Eric and his boys. It was nearly dark and wind had come up making the already cool temperatures feel even colder.
As we walked back into the house, Chris came up to me and pushed under my arm. "Thanks, dad, that was the best day I ever had."
"You're welcome, son. I'm glad that you enjoyed it. You're one of my very special boys. I love you."
Note: CASA of Central Texas, Inc. is a real organization and it's mission is as I described it in the story. If you are a Texas resident and would like to volunteer or support CASA, you can logon to the website of the state organization. www.texascasa.org.
There are organizations in other states similar to CASA in Texas. They are worthy organizations and are deserving of your support.