Thursday morning, before the boys were up, I called the concierge to ask if there was a park nearby where we could have a picnic. He said that the larger parks around would probably be crowded with people celebrating the Fourth, but he knew of a small one in an area on the north side of the city that would probably be less crowded. I told him we would like to have a lunch packed for ten people. I assumed that Dirk would be joining us. We would also need a van to take us there. He assured me that everything would be taken care of.
It wasn't long before Joel woke up and wandered into the kitchen area where I was reading the paper and drinking my morning coffee. He gave me a hug before going to the refrigerator to retrieve the orange juice.
"When you finish your juice, please go wake your brothers so we can go to breakfast."
"Okay, dad, what are we going to do today?"
"I thought we would have a picnic. Do you think your brothers will like that?"
"Yeah, do we have a soccer ball so we can play?"
"That's a good idea. If the hotel doesn't have one available, we can stop at a sporting goods store and get one on the way."
Joel went to start waking his brothers and I called the front desk to see if they had any sporting equipment that they would lend. They did, but they didn't have a soccer ball. They were able to tell me where the nearest sporting goods store was that would be open today.
It wasn't long before six freshly scrubbed boys were waiting anxiously for us to go downstairs for breakfast. They didn't have to wait very long before Marie and Ricky arrived. After he was greeted by all of the boys, we started for the elevator.
The breakfast buffet was excellent as usual. They seemed to add different items to the fare every morning. Today they had added Belgian waffles. The supply didn't last long after the boys saw them. I think to Joel, waffles had a special meaning. It was the first food that he had in our house when he first came to be with me.
"These waffles are different than the ones Hildy fixes," TJ said, as he stuffed another large bite into his mouth. "These are good, too."
Dirk arrived and joined us about the time the boys were ready to go back for seconds. It would be more appropriate to say he joined Marie. Although he greeted everyone at the table, his focus was on her and Ricky.
When I was able to get Dirk's attention away from Marie, I asked him if he would like to join us on our picnic. That got the attention of the boys. I hadn't told anyone but Joel what our plans were for the day. Before Dirk could answer, I was bombarded with questions from my other sons. I took time to explain to them what the plans were, including the trip back to Disney World tonight for the parade and fireworks. When the questioning subsided, I saw Dirk looking at me, laughing and shaking his head.
"Of course, I would love to join you. Is there anything I need to bring?" he asked.
"No, I have everything arranged. All we need to do is stop at a store and pick up a soccer ball."
"Let me get that. I can always take it home and give it to my Little Brother."
"Mr. Johnson?" a bellhop asked as he approached.
"Yes, I'm Crane Johnson."
"Sir, you have an urgent telephone call. If you will follow me please."
I hurriedly signed the check and started to follow the bellhop. "Marie, will you see that the boys get back to the room? I'll be up as soon as I find out what's going on."
Marie nodded and I took off after the bellhop. He led me to a phone booth in the hallway and informed me that the operator could connect the call here.
After telling the operator who I was she connected the call.
"This is Crane Johnson," I said, answering the phone.
"Crane, it's Eric. I have some bad news for you."
"What? What happened?"
"We had a severe storm last night with lots of lightning. Your house was struck by the lightning."
"Was there much damage?"
"Yes, in fact the house was almost totally destroyed."
"Oh, my God, didn't my alarm company call the fire department to get there in time to put it out?"
"That's another problem. The storm had earlier struck a major phone trunk line and service was out. It's still out this morning in parts of the area north of the lake. I'm calling on my cell phone. Your monitoring service never got the alarm."
"How about the dogs? Are they all right?"
"Yes, I was there earlier to feed them. That's when I saw what had happened to the house. The dogs were pretty scared, but they didn't suffer any physical damage. I'm sure that they would be better if the boys were here to soothe them."
"I'm glad they're all right. Is there anything left of the house to salvage?"
"When the fire department finally arrived, after they were notified by one of your neighbors passing by and seeing the flames, they were able to save part of the garages. The Land Rover appears to be totaled and the BMW will need a new paint job because it is singed pretty badly. The rest of the house is a complete loss."
"Well, I suppose I had better call my insurance agent and get the ball rolling. The next thing is to find a place for all of us to live while we rebuild."
"If you want, I can call him for you. Your agent is Ernest Boyd, right?"
"Yes, he is. That would help. I doubt that you'll be able to get a hold of him on a holiday, but you could probably leave him a message. We aren't scheduled to fly home until Saturday, but under the circumstances, I think I'll try to get a flight out tomorrow. I'll let you know what our plans are. Does Bran know how to get in touch with Manfred?"
"I think Manfred gave him the phone number at Hildy's sister. I had forgotten about them. I'll have Bran call and let them know what has happened."
"Thanks, I miss you."
"I miss you, too. Tell JR to behave."
I chuckled, said goodbye and hung up the phone. On the way back to the room, I decided not to tell the boys the bad news until tonight. I didn't want to spoil their day.
"Hi, dad," Joel said, as I walked into the room. "That con-see whatever, called. He said the food was ready and the van was in front of the hotel ready to go."
"Great, thanks. Is everybody ready?"
"Yeah, I told them to go to the bathroom before we left."
"Good thinking. I need to make a phone call and we'll be ready to go." I went into my bedroom, called the concierge and asked him if he could get nine first class tickets to San Antonio tomorrow. I told him if he couldn't, to see if there were a charter service available. I gave him my cell phone number and asked him to call when he had some news.
I returned to the outer room where the boys were waiting on me. Marie and Ricky had joined them.
"Well, it looks like we're all ready," I said. "Except for Dirk, that is."
"He said he would meet us at the front desk," Marie offered.
Dirk was actually helping to arrange the three large coolers on top of the van and making sure that they were secured when we arrived downstairs. The van driver introduced herself to me as Amanda Castillo. She said she had been given directions to the park and that everything was ready anytime we wanted to leave.
Shopping at the sporting goods store was a memorable experience. Seven boys, each wanting to look at something different, were hard to keep in sight. What started out as a simple stop to purchase a soccer ball turned into a shopping spree that lasted nearly a half an hour. Ricky found a multi-colored ball about half the size of a soccer ball that he grabbed onto and wouldn't let go. Over Marie's protests that he had plenty balls at home, I bought it for him. In addition to Ricky's ball and the soccer ball that we had come for, we left the store with a baseball bat and ball, three baseball gloves and caps for everyone.
When we arrived at the park, it was nearly deserted. I found out later that the subdivision where the park was located was holding a Fourth of July parade. That's where all the people were. The park was located in what I would describe as a lower middle income neighborhood. The homes were well kept, but modest in size. We found a couple of picnic tables and pulled them together into one long table. Dirk and I retrieved the coolers from the top of the van and set them next to the table.
Amanda started to leave and asked when we wanted to be picked up to be taken back to the hotel. I told her if she didn't have anything she had to do, she was welcome to stay and share our picnic. At first she hesitated, but then accepted the invitation.
"Marie, Amanda, if you will get the plastic tablecloth and other utensils out of that bag and get the table prepared, Dirk and I will go supervise the boys," I said. "Maybe we can prevent them from injuring themselves."
There was a fairly large open area that was a good spot to hold the soccer match, such as it was. Chris and the twins made up one team. Joel, JR and TJ made up the other. Ricky was busy playing with his ball near where his mother and Amanda were. The match was just getting started when my cell phone rang. Dirk continued refereeing the match while I stepped away to take the call.
"Hello, this is Crane Johnson."
"Mr. Johnson, this is the hotel concierge. I'm sorry to report that there are not enough first class seats available tomorrow on any airline with flights serving San Antonio. The good news is that Sunderland Air Charter does have a plane available tomorrow that can carry you and your entourage. Would you like for me to arrange that for you or would you prefer to handle that yourself?"
"Thank you for all your help, but I think I would prefer to make those arrangements myself. Do you have the telephone number for the charter service?"
He gave me the number and as soon as we hung up I dialed it. The woman who answered the phone was very efficient. She explained that the available aircraft, a two year-old Gulfstream, carried twelve passengers and had a crew of three. We discussed details for our departure and after the financials were handled we hung up.
I went back to the rag-tag game of soccer. I think Dirk was having as much fun as the boys were having. There were a lot of giggles and shrieks of joy as the ball was kicked every way except towards the goals. It wasn't long before a couple of boys who appeared to be about the twins' age asked if they could join. I didn't get their names, but they certainly fit in well with our troupe.
"Dad, I'm thirsty," TJ said after about 20 minutes of play.
"Time out, guys!" I shouted. "Time out!" When I got everybody's attention, I asked them if they wanted something to drink. They all agreed that they were thirsty, including the two new boys. What the heck, I'm sure that the hotel packed enough soft drinks to go around. Of course, the soft drinks weren't the only things consumed. When the boys saw the potato chips, they were quickly opened and shared.
The boys went back to their soccer and I decided to call the second apartment complex that I had purchased to see if there were any apartments available that would accommodate us. I also wanted someplace for Hildy and Manfred. I reached Barry Manson, the apartment manager and identified myself.
"Barry, do you have any three bedroom apartments vacant? My family and I will need temporary living space for up to a year."
"Yes, Mr. Johnson, there is a large three bedroom unit that became available at the first of the month. It has not been cleaned and ready for occupancy as yet. When will you need it?"
"Tomorrow, if at all possible."
"Hmm, that could be a problem. I'm not sure that I can get the carpets cleaned and the rest of the place thoroughly cleaned by then. Let me see what I can do."
"I'll also need a two bedroom unit for my housekeeper and her husband. If you have one that is close to the other unit, it would work out best."
"There is one available on the floor above in the same building as the three bedroom unit. It is ready for move in. Your unit is on the ground floor."
"Thanks, Barry, do what you can. If the carpets can't be cleaned before we move in, I don't think it will be a big deal, unless the previous occupants were awfully dirty."
"No, they were a very nice family. They were only renting until their house was built. It's just that we have always had a policy that the carpets had to be cleaned before new tenants moved in."
"I'll call you tomorrow when our flight gets in to see how things are coming along."
That was taken care of, but furnishings for the apartment was another matter. I'll deal with that when we get home tomorrow.
After a while, Ricky looked up from playing with his ball and noticed the boys kicking the soccer ball. Not to be outdone he started kicking his. It was funny watching him try to kick the ball with his peg leg. When that didn't work, he tried kicking it by standing on the peg and kicking it with his real foot. The ball went farther this way, but he usually ended up in the dust on the seat of his pants giggling so hard he could barely get up. Amanda was having fun watching Ricky and chasing the ball when he was successful.
There must be a sixth sense among boys when it comes to food. As soon as Marie and Amanda started laying out the spread that the hotel had prepared for us, they immediately stopped the soccer game and came running.
"Can Calvin and Phil eat with us?" Chris asked.
I was taken aback by the question, but answered, "If it's all right with their parents. I think we have enough food." I looked at the two boys, "Do you live close to the park?"
"Yes, sir," one of the boys answered. "He lives in that house over there and I live next to him around the corner."
"Go ask your mom or dad if it's all right for you to eat with us, and then hurry back if they say it's okay." They had taken off almost before I finished my sentence.
I ushered the boys over to a water fountain and attempted to have them wash some of the dirt and dust off their hands. It didn't make them sanitary, but at least the visible dirt was washed off. I wet a couple of the paper towels to take back to Marie so she could clean up Ricky. Calvin and Phil were back before we had finished and they joined in the hand washing.
Marie and Amanda had the sandwiches and the cold fried chicken set out as well as all the trimmings by the time we got back to the picnic tables. Ricky didn't enjoy the wash up that Marie gave him, but suffered through it before Joel picked him up and put him down on the bench beside him.
It looked as if there were enough food to feed an army, but it rapidly disappeared until there was nothing left. That's when Marie opened one of the coolers and removed two large trays. One contained chocolate frosted brownies and the other an assortment of peanut butter and oatmeal raisin cookies. I managed to grab a brownie before they were all gone. I also managed to keep my hand from being mistaken for one of the treats and eaten.
When the food was gone, I suggested that the boys not go back to the soccer game until their lunch settled. I did relent and allow them to play baseball. Calvin and Phil said they had gloves at home and started to go after them. Before they did, they approached me and very politely thanked me for the lunch. I was impressed by their manners.
While the boys played ball, the adults cleaned up the remains from the lunch. The park was beginning to get more crowded as the day wore on. One family approached and asked if they could have one of the picnic tables since we were finished with it. We agreed and I helped the man move it to where they were setting up for their picnic. Marie, Dirk, Amanda and I sat at the other table, talked and watched the boys play ball. As time had gone on, more boys joined the game. Ricky had curled up on Marie's lap and was taking a nap holding his ball.
At about four o'clock, I called to the boys and told them it was time to leave. They protested that they were having too much fun. "Okay, fifteen more minutes and then we have to leave otherwise we won't get to Disney World in time for the parade and fireworks." That seemed to satisfy them, at least for the moment.
At the end of the fifteen minutes they grudgingly stopped playing and started to round up their equipment. I saw that if they took the bat and ball the game would come to a halt. I suggested to my sons that they leave them for the others to play with. I was proud of them when they surrendered their gloves to the other boys as well. Most of the other boys who had joined the game had been borrowing the gloves when my sons were not using them.
Bidding their new friends goodbye, we all climbed into the van and took off for the hotel. As we were on our way, I told everyone that we were going to have a family meeting when we got back to the room. I told Dirk he didn't need to attend, but I wanted Marie there. That brought on a barrage of questions about the meeting, but I said I would answer them all in the meeting.
Unloading at the hotel, I asked Amanda if she would be available tomorrow morning around nine o'clock. She said that she would have to check what the schedule was and that she would call and let me know as soon as she knew.
When we got to the room, I suggested that everyone hit the showers and put on clean clothes. The boys' clothes were dirty and grass stained from playing soccer and baseball. I asked Marie to join us in half an hour. I checked the refrigerator for soft drinks and juice and saw that it had been restocked. I was sure that the boys would be thirsty. I was right.
As soon as Marie and a freshly scrubbed Ricky arrived and got something to drink, I began to deliver the bad news about the house.
"Last night our house was struck by lightning."
"Oh, wow!" one of the twins said.
"The really bad part is that the house caught fire and burned almost to the ground. From what Eric told me this morning, the only part of the house not completely burned was a portion of the garage."
"What about Samson?" Joel asked anxiously.
"All the dogs are fine. Eric said they were a little frightened, but okay. He went over to feed them this morning. The dog run is far enough from the house that it and their dog houses were not damaged."
"Where're we gonna live?" Joel asked.
"Until a new house is built, we will live in an apartment. Plans might change, but for the time being that's where we'll live."
"Can Bandit come live with us in the apartment?" TJ asked.
"I'm sorry, son, but the apartment doesn't allow pets. I tell you what, though; we'll go visit your pets every day if we can. We have to make sure they have food and water. Besides, I'm sure that they have missed you."
"What about me?" Marie asked.
"Nothing has changed. I still want you to come just as you have been doing. When we get home, I want you to take a week off with pay. You more than deserve it after putting up with us all this week."
"Thank you, this week has been wonderful for both Ricky and myself. I could never have afforded to give him this vacation. I appreciate the time off. I need to get everything set up for my classes. I do know that Ricky is going to miss the boys next week."
"Now, the next thing I need to tell you is that we will be leaving tomorrow morning instead of Saturday," I said. "I know that means we won't be able to visit Epcot Center like we planned. Maybe we can do that some other time. I think we need to get back home, check on the dogs and get our living arrangements finalized. Are there any questions?"
I think they were all too stunned to ask anything, so I asked a simpler question. "Do you want to eat here at the hotel or when we get to Disney World?"
"Can we get pizza?" JR asked.
From the nodding of all the heads, that seemed to be the unanimous choice. I checked the list of food places at the Magic Kingdom and didn't find any place that served pizza. I knew that one of the restaurants here in the hotel specialized in Italian-American food, including pizza. That made the decision for us as to where to eat. I called and made reservations for the nine of us for a half an hour from now. Before I hung up, I remembered that Dirk would probably join us, so I changed the reservation to ten people.
The pizza was great, much better than I had expected. The boys seemed to enjoy it. There wasn't anything but a few pieces of crust left by the time we finished. We had just enough time for us to wash the pizza sauce off our hands and faces before catching the bus to the park.
Although the boys had seen the parade of lighted floats before, it still was a spectacular sight. The fireworks display afterwards was even more spectacular since it was the Fourth of July. It seemed to go on forever. Ricky, after the initial shock of the first loud boom, loved the display. He jumped around trying to get a better view until Dirk picked him up and sat him on his shoulders. He was in heaven. I thought sure that Ricky would bounce off Dirk's shoulders, but he didn't. His giggles were infectious. We were all a little bit saddened when the display was over.
We walked back to the parking lot to meet the bus to take us back to the hotel. Ricky was still riding on Dirk's shoulders. I thought I was beginning to see a real bond developing between Dirk and Ricky. I hoped that Dirk's relationship with Marie was not just a vacation fling. I would definitely hate to see her hurt.
When we returned to the hotel, I had a message saying that Amanda was not going to be able to take us to our plane in the morning. I waited until we got back to the room before I call the concierge to have him schedule our transportation. I reminded him that we would need either an extra van or a trailer to haul our luggage.
Before going to bed, I made sure that the boys' luggage was packed except for their toothbrushes and the clothes they would wear tomorrow. We would need to have breakfast and check out early if we were going to meet our transportation a nine o'clock.
The next morning when we got to the Executive Airport, I noticed the boys were a little nervous as we approached the business jet. "Look, guys," I said, stopping them before we got to the plane. "What happened the last time we flew in a small jet was a freak occurrence. There is nothing to worry about. Everything is going to be fine. You'll see."
Marie looked at me strangely. When I noticed, I told her I would explain later. Despite the boys' nervousness, they climbed onboard and took seats. The plane was very nicely equipped with large leather covered seats. As soon as all our luggage was stowed in the hold, the pilot started the engines. Our steward came around and made sure all seatbelts were fastened. A few minutes later we were racing down the runway.
As we leveled off at our flight altitude, the steward came around and took our drink orders. He also set out a tray of cheeses, crackers and some Danish. I told the boys they could unfasten their seatbelts and get out of their seats. They made a beeline to the snacks.
I explained to Marie that the last time the boys had flown in a small jet we had to make an emergency landing. That was the reason for the boys' nervousness about boarding the plane.
"Oh, dear, how dreadful, I'm glad you didn't tell me before we got on. I'd have been a nervous wreck," she said.
The flight went very smoothly. We had good flying weather all the way back to San Antonio with hardly any turbulence to speak of. The boys were seemingly over their nervousness, especially after the steward brought out a platter of sandwiches for our lunch.
Three hours and twenty-five minutes after takeoff, we were on final approach to San Antonio International Airport. The landing, thankfully, was as smooth as the rest of the flight. I could tell the boys drew sighs of relief as the plane rolled to a stop.
We dropped Marie and Ricky off at their apartment before the rest of us made the trip that I dreaded to our house, or at least what was left of it. When we arrived the gate was open and looked as if it had been forced open. I guess the firefighters had to force it to get onto the property. I was nearly in tears as we drove up the driveway to the burned out ruins of our home. As we neared the house, I could hear the dogs barking. They must have sensed that we were coming.
As soon as we stopped and the boys were out of the van, they ran to where their pets were. It was a heartwarming sight as each one hugged his pet. I walked around the remains of the house that my parents had purchased so many years ago. It didn't look as if there was anything that could be salvaged. The one thing I regretted the most losing was the picture of the boys that they gave me on my birthday the first year they were with me. Everything else could be replaced, things could be replaced. How do you replace a cherished memory?