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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This story is copyrighted by Ted Louis, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
Joel and Kirk arrived about an hour later. I explained to Kirk that his dad was going to be late and wouldn't be here until around eight before he could pick him up.
"Okay," he said. "I guess he had another meeting. It seems like he has a lot of them recently."
"If he's like me, he would rather be doing anything else than sitting in a boring meeting," I said.
"Yeah, I guess," Kirk said.
"Come on, Kirk," Joel said. "I'll show you our dogs."
"Dogs? You mean you have more than one?"
"Yeah, we have a whole kennel full. Six."
"Wow, I wish I could have a dog, but my mom is allergic to dogs. What kind do you have?" Kirk asked as they headed out of the house.
I couldn't hear Joel's response to the question. If someone asked me that, I'd have to say that they were all mixed breed since they all came from the animal rescue center. They certainly were not pure breeds.
"How did hitting the golf balls go?" I asked Joel at the dinner table.
"Pretty good," he answered. "There was a new assistant pro there today. He was hitting balls next to us and watching Kirk and me hit. I didn't know who he was until he introduced himself to us. His name is Dave Proudfoot. Anyway, he made a couple of suggestions on the way I took the club back. I tried it and it helped control the slice I've been hitting a lot recently."
"He showed me a couple of things, too," Kirk said. "I'm going to ask dad if I can take a few lessons from him. I think he's really good."
"I may go see him as well," I said. "I haven't played in a while and probably need help with my swing."
After supper, the boys went off to do their homework. I offered Kirk the use of my desk in the library and he accepted.
It was a few minutes after eight when the gate buzzer sounded. I activated the gate opener and went to the front door to greet Kirk's dad. "Mr. Peterson, welcome to our home," I said. "Your son is doing his homework in the library. Won't you come in?"
"Thanks, call me Jake," he said. "Did my son behave himself?"
"No problems at all. Could I offer you something to drink? Coffee? Ice tea? Wine?"
"Thanks, I'll pass," he said. "I drank enough coffee in that meeting to float a battleship. If it hadn't been with one of my best clients, I would have scheduled it for a different time. I hate working this late. It makes for a long day. If you'll show me where my son is, we'll be on our way."
"Right here," I said, pointing to the door to the library.
"Kirk, gather up your stuff," Jake said. "We need to get on home."
"Hi, dad," Kirk said, greeting his dad. "I just finished all my homework and was starting to check it over. I can do that when we get home."
Kirk gathered up all his papers and placed them in his backpack before coming around the desk and giving his dad a one-armed hug.
"Crane, thanks for the imposition of having another kid here to feed," Jake said. "If there's any way that I can repay the favor, please let me know."
"With eight kids and three adults, another mouth to feed is hardly noticed," I said. "He's welcome anytime."
"Hey, Kirk, are you leaving?" Joel asked, coming down the stairs.
"Yeah, gotta go," he said. "When are you going to hit balls again?"
"I thought I would go Thursday after school, if the weather is decent. You want to go, too."
"Sure," Kirk said, looking at his dad who nodded his head.
"I'll make sure I don't have another meeting that will delay me picking you up, son," Jake said, rubbing his knuckles on his son's head.
"He seems like a nice boy," I said to Joel as Kirk and his dad drove down the driveway.
"Yeah, he is, but he's an only child and he gets lonely sometimes," Joel said. "He said he envied me having brothers. I told him most of the time it was nice, but then other times ..."
"You wouldn't give them up for anything," I told him, draping my arm over his shoulder.
"Nah, I guess not."
"Dad, can you check my homework?" TJ asked, as Joel and I reentered the house.
"Sure thing," I said. That started the string of homework that I checked that evening.
When I returned from taking the kids to school Tuesday morning, Gilda handed me a note. It was a message to call Blanton Septic. I poured myself a cup of coffee and went into the library to return the call. Ralph Blanton answered the phone. I identified myself and inquired as to the reason for the call. Ralph explained that he wanted to visit the property to determine where the best place to put the new system was and asked if I could meet him there later this morning. His morning had been freed up due to another visit he was scheduled for cancelled. I told him I would meet him at the ranch in an hour and he agreed. As soon as I hung up the phone, I placed a call to Rosie to let her know that we would be coming.
I was getting ready to leave for the ranch when Manfred walked in. "Crane, what's going on? We don't see a lot of each other now that the baby is taking up most of our time."
"I'm headed for the ranch," I said. "You want to ride along?"
"Sure, let me call Hildy and let her know," he said. He joined me shortly in the Town Car. "What's the occasion going to the ranch in the middle of the week?"
"I've got to meet Ralph Blanton to decide where the new septic system will be located."
"I knew a Lt. Ralph Blanton when I was in the Air Force in Germany. I wonder if it's the same guy," Manfred said.
"You'll have to ask him when we get there. He sounded like a young man over the phone. Maybe you knew his dad," I said.
We arrived at the ranch early. Rosie saw us drive in and came out to greet us. "I just brewed a pot of coffee. Would you like to come in and join me?" she asked.
"Thanks," I said. "I haven't had my usual number of cups this morning."
"And I never turn down coffee," Manfred added.
We sat drinking our coffee and talking until I heard a car driving in the driveway. "That must be the septic man," I said, getting up from the table and heading for the door.
Manfred and I shook hands with Ralph Blanton and then began walking around the property. Ralph asked several questions about where the temporary housing was to be located and where the new house was to be built. I pointed out a small rise that I said the new house would sit on and another spot where I suggested that the temporary housing would occupy. "Where's the well?" he asked.
"It's located in that small building over there," I said.
"Good, that's far enough away from this spot," he said. "I would suggest that the design should allow for expansion of the household. Based on your description of the house that's to be built, I think the system should accommodate up to eight occupants of the house. I know that's oversized, but it's better to be too big than too small. It pays off in the long run and it's not all that more expensive than a smaller system."
"I think that's wise," I said.
"Good, I'll come up with the design and get it approved by the county," Ralph said.
"Now that the business is taken care of," Manfred said, "I have a question."
"What's that?" Ralph asked.
"Was your father in the Air Force?"
"Yes, he was. He spent most of his four years in Germany. He was an intercept director. That's a fancy name for a guy that sits behind a radar scope and controls fighter aircraft."
"Ask him if he remembers a Captain Strasser. I spent a few months at a radar station near Bitburg on a TDY and knew a Lt. Ralph Blanton. We spent many a night in a Gasthaus drinking the local beer."
"My dad has reminisced about his stint in Germany and all the beer that he drank while he was there. I'll ask him this evening. My wife and I are going to my folk's house for dinner."
Business concluded, we headed back to our house.
"Whatever happened to those guys who wrecked your condo and were making drugs?" I asked Manfred on the way home.
"Their lawyer has been delaying things, but the trial is set to begin a week from Monday," Manfred replied. "I got the place cleaned up and rented to a nice couple. They moved in about a month ago."
"I hope you don't have any problems this time," I said. "I never heard, were you able to identify one of the hooligans as one of the guys who put you in the hospital?"
"I'm convinced that one of them is, but neither Hildy nor I could make a positive identification, as much as we wanted to."
We chatted all the rest of the way home. Most of his comments were about Brittanie. He did love that baby. I could foresee a lot of heartaches when they had to give her up.
After dropping Manfred off at their house, I spent the rest of the day, up until time to pick up the kids, making phone calls and checking on my investments.
I arrived at the school a few minutes before Peter and William were let out. I talked to a few parents who were also there to pick up their kids. It wasn't long before our two youngest boys came bounding out of the school. They were talking and laughing with some of their friends. When they saw me, they waved goodbye to their friends and ran to me and gave me hugs.
"How was your day?" I asked.
"We had a test and I got a hundred," Peter proudly exclaimed.
"That's wonderful," I said. "I'm proud of you. What kind of test was it?"
"Spelling," Peter said. "I had to spell 25 words and I got them all right."
"Spelling is very important," I said, giving him another hug.
"I got to play the triangle," William said. "The music teacher said I did it right."
"Good for you," I said. "I'm sure that your dad will be proud of you."
TJ was the next to arrive, followed closely by the twins and some of their friends. I was a little surprised that Chris was not with them until I noticed him talking earnestly with a very attractive girl that I did not recognize. It wasn't the girl who had invited him to the birthday party. I would have to ask him about her when I got him alone. Joel was the last to exit the school. He and Kirk were talking with another member of the golf team, whose name I could not remember. When Jeannie and Jenny saw Joel approaching the van, they quickly said goodbye to their friends and rushed to climb into the van. With everybody settled and with their seatbelts fastened, we headed for home.
Donald and Lenore had beaten us home and she was having her afternoon snack as we walked into the breakfast area. This caused the boys to dash upstairs to change out of their school uniforms. I'm sure they didn't think that there wouldn't be any snack left for them if they didn't hurry.
It was not until I was checking Chris' homework that I got a chance to talk to him alone. "Who was that girl you were talking to after school?"
"Aaah ..." he said, blushing a deep shade of red. "Her name is Susan. She just transferred beginning the second semester."
"She's very pretty," I said. "Is she in some of your classes?"
"No, she's a grade behind me," he said. "Her mom and dad own a bunch of fast food places all over Texas. They just moved here before Thanksgiving. She's the same age as me. She had to stay out a year of school because she was sick. I think it was cancer."
"She appears to be healthy now," I said.
"I hope so. I like her a lot."
"I hope so, too," I said.
Donald and I settled down with a glass of wine for a little alone time before heading off to bed.
After taking the kids to school the next morning, I received a phone call from Jeremy Collins. At first the name did not register with me until he introduced himself.
"Mr. Johnson, my name is Jeremy Collins. My uncle asked me to call you. He said your son will be starting at Rice in the fall and that you might have a place that I could rent."
"Jeremy, I wasn't expecting your call for another week or so. Forgive me for not knowing who you were. My friend Donald Baker and your uncle talked at a friend's house a while ago. Yes, my son, Joel will be starting at Rice in August. I have purchased a two bedroom townhouse where he will be living and I was looking for someone suitable to live with him. Would it be possible to meet with you sometime today or tomorrow? We could meet for lunch."
"Today would work for me," Jeremy said.
"Fine, do you have a car?"
"Yes, I do," Jeremy said. "Could we meet somewhere on the Riverwalk? It's been a while since I've been there."
"How about Bella's at noon?" I asked.
"Great, I've never eaten there, but I know it by reputation. I'll see you there," he said and hung up the phone.
It's hard to judge a person just by hearing their voice over the phone, but I had a good feeling about him.
Shortly before noon, I parked the car and walked the two blocks to Bella's. As I approached the restaurant, I saw a tall, good-looking airman in uniform, standing on the steps leading into the establishment. As I approached, I also noticed the chevron of a Staff Sergeant on his sleeve.
"You must be Jeremy Collins," I said, stretching out my hand to him. His handshake was firm.
"Yes, and you must be Crane Johnson."
"Shall we go in? I have a reservation for noon," I said.
We were seated at a table where we could look out over the Riverwalk. "This is nice," Jeremy said.
"Your dad told my friend, Donald, that you were wounded in Afghanistan. May I ask what you were doing there? I thought all the fighting was in Iraq."
"Yeah, funny thing, I spent 18 month in Iraq and came through without a scratch," Jeremy said. "I was assigned to the embassy in Kabul and got shot at while riding in an embassy car carrying the Air Force Liaison Officer. We were on our way to a meeting with the head of the Afghani Air Force. They caught the guy who shot me. He was a member of a radical Islamic group with a hatred of all things American. I don't know what happened to him after I was shipped out to Germany, but I would bet they let him go. That place is a cesspool."
"How is the wound healing?" I asked.
"Oh, it's fine," he said. "I'll have a nice scar, but the wound wasn't all that serious. Painful because the bullet bounced off one of my ribs and it hurt like hell for a couple of weeks. I still get a twinge every now and again, especially doing any upper-body exercises."
"Sorry to hear that. When will you be discharged from the Air Force?"
"My enlistment is up at the end of April. After that I'm going to take a trip to Colorado to visit a buddy I went through basic training with. He was also in the same unit with me in Iraq. He lost his left leg below the knee to an IED two weeks before his tour was up."
"What are you going to study at Rice?"
"Right now my plans are to study Electrical Engineering," he said. "What's Joel going to study?"
"His interests are in Math and Computer Science," I said. "He plans to take a double major."
While we were talking, our waitress had taken our order and it was now brought to our table. The conversation slowed while we began eating our meal.
"What are your interests outside of the Air force?"
"Well, I didn't have much time for anything while I was in the Middle East. I enjoy running. I was a cross-country runner in high school and was on the tennis team. I also enjoy playing an occasional round of golf. I try to keep fit and use the gym whenever I can. Indoors, I'm an avid reader of mystery novels."
"What about prejudices? Blacks? Jews? Women? Latinos? Gays?"
"Can't say that I do. I had many Mexican-American friends growing up in San Antonio," he said. "Definitely no prejudice against women, if I were, my girlfriend would kick my butt. Can't say that I know a lot of Jews, so I've never been put in a position to develop a prejudice. My mother brought me up to respect everyone. The friend I'm going to see in Colorado is black and I have a suspicion that he is also gay."
"Does that make a difference to the way you feel about him?" I asked.
"No, he's a great guy. It's not my thing, but he's still my friend."
"Thanks for your honesty. I need to tell you that my son is gay," I said. "If I thought your living with him would make him uncomfortable in any way, I wouldn't consider the possibility of your living there."
"I don't think there would be any problem," Jeremy said.
"Do you have any obligations this weekend or next?"
"No, my weekends are free. My folks are out of town so I planned to stay on base and catch up on some reading."
"I'd like to invite you to spend the weekend with us to see if you and Joel are compatible. If you're available, you could come Friday evening around six and stay until Sunday. If you like to ride horses, Sunday is our usual day to ride and we have plenty of horses."
"That sounds great," he said. "I haven't ridden a horse since I joined the Air Force."
"If it's warm, bring your swim suit. We have a heated pool and the boys jump in quite often after they get home from school. We have plenty of tennis rackets and I'm sure that once the boys know that you play, you will be challenged to a set or two. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention there are seven boys and one girl in our household. You don't need to worry, there are plenty of extra bedrooms that you can use."
"Wow, dad didn't tell me you had a house full of kids. I'll bet there's never a dull moment around your place. That's a lot different than growing up in our house with just my older sister and me."
"No, there isn't, but they're very well behaved," I said. Our waitress brought the bill and I gave her my credit card. She returned shortly and I signed the slip. We got up from the table and left the restaurant. "I'm looking forward to seeing you on Friday. Bring your appetite. Our cook dearly loves to feed our guests."
"Not to worry," Jeremy said. "My mother always said my stomach was a bottomless pit. Thanks for the lunch. I'll see you around six on Friday."
We parted. I headed for my car and he said he was going to take a stroll along the Riverwalk.
Friday afternoon, I picked up the kids from school as usual. "Boys, remember we have a guest who will be staying with us this weekend. Try not to scare him away." That was met with derisive laughter from all of them. "Seriously, Jeremy is visiting to see if he and Joel will be compatible living together when Joel goes off to college at Rice."
"What do you think, dad?" Joel asked.
"I want you to make up your own mind. Get to know him, as much as you can in two days, and we'll compare impressions on Sunday after he's gone back to the base."
"What about us?" Larry asked. "What are we supposed to do?"
"Well," I said, "you might challenge him to a tennis match. He played on the tennis team in high school."
"Is he any good?" Chris asked.
"You'll just have to wait and see," I said. "The weather is supposed to be nice. Don't take up all of his time. I want Joel to have some time to get to know him."
"Joel should have plenty of time with him," Lenny snickered. "It won't take us long to beat him at tennis."
He was probably right, but I didn't want to acknowledge it. I dropped the girls off at their house and drove the short distance to ours. "Guys, when you change your clothes, make sure you put your school uniforms in the laundry basket. Gilda said you were getting short of clean ones. And then go take care of your dogs," I hollered after them.
I could tell that Joel was getting nervous the closer it came to six o'clock. "What if he doesn't like me?" he asked.
"Then he won't be a good roommate," I said. "Look on the bright side. He may be the perfect person to share the townhouse with."
Shortly before six, the gate buzzer sounded. When I looked at the gate video, I saw a fairly new Toyota Corolla. I could see that it was Jeremy and I activated the gate motor to let him through. The rest of the boys must have heard the buzzer, because we were joined by the six of them. It made for quite a welcoming committee. I hoped that he would not be intimidated by the group.
Jeremy stepped out of his car and came around the rear. I reached out my hand and he shook it. Starting with Joel, I introduced the rest of the boys. Each one shook his hand in turn. "I hope you don't expect me to remember all of your names right off," he said. "I'll get you all sorted out before the evening is over."
"Grab your things and I'll have Joel show you where you can stow them. Son, I think the downstairs guest bedroom will be the best choice."
"Sure thing, dad," Joel said. "Jeremy, follow me and I'll show you the way."
A few minutes later, they rejoined us in the living room. "What was it like being in a war zone?" I heard Joel ask.
"Lots of boredom interspersed with moments of pure terror when mortars landed nearby. My job was to man our radio equipment and to fix it if something went wrong, so most of my time was spent either in a building or in a tent. A building was better, they're harder to blow up," Jeremy chuckled.
"How come you weren't in a building all the time?" Joel asked.
"Whenever the command center was moved, my buddy and I were responsible for tearing down and setting up the radio equipment. When we got to a new area, there wasn't always a building available immediately, so we set up temporarily in tents. It was so hot in the tents in the summer that we had fans blowing on the equipment trying to keep it cool. It was over 110 degrees many times. It was a nightmare trying to keep all the radios working around the clock," Jeremy said. "For about the first six months it was just my buddy and me taking care of it all. One of us was in the radio room/tent as all times. We slept on a cot whenever we could. The night shift was the best in the summer, because the desert cools down at night. It was a relief from the blistering heat of the days."
"Forgive my lack of manners," I said. "This is Donald Baker and his daughter, Lenore. You met his son William with the other boys earlier." He shook hands with Donald and told Lenore how pretty she was.
"Mr. Baker, I think we met several years ago," Jeremy said. "I think I was either a sophomore or junior in high school."
"You're right. Your dad and I had some business to discuss," Donald said. "As I recall, after we met you had to run off for some school activity."
"More than likely," Jeremy said. "I was into a lot of activities back then."
"Would you care for something to drink?" I asked. "We have coffee, iced tea, and there's wine if you like."
"I'm not much of a drinker," he said. "I'll take some tea, thank you."
"Sweet or unsweet?" (While this may sound strange to those not of the Southern persuasion, this is how it would be asked, not "sweetened or unsweetened".)
"A true Southerner, I see," I said. "I never learned to drink mine sweet."
"I don't know why, but I have to have sugar in my tea," Jeremy said. "I guess that was the way it was in our house."
"Joel, would you take Jeremy to the kitchen and get him some tea and introduce him to Gilda, if you haven't done so."
"She reminds me a lot of my grandmother, my mom's mother," Jeremy said, returning with his glass of tea. "My grandmother talks to herself, also."
"Dad, Gilda said that supper would be ready in about twenty minutes," Joel said. "I'm going to round up some help to set the table."
"Make sure that you all wash your hands first," I said.
"Can I help?" Jeremy asked.
"If you want to," Joel said. "Follow me and I'll show you some more of the house while I hunt down the twins and Chris."