I thought handling five boys was a chore, but eight of them was something else. They were all upstairs when Eric and I returned to the house. You could hear their laughing and chattering all over. Hildy just smiled and shook her head as we went up the stairs to join the boys.
Joel and TJ were sitting on the couch cheering Chris and Bran as they battled each other in a table tennis match. I was surprised that Chris was able to hold his own against his much older opponent.
"Hey, you're supposed to let me win," Bran said. "I'm older than you."
"Right!" Chris said as he started giggling so hard that he was unable to return Bran's serve.
Larry and JR were matched up against Lenny and Benny in a boisterous game of foosball. They were laughing and shouting encouragement to each other and rooting against their opponents.
It was a noisy bunch of boys, but the important thing was that they were enjoying each other and having the time of their lives. I was beginning to wonder if we would be able to calm them down enough for them to get to sleep sometime this evening. The fun continued until around eight o'clock when Hildy came upstairs to see how the boys were doing.
As soon as she arrived, the boys took it as a sign that a snack was not far off. They were right.
"Is anyone ready for a snack?" she asked with a broad grin on her face.
This was followed by a thunderous chorus of "YEAH!"
"Crane, Eric I need your help to get things ready," Hildy said as she turned and led the troops down the stairs. "Everybody wash your hands and then find a place at the kitchen table."
It was a good thing that the house had multiple bathrooms or there would have been some crushed boys. Fortunately they paired up and headed off to get washed up. Eric and I followed Hildy into the kitchen where she made us wash our hands in the kitchen sink. After we were suitably clean Hildy gave us our instructions on what she wanted us to do to prepare the snack quickly. She had filled eight bowls with vanilla ice cream and placed them in the freezer before she had come upstairs. Our job was to top each bowl with hot fudge sauce, chopped pecans and whipped cream. She had set up an assembly line so that everything could be done quickly.
By the time the boys had returned displaying their freshly scrubbed hands to Hildy, we had set out the bowls and were beginning the assembly line process. It took us less than a minute to complete our job with Hildy doing the honors of placing the bowls in front of the boys and escaping with all of her fingers intact. I think the hot fudge sundaes were gone before the fudge had a chance to cool.
When the dishes were rinsed and placed in the dishwasher, Hildy stopped Bran. "Bran, you have really changed since I first saw you a month ago. I haven't heard you use a single swear word all the time you've been here. I'm proud of you," she said giving him a hug.
"My foster mom doesn't like me to talk that way," he said shyly before running off with the other boys.
"Mom says he is a changed young man. His whole attitude has turned around. He's happy and very protective of Benny. They are almost inseparable. He helps Benny deal with his separation from Tony," Eric said.
"It looks like Benny is doing well also. His hair is growing back nicely. I hope Joel's comes back soon. At least I hope he has some before school starts," I said.
Hildy went to her apartment and Eric and I went to check on the boys.
"Where are they all going to sleep?" Eric asked.
"Well, I hadn't given it too much thought. We have six beds that I'm sure can hold them all. I suppose we ought to ask them what they want to do," I said.
When we did ask they were a little surprised. They hadn't given it any thought either until JR piped up, "Can we camp out like we did last time?"
"Oh, you mean sleep in the three beds up here? But it might be a little crowded for the eight of you. The last time there were only six of you," I said.
"Yeah, but if we shoved them all together they would be big enough," Chris answered.
"Okay, Eric and I will shove the beds together while some of you start getting your showers taken. I think you will have to shower in shifts. I don't think there is enough hot water for all of you to shower at the same time."
As the boys hurried off to start getting ready for bed Eric hollered to JR, "Don't forget to brush your teeth."
"That goes for the rest of you, too." I added.
We finished getting the bedroom rearranged about the time the first group of boys emerged smelling clean and dressed for bed. Chris asked if they could watch a video before they went to bed and I agreed. Joel was tired so he climbed into the triple queen size bed. He could still see the TV if he wanted to watch. Soon the rest of the freshly scrubbed boys made their appearance.
Chris selected "Abbott & Costello Meet the Keystone Cops" and popped it into the VCR. I have always been a fan of the duo and have a fairly large collection of their films. This was one of my favorites. Absolutely no redeeming social value but hysterically funny slapstick comedy.
Eric and I watched for a while with the boys before he said it was time for him to get back to his house. He figured his folks would be wondering where he was. He said goodbye to all of the boys.
I walked him out to his car. Saying that I would see him at work tomorrow, we embraced for a moment before he got in his car and drove away. I watched his car all the way to the gate leaving the property.
When I went back in to check on the boys I could tell that they were beginning to get sleepy. Benny's eyes were closed and only popped open when the others laughed at some of the antics on the screen and then quickly closed. I went over to him, picked him up and laid him down on the bed.
"I'll take care of him," Bran said and lay down beside him.
The tape only lasted a few more minutes so it wasn't long before all of the boys had crawled in bed. They arranged themselves in informal pairs, Joel and TJ, Bran and Benny, Larry and Lenny and the final pairing of Chris and JR. The bed was full of sleepy but happy boys.
It had been a while since I had to get up to an alarm and it startled me when it went off. Grudgingly I got up and started getting ready to go to work. Hildy was already up preparing breakfast when I entered the kitchen for my morning cup of coffee.
"Do you think we have enough food in the house to feed them all?" I asked pouring myself a cup of coffee.
"It's going to be touch and go," she said laughing. "I'm scrambling two dozen eggs and fixing a couple pounds of hash brown potatoes and bacon. If it takes more than one loaf of bread for toast I'm in trouble. Maybe I should fix a couple tubes of biscuits and put out some jam."
"Do you gotta go to work today, daddy?" TJ asked as he squeezed under my arm and onto my lap.
"Yes, little one," I said giving him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Daddy has a business to run for a couple more weeks then I'll be home almost all the time. How come you are up so early? Breakfast is not even ready yet."
"I didn't want you to leave before I got to see you," he said snuggling into my chest.
"How would you like a glass of orange juice while daddy finishes his coffee?"
The warmth of his little body against my chest filled my soul with an overwhelming sense of joy that brought tears to my eyes. I don't know what I would do if these boys were not in my life. They make me whole.
When I finished my coffee I suggested that we go wake his brothers and guests as Hildy almost had breakfast ready. He threw his arms around my neck and I carried him up the stairs to the mass bed. Samson met us at the top of the steps. I didn't realize that he had spent the night up here with the boys. He had made himself scarce with all the noise that the boys were making earlier last evening. He must have joined them after they all went to bed.
Samson helped rouse the boys by jumping up on the bed and barking. He also licked Joel's ear causing him to giggle before he rolled out of bed soon followed by the others.
"Go wash your hands. Hildy will have breakfast ready by the time you get to the table," I said. That started them off in a hurry.
I went to talk with Hildy while the boys were washing up. I wanted to know if she was going to be okay with all the boys here since they were staying until this afternoon.
"Well, I'm going to have to go grocery shopping before lunch. Five boys eat a lot but eight eat an awful lot more. I'm sure with both Mary Jane and Becky Sue here today we won't have any problems. They will probably be outside most of the day swimming or playing ball or something," Hildy said.
As the boys arrived in the kitchen I gave them each a hug before I left for the office. I hadn't gone far down the road from the house when I passed Mary Jane and Becky Sue heading for the house.
It was almost strange being in the office again. Carol was not at her desk when I opened the door to my office. What was waiting for me was a mountain of paperwork. I decided that before I could face it I needed to get a cup of coffee. On the way to the break room where the coffee pot was located I met Carol coming out.
"Good morning Crane. Welcome back. How's Joel?" she asked.
"He's doing fine, but still a little weak. I see you have my day planned out with all that paper on my desk. Thanks a lot," I said. "When Foster comes in I think we need to meet and bring me up to speed on the projects."
"Okay, I'll tell him. Most of that paper is for your information only. The small pile on the right side of your desk is the one that needs your signature or approval."
I grabbed my coffee and started wading through the papers that required my attention. When Foster arrived we spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon going over the status of each project. He had several recommendations on moving people between projects to better utilize talents and to move projects along that were lagging behind their schedules. We didn't even take time out for a lunch break. Instead we had sandwiches delivered from the deli down the street.
I did finish all the important paperwork that Carol had laid out for me and still had time to call Dr. Adams to see if he would talk to all five of the boys about our airplane incident. He agreed saying that it would be helpful in Joel's treatment as well. After the call I said to heck with it and left the office for home.
I saw the Land Rover in front of the house as I drove up the lane. Alan and Ethel were probably here to pick up their boys.
"Hi daddy," TJ said around a mouthful of chocolate cake.
All eight of the boys were sitting around the kitchen table enjoying their afternoon snack of chocolate cake and a glass of milk. Alan and Ethel were sitting on the stools pulled up to the breakfast bar drinking cups of coffee. Alan was looking with envy at the cake that the boys were eating but he knew his wife would object if he asked for some.
I greeted the Levins and sat down beside them. "How are the wedding plans coming along?"
"Fine, I guess," Ethel said. "I'm glad that we only have one daughter. I don't think I could stand going through this more than once. I'm glad that it is only a small wedding."
"Yeah, small in size but not in cost," Eric added.
"Oh hush, you know you would do anything for your daughter," she said emphasizing your.
"It doesn't look like I will have that problem. I know I'm a glutton for punishment taking on these five boys but adding a girl to the mix is definitely not in the cards," I laughed.
By this time the boys had finished their snack and Mary Jane and Becky Sue joined us from the family room. After my boys put their plates in the dishwasher they came and gave me a hug and kiss before running outside to play.
"Don't go too far," Ethel said to her boys. "We will be leaving in a few minutes."
"Okay, gram," Benny said as he disappeared out the patio door.
It wasn't long before our guest left much to the regret of all the boys. Joel appeared to have over taxed himself. It was even more apparent after supper. I was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when he sat down beside me and leaned up against my shoulder. I wrapped my arm around him and kissed the top of his head.
"Am I ever going to get well, dad? I get so tired. I can't do anything," he sobbed quietly.
"Yes, son, you're going to get well. It's just going to take time. You've only been out of the hospital a few days. I know it's hard for you to understand. Every day you are going to get stronger. Soon you will be able to play with your brothers just like you used to."
"I don't want to be sick. Why did I have to get sick?"
"Joel..." I said my voice cracking. "If there were any way that I could have been the one who got sick instead of you, I would have without giving it a second thought. You have been through more in your short life than anyone should endure in a life time. I wish I had some magic that would make your leukemia go away as if it had never happened. Unfortunately I don't. All I can do is love you with all my heart and do my best to protect you."
"I know, dad. Sometimes I get so sad."
"That's understandable, son. Whenever you feel that way I want you to promise me that you will come talk to me or if I'm not here talk to Hildy."
"I promise," he mumbled.
We sat there cuddling for maybe twenty more minutes before the other boys joined us. It was a squeeze but all six of us ended up on the couch. My newspaper was long forgotten.
On Tuesday I only spent a half a day at the office. The twins and Chris had little league practice in the afternoon. I had not told the twins that I would be coaching their team. They didn't even tumble to it when I put on my coaching clothes.
Joel decided to stay at home and read. I thought it was a good idea. I didn't want him to over exert again today. TJ was torn between staying home with Joel or going to practice with the other boys, going to practice with us won out. On the way to the practice field we stopped and filled the cooler with sodas and ice. We also picked up enough cookies to satisfy the Cookie Monster on "Sesame Street."
Chris' team practiced first as they did last time. I chatted with Coach Leonard for a little while before practice started. When TJ and the twins weren't playing catch or cheering Chris, they were shagging foul balls. TJ especially like running after the balls fouled off to the right side of the field where we were watching.
Practice only lasted an hour today for Chris since his team had a game scheduled for Friday as did the twins' team. Thank goodness they weren't scheduled to play each other's team. When his practice was over, I told him to invite his teammates to have some of the sodas and cookies that we had brought. That was certainly a big hit.
Peter Hammond showed up with his son about fifteen minutes before our team was to begin practice. The rest of the team straggled in until most of them had arrived. None of them looked to enthusiastic about being here. I told the twins to go round up their team and bring them to the dugout. They looked at me funny, but did what I asked.
When everyone had gathered around I said, "Hi guys, let me introduce myself. My name is Crane Johnson and I'm going to be your new coach. Peter Hammond here is going to be helping me."
"Really dad?" the twins said in unison. "Cool!"
"But... but where is Mr. Latimer?" one of the boys asked.
"He isn't able to coach anymore. Now I know we have a game to play on Friday, so we have a lot of work to do. The first thing I need to do is find out what all of your names are," I said and began going up to each one of the boys and shaking their hands as they told me their names. Peter did the same.
We had a much happier practice. No one was brought to tears but there was a lot of laughing and we practiced the fundamentals over and over until everyone was tired. The hour seemed to fly by. We could have used more time. Every coach wants more time to practice. It would not have done much good because the boys were showing their fatigue. They were ready for the sodas and cookies when we ended practice.
As everyone was finishing up their snack Ronnie, one of the older boys, came up to Peter and I and said, "I'm sure glad you all are coaching now. I was going to tell Coach Latimer that I was going to quit playing. I didn't like the way he treated us. He always made Harry cry before practice was over. He wanted to quit, but his dad wouldn't let him. Now he doesn't want to quit. Neither do I."
"Thank you, Ronnie. This is a game we are playing and games are supposed to be fun. Too many adults forget that," I said patting him on the back.
It was supper time when we got back home. We just had time to change our clothes and get washed up before Hildy had the food on the table. Everyone had to tell Joel all about practice and the twins had to tell him that I was their new coach.
After I got the boys in bed I took a look at my schedule for the rest of the week and found it to be rather full. TJ was scheduled for his T-ball practice on Wednesday; the appointment with Dr. Adams was on Thursday; Chris and the twins had ball games on Friday; Darcie and Mel's wedding was on Saturday and finally TJ had a T-ball game on Sunday afternoon.
I guess I had better get used to having a full schedule with five active boys and Joel was not even able to be involved this summer. It looks like I'm turning into a stereotypical 'soccer dad'. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Wednesday I finally got through all the paperwork that was piled on my desk. I even had time to take Foster and Carol to lunch to thank them for all the hard work that they had done in my nearly month long absence. I left the office around 2:30 so that I could be home in time to take TJ to his practice. When I got home I found Chris, Larry and Lenny in the back yard with TJ working on his hitting the ball off the tee. I watched for a few minutes from the patio door before I went out to interrupt them. Actually, TJ was hitting the ball quite well and he even ran to the right base after he hit it. I chuckled at remembering his coach say that was a problem with some of the kids.
Chris decided to stay home with Joel and play video games, but Larry and Lenny wanted to go to TJ's practice. I think one of the reasons was the sodas and cookies that we were going to take.
"Let's go, dad," TJ said grabbing his helmet. "I got my cup on."
"That's good," I said chuckling.
Practice went very well. TJ even caught two fly balls when he was in the outfield. He missed a few too, but that didn't matter to him. All he could talk about were the ones he caught. He even had to tell Hildy all about them when we got home. She gave him a big hug and told him how proud she was of him.
I hadn't told the boys about their appointment with Dr. Adams tomorrow so after supper I called them together to tell them what was going to happen.
"You guys know that Joel goes to see Dr. Adams about every month. Well, tomorrow he wants to talk to all of you when Joel goes. Joel can tell you what happens when he sees Dr. Adams, but all he wants to do is to talk to you. No needles or medicines," I said. "He's not that kind of a doctor."
They took the news without batting an eye. I guess after being around doctors all the time while Joel was in the hospital it just seemed natural that they would go see another one. It never ceased to amaze me how resilient and adaptable these wonderful boys were.
Regardless, I was a little nervous when we got to Dr. Adams' office on Thursday. Dr. Adams greeted Joel and then turned to the others and asked each of them their name. He made them feel very much at ease. I was anything but as he escorted them into his therapy room.
It was a very long forty-five minutes that I spent in the waiting room looking through magazines and at my watch. A couple of time I thought that I heard laughter coming from the room, but I wasn't sure if it was just my imagination.
Finally, the door opened and the boys came streaming out followed by Dr. Adams. TJ ran to me and started telling me all about what they had talked about in the session. "Whoa, little one, you can tell me all about it on the way home. Right now, Dr. Adams wants to talk to me. You guys behave yourselves."
Dr. Adams closed the door behind us before he said, "Mr. Johnson, those are five very remarkable young men."
"I know. I am very proud of them."
"Although each of them expresses fear at what happened on the airplane, no one seemed to have any lasting trauma from it. In fact, they seem to find some humor in the situation. I don't believe that they will have any problems as a result. However, if any of them should show signs of unnatural fear or have recurring nightmares I would like to know about it so we could deal with it quickly. I doubt that will be the case. They seem to draw on a collective strength. One thing they know for certain is that they are loved and are secure with you," he said.
"They are loved, that's for sure," I replied.
"Keep doing what you are doing with them and I don't think they will have any problems."
"Thanks, doctor," I said as I left his office.
"I'm hungry, dad," TJ said wrapping his arms around my waist.
"You're always hungry," I said.
"Yeah, I know," he giggled.
"Well, then I suppose we ought to stop at the Dairy Queen."
"Yeah," he said dragging me toward the door.
Everyone decided to have a Blizzard. Two had Oreo cookie, two had toffee and on had chocolate chip cookie dough Blizzards. I had a small cone.
When we got home there was still time to play before Hildy would have supper ready so after we all changed our clothes I took the boys outside to practice. Three of them had games tomorrow afternoon so I took a bat and hit them some fly balls. TJ wanted to play too so I hit him some soft ones. After a while, I gave them some batting practice. They seemed to be doing pretty well.
After supper, I called Eric's house to see if the boys would like to go to the games tomorrow. I thought I might give Eric's parents a break. He thought it would be a good idea and offered to have Mary Jane bring them to the ballpark. I gave him the time and directions for her to follow to get there if she didn't know where it was. I also told him that I would bring them back to our house for supper. I would grill some hamburgers and we could eat out on the patio. I invited him to come by also. He accepted.
Hildy left to go to her church meeting and I suspect to see Manfred. I was happy for her finding someone her own age to be with. I just hoped, like the boys, that she didn't leave us. She was such an important part of the family.
When I got home from work on Friday, Chris and the twins were dressed in their uniforms and ready to go to the ballpark. I quickly changed and we headed out. Joel decided to come with us today so I loaded a folding lounge chair so that he would have something comfortable to sit in to watch the games. Samson started to put up a fuss being left behind. I saw the look in the boys' eyes which meant we couldn't leave him so I got his leash and he jumped into the van and we were on our way. I told Becky Sue to take the rest of the afternoon off before we left.
We had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. Chris' team won their game by one run, 10 to 9. My team was not as lucky. We lost 8 to 4 but everyone tried their best and I was satisfied that the team had the potential to win some games before the season was over. Each of the twins had two RBI's so their day was not a complete loss.
Mary Jane had arrived with her boys just before Chris' game started. They were enthusiastically greeted everyone. I hadn't told the boys that they were going to come to the game or that they would be going home with us.
Joel tolerated our outing much better than I expected. He did spend most of his time in the lounge chair but did walk around some when Samson got restless. Samson was not the happiest camper being on the leash. He rarely had to wear it. He had free run of the house and yard since our property was completely fenced. He did enjoy the attention that he got from all of the boys that came over to pet him.
It's a good thing the van would seat nine. It was loaded down with eight boys, Samson and me. When we got home I told the boys about our trip to Fredericksburg tomorrow to attend Darcie's wedding. I told them that they would have to wear their best clothes.
"Where's Freddyberg?" TJ asked.
"Fredericksburg is a town about seventy miles away. That means we will have to leave just before noon so we can be there in time for the wedding at two o'clock," I said. "Okay now, run change your clothes."
I was getting the fire going in the grill when Eric arrived. JR was playing soccer with the other boys in the side yard. When he saw his dad he ran to him and gave him a hug which was followed by seven more from the other boys and one more from me.
Hildy came out and started setting up everything for our picnic. "Crane, I hope that you don't mind but I invited Manfred to come tonight."
"No, of course not, he's welcome anytime. You're part of this family too," I said.
The fire in the grill was just about right to begin the burgers when Manfred arrived. I hadn't noticed his arrival until he came out of the house with Hildy carrying a tray with twenty-four burgers ready for the grill. Hildy was carrying three packages of buns which she added to the table that was already loaded down with all kinds of condiments. She had fixed potato salad, baked beans, carrot and celery sticks, radishes, chips, and salsa.
As soon as the first batch of burgers hit the grill there were eight boys crowding around looking as if they were starving. Hildy quickly shooed them away to get cleaned up for supper. The burgers were not quite done when the boys returned.
I went to the table to grab a soda when I heard TJ ask Manfred, "Are you gonna marry Hildy?"
"Why do you ask that?" Manfred asked a little stunned.
"Because I don't want Hildy to leave me," he said. "I don't want you to marry Hildy."
"There is one thing I know, TJ, and that is Hildy would never leave you no matter what. She loves you way too much," he said.
I didn't hear any more of the conversation because I had to get back to the burgers. I didn't want them to burn with eight hungry boys waiting on them. It wasn't long before the meal was ready and the boys made short work of filling their plates to overflowing. I was so full by the time I had finished eating the main part of the meal that I couldn't eat any of the cherry cobbler that Hildy had fixed. That didn't stop the boys, however.
Despite their pleas that their friends spend the night again, Eric insisted that his charges go home with him to sleep. A round of hugs for all later they left for home and I sent my sons to get their showers taken and get ready for bed. We had a long day ahead of us tomorrow.