One day while driving down Normal Blvd. I spotted two Irish Setters weaving in and out of traffic. The poor, frantic dogs were dodging fast-moving cars. Drivers were honking and swerving to avoid a collision with the desperate hounds.
Chad, the 13-year-old kid who was there with me to work on my anti-drug slide presentation, was puzzled as to why I stopped right in the middle of the busy street. “What are you doing?” he shouted as I climbed out of the truck and took off across the street.
Dodging in out of swerving cars, I shouted back, “Doing something, because all of these other fools don’t have sense enough to stop!”
After nearly getting hit myself by said fools, I managed to snag onto the collar of one of the distressed dogs, who willingly allowed me to gently lead him back over to my truck. As I was placing him in the back end of the fiberglass shell, Chad came running up, the female dog in tow.
We grinned at each other as cars went whizzing past us, for we knew we had saved those two dogs from a definite collision with fast-moving motorists.
We drove them to the nearest pay phone where I used the number on one dog’s tags to call the owner. We made contact with the much-relieved owner and drove his Irish Setters home to him.
A happy ending on what could have been a real tragedy.
Chad was quiet all the way home. Just before dropping him off, he said, “I think I need to go out and get into trouble so I can be put on probation.”
A little surprised by such a comment, I asked, “Why in the hell would you say that?”
Chad, with tears in his eyes, said, “So you could work with me like you’ve worked with all these other kids. If I was on probation you would work with me, right?”
Granted, our time shooting the slide presentation was up, and like the other six kids involved in the project, I was dropping him off for our last time meeting together for any more shots. Chad was asking me in his own way to stay involved with his life.
He had a wonderful mom, but an alcoholic step-dad and an older brother who was always getting into trouble, and so he was seeking a way to stop from sinking beneath the waves.
“You know those dogs we saved?” he said as I parked in front of his house to let him out. “You could save me just you did those dogs.”
He had me. And he knew it, too. I looked back at him and said, “How about this? I will continue to see you only until you get into trouble, because the day you get placed on probation, will be the day I walk out of your life.”
Chad never did get placed on probation. And hitting a mail box when I was first teaching him how to drive, was the only kind of trouble he got into. No, for once, I had a good kid to work with. A positive experience after having nearly 50 really bad experiences working with dead-end kids.
We shared many fires together out at Wilderness Park on the southern edge of Lincoln. One of the best and most memorable times was the New Year’s Eve just after it had rained. All the drizzle froze on the branches of the trees and we lit off an entire gross of pop bottle rockets and sent them sailing off the old railroad bridge and out over the frosty, icy trees. It was like magic, as the sizzling red rockets soared over the trees, their bright reflections illuminating their branches in a spectacular way.
Another memorable trip was taking canoe trips down the Platte River and camping out on a sandbar or trolling up into a farmer’s pasture from one of the spillways. We used two car batteries to power the trolling motor attached to the stern, and with dog, sleeping bags, and two coolers, we had that canoe packed to the gills.
One winter night, coming around the bend out near the Fish Hatchery along the Platte we spotted four coyotes crossing the road directly in front of us. They stopped, too, at the top of a small rise, and Chad and I climbed out of the car, watching their breath floating in vapor clouds through the air as they stood there watching us.
Once when taking the canoe down flooded Salt Creek through the 14 miles of Wilderness Park, we saw a hawk perched in a tree directly overhead. As he took flight, he swooped down over us and flew away, leaving behind two mallard ducks calmly paddling along, unaware that the hawk had been stalking them. While the ducks continued on ahead of us, leaving a V formation in the water, a beaver launched himself off the nearby bank and swam directly under the canoe. Around the next bend, three deer sprang up from a nearby sandbar and sprang up the creek bank, disappearing into the woods. The whole trip ended with the sun slowly sinking in the west and a great horned owl drifted over us, and finished out our day with a grand finale as he soared off into dusk settling on the woods.
One winter night, while hiking through Wilderness Park, we went to meet a friend of mine who had built a fort out of tree branches and invited us out to share a fire with him. It was snowing and blowing, and Chad and I were looking forward to a sit-down before my friend’s warm fire. And yet as we came around the bend in the trail, we stopped and froze. There as silent as ghosts, we spotted three white-hooded figures walking down the trail less than sixty feet away. “Elves?” Chad whispered in awe. And I had to agree, these three strange white-hooded figures indeed reminded me of Elves from The Lord of the Rings. We watched them treading silently away and wondered who they were and what they were doing in the middle of a snow storm out at Wilderness. We never did find out.
For nearly two years, every Friday night, Chad and I would get together with three of my friends and one of my friend’s son, and we would play Dungeons and Dragons until the wee hours of the morning. When we would wake late the next day, Chad and I would drive to some new forest to have a fire, drink some tea, and I would tell him some of my stories that later became several of my books.
So, there I was in essence, like saving those dogs that day out there on Normal Blvd., saving a kid. Only this kid would grow up to be someone one day and he would never go through the juvenile justice system nor end up at the end of the line, in YDC at Kearney. No, this kid was different, one might say a once in a lifetime kid to come my way after dealing with so many bad and heartless kids.
I remember, too the night he came of his age in his own way. He had just turned 16 and I had taught him how to drive, landed him a job, and made sure he had insurance. All the things a real dad would have done for him. I moved him back home shortly after this, and I asked both neighbors on either side of him to keep an eye on the drunken step-dad. Both neighbors happened to be Lincoln police officers. But then one night, step-dad flew into a drunken rage and started punching on Chad.
Having put up with four years of this kind of abuse from the guy, Chad finally snapped that night. He ran to his room to avoid a fight, but the raging step-dad broke down his door and invaded his room. Chad snatched up his baseball bat and sent the guy to the hospital with a fractured wrist and a concussion. He never touched Chad or his mom again.
Later, no charges were filed because both police officers claimed Chad had acted in self-defense.
The sad part for me was a bitter-sweet twist of irony. The week he moved back home was the same week my first book, Scratchin’ on the Eight Ball, was published. There I had 5,000 copies of my first book in hand, and yet I was losing such an important person in my life.
Later, I wrote a poem about it.
Fireflies and fairy gems,
beneath a ghostly moon.
Pathways through woodlands,
that ended much too soon.
Lost, but found
And when your wing mended,
I set you free.
So yes there have been many
who passed through my life.
But only one kid,
who showed his true light.
And when the sun sets
at the end of my days.
I will thank God,
that he sent him my way.