Category Archives: WhatIf-Family

Jeffrey Is Not Normal

Aug 31, 2059

Mt Baker Kids Camp

 

“Come on campers, were almost there. Just a couple more turns and we will be at the river. What’s that Cynthia, Jeffrey is not in line again? OK, everyone stop and point your flash lights straight ahead and wait right here until I find …., never mind I see him.”

“JEFFREY!!!, over here, keep coming toward my voice. There you go. So why did you wander off this time? I thought we agreed you were going to stay in line with all the other kids? Oh I see, a Northern Leopard Frog, well sure you just had to take a look. Well you know what, we are almost to the campsite. Do you think we can all stay together for just a little while longer? Cool.”

“Sorry Jameel, my old ears don’t work so well anymore, can you speak up? Ah, now I heard you. Well Jameel, as soon as we get to the fire pit I will show you why we are going to the one farthest from the cabins so late at night. There it is now, just around the corner. Ok everyone, gather around. Come on now let’s get in a circle.  That’s it. Now let’s all hold hands and turn off our flashlights. Oh don’t worry Cynthia, just hold the hand of the girl next to you and you will be safe. That’s it. Ok, turn all the lights off. There we are, see everyone is safe with each other. Is everyone ok? Good, good.”

“Now I want everyone to look up. Come on, everyone look up and look all around. What do you see? That’s right Elisabeth, the stars are everywhere. Have you ever seen so many stars? I didn’t think so. Does anybody know why not? Come on now, someone take a guess. That’s right Jeffrey, the lights from the city hide the stars because they are brighter. Very good. Now everyone, just sit still and listen. ….  What do you hear?”

“Brian says he hears the river, that’s good. Anyone else? Angela says she hears crickets, ok. Jeffrey hears an owl, what’s that, oh sorry, a Northern Spotted Owl. Very good, anything else. No Donny, you don’t hear a vampire. Do you want to know what I hear? I hear all the things that I can’t hear sitting in the cabins, and I see all the things I can’t see in the camp. Isn’t that cool?”

“So what do you say we get a fire going and roast us up some marshmallows?

“Good job boys that fire is really roaring. Did everyone remember to bring the marshmallow sticks we handed out? Well you know what Jeffry, I just happen to have brought along a spare, just for you. All right everyone, let’s get those gooey goobers in the fire and tell each other some stories about ourselves. What do you say Pam, tell us all a little about yourself. Come on don’t be shy. Let’s start with how old you are. Eight, that’s a great age. What do you like best about going to camp? The other kids, that’s very nice.  … Jeffrey your marshmallow is on fire again, and your stick, and your left shoe. Ok everyone stop laughing.”

“What’s up boy, you seem to be distracted, what’s on your mind? Oh, you built a new derailleur for your bike and it’s not working the way it should, wow that’s impressive. You are still riding an old fashioned bike where you have to peddle to get around on. Very cool. Sorry, what’s that Michael? Oh, you want to know how old I am. Hmm, well how about I answer you with clue and a riddle? First the clue, I am the oldest counselor ever allowed at the camp. And now the riddle, if you add up each of the numbers in my age, they will be equal to the count of digits in my age.”

“Anyone have a guess? Anyone besides Jeffrey have a guess? No, Donny, not 80. If I was 80, the sum of the numbers would be 8, so the number of digits would be 8 and I would be like 10 million years old. Do I look 10 million? Watch it! Any other guesses? No Donny, not 81. Any other guesses, no Donny not 82. Ok, Jeffrey, how old am I. Yep, I turned 102 just a few days ago. Ok everyone, put your eyes back in your heads. I don’t look a day over 99 and you know it.”

“Hey girls, what are you giggling about? Criminy, Jeffrey, now your right shoe is on fire. Back up son. I’ll tell you what, why don’t you sit by me for a while before you immolate yourself. Now what’s everyone laughing about? Come on, spill the beans, what’s so funny? Jeffrey? What’s so funny about Jeffry? What do you mean Jeffrey’s not normal? Do you all think it’s important to be normal? Really. Hmm, I’ll tell you what, everyone scooch on in close and I’ll tell you all a story about my son. It just so happens that his name is also Jeffrey.”

“A long, long time ago, when my Jeffrey was just about your age, we would go goofy golfing. Do you all know what goofy golfing is? Yea, ok. So everyone imagine the sight. We pick up our putters and go to the first hole. We stand there at the place called the tee where you would hit your balls (stop snickering Donny), and right there smack in the middle of the course was a small French house? How silly is that? Well now to get your ball into the hole, you have to hit it all the way around the houses driveway, down some wiggly bit, and then all the way around the backside of the house to get to the hole. Well, my Jeffrey looks at this odd situation and decides that the shortest path to the hole would be best. Of course that meant hitting the ball high in the air and bouncing it off of the roof of that little house. Jeffrey determined that if it was done just right, the ball would go straight into the hole. Well, it took him four trips back to the girl at the counter for another ball before he got it just right, but eventually the ball bounced off of the roof, up in the air, and dropped straight into the hole.”

“So here’s the question. If the goal of golf is to get the ball into the hole in the shortest amount of shots, but the “normal” way takes more shots, which path to the hole was best? What do you think? Anyone? I see you are all starting to think now.”

“Well how about this. Elisabeth, you seem to be good friends with Cynthia. Would you still be her best friend if she colored her hair red? I thought so. How about if she cut her hair all off and was bald, would you still be her best friend? That’s right, looks don’t really matter to real friends do they.”

“In fact, let me tell you what my boy did to his hair when he was young. For a while, the “normal” kids all decided they wanted to look like old Chinese men. So they each took a cereal bowl out of the cupboard and went to the barber. They put the bowl up on their heads and told the barber to shave off everything not covered up by the bowl. Man that was quite a sight. If it was dark and you could not see their eyes, you couldn’t tell if the boys were coming towards you or going away. My Jefferey’s head looked like a little ripe cantaloupe with a tiny mop on top. And they all called that normal.”

“Another time, Jeffrey decided that no barber could cut his hair the way he liked, so he went out and bought his own electric clippers and just cut it himself. By the time he was done, all his hair was gone. His head looked like a dented cue ball wearing glasses. He certainly did not look normal anymore. But take a guess how much less I loved him because of it? Exactly right Jameel. His looks didn’t matter to me at all. Both when he tried to be like the other kids and look normal, and when he tried to be unique, I loved him just the same. And you know what else, all his friends were still his friends either way. So what do you think, is it really important to look like everyone else and be normal? Oh I see a lot of heads nodding and brains working now. That’s good.”

“Let me tell you another story about ….  Oops, hang on my phone is ringing. Hello, this is Counselor Billy. Yes, we are still down by the river. Oh, well ok, we will start heading back soon. Yes I know I always say that, but we will start packing up soon. Really.”

“Well where was I, oh yea, Jeffrey and sports. Which sports do all the normal kids play these days in school? Oh, soccer is still popular, baseball and softball too. I see. Do any of you play a sport that only few others play? No-one. Hmmm. What do you think about the kids that play tennis? Come on Donny, tell the truth, what do you think about kids who play tennis?  You say you think they are stuck up, geeks, and loners. Would you try to be friends with them? I see a lot of shaking heads.”

“Well you know what, when my Jeffrey was a boy he decided he would be a wrestler. Have you ever seen a wrestling match? Ok a couple of you have. Well Jeffrey joined the wrestling team at school and they gave him this tight little suit to wear that made him look like a naked dolphin. But despite never wrestling before, and looking like a sea mammal, he would go to practice every day after school and he worked really hard to get stronger and learn the wresting techniques. And you know what, after a while, he got pretty good. And you know what else, I was super proud of him. Who knows why? That’s right Michael, because he tried his best and stuck with it. Do you guys think I would have been more proud of him if he had picked a “normal” sport? You got it Denise, it’s not what you do, it is how you do it. Yes Donny, even tennis.”

“He guys, someone better poke that fire, the flames are starting to get low. How’s everyone’s marshmallow’s doing? No more huh, Ok let’s put the rest in the bag and save them for later. Oops, hang on, there goes my phone again. Hi there, Counselor Billy. Oh yea we are packing up now, no worries, we will be there soon. Oh I know we can’t have kids out past 10 PM that would upset the balance of the universe. No of course I am not being sarcastic, we will be back soon.”

“On the way out here some of you asked why we were going to the farthest fire pit from the camp, remember. Well let me ask you all a question. What’s more satisfying, climbing a small hill or a big one? Jameel says a big one, do you agree? Yes I think so too. The bigger the challenge the bigger the reward. You know, back in the day, there were none of the electro-gyro-fusion bicycles you all have now. In fact, in the old days, if the bikes stopped moving they just fell over. And the only way they would move was to peddle them with your feet. So to get somewhere on a bike was hard work. Well my Jeffrey decided one day to go for a bike ride. But not just any ride. No he wanted a real adventure. So one day he took off peddling that bike and he didn’t come home until he had gone three thousand miles. Well no Donny, that’s not the same distance as it is to the moon, but it is really far. Who can guess why Jeffrey went so far. Good answer Denise, because the farther you go the bigger the reward. It was the very challenge of the ride and of NOT being normal that made it very special.”

“Well guys we will have to go soon. But first tell me one more thing about Jeffrey that makes you think he is not normal? Come on speak up. How about you Donny. You always have something to say. I see, you think Jeffrey is a smarty pants. And being a smarty pants is not cool. Hmm, some things never change.”

“Let me ask you guys something, what’s your favorite game? The new Apple 3D laser hologram system. Yea that is a pretty cool game. I played that with my great grand-kids the other day. Man they smoked me with that game. Do you know who makes that game? No Angela, I don’t mean Apple, I mean who the person is that designed the game. Well it was designed by a lady named April, and guess what? She is only 24 years old. Do you guys think she is a smarty pants? Yea I’ll bet she is too. You have to be very smart to create things. Do you think she was teased when she was your age, and maybe she didn’t have many friends because she was smart? What would have happened if she just wanted to be normal so much that she didn’t try hard to get even smarter? What if she had not followed her heart? That’s right, you would not have that cool game to play with. That would have been a bummer. Who knows, maybe Jeffrey here will invent the next new cool game that your kids will play with someday. How cool would that be?”

“That reminds me of another story about my Jeffrey. When he was young, he had friends that were smart, and he had friends that were not so smart. And just like now, many of the kids back in those days thought being smart was not cool. And there was a lot of peer pressure on him to be like the “normal” kids. Reading is for geeks, and learning stuff is a waste of time, come on dude just have fun. Have any of you heard that? Yea I thought so. Well my Jeffrey heard all that too, but you know what? He listened to his own heart and he realized that what’s normal was what was normal for him. And so he decided to live up to his own standards and not those of others. That’s called growing up.”

“Let me ask you, when your friends pass a test in school, are you happy for them? Oh yea – why? Come on, think about it. If being smart is so bad, why are you happy when your friend passes a test? That’s right Jameel, did everyone hear that? Jameel says it’s because you’re happy when your friend is successful. Very good answer Jameel.”

“The people that care about you are happy when you do well. When my Jeffrey was a boy, he continued to read and learn and he became very smart. Way smarter than this old man, that’s for sure. Then one day he went off to college where he took very hard classes and got even smarter still. And you know what? The day I took him off to college I bawled like a baby all the way back home. That’s right I did. I was so proud of him because he had worked so hard to become smart, and because he had grown up into such a good man I just couldn’t help myself. And you know what else, I’ll just bet every one of your parents cried after they dropped you off here at camp. Sure it’s because they will miss you, but it’s also because they know that bringing you here will make you smarter and that you will experience new things. You see, even more than your friends, your parents want you to become smart and learn new things and grow up to be fine men and women. Being smart IS COOL.  Trust me on that.”

“Oh Elisabeth, speak up dear. Ok, well Elisabeth wants to know what happened to my Jeffrey after he grew up. Well who wants to hear what unbelievable thing happened to him right after his 30th birthday?  I see everyone’s hand is up. Ok then – this is the best story off all. Everyone gather in even tighter, the fires almost out and this story will send a chill down your spine.”

“Well, the day started out just like any other day …. Oh Oh, there goes my phone again. Hello, this is Counselor Billy. Oh, hi Darleen, how are … what’s that, I promised to be back an hour ago, well I never …, Ok, Ok. Yes, I get the point, all the other kids blah, blah, blah. I mean you bet we will be back ASAP. No really, were on our way. Yes Mein Captain, were on the trail now.”

“Well kids, unfortunately we have to go back now. I know, I know, I was just getting started too, but the lady that runs the camp says the rules say that all the kids have to be back in the cabins by 10. Apparently it’s just not normal for kids to be out at the river past ten. But you know what, we’ll all come back tomorrow and I’ll finish the story. Donny, dump the rest of the water on the fire. Has everyone got their flashlights turned on? Let’s take a vote, who should we have lead us back down the trail? All right, it sounds like it’s unanimous, Jeffrey lead the way.”

A Warrior’s Son

  The release papers were waiting on Jim’s desk when he returned at 15:30 hours from what would be his last patrol in Kandahar. Every soldier knows that one day that same letter will show up on their desk, but not a single one will talk about it. Jim heard often about how anticipating that day would keep your focus away from the job at hand. Everyone in that dusty hell-hole had heard the stories of the soldiers that were within days of receiving that letter but never went home. Jim was very determined to not be one of them.

  Jim had first arrived at this camp almost exactly thirteen months ago as a young, wide-eyed soldier eager to step out from behind his dad’s shadow. While growing up he had heard all the stories about his dad’s days in Vietnam and how he had fought an invisible enemy from the bowels of a hot sweaty jungle with little more than his bare hands and his wits to keep him alive.  A father’s tales depicting his own young manhood begin to lose their effect on their sons by the early teen years and his own father’s tales of heroism had grown quite stale by the time Jim had his first high school dance.

  It only took 3 days in this god-forsaken place for Jim to lose his given name. While practicing with his sniper rifle, the stock slipped from his shoulder and the scope used his right eye socket to stop the recoil. From day 3 onward Jim was known to everyone in his camp as “Shiner”.

  Oddly enough the heat and dust did not bother Shiner like it did many of his fellow soldiers. It was annoying to be sure, but somehow waking up for the morning patrol seemed easier for him when the heat of the day could be felt in the air at 06:00. But everyone at this place has his or her own aversions and for Shiner it was the smell. At home his mom cooked meals that you could taste from your room. In the early mornings before hockey practice, the smell of buttermilk pancakes with cinnamon and syrup would make its way down the hall and under Jim’s bedroom door like an invisible ninja. No matter how tired Jim was, that ninja would grab him by the chest and drag him to the breakfast table.

  Here in Kandahar, when Shiner went out to patrol the streets and alleys around the city, the stench of the life and death around him were so foreign to his consciousness that they would never leave him alone. No matter how much he washed his uniform, the minute he put on his equipment the smell of this place permeated his pores and became a constant reminder of how far away from home he was.

  Shiner read and re-read the papers that said he was going home. His eyes wandered from the paper, he took in the empty room around him, and an unexpected tidal wave of sadness washed over him. He walked to the door and saw the hive outside was alive with activity. He knew that the prescribed movements he was witnessing all around the yard were no longer going to be his daily routine. The 06:00 walks that were 98% boring and 2% adrenaline filled fights for your life would soon be replaced with endless, useless exercise at the base. The late night discussions with his buddies about the meaning of life, of girlfriends long ago lost, and of battles won and lost, would all soon be nothing more than stories for his own future son. But most of all, he knew it was the brothers that he would be leaving behind who never had the opportunity to get that same letter he now held tight in his hands that was causing the tightening in his gut.

  When his plane was 78 miles down range from home he could start to see the outlines of familiar landmarks. The hills where he and his dad used to go camping stood out from the tapestry below, but they looked so much smaller than he remembered. The rolling hills in the distance were where his dad would take him to ride the motorcycle that mysteriously showed up on his 13th birthday. This was the same motorcycle his mom threatened to drop on his dad’s head if he ever got hurt while riding it. Before those thoughts were extinguished, the city where he grew up was coming in view when he arched his neck just right. The view from the air of the city seemed exactly as it had thirteen months ago, but the emotions that the view from the window were imparting on him now could not have been more different.

  As the plane taxied to its final destination at hanger 12-A, Shiner noticed for the first time the anticipation that was brewing in his fellow soldiers regarding the family reunions now just minutes away. Many of the soldiers had wives or husbands that were waiting in the greeting area dressed in their finest clothes. Many of the waiting spouses had young ones in tow. Some of the babies were so young they would now be seeing their returning parent for the first time. A million different stories accompanied by hugs and kisses were waiting at the hangar. Soon a crescendo of emotions and tears would be released.   

  Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, the outlandishness of the occasion, or just the fact that no girlfriend, wife or child was outside that door waiting for him that had Shiner so calm and unemotional about it. He knew everything would unfold for him the way it was supposed to be.

  Shiner instinctively knew his dad would be in the back of the room acting stoic like it was no big deal. His dad had always demonstrated how a man is supposed to act. So when his dad put him in a bear hug and then started crying in front of everyone, well it was just embarrassing. The ride home wasn’t nearly long enough to shake the image of his old man making a fool of himself in front of all those people. When mom saw the car pull in the driveway, she cried out her son’s name and ran out to his waiting arms. When mom embraced him, the battle-hardened young man finally broke down and shed a few tears of his own. For just one brief moment Shiner was Jim again. It felt good.  

  After mom’s sumptuous feast was consumed, Jim’s dad prodded him to head out to the back porch where many evenings of his youth had been wasted. Now, here he was on his first night home from war, and all his dad wanted to do was to relive those days. Nothing interesting had ever happened on that porch for them to talk about then, so there was very little hope for a different result on this day. Not only was he trying to re-live the days of his youth, the old man also wanted him to re-hash every detail of his last thirteen months in Kandahar. Shiner wanted at least one night to try and forget it.

  His safe return from an ugly war should have been one of the best nights of Shiner’s life, yet the chill in the air was no longer contained to only the autumn evening’s breeze.

  Thankfully, before long one of his Army buddies arrived at the house to save him from a night of endless melancholy. After the two young bucks said their goodbyes to Shiner’s family and headed for the car, Jim felt a lump in his throat when he looked back at the house and saw his mother through the window busying herself by washing the aluminum off the bottom of the cooking pans. When he glanced to the side of the house he saw his old man slowly heading for the back porch, his limp seemed to be much worse than he remembered.

A Soldier’s Father

The homecoming letter directed the families to be on base, in Hangar 12-A’s waiting area by 11:00 AM. It explained that the plane would disembark the returning troops at 11:15, and that the homecoming ceremony would be completed and the soldiers would be released to the families by 11:25.

All the precise military planning in the world however, did not help Clyde sleep the night before. Nor could it keep him from arriving at the base nearly three hours early. The anticipation of seeing his son for the first time in thirteen months was just too much for Clyde to be constrained by procedure and protocol. Mom decided she could not handle it at all, and stayed away to prepare a special homecoming meal that would fill the house with all those smells she knew her boy so enjoyed.

The guard at the gate was reluctant to let Clyde enter the grounds so early, despite the circumstances. Even as Clyde tried to explain to the guard that someone had to be the first to arrive, the guard held firm to his orders to not allow families to enter prior to 10:00 AM. Thankfully, after two calls to the family liaison specialist, the deadlock was broken and Clyde was permitted to enter the huge, mostly empty hangar that would soon be the sight of such great joy to fifty families.

Every inch of this now rarely used hangar brought back a flood of memories from Clyde’s own days when he proudly wore the fatigues. The sounds of the planes taxing by, the smell of the machine oil that seemed to come from every direction, and even the cadence of the soldiers’ boots on the ground as they walked by returned Clyde to the days when he was young, tough, and proud. But now, as he studied the back of his withered hands and felt the side of his left knee that never did heal quite right, he realized all of the strength and confidence he once had, was transferred to his son. A son whose plane was now only 78 miles down range.

As the families began to fill the hanger, and the workers completed the final touches, Clyde noticed a trend of those gathered inside. As expected, the awaiting wives and children packed in as close to the receiving platform as possible, but all the fathers seemed to have been pulled by some unseen force to the far corners of the room. While the children wiggled and squealed and the mothers struggled to contain themselves, the fathers would only occasionally glance at each other and nod. Despite every father’s heart beating out of the chests in anticipation, there seemed to be some unspoken manly understanding that required from them a stoic stance. Tears, certainly would be held in check. When one waiting grandfather did let loose the waterworks, all of the other fathers quickly turned away. Clyde distracted himself by studying the not so interesting iron lattice work on the hangar’s massive doors.

Sure enough, the plane was spot on time, the home-coming ceremony was mercifully brief, and the joyous reunions were chock-full of emotion. Clyde held his position at the rear of the room so the spouses and kids could get in the first hugs. His son seamed to anticipate the situation and his eyes slowly canvased the corners of the room where he finally found Clyde standing on a bench waving. Manhood be damned, as Clyde’s arms finally wrapped firmly around his son’s chest, the crocodile tears of relief were let loose. His son took the young buck military approach and just patted the old man on the back appreciatively.

The reunion act was replayed at home with mom, but this time with no witnesses to the event, and this being mom after all, even Clyde’s son dared shed a tear or two.

After mom’s sumptuous feast was consumed, Clyde and his son wandered out to the back porch where many a year had been spent watching the dogs play in the leaves and where most of their father-son talks had taken place. Clyde tried to retell some of the stories of those days, but it was clear his son was not nostalgic tonight. Clyde then tried to inquire about what had transpired over those last thirteen months. The Skype and emails between them never did say much. But his son intimated that only his “buddies” could really understand those months away. He claimed no offense, but since they had lived through it with him, and because the old man’s military days were just too different than his, he simply could not understand.

On one of the best nights of Clyde’s life, the safe return of his only son, the chill in the air was no longer contained to only the autumn evening’s breeze.

All too soon, one of his son’s new buddies arrived at the house to whisk him away for a celebratory night out. After a wave from the driveway as they pulled away, Clyde grabbed a jacket and returned to the back porch and stared out into the distance. Tears started flowing fast and furious. Half of Clyde’s tears were from the relief that his boy was home safe. The other half were flowing because he knew his boy had been forever lost, and thirteen months later he had been replaced by a new man.