The Surprise(s)

I got home from school, went straight into my dad’s office, and fired up his computer.

Within moments, the system was up. A few swift keyboard commands fired up the internal modem. And chirps and clicks of static noise confirmed a successful connection to one of the many bulletin board systems I perused each and every day.

While browsing around some message threads, the screen suddenly went haywire with bursts of random, ASCII characters. My session locked up, and I was unable to enter any commands. I cursed in frustration, causing my dog to pop up in excitement at the noise.

Looking at the clock, it was 4:00pm, the time my mother regularly called to ensure I was safely home from school. Many times I had asked my mom not to do this, as her incoming calls always knocked me off of my modem connections, and getting reconnected to bulletin boards wasn’t the easiest of prospects. But since she refused to let me disable call waiting while I lived under her roof, we played this cat-and-mouse game each and every day. I picked up the phone, and indeed it was mom.

After chatting for a few minutes about the school day, mom asked, “Will you be there when we get home from work?”

I thought for a second. It was the day before Thanksgiving, so all of my friends were busy doing their own thing. I said, “As far as I know, sure.”

“OK, sweetie. Love you,” she said.

“Love you, too.” I hung up.

Moments after placing down the receiver, I realized what day it was. Sure, it was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. But more importantly, it was Wednesday, as in “the day before Thursday”, as in “the normal day of the week when my favorite comic book shop received their new shipment of comics but instead got them one day earlier because of the holiday.” The shop would be open today but closed through the weekend. If I wanted new comics, I had to go…now!

I sprang into action. I grabbed my wallet and keys, hopped into my truck, and flew down Davis Parkway towards Hurst, the town that was home to the closest comic book shop. I got there with plenty of time before they closed, and the owner Stephanie was furiously trying to unpack the new shipments and get the shelves stocked. I helped her out a little, reading a quick comic book here and there between opening boxes. Because I was a regular customer, Stephanie held my favorite titles behind the counter, ensuring that my weekly reading list’s comics were never sold out before I could get my hands on them. I ended up spending quite awhile there. I eventually purchased my booty and headed back out in my truck.

Right before turning onto the highway heading home, I spied Best Buy and recalled that I hadn’t rewarded myself with a new CD in quite some time. I steered into the parking lot and spent an hour browsing the stacks. Eventually I settled on some discs and attempted to get back to Southlake.

While fumbling around with my in-dash CD player, I passed North Halls Mall on my left. The video arcade inside called to my soul, and I felt the irresistible urge to play some pinball and Galaga. Soon enough, a slowly depleting fistful of quarter-dollars filled my pocket, and somewhere video game designers were already cashing their holiday bonuses.

Finally, long after the sun had set, I made my way back to Southlake.

Moments after walking in the door, I was accosted by my parents. Both were sitting in the living room, sternly staring at me as I walked in, arms laden with plastic bags of pop culture goods. My mother barked, “Where the hell have you been?”

This was in the age before cell phones, when parents had to wait for their kids to call them — and they had to be home to receive such calls. But in general, my parents treated me with kid gloves, and as long as I returned home before it was too late or called to tell them where I was—both of which I failed to do–they weren’t particularly concerned with what I did.

But they were aware that I regularly drove south to get comic books each and every week. And even in the past when I’d fallen off the grid like this, they hadn’t reacted so sternly as they were now doing. I mouthed back defensively and very much like an obnoxious teenager, “I went to the comic book store to get my comics before Thanksgiving!” I punctuated my exasperation with a breathy, woe-is-me, get-off-my-back-man, “Shhhhhit!”

The two of them said that was fine, but they berated me for not calling or leaving a note. I had little fight in me, so I let them finish their lecture. I then shut myself in my bedroom at the front of the house to read my comics.

My High School Room

I lay on my bed, underneath a sea of posters and pictures dedicated to my favorite fictional heroes. I digested book after book, absorbing tales of earth-born mutants, Kryptonian-born saviors, and all-too-human everyday heroes.

Midway through my weekly ritual, a string of lights began to shine through the blinds. One after one, the sweeping beams of headlights swung left to right as a series of cars came up the curvy road leading to our house. Multiple vehicles were descending upon our farm. Yet since I was self-centered enough to not care unless I knew they had something to do with me, I ignored the event and resumed reading.

Through the thin walls, I could hear the doorbell, and Gos, Tyson, and Murphy barked in excitement at the prospect of visitors. I could hear the murmur of voices as several people entered the house and were greeted by my parents.

Moments later, the sound of shuffling footsteps came closer, capped with swift raps on my bedroom door.

Before I could say come it, open flew the door and standing in my room was every single one of my friends, with my girlfriend Pam forming the point of a visibly-annoyed phalanx of high-schoolers.

They barked in unison, “Where the hell have you been?”

Apparently déjà vu was also one of my friends.

I responded to them with the same annoyance I projected to my parents. “I went to the comic book store to get my comics before Thanksgiving! Fuckin’ A!”

When tempers finally cooled and notes were compared, it turned out there was an amazing orchestration of people and food that was thrown into chaos when I vanished earlier that afternoon.

It turns out that Pam and my friends had been secretly waiting for hours at a nearby pizza joint, so that my parents could bring me over for my surprise 18th birthday party — a surprise party which I had failed to show up for, because nobody bothered to me about it!

The whole gang was there: Pam, Micha, Matthew, Katie, Todd, Dan, George, Scott, Bill, and Nancy. And since they were tired of waiting for me to show up, they decided to bring the party to my place.

We had a silly time, goofing off within the house, outside on the volleyball court, and inside the barn.

It’s worth noting that up to this day, there had been a hard-fought detente between me and my friends regarding my girlfriend. Out of 136 other members of our senior class, I was seemingly the only person who got along with her. My friends tolerated her presence only because of how I felt about her, but such peace was tenuous at best.

While out in the barn, Pam had found one of my mother’s horsewhips, an artificial riding aid that my mother used sparingly to gentle coax her Tennessee Walking horses into proper form. Pam brought it into my group of friends and jokingly announced, “Oh, cool! S&M!” Everyone that laughed did so politely and without sincerity.

Pam then gave the whip a mild crack, inadvertently sending its tail straight into George’s face.

George’s cat-like reflexes saved his face just in time, but they weren’t quick enough to completely avoid the attack. The tip of the whip flicked him hard just below the eye as he fell back. Then in an explosion of anger, he flew forward and lunged at Pam, screaming at her, “What the fuck!?”

Her eyes grew into saucers as she realized the enormity of her mistake. All of us were aware that George had a fiery temper, but even I was surprised at how honestly scared I was for Pam. I jumped in between them to prevent the unfortunate scene of one of my best buddies beating the shit out of my girlfriend in my house on my birthday before all my friends.

It wasn’t until after Pam broke up with me months later that I realized that this was the moment in time when everyone stopped assuaging their intense dislike for her. Through their actions tonight and onward, my friends let me know that if I wanted to hang out with them, I sure as hell better not think of inviting her along.

Tempers eventually calmed down enough for everyone to gather in the kitchen for the best part of any birthday: presents and cake. I then discovered that it wasn’t all about me; it was also Micha’s party.

Born just five days after me, Micha made it hard for me to forget this calendric coincidence. After all, she had spent the better part of the past week delightfully reminding me that I was the “older one”. This was a healthy break from her other persistent cue: because I was the one of us with facial hair, I would also be able to grow a goatee, thus solidifying my secondary role as the “evil one”.

So when we were gathered together, out came presents for both of us. I was apparently the easy one to shop for, as everyone gave me comic books. Titles like “Justice League” and “Green Lantern” helped solidify the survive-the-holiday-weekend arsenal I had purchased earlier that day.
Unbeknownst to me, unfolding nearby was the curious saga of Micha and her three birthday gifts from the boys.

The wrapper came off the first present, revealing a plastic dog dish. Quite a curious gift, as she didn’t own a pet of any kind. The box in came in contained no note, no card, and no explanation. She looked at Matt, Dan, and Todd, who were all equally unforthcoming.

Micha ripped open the second present, which contained a can opener. Her eyebrows arched as she sensed the brewing diss. I was on the receiving end of an evil glare that silently said, “Alright, you’re part of this. What the hell’s going on here?” I shrugged helplessly, as I was not included in their evil plan.

It didn’t take long for the last vestiges of Micha’s good humor to dissolve when the third present turned out to be a can of Alpo. Matt, Todd, and Dan were highly amused at this point. Despite—or because us—this, Matt and Micha would hook up just a few months later. It’s my assumption that the highly inane chain of gifts was the horsemeat equivalent of a guy letting a girl know of his crush by being mean to her.

Thankfully we had a knife on hand to cut the upcoming birthday cake — it could be used to also cut the tension hanging in the room. Attempting to reset a birthday steadily going awry, Micha decided it was time to reveal the birthday cake. Beaming with pride, she returned with a foil-covered baking pan containing a cake she had baked herself. Micha removed the foil, held it before me, and wished, “Happy birthday, big brother!”

Her trademark smile faded as she registered the confused looks of those in observance. She looked down. Written in frosting across the cake she was giving me were the curious words, “Happy Birthday Micha!”

Somehow, someway, Micha had baked her own birthday cake.

Micha quickly glared at Nancy, who was doing her best to not furiously crack up. It turns out that earlier, Micha had used Nancy’s kitchen to start baking the cake, but she trusted Nancy to finish decorating the cake while she rushed to work. That is when Nancy took advantage of the opportunity to pull the prank currently in progress.

That so makes up for being the older one.

Later that evening, we were all running around the farm once again, playing grab-ass and celebrating until long after midnight. We were high-school seniors, and I was having the best birthday ever. I felt that such good things would never end. I felt the same about Pam.

I took a moment to pull her around the back of a horse trailer for a private moment. Pressing her back against the trailer wall, I leaned forward and gave her a deep kiss. Then I whispered, “I love you.”

Pam smiled back at me, but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t until the next semester that I realized why.

November and December

Honking GooseOver the weekend, I attended a birthday party for Arro, my friend Reece’s oldest son. Although the celebration had a Harry Potter theme and every child was given a magic wand and glasses, the most popular party favor by far proved to be the paper horns given to everyone. Within seconds of receipt, the hills were alive with the sounds of annoying honks, as if a gaggle of 6-year-old geese had just flew into the room. While retreating to the far corner of the room with the other adults and circling our wagons, I recalled the following.

When he was a kid, my father and his brothers lived on a chicken farm near Austin. I grew up on a diet of stories about hard work, long hours, and revenge–from carting wheelbarrows of chicken shit for sale downtown as fertilizer, to their efforts to organize “chicken parades.” According to my father, a “chicken parade” is easy to orchestrate. Simply, take a piece of raw bacon tied to a long string, and then toss it in the middle of a circle of hens. One of them will quickly snap it up and swallow it whole. Since chickens poop what they eat within a matter of minutes, out the other end would come the bacon and string. Another bird would see the bacon and scarf it themselves, repeating the cycle. Eventually, all of the chickens would be tied together beak-to-ass, tugging and pulling each other around until my dad and uncles felt they had had enough.

To this very day, my father despises chicken, refusing to eat it except under the most demanding of circumstances. If you and my dad were the only people on a plane full of chickens that happened to crash-land atop a lofty, remote Andes mountain peak, you’d be the one that’s fucked, not the birds. Note that his fickleness does not stop him from eating eggs — if pressed on the fact that eggs are a form of chicken, he’ll note with pride that he’s “getting them before they are born.” Ralph Reed calling for you on line one, dad.

Despite that childhood animal husbandry, my father loves all other animals. When I was in high school, we relocated from the city to a small plot in Southlake. Our land was called “Pepper Top Farm,” and it was hidden from the modern world by a thick grove of surrounding trees, endless whiteboard fences, and a lack of cable television. It was there that dad indulged a desire to collect pets which he hadn’t possessed for quite some time. My parents bought a horse, adopted a dog, gave me permission to purchase a puppy, and rounded out the zoo with a couple of bunny rabbits and a goat to keep the horses company. It was heaven, with rolling green fields, tall trees, and the lazy satisfaction of a good farm existence.

So whatever possessed my father to spoil such a sylvan paradise by acquiring geese is beyond me.

For the uneducated, geese are simply nasty pieces of shit. Ugly, loud, mean, and without taste, they’re trash birds. If you walk too close to one of them, despite the fact you outweigh them by at least 100 lbs. they will still attack you with frightening speed and ferocity. And they never learn any better.

One morning, dad went to the feed store. He returned with four baby birds–two geese and two Indian runner ducks. Although the names of the ducks escape me, I’ll never forget those of the geese: November and December . . . or in other words, the months we planned to eat them.

Perhaps because they didn’t have a mama bird around, our birds never learned how to fly. But the geese mastered well the art of stealth. Whenever someone would walk by their pond, the geese would lower their heads and long necks until both were perpendicular to the ground. Then they’d slowly start off in your direction, picking up speed– plap-plap-plap, went their wet feet! And before you knew it, they were upon you with a piercing honk or a nasty bite from their toothy prehistoric beaks.

As much as I hated the geese, I felt worse for the ducks. Without any adult Indian Runner ducks to serve as role models, they were forced to emulate the geese. It was amusing and sad to watch the ducks themselves lower their heads and seek-and-destroy, only to pause with a look that seemed to say, “Hey…wait a minute…I’m a duck…not a goose.” This was years before Dr. Phil.

One day, I was outside changing my truck’s tire. It was a hot day, so I was shirtless on the baking driveway. The goose pond was behind me and seemingly far away, but this provided me with no safety. From behind, I heard that all-too-familiar wet slap of geese feet on the concrete. Before I could turn around, it was too late. The popping crunch of my own capillaries bursting filled my senses and I roared in pain.

Flying to my feet, along came the goose, solidly holding onto me with his nasty beak. He was hanging from the meat of my back, in a position so perfect that I couldn’t reach him with my hands or the tire iron I possessed. Spinning sharply back and forth also proved useless. I yelled for help.

Hearing the commotion, my father ran outside and saw the chaos. I turned to face him, tossed him my tire iron, turned back around, and with a hard swing, dad clocked the shit out of that bird and sent him over the left-field fence. And boy, did that bird sail! Now that I think about it, that was the first time I ever saw that bird fly.

It would be weeks before I could sleep on my back.

Alas, the geese didn’t fulfill their destiny of being eaten in the winter months. Instead, they were annihilated in the months before November and December by the one-two-punch of an Act of God and an Act of Dog.

In September, my Labrador Retriever Gos was roaming the farm on his regular mole patrol. Those who knew him will recall that he was a gentle soul, rarely barking and never acting aggressive. Yet one day, one of the geese charged at Gos and–outweighed by a mere 60 lbs–and was literally mauled into a bloody pulp by my angry pooch. After that one incident, he never again attacked anything ever.

The next month, the goose that attacked me while I was changing my tire met his maker in a most dramatic fashion. His signature exit involved being plucked from the ground by a freak twister and blown away to God knows where. Now that I think about it, it was the last time I ever saw that bird fly.

Sergeant Gos, Mole Patrol

Shaun the Sheep MoleTo make a long story short, I got into a bunch of trouble when I was in junior high school. Not long after, my family relocated from Dallas to Southlake, a good half-hour away. At the time, Southlake was still somewhat out in the boons, a small satellite city that boasted a Dairy Queen, a state championship football team, and not much else.

The timing of the move stunk — we moved at the beginning of the summer, and my new school would not start up for several more months. I was 15 years old, a half-year away from getting a driver’s license, living out in the middle of nowhere, far away from the few friends I had. It was hot outside, so I was stuck indoors without cable television. I suppose I could have done something productive like get a job–oh wait, I couldn’t get to a job without a car now, could I? Young, sad, lonely, bored, and under stimulated, there was only one thing which could save the day. I needed a new best friend.

So my new summer project was to get a dog. And not just any ol’ dog…he had to be big, outdoorsy, smart, and totally dedicated to me. Based on my mother’s recommendation, I decided to get a Labrador Retriever. I spent a ton of time putting research into it all, reading about AKC registrations, the best prices to pay, and how to research afflictions such as hip displacia. It wasn’t long before I was an expert on the breed, and I started spending every Sunday looking through the classified ads.

One Sunday, I found a dog shopper’s wet dream in the following ad:

Black lab puppies, AKC registered, all shots, 8 weeks, $25.

Wait a minute, I thought. Way too cheap to be true. Most of the prices I had seen for quality pups were well over $250. I called the owner, and told him there must be a mistake. Nope, he said, all the pups were indeed twenty-five bucks a pop. The man bred Labradors as a hobby, but he had just been transferred out-of-state and was forced to have a fire sale.

My father drove me over to Euless to get my dog. I met the owner, and he took me into the backyard to meet the litter. Their mother was lying along the back fence, spent and dead-asleep. It was meal-time, and her horde of kids swarmed around the breakfast table. I walked to the opposite end of the yard, turned to face the crown, and whistled loudly. One pup, a black Lab with a white chest and feet as big as its head, stopped what he was doing and walked across the broad lawn to visit me. That was how I found Gos and took him home.

This hound was smart as a whip. In just one day, I taught Gos to fetch the morning newspaper. Between our house and the street we lived on was a broad acre of land. It was cut into quarters by a bridge-covered creek and dusty front drive. One day, I took Gos outside onto the front porch, looked at him and said, “Gos! Go get the paper!” He looked at me with that slightly-cocked head, which was how he expressed showing attention. His radar ears sprung up when I mentioned the emphasized word, one that he had heard often when my father fetched the newspaper each morning. I pointed towards the street and continued, “Go on, Gos! Paper!” He became excited, his attention darting between me and down the driveway. One more “Get the paper” from and BOOM! Off was Gos, dashing down the driveway, across the bridge, and finally to the street. Within seconds, my best friend was rushing back with a mouthful of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.

The next day, I was eager to show off to my dad. The three of us gathered on the front porch, my father barefoot in his bathrobe. I gave the command and Gos zoomed away. Soon he was running back up the driveway with the newspaper. Then he jumped off the bridge into the creek, ran to the property next door, and finished off the exhibition by burying the paper in our neighbor’s flower bed. My father cussed a storm, threw on his clothes, and drove to the nearby gas station to purchase a replacement.

Along came the third day and there we were again on the front porch. Once again I pointed, once again I commanded, and once again my puppy was off on his quest. After crossing the bridge, I lost track of Gos amongst the trees and early-morning fog. I called for him and heard the jingle of his collar. A canine silhouette emerged from the mist, and I saw Gos flying towards home. In his mouth was the paper –or something about that size. As he got closer, I saw it wasn’t the newspaper. As he came closer, I saw that he was carrying something which was moving. By the time he reached the porch, I saw that he was carrying a squealing, flailing, pissed-off mole! I screamed, jumped back into the house, and slammed closed the front door. The last thing I saw was Gos cock his head to the side as if to say, “Umm?”

My mother heard the commotion and yelled at me to not slam the door. Exasperated, I said, “Th-th-the dog’s got a freakin’ mole in his mouth!” We both rushed to the kitchen window and witnessed an amazing sight. Gos was taking the mole, pitching it high into the air, and smacking it across the lawn like a baseball. The mole would fly into the outfield that was our farm and hit the ground running. Gos would chase after, sweep him up and begin the next at-bat. The final out came when he gave the mole a giant heave across the fence — the creature scampered far away. And never returned. Since that morning, we never had moles bother our farm ever again.

And that is how my best friend got his name: Sergeant Gos, Mole Patrol.