May 13, 2007
In February, Steve Stanton's secret was out. He lost his job as Largo city manager. Then the world came calling. But not for Steve.
She couldn't sleep. She lay for hours in the dark.
In the morning, she would pose for her first portrait, at age 48. All her life, she had dodged and wavered and contemplated every avoidance, even suicide. Now, 12 hours to go.
She got up at 1 a.m., made coffee. She took a mug into the den of her Largo home, pulled out her red journal and started to write:
So here I sit. Alone in the early morning hours. Waiting for the rest of my life to begin.
She had spent years planning for this day. In the last month, she had frantically built a wardrobe, learned makeup, fretted over her too-short hair. She thought she looked good. Pretty. Professional.
Her debut would come after four decades of self-examination, in the dust of a leader's best-laid plans, in the remnants of her family. It glowed with the promise of possibility. Like new skin.
But what if others didn't see her the way she saw herself?
She had already lost her job, her friends and her home - the things that gave her an identity - for admitting she wasn't the person they knew. Now that she was showing them a second self, would they reject that person too?
She knew that some people would never even see Susan Ashley Stanton.
They would see a man in a dress.
Shedding a life usually means starting over, quietly, somewhere else. Slip town. Get a new job in a place no one knows your name.
For Steve Stanton, that wasn't an option.
He had been Largo's city manager for 14 years. He had rappeled with the firefighters and broken his nose with the SWAT team. When he decided to become a woman, he told only a few people. His wife knew, his son did not. But in February someone told the newspaper.
Then came the speedy firing, and then CNN, the Daily Show and Larry King. Then came the pack of lesbian lawyers telling him whom to talk to, what to say.
As Steve, he was forceful, powerful in a governmental, almost dorky kind of way. Now he took orders. He waffled.
No one really wanted Steve any more. They wanted Susan. But who was she? She was a celebrity no one fully knew. Not even Steve.
Atlanta's Gay Pride Parade asked Susan to be grand marshal. A Chicago transgender convention invited her to speak. The city of Sarasota named Susan a finalist for its city manager job.
Tiptoeing through this transition is Steve-Susan. He is a thinner, longer-haired version of his former self, wearing too-big suits and folding his hands in a girly way.
On Tuesday, things change. Susan will meet with Congress members to lobby for transgender rights.
Paparazzi will mill around the Capitol. Gone is the carefully crafted plan of how to control the image of Susan. When she emerges in Washington, her photo will likely hit the AP wire and be transmitted around the world.
I always thought Susan's first appearance would be climbing the steps to Largo City Hall, Susan wrote in her journal. Instead, I'll be climbing the steps to Congress.
She consulted with her handlers, and, against their advice, agreed to head off the paparazzi with a hometown newspaper portrait taken Wednesday. She still had some control.
- - -
When Donna woke, Steve had to put aside Susan. His wife knows Susan but doesn't want to live with her. Once Steve is Susan full time, he has to move out.
So Steve padded around their kitchen in running shorts and a tank top, scrambling eggs for their 13-year-old son. Travis still hasn't met Susan. He's only seen a blurry photo, snapped with a tripod and self-timer.
"Is it going to take two hours for you to get ready now too, Dad?" Travis asked. "Once you're her?"
The pronoun thing is hard, even in the Stanton house. Steve drives Travis to school. Susan goes shopping. Steve-Susan has been sleeping in the guest room for years.
One afternoon, running late, Susan had to change into Steve in the car. She forgot to take off her mascara. So he wore sunglasses to Travis' school.
A few days ago, Susan called home to say she was on her way. She was wearing a peach tank top and white capris. Having a good hair day.
"I'm coming home as Susan," she told Travis. "I want you to meet her."
Travis hid in his room.
- - -
Finding Susan was as indelicate as renovating a house. It was spackling, painting and draping. For years, Steve needed a helmet wig, pancake makeup and foam breasts to be a woman. Lately there's been peeling and stripping - shedding the wig, the beard, letting the hormones transform him into a size 10 and a B cup.
To some, it seemed fake. A macho man wearing a bra? They labeled him a liar. Steve said he was just trying to find his true self.
But how can you be authentic - how can you even know who you are - when you haven't been allowed to try?
Steve has never felt like a man. "What kind of man would want to cut off his b----?" he asks.
He doesn't know if he feels like a woman. How could he?
He supposes he's somewhere in the middle.
"I'm still me," he says.
Susan still wants to scale walls with firefighters. She still loves Gator football and driving her Jeep. She has a softer handshake than Steve. She tries to remember to soften her voice, and still talks like a city manager, peppering long sentences with words like "absolutely" and "typically."
Hormones, she says, have softened her biceps and her personality. Steve could be a jerk, she admits. "I'd have probably fired me too."
Since Steve was fired, none of his former employees - his friends - have called. He had always thought that if he left Largo, they would give him an award.
So last week, he went to the engravers and picked out a trophy: blue, 16 inches with a marble base. On the plaque, he wrote the words he had hoped someone else would write: To Steve Stanton: The World's Greatest City Manager.
He needed a tangible reminder of his legacy in Largo. Before he becomes a full-time woman, he needed to acknowledge that he had been a good man. Soon, that $135 trophy will be all that's left of Steve.
- - -
Susan spread her new outfit on the guest room bed. She still had a hard time accessorizing. Men's suits were so easy. And boring.
Steve's closet had been a sea of gray and black. He liked pink shirts and coral ties. Now pink and coral tops crushed against the suits. Twenty pairs of women's shoes - size 8 1/2 - cluttered the floor.
Steve never understood the shoe thing. Susan does.
"Shoes make the look. It's like washing your car and not Armor All-ing your tires," she says. She laughs. "Is that a guy thing to say?"
To choose her look, she had navigated International Plaza with her wardrobe consultant - her electrologist - and tried on at least 60 women's suits.
Even with her new shape, nothing fit right. She still has no hips. Her square shoulders felt squeezed in the narrow jackets.
She finally chose a charcoal gray jacket, a flowing skirt, and a rose colored knit shell. (No shirts with collars, her handlers said. Too mannish.)
The clothes are Steve's colors, the muted hues of a librarian, of a government wonk.
Steve-Susan loved evening gowns. Steve-Susan loved the clothes a man would choose for a woman. New Susan is learning to dress for herself.
That morning, she studied her image in the mirror. At first, all she saw was her face. She could not stop smiling.
She checked her watch: 8 a.m. Only two hours to do her hair.
- - -
Steve had gone to the same barber since he moved to Largo. He couldn't tell the guy who had given him the perfect side-part for 17 years that he aspired to highlights and shoulder-length layers.
He was rescued by the police chief's wife. For months, Diane Aradi trimmed Steve's growing hair, taught him to finger curl it into loose waves.
The morning of the photo shoot was Susan's first attempt at doing on her own.
She armed herself with a blow dryer. Dug out her new round brush. But she couldn't get that lift like Diane did. Four times, she wet it down and started over.
By 9:30 a.m., Susan flopped on the bed in tears. Steve would have never cried over his hair.
"I can't do this," she moaned into the pillow. "I don't know how to be Susan."
Two more tries, then she dialed hair 911. She told the chief's wife: "This is an emergency."
- - -
Are they going to laugh? Should she even show up?
On the way to the photo shoot, she stopped at Barnes & Noble to browse. Books calm her. That's one reason she chose the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times, as the location for the portrait. It's semiprivate, intellectual.
At the bookstore, she flipped through the biographies. Some day, she hoped to see her own story on the shelves. An agent is already peddling Susan's autobiography. By January, those journals she has been keeping since high school could become a book.
She checked the cafe's clock: 10:50 a.m.
The drive to the photo shoot was too short. Nervous, she parked blocks away. As she got out, she peeked in the mirror one last time.
- - -
It was over in a couple of hours. After all the primping and posing, trying to figure out what to do with her hands, crossing and uncrossing her legs, sitting and standing, turning side to side, tilting her head, and working her way from stiff and scared to relaxed and chatty, she asked for a paper towel to blot her makeup.
Someone gave her a bottle of water. The photographer opened his laptop and said she could see herself.
She leaned in. Scanned frame after frame.
That was her? That woman with the great hair?
"I look so happy."
- - -
She wanted to shop. She still needed another suit for her trip to D.C. But it was getting late. Travis had an appointment with the orthodontist.
Time to go back to being Dad.
As she steered her Lexus up the interstate, listening to Celtic folk music, her smile, so bright in the photo, began to fade.
Turns out, after all of that, this was the toughest part. After the years preparing, after she finally felt good about the way she looked, after she finally made her public debut - and no one laughed! - she drove slowly.
She didn't want to go home.
She wasn't ready to hang Susan back in the closet.
Times staff writer Lorri Helfand contributed to this report.
About the story: Reporter Lane DeGregory has followed Steve Stanton's transformation for months. She shopped with Susan last week and was with her May 9 when her portrait was taken. The scenes from the night before and early that morning were recreated through interviews with Stanton and from her journal entries.
He's the guy - no ifs, ands or buts
June 12, 2007
The man with the THE is a surprise. Definitely.
At the end of the rodeo, Lee Greenwood's anthem blares through the speakers at Westgate River Ranch: "I'm proud to be an American ..."
The crowd stands. The music builds. As the singer asks God to bless his country, four horsemen gallop into the dusty arena, unfurling 7-foot-long flags.
The flags are red, with white letters rimmed in blue sequins. Each man gets a word: GOD. BLESS. THE. USA.
You wonder: Who's the THE guy?
Think about it. The dude two horses ahead gets to be GOD. The next rider is BLESS. The cowboy at the end is Mr. USA. The third horseman isn't even a noun or a verb. He's just an article. Superfluous - except for grammatical purposes.
Who is the THE guy?
- - -
You ask Leroy Mason, who runs the rodeo, if he knows him.
"Sure," Mason says. "He's my son, Grant."
So on a Saturday in June, you meet Grant and his parents for lunch at the ranch. They take off their cowboy hats. Grant blesses the chicken fingers.
He's 15, been riding horses since he was 2. He was homeschooled until last year, when he enrolled at Lake Wales High so he could join the ROTC. Finished the year with a 3.9 GPA. Wants to go to West Point.
He's not what you had in mind. You were expecting some lackey who wrangles calves and lives in a mobile home with his girlfriend, her kid and a bunch of dogs.
"Grant doesn't want to be a cowboy, and I'm thankful for that," says his dad, who used to be one. "Been on the road most of my life. We moved here so Grant wouldn't have to grow up like that. Now he has a permanent home, land, horses." Mason smiles at his son.
"He doesn't know how blessed he is."
- - -
You watch Grant get the animals ready for the rodeo. He works with a guy named Ike.
Grant's cowboy hat is white. Ike's is black. Grant doesn't shave yet. Ike has a droopy mustache. Grant's shirt has dry-cleaner creases; Ike's wilts with sweat.
The teenager and the ranch hand cover more than 300 acres on horseback, flushing bulls from pastures, driving cattle.
Mostly, the THE guy leads.
Ike brings up the rear.
- - -
A half-hour before the rodeo, you're waiting at the deli for a piece of pizza. Ike comes up and asks what sort of story you're doing. You tell him you're here to write about the guy who carries the THE flag.
Ike looks confused. "Well, that would be me."
What? you ask. How can Ike be the THE guy?
"It wasn't by choice," he tells you. "They just handed me that flag four years ago, and I've been carrying it ever since.
"But for some reason, tonight they asked me to carry BLESS. Usually, Grant's BLESS."
- - -
You find Grant's mom outside the ticket booth. Tell her about your conversation with Ike.
Judy Mason hesitates. "Oh, that Ike," she says softly. "He'll say anything to get in the paper."
- - -
As the rodeo riders get ready, you thread through them, asking: Who carries the THE flag?
Ike, says a bull rider. That would be Ike, says a trick rider. Ike, says a steer roper, then the rodeo clown. Barrel rider Caity Wall tells you she choreographed that closing number years ago. Her mom sewed the flags. Her husband is GOD.
"The THE guy?" she says, laughing. "Oh, that's always Ike."
- - -
At the end of the rodeo, as Greenwood's anthem blares through the speakers, GOD gallops into the arena.
Next comes Ike, bearing BLESS. Grant follows, gripping THE.
"I'm proud to be an American. ..."
- - -
Afterward, you track down Ike.
His last name is Stein. His horse is Topper. You had it about right: He's 25, lives with the girlfriend, her kid, three dogs.
During the week, Ike takes care of 2,500 cattle. Weekends, he works at the rodeo. He's the guy who opens the bull chutes and prods the steers.
"I'm just the grunt," Ike says. "You don't want to write about me. Write about Grant."
But Grant is BLESS (except when reporters come).
You're the bridge between God and country, Ike.
The genuine article.
What goes up
August 5, 2007
Turns out that getting old is the worst thing that can happen to a daredevil.
The old daredevil tips back in his recliner, nursing a blue lollipop. His small white dog, Rocket, slumbers in his lap. • On the Food Network, a chef is shouting. Evel Knievel grabs the remote, fumbles with the buttons. "Blasted thing," he growls. "I can't turn it down." He slams the clicker on the table beside him. Buries his face in his hands. • "I spend my days right here, mostly," he says, without lifting his head. It's been three weeks since his second stroke. He is always tired, sometimes addled. Knievel is 68 but has the body of - well, of a man held together with pins and plates. • "I used to go all over the world," he grumbles. "I used to travel eight months a year. Now I can't even drive." • He takes 11 pills in the morning, a dozen at night. They keep his blood flowing and his transplanted liver working. They ease the arthritis that burns his back, arms and legs. It hurts like hell, being mortal. • It's a hot morning in July. In two weeks he is supposed to fly to his hometown of Butte, Mont., for the annual festival in his honor: Evel Knievel Days. He'll wave from the passenger seat of a pickup, sign some autographs, try to impersonate the man he used to be. • "This is my last performance," he says. "If I make it."
If I make it. How many times do you think Evel Knievel has said those words?
Usually he did make it, piloting his motorcycle over cars, snakes, sharks, buses. But we remember him just as well for the times his cycle came up just a teensy bit short. Knievel scattered pieces of himself at Caesars Palace, in Wembley Stadium, in San Francisco's Cow Palace.
He was the first Jackass.
His aim was uncertain, but his timing was exquisite. In the mid 1970s, America was booing its returning soldiers and booting its president. In vroomed Knievel, wearing a red, white and blue leather jumpsuit, a hero's cape and a showoff's thick gold chains.
"Evel was the king of bling," his friend Bill Rundle says. "And they didn't even know what bling was back then."
He gave Americans someone to cheer for, or at least provided a welcome distraction. Twelve days after Richard Nixon resigned, Knievel jumped 13 Mack trucks. On Oct. 25, 1975, more than half the country watched him leap over 14 Greyhound buses in Ohio - more than watched the "Thrilla in Manila" fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Knievel had money, fame and - he doesn't mind telling you - "oh God, more than 1,000 women."
And now here he is, struggling just to breathe. White wisps are all that's left of the thick hair that once spilled from his helmet. After weeks in the hospital, his golf course tan has paled. Gone are the gold chains, the diamond pinky ring, that swagger.
If life delivered neat endings, Evel Knievel would have gone out in a flash of glory, at the far end of a row of buses, or maybe in the bottom of the Snake River Canyon, which he famously failed to clear in 1974. Instead, after two marriages, four kids, a liver transplant, lung disease and a couple of strokes, the old daredevil sees this year's annual Evel Knievel Days as his ending. It will have to do.
"He was such an icon," Rundle says. "You don't believe icons can get old."
- - -
His wife, Krystal, 38, calls him by his given name, Bob.
They live with two spoiled Maltese in a modest Clearwater condo. You have to punch in a code to get through the lobby. The name above their code is an alias. When it said Knievel, drunks kept coming by late at night, buzzing their number.
An oil painting of Evel dominates his front hallway. A bronze statue of him stands on a bookshelf, surrounded by photos of his 11 grandkids.
The dog is snoring in Knievel's lap. Another chef is yelling on TV. Evel turns to a visitor and says, "Why don't you get up and get yourself a beer?"
It's 11 a.m. The visitor declines, thanks him. Knievel barks, "Then why don't you go get me one?"
"Christ almighty," he grouses when he finally gets his Michelob Ultra. He takes a swig.
"Forgive me," he says, "for using the Lord's name in vain."
- - -
"Okay, ask your questions. Hurry up. I don't have all day."
He doesn't want to waste whatever time he has left repeating things everyone already knows. For God's sake, people have written books about him. George Hamilton played him in a movie. The Bionic Woman wrapped her arms around his waist on an episode of her show.
He is tired of people pestering him, asking stupid questions.
What kind of questions? "That's a dumb question."
What was your favorite jump? "Jesus. Any jump I landed was my favorite."
What does it feel like to crash? "What the hell do you think it feels like? Christ almighty. It hurts."
Why did you do what you did? "Because I could. I could do the impossible. And it sure beat selling insurance."
Was it worth it? "What kind of stupid question is that? I'm still here, aren't I?
"Now hurry up. I'm running out of air."
- - -
From the time he could pedal a bike, Robert Craig Knievel wanted to fly.
He was born in 1938, in the desolate mining town of Butte. His parents divorced before he was 2 and left him and his younger brother to be raised by grandparents. "Bobby" was 8 when he got his first wheels. He taught himself to ride, then jump. By 12, he'd totaled four bikes and moved on to motorcycles. Everyone around Butte knew Bobby. He'd race through flower beds, leap curbs, pop wheelies through parking lots.
He wanted to be as flashy as Liberace, as brave as Roy Rogers, as beloved as Elvis. The legend goes that when he got tossed in jail for - what else? - reckless driving, a judge nicknamed him Evil Knievel. Later, Evel changed the spelling so he wouldn't seem so bad.
He worked as a hunting guide, then sold insurance and Hondas. If you beat him at arm wrestling, you won a free motorcycle. Some say he scammed people with a security guard business.
"A lot of Butte people really resent him to this day," says Mike Byrnes, who went to school with Knievel and now runs Butte Tours. "He's the most famous guy to come out of Butte. But we don't have any Evel sites on our tours.
"We've got a T-shirt, though. 'Butte, Montana: Birthplace of Evel Knievel. We apologize.' "
Knievel was 27, married and a father, when he set out to become a professional daredevil. He did everything: built the ramps, booked the venues, promoted the show. Pay him $500 and he'd jump two cars.
Then sponsors began upping the ante. Think you can jump six cars? We'll give you $1,500. Try seven - we'll make it $2,000.
Soon Knievel was coming up with his own stunts. How much would you pay me to jump buses? Sharks? The Grand Canyon?
"He always figured he'd at least try," says Rundle, who traveled with Knievel's entourage.
"This one time at the Cow Palace, he knew his bike wasn't getting up enough speed to make the jump. But Evel would never back down. He jumped anyway. That one broke him up pretty good."
Rundle was with Knievel in 1974 when the federal government said he couldn't jump the Grand Canyon. So Knievel had to settle for the Snake River Canyon. Promoters promised him $6-million.
For a week before the jump, ABC showed specials on how the stunt could go wrong, why the "Skycycle" - more rocket ship than motorcycle - wouldn't make it.
"They kept going over all the ways he could die," Rundle says. "And I don't think Evel thought he'd make it, either. But you know he'd just sit there watching all the reports and he never said anything to anyone. He never seemed to react. It was eerie."
- - -
Knievel needs oxygen. He lifts the dog from his lap, heaves himself out of the recliner.
He shuffles across his living room in white socks, past the Evel Knievel light-switch plate in his bedroom hall, past the photo of his second wedding, at Caesars Palace, where he once crashed so badly he spent a month in a coma.
Knievel opens his closet and pulls out the tubes that tether him to a tank. He flips on the machine, drinks in the air.
On the way back to the living room, he passes a table piled high with fan mail. A guy from St. Paul, Minn., sent an old photo of Evel leaping in front of a Ferris wheel. "I'm just wondering how you're doing," the man wrote. "You're extremely brave. I respect you." Knievel answers every inquiry - as long as he gets a self-addressed envelope, with postage.
"I never thought the empire would last this long," he says, easing back into his chair. He closes his eyes. The shadow of a smile seems to tug at his mouth.
Then he looks up, confused. "What year is it again?"
- - -
In the winter of 1976, Knievel wiped out after jumping a tank of live sharks, crushing both arms and his collarbone and suffering a severe concussion. He also smashed into a cameraman, who eventually lost an eye.
He did a few exhibitions after that - some with his son Robbie, now a grownup daredevil - then quit. He spent his time on golf courses and in casinos, gambling on everything, sometimes $100,000 on a football game.
Years later, after the IRS took some of his homes, Knievel cruised the highways in his custom RV, visiting car dealerships and Harley shops, towing a trailer filled with his past: the rocket he'd ridden into the canyon, five motorcycles, a skeleton illustrating the 35 bones he'd shattered. His appearances helped sell cars, put money in his pocket.
Then came liver disease and the strokes. Knievel can't go on the road anymore. He still does a few endorsements: Mini Coopers, a slot machine, a line of custom motorcycles. Last year, Evel toys were re- released. Even so, money is tight now; Knievel is trying to sell his custom RV.
These days, he says, he doesn't need an adrenaline rush. "The most joy I get now is waking up and wrapping my arms around my wife," he says. "But sometimes she sleeps way over on the other side of the bed and it's hard to get to her. Especially with the dogs between us."
More and more, he thinks about the life after this one. He says he knows God has a place for him. "My grandmother who raised me, she lived to 103, she'll be there waiting for me. And I hope she'll forgive me for all I put her through," Knievel says.
"She'll point her finger at me and say, 'I told you so, Bobby. I told you everything you wanted to do in life, you could. You can fall many times, but as long as you keep getting up, you'll never be a failure.' "
- - -
Evel Knievel needs a nap.
It's a couple of hours into the interview and he's talking about a stunt he never got to do. He wanted to jump out of a plane without a parachute and land in a haystack.
"They never let me do it," he says. "That's the only ..."
He nods off. Ten seconds go by, then 20. The dog licks his hand.
When Knievel wakes and sees the visitor still sitting there, he gets angry. He's embarrassed, frustrated, in pain. "You have to go," he says, narrowing his eyes. "I have been known to have quite a temper. And I'm taking medication to stop it. But now I've got to get some sleep."
He's yelling now, pointing a crooked finger. "You gotta go. NOW!"
As the visitor exits, Knievel waves. "Thanks for coming," he calls. "Maybe I'll see you in Butte."
- - -
A couple of weeks later Knievel makes it to Montana, but barely. Instead of staying with his daughter or in a hotel, he checks into an assisted living facility because he's weak and having trouble breathing.
"He's not doing very well," says his old friend, Bill Rundle. "But he says he'll hold on, at least long enough to lead the parade."
Rundle created Evel Knievel Days in 2002 as a way of honoring his buddy. The event brought bikers from across the West. Rundle hired stunt cyclists and built a dirt ramp in the middle of town and even got Robbie Knievel to be there for his dad.
Last year, about 30,000 people packed Butte for Evel days. More than 100 paid $100 each to dine with "Himself," as the program calls him. Organizers had sold tickets to this year's event long before Knievel had the stroke.
The day before the festival, Rundle is concerned. "We had a tearful two-hour conversation last night," he says. "Evel says he's not going back to Florida. He's going to get through this last show. Then he wants to die right here in Butte."
- - -
Late Friday afternoon, more than 1,000 cycles - Hondas and Harleys, trikes and choppers - fill the street in front of the Finlen Hotel. A white pickup is parked at the head of the pack. It's striped with red and blue, sprinkled with stars. Even the leather seats are custom Evel. This is his ride.
Soon Rundle slides into the truck. He looks tired and worried. Are those tears in his eyes?
The bikers follow, revving their engines. The ground seems to tremble.
"Where's Evel?" people in the crowd keep asking.
Four teenagers climb into the painted pickup. Turns out they're Evel's grandchildren. The truck pulls forward, without Knievel.
Evel misses his own parade.
- - -
That night in the hotel banquet room, Evel images are everywhere. Plastic place mats show a blurry Knievel in his Skycycle. A mannequin in his jumpsuit is propped by the bar.
The head table is empty.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Rundle says. "Welcome to the Evel Knievel social." He pauses. A few people clap. "Evel wasn't feeling too well tonight. They had to take him to the hospital to find out what's wrong.
"But you know him. He just called. He's already checked out. He's on his way back here to join you," Rundle says.
"He doesn't want anyone saying they want their money back."
The salads have just been served when Knievel limps in, leaning on two friends. He sits down gingerly, then waves. The hospital band is still around his wrist.
"Everyone, please, let's enjoy our dinner," he says. "I just had a little spell with blood pressure. I think it was too much heat and overexertion on my part. But I'm okay now. Let's eat."
Breathing heavily, pausing between bites, Knievel shovels salad into his mouth while people walk up to shake his shaking hand.
After the entree is served, Knievel summons one of his helpers. He pushes back his chair, leans on the handle of his oxygen tank. "Thank you all very much. I had a tough day," he says.
He unfolds a small square of paper, thanks his doctors and his sponsors, says he has a new custom motorcycle company and there's a rock opera being written about him. It's like that time at Wembley Stadium, where he crashed and broke everything and got up and talked to the crowd anyway.
"I hate to duck out right now," he says. "But I just have to. Thank you so much for coming to see me. God bless all of you."
When he stands up the audience does too, clapping and chanting "Evel, Evel, Evel!" Forty-two minutes after he arrived, Knievel makes his way to the door, propped up by a friend, but still standing.
November 11, 2007
Why an adopted boy's forever family gave him back.
On good nights - there were some - bedtime in the Bostock home began around 8:30, when Nancy called her three kids to put on their pajamas. • Her husband often traveled for business, so she was used to running the routine alone. •She'd let her older daughter, 13, watch TV while she snuggled with her younger daughter, who's 9. • Then came her 11-year-old son. He would cringe when Nancy tried to hug him, so she'd sit on the floor beside his bed. The boy would say, "Tell me my story." • "There was a woman who had a very special baby growing in her belly," the story starts. She picked out his name and gave him his handsome looks, his infectious smile. And she loved that baby and wanted him to grow up safe. When he was born, she couldn't take care of him. So she gave her baby to a social worker, who took him to a foster home. Then one day, when he was 4, his parents found him and brought him home. • "And that's how you came to live here with us," Nancy told her son. "We're your forever family." • Though he asked for his story almost every night, the boy seldom reacted to it. Nancy would kiss his forehead, smooth his Lion King sheets, lock his closet so he couldn't shred his clothes. She'd turn on the baby monitor. "Good night," she'd whisper. "Sweet dreams." • Then she'd make sure the kitchen knives were locked up and drag the sofa into the hall between her kids' rooms. She kept a sleepy vigil all night on that couch, trying to keep everyone safe from her son.
Two weeks ago, Nancy made the front page when she told a state senate committee she was giving up her adopted son.
He tried to kill her, she said.
To get him the help he needs, she said, she has to turn the sixth- grader back to the foster system.
"I'm his mom and I will love him forever," she told Florida's Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. "I don't want my son to come out as some sort of villain. He was born into this. ... He's a hurt child."
How can a mom give up her own son? Especially a mom like Nancy?
A former social studies teacher, Nancy, 39, has served on the Pinellas County School Board since 1998. She works with Headstart, volunteers as a Guardian Ad Litem to protect foster children. She has better credentials, better knowledge of resources than most parents. "If I can't find the help he needs," she said, "who could?"
Her husband, Craig, 43, said he feels like a failure. They've exhausted every option. "There will always be people who think we could've done a better job," he said. "But I don't know how."
What happened in that home?
How could parents who set out to give a little boy a forever family decide he would be better off without them?
- - -
On Nancy and Craig's third date, at the University of Florida, he told her he had been adopted as an infant and, some day, he wanted to adopt.
Three years after they married, Nancy gave birth to a daughter. Three years later, they adopted a 3-day-old girl. They started searching for another child almost right away.
Gender and race didn't matter. Craig and Nancy are white, but they'd bought a two-story home in a racially diverse neighborhood so a child of another ethnicity would feel more like he fit in.
Nancy was drawn to dozens of little faces, but for two years, they couldn't make a match. Finally, on a Web page of foster kids, Craig found a 4-year-old African-American boy.
The boy's mother had done drugs and drank while pregnant, his caseworker told them. He was developmentally delayed, had ADHD and had been bounced through at least seven foster homes.
"We thought, 'He's only 4. We're a stable, loving family,' " Nancy said. " 'How bad could it be?' "
They visited him at his Polk County foster home, where he lived with a single mom and eight other foster boys. He was loud and wild, then quiet and withdrawn. They fell in love with his shy smile.
When they strapped their new son into his car seat to take him home, "He was like a feral animal," Nancy said. Clawing, kicking, shrieking.
In hindsight, Nancy said, he acted like he was being kidnapped.
- - -
In adoption classes, they'd been warned: The first year will be hard. They braced for temper tantrums and time outs. No one could have prepared them for the furor of their small son.
Right away, he called them Mom and Dad. And ugly and stupid. The worst words he knew.
Nancy had filled his new room with a train and farm set, a puppet who looked like him. She even found an African-American doll for the Fisher-Price dollhouse. But her new son turned every toy into a weapon.
He hurled trucks at his sisters, tore up video games, punched the walls until they looked like Swiss cheese. The smallest things would set him off: Put on your shoes, brush your teeth.
He would say: I can take care of myself. I don't need you!
Therapists diagnosed him with Reactive Attachment Disorder, a condition some doctors don't acknowledge. The disorder is said to be caused when infants are shuttled from home to home, making it impossible for them to bond, trust or accept affection. These children often fail to develop a conscience. They can be friendly to strangers but lash out at those closest to them.
"He'd grown to depend on himself. So if you asked him to do something, he just wanted to fight," Craig said.
There were good times, family dinners, trips to Disney World. They took him to Busch Gardens, fishing and to church. They took him to social workers, psychologists and pediatricians. They tried all sorts of pills, punishments and rewards. They talked to their pastor. They called police.
"We just kept thinking if we're firm, loving and consistent," Nancy said, "eventually he'll come around and want to be part of this family."
I hate you. I don't want to live here, the boy screamed. For five years.
- - -
By age 9, the boy was taller than his mom. Nancy couldn't catch him when he ran. She dreaded even taking him to Publix; he always broke something or acted out. She wasn't embarrassed, she said. But she knew how things must seem. Here she was, a School Board member, and she couldn't control her own kid.
Her son had never had any real friends, she said. Soccer teams and scout troops didn't help him bond. At his own birthday party, he stood alone, watching the other kids splash in the pool.
To strangers, he often seemed polite and withdrawn. At school, in special education and mainstream classes, he behaved better. Until one day when Nancy was out of town and Craig got a call at Honeywell, where he works.
Their son had run out of class and was raging through the school office, tearing things off shelves, ignoring the counselor's pleas. "That's the first time I'd seen that cold look of defiance directed at someone other than me or Nancy," Craig said. "Things were different after that."
He started kicking the dog. He threw a brick at his sister's head. That summer, the family went to Hawaii. When Nancy took the kids to get ice cream, her son body-slammed his cousin. Back in the van, he reached from the back seat and pulled his mom's seatbelt across her neck. Tight.
"All of a sudden, everything got quiet and I couldn't see," Nancy said. "I don't know how I got the car pulled off the road."
In Florida, Nancy found Carlton Manor, a residential treatment program for boys with behavioral issues. The year-long program ran five days a week. She could bring him home on weekends.
She thought that was a good thing.
- - -
In October 2005, Nancy helped her son pack. He moved into a dormlike room with another boy. On weekends, his whole family was supposed to follow the program's strict rules.
If he challenged his parents' authority, they were to withhold all privileges. But how do you tell your daughters they can't go to the movies because their brother has been sitting on the time out sofa for eight hours, refusing to brush his teeth? "He would rather defy us," Nancy said, "than do anything else."
One weekend in June 2006, the 10-year-old tacked a suicide note to his door. Nancy caught him in the kitchen and wrestled a butcher knife from his hand. He started sneaking out at night. Craig had to put an alarm on their front door.
On the advice of another therapist, they disbanded almost all rules. If their son didn't want to brush his teeth, fine. He went days without showering, Nancy said. He started to smell.
He spent 16 months at Carlton Manor, much longer than his allotted year. In January, his therapist said he wasn't ready to come home. But he could no longer stay there.
There had to be another place, another program. Three times, Nancy met with workers from the Department of Children and Families. Her son was too badly behaved for one program, they told her; not psychotic enough for another. He had been Baker Acted three times. The Bostocks had maxed out their insurance and spent thousands on treatment. They couldn't afford $60,000 a year for a private facility.
If parents have money, they can afford private placement; if they're destitute, the government will help. But for the middle class, there are few options. Finally, Nancy found the Attachment Trauma Network. Online, Nancy found 200 other parents, mostly of adopted children, struggling with the same behavior.
"It was such a backward relief, just to know we weren't the only ones," Nancy said. She searched for an expert on the subject, but couldn't find one. Time was running out.
In March, just before her son was to be discharged, Nancy had him in the car with her older daughter. Behind her, she heard a voice she didn't recognize saying, "I'm going to kill Mom."
Her daughter replied: You don't even have any weapons.
Oh yes I do, the boy said. I've got pencils, and they're really sharp, and some other stuff too.
When Nancy searched her son's room, she found a pack of pencils and a power cord stashed in a hole he'd kicked below the window. "In some ways, I looked at his little plan to kill me with something bordering on admiration," Nancy said. "I mean, that took a lot of planning and organization, which is something he doesn't normally show us."
She started sliding the sofa into the hall at night, to keep an eye on his door.
- - -
If the Bostocks had fostered the boy instead of adopting him - if he had stayed in the system - he would qualify for help. Finally, his therapist suggested: Maybe you should send him back.
Nancy was shocked. She had never thought of giving up her son. What kind of mother would?
"It was the opposite of everything I thought was right," she said.
Some kids, the therapist said, actually do better without someone loving them - or at least, without someone who expects to be loved back.
On March 17, Nancy asked the DCF committee for help one last time. She says they told her: Take him home. After he hurts you, we can help.
Nancy could have tried to have him declared mentally ill, so he could be sent to an institution. She could have charged him with abuse, had cops cart him off to a juvenile detention facility.
Instead, she called the child abuse hotline - on herself. "I can no longer keep my son safe," she said. He was leaping out of the car, sprawling in the street, perching on the balcony.
The system is set up to protect kids from parents, not parents from kids. For the state to take a child, the parents have to be charged with neglect, abuse or abandonment. Craig and Nancy consented to abandonment. A judge agreed to let them visit their son.
When officers came to take him, Nancy expected the boy to rage or - maybe - cry and beg to stay. He bolted. "He didn't want to go with them," Nancy said. "But he didn't want to stay."
Craig chased him and brought him back. The boy picked up his bags, turned to the people who had been his parents for seven years and asked, "Why can't I take the PlayStation?"
- - -
On good days - there are more now - Sundays in the Bostock home include a trip to see their son at his new foster home.
He's been back in state custody for eight months. The last time he was home was August, for his little sister's birthday. Holes still pock the walls; his Lion King sheets are still on his bed.
Next year, the Bostocks will have to decide whether to terminate their parental rights. They don't want to. They're still hoping someday their son can come home.
"It feels better, now, when we're with him," Nancy said. "With him out of the house, we don't have the constant battles."
Last Sunday, Nancy took her son to Sonny's Bar-B-Que. They talked for two hours.
When it was time to drop him off, she reached to hug her little boy. He stiffened as usual. "It's all right," she said. "You don't have to."
She stepped aside, to give him space. To her surprise, he sidled next to her. He tipped his head, just slightly, until it touched her shoulder.
About the story: This story was reported through interviews with the Bostocks, who did not want their children’s names included. Their son was not available for an interview.
December 11, 2007
A postman with a big heart delivers much more than mail.
On his day off, the mailman returns to his route.
He drives a beat-up Cherokee with a homemade trailer hitched to the bumper, parks in front of a little blue house on a corner lot tangled with weeds.
He carries no mailbag. He has nothing to deliver. Except his time.
The mailman unlocks his trailer and rolls a red lawn mower onto the yard. He tugs a battered ball cap over his sandy hair and wades into the weeds.
"This is Jack's house," says the mailman.
It all started at Jack's house.
Eric Wills' postal route takes him on a 10-mile hike through the center of the city.
He starts with businesses along Central Avenue, but most of his route is residential. The neighborhoods are mixed, racially and economically. Immaculate two-story homes tower over boarded-up bungalows.
Wills, 30, has been walking the same streets for six years. When he was offered a better route, closer to his home in the Northeast Park area of St. Petersburg, he refused. Somewhere along these cracked sidewalks he found his path.
These are his people: all 480.
He knows who's on vacation, whose in-laws have moved in, who gets the best catalogs, the most bills. When mail starts coming addressed just to Mrs., he knows there's no longer a Mr.
He delivers directly to each house - climbs those steps, stands on those porches. Elderly residents call their thanks through mail slots.
For some, Wills is the only person who ever comes to the door.
Ask him about the people on his route and he'll tell you about Miss Lucille, 86, who worked on Navy ships during World War II; and Miss Betty, 83, whose Irish wolfhound weighs more than she does.
And he'll talk about Jack and his overgrown lawn.
- - -
Iron banisters flank the front steps of Jack's little blue house. Two summers ago, they were strangled with vines. To get the mail to the front door, Wills had to fight through a jungle.
The mailman didn't know much about Jack, except that he was old and seldom got out. A frail-looking girlfriend who didn't seem to speak English lived with him.
For weeks, the mailman struggled through the thicket, silently cursing the man who wouldn't mow his yard. One day, he heard a voice. His conscience? God?
Someone should mow that yard!
When Wills' letter bag was empty, he drove home and loaded the lawn mower into the back of his Cherokee.
Then he returned to the middle of his mail route.
He knocked on Jack's door, said he wanted to cut the yard. Just to help. No charge. "That yard is the least of my worries," the old man barked.
So Wills mowed that corner lot. Two weeks later, he mowed it again. Even after the old man moved into a nursing home, the mailman kept mowing his yard. As long as Jack's girlfriend was getting the mail, the mailman would look after the lawn.
For two years, Wills has been cutting Jack's lawn. That yard led to another, and another, and another. ...
- - -
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Wills pours gas into the push mower in Jack's yard and bends to pull the cord. The ancient engine chokes to life.
Wills is tall, with broad shoulders. His calves are thick knots from hiking his route, from pushing that mower on his day off. He longs for a rider, or at least a commercial grade push model. But with the price of gas these days, he can barely afford to fill his tank.
He turns the mower to the sidewalk, shoves his wire-rim glasses higher on his nose. As he starts to cut, a car pulls up and a dark- haired woman gets out.
"Aren't you the mailman?" she asks.
Wills nods and shuts off the mower.
"My mother lives here. Jack's girlfriend?" says the woman. "Didn't you get her note?"
- - -
In time, word spread about the mowing mailman. Much of it, Wills spread himself.
Once he started seeing overgrown yards not as eyesores but as a sign someone needed help, he began knocking on doors along his route. He told churches about his service. Other letter carriers sent referrals.
Wills cuts 15 yards now - for free. In the winter, he comes every two weeks; in summer, he tries to make it weekly. His record is eight yards in a day.
He works alone, in silence, except for the hum of the mower. No iPod or headphones intrude. He says he thinks about nothing. Everything. Mowing, he says, gives him peace.
Several years ago, Wills hurt his foot playing pickup basketball. Every step was agony. He worried he'd have to give up his postal route. So he prayed. And God healed him, he says.
He had been searching for a way to give back. But until he got engulfed in Jack's yard, he wasn't sure how. Now he knows: His calling smells like grass.
"It's just my little way of making a difference," he says. Some of these folks wish they could get out and mow; many can't afford $100 a month for a lawn service. They sit at home, watching through their windows while things get worse.
"A yard is a reflection of the person who lives there," Wills says. "So why not help them feel better?"
Lucille Formanek, 86, calls Wills "a blessing from heaven." A self-described old maid, she has lived alone since her mother died. "He's such a nice, strong young man."
Wills and his brother built a trailer to haul lawn gear. They painted a stick man on the side, mowing around a huge brown cross. Sprayed-on letters say, "Lawns for the Lord."
But the mailman's ministry includes more than mowing.
He rented a bush hog to clear an aged man's five lots; carried out garbage for a retired nun - then paved a path to her garbage bin; dug up azaleas for a single mom; moved heavy planters for a widow; brought his 7-year-old daughter to play piano for a lonely old lady. Recently he replaced a lightbulb for an elderly woman who said she hadn't been able to read her thermostat for weeks.
"In all that time, I was the only person who'd come to her door," Wills said. "What if I hadn't come?"
- - -
The little blue house has a postage stamp porch. Shaggy shrubs fan across the mailbox. Usually, Jack's girlfriend is good about bringing in the mail.
But just before Thanksgiving, letters started piling up.
All those holiday fliers buried the note.
It's folded in the bottom of the mailbox, written on torn paper. Wills fishes it out and walks across the yard. He smooths the message over the handle of his mower.
To: Mr. Mailman
Thank you for your help cutting the grass. Jack died last night and I will be moving out. Again, thank you very much.
The note was signed Zaida. Wills had never known her name.
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