I hope I'm leaving it the right way. I really do. Tomorrow I celebrate (really? Celebrate?) 50 years of life. (Technically, my birthday falls on Sunday. But who the shit parties on Sunday?) I said I was going to finish putting the book online before my birthday, and I will at least have accomplished that. For those of you who have stuck with me from Chapter One, my appreciation and outright love for you knows no boundaries. And thank you to everyone who contributed financially, or simply by telling a friend or two about the blog, and passing these chapters along. If I ever get to see any of you face-to-face, I will hug the shit out of you. (That sounded way better in my head.)
And so, here is the final chapter of Making Sh*t Up: An Improvised Life, which is a book I wrote. And lived. And a book you read all the way to the end. Thanks for that.
When Shit Comes Around
One last Wishbone story for the road. Whatever religion or belief system you happen to be a part of, I’ll bet there’s a bit in there somewhere that says, essentially, “It all comes back around.” What you put out in the world is almost always what you’ll get back. What follows is the best example of that from my professional life, and one that still chokes me the fuck up, even as I’m writing about it. Bear with me, kids.
The year was 1997. We were in pre-production on the second season of Wishbone. I’ve already made it evident how I was feeling about the corporate types at Lyrick Studios during those days, so I was none too happy when I got a call from one of them, a woman from the Public Relations Department. She explained to me that she’d gotten a call from the director of Parkland Hospital in Dallas. The story went like this:
There was a family of missionaries, deep in the African bush, bringing much-needed medical attention to some very remote villages. One night, while the entire village was gathered around a huge bonfire, one of the children of the missionary family, a boy of about eight years, tripped and fell head first into the fire. The boy’s father reached into the conflagration and pulled his son out, severely injuring himself in the process. But it was evident to all that the boy’s injuries were life-threatening. The family piled into an old Land Rover, and drove four hours across rutted dirt tracks to the nearest town that had an actual hospital.
No doctor in residence at that clinic could have saved that boy’s life. But it just so happened that another group of American doctors was at that particular clinic, at that particular time. And one of them just happened to be the head physician of the Burn Unit at Parkland Hospital, in Dallas. The doctor immediately commandeered a private jet, and flew the boy and his family back to Dallas that night. The trip was excruciating for all, but particularly the boy, who had suffered second and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body.
After days of treatment, and taking great care to avoid infections, the boy was finally able to communicate with his family. They were looking for anything to take his mind off the pain, and they asked him if he’d like to watch TV. And he said he’d like to watch Wishbone. Evidently he was a huge fan of the show. So much so that the friends of this family would tape episodes in the states, then mail them to the missionaries in Africa. But they had literally left all their belongings on another continent, flying home with their injured son with only the clothes on their backs. The director of Parkland Hospital heard about it, and he made a call to Lyrick Studios, and they made a call to me.
The folks at Lyrick, to their everlasting credit and compassion, had created a gigantic gift basket for the boy. It contained every episode of the show that was currently available on video, several plush toys, custom book markers, advance copies of several of the new Adventures of Wishbone books for young readers, and various other little Wishbone toys and keepsakes. They wanted me to deliver the basket.
I wish I could tell you I jumped at the opportunity. The truth is, I balked. I was scared shitless, actually. How would I react when I saw this kid? What if I freaked out? What if I did what I very often do in weird or awkward or tragic situations, and said or did something incredibly stupid or insensitive, and made it worse? Truth to tell, folks, I almost said no.
But then the little voice started talking, the one that usually talks to me after I’ve fucked something completely up. This isn’t about you, asshole. Here’s a thought: why don’t you grow a pair of balls, and take a gift basket to a kid who could really use a pick-me-up right about now? You don’t have to be “on,” and you don’t even have to be comfortable. You’re not going to save his life, but you might just make him forget for a few minutes how much his life sucks right now. So man up, funny boy. (And yes. That’s how the little voice talks to me. Not like Yoda, or Mister Miyagi, or any wise old sage. Just a slightly smart-assier version of me.)
If you’ve never been to Parkland Hospital, it’s easy to get lost. And I did. Twice. Fortunately a very nice receptionist walked me up to the Burn Unit, through a maze of corridors so bewildering, I was already planning on living at Parkland, seeing as how I’d never find my way out. We arrived at the proper room, and I guess I thought there’d be a suit or two from the Lyrick PR department to greet me. But there wasn’t. I knocked, and a very petite, weary-looking woman opened the door.
“Hello. I’m Larry Brantley. I work on the television show Wishbone, and I was wondering if I could say hi to Marcus.” (Not his real name.) The weary-looking woman (Marcus’ mom) smiled. They were expecting me. Everybody, that is, except Marcus. His mom walked ahead of me, towards the bed in the center of the room. Marcus was awake, and she quietly informed him he had a visitor. Then she stepped to the side. Seeing that kid for the first time and not losing my shit right there and then was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m fucking crying right now at the memory of it.
His face was, miraculously, unharmed. But from the throat down he was completely covered in bandages. And he was in such obvious pain. My heart broke - fucking shattered - for this kid. In that moment, all I wanted was to punch the throat of God himself, so great was my sense of injustice for this little boy. Instead, I said, “Hey, Marcus. I’m Larry. I brought something for you.” I held up the basket so he could see it. I won’t tell you that his eyes lit up like it was Christmas, and he’d just gotten that Red Ryder BB Gun he’d been begging Santa for. The truth is, Marcus was heavily sedated to ward off the unimaginable pain that accompanies severe burns. But he recognized it as a gift, and what I saw in his eyes was gratitude.
My plan had been to simply drop off the basket, tell Marcus I hoped he’d start to feel better, and make a hasty exit. But then his mom pulled up a chair for me, so I sat down beside him. And that was when I realized that the TV was on in his room. And he was watching my show. I can’t remember exactly which episode it was (it might have been Robin Hood, possibly Ivanhoe), and it occurred to me that Marcus had no idea who I was. He only knew I was some guy who worked on his favorite show, who had brought him a gift basket. The remote was on his bed, so I picked it up and muted the volume. Without looking at Marcus – and while he was still looking at the screen – I Flipped The Switch in my head, and began doing a running commentary on the episode – as Wishbone.
Until that moment, I don’t think most of the people in his room knew who I was. The looks of utter shock were priceless. But the coolest part of all of it was that, the whole time I was talking about the show in Wishbone’s voice, Marcus never looked at me. He continued to watch the screen, and a big, goofy smile started to walk across his face. When that happened, I saw his mom put her face in her hands. I knew she was crying. Turns out that had been the first smile Marcus could muster since the terrible events of days before. It was so cool, the way you could tell that he didn’t want to break the spell by looking at me. So we both watched the TV, and I continued Wishbone’s live commentary, talking about how we pulled off a certain shot, or how many times that particular take got busted because somebody laughed, or farted, and other behind-the-scenes nuggets – all in the voice of his favorite TV character.
When the episode ended, I finally looked back around at him. In my own voice I said, “Pretty cool, huh?” He nodded, but even as he did I could see the smile leaving him. The illusion was gone; the reality of his situation was crawling back over him. And in that moment I remembered Tony Fucking Vilardi, the one kid in junior high school who hadn’t been afraid to say the honest thing to me, when he’d heard my dad had killed himself.
I looked Marcus square in the eye and, with tears in my own, said, “I know, man. It sucks. It really sucks. Keep fighting though, okay? Keep fighting even though it sucks, because eventually it won’t suck anymore.” That was it. That was all I had. It had sounded lame as shit to my ears, but it was the most honest thing I could say. The last thing that happened that afternoon was that his family requested some photo-ops. I had to be very careful leaning into the shot with him, because protocol dictated that I couldn’t breathe on this kid, let alone touch him. But we got some satisfactory pictures, and I bid Marcus and his family goodbye, making promises to stay in touch, which of course I never did. I held it together long enough to make a dignified exit from his room, and then I hauled ass out of the Burn Unit, out of Parkland Hospital, where I jumped in my car and fell the fuck apart for the better part of an hour. When I finally decided I was okay enough to drive, I made the 45 minute commute back to my house, totally ignored my wife’s questions about how it went, and proceeded to get knee-walking drunk. The last coherent thought I had that day was really just a dirty, selfish little prayer: Please, God. Please don’t ever make me have to do that again.
But it all comes around, remember?
Flash forward ten years. 2007. I was in my “Jesus Is My Homeboy” phase, and my family and I were part of a very large church in North Texas, where I was known, not as the Wishbone guy, but rather as the guy who appeared on stage in any humorous sketch that was a part of that week’s sermon. One Sunday after the last service, while everybody was milling around in the “worship center” (when you’re non-denominational and hip, you have a worship center, not a chapel), my friend Scott, the Worship Arts Pastor (aka the guy who chose the songs each week) came up to me, and began to tell me a story about going to a “Meet The Teacher” night at his daughter’s elementary school the previous week. In the classroom of his daughter’s reading teacher, he noticed something of a relic on top of the bookshelves: an old Wishbone plush doll, in his Romeo and Juliet costume. Scott, clearly in an effort to look like a badass in front of his kid, remarked to the teacher that he just so happened to be friends with the guy who provided the voice of Wishbone on the television series. And that was when, according to Scott, the teacher got very still, and very quiet, and he saw tears welling up in her eyes. And she proceeded to tell him a story: that ten years ago, she and her family had been missionaries in Africa. That her son had been terribly burned in an accident. And, while lying in the Burn Unit at Parkland, awaiting what would be a series of painful reconstructive surgeries, he had been paid a visit by a guy in a flannel shirt and a baseball cap, with a giant gift basket and a familiar voice.
As Scott was recounting this tale, he reached in his jacket pocket and withdrew an envelope with my name on it. The envelope contained a letter, written by Marcus’s mom (the teacher), and two photographs. I will not reprint that letter here. Those words of appreciation are between me, and the family of a boy I was fortunate enough to make smile, during the worst moments of his young life. The first photograph I remembered well: a slightly askew picture of Marcus and me, I with my perpetual dopey grin, him with just a slight smile only around the eyes. But it was the second photograph that drove me to my knees. It was a picture of a seventeen year-old Marcus, in full marching band regalia, blowing on a trumpet like he was Dizzy Fuckin’ Gillespie. He had the special gloves on to protect his still-growing new skin. But he was in the fucking marching band, man. And he was killing it. It had sucked, and he had kept fighting. There were words written on the back of the pic that said, simply, “Thank you, Mr. Brantley!”And with that, it came back around.
Here Endith The Shit
The author, and the young lady to whom this book is dedicated. Love you, Boo Bear.