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Are You Taking Petey?




Excerpted from
The Things I Want Most : The Extraordinary Story of a Boy's Journey to a Family of His Own
By Richard Miniter

We met Mike at the children's home. I had envisioned an Army Reserve Center without the jeeps parked in front. Instead I saw a converted nineteenth-century Hudson Valley mansion, a sprawling multistory Tudor with slate roofs and stained-glass mullioned windows set down in carefully landscaped grounds.

And for some reason, that made me very edgy.

Inside was quiet-too quiet-and the interior matched the plush facade. We were ushered into a library room on the ground level with a bank of French doors opening on a bluestone patio that was shaded from the bright summer sun by awnings. The library was lined with oak paneling and hung with dark burgundy draperies. There are supposed to be eighty kids in here, I puzzled. Why isn't there any noise? There wasn't even a picture of a child on the wall.

Eerie. It reminded me of something. What?

Sue and I sat at the polished wide oval table in the center of the room along with Joanne and the group leader for Mike's team at the home, a straightforward, soft-spoken young man named Kevin.

Kevin spoke first. He wore a shy, awkward smile, not wanting to disappoint us, trying to choose his words carefully.

"Look," he said reluctantly, "I have to confess that I find it hard to agree with the purpose of this meeting. I want all of my children to have a home and a family. But Mike is difficult He can be very charming when he wants to, but he goes through cycles, weeks sometimes, where he's difficult, almost impossible to deal with. Just getting him out of bed in the morning can take an hour or two. Getting him back to bed at night can take even longer. He needs structure, a lot of structure."

That struck home. Structure was a key word in the Harbour training. Some of these kids had never had a regular bedtime, mealtime, or bathtime.

Yet that made me question the sort of structure our own children had had from us. Was it enough? Was there any to speak of? Years before we had built a house on Mountain Road in Rosendale, New York, twenty-five miles north of where we were now. It was a very secluded, wooded location up, as the name implies, on a mountain named Shawangunk. The six children had regular mealtimes and bedtimes, their clothes were washed and their lunches made every morning, but we also practiced something Sue called "benign neglect," and that meant in great measure the children working out their own lives. Susanne, the only girl, played with her go-cart and baby carriage on the front lawn or with an immense Barbie doll collection in her room. If she left the property, it was to walk down the road to her grandmother's Richard, the eldest, after an initial period when he explored the woods alone, either gravitated to his room where he read, also walked or biked down the road to his grandmother's, and often traveled much farther down to visit friends from school But the three middle boys, Henry, Frank, and Brendan, ran wild together on Shawangunk. Almost from the time they could walk they were in the woods together, and we never worried very much about them, although a few incidents still manage to dredge up a hefty feeling of guilt.

One of these was the lost locomotive.

The three boys came back one day and said they had found an old railroad engine in the woods I didn't believe a word of it. I had hunted much of the mountain for years and didn't remember anything at all like that.

But Henry, Frank, and Brendan led me right to it. Standing on a set of rusting rails where it had been abandoned just after the second world war was a cannibalized diesel locomotive, the small type that would be called a yard engine. It must have been used for logging. At one time there had been a narrow-gauge railway along the top of Shawangunk, but the land had long since reverted to hardwood and the roadbed was abandoned.

I was shocked. Not because I hadn't seen it before, but because it was miles from the house. Henry then was about ten, Frank eight, and Brendan six years old. I remembered peering down at them and saying, "You kids shouldn't wander this far from home." But the look I got back from all three would bother me for years. It was a sliding, sidelong appraisal that seemed to say, "You haven't the foggiest idea of what we've been up to and where we've been, and now that we've told you one thing, what do you do? You go and turn adult on us. Soooo, I don't think well be telling you anything else anytime soon."

"Don't give me that look," I threatened

"Sure, Dad," the three of them chimed back, smirking at each other.

And that was about the quality of the structure I had supplied for my own children.

Sitting there at the conference table with Joanne, Sue, and Kevin, listening to a lecture on structure, I said to myself, Richard, even if through some wild chance Sue wants to go further with this mad idea, you 're the last person a kid like this needs. You can't do this! Not you!

I turned to Sue and tried to get her attention, wanting to pull her outside where I could say all of this. But she was intent on Kevin, facing him with much the same look on her face as those three boys years ago in the woods.

Then I looked over at Joanne for help, but she refused to make eye contact. She had been through enough of these meetings that she could read the nuances like a book, and she knew I was getting even more hinky.

The four of us sat there with our own agendas. Sue wanted to rescue somebody, Kevin wanted to protect his charge from a situation he believed primed for failure, I wanted to be anywhere else, and Joanne, certain in her belief that Harbour offered this child one last shot at something like a normal life, was hoping against hope that the potential mother wouldn't tear this poor counselor's head off or the father go AWOL.



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