A Day in the Life . . . The science of friendship

Tom, left, with his Camp Munroe buddy, volunteer Joshua Price.

“Are you my friend?”

That’s my son Tom’s pickup line. He uses it most often on the playground when he wants to connect with another kid. Needless to say, most kids think the question — coming in a slightly sing-song tone from a boy they’ve never met before — is a little weird.

Most kids think my son is a little weird.

My son is at Camp Munroe for the next two weeks. He’s 7, and this will be his first time at the camp — at any camp. He was diagnosed “on the autism spectrum” – officially, pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified – when he was a little older than 2.

We don’t want the moon from this camp. In the five years since Tom’s diagnosis, our expectations have continually modified. My great hope for the next two weeks is that Tom will come out of the experience with a friend.

Seems like such a little thing, doesn’t it? But apart from his siblings and cousins, Tom doesn’t have many friends. There are some children at school he names as friends when you press him, but he’s rarely been invited to any birthday parties. When his own seventh birthday rolled around, we sent out 28 invitations to a bowling party and were ecstatic to get five kids.

Most of the time, Tom doesn’t really seem to care. He’s not huddled in a corner of his room, wondering why no one likes him. He watches music videos, he shoots baskets, he rides his skateboard (under close supervision) and plays with his dog. He’s happy.

I care, of course. I worry for the day when he’ll try to make a connection and fail and be hurt. That’s why he’s here at UNMC this week. He spends the school year working hard, he’s 70 percent mainstreamed, he reads near grade level despite some comprehension issues – but he doesn’t know how to connect.

On a tour of the camp last week, I was struck by how withdrawn my son was. At home, when it’s just the five of us, he is outgoing and confident. He can even be combative if he thinks his brother or sister is being unfair, and my older son Joe had better watch out if he teases my daughter, Rosemary. Nobody picks on Rosemary when Tom’s around.

He can be sneaky if he’s trying to get away with something. (Mountain Dew at 7:50 a.m.? Who needs to ask permission?) And he has a little boy’s sense of humor.

On the tour, he showed none of that. He wouldn’t meet staffer Nicole Giron’s eyes. He wouldn’t answer her questions, unless she got face-to-face with him (in a very friendly way) and basically left him no choice.

He was excited by what he saw – the play areas, the other kids, and especially the pool. Monday morning, when my wife got up, he was sitting on the living room couch, holding his bathing suit on his lap.

“It’s Monday,” he informed my wife. “I’m going to play basketball in the pool.”

I hope, when he plays basketball in the pool, he plays with other children.

He’ll probably ask “Are you my friend?”

Maybe one of them will say “Yes.”

A speaker that's out of this world

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If you’re going to see an astronaut, you want him to wear the jumpsuit. You just do. Clayton Anderson knows this. And the man came through.

As he strode through the Truhlsen Events Center to sit for a group photo at the 2013 UNMC orthopaedic surgery residency graduation, he wore the iconic blue jumpsuit. No doubt there was an astronaut in the room.

“Did they let you keep that?” I asked him. “Or did you just stuff it in a bag on the way out?”

Anderson’s eyes twinkled. “I stole it,” he said. He may or may not have been kidding. But either way, NASA got off easy. It was that or the helmet.

Anderson knows his role: If people come to see an astronaut, you’ve got to dress the part.

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Everyone wants to take a picture with an astronaut.

And Anderson is not just an astronaut, but our astronaut. He was born in Omaha, grew up in Ashland, Neb., dreaming of going to space. When he was 5, he marched in a parade in Ashland, wearing a space suit made of aluminum foil that his mother made.

“I got second place,” he said.

He was recently on campus to deliver the Harold and Marian Andersen Lectureship for Orthopaedic Surgery at ortho graduation.

He was a good get: Kevin Garvin, M.D., chair of orthopaedic surgery, explained that Anderson had retired from NASA with 167 days in space, was the 27th all-time space walker, and also, that he’d “appeared on the History Channel with Larry the Cable Guy.”

You know, in no particular order.

The astronaut took the mic noting that he, too, had lots of orthopaedic experience: “I’ve had two knee surgeries.”

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He talked about important things: Like the wonder of a kid who dreamed of going to space actually getting to do it; of the scientific discoveries gleaned from NASA work; of the tax dollars needed to keep those discoveries coming.

But he had fun, too: He talked of getting into trouble for floating into view on NASA TV’s live feed with boxer shorts on his head, and for putting Husker red N’s on the side of white space helmets.

(It sounds like he got in trouble a lot.)

It’s cool to be an astronaut. You get to meet celebrities. Like the pope: “He was very pope-like.” And the Harlem Globetrotters: “I went on the floor as one of their flunkies.” President Bush: “He made fun of my bald head.” And, the aforementioned Larry the Cable Guy:

“He’s a great man,” Anderson said.

Anderson asked the comedian if there was anything he wanted taken into space, and Larry immediately gave him the shirt off his back. (That was … a moment.) After a NASA-insisted upon “387 washings” Clayton Anderson wore the trademark sleeveless shirt. In space.

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But it was a long road to get there. The line was so long to go to space that Anderson and his classmates called themselves “the penguins”: All dressed up and no place to go.

Then he made it, at last. Anderson is sure there were many asking how in the world the guy from Nebraska got to be the one to go.

But go he did. And now when he meets with people, he knows what it means.

Ellison Onizuka went to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, and was later one of the seven astronauts killed with the crash of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Ellison Onizuka went to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, and was later one of the seven astronauts killed with the crash of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Anderson was not my first astronaut. When I was a kid in Hawaii, Ellison Onizuka came to my elementary school. He was from the same place we were. He’d grown up not far from our very school. He grew up dreaming of going to space. And he’d gone.

There he was, an astronaut.

I’ll never forget it.

He wore that blue suit.

This time capsule's all wet

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Going all the way back to the days of the tombs of the pharaohs – or at least going back to that time Geraldo Rivera broke into Al Capone’s vault – mankind has been fascinated by time capsules. It’s innate in us: What treasures lie buried which were left by those who came before?

And so it was that a group of us recently gathered in a parking lot, eager to gaze upon the contents of a metal box.

It had been unearthed from beneath Swanson Hall Plaza. The time capsule had been buried and “sealed” (more about those quotation marks in a minute) 20 years ago, on June 3, 1993, just after the Durham Outpatient Center opened in May of that year. But the campus continues to make way for the new cancer center. So, the guys from the UNMC facilities management and planning department had dug it up.

Don pries open the time capsule.

Don pries open the time capsule.

As we walked up, they had the box tilted, and water was draining out.

Ooh. That can’t be good.

Don Dickmeyer pried it open, peered inside.

The verdict? Ick.

Ick.

Ick.

“It’s not very pretty,” someone said.

“History ain’t pretty sometimes,” said John Schleicher, UNMC’s resident historian.

Mud. Water. Muck. Junk. But Schleicher dug in. Someone went to get gloves, but Schleicher couldn’t wait. Then Dickmeyer donned the gloves and got elbow-deep. They pulled stuff from the muck. UNMC shoelaces. College of Nursing playing cards. VHS videotapes, ruined and soaked.

Let's go to the videotape!

Let’s go to the videotape!

“We couldn’t play these even if we had something to play them with!” someone said.

Old, soaked newspapers. A floppy disc.

“That reminds me of a joke,” Schleicher said.

(And suddenly, we find ourselves in a Charlie Sheen-era episode of “Two and a Half Men.”)

But no jokes were required. Everyone had already laughed, at the mere sight of a floppy disc.

Ha ha! Look! A floppy disc!

Don consults the plans found in the time capsule.

Don consults the plans found in the time capsule.

There was more. What’s that? “Photos,” Dickmeyer said. “But they totally washed out.”

“They disintegrated,” Tom O’Connor said. “It looks like kids’ water colors!”

That’s all that was left.

It was as if someone’s old basement had been flooded – for 20 years.

John Keenan, UNMC Today editor, is a serious journalist. He gets to the bottom of things. What, he asked, was the technical mistake behind what had happened to the time capsule?

“It leaked,” Don Dickmeyer said.

"Challenge the Future." The future won.

“Challenging the Future.” The future won.

T-shirts. T-shirts from 20 years ago, muddy and disgusting and soaked.

Schleicher held them up: “People were smaller back then,” he said, sounding like an archeologist.

Or, maybe cotton shrinks after 20 years in muck.

There was a Pepsi can, eaten through. From the dirty water without, or from the soda within, we’ll never know.

The newspapers were unreadable. The videotapes were unwatchable. The photos may as well have been invisible. The floppy disc was a punch line.

So much for treasures.

Maybe they thought in the future we would inject the caffeine directly into ourselves.

Maybe they thought in the future we would inject the caffeine directly into ourselves.

And yet … it was still fun. Something about seeing what was left by those who came before.

Schleicher stuffed the shirts into a trash bag, hoping to salvage them with a trip (or 10) through the wash. Dickmeyer tried to brush the muck off his button-down shirt.

We started to disperse, shaking our heads. “Here’s the last line of your story,” Schleicher said: “ ‘And then, they threw everything in the dumpster.’ “