Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Epilogue to War

August 12, 2002

Rooftop of the CNN Center

Atlanta, Georgia

Billy, Leigh, and I are standing in silence on the rooftop. Billy’s wearing the same thistle hoodie he wore the first time we met. His hands are in its front pocket. Leigh is standing beside him, her arms woven around one of his arms and her head on his shoulder. It’s a strange, long, and awkward silence.

BILLY: I think this is the longest we’ve ever gone, uh, not saying something.

ME: Yeah, I don’t really do silence. It makes me uncomfortable.

Leigh laughs politely.

ME: I’ve just been trying to figure out what to say. I’ve . . . I guess I’ve decided that what you did, squaring off with Rumsfeld like that, was most incredible, brave, and bold thing you could have done . . . or the dumbest.

Billy laughs knowingly, as if in agreement. I hand him the credit card.

ME: And I’ve tried to figure out what I should say or if I should say anything at all and . . . I remember this time. It was right before a show. I like to greet the audience and if we have time, do a little Q & A. This girl was sitting on the front row and when I said I’d open the floor to some questions, her hand shot straight up. I pointed to her and she asked, “how is it you always know exactly what to say? You have so many different people come on this show. Actors, musicians, writers, and politicians. Yet you always seem to know exactly what needs to be said and you always say just the right thing. How do you do it?” And, of course, I didn’t know how to respond, so I just said, “What goes on inside my head isn’t choosing between a list of possible things to say. I don’t organize them and categorize them from ‘best thing to say’ to ‘worst thing to say.’ Usually I just say the first thing that pops into my head and see where that takes me.”


ME: It’s what keeps me honest.

BILLY: It’s what makes you “the voice of our generation.”

I laugh at Billy’s reference. Back in 2000, Time Magazine featured me on the cover, looking bemused. Underneath me, in bold block letters was “The Voice of the Generation.”

BILLY: That’s why people like you. You say the things they want to say. You ask the questions they want to ask.

ME: So what are you going to do?

BILLY: The first thing that pops into my head.

ME: And you’re going with him, I suppose.

LEIGH: Of course!

ME: Another P.A. bites the dust. Look me up if you ever need a job.

LEIGH: Thanks.

BILLY: Shall we shove off?

Leigh climbs onto Billy’s back.

LEIGH: Up, up, and away!

BILLY: Okay, that’s the last time you get to say that.

LEIGH: It never gets old, though!

BILLY: It does and it has.

Leigh laughs and slaps Billy’s butt.

LEIGH: Gettyup!

Billy laughs and soars into the sky. This time, they disappear over the horizon.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Billy versus Rumsy

August 7, 2002

My Bedroom

Atlanta, Georgia

Wednesday morning begins at 3am. My cell phone is going off. Michael” glows on the screen. I hit “answer” and then clear my throat into the receiver to let him know that (A) I was there and (B) that he had had woken me up.

MICHAEL: It’s three in the morning. Do you know where your superkid is?

It takes me a second to realize what he’s said and then I’m instantly awake.

ME: What?

MICHAEL: Turn on your television.

I scramble for the TV remote and flick on the television.

ME: What’s going on?

The screen fades on and I’m treated to a series of aerial view of the White House.

MICHAEL: It’s on every station.

ME: What’s going on?

The news anchors aren’t able to make sense of it and neither am I. The secret service have flooded the lawn. The army is filling the street. Beyond them, the media. Spotlights from circling helicopters bob through the early morning, and are roughly intersecting at the same point thirty feet above the ground. Floating over the rose garden, facing the Oval Office, is Billy.

This is me speechless.

The cell phone vibrates and “BILLY” appears on the screen.

ME: Michael, I have to take this other call.


ME: Call ya’ back. Billy?

BILLY: Tim! I would have called you sooner but . . .

ME: What’s going on?

BILLY: I am about to give you the exclusive of a lifetime.

ME: Billy, you either need to get out of there fast or you need to land now. You’ve got a lot of guns pointed at you right now.

BILLY: You can see me?

ME: You’re on every channel.

BILLY: Really?

ME: You’re floating outside the Oval Office. ESPN and the Home Shopping Network are covering this.

BILLY: Cool.

ME: Not cool. What are you doing?

BILLY: Getting some answers.

There’s a scratching, a ruffling, and a soft THUMP and I know Billy’s dropped his phone into his pocket. The sounds from outside are muffled but discernable.

BILLY: Dubya! I’m lookin’ for Dubya! Duuuuubya! Come out, come out, wherever you are!

When the Secret Service finally decide to shoot him out of the sky, I wonder if they’ll broadcast it?

BILLY: Dubya!

VOICE: Land!

BILLY: Dubya!

VOICE: Land!

BILLY: Mister President!

VOICE: Son, you need to land it RIGHT NOW!

My lips and tongue are dry. I’m breathing through my mouth in anticipation as I watch Billy on TV. He’s looking down at the secret serviceman who’s just addressed him. He turns away, tries to peer through a window of the Oval Office, and the nods. He lands softly on the grass. Nobody moves. Billy laughs and I realize, a split second after he does, that everyone’s scared of him. One of the secret servicemen later tell me “what if he exploded when we shot him? We didn’t know what he was!”

BILLY: I’m here to see the President.

VOICE: Keep your hands where we can see ‘em.

BILLY: I don’t have an appointment, but I’m sure he can squeeze me in.

VOICE 2: Get ‘em inside. The media’s loving this.

I watch as they take Billy away. He’s led out of the sight from the cameras. As soon as he’s gone, the anchormen, women, and their correspondents start theorizing what’s going on and “what this means” for the rest of us.

I turn the TV off, slide off the bed, and sit on the floor, leaning against the bed. All I can hear is the ruffling and scratching of Billy’s pants. Someone’s saying something, something I can’t quite make out, and then I hear patting. They’re frisking Billy. The cell phone’s pulled out of Billy’s pocket.

VOICE: What’s this?

BILLY: That’s my cell phone.

VOICE: Who’s this?

I don’t say anything. I have nothing to say.

BILLY: Can I have that back?

The phone is snatched and then dropped back into a pocket.

BILLY: Can I see the president now?

VOICE: You can see me.

BILLY: Who the hell are you?

I gasp and then laugh. Billy doesn’t know who he’s looking at, but I recognize his voice instantly.

RUMSFELD: I’m Donald Rumsfeld.

BILLY: Okay?

RUMSFELD: I’m the Secretary of Defense.

BILLY: Where’s Dubya?

RUMSFELD: Show some respect.

BILLY: Respect is earned. What has he done lately? And for that matter, what have you done lately?

RUMSFELD: If you were anybody else, you’d be dead already, you know that?

BILLY: Yeah, and I’ve got a problem with that.

RUMSFELD: You’re just lucky America loves you so damn much.

BILLY: What? And by “what” I mean, “what?!

RUMSFELD: You know how many men have died approaching the White House unannounced?


RUMSFELD: A fair share.

BILLY: Noted. Can we go back to the implied preferential treatment I’m receiving?

RUMSFELD: If we must.

BILLY: I don’t think I like you.

RUMSFELD: I’m crushed. Really. Your opinion matters so much to me.

BILLY: May I please speak to the President?



RUMSFELD: Whatever you came here to say, you can say it to me. Or you can piss off.

A moment of silence. I imagine Billy unhappily weighing his options before nodding.

BILLY: Fine. What is going on?

RUMSFELD: You’re going to have to be a little more specific.

BILLY: I can fly, Mister Rumsfeld. I can fly fast. Why isn’t the army using me? Why am I not being sent out on recon missions or . . .

RUMSFELD: Your duty is not to ask questions.

BILLY: Yeah, I get that. But men are dying, Rumsy. The whole reason I joined, the whole reason I went over there, was so that I could help. I could be saving lives. I could be providing distractions or providing air support. Give me an automatic rifle or grenade launcher and watch the chaos I could reap.

RUMSFELD: And what happens when you get shot outta the sky?

BILLY: I pray someone catches me, I don’t know.

RUMSFELD: You have any idea how demoralizing it would be for America to watch you fall outta the sky?

BILLY: Wait . . . wait, wait, wait. You’ve been keeping me out of combat?

RUMSFELD: You’re a symbol of hope, kid. We don’t want to lose you.

BILLY: I’m a publicity stunt? Friggin’ P.R.?

RUMSFELD: It’s what we need.

BILLY: Why didn’t you tell me?! Why didn’t you say so?! Instead of training me and making me think I was going to be fighting? You could have just said, “Billy, this is what we need,” I would have done it!

RUMSFELD: You did do it.

BILLY: Against my will though, man. Geez.

RUMSFELD: So what do you wanna do? You wanna go back or what?

BILLY: I’m not your puppet. I’m not your dog and pony show. I’m not your distraction.

RUMSFELD: Fine. We’ll honorably discharge you.

BILLY: I want more than that.

RUMSFELD: What? You want a medal?

BILLY: I want an expense account.


BILLY: I can make a difference. I can do things. I can do things other people can’t. I can do things other people won’t. But I can’t do it if I have to work some nine-to-five name tag job. So you’re going to bankroll me.

Rumsfeld laughs.

BILLY: You’re going to give me a limitless credit card so I can afford to be the symbol of hope that this world needs. And you’re going to foot the bill.

RUMSFELD: You’ve got a wild imagination, kid.

BILLY: No, I’ve got CNN on the line. And I’m sure they’d love to know that you and Dubya would rather me be your dog and pony show than be on the front line saving the lives of brave young Americans. Can you imagine that scene? Can you imagine the public response to Billy Hughes – a hero of 9/11, the boy that might be an angel, the boy who can fly, the boy who was surely sent from God? Can you imagine that young man going on the news and saying, “I wanted to fight terrorists. I wanted to use this ability I’ve been given to fight and find Bin Laden. I wanted to fight and fly for freedom. But the White House lied to me. They wouldn’t let the generals put me into action. They chose my life over the lives of Doug Drifmeyer and Conrad Melancon – just to name two.” What do you think the media response would be to that?

RUMSFELD: You’re going to extort the White House?

BILLY: Is that the same as black mail?


BILLY: Then yes. Whattaya say?

I’m shocked by the silence that follows. Rumsfeld is taking this proposal seriously!

RUMSFELD: We’ll get back with you . . .

BILLY: You’ll tell me now or I go out there and hold an impromptu press conference. Tell the world how your pride and ineptitude is getting people killed.

It’s not quite silence that follows. It almost sounds like someone’s growling.

RUMSFELD: If the president needs you . . .

BILLY: What, for a photo-op? Screw that. If he needs me to do some good, he can call me. Otherwise I’m going to go out there and change some lives. Here . . . is . . . my mailing address. If a super-duper platinum or adamantium card doesn’t arrive in the next seven weeks, I go public.

RUMSFELD: But . . .

BILLY: See ya’ Rumsy.

Glass shatters and I know Billy has just flown out the nearest window. He laughs excitedly, proudly, and then hoots.

BILLY: Call me when it arrives, Tim.

And then he hangs up on me, before I can say anything. Three days later, an envelope is delivered to my house with “BILLY HUGHES” written across it. I open it. It’s Billy’s credit card, as he requested. It has an American flag on it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

e-mail from the front

From: J William Hughes billyhughes@#####.###

To: Tim Craine tcraine@###.###

RE: Updates & Such

Sent: Sunday, July 21, 2002 11:45:13 PM

Tempers and frustration are high. Life is not good. Damn jihadists pop up outta nowhere, blast us to bits, and then disappear back into the wind. They got Doug on Thursday. Shot him with an RPG. I don’t know what they were aiming for, but they shot him in the chest with a rocket-propelled grenade. Blew him into “chunky confetti,” as Conrad put it. What was I doing during this? I was doing air-aerobics over the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, who were high-kicking the morale of the men.

Maybe I couldn’t have done anything. Maybe I would have cowered behind a rock until the shooting was over. Or maybe I would have flown between the bullets and the rocks, grabbed the prick who mulched my best friend, flew him to the stratosphere, and dropped him to see if Allah saved him from the infidels. Maybe I would have flown next to him as he plummeted. We would have rocketed to the earth head-first. I would have slapped him as he tried to pray. I’d pry his eyes open, make him face inevitability, and then make him watch me fly away safely on the warm current of American freedom.

Or maybe I would have just punched the guy. I don’t know how fast I can fly, but I’ve been able to catch up to, and then fly side-by-side with, airliners. Flying at that speed, I wonder what a fist would do to someone’s stomach?

I don’t know why I’m here. I know why we’re here, and I’m totally behind it, but what am I doing here?


PS: I feel like a complete idiot including this, but could you take a look at this contract Warner Brothers sent me? They want to adapt my team-up with Superman into a movie and want to include my “origin story.” So I guess it’s going to be one part superhero movie, one part biography. Not many of those out there, I’d bet.

Billy Hughes Contract.pdf
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