Michael and the Ferris Wheel


After the wildfires in southern California in October, 2007, received the following heartwarming story of an experience at one of the evacuation centers in San Diego. We join author Cheri Smith in hoping all will sense the opportunity that opened there, to do something for a troubled boy.


The first day I was working upstairs on the second floor in the children's center at the Del Mar Fairgrounds evacuation center during the October 2007 fires in San Diego. It was a relief to stop watching the news and get involved with the children. The children's area was a chaotic mess however, with way too many stuffed animals, books, toys, games, all strewn in piles, so I started first sorting that out, pulling out a few things to set up a quiet space then different kinds of activity spaces, hiding huge piles of stuff under blankets. My waldorf teacher training, some 20 years ago, was in action! As soon as I set up a small assortment on a table, kids would come and start to play.

As I was doing the waldorf style coloring ~ breaking regular crayons into short chunks and using them sideways ~ several children joined in. They liked ripping off the crayon wrappers, breaking them then doing the full arm and hand action of this type of coloring. Out of the corner of my eye, an older boy, maybe 13 or 14, was building a plastic multicolored tinker toy ferris wheel. He had dark blonde hair covering most of his handsome face, a face which seemed oddly expressionless but intent. He worked quietly and alone to build this amazingly well engineered ferris wheel, quite large and fully functional. He left it on one table and disappeared back downstairs where the main body of evacuees and volunteers were, hundreds of people with their cots, their few belongings, some with pets, and many volunteers of every sort.

All the kids who came into the children's center loved the ferris wheel and spun it around. I made it a centerpiece. That evening another boy, about 11, came up and said it was his brother ~ I'll call him Michael ~ who had built this ferris wheel and now he, the brother, wanted to take it downstairs. He mentioned they were from Rancho Santa Fe, a very exclusive San Diego neighborhood, and I imagined a fine, privileged family momentarily displaced from their well to do community. I wiled away the hours playing checkers with the boys and dressing dolls with the girls, listening to their stories of evacuating their homes with their families.

The next day, early in the morning a Red Cross worker arrived and took over the children's center. She wore a helicopter beanie and put loads of candy on each table. I could tell where this was going so decided to go downstairs and see what was happening. Walking around the families with pets section, cots and tables and metal crating opened to make small animal enclosures, I came across Michael, his brother, and their Mom, I'll call her Bobbie. Michael didn't smile or acknowledge me in any way, but Bobbie was talkative, an Aries she told me. She was an attractive blonde of indeterminate age with an accent, later I learned Polish. I told her that Michael had made this incredible ferris wheel and was obviously a very bright and talented young man. She told me she was divorced and that her ex was not the father of Michael, that Michael was a sperm donor baby, and yes, he knew that. That they lived in Fairbanks Ranch, she had an advertising company, and that Michael did nothing but complain, was sullen, troubled, had seen several shrinks. He had tried to hang himself but, she said, he had held the rope at the last minute so that it didn't actually pull on his neck. Michael was not listening to this but had momentarily wandered away; when he came back he sat, eyes down, slumped over, fiddling with his cell phone. They had two very cute little dogs. Bobbie spoke fast and rather relentlessly showing me photos of their house and telling me stories of how she had tried to help Michael, for example, go to a recent school dance, another disaster for him. Yesterday, she said, Michael had so wanted to help out and volunteer but had had no luck getting involved.

I was convinced this boy needed to be around males and fast! This beautiful mother was intense and doing all she could, everything she could, but it was clear a mother could not be what this boy needed. I had seen from time to time around the fairgrounds army guys walking around in their uniforms, sometimes with rifles slung on their back, so I hatched this plan to find an army guy who could take Michael along on some errand around the evacuation center, putting him to work in some way. Boys that age tend to love the uniform, not to mention the rifle, and I figured this might be something Michael would enjoy. I finally found the army headquarters office and mentioned in brief the situation.The officer behind the desk said he didn't know, there might be "liability issues." I thanked him for doing what they could, if they could. I walked back to the central first floor where people were glued to televisions or napping or reading the paper. I wandered over to the eating area, to the long rows of tables with every imaginable snack.

Behind this row of tables was a young man with a name tag, Oscar Gomez, that's his real name, muscular arms bulging out of his white tee shirt, a large tattoo on his left bicep. He was as handsome as he was kind, saying he was a Marine. I then recognized the tattoo was the Marine logo. I took a chance and briefly described Michael's plight and said if Oscar needed some help where he could find the family. I walked away feeling pretty dejected, however now loaded down with pretzels and M&Ms. I passed out newspapers and checked on some elderly folks.

Later I saw the young Marine, Oscar, on the first floor with a large trash bag, picking up trash. He walked towards me and said he was on his way to find Michael to see if Michael wanted to help him. I'm sure I smiled and thanked him but didn't follow him to the area where Michael and his family were. Some hours later, a sight I will never forget was this young brawny Marine walking side by side with Michael on the first floor, Michael's blond hair pushed back now from his face, and his head held high. His whole posture was different as the two chatted, each with a trash bag in hand.

That evening I saw Oscar again and said I had seen them together. Oscar said he was on his way to find Michael again. I was beaming, no doubt, and joked I'm sure you've got a recruit there. Yes, he wanted to join, Oscar said quietly, but he had advised Michael to go to college first. Later I met an army guy who said, by the way, they hadn't forgotten my request, and had notified the chaplain's office. I hope I didn't roll my eyes at the thought of one of the white starched collared priests I had seen approaching this boy. I have nothing against priests, quite the contrary, but in this case someone else seemed more the ticket!

The last part of this story was my visit to Bobbie again, Michael's Mom, who was sitting alone with her cell phone and doggies, no sons in sight. Michael's brother had given the ferris wheel away and she wanted it back. She hadn't seen hide nor hair of Michael all day. I mentioned I had found a Marine who had found some jobs for Michael and that's probably where he was. She jumped up and hugged me. This wasn't a bad place, she said, and maybe, she joked, she wanted to stay, putting a couple fingers into the now loose waistline of her jeans. I again told her what a beautiful and talented son she had, and wished them all the very best.

by Cheri Smith
October, 2007


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