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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas tree survives war, Hiroshima bomb
Family says the 3-foot-tall heirloom used for 70 years is a symbol of unity
The Associated Press

Katsumi Kasahara / AP
Warren Nobuaki Iwatake and his wife, Emiko, puts the final touches on a Christmas tree in his house in Tokyo, on Dec. 7. His parents bought the tree in 1937, and his family has brought it out every Christmas since, without fail, even when that meant risking arrest.

TOKYO - Warren Nobuaki Iwatake's family has seen more than its share of calamity.

When he was still a child his father was lost at sea off Hawaii. With no breadwinner, his family was forced to move to Japan, where Iwatake was drafted during the war. He lost a brother when the bomb fell on Hiroshima.

But through it all one thing has remained constant.

The tree.

His parents bought it in 1937, and his family has brought it out every Christmas since, without fail, even when that meant risking arrest.

"This tree was a shining light, because it was a symbol of unity in my family," Iwatake said as he and his wife put the final touches on the frail, 3-foot-tall heirloom that is, once again this year, the centerpiece of their small, neatly kept apartment in Tokyo.

"We have put this tree up every year for 70 years."

A special time
Though he considers himself Buddhist, Iwatake was raised in a Christian tradition. He still keeps a photo of the tiny wooden church on Maui where he and his five brothers went to services and Sunday school.

Christmas was always a special time.

His father worked at a merchandise store, and Iwatake remembers the day he came home with a tree. It was nothing all that special, just metal-and-plastic, the kind of decoration that can easily be placed on a table, or in a corner somewhere. He got a string of lights, too, the kind with the big bulbs.

Soon after, his father died in a fishing accident. His body was never found.

Iwatake's mother had relatives in Japan, and took Iwatake's younger brothers there. Iwatake stayed behind to graduate from high school, then, in 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, he moved to Japan as well.

"Things were pretty bad," he said. "There were war clouds hanging everywhere."

Mother refused to give up
The United States and Britain were the enemy, and Japan clamped down on overt displays of anything Western, including Christianity. Though they had grown up speaking English, Iwatake and his brothers communicated solely in Japanese and did their best to hide their past.

But their mother refused to give up on the tree.

"She was in charge and she wanted to put it up," Iwatake said. "During the war years, we had to do that in secret because in wartime Japan it was not welcome. We could have been arrested."

To keep the neighbors from asking questions, his mother found a place for it in the back of their house, on the second floor, away from the windows.

"We were afraid they would report it to the police, or become suspicious about why we were harboring Western things," he said. "But we were brought up in the American way of life. It is something that you cannot forget. It really is something from the heart."

The year after that first Christmas in Hiroshima, Iwatake went to Tokyo to study economics at university. At Christmas, he directed a school play, a nativity story, again keeping it secret so that the authorities wouldn't get involved.

Then, in 1943, he was drafted and sent to Chichijima.

George H.W. Bush meets Iwatake
Chichijima is a tiny island that virtually no one has heard of.

In 1944, Iwatake boarded a transport ship from Yokohama to assume his duties at a radio monitoring post on the remote spot. The ship was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine, but he survived and was put on an oil tanker.

On the island, Iwatake's English skills were put to use listening in on U.S. military communications and keeping watch over a handful of captured American pilots whose planes had been shot down on their way to and from bombing raids on Tokyo.

One day, he was in the hills digging bunkers when he heard that a plane had just been shot down. He saw a lone pilot on a bright yellow life raft paddling furiously away from the island. American planes provided cover, and the submarine USS Finback surfaced and collected him.

The aviator was 20-year-old George H. W. Bush, who would later become president. Iwatake met him years later and went back with him to the island. Signed photos of the two, smiling, are placed prominently about Iwatake's apartment.

POW leaves deep impression
But another American left a deeper impression on Iwatake's life.

Captured POWs were forced to monitor U.S. radio traffic. One of them was Warren Vaughn, a Texan.

"One night after a bath we were walking back and I fell into a bomb pit," Iwatake said. "It was pitch black and I couldn't get out. He reached to me and said to take his hand. He pulled me out."

Vaughn was monitoring the day Iwo Jima fell. Japan's defeat was virtually assured. Soon after, several naval officers called Vaughn and took him to the beach. "He turned before he left and gave me a sad look," Iwatake said.

Vaughn was beheaded and his body dumped into the sea.

The atrocities committed against the POWs — which included acts of cannibalism — remained largely a secret for the next 50 years. But Iwatake said he did not want Vaughn's memory to die.

"I thought the best way of remembering him was to adopt his first name," Iwatake said.

Tree survives Hiroshima blast
Japan surrendered in August 1945, and Iwatake returned home in December.

"I used to think of those joyous days in Hawaii at Christmas, when we had food and treats," he said. "On Chichijima, we were starving."

But Hiroshima was even worse.

"Everything was bad, nothing was left," he said. "I couldn't even think of the joys of what I experienced in Hawaii."

Iwatake's younger brother Takashi had been in the center of the city attending school. His body, like their father's, was never found.

The Iwatake home was in the eastern part of the city, behind a small hill that provided a buffer from the blast. The front end was crushed and burned, but the back stood largely intact.

And that was where the tree was.

"Japan had surrendered, there was no food, nothing to celebrate," he said. "Everybody was in shock and a sad state, but we put it up. My mother put it up."

Each year, tree becomes more poignant
After the war, Iwatake became an interpreter for the U.S. government. He moved to Tokyo, and from 1950 he took responsibility for the family tree.

At first, putting it up was more of a simple tradition than anything else.

His family was once again spreading out. At one stage, four brothers worked for the Occupation Forces as interpreters and translators, including Iwatake. He eventually went back to Tokyo, while his brothers returned to Hawaii. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, three brothers volunteered, and one served in Korea.

The Iwatake family remains scattered.

One brother lives in Chicago, another on Maui. Another died of cancer, possibly the result of radiation from the atomic bomb.

But each year, the tree has gone up. For those not in Tokyo to see it, including Vaughn's cousins in Childress, Texas, Iwatake, now 84, sends photos. And each year, it becomes more poignant.

"Gradually, Christmas has become more meaningful again," he said. "Peace, good will toward your fellow man, you know? After the war, there was no such thing."

As son orbits Earth, astronaut’s mom mourned
90-year-old mother of Japanese-American on station spent WWII in camps
The Associated Press

LOMBARD, Ill. - As NASA astronaut Daniel Tani orbited Earth, hundreds of mourners filled a suburban Chicago church Sunday to remember his 90-year-old mother as someone who endured hardship to raise five children and worked until age 70.

Rose Tani died Dec. 19 when her car was struck by a train. Daniel Tani, 46, who is aboard the international space station, could not travel back for the service at his mother's church and sent a videotaped message.

The video was played at First Church of Lombard, west of Chicago. Reporters were not allowed to view the message.

Rose Tani was remembered as a woman who braved a U.S. World War II internment camp, raised her children after her husband's death and worked in a school cafeteria until she was 70.

Daniel Tani "has lost the person who has been his inspiration for most of his life," said Rev. Rob Hatfield, according to a WLS-TV report posted on its Web site.

Police said Rose Tani stopped behind a school bus at a railroad crossing and then drove around the vehicle, bypassing the lowered crossing gate. A train struck the passenger side of her vehicle and pushed it down the tracks before stopping.

NASA has said Daniel Tani is believed to be the first American astronaut to lose a close family member while in space.

A private funeral service is planned for when he returns from space early next year.

'Miracles' after U.S. soldier decides to adopt Iraqi
‘Passion of Christ’ inspires American to bring disabled boy back to the U.S.
The Associated Press

Scott Southworth, right, is seen with his adopted son, Ala'a, in July 2007 in his home in Mauston, Wis. Southworth first met Ala'a, who has cerebral palsy, at the Mother Teresa orphanage in Baghdad in 2003 while he was serving in Iraq.
Andy Manis / AP

MAUSTON, Wis. - Capt. Scott Southworth knew he'd face violence, political strife and blistering heat when he was deployed to one of Baghdad's most dangerous areas. But he didn't expect Ala'a Eddeen.

Ala'a was 9 years old, strong of will but weak of body — he suffered from cerebral palsy and weighed just 55 pounds. He lived among about 20 kids with physical or mental disabilities at the Mother Teresa orphanage, under the care of nuns who preserved this small oasis in a dangerous place.

On Sept. 6, 2003, halfway through his 13-month deployment, Southworth and his military police unit paid a visit to the orphanage. They played and chatted with the children; Southworth was talking with one little girl when Ala'a dragged his body to the soldier's side.

Black haired and brown eyed, Ala'a spoke to the 31-year-old American in the limited English he had learned from the sisters. He recalled the bombs that struck government buildings across the Tigris River.

"Bomb-Bing! Bomb-Bing!" Ala'a said, raising and lowering his fist.

"I'm here now. You're fine," the captain said.

Over the next 10 months, the unit returned to the orphanage again and again. The soldiers would race kids in their wheelchairs, sit them in Humvees and help the sisters feed them.

To Southworth, Ala'a was like a little brother. But Ala'a — who had longed for a soldier to rescue him — secretly began referring to Southworth as "Baba," Arabic for "Daddy."

Then, around Christmas, a sister told Southworth that Ala'a was getting too big. He would have to move to a government-run facility within a year.

"Best case scenario was that he would stare at a blank wall for the rest of his life," Southworth said.

To this day, he recalls the moment when he resolved that that would not happen.

"I'll adopt him," he said.

So many reasons not to help
Before Southworth left for Iraq, he was chief of staff for a state representative. He was single, worked long days and squeezed in his service as a national guardsman — military service was a family tradition. His great-great-greatgrandfather served in the Civil War, his grandfather in World War II, his father in Vietnam.

The family had lived in the tiny central Wisconsin city of New Lisbon for 150 years. Scott was raised as an evangelical Christian; he attended law school with a goal of public service, running unsuccessfully for state Assembly at the age of 25.

There were so many reasons why he couldn't bring a handicapped Iraqi boy into his world.

He had no wife or home; he knew nothing of raising a disabled child; he had little money and planned to run for district attorney in his home county.

Just as important, Iraqi law prohibits foreigners from adopting Iraqi children.

Southworth prayed and talked with family and friends.

His mother, who had cared for many disabled children, explained the difficulty. She also told him to take one step at a time and let God work.

Southworth's decision was cemented in spring 2004, while he and his comrades watched Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ." Jesus Christ's sacrifice moved him. He imagined meeting Christ and Ala'a in heaven, where Ala'a asked: "Baba, why didn't you ever come back to get me?"

"Everything that I came up with as a response I felt ashamed. I wouldn't want to stand in the presence of Jesus and Ala'a and say those things to him."

And so, in his last weeks in Iraq, Southworth got approval from Iraq's Minister of Labor to take Ala'a to the United States for medical care.

He was told it would be nearly impossible
His parents had filed signatures so he wouldn't miss the cutoff to run for district attorney. He knocked on doors, telling people he wanted to be tough on criminals who committed injustices against children.

He never mentioned his intention to adopt Ala'a.

He won office — securing a job and an income.

Everything seemed to be in place. But when Southworth contacted an immigration attorney, he was told it would be nearly impossible to bring Ala'a to the United States.

Ala'a prays to be taken to America
Undaunted, Southworth and the attorney started the paperwork to bring Ala'a over on humanitarian parole, used for urgent reasons or significant public benefit.

A local doctor, a cerebral palsy expert, a Minneapolis hospital, all said they would provide Ala'a free care. Other letters of support came from a minister, the school district, the lieutenant governor, a congressman, chaplain, a sister at the orphanage and an Iraqi doctor.

"We crossed political boundaries. We crossed religious boundaries. There was just a massive effort — all on behalf of this little boy who desperately needed people to actually take some action and not just feel sorry for him," Southworth said.
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He mailed the packet on Dec. 16, 2004, to the Department of Homeland Security.

On New Year's Eve, his cell phone rang. It was Ala'a.

"What are you doing?" Scott asked him.

"I was praying,'" Ala'a responded.

"Well, what were you praying for?"

"I prayed that you would come to take me to America," Ala'a said.

Southworth almost dropped the phone. Ala'a knew nothing of his efforts, and he couldn't tell him yet for fear that the boy might inadvertently tell the wrong person, upending the delicate process.

'And forever started'
By mid-January, Homeland Security called Southworth's attorney to say it had approved humanitarian parole. Within three hours, Southworth had plane tickets.

He hardly slept as he worked the phones to make arrangements, calling the American embassy, hotels and the orphanage. His Iraqi translator agreed to risk his life to get Ala'a to the embassy to obtain documentation. Like a dream, all the pieces fell into place.

Southworth returned to Iraq for the first time since a deployment that left him emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted.

His unit had trained Iraqi police from sunup to sundown; he saw the devastation wrought by two car bombings, and counted dead bodies. Mortar and rocket attacks were routine. Some 20 in his unit were wounded, and one died. He knew that nothing could be taken for granted in Baghdad.

So when he saw Ala'a in the airport for the first time since leaving Iraq, he was relieved.

"He was in my custody then. I could hug him. I could hold him. I could protect him.

"And forever started."

They made it to Wisconsin late Jan. 20, 2005. The next morning, Ala'a awoke to his first sight of snow.

He closed his eyes and grimaced.

"Baba! Baba! The water is getting all over me!"

"It's not water, it's snooooow," Southworth told him.

Thriving in America
Police found Ala'a abandoned on a Baghdad street at around 3 years old. No one knows where he came from.

In all his life in Iraq, Ala'a saw a doctor 10 times. He surpassed that in his first six months in the United States.

Ala'a's cerebral palsy causes low muscle tone, spastic muscles in the legs, arms and face. It hinders him when he tries to crawl, walk or grasping objects. He needs a wheelchair to get around, often rests his head on his shoulder and can't easily sit up.

Physical therapy has helped him control his head and other muscles. He can now maneuver his way out of his van seat and stabilize his legs on the ground.

"I'm not the same guy I used to be," he said.

He clearly has thrived. At 13, he's doubled his weight to 111 pounds.

Tears filled his eyes
Ala'a's condition doesn't affect his mind, although he's still childlike — he wants to be a Spiderman when he grows up.

Ala'a's English has improved and he loves music and school, math and reading especially. He gets mad when snow keeps him home, even though it's his second favorite thing, after his father.

At first, he didn't want to talk about Iraq; he would grow angry when someone tried to talk to him in Arabic. But in the fall of 2006, Scott showed Ala'a's classmates an Arabic version of "Sesame Street" and boasted how Ala'a knew two languages and could teach them.

Soon he was teaching his aide and his grandmother, LaVone.

LaVone is a fixture in Ala'a's life, supporting her son as he juggles his career and fatherhood. One day, she asked Ala'a if he missed his friends in Iraq.

Would he like to visit them?

Big tears filled his eyes.

"Well, honey, what's the matter?" asked LaVone.

"Oh, no, Grandma. No. Baba said that I can come to live with him forever," he pleaded.

"Oh, no, no," he grandmother said, crying as well. "We would never take you back and leave you there forever. We want you to be Baba's boy forever."

The hardest part is over
Southworth knew once he got Ala'a out of Iraq, the hardest part would be over. Iraq had bigger problems to deal with than the whereabouts of a single orphan.

On June 4, Ala'a officially became Southworth's son. Though he was born in the spring of 1994, they decided to celebrate his birthday as the day they met — Sept. 6.

Morry Gash / AP
Scott Southworth makes some dinner as his adopted son Ala'a watches TV on Nov. 20 in their home in Mauston, Wis.

Life has settled into a routine. Father and son have moved into a new house with an intercom system, a chair lift to the basement and toilet handles.

Southworth showers him, brushes his teeth and washes his hands. He has traded in his Chrysler Concorde for a minivan — it was too hard to lift his son out of the car.

In October, the Wisconsin's deputy adjunct general gave Southworth, now a major, permission to change units because of Ala'a. His former unit was going to Guantanamo Bay for a one-year deployment, and he didn't want to leave his son behind, at least for now.

He hopes one day to marry to his longtime girlfriend and have more children. He may run for Congress or governor someday — he's already won re-election once, and plans to run again next fall.

'Life is a gift they say'
Not everything is perfect. Ala'a never encountered thunderstorms in Baghdad, and the flash-boom reminds him of bombs. He is starting to get over it, although he still weeps during violent storms.

But Ala'a — who picked out his own name, which means to be near God — knows he's where he belongs. Southworth always said Ala'a picked him, not the other way around. They were brought together, Southworth believes, by a "web of miracles."

Ala'a likes to sing Sarah McLachlan's song, "Ordinary Miracle," from "Charlotte's Web," one of his favorite movies. His head and body lean to one side as he sings off-key.

"It's just another ordinary miracle today. Life is like a gift they say. Wrapped up for you everyday."

35 years after jetliner crash, hero gets his due
Airboat pilot pulled survivors of ’72 Eastern Airlines crash from Everglades
The Associated Press

Bud Marquis, the airboater who was first on the scene when Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed in the Everglades on Dec. 29, 1972, holds a plaque he received at his home in Homestead, Fla., on Dec. 17.
Lynne Sladky / AP

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - An airboat speeding across the sawgrass and mud. A ringing in the ears when the engine was cut. Moaning. Screams for help. Desperate gasps at the water's surface. Helicopters in the distance. Christmas carols.

These are the sounds Bud Marquis heard in the black swamp that night.

Then, for more than three decades, there was mostly silence about the Dec. 29, 1972, crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 in the Everglades.

Investigators and reporters stopped calling. His airboat rusted in the yard. A rubber boot that had squished through swampwater and jet fuel deteriorated on the back porch, right where he took it off.

Marquis sat alone on his front porch in Homestead, on the Florida peninsula's southern tip. Acquaintances described a prickly old man in failing health. Sudden interest in the 35-year-old crash disturbed his quiet. He had saved lives, but he wasn't used to people asking about it.

Humble to this day
But admirers and some of the 77 people who survived the crash wanted to rebuild his airboat and make sure he finally heard thanks.

"I didn't feel it was any great, heroic thing," Marquis said. "I accept the award because they said I deserved it. I figure I didn't do anything that anybody else wouldn't have done."

Even today, as metropolitan Miami swallows more of the Everglades, getting to the Flight 401 crash site is a half-hour airboat ride over sharp sawgrass. No road stretches that deep into the alligator-infested swamp.

On that moonless night, Marquis was teaching a friend how to gig frogs from his airboat. Miami was just a distant pinpoint of light. All Marquis saw were the stars and the frogs' silver eyes before his headlamp.

Above him, Capt. Robert Loft, First Officer Albert Stockstill and Second Officer Donald Repo steered Flight 401 toward Miami International Airport after an uneventful flight from New York. The jumbo jet carried 163 passengers and 13 crew members.

Accidental bump led to tragedy
As they began their approach just after 11:30 p.m., the pilots informed the tower they would have to circle — the light indicating whether the plane's nose gear was down hadn't illuminated. Controllers gave their OK and told the crew to maintain an altitude of 2,000 feet.

The pilots engaged the autopilot, and Repo went below the cockpit to inspect the gear.

No one noticed when one of them bumped a steering column, disengaging the autopilot and sending Flight 401 into a slow descent. A half-second chime indicating a change in altitude went unnoticed.

About 20 miles west of the airport, the crew received permission to turn back and make another approach. It was then the pilots realized they were just feet above the Everglades. Seven seconds later, the plane's left wing dug into the swamp at 227 mph, sending it pinwheeling.

From 10 miles away, Marquis and his friend saw a fiery orange flash and speeded toward it.

Carols as a homing beacon
Marquis had recently turned to commercial frogging after years as a state game officer. He knew how to pick out island silhouettes in the dark, to feel the changing terrain beneath his boat. Fifteen minutes later, he reached a levee where he'd thought he'd seen the flash.

Marquis heard a voice: "I can't hold my head up anymore!" Jet fuel seeped into his boots when he jumped into the water to yank the man up. All around, he could see people still strapped in their seats, some turned face down in the water.

"I'm one person in the midst of all this," Marquis said. "I'm no doctor. I didn't know what to do."

Flight attendant Beverly Raposa was gathering survivors around her when she heard the airboat. She started singing Christmas carols, so rescuers would hear them.

"I knew they would find us," said Raposa, now 60 and living in Sunrise.

Helicopters swooped just south of the wreckage. The pilots couldn't see the site — the fire extinguished in the swamp. Marquis turned his headlamp skyward, waving them toward a nearby levee.

Fighting darkness to save lives
Petty Officer 2nd Class Don Schneck was aboard a Coast Guard helicopter that followed Marquis' light. He dashed to the airboat, carrying only a flashlight, a radio and a hatchet. Marquis ferried him deeper into the wreckage, as far as he could go without running over victims. Schneck waded out alone toward the cockpit; he was the last person to see Loft alive.

"I couldn't even see the crash. It was pitch dark," Schneck said from his Arkansas home.

Marquis pulled survivors from the water and ferried rescuers. At one point, he stopped near Raposa, who had found fellow flight attendant Mercedes "Mercy" Ruiz still strapped into her seat.

"We could see the tail of the airplane, white in the darkness. I said, 'It looks like a ghost,'" said Ruiz, who still bears a faint scar above her right eyebrow.

Ruiz had serious back and pelvic injuries, but she refused to be airlifted — she was done with flying. To calm her screams, the rescuers carried her to Marquis' airboat.

She begged Marquis not to let the alligators eat her. Marquis chuckled at the memory. Any gator would have been frightened away by the crash and the jet fuel's stench.

Crash mostly a thing of the past
Ninety-four passengers, the three pilots and two flight attendants were dead. Investigators marveled that anyone, let alone 77, survived.

Marquis, now age 78, greets visitors with a firm handshake and twinkling eyes. Hardly anyone has stopped by in 35 years to discuss the crash.

One survivor, certain Marquis carried him to safety, once showed up with a $1,000 check.

Eastern Airlines, mistakenly believing they'd hired Marquis for the rescue, sent him $125. Marquis went to the now-defunct airline's Miami headquarters to return it.

"I was angry about the form letter," Marquis said. "They thought they hired me. They should have gotten my name as the first one that was there."

News clippings Marquis had kept flew out his broken windows when Hurricane Andrew blew through Homestead in 1992, but he is lucky: the storm destroyed the five houses across the street.

Hurricane Wilma brought back the crash. Talking to a roofer fixing his home after the 2005 storm, their conversation turned to the crash. The roofer posted an online message in June 2006 about Marquis' plight to a Flight 401 crash forum.

‘I need to go back there’
Another forum for airboat enthusiasts picked up the discussion and rallied to raise funds for Marquis and restore his airboat. Meanwhile, separate efforts began to recognize the rescuers and bring the survivors together with victims' families.

Marquis met Ruiz, Raposa and other survivors for the first time at a Dec. 3 ceremony. The man he heard struggling to stay above water thanked him.

"Had it not been for Bud, there would not have been a grandpa for the children, there would not have been a grandpa to share the good times in life with," said David Kaplan, now 71 and living in Delray Beach.

On Saturday, 60 airboats will carry survivors and victims' relatives to the crash site. Marquis, in his reconditioned craft, will lead. The survivors hope to build a memorial near the site.

"Hopefully this will help the people that haven't been there" since 1972, Marquis said. "They can see what a vast area it is."

Passenger Ron Infantino will join him. He remembers the sound of Marquis' engine. He strained to hear his wife's voice, but she never answered his cries. She had died, 20 days after they married.

"I need to do it. I never was able to see my wife. I need to go back there," said Infantino, a 61-year-old Miami insurance agent. "I always said to myself, 'I don't know where to go.' I've always wanted some kind of recognition for the people who've lost their lives."

Even with a week off after the completion of principal photography and the beginning of postproduction of his latest movie, "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," Guillermo del Toro won't let up. Instead of relaxing in London while his editing suite is set up, the visionary behind last year's triumph "Pan's Labyrinth" has flown to New York to help promote "The Orphanage," a Spanish thriller he co-produced that was written by Sergio Sanchez and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona.

"I remember reading [the script] and loving it as a scare factory and as an atmospheric read, but what really nailed me was the last 10 minutes," del Toro says as we chat on the phone. "I still to this day cry whenever I see those last 10 minutes."

Already the biggest Spanish language hit in the country's history, "The Orphanage" is a supernatural roller coaster that finds Laura (Belen Rueda) returning to the orphanage of her youth in order to open a school for children with special needs. When her young son disappears, she starts to believe the ghosts of her slain classmates from years ago have captured him. Similar in tone to "The Others," this is one scary flick that works in any language.

Del Toro says he hates set visits from producers because he feels it hampers the creative process. He learned the importance of not meddling when acclaimed filmmaker and fellow Spaniard Pedro Almodovar produced his big breakthrough film, "The Devil's Backbone."

"I was coming out of an experience that was pretty bad, which was 'Mimic,'" del Toro recalls. "And I met with him and I was just saying, 'How is it going to be to produce this movie together?' He said, 'Listen, if you need me I'll be there. You don't need me, I will be nowhere to be found.' And I liked that approach. I think that if you are needed they call you."

Instead, del Toro advised Bayona and Sanchez during preproduction, helped them raise the rest of the budget and find the actors they needed, and eventually joined them in promoting the finished product.

Ironically, del Toro's press tour has occurred just as fellow director Peter Jackson and New Line head honcho Bob Shaye have resolved their differences and are ready to produce "The Hobbit," the prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" saga. As Jackson has already said he's sitting this one out, one of the names at the top of the list to take over for him is conveniently talking to reporters from all over the country, such as myself.

"I have not been officially approached, but I have heard the rumbles, too; and, listen, it would be an honor," del Toro says of directing the film. "But I have heard that Sam Raimi is interested, I've heard all sorts of things. So, I take it patiently and if it happens it would be great. It would be great to be part of that."

Are you listening, Shaye? You've got a chance to get Guillermo del Toro to direct "The Hobbit." You've fixed one mess; make sure you don't create another.

"The Orphanage" opens in limited release Dec. 28.

Dead man sends cards from ‘heaven’
Oregon man cooked up prank before his death
The Associated Press

ASHLAND, Ore. - Even in death, Chet Fitch is a card. Fitch, known for his sense of humor, died in October at age 88 but gave his friends and family a start recently: Christmas cards, 34 of them, began arriving -- written in his hand with a return address of "Heaven."

The greeting read: "I asked Big Guy if I could sneak back and send some cards. At first he said no; but at my insistence he finally said, 'Oh well, what the heaven, go ahead but don't (tarry) there.' Wish I could tell you about things here but words cannot explain.

"Better get back as Big Guy said he stretched a point to let me in the first time, so I had better not press my luck. I'll probably be seeing you (some sooner than you think). Wishing you a very Merry Christmas. Chet Fitch"

A friend for nearly 25 years, Debbie Hansen Bernard said, "All I could think was, 'You little stinker.'"

"It was amazing," she said. "Just so Chet, always wanting to get the last laugh."

The mailing was a joke Fitch worked on for two decades with his barber, Patty Dean, 57. She told the Ashland Daily Tidings this week that he kept updating the mailing list and giving her extra money when postal rates went up. This fall, she said, Fitch looked up to her from the chair.

"You must be getting tired of waiting to mail those cards," he told her. "I think you'll probably be able to mail them this year."

He died a week later.

Boy who slept in trash bin is student of the year
Plucky preteen, 11, makes transformation from street kid to model student
The Associated Press

DECATUR, Ala. — Eleven-year-old D.J. Graffree didn't realize he was a child.

For much of his life, he was a cocky kid who didn't need any adults to look after him or tell him what to do. He was always in and out of schools in his small town outside of Jackson, Miss. He spent a lot of times out on the streets.

At one point, he slept in a trash bin to stay warm.

Yet two weeks ago, D.J. was named Decatur City Schools' Elementary Student of the Year.

D.J.'s face was bewildered when the honor was announced at the school system's annual breakfast May 10. His cousin and guardian Patti Lewis' face was first joyful, then tearful.

He later said it was simply luck that earned him the award.

When pushed further, he finally conceded it was more than that.

"They like my behavior and my attitude," he said.

Long, tough journey
For Lewis and her family, taking in D.J. seven months ago has been a long, tough journey. But then, it has been for him, too.

"He seems to have turned his life around and I think it's because he wants to," Lewis said. "But it wasn't all peaches and cream when he first came. We had to let him know that we were in control."

When D.J. came to Decatur, he was placed in CASE Alternative School in Decatur. He had been kicked out of his last school system in Mississippi.

So when D.J. finally left CASE and came to fifth grade at Somerville Road Elementary, neither his family nor school administrators knew how he would fare. He had a bad attitude, wouldn't do his work and was disrespectful. Because of all of his time on his own, he resented authority and boundaries.

D.J.'s teacher, Judith Looney remembers that defiant Graffree well.

"You could tell by his posture, his body language and expression that he didn't want to be here," she said. "He had that attitude like 'Don't mess with me.' "

D.J. would come home to Lewis and cry over his homework and tell her he couldn't do it. But she knew better.

"There were several times where he told me he'd like to go back to living on the streets because it was easier for him," she said.

Adult humor
D.J. also had trouble fitting in with his peers. His adult humor and persona came from growing up quickly and hanging out mostly with adults.

Yet Lewis would discover him playing with her 6-year-old daughter's dolls at home. He told her he had never seen so many toys before.

"He never had a chance to play or never had a birthday party," she said. "He's missed out on a lot of his childhood things."

When Lewis went to visit D.J. and the rest of her extended family in Mississippi last year, she was shocked.

On that trip, D.J. broke down and told her everything about his life on the streets — about the drugs, being forced to steal to eat, and being whipped with chains. With his mother in jail, he had been shifted around to different relatives several times and had even run away from them.

He told Lewis, "I need a break."

Already the guardian for D.J.'s older brother Patrick, who had been in her custody since he was two days old when his mother said she couldn't care for him, Lewis was tempted to reunite the two brothers and give D.J. the stable home life he never had.

Small apartment
Yet she was worried about taking another child into her small apartment at East Acres housing project, where she, her husband, daughter Ashley and son Patrick live. On top of raising three children, Lewis also works as a school crossing guard and at the cafeteria at Decatur General Hospital.

"Sometimes we have to make sacrifices, you know," said Lewis, who also cared for her ailing mother for 16 years.

"God wants me to just care for people and that's what I do ... I want to help someone else because I figure it's too late for me. I get my enjoyment out of my kids."

After continued support from his family and his teachers, Graffree's attitude slowly began to turn. Instead of garnering attention through acts of disrespect, he began to get noticed for positive things.

He won an anti-smoking poster contest at school, began tutoring kindergarten students, and started raising his hand in class.

He morphed into a classroom leader, an excellent reader and a compassionate person, Looney said.

He finally began to become the child he should've been in the first place, not the cocky adult he thought he was.

"When I realized he could do the work ... basically it was give him time and give him some space and call on him when he knew the answer," Looney said. "I think he wanted it. He just needed a chance."

'Surprises himself'
D.J.'s family agreed.

"I think he surprises himself," Lewis' husband, Tony Townsend, said. "I look at him sometimes and I don't think it's the same child."

Administrators and teachers at Somerville Road agree. In a letter they drafted to the administrators who chose the student of the year, they wrote "As we write this in early April, we are tempted to check his (D.J.'s) fingerprints to make sure we're talking about the same kid. And we are, and we have begun to see D.J. not for what he was, but for who he is becoming. And that is a delight."

D.J.'s quick turnaround is rare, Looney said.

"I've taught for 18 years and never seen anything like this," she said.

Somerville Road Principal Dee Dee Jones agreed.

"Success stories like this are very few," she said. "I told him, 'I really wish I could bottle what has happened with you.' His resiliency for all he's been through is amazing."

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Family adopts slain son's military dog
The Associated Press
11 minutes ago

While waiting for a live shot during a morning news show, Lex looks for attention from new owners Camryn Lee and other family members, from left, Rachel, Jerome and Mady on Friday, Dec. 21, 2007, at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia. The adoption of Lex, an 8-year-old German Shepherd, by the family of fallen Marine Cpl. Dustin Lee marked the first time the U.S. military has granted early retirement to a working dog so it could live with a former handler's family, officials said. (AP Photo/Walter Petruska)

ALBANY, Ga. - A military working dog wounded in Iraq during a rocket attack that killed its Marine handler was adopted Friday by the slain Marine's family.

Cpl. Dustin Lee's family planned to take home the bomb-sniffing dog — named Lex — on Saturday after the 8-year-old German shepherd was granted early retirement. It was the first time a working dog was granted retirement to live with the handler's family, officials said.

"Nobody can do anything to replace the void in this family," said Col. Christian Haliday, commander of the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, where Lee and Lex were assigned.

"We hope Lex can bring a small piece of his spirit and help maintain his memory," he said.

On hand for a ceremony at the base were the Marine's parents, Jerome and Rachel Lee, his sister, Madison, 16, and brother, Camryn, 12, of Quitman, Miss.

"It's not going to bring back my brother, but it's something close to it," said Madison Lee as she played with Lex after the ceremony.

Military officials initially told the family that Lex had another two years of service before he could be adopted. But the family lobbied for months — even enlisting the aid of a North Carolina congressman — and the adoption came exactly nine months after the 20-year-old Marine was killed and his dog wounded on March 21 in Iraq's Anbar Province.

2nd Lt. Caleb Eames, spokesman for the Albany base, said Lee and Lex were sitting outside at a forward operating base in Karmah when they were hit by shrapnel from a 73mm rocket explosion.

"A part of Dustin is in Lex," said the fallen Marine's father. "To have Lex at home is a part of having Dustin at home."

Rachel Lee said she believes her son's spirit will live on through the dog because of their close bond and because they were together during the final moments of her son's life.

"It was blood on blood," she said. "We can't get Dustin back, but we have Lex."

RELATED STORY: Ga. family adopts slain son's military dog - Lex granted early retirement; owner killed in Iraqi rocket attack

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Man reunites with birth mother at work
The Associated Press

PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. - Steve Flaig wasn't sure how to approach his co-worker with his big news. It would seem brash to walk up and say, "Hi, I'm Steve, your son." How would she react to that, he wondered.

Flaig's long search for his birth mother ended in early October when he learned that she was the woman he previously knew only as Chris, the head cashier at a Lowe's home-improvement store just outside Grand Rapids, in Kent County's Plainfield Township.

"I would walk by her, look at her from a distance, not knowing how to approach her," Flaig, 22, told The Grand Rapids Press for a story published Wednesday. "You don't come stocked with information on how to deal with this."

When Lowe's Cos. hired Christine Tallady to work at the store last April, she had no idea that the young delivery driver to whom she was introduced was her son.

She gave birth to him on Oct. 5, 1985, while she was single and not ready to be a mother. It was a difficult decision for her to give him up for adoption.

Tallady left the adoption record open, figuring that her son might someday want to contact her. She often thought of him, particularly on his birthday, but life went on. She got married and had two more children.

Flaig, meanwhile, always knew that he was adopted. His parents, Pat and Lois Flaig, supported him when he decided to search for his birth mother. They had done the same with their younger son, Scott, who found his birth mother almost a year ago.

When Steve Flaig turned 18 four years ago, he asked DA Blodgett for Children, the agency that arranged his adoption, for his background information.

It arrived a couple of months later and included his birth mother's name. He searched the Internet for her address but came up empty.

In October, around his 22nd birthday, Flaig took out the paperwork from DA Blodgett and realized he had been spelling his birth mother's surname wrong as "Talladay."

He typed "Tallady" into a search engine and came up with a home address that was less than a mile from the Lowe's store and just around the corner from where his adoptive parents raised him.

When he mentioned it to his boss, she said, "You mean Chris Tallady, who works here?"

Flaig was stunned: "I was like, there's no possible way."

On Dec. 12, on his day off, Flaig happened to be driving past DA Blodgett's offices, so he stopped in and told them of his find. An employee there volunteered to call Tallady for him.

Tallady, now 45, was surprised to get the call at Lowe's and astonished to learn that the son she had given up for adoption 22 years earlier was a co-worker.

"It was a shock," she said. "I started crying. I figured he would call me sometime, but not like this."

Flaig said he is eager to meet her other two children, 12-year-old Alexandria and 10-year-old Brandon, his half-siblings.

"I have a complete family now, all my kids," Tallady said. "It's a perfect time of year. It's the best Christmas present ever."

* Related story: Son finds birth mom as co-worker

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Details of Ancient Roman Town Uncovered
Jeanna Bryner
LiveScience Staff Writer

New details of a buried ancient Roman town in England are being revealed for the first time using the latest technology.

The newly uncovered features include street grids, clustered public buildings such as temples and baths, the town’s water supply system and possibly a large theater.

The Roman town of Venta Icenorum at Caistor St. Edmund in Norfolk, England, was initially discovered in 1928 when Royal Air Force craft snapped images of the site. Due to the particularly dry summer that year, details of the Roman town stood out as parched lines in the barley fields.

On March 4, 1929, the pictures donned the front page of The Times of London, causing a public sensation.

Now, with a so-called cesium vapor magnetometer that detects changes in magnetic field lines, scientists can "see" more beneath the open fields. The results are confirming the street plan shown by previous aerial photographs as well as a series of public buildings known from earlier excavations.

"The results of the survey have far exceeded our expectations," said lead researcher Will Bowden of the University of Nottingham in England. "It's not an exaggeration to say that the survey has advanced our knowledge of Caistor to the same extent that the first aerial photograph did 80 years ago."

Town map

The survey showed clear traces of a large semi-circular building next to the town's temples, a typical location for a theater in Roman Britain.

"This is a fantastic discovery, and it goes to show that Caistor Roman town still has a great number of secrets to be disclosed in the years ahead through surveys or excavations," said David Gurney, the principal archaeologist at Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service.

Caistor lies in the territory of the Iceni, the tribe of the British queen Boudica who famously rebelled against the invading forces of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D.

Caistor's long preservation can be attributed to the fact that the town was ultimately supplanted by medieval Norwich and transformed into green fields rather than demolished for modern city buildings. In contrast, most Roman towns with a similar long occupation history were replaced by, and buried beneath, modern towns of Britain and Europe.

Major settlement?

The new survey challenges earlier interpretations of the ancient town, which reconstruction paintings often depicted as a crowded urban area. While the survey showed buildings clustered along the town's main streets, other areas within the street grid were empty and possibly used for agriculture, the researchers say.

They also suggest that the seeming provincial Roman Caistor may have actually been a major settlement from the Iron Age until the 9th century A.D. It was previously thought that life at Roman Caistor ended in the 5th century A.D. when the Roman occupation ended and the Saxons came into power.

However, the new survey clearly shows a large ditched enclosure that cuts the surface of a Roman street, indicating people must have inhabited the area. This along with an earlier discovery of middle Saxon coins and metalwork near the site and the presence of two early Saxon cemeteries in the vicinity suggest the enclosures are possibly signs of continued life in the town after the Roman period.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mother of mall shooter apologizes
The Associated Press
36 minutes ago

OMAHA, Neb. - The mother of the teenage gunman who killed eight people at a busy shopping mall earlier this month apologized Thursday for her son's crime and said she did her best raising him.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," Maribel Rodriguez told ABC's "Good Morning America" when asked what she would say to the victims' families. "I'm deeply devastated with you."

Her son, Robert Hawkins, 19, fired more than 30 rounds inside a mall department store Dec. 5, striking 11 people. Six died where they fell, one died on the way to a hospital and another died at a hospital. Three other people were wounded, two seriously.

"If you want to hate Robert, then hate Robert. You don't need that pain," Rodriguez said. "You absolutely don't need that type of pain in your heart and mind. Because it destroys your soul."

Hawkins was a troubled teenager who spent four years in a series of treatment centers, group homes and foster care after threatening to kill his stepmother in 2002. He had recently broken up with a girlfriend and lost his job at a McDonald's.

"He was without hope. He was without faith. He was without courage," Rodriguez said. "Because you don't do that to other people. You just don't do that to other people."

She and Hawkins ate supper together at the house of her ex-husband — Hawkins' stepfather — the night before the shootings, Rodriguez said. The stepfather was vacationing in Thailand.

"When I came back to the house, there was this sense, there was this air that something was wrong," she said.

She and police have said Hawkins took the assault rifle he used in the shootings from his stepfather's closet.

Hawkins either was kicked out or left that home some time ago. At the time of the shootings, he was living with Debora Maruca-Kovac and her husband, whose sons were friends with Hawkins, Maruca-Kovac has said. He had lived there for a little more than a year.

When asked what people should think of her son, Rodriguez said: "I'm not perfect, I know that. But you tell me: What could I have done differently? I did my best."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Merriam-Webster's word of '07: 'w00t'
Associated Press Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - Expect cheers among hardcore online game enthusiasts when they learn Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year. Or, more accurately, expect them to "w00t."

"W00t," a hybrid of letters and numbers used by gamers as an exclamation of happiness or triumph, topped all other terms in the Springfield-based dictionary publisher's online poll for the word that best sums up 2007.

Merriam-Webster's president, John Morse, said "w00t" was an ideal choice because it blends whimsy and new technology.

"It shows a really interesting thing that's going on in language. It's a term that's arrived only because we're now communicating electronically with each other," Morse said.

Gamers commonly substitute numbers and symbols for the letters they resemble, Morse says, creating what they call "l33t speak" — that's "leet" when spoken, short for "elite" to the rest of the world.

For technophobes, the word also is familiar from the 1990 movie "Pretty Woman," in which Julia Roberts startles her date's upper-crust friends with a hearty "Woot, woot, woot!" at a polo match.

Purists of "l33t speak" often substitute a "7" for the final "t," expressing a "w007" of victory — an "in your face" of sorts — when they defeat an online gaming opponent.

"W00t" was among 20 nominees in a list of the most-searched words in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary and most frequently submitted terms from users of its "open dictionary."

The choice did not make Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, say "w00t."

"It's amusing, but it's limited to a small community and unlikely to spread and unlikely to last," said Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill.

The 2006 pick, "truthiness," also has its roots in pop culture. It was popularized by Comedy Central satirical political commentator Stephen Colbert.

Some also-rans in the 2007 list: the use of "facebook" as a verb to signify using the Web site by that name; nuanced terms such as "quixotic," "hypocrite" and "conundrum"; and "blamestorm," a meeting in which mistakes are aired, fingers are pointed and much discomfort is had by all.

Schumacher may be Germany's fastest taxi driver

Michael Schumacher, seen here in November 2007, may well be the fastest taxi driver in Germany after the seven-times world champion shocked a cab driver by taking over the wheel in order to be on time for a flight. (AFP/File/Josep Lago)

BERLIN (AFP) - Michael Schumacher may well be the fastest taxi driver in Germany after the seven-times world champion shocked a cab driver by taking over the wheel in order to be on time for a flight.

Schumacher, 38, flew into the aerodrome at the Bavarian town of Coburg on Saturday and took a taxi to the village of Gehuelz, 30 kilometres away, to pick up a new puppy - an Australian Shepherd dog called "Ed".

But when the former Formula One ace, plus his wife and two children, caught a taxi back to the airport they were short on time and, after a polite request, cab driver Tuncer Yilmaz watched in wonder as Schumacher took the wheel.

"I found myself in the passenger seat, which was strange enough, but to have "Schumi" behind the wheel of my cab was incredible," Mr Yilmaz told the Muenchner Abendzeitung.

"He drove at full throttle around the corners and over-took in some unbelievable places."

Mr Yilmaz was well rewarded for the unusual journey - on top of the 60 euros (88 US dollars) fare, he was also given a 100 euros (146 US dollars) tip.

Schumacher's spokesperson Sabine Kehm later confirmed the story.

The German track ace, who now lives in Switzerland, retired from Formula One in 2006 after a glittering career and, despite test drives for his old team Ferarri, has insisted there is no chance of a return to racing.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Wedding ring saves antique shop owner's life
Band deflected bullet during armed robbery in Jackson, Miss.
The Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. - Donnie Register has a new reason to be thankful he's married — police say his wedding band deflected a bullet and probably saved his life.

Two men walked into Register's shop at The Antique Market on Saturday and asked to see a coin collection, police Sgt. Jeffery Scott said.

When Register retrieved the collection, one of the men pulled a gun and demanded money. A shot was fired as Register threw up his left hand, and his wedding ring deflected the bullet, police said.
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"The bullet managed to go through two of his fingers without severing the bone," said his wife, Darlene Register. "A part of the bullet broke off and is in his middle finger. The other part is in his neck, lodged in the muscle tissue. But it's not life-threatening."

She said she gives God all the credit.

Police were searching for the robbers, who Scott said "stole a substantial amount of cash."