INCOMING CALL FROM ...
The robot paused, as if it were considering the multitudes who might be dialing in to incarnate it. Lyndon, it finally declared.
A small camera flipped up at the robot's crown. White headlights flashed at its base, then blue and orange lights blinked on around its monitor. The robot disengaged from its charging station and began rolling toward a doorway.
A bell rang. The bot gathered speed lest it be late for its ninth-grade science class.
July 31, 2011
Coach Lawson approached the robot and grinned. He's a history teacher and baseball coach at a 68-student high school in Knox City, Texas, but you can't fool folks. He's still what he once was: a rodeo clown. He lifted a hand and high-fived the bot.
A voice came from its two speakers. "What time do I need to be at the game on Saturday, Coach?"
"One o'clock start," said Coach Lawson.
"Thanks!" said the bot.
Coach Lawson resisted the urge, this time, to cover the robot's camera lens with a sticky note. He smiled and watched the voice of yourrrrr Knox City Greyyyyy-hounnnnnds! whir down the hall.
Want me to open the door?" asked one of the robot's 18 fellow freshmen, a boy named Travis Self.
"Yeah, thanks!" the bot replied.
It bumped into two chair legs as it entered the science class, reversed, made a few slick spin moves, then settled in behind the last row of desks.
Everything within range of its camera lens and four microphones—the sign that said you are the future—do you like what you see? ... the Lone Star flag hanging from the wall ... Mr. Collins droning on about conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit ... the video about temperature on a screen at the front of the room ... and district discus champ Tylynne Eaton's little shimmy to the video's music in his back-row seat—was being digitized by the robot's motherboard into hundreds of thousands of 1s and 0s and zipped as radio signals to an antenna at the end of the only hallway in Knox City High.
Converted to electrical pulses at that access point, the 1s and 0s were sent through copper wires to a telephone cooperative a half block away, then turned into laser beams that entered underground fiber-optic cables and darted beneath 85 miles of oil fields and ranchland to Wichita Falls. There they hopped a ride on cables and dashed across the continent to a server in Nashua, N.H.—home of VGo, the company that invented the robot—then reversed direction and raced 1,664 miles back to Knox City, an outpost in northern Texas 15 blocks long and 10 blocks wide that's populated by mebbe a thousand people, as the locals say, and mebbe not.
Transformed back into electrical signals in Knox City, that horde of 1s and 0s traveled about a mile north by copper wiring, where a thicket of mesquite gave way to a gray mailbox, a yard bumpy with brown weeds and bluebonnets and mounds of fire ants, a small red-brick house and 23 cows, two dozen calves, one bull, 52 hens, 10 roosters, 15 goats, five cats, one big shaggy herding dog named Jack and one small basset hound named Betsy, all milling on the homestead's 140-acre farm.
A branch of copper wiring surfaced here and fed those bytes through a wall of the red-brick house, where a modem turned them back into radio signals that leaped through the air to a laptop on a desk in the living room, which converted them into the images and sounds unfolding in that science classroom: Mr. Collins's drone, the flickering video and Tylynne Eaton's shimmy.
This—all of it—took three seconds.
"No dancing!" chirped the robot.
Tylynne smiled. He's been pals with Lyndon Baty, the boy operating the bot by remote control, since they were eight, long before Lyndon's body began rejecting its transplanted kidney at the end of eighth grade, long before his immune system disintegrated once more, long before he became the first kid in the U.S. to attend school via a robot last January and became the voice of yourrrrr Knox City Greyyyyyhounnnnnds! in March.
A girl in the back of class turned. "Shhhhh," she scolded the bot.
The bell rang. Striding straight toward the robot, as it motored toward math class, was Zaaaaak-eryyyyy Yorrrrrk, best athlete in the whole school, the soon-to-graduate shortstop who'd given the thumbs-up to those long, loud and controversial introductions that Lyndon howled over the P.A. system each time a Greyhound stepped to the plate.
"Hey, Zak, how's it going?"
The bot stopped, arrested by something in the glass of the Greyhounds' trophy case. Through thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables and copper wires, through modems and wireless routers and servers and LCD screens, through a webcam at one end and a robot's camera lens aimed at a high school trophy case at the other ... a 15-year-old boy gazed at his own reflection.
That's me: 3'11". White. Very white. Verrrrry spindly.
No, that's the robot.
O.K., then, that's me: the blond, bespectacled head and upper body appearing on the robot's TV monitor and reflecting off the glass. Almost as pale as his surrogate, almost as spindly. From Knox City, Texas, standing 4' 11", weighing 84 pounds ... Lyndonnnnn Baaaaattttyyyyy! He smiled. Ever since a UPS truck had rumbled across the vast scrubland of northern Texas late last December and dropped off a big cardboard box, the best Christmas present ever, Lyndon had liked himself again, begun dreaming once more of fulfilling his life goal of becoming ... well, here's his list, in order of preference: 1) ESPN'S NBA analyst, 2) a SportsCenter host, 3) a big league P.A. announcer or, but only if all else fails, 4) a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer. He liked himself again even with those three vexing baby teeth that still flashed when he grinned, an odd side effect of the medication for the disease that should have killed him long ago.
PKD, the docs called it—polycystic kidney disease—and Lyndon had the most devastating form of it, the one that appears at birth. He was born six weeks premature, barely breathing, with a hole in his heart, a stomach the size of a quarter, deadly high blood pressure, two pounds of fluid in his torso and two kidneys that were full of cysts, three times normal size and unable to clear protein from his bloodstream. Average life span for PKD babies back then: 14 days to two years. "None of us thought he'd make it that far," admits neonatologist James Marshall. But none of them had a mother quite like Sheri Baty.
She'd taught business and been a financial-aid counselor at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, but now, at age 26, her career became Lyndon Baty. White-knuckling over platelet and creatinine counts, pacing to and from a crib in a bedroom that looked like an ICU unit, falling asleep with books in her lap on proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Jolting awake every two hours to make sure the tubes from the oxygen tank were still in Lyndon's nostrils, the tube from the food pump was still in his throat, the belt to his apnea monitor hadn't wriggled off his waist, the cuff to his blood-pressure machine hadn't slipped off his wrist. Dropping back into bed, brain ticking with hematocrit and hemoglobin levels, terrified of missing the trouble indicator or making the mistake with his medicine that would kill her firstborn. Slipping back into her recurring dream that the 70 miles of macadam to Abilene somehow never ended, never got her to the pharmacy to buy the five blood-pressure drugs her son needed to live. Waking up in a cold sweat to make sure he was still breathing, to weigh his food for intake and diapers for output, to syringe into his throat the 5-cc maximum of milk formula that his stomach could handle, to change the fluid on the home dialysis machine that filtered his bloodstream for 10 to 18 hours a day, to set timers all over the house so she wouldn't forget the next three things that she had to do to get him from today to tomorrow. Her husband, Louis, needed eight to 10 Dr Peppers a day to make it from one sleep-ravaged night to the next in his new job as local school superintendent. Sheri did it on the caffeine of stress.
The pipsqueak made it, somehow, to 18 months. He couldn't walk; his swollen abdomen made him wobble and crash, and his frail bones snapped like pencils. He couldn't talk; perhaps it was because of those three times he'd stopped breathing and lost oxygen to his brain, or maybe because what it took to stay alive simply left no energy for consonants and vowels.
But ohmygosh, when the words finally came, they came in a gusher. Two-year-old Lyndon couldn't wait, during all those visits to hospitals in Abilene and Dallas, to turn on The Weather Channel and rattle off the names of every state on the map, becoming so exasperated when the weatherman stood in front of the states he was spouting off that he'd try to shove him out of the way. Couldn't wait, at age five, to tell nurses every obscure factoid about every obscure animal on the planet. He became the prodigy of the pediatric ward, Baby Buddha sitting up in bed with that big belly and those double-jointed limbs crossed in the lotus position—but Buddha never yapped and jested like this.
"Doctor, I don't feel so good," he said once when he was placed in isolation for four days. "Got some new spots on me." The eyes of his physician and six trailing residents widened as Lyndon pulled up his shirt to reveal nine big red, yellow, green and blue blotches. Then all those eyes narrowed and crinkled: sticky lizards!
A blood vessel burst inside him on his fifth birthday, in 2001, and he began vomiting blood. Sheri ran down the hospital hall and screamed, nurses rushed him to the operating room and doctors saved him once more, replacing his entire blood supply three times. A few days later Sheri learned that she and her husband, after having produced a healthy son named Sheldon in 1998, had lost the genetic lottery once more: The baby in her womb had the same disease as Lyndon. "We'll do it all over again," she and Louis told each another. "God has a reason." Eleven days after he was born, Kyndal died.
Lyndon hung on, kidney function vanishing by the day, waiting for two years to see who'd die first: he or some unknown donor with a kidney that would match. A car crash over the Fourth of July weekend in 2003 gave the seven-year-old boy a new left kidney, energy he'd never had before and the chance to finally, after three years of homebound schooling, begin attending classes at the end of second grade—along with a new passion, far bigger than the ones for armadillos or anteaters or Alabama or Arkansas.
It began one day in 2004 when Lyndon played in his first real ball game, a competition pitting organ recipients against Dallas--Fort Worth TV personalities on a field next to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. He hit the field on the run, rounded the bases, slid into home and bolted straight to his father. "Dad!" he cried. "I scored during warmups!" He scored two more times in the game, once sliding between a reporter's legs, and then came the cherry on top, the invitation to enter the stadium and see his first major league game. The drama of the big crowd and the gut-squeezing Rangers-A's game had him on his feet in the ninth inning, exhorting fans to don rally caps and roar, and from that evening onward....
Meet Lyndon Baty, eight-year-old run-amok sports geek. So juiced that he couldn't sleep the nights before big Mavericks games and for two nights afterward. So anguished during playoff games that he'd drop to the floor, shaking, and pull out hair. So focused that he'd keep a running tally of every player's points, rebounds and blocked shots in the notepad in his lap, and ... well, just forget about inserting that IV in his wrist artery until the final buzzer. He could spew MVPs, Rookies of the Year and draft classes for the last decade, tell you what Steve Nash needed to do to improve his game, pull the strings on fantasy teams in basketball and baseball and football, call Colin Cowherd to discuss Cliff Lee on national radio and dial up Dallas's ESPN affiliate to propose the return of Avery Johnson to the Mavs, and still have time to pepper his local radio station's trivia segment so many times—What did Shania Twain major in? "Baseball!" Nope, sorry, Lyndon!"Basketball!" Nope, sorry, Lyndon!—that northern Texans wondered if that one hilarious serial-dialing squirt was why KDRP ended up banning all under-18 phoners. Sports made Lyndon's physical miseries melt away. He'd chain-watch SportsCenter repeats—Never know when there might be an update!—until his saintly ma, cooped up with him at home or in hospital rooms for weeks at a time, became a slack-jawed, pillowcase-embroidering zombie, staring into space. Outraged, Lyndon was, when it came time to compose his team-by-team prognostications on the eve of every MLB, NFL and NBA season, if Mom hadn't rescued from his pants pockets all the scraps of paper on which he'd scribbled every trade over the previous six months. Outraged!
The boy's eyes returned to his robot's reflection in the trophy case. If only he could put a ball cap, a T-shirt and shorts on his avatar, so the bot would look more like a boy. But his dad vetoed the request. "He's paid to shoot down good ideas," says Lyndon.
He peered past his virtual reflection, to what he really wanted from that glass case: a sports trophy. He knew that one collision, one flesh wound—with all that blood-thinner he took to prevent a clot—could kill him ... but Lyndon was dying to play ball.
By age nine, before a backyard audience of billy goats, barn cats and roosters, and over Mom's protests, he'd begun inventing games to play with Sheldon, 2½ years his junior: Super-Slow-Motion Football. Blind Man's Wiffle Ball, following each other's verbal cues—Swing now! Run to your right! Watch out for the tree! Or, in a pinch, Lyndon Versus the Dining Room Chairs, five of them set up as basketball defenders and four others serving as teammates so he could bounce passes off them. Then he upped the ante, finagled his way onto his middle school basketball team as a seventh-grader, his coach getting the referees' and the opposing coaches' approval to sub him in once each game to shoot a pair of free throws and then get him off the court before play resumed. A brilliant ploy, it turned out, because the squirt could hit foul shots better than most of his teammates ... and could lift both teams' fans to their feet with his leaping, whooping celebrations.
Two minutes left in the season finale against the Crowell Wildcats, victory out of reach, Lyndon's father slipped down to the bench and gave the incredulous coach the green light: Put Lyndon in.
"Baty!" called the coach, Colin Howeth. "Go in for Malik."
Lyndon was bewildered. "Coach, he's not shooting foul shots."
"Baty, you're playing, go in the game!"
Lyndon walked onto the floor in a daze. Sheri blanched. "What are you doing?" she cried to Howeth, who shrugged and nodded toward his boss ... uh, Sheri's husband.
The opponents, instructed during a timeout to avoid contact with the scrawny sub, watched the ball zip immediately to Lyndon. He took a long ankles-to-cowlick look up the six-footer covering him, then feinted right, darted left and ... collective groan ... missed the layup. Next time down the court he launched a three that rimmed out. The groan grew louder. Clock ticking. Last chance. Pump fake, crossover dribble, drive to the hoop ... yes! The crowd went wild, Lyndon didn't sleep for three nights, and Coach Howeth received a Christmas card: Coach, you made my dream come true!
Life was looking up for Lyndon Louis Baty. He won the district title in Impromptu Speaking when judges served him up a meatball—If you could be anyone, who would you be?—and he crushed it, rattling off a three-minute riff: "Dirk Nowitzki! I could be tall, I could play basketball, and I wouldn't have to wear glasses!"
He was almost too good in his role as assistant to the junior high football coaching staff, a minidynamo driving classmates buggy when he'd lead warmups—"Pump those knees higher! C'mon! Faster! Harder! Higher!—or bark at them during games, "You gotta get lower! You gotta hit harder!"
"Coach, he's not a coach! Tell him to stop!"
"All right, Lyndon, pull it back a little."
He was beginning to feel like a real boy, like he belonged ... when his body went haywire again in eighth grade. A case of chicken pox, which could have proved fatal, and the swine-flu scare kept him homebound for six weeks, then he spit up a piece of tonsil, got swollen lymph nodes and was stunned to learn that, on top of everything else, he had cancer.
Good news: The oncologist was wrong. Bad news: Lyndon's body was rejecting the transplanted kidney he'd had for seven years, requiring such steep dosages of immuno-suppressant drugs to counter the antibodies coursing through him that now a mere cold could kill him.
The boy became a masked, gloved, wheelchair-bound hermit. Slipping in and out of the back door of the Children's Medical Center in Dallas all last summer. Shuttling to and from the sorriest sort of Ronald McDonald House—the kind without ESPN—where he lived for 2½ months, compelling Dad to lay the phone next to the TV back home, three hours away, so Lyndon could hear LeBron James's Decision. Straining to remain that sunny-side-up kid at whom nurses marveled as he underwent plasmapheresis treatments that extracted his blood every other day through a catheter implanted in his jugular vein in an attempt to filter out the flood of life-threatening antibodies. But when that failed, and worried doctors decided to try chemotherapy, something finally broke in the boy who never complained. He buried his head in his pillow and wept.
On the eve of his freshman year he was sent home with strict orders not to attend school or expose himself to anyone outside his family. Any sign of a cold or flu in the family meant that either Lyndon or the sniffler had to be shipped out immediately to Grandma Lula Baty's farmhouse 30 miles to the north. Everyday life in Knox City, where cellphones fell silent after Hello and a teenager had to splatter 70 miles worth of bugs on the windshield of his daddy's pickup just to reach the nearest shopping mall, was isolating enough. But this....
Sheri, scurrying ahead to disinfect every room he entered, to squirt liquid soap into the palms of the few relatives he saw, watched her son's appetite vanish. Then his energy. Then the light in his hazel eyes.
Louis, coming inside from milking the cows each morning, had to drag his son out of bed and stand him up ... only for him to sag onto the couch in his bedclothes, staring blankly at SportsCenter and ignoring his mother's pleas to come to the table for home schooling. He pictured his long-lost friends getting their driver's permits, hanging out at the Sonic in Haskell, tubing the Brazos when the river was up, spinning out four-wheelers in the fields. Lyndon was too extroverted to go on like this, holed up at home without friends or activities, choking down 24 pills a day, too listless to walk any farther than the end of the driveway, too lonely even to rattle off the Cowboys' off-season needs. "I'm just a guinea pig," he murmured to Sheri. "You're my only friend, my only teacher and my mother. I just want it to be over." He wasted away to 65 pounds, and his parents grew desperate.
His father was the most powerful figure in town, the man in charge of its largest employer and the hub of all its activities and entertainment ... but he was helpless. Until one day last December, when he thought to call his school district's regional service center in Wichita Falls to see if the technology crew there had any ideas—TV camera, Skype, anything—that would allow a sick boy to monitor classes electronically. Mike Campbell, one of the techies, called back, saying, "You won't believe this, but just yesterday...." A salesman from SKC Communications named Victor Cuellar, looking for some other way to market a new remote-controlled robot that had been designed for doctors and family members to visit hospital patients from afar or for absent managers and consultants to interact with workers in various parts of a building, had thought perhaps a principal might use a robot to check out his school by remote control if a security alarm rang late at night. But why not a sick student who wanted to go to school? A sick student for whom, it turned out, the salesman's wife had been the dialysis nurse eight years earlier. "It's a God thing," said Rick Moeller, the principal, when he saw the coincidences that were aligning.
Rumors began to blow through Knox City. A robot was coming to a town that didn't even have a red light. A robot—the only one in the world to attend classes besides a bot that matriculated at School Number 166 in Moscow for a leukemia-stricken 12-year-old—was coming to a school with only 10 classrooms. "Everybody," recalled football coach Charles Steele, "was like, Git out of here. Yeah, right. No way."
Mr. Moeller strode in front of the astonished student body in December with the $6,000 VGo robot, the chrome-and-plastic child of a marriage between engineers from the cutting edge of videoconferencing technology and the progenitors of Roomba, the hot-selling robot vacuum cleaner, and PackBot, a military robot used for bomb disposal. "Meet the new electronic Lyndon," the principal announced. "Don't touch him when you pass him in the hall. Give him space. Don't sneak up on him—he doesn't have rear-view mirrors. Let him be like the other kids. Don't ruin it for him. This is Lyndon's only way to be a part of you."
"It's the Baty Bot!" exclaimed a junior, Ryan Ledesma, and bingo, the bot was baptized.
On Monday, Jan. 3—first day of classes after Christmas—the school superintendent did not have to pull his son out of bed. Too revved to sleep, Lyndon rose at five, dressed and beat out the minutes till dawn with a pair of drumsticks. Then he wolfed down a pair of over-easy eggs, gulped his FK506, his Cellcept, his Norvasc, his sodium bicarbonate and his Prevacid ... and clicked on the Baty Bot icon on his laptop screen. A moment later he was staring at the cramped teachers' workroom, his robot's designated resting place and charging station. He clicked his mouse at the top of the white semicircle that appeared on his screen, propelling the bot toward the hallway. Oh, boy! He was there, he was finally a high schooler! Uh-oh.... He'd never even taken his robot for a test drive. It bumped into a chair, a sink and the doorway before it got out of the staff room. Of all the fresh-meat freshmen in the history of high schools, had there ever been a geekier one?
The bot emerged into the hallway and halted. The entire school was waiting there, all 67 students and 11 teachers, waving and greeting him, giggling and gaping. No way around it. This ... this was weird. No one was sure whether to treat the Baty Bot as an object—or as Lyndon. Austin Valimont, the Greyhounds' junior rightfielder, made his choice. He walked up and hugged the robot, crying, "Oh, Lyndon, I've missed you so much!" and everyone laughed.
Lyndon waved, wearing an ear-to-ear grin, and chirped out half a hundred hi's ... then turned both ways. Uh-oh.... He'd never—except for a five-minute visit to check out his new avatar—set foot in the high school. He'd been told that science class was near the end of the school's only corridor, but which end was which? "Turn left," instructed Mr. Collins. "The science room's down there." The bot began rolling, and the sea of gawkers parted.
"I better not see that robot go in the girls' bathroom," warned Mr. Moeller, as if he'd once been a 15-year-old boy with a robot.
Lyndon felt as if he were lost inside a perplexing video game that first day. He banged into walls, chairs, water fountains, benches, lockers, people—mortifying!—but, he concluded, "it's better when it's a girl." His second day, equipped with a fire-drill map of the school and aided by tags placed outside each room that identified the teacher inside, he began to relax, and the pipsqueak comedian emerged. "Hey, get out of my way!" Lyndon squealed as the Baty Bot weaved down the hall. "I don't have a license! I don't have insurance!"
"Can you get me a bagel and sausage?" he'd implore Coach Lawson when he saw him heading to the cafeteria. Then he discovered that if he typed in words on his keyboard, the bot would enunciate them in a mechanical female voice. Robotic ha-ha-ha's began to titter through the classroom. Ms. Jones, the math teacher, nearly jumped out of her shoes when she leaned in to check out the Baty Bot's control panel and the robo-voice snapped, Don't touch my buttons!
The bot had other tricks up its sleeve. When Lyndon, fatiguing swiftly as his kidney deteriorated, grew too weary to take notes, he could press a button on his keyboard and the robot would declare, Say cheese! and snap a photo of the notes on the classroom's whiteboard for him to study later. Late for a class, he realized he could knock on the door by banging the bot against it. Best of all, when there was a lull in class, and Mom wasn't too close by, he could minimize the window showing him the classroom and bring up breaking news on a half-dozen sports websites or, better still, Dirk's latest tweet.
It didn't take long for schoolmates to hatch bot-pranks. They picked up the robot and toted it around like a sack of groceries. They stuck it in corners and pinned it in with a desk. They placed their hands over its lens so Lyndon couldn't see. Mr. Moeller called the offenders into his office, where the crucifix and wooden paddle on the shelf let them know he meant business, and Coach Steele laid down the law in front of the entire student body in March. But Lyndon didn't take the high jinks to heart. They were the surest sign that the bot was becoming one of the boys.
In no time the robot was just "Lyndon" to everyone except a girl who'd known him for years but kept her distance from the bot, unnerved by it. It became old hat for classmates to drop to the floor to push the button that rebooted the bot when the Wi-Fi connection was lost, or for the school receptionist to burst into class and do it when no one noticed and Lyndon called her in a panic, "Ms. Rodriguez, I've lost myself! Please turn me back on!" Ms. Martinez, the English teacher and drama coach, loved having the bot join discussions of Animal Farm, especially when she was reading the part where the animals counterattacked the farmers and Lyndon's basset hound, Betsy, began barking furiously, providing perfect sound effects for the battle.
Most thrilled of all was Sheri. Overnight her son's will to live reappeared and with it 19 pounds of weight on that wisp of a body. "Bye, Mom, I'm going to school!" he'd sing out at 8:58 each morning. She loved resigning as Home School Teaching Nag and returning to full-time Germ Nazi, only now she had to run scans on his laptop in addition to any room he entered. It was life-and-death that Lyndon didn't catch a virus. Life-and-death now as well that the bot didn't.
The bot's fame spread. Texas newspapers did write-ups, then TV stations in the state caught wind, and in no time the Baty Bot was in the Big Apple, preening on the Today show, motoring toward Matt Lauer's empty seat and proclaiming, "I want that chair!"
Back home, bot sightings rippled through the county and state. The robot was seen on the floor of the Texas state senate, in the governor's office and at a regional academic competition in Abilene. Lyndon was becoming a voice for organ transplants and a face for sick, homebound children being brought back to life by the grace of cybertechnology. "Why, that robot," Grandma Lula heard her hairdresser, Vera Tomlinson, say, "has put little ol' bitty Knox City on the map!"
"Need to change those signs saying WELCOME TO KNOX CITY, HOME OF THE GREYHOUNDS," guidance counselor Christie Howeth told folks, "to HOME OF THE BATY BOT."
VGo lent the family a duplicate—Baty Bot 2—for Lyndon to use at nonschool activities. The bot got religion, appearing on Sundays at O'Brien Baptist Church, perched in the aisle next to Dad so he could throttle the avatar if it even thought about blurting out something while Brother Nelson was preaching. A half-dozen old ladies fluttered around it during the meet-and-greet part of the service, saying, "I don't know how this is going to work, but I'm going to hug you!" while white-haired Mutt Ivie opted for the more manly welcome, throwing uppercuts at Baty Bot 2 with his fingerless right hand.
It seemed there was nothing more that a gravely ill boy sealed off from the world could ask for ... but there was. His dad knew that a kid at Knox City High who wasn't involved in some extracurricular activity—most students juggled three or four—felt invisible. Now that Lyndon had a future again, what better way to feed his dreams than to make him the public-address announcer at varsity baseball games?
Mom tried, of course, to pull the plug. After all, the ballpark was on the far edge of town—out in cattle range, not Wi-Fi range—so the bot couldn't pinch-hit for Lyndon, which would mean exposing him to all those fans and bacteria. But it's open air, her husband countered, and most of the time Lyndon would be alone in the booth except for Rick Reid, the old volunteer operating the scoreboard. "I'd love it! I'd love it! Please! Please!" begged Lyndon.
Mom lost, and a legend was born: Lyndon Baty Live! Sleepless from anticipation, he bounded up the rusting steel stairway to the booth on March 1 wearing a Greyhounds T-shirt, took his seat as if he were born to it—right ankle casually propped on left hipbone—gazed across a ball field straight out of Shoeless Joe Jackson's dreams and clicked on the microphone alongside a bottle of antibacterial soap. "Batting firrrrrst...." It began as a deep growl from that 84-pound body ... "for yourrrrr Greyyyyy-hounnnnnds ..." then metamorphosed into a full-throated howl ... "nummmmm-berrrrr sixxxxx ..." that rattled the donkeys, horses, goats and chickens in Kevin White's pens behind home plate ... "BRANNNNN-DONNNNN ..." and soared over the stalks of Jimmy Tankersley's wheat field in left ..."BRAAAAAD- ..." and carried deep beyond Rusty Grimsley's cattle in right ... "LEEEEEY" ... and just kept going, going ... no one able to confirm that it was ever gone.
The effect was physiological. Shoulders lifted. Backsides edged away from the blare of the two loudspeakers. Heads turned, eyebrows rose, smiles spread. The home plate umpire's fingers plugged his ears. Coach Lawson started flashing a sign from the third-base coaching box that his Greyhounds didn't recognize, a scissoring motion that, they finally realized, was meant for the press box: Cut the damn thing shorter, Lyndon! But like the homer-happy slugger who never seems to see the bunt sign, Lyndon missed the signal and howled anew.
Strikeouts were monumental: "STEEEEE-rahk threeeee, he's OUTTTTTA there!" Walks were wry: "That batter's going to get a free pass to first base." Foul balls—thanks to Lyndon's adopted brother, Chance, a nine-year-old human retriever with the squeakiest of voices—were both transcendent and comical: "High ... HIGH ... HIIIIIIIIIIIIGH foulllllllll ballllllllll!"
Chance: "I got it!"
P.A. Announcer: "Chance Baty has it!"
Chance: "I love you, Lyndon!"
P.A. Announcer: "Chance Baty, verrrrry proud of himself!"
Everyone assumed that Lyndon would go galactic only for each Greyhound's first trip to the plate ... but everyone was wrong. Every at bat, even in this 25--7 drubbing of stunned Bryson High, was introduced as if the 'Hounds were bursting out of a locker room amid smoke, fireworks, Eye of the Tiger, a Blue Angels flyover and the roar of 60,000 fans. By the end of the third inning Lyndon had shot his wad and his voice. "Sounded like I had a hair ball at the end," he lamented. The visiting team's fans, seeing him emerge from the press box, were shocked to discover that that voice came from that waif. He exited to a standing ovation. "Man, he could do that for a living!" enthused Coach Steele. "All of his limitations disappear."
Yes, the kid was a marvel, but no one knew what to do with him. He was violating all three of John Wayne's laws for the Western male: Talk low, talk slow and don't talk too much. Dad, appointing himself censor the following week, seated himself beside Lyndon in the booth and tried to tone him down. Coach Lawson, fingers scissoring furiously in the coaching box, finally threw up his arms. "Would somebody go up there and tell him to shorten the names?" he cried.
But it was hopeless, and this time the kid went the distance, crowed the full seven innings. "C'mon, I'm supposed to be loud and long!" he argued. "That's what they do at professional sporting events. Besides, I can't shorten it. It just comes out that way. I love doing this. It feels like you're the only one there and you're amusing people and there are no rules and you can do what you want. Announcing the games gives me a sense of power. It feels like I'm part of the team."
By his fifth game he'd Googled up a list of big league slang terms, expanding his mandate from P.A. man to play-by-play broadcaster. "Heater for strahk two!" ... "Little chin music there!" ... "Threw him a deuce for ball two—that's a curveball in case you didn't know!"
The Greyhounds were getting pounded that day, trailing Seymour 14--0 as they came to bat in the fourth, when Kevin White's donkey began hee-hawing behind the stands as if its tail were on fire. "Sounds lahk we got a rally donkey!" Lyndon bellowed, then turned his cap inside out to aid the cause. And wouldn't you know it, the 'Hounds began slashing singles and doubles, sending six runners home that inning. "The rally donkey's working!" hollered the P.A. announcer.
"I need some duct tape," groaned the P.A. announcer's mom.
Most robot stories end badly. The genie escapes the bottle, the machines run amok, mankind loses ugly in the late innings. It's way too early in the game to know if that's where this one's headed, but the perfect play-by-play man for it is propped up in bed on a spring morning, daydreaming of what's next while Dad milks the cows. Varsity basketball P.A. man? No. That's indoors, too dangerous, too many germs ... but he could do the player introductions from home this winter if the gym gets Wi-Fi and a microphone is placed in front of the Baty Bot. Very cool. Football? Definitely. He's set to work the microphone for Sheldon's middle school games this autumn—"Ohhhh, do I have plans for Sheldon," he coos—and possibly the high school jayvee games, and Mr. Moeller, the P.A. man for varsity football, says he'll gladly turn over the microphone once Lyndon gets a little seasoning. Sheri can picture the day when her son sends his robot into locker rooms to get quotes as his sports journalism career expands ... and who among the toilers in that field, even those who are the picture of health, wouldn't happily choose to send a robot to do that dirty and cliché-ridden work once that's an option?
For it will be, have no doubt. Besides VGo, Anybots is marketing a robot perfectly named for the sporting set—QB—and Willow Garage has one out called Texai, while an MIT doctoral student named Sigur√êur √ñrn has unveiled a MeBot that can track its remote controller's head movements and convey expressions with moving parts. In South Korea 29 robots—remote controlled by Filipinos—are teaching children English. The world robot population, including automatons working on assembly lines, has swollen to an estimated 8.6 million. Were they to form a country, it would have more citizens than Austria.
It's 8:58 a.m. in Knox City. The Baty Bot's rolling down the school hallway. The principal's shaking his head. "Fifty years from now," Mr. Moeller says, "we might just have a bunch of robots walking around here, and everybody will stay at home."
"But I don't think it'll be a good thing," says Ms. Martinez. "Luckily Lyndon's a good kid, but other kids with robots? I don't know...."
"It's the best thing that ever happened to him," says Mr. Moeller. "It's made everything so much more positive in the whole school."
The bot halts. The door to the science room is shut. A horn to honk at moments like this, or better still, arms and hands for the robot, not to mention a male robotic voice and a zoom lens and swivel on the camera: They're all recommendations that Lyndon has passed on to the manufacturer. All coming soon to a robot near you.
Mr. Collins opens the door. "Sorry, Lyndon," he says, "but there's no class today. Almost everybody's at the district track meet."
Which leaves the bot alone in the room, and Lyndon with time to muse. "If the bot had turbo-boosters, I could run track," he says. The bottle's open now. The genie's roaming. "Sometimes I think about my robot alone in school at night. What if, when it has hands, it goes into the classrooms while no one's there and changes all my grades to 100s? And I've thought about what it would be like for the robot to go on a date with a girl. Then I've wondered if there's a fire at school, will anyone save me?" No, Sheldon has assured him, they'll use you to smash the windows so they can escape.
Lyndon can sense where it's all going. He knows how seductive it'll be one day for people to sit in front of a computer—while our avatars get our groceries, attend our business meetings or wait in line at the DMV—and monitor split screens, controlling multiple interactions, multiple realities. And the next inevitable step, once we all grasp that the components of the robot's body are more reliable than our kidneys, livers and hearts, once we begin downloading and digitizing our preferences and memories and genetic coding....
For now, he's our trailblazer. So tell us, Kid, what life's like out there on the frontier, where flesh becomes data, body becomes bot.
"First of all, I'm not a Trail Blazer.... I'm a Dallas Maverick." He grins, immensely pleased with himself. "But I know that people will want to do this. They'll think they can escape the real world. But once you escape it, you'll start to want it. It sounds weird. I gained my independence through the robot. If you have bad health, it gives you back your self-worth, so you feel like a real person, not just a sick person. But for a healthy person to do this? I don't know. There's nothing like actually being there. Really seeing and feeling. I miss the feeling of being around other people and just the atmosphere of being in places. You're trying to be there but you're not there. It still feels like a video game, doing it this way. I don't get the whole thing. I get about 60 percent.
"Some people will want to stay at home in their comfort zone. But when you stay in your comfort zone too much, you don't feel that tension or stress of something unexpected happening. This isn't such a great idea. Don't do it if you're healthy, because you'll lose so much of your life. And what about when it becomes robot-to-robot?"
Let's stay right here for now, peer one last time inside a red-brick house on a farmstead just north of Knox City, Texas. Dusk has fallen. There's a robot resting in its charging station in the darkness of the master bedroom. There's a family at a dining table, hovering around a big 100-year-old glass jar with wooden paddles inside it and a metal crank on top. There's a teenager turning the crank, a boy whose kidney is about to give out again, who's likely to go on a waiting list for a replacement in a process that's fraught with risk, an organ that might take years to procure and isn't likely to last more than a dozen years.
Lyndon Baty shakes his head. "I'm going to school by robot," he says, "and churning butter at home. Can you imagine that?"
EVER SINCE A UPS TRUCK DROPPED OFF A BIG CARDBOARD BOX, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PRESENT EVER, LYNDON HAD LIKED HIMSELF AGAIN.
BY AGE EIGHT HE COULD SPEW MVPS AND DRAFT CLASSES FOR THE LAST DECADE, AND CALL COLIN COWHERD TO DISCUSS CLIFF LEE ON NATIONAL RADIO.
THE BOT EMERGED INTO THE HALLWAY AND HALTED. THE ENTIRE SCHOOL WAS WAITING THERE, WAVING AND GREETING HIM, GIGGLING AND GAPING.