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Kaycee Nicole

A story of a truck, some trains, a vet, and a possible scam

I think I’ve been taken for another Internet scam.

Of course the Internet is ripe for this kind of thing. The story of Kaycee Nicole Swenson is one infamous example. Unfortunately I fell for that one too, although not as hard as some people did. All I really wasted in that case was some bandwidth and a little disk space. That’s more than I can say for the people who sent her gifts and other things.Some people are skeptical of everything they see online. When I was younger, it made me mad. Not anymore.

People can come and go as they please with their blogs, but forums are an even easier target. Back in April, a disabled veteran showed up on a forum that I frequent. He had an interest in trains. My father in law, Jerry, was a disabled Vietnam vet. Jerry was hit by machine gun fire the first time he saw combat and received a Purple Heart. He never walked without a brace again. I don’t want to say the time in Vietnam ruined Jerry’s life, but it certainly sent everything off in a different direction.

By the time I met Jerry, he wasn’t bitter. He shared my love of baseball. He was a rabid Cardinals fan, so we’d talk baseball. We’d also talk about playing baseball and softball, because we both used to be outfielders. It’s always fun to hear another person’s take on playing the position you played. The difference was that at 29, I could still play center field. By 29 I had almost certainly lost a step out there, but my loss was due to age. At 29, all Jerry could do was coach. Jerry’s loss was from serving his country in an ill-advised war.

Jerry died in 2005. He had cancer, but his treatment was working, or so we thought. Then one day he started having a lot more abdominal pain than he was used to having. One Saturday afternoon they took him to the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine visit to find out what was going on with the pain, and he never went home.

I didn’t know Jerry very long, but he certainly influenced my life. Jerry was the first person who told me I could be completely debt-free in seven years or less. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. Now I probably had those tendencies before I met Jerry, and maybe I would have gone down that road regardless. But the first time I ever heard the idea was sitting on a porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, drinking coffee with Jerry.

I miss Jerry.

When I heard this guy’s story, something reminded me of Jerry.

He came from out of nowhere. He’d bought this old Lionel train at a garage sale. He was a disabled veteran (I can’t remember if it was Gulf War I and Gulf War II, or just Gulf War II), he shopped at garage sales, and he liked Lionel trains. What was there not to like about him?

But there was more to it. He was young, was married and had a kid or two while he was in the war, was wounded in combat, and when he came home, his wife and kids had left him. He’d served his country and nearly died and lost everything that meant anything to him in the process.

Regardless of what you think of Gulf War II, that story tugs at your heartstrings.

I wanted to help this guy. It started with me offering him some advice on getting that old train running. It was similar to a train that had belonged to my Dad. I’d worked on that kind of thing before, and I had some books with some advice in them. He never did get it running. I couldn’t tell if the problem was his locomotive or the track, so I offered to send him a cheap Marx locomotive and a loop of track. He told me he would have a hard time paying me. I told him not to worry about it because the stuff I was sending was probably worth about $10. It wasn’t; a fair price for it probably would have been closer to $20. It all shipped for about $7. Regardless, we aren’t talking huge sums of money. I can make that in an hour, and it would probably take more than an hour’s work to extract that value out of the stuff.

He thanked me profusely, but then I never heard from him again. Not directly, at least. I assume the box got to him, both because it’s unusual for a package that size to get lost in the mail, and because he made reference on the forum to having a Marx locomotive. But he came back with weekly tales about his garage sale finds. Part of me was a bit suspicious. He was finding stuff every week. I go to a lot of garage sales. I get up about 6 or 6:30 every Saturday morning, drive all over the St. Louis metro area, and the only time I’m home before noon is during December or January when there are only a couple of sales to hit. There have been days that I’ve gone out at 6 am and come home at 2 pm. I find trains about once or twice a month, and it’s probably about half as often that what I find is priced realistically.

He’s not exactly from a small town, but the metro area is 1/10 the size of St. Louis. There’s every reason to believe he should find about 1/10 the number of trains I find. Maybe less, since much of that area was probably still farmland when Lionel was in its glory days.

Looking back, I probably should have sensed some Tom Foolery going on.

I guess a lot of people started giving this guy some stuff. Train hobbyists can be pretty generous. Stuff we’ll never use tends to accumulate in boxes underneath our layouts, and the stuff we don’t give away probably won’t ever see the outside of that box for a very long time. It’s always been an unwritten rule to let useless stuff go to someone who can make better use of it. I’ve made a few trades in the past with people I’ve met online and never had any trouble. In most cases, I think we both walked away thinking we got the better end of the deal. And that’s how a deal should end–with both parties happy.

Then one day the guy disappeared. That happens. We get busy with other things sometimes. Word came that he was in the hospital. Then he reappeared. He had fantastic stories about his various medical conditions. Only there was one problem–other people on the forum had been in the hospital for the same thing, and the things he was saying weren’t consistent.

Then some people from other forums, one related to remote control cars, boats and planes and another related to the military, came looking for him and posted on the train forum. He’d told similar stories there–but the differences in the stories he told in each forum contradicted each other.

I’ve bounced back and forth between thinking whether it was a scam or just a misunderstanding. At first I wasn’t sure that I cared. Like I said, I’m out about $27. I can recover from that. But there are other people who are out a lot more than $27. At least one person sent him a brand new train set. After shipping, they were probably out closer to $300. Does that guy make 10 times what I make? Not likely.

Actually, I was wrong about not ever hearing from him again. He e-mailed a whole bunch of people, including me, yesterday while all of this was going on. It started out saying, “The evidence against me is overwhelming but this much is true.” And then he went on to rehash his story. It was pretty much all stuff I’d heard before.

The problem is, people don’t like being lied to. When part of the story is exposed as being a lie, it’s impossible to know if any of the rest is true. And then when someone turns up saying he sent him a $300 R/C truck two months ago in trade for something that never showed up, people are inclined to believe the guy. He may be a total stranger, but at least he’s never lied to them. And if the person in question has been scamming this stranger, it’s only natural to wonder if he’s been scamming other people too. Including you and your friends.

I suspect the next time someone comes along on that forum who needs something, a few people might not be feeling as generous. And that’s unfortunate.

And as for this one? I responded to his e-mail. I had several suggestions for him, including that he make things right with the guy who sent him the $300 R/C truck. He told me he would.

We’ll see. I know where to find the guy who sent the truck.

I’m not ready to come back yet, but here’s someone who is

Give me another day or two to get over my shellshock. Aleve makes me feel like I just drank three pints of Guinness. I’m sure my boss will be thrilled to hear that.
In the meantime, if you want something to read, go check out this. Debby is a member of my church. I can’t remember right now if we met two or three years ago. She’s fighting the battle of her life right now, so when a mutual friend came to me and asked me to set up a Web site for her, I jumped at the opportunity.

And before the Kaycee Nicole references come up, let me say this: I know Debby. She lives less than five miles from me. Her younger daughter, Wendy, works the same place I buy my groceries. Her older daughter, Heather, went to Mizzou with me, though I don’t know if our paths ever crossed. Her teacher’s assistant is in my Bible study group. I’ve worked on her computer a few times. I still remember how Wendy laughed when Debby came in, saw their computer open, looked at the dust inside it in horror, left the room, and came back with a dustrag. I’ve played with her dog, I’ve ridden in her car, I’ve seen the classroom where she teaches. Just as certain as I’m a real, living, breathing human being, so is Debby.

I feel this sudden urge to prove I really exist…

Do one thing every day that scares you.
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts.
Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.
–Mary Schmich, “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen”

I want to prove I really exist, and I’m trying to figure out how I can do it. What are the tell-tale signs of a hoax? Lack of pictures and a claim of hating to have your picture taken. Well, I hate having my picture taken. Gatermann’s got an album full of pictures of me holding my hands in front of my face. He collects ’em or something. I know of four pictures of me floating around on the Web, total, and two of them were scans off newsprint.

Another sign: Lots of people claiming to have talked to me via e-mail or even over the phone, but not in person. Dan Bowman and I have talked a lot, and I consider him a close friend. Other Daynoters or Webloggers? Tom Syroid and I used to talk on the phone. But that’s it. I’ve had conversations over e-mail with Doc Jim, and with JHR, and with Matt Beland, and with Brian Bilbrey. But who’s seen me in person? Well, Steve DeLassus and Tom Gatermann, both of whom I claim to have known for more than 10 years, but I could have fabricated them too.

Debilitating problem? Well, carpal tunnel syndrome is very small potatoes compared to leukemia, but it is a death sentence for a writer. I disappeared for about six months over it.

Really, it’s pretty hard to prove I’m not a hoax. I can link to my old writings from college that are online, circa 1996, (I published under “Dave Farquhar” in those days) and of course there’s that O’Reilly book and those Computer Shopper UK articles. Those will establish a consistency of writing style. My relatives that I mention don’t Weblog, and their writing styles are pretty distinct from mine–both my mom and sister are pretty good writers but I’ve got a lot of quirks they don’t. And neither have made many appearances on these pages.

I’m going to hold back a lot of personal details, because someone I hadn’t spoken to in about 10 months freaked me out back in January and, after reading my weblogs in their entirety, recited to me virtually every detail of my life based on what I’d written and a few educated guesses. Some of the details were wrong, but not enough of them were.

But if anyone really wants to check, I was born in Kansas City, Mo. I lived a lot of places, but most notably in Farmington, Mo., from 1983 to 1988, and in Fenton, Mo., from 1988 to 1993 (and I continued to call Fenton my home through 1996 when I was in college). I graduated from Lutheran High School South, St. Louis, in 1993. I graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia, with a degree in journalism (no minor) in 1997. I was employed by the University of Missouri in 1997 and 1998, so I’m even listed in the 1998 issue of the Official Manual of the State of Missouri. All of this should be pretty easily verifiable.

Or you can just take me at my word. It comes down to honesty, and futility. Why would anyone hoax a 20-something systems administrator? And why would they publish a book and a bunch of magazine articles under my name? It would be pointless. A pile of computer tips isn’t a compelling enough story to fake.

So what is compelling? A struggle. This past weekend’s struggle with a system upgrade showed I was human and don’t really care if people think I’m a computer genius or not. I guess that’s kind of compelling, because most of us can’t get our computers working quite right. Netscape cofounder Marc Andreesen endeared himself to thousands when he admitted in a magazine interview that his home PC crashes a lot and he never did get his printer working right. But an underdog is better. Noah Grey is a whole lot more compelling than me, because we’ve all felt a little shy sometimes, so his agoraphobia is something we can somewhat relate to. He can reach out to the world and we can share a little in his struggle and root for him. And Kaycee Nicole Swenson, well, she was just too good to be true–a 19-year-old who was wise and mature well beyond her years, a great writer, insightful, broken-hearted, sincere… Every male over 35 wanted her to be his daughter. As for the males under 35, she’d have made a great kid sister. But I suspect a good percentage of them would have wanted to date her, or someone just like her.

I don’t remember if this was exactly how she put it, but an old classmate once observed that the Internet allows us to safely pick our friends from a pool of millions, and usually we can find people who at least seem to be a whole lot more interesting (or better matches for us) than the people we can meet face-to-face, and we can quickly and painlessly get new ones and dispose of them on a whim. She wrote those words in 1997, but aren’t they a perfect description of Kaycee and the rest of the Weblogging phenomenon?

Steve DeLassus raised an interesting point this afternoon. He asked why a 19-year-old dying of leukemia or complications from leukemia would weblog at all. Wouldn’t she have better things to do? That’s an honest question, but I know if something like that were happening to me, I’d weblog. It’s cathartic, for one thing. When I was struggling with depression, I wrote about it in my newspaper column. I found it a whole lot easier to just pour my heart and soul into my word processor than to talk to someone about what I was feeling. I needed to get it out of my system, but you never know how people are going to react. When you can detach yourself from the words, it doesn’t matter. Some will scoff, but you won’t know. Some will totally understand, and you won’t know. Others will totally get it, and they’ll reach out to you, and then it’s all totally worth it. You know there’s something to them, because they had to make an effort to find your words, probably, and then they had to make an effort to communicate with you. You find special people that way.

Yeah, it’s kinda selfish. But it’s safe, and when you’re vulnerable, you need safe.

I’ve given zero enlightenment into the whole Kaycee Nicole hoax. I know a lot of people are hurting. I never got attached to her, because I only read her a couple of times a month. Over the weekend, I went back to Week 1 and started reading from there, to see what I missed. I guess I figured catching the reruns was better than missing it entirely. And I started to understand her appeal a bit more. And now I understand the hurt. It’s not nice to play with people’s hearts.

And some people will probably put up their walls and vow never to be hurt that way again. It’d be hard not to blame them.

But I hope they don’t. Because the only thing worse than the feeling after someone played with your heart is the feeling of being alone.

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