Blame Everyone

I went up in a hot-air balloon with my pet cat, and when we were several hundred feet up, I held the cat by one leg and dangled him over the edge of the basket. He slipped out of my hand and fell to his death. Now I am suing Superman for not arriving in time to catch the cat before he hit the ground.

If you think that lawsuit is stupid, consider the one filed recently by the Wayment family. You’ll recall that in October 2000, Paul Wayment left his 2-year-old son, Gage, sleeping in the truck while he scouted out a hunting area. When he came back 45 minutes later, the boy had wandered off. His frozen body was found five days later by rescuers. Paul was convicted of negligent homicide and, stricken with guilt and grief, committed suicide in July of this year.

The story of Paul and Gage Wayment is a dreadfully sad one. We never had to blame Paul for leaving Gage alone; from the beginning, he blamed himself. His subsequent suicide was tragic, but I’m not sure I could live with that kind of guilt, either. It was a poignant, heartbreaking end to an emotional story.

Now, however, the family has filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the various counties and sheriff’s departments that helped search for Gage, saying if they had done their job properly, the boy would have been found a) sooner and b) alive, meaning Paul would not have c) committed suicide.

I respect the memory of Paul and Gage Wayment. But the sympathy I had for their family is fast dwindling.

One hates to use terms like “opportunistic white trash,” but let’s look at the facts. Dad wants to go hunting, and for some reason wants to take his son along. Fine. Family togetherness, father-son bonding, teach them to kill things while they’re still young, whatever. I question dressing the boy only in his pajamas in October in the mountains, but perhaps they were really warm pajamas, made out of fire or something.

Leaving the boy alone was stupid; Paul admitted that. It was clear from Paul’s suicide that he blamed himself — not the searchers — for Gage’s death. But now, in hindsight, the family has decided it was the searchers’ fault after all. “Never mind, Paul,” they are saying. “It wasn’t your fault after all! It was the searchers’ fault! Your death was pointless!”

Wayment family attorney Barry N. Johnson has said the intent of the claim is not “to criticize (searchers’) noble efforts.” Instead, he said, “The intent of the claim is to make my clients and myself very, very rich. Rich, I tell you!” Then he clicked his heels and hopped around the courtroom.

No, I have made up that last quote, as well as its accompanying mental image. Johnson actually said, “The Wayment family remains extraordinarily grateful to the numerous volunteers involved in the search effort.” Then he added, “But the Wayments also want the volunteers to feel guilty, resentful and dirty, like the Wayments are.”

There I go again, making up quotes. What he REALLY said was that the purpose of the claim “is to create the changes necessary to ensure that future search efforts are competently organized and implemented, thereby resulting in a greater number of successful searches.”

Oh, I get it. The Wayments, who appear to be greedy, selfish and evil, are actually trying to help their fellow man. If they can milk $1 million from these government agencies and live on Easy Street for the rest of their lives, it will teach those bad volunteers a lesson they won’t soon forget! Searchers will be sprouting wings out of their armpits and developing heat-seeking night vision to enable them to search better, faster and more accurately. Sure, it will cost $1 million, effectively crippling the agencies involved and terrifying anyone who might consider volunteering his time and energy to a rescue effort. But it will be worth it, for all the precise searching and rescuing it will lead to! They’re heroes, those surviving Wayments.

Plus, as you know, the $1 million will cause Paul and Gage to spring back to life as though nothing ever happened. The question is, will they be too ashamed of their family’s behavior to associate with them?

Few things made Utahns angrier in late November 2001 than the Weyment lawsuit. We had felt enormous pity and sympathy for the tragedies suffered by the family, and now we felt quite angry that such a frivolous lawsuit was being filed -- a slap in the face to those who searched for Gage, and an insult to the memory of Paul, who never blamed the rescuers. This is one of those "saying out loud what other people are already thinking" columns, and the comments posted at the Herald site bore that out.

The column had to be rewritten several times. First, I just poured out what I thought, making sure I had the facts of the case right, without regard to length or coherency. Then I concised it up a bit and started trying to find ways of using humor and irony to get my point across, rather than just stating things outright. The quote from the lawyer was a gem of a find; it added a lot to the column.

Then I had four editors read it to see if they felt I crossed the line anywhere. One suggested adding the detail that Paul had been convicted of negligent homicide, one had another minor point to discuss, and another said it was fine as is. The fourth had only one problem with it: In the first paragraph, it was a dog being dropped from the balloon. He said that image was terribly disturbing to him, and jokingly suggested that if I changed it to a cat, it wouldn't seem quite as bad. I realized that, joking aside, he was right. Dropping a cat from a great height is somehow less awful than dropping a dog. So I changed it.