The kid heard about it late morning on Thursday. First thing, he got in the car and drove from Des Plaines out to Carpentersville, near Elgin. He saw his brother-in-law, got the tape, and roared into Chicago. By quarter of three, he was in position, in the hematology and oncology ward of Children's Memorial Hospital. The kid was ratty looking, maybe 16, with a rust-colored attempt at a beard clinging to the underside of his chin and up along his jawbone; watching him sidle nervously around the ninth-floor "teen room" you'd be forgiven for thinking that his manner--more than vaguely reminiscent of Crispin Glover's in River's Edge--was the product of a creative combination of amphetamines. The kid's brother had been on the ward for some time and had tipped him off. The kid nodded to him and got ready. There was a stereo with a cassette deck in the teen room; he put the tape in and held his hand on the play button.
Some of the denizens of the ward along with a lucky few from elsewhere in the hospital had gathered in the teen room. Their ages ranged, it seemed, from about 8 to maybe 14. One was missing part of a leg; others sported complicated, twisted contraptions of IVs and tubes and bags. Some cookies and chips sat on a table in the corner; next to the table were some promising-looking boxes.
Some WXRT personalities came in shortly after the kid got there, along with a journalist or two and a couple of photographers. Some hospital reps hovered; nervous nurses poked an occasional curious head into the room. Those who were standing shifted nervously.
Robert Plant--a magnificent English tower of a man, bejeaned and braceleted, raining curls and charisma--stalked in with his band. The group members, courteous and gentle, were tousled and pale; Plant, however, was bigger than a Viking, tanned and fit. He looked like someone in Led Zeppelin, which he used to be. The kids' eyes got big, and the band members got down to business. Hands were proffered, cheeks were bussed. ("Give us a kiss, then.") A guy from Sony reached into those promising-looking boxes and passed out Sony cassette players and Sony CD players and Sony cassette tapes. The photographers took pictures of Robert Plant and the children and the Sony cassette decks.
The kid hanging around the stereo had been watching Plant intently. Suddenly he slammed the play button and cranked up the volume. The onlookers--the WXRT reps, the hospital people, the journalists--strained to hear what the English rock stars were saying to the children. They gave the kid a look, and he turned the music down a notch, but as soon as they looked away he cranked it up again. On the tape was some rock music, which, it turned out, had been recorded by the kid's brother-in-law. The kid kept his hand on the volume control, and skittishly kept an eye on Plant, who didn't seem to be paying any attention to the music.
The kid left the tape on, dashed out into the hall. "Can I use a phone?" he gasped, going back into his Crispin Glover imitation. "I gotta use a phone." He grabbed the hospital wall phone, dialed, and paced back and forth.
"Awesome, man," he said into the receiver. "It's fucking amazing." He was referring to the sight of Robert Plant. "Don't worry, I'm going to give it to him." He threw down the phone, dashed to the door of the teen room to make sure Plant hadn't left, then rushed back to pick up the receiver again.
He hung up and ran back into the room; reclaiming his tape, he zoomed back out into the hall. "I need a pen I need a pen I need a pen," he said. Given one, he steadied a piece of paper and began writing what must have been charged prose.
Just a few feet away, Plant's manager, who had been keeping a serious but benevolent eye on the band members throughout the proceedings, was explaining to a WXRT person and a hospital person that he would like the photos of Robert Plant used not to include him posing with Sony equipment. "You can use the pictures however you like," he said, with a calm English accent, "but we would like them not to be with Sony. We don't want it to look like we're being motivated by Sony."
Meanwhile, the kid was back in the teen room, sidling close to Plant. He tapped the star's shoulder and shoved the tape into his hands, asking Plant to give it a listen. "Well," Plant said, "with the tour over tonight, I'll have plenty of time to listen to it."
A minute later, the kid was back on the phone. "He's got it, man!" he shrieked. "He's got it! He's going to listen to it!"
Another minute later, Plant's manager was by the kid's side. "Is this the name?" he asked the kid.
"Yeah," said the kid. "Yeah."
"There will be five tickets there tonight," said the manager clearly, "under this name. Is that OK?"
"That's great!" said the kid, heading for the phone.
That night, at the will-call window of the Rosemont Horizon, shortly before the start of the last date of Robert Plant's tour, the kid got his tickets and held them high.
"He's going to listen to the tape," he said. "He's going to listen to the tape when he gets back to England and then he's going to call us."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Judy Braginsky--Children's Memorial Hospital.