2.9 The Leap Years
After much pleading, my friend Tony finally agreed to sit down and tell me his story. Tony’s motivation stemmed from wanting to get his story on record in case anything should happen to him or his wife Jane. What follows is an account of his experiences with an organization called ‘The Great Leap Forward’. Please note: Names and places have been changed to protect the innocent. Tony was born on February 29, 1980. A leap year, or, leap day if you want to be specific. Tony’s birth landed on the one day of the year that was added to make up for lost time. A leap year occurs every four years in order to keep the calendar synchronized with the astronomical year. Apparently, if every year contained 365 days, over time the earth would fall out of synch with the seasons.
Tony discovered early on that this was unusual. His parents tried to mask the truth and celebrated the first four years of his life on February 28th. In 1988, on his 8th birthday, Tony’s parents revealed to him that, in fact, his birthday was officially February 29th. He didn’t understand the consequences and chose to live his life under false pretenses, continuing to celebrate on the 28th day of the second month of each year.
Over time, the consequences of this decision became visible. Every four years, the air seemed to change, became thicker. Fat clouds bellowed and overtook the 29th day of February every four years. On February 28th, 1992, when Tony was 12, his parents took him out to a family restaurant. The next day, he grew very ill and a weakness overtook him that was so desperate his parents brought him to the hospital. By March 1st, he was fully recovered. On his 16th birthday, February 28th, 1996, his father took him out in the car to prepare him for his driver’s license test. Tony not only failed his test on February 29th, but didn’t check his blind spot on a right turn – the streets were slippery – and he slid into another car.
At 20, he knew something was wrong. A university mid-term was scheduled for February 29th, 2000. Tony was a good student and was more than prepared. When he sat down for the mid-term, he drew a complete blank. The questions on the test seemed to be in another language. He failed.
Tony wandered the streets at night over the next few months. He refused to attend any birthday celebrations for his friends, shunned the entire tradition. He felt very alone, like someone without any day that was his own. If you didn’t have a birthday every year to ground you, what did you have?
At the local campus bar one night, Tony sat, stooped, his body hunched around a pint of beer. In the corner of the bar, a group of testosterone-fueled football players downed birthday shots. An older man with graying hair sat beside him. The man introduced himself as Louis; he was a professor of Astronomy in the Science Department. Louis asked him why he looked so blue. It all came out, 20 years of disappointment, 20 years of lost birthdays.
“But this is a wonderful opportunity,” Louis said. “Look at it this way, if you only have a birthday every four years, you’re only 4 years old. And you’ll live four times as long as anyone else.”
Tony thought Louis was joking, but he was dead serious. Louis gave Tony his business card and told him about a meeting he was hosting the following week. Louis was vague on the details but told Tony it would change his life.
The meeting was held in an old abandoned church. Tony walked down the creaky steps, people from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting filed out of the room. Tony grabbed some left over coffee and a stale donut. A few others milled around, nervous, not sure why they were there.
Finally, Louis entered. He started the meeting by revealing he was born on February 29th, that everyone in this room was born on the extra day in a leap year. They all looked around at each other. Tony almost dropped his coffee.
“This is a support group for people who celebrate a birthday on that extra day every four years,” Louis said. “You’ve all been lonely, shunned by society’s norms. Been made to feel like you don’t belong. You belong here.”
They all stayed late into the night, sharing stories. At the meeting was a shy woman named Jane. They ended up leaving the meeting together, walked around the city until the morning light peeked over the horizon of skyscrapers.
They held meetings every week but Tony and Jane saw each other almost every day. Louis unveiled a new movement: The Great Leap Forward. He felt that they were the chosen ones, his talks sounding more and more like preaching. According to Louis, the world was angry that people attempted to manipulate our concepts of time in order to keep the seasons in alignment. Nature will enact its revenge. Louis told his followers that they would live long lives and take over when nature asserts herself.
Tony and the others were to enlist more people. Using not entirely legal means, Louis brought in a database of records that included names of people born on February 29th. Tony was given names and addresses and flown all across the world to approach possible new members. Coercion was used, money exchanged hands, enlisters used violence. Tony did not approve.
But there was a greater good at work and Tony turned his eyes from this violence.
Tony and Jane were in Australia when approached by government agents. For the past two years, there had been a large-scale investigation into The Great Leap Forward. The American government considered them a potential homegrown terrorist organization and infiltrated the group six months ago. At first, Tony and Jane disregarded the government agents. But they were shown information that unveiled a devastating paper trail of corruption and misappropriation of funds. Louis was getting rich off the fees from new members.
Tony and Jane still didn't know what to make of it all. They returned to the United States and started doing an investigation of their own. Louis becomes suspicious of their questioning and one night Tony and Jane were visited by what could only be called ‘henchman’. Threats of violence against both of them were spewed. The henchmen did not harm them physically, but the next morning when Tony and Jane left for work, the henchmen watched them from a car across the street. Tony and Jane decided they needed to get away from Louis and The Great Leap Forward. The day after the henchmen visited, Tony and Jane went directly to the airport and booked a flight to ---------------.
They were on the run. Tony used connections of disgruntled ex-members, acquired some documentation and sent it to a new organization called WikiLeaks, a website dedicated to uncovering corruption in politics and business. The documents were instantly spread around the world. The government agents struck and arrested Louis at his summer home in California. You might have remembered this – if you Google deep enough, you will still find some information about The Great Leap Forward. Most information, including the official website, was taken down due to the pending court case against Louis.
After Louis was arrested and The Great Leap Forward was officially disbanded, Tony and Jane felt it was safe to return to the city. They opened a small coffee shop in the east end and are happy to celebrate their collective birthdays on the 28th of every year, even during leap years.
Look for expanded details of Tony’s story in upcoming entries.