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National news outlets picked up the story, but a local mom saved the day.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Dian and Robert Bolling along with their sons (from left) Connor, 13, Alex, 13, and Austen, 15, have a new set of plastic aliens, thanks to a reader who anonymously arranged for their replacement after the family’s original set was stolen.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
The two plastic aliens disappeared from Robert and Dian Bolling’s front yard in South Roanoke on April 22, filched by some hard-hearted thieves. Since then, news of their abduction has gone across the country and ’round the world.
Many were touched by the tale of the Bollings, a couple who have three teenage boys with Fragile X syndrome. The genetic abnormality leaves them profoundly unable to communicate or interact socially. The Bollings have used the aliens, purchased a dozen or so years ago at a Halloween clearance sale, as an ongoing yard stunt to relieve stress, meet friends and help their sons learn socialization skills.
They were understandably crushed when the figurines were stolen.
This past Friday afternoon, the aliens reappeared at the Bollings house. Robert Bolling found them in a cardboard box on his front porch.
But they weren’t the old aliens, which over years in their yard had faded from bright green to an eerie yellow, with split casings and broken electric cords.
Rather, it was a shiny new set, shipped by Norfolk company that manufactures the critters.
When he first saw the box, “I really didn’t know what it was,” Bolling said. “I thought Dian had ordered something.”
When he opened it, he was surprised, but I was not. I’d been tipped that it was on the way by a reader who had sworn me to secrecy.
Her first name is Beth. She asked me not to put her last name in the paper because “it’s more fun if it’s anonymous.”
Beth lives in Boones Mill, but her son attends preschool at First Presbyterian Church in South Roanoke. They used to pass the aliens on Broadway Avenue every day, going and coming in Beth’s car. Her son loved the funky figures.
In late April, they noticed them missing. Shortly afterward , she saw a wanted poster taped to a utility pole outside the Bollings’ home. Then, on May 7, she read The Roanoke Times column about their disappearance.
Beth didn’t know that the story had been picked up by The Associated Press and Yahoo! — both of which moved it as “weird news” — or that it had appeared in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Ore.; London, England, and somewhere in Australia, too.
But she figured there must be some way to find some replacements.
She searched for plastic aliens on eBay, and found a set that looked like the missing ones.
Turns out they’re manufactured by General Foam Plastics , a company that bills itself as “Your U.S. manufacturer of special products for ALL seasons.”
Yep — the aliens were made in the USA.
Beth wrote General Foam an old-fashioned letter. It landed on the desk of Margaret Heuisler .
The company still makes and sells the aliens, but not in iridescent green. Heuisler called General Foam’s factory in Tarboro, N.C., where a foreman searched around the warehouse and found a couple of green ones tucked away.
But General Foam didn’t have the Bollings’ address.
So Beth called me, and I gave it to her, and she gave it to Heuisler, who had the aliens shipped gratis to the Bollings.
I spoke Tuesday with Laura Williams , General Foam’s human resources director. It’s a privately owned company formed in 1957 by two college pals. It used to be the nation’s leading manufacturer of fake Christma s trees, she said.
Now they’re a leading U.S. manufacturer of outdoor holiday decorations, plus above-ground pools, dog shelters, fountains and other stuff. They sell the items directly to retailers.
Williams wasn’t sure how many sets of aliens that General Foam has sold over the years, or for how long the company has manufactured them. Most of the ones they make these days are pink or yellow, she said.
Two or three times a year, they get letters similar to Beth’s, from people desperate to replace some cherished ornaments that have broken or been lost or stolen.
“This particular letter, and the reason for it — that was unusual,” Williams told me.
Robert and Dian Bolling, meanwhile, have been answering a lot of questions lately.
In the grocery store, at the gym, and at work, people have asked over and over, “Are the aliens back yet?”
Dian said she was especially touched when she heard from another mom that her 5-year-old son was saving up his money to buy the family a pair of blue blow-up aliens that he had spied at a roller rink.
Now he can save his money. The bright green eye-popping aliens are back.
On Wednesday afternoon, the couple unwrapped them for their sons, Austen, 15, and twins Alex and Connor, who are 13.
“The aliens,” Austen said excitedly as he walked over and picked one up.
The couple are planning a party to mark the yard ornaments’ return.
“I love the way the story ends,” Robert Bolling told me. “Someone took the time and did a selfless act. They didn’t have to do it. It makes the story so much sweeter.”
He can say that again.
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