Fifteen-year-old Eric Blanco and his 13-year-old sister, Justice, stood on stage in Fox Chapel Middle School's cafeteria on Monday for what was billed as a short interview with the school's mascot — a large white tiger with black stripes and big hairy paws.
Eric was supposed to be the tiger's "trainer." Justice was holding a school T-shirt.
But all was not as it seemed.
Hidden inside the sweltering mascot costume was their stepfather, 46-year-old Walter Southard, who had returned home from Iraq for good after more than five years as a contractor. Southard had been stationed near Baghdad International Airport, and it was his job as a firefighter/EMT to fight fires and support military personnel — sometimes under the threat of incoming gunfire and mortar rounds.
His three stepkids — Eric, Justice and 8-year-old Nathaneal Duncan — hadn't seen Southard since June. They didn't know he was back home. They didn't know he was done with that distant country.
"A lot of you might be wondering what the big fuss is today," principal Ray Pinder said to those in the packed lunchroom, launching the ruse.
He quieted the room and started the fictitious question-and-answer session.
"Are you glad you're in tiger country?" he asked the mascot.
The tiger pumped its hands in the air to raucous applause.
"Does that fur that you have to wear all year get hot in the summer?" Pinder asked next.
The tiger gave an animated nod of its head.
Then Pinder got down to the meat of the interview.
"Are you ever allowed to reveal your true identity as the Fox Chapel mascot?"
The mascot shook its head. The students protested.
With Eric and Justice still standing on the stage, Pinder urged on the cheering crowd of middle school students. Then he gave the cue.
"Without further ado, let's meet the Fox Chapel mascot we've been waiting to find out about!" he yelled.
Cheers — and a little confusion — erupted as Southard yanked off the tiger head to reveal his true identity and sweaty bald head.
Eric and Justice were stunned. Realizing what had happened, they went up to him and hugged him. Tears flowed. Cameras clicked and videotape rolled. Those in the crowd grew louder as what happened dawned on them.
Southard said he is happy to be back with his family for good, to be done with a trying chapter of his life — and to be out of that tiger costume.
"I was thinking it was a lot like Iraq," Southard quipped. "It was really hot and sticky."
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.