SANFORD, Mich. — At her seventh birthday party, Amber Birdsall thought the huge gift box wrapped in pink paper likely hid a pair of bicycles.
She was wrong. Inside was something she wanted even more _ her stepfather, a soldier who had been deployed overseas.
"This is way better than bikes," Amber said.
The surprise began a few weeks ago when Amber told her inquiring mother that all she wanted for her birthday was to have her stepfather return home from serving 10 months in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Her mother, Trisha Johnson, 34, relayed Amber's wish to her 39-year-old husband the same day that the girl expressed it. Army Spc. Glenn Johnson immediately started on the paperwork, not expecting his request for a leave to be granted because he is scheduled to come home for good in June.
Much to their surprise, his request for more than a week of leave was granted.
The soldier's flight arrived in Flint, Mich., early Sunday afternoon and he was whisked away to Northern Lanes Recreation, a bowling alley in Sanford where his stepdaughter's birthday party was taking place.
Northern Lanes employees were in on the ruse and kept him hidden in the bar.
When Amber and her 9-year-old sister, Kathy Birdsall, opened a colorfully wrapped refrigerator box, Glenn Johnson was inside.
In addition to spending a lot of time at home with his family, Glenn Johnson and his wife planned a late celebration of their five-year wedding anniversary, which was on Valentine's Day.
"I told her she needs to get a baby sitter and a new outfit," he said. "I'll take care of the rest."