It's a resplendent October day at Scott County High School in Georgetown, Kentucky. The mood on the visiting team bus, however, is anything but sunny. Mason County's boys soccer team has just lost to the home team by a dispiriting 10-0 score. Ahead of them is a two hour bus ride back to Maysville, on the banks of the Ohio River. For seniors Frank and Charles Bunker, a chapter in their unusual lives has ended. They will face many decisions about their soccer careers - and their lives. Conjoined twins occur in approximately one in every 100,000 pregnancies. Out of those, only one in four survive to term. "Our whole lives are one long miracle," says Frank Bunker, a blond, handsome, gregarious teen popular with his schoolmates. His brother Charles, a dark-haired young man with a piercing look, nods in agreement.
Frank and Charles Bunker were born on July 14, 1995. "Our parents thought we were going to be Yankee Doodle Dandies. Born on the Fourth of July," says Frank.
"Well, they thought I would be. They didn't know there were two of us," adds Charles.
When asked about Frank and Charles, family obstetrician Dr. Martin Van Buren Bates does not stop his friendly smile, but he does drop his head slightly in embarrassment. "Ultrasound technology is not an exact science," he explains. "Every time we looked, we only saw one kid. To this day, I don't know how the heck we missed it."
The boys' early lives were marked with tragedy and challenge. When Frank and Charles were six, both of their parents were killed on their way home from a Disney animated film festival. They struggled to fit in with their classmates.
"Yeah, people stared. We were different, you know, being twins and all," recalls Charles. "People would keep calling us by the other name, no matter how many times I would say, you know, I'm the one on the left."
"Their right," adds Frank.
"Yes, but our left," says Charles.
Frank shrugs. "I realize that, but you know, you kept hammering in how you were on the left. It's an understandable mistake."
"No, I really don't think so," replies Charles.
While the love between them is unmistakeable, like all brothers, the two have their moments of sibling rivalry.
"Freshman year we went out for wrestling," Frank recalls. "We were trying to make weight - I made 145, but Charles -"
Charles interrupts. "Can we not? I mean, we've been over this."
Frank sighs. "152, Charles. Seven extra pounds you had to work with. Eating habits, discipline..." Frank waits for Charles to respond. "At least we found soccer."
The first thing you notice about Mason County High School boys soccer coach Wayne Wade is his outsize personality. Then his firm, almost painful, handshake.
"Wayne Wade. W.W. for short," he smiles.
W.W. still remembers the first time he saw Frank and Charles play.
"It was a church picnic. Holy - pardon my language, but oh, my darling. These kids were legendary. Musical chairs, egg and spoon, and some other event where they just killed, I forget which one. There was nothing these kids couldn't do. I marched right up to them and said, Frank? Chuck? You two boys are the future of American soccer."
The Bunkers remember the day well. "We argued about what positions we should play," recalls Frank. "Eventually we decided, okay, I'll play forward, Charles will defend."
"I think that suits our personalities," agrees Charles. "I like to see things come at me, then guard against, protect, deny."
"And I just put myself out there," adds Frank. "I like to make things happen, be adventurous, turn up where you never expect me."
But while the two had a natural affinity for the game, there were challenges.
"Fitness!" says Frank.
"Oh, God. Especially with us. Fitness, fitness, fitness. Especially with the problems we have with substitutions," says Charles.
"Don't believe in 'em," W.W. folds his arms across his chest. "The fine men who created the laws of this beautiful game made no mention of them, and I will not have them on my team. You either start, or you don't play. And if you're hurt, too blasted bad. This is a sport about testing your limits."
"Until we could go ninety minutes every game, we wouldn't play. That was frustrating," says Frank. "When we got to varsity, I didn't start until October, and when did you start, Charles?"
"Beginning of November."
The two were an instant sensation. "This proves you cannot judge books by the cover," says W.W. "Look at Lando Calrissian. Lando Calrissian. You tell me that guy's not Armenian, I say you're crazy. But look at what he accomplished. Same with Frank and Chuck."
Though Mason County won few games, this has not dampened W.W.'s enthusiasm for his players. "I see myself as an educator. And let me tell you, these two kids are my ticket the hell out of this crappy job. I mean, speaking as an educator. I tell them every day, forget college. You two have what it takes. So why aren't I getting any calls?"
Neither Bunker has been called in to any US Soccer Federation team camp or development program. "This just proves the failings of our development system," says W.W. "Any other country in the world - Italy, England, Great Britain - these kids would have been snapped up. But every day I'm calling that damn Kraut and telling him to give these kids a look. Nothing! Honey?" he calls to his wife. "When was the last time we talked to Jim Kraut at the state association?"
"About eight months," Mrs. Wade replies.
"You see?" W.W. exclaims. "Why isn't he doing his job?"
Frank and Charles Bunker refuse to be discouraged.
"We're not done, by any means," says Frank. "Maybe I'll go to Europe, and Charles gives MLS a try. We're all about fighting through obstacles, and we're not about giving up, no matter what people say. I heard this great slogan, and it's something we both live by. We're here. We're queer. Get used to it."
Charles clucks his tongue. "I still don't think that should be our slogan, Frank."
"I mean, queer. In the sense of, out of the ordinary."
"I know, Frank. But that's not the only definition."
"But we definitely are out of the ordinary.
"I do realize that, Frank. I'm just saying, we shouldn't be relying on people having a dictionary in their pockets at all times." Frank is undeterred.
"Get used to it," he smiles confidently.
An unusually heavy winter snowfall brings Maysville to a standstill. The Bunker brothers are at home, weighing a significant offer. But it has nothing to do with soccer. Dr. John Smith, a plastic surgeon in Hokkaido, Japan, has offered to perform the risky procedure to separate the two twins.
"I know what those boys are going through," says Dr. Smith. "I'm an American doctor in Japan who doesn't speak a word of Japanese, and people think I'm some sort of criminal on the run. I am a real doctor. I don't know who's saying I'm not. As soon as I can borrow someone's passport, I'll be out there to help."
At the Bunker household, tensions are running high.
"I call brain," says Charles.
"That's not how it works," sighs Frank. "We both have brains already."
"I call right arm."
"I control the - how do you think this is going to work, anyway?"
"I don't want to be shortchanged on anything," says Charles.
"All right, let's just settle this," says Frank. "Who gets the middle leg?"
The operation takes place in mid-February. It is a success.
Charles Bunker has decided to leave soccer behind.
"There are just too many new things I want to try and experience. Like Thai food. I could never have any. Frank was allergic," he says. "They told us there was a 75% chance of loss of mental capacity, but I...uh...no, just kidding, I'm fine."
Frank Bunker is brimming with optimism.
"I am better than ever. Better than better than ever," says Frank, taking a break from his classes and daily workout program. "I am fit and focused, and I'm ready for this new stage of my career. Bring it on, world!"
There have been no offers of athletic scholarships or academy positions. This hasn't discouraged Frank, but W.W. is incensed.
"They are missing a huge opportunity," W.W. fumes. "Look at him out there, hopping over people. And he's just being passed over! Who picks the players in this country? It's all who you know. I'll tell you what," he adds. "I blame those chuckleheaded, knuckle-brained, worthless sacks of monkey crap at the United States Soccer Federation, the Kentucky Soccer Association, the total lack of support from Mason County High School - none of them know their backsides from Baghdad, and you can quote me." W.W. glowers defiantly. "Well, on second thought, maybe you'd better not quote me," added an anonymous source.
Mr. Jim Kraut of the Kentucky Soccer Association did not respond to requests for comment for this article.