Fathers and Sons

Catching up ….

I’ve always been a fast walker. Annoyingly so, if you ask my family. By contrast, my son has always been a slow walker. Excruciatingly slow if you ask me. Between the two of us, he’d totally be the zombie you’d want lumbering after you.

That’s why I have always treasured this picture.

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It captures what has been a way-too-rare moment in the almost 18 years we’ve shared the planet – he and I … walking together … at the same pace.

In the picture, he’s not speeding to keep up with me. I’ve slowed down to be with him.

And this sums up what I came to love about scout camp.

Over a couple of days. Over several years.

It would always take me a good two days after arriving at Heritage Reservation before I was able to burn off the excess fuel of work and life and responsibility …  and allow myself to settle into the timeless, immutable rhythms of summer camp.

The early years were especially challenging.

His first overnighters I spent the majority of my time yelling at him to hurry up, get moving. He was always the last one out of his tent. The last one to fall in line. The last one to whatever activity was next. My Dad hated being late for anything and conditioned me likewise. My son? Not so easily conditioned.

I remember his first day of his first Weblo weekend.  Moments after being told, “No running in camp,” he was sprinting to catch up, tripped, and put a good knot on his forehead to learn the lesson the hard way, if swiftly.

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Come to think of it, my uneasy relationship with scouts has always revolved around some form of the tension between slowing down and speeding up.

Going way back to the Pinewood Derby days, whose unofficial title as far as I was concerned was, “Referendum on Fatherhood,” and which cost me, by conservative estimates, at least one year off my life expectancy for each of the three years we participated in those God-forsaken torturous concentrations of existential crisis. I always had him cut, shape, assemble, sand, paint and decorate. We’d work together on the weight and the wheels. Of the eff-bombs that I have lobbed across my 48 years on the planet, the overwhelming majority were hurled whilst sitting Indian style on the linoleum of our tiny kitchen late at night trying in vain to get those goddamn wheels to go straight.

But my flailings were not completely without purpose. On one occasion they served as kindling to one of Karry’s Greatest Mom Moments of All Time.

It was his final year in Cubs, and I found myself the night before the annual tragedy in my usual position: on the linoleum staving off a nervous breakdown while exercising my adult vocabulary at the uncooperative hunk of balsa mocking my Dadhood  by incessantly bearing left. Karry — either out of mercy, pity, or the more pragmatic recognition that my loud flailing was the only thing standing in the way of her and a decent night’s sleep — poked her head into the kitchen and innocently asked … “What’s the problem?”

Me: (expletives deleted)

She:  “Can I take a look?”

Me: (expletives deleted)

She suggested I grab some deep breaths in the next room, and within 15 minutes, she and Peter had his car gliding as true and crisp as a Webelo arrow.

The next day, Peter pulled his car out of his Lightening McQueen lunch box cum carrying case, and placed it in the ‘parking lot’ with the other cars, the vast majority of which were (as per usual) exquisitely and obviously Dad-engineered. I tried not to look but couldn’t resist. The usual waves of inferiority washed over me, leaving me wishing I had more to offer my boy. While he waited for his den to be called to the line, I took my seat far away from the fathers in the front row seats, mostly to create a buffer between my existential crisis and listening to them extol the virtues of their feats of ‘collaborative’ engineering.

When it was time, I said an honest-to-God prayer, and closed my eyes as he placed his car on the track. The memories of all the previous years raced across my mind, when the only highlights were the post-event consolation hot dogs we’d buy after his parade of lonely post-heat walks to retrieve his last place car.

But in the couple seconds it took for the gate to be dropped, and that car to separate from the field as if shot from a cannon, my emotions shot from zero to 60.

My exact quote, which I remember because of the look it prompted from the Mom sitting next to me: “Holy sh*t.”

That f*cker was fast.

I remember Peter locking eyes with me as a shocked smile involuntarily broke across his face before he retrieved his car from the end of the track.

He was still wearing it as we munched victory hot dogs on opposite sides of his first place trophy. It’s been years, but the afterglow of that moment still coaxes smiles.

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Our camping experience followed a very similar arc, the left side of which was firmly anchored in my complete incompetence.

Starting with that first overnight Webelo camp. Per my perfected-over-a-lifetime strategy of Procrastinating About Things I Dread Until the Last Possible MomentTM, I remember picking up the vast majority of our camping supplies 48 hours prior to the adventure, only to learn that a couple crucial items were omitted from the list supplied by the pack; namely, the tarps that go down under and over the tent to keep the rain — that (I came to learn) defines EVERY scout-related overnight campout – at bay.

That first night we didn’t even make midnight before – soaked, cold, and contorted into opposite corners of our leaking tent – I made the call to retreat. I think he agreed before I finished the question.  So we abandoned the puddling interior of our Wal-Mart tent for the dry and cozy confines of my Subaru Legacy; sheltered from and serenaded by the roof-tinkling rain. I remember not giving two hoots about the dismissive looks we got from the other scout dads at the morning campfire, who stoked their feelings of superiority with our ignorant misfortune.

We muscled through that and (several) other ignominious overnighters. Like the one Weblo camp where we let the boys choose to do an overnight on “the pirate ship,” which looked really good on paper.

Because the paper mentioned nothing about the  5 a.m. wake-up-call by a Hitchcockian swarm of screeching bats, which went largely unnoticed by the Cubs and dads safely sleeping in ship’s interior, but went emphatically noticed by the Dad who thought he’d be nice and let the others have the ship’s interior rooms while he slept under the stars on the ship’s deck – where he spent  a to-this-day traumatizing “Why-the-*uck-Are-They-Screeching-Like-That?!-Please-God-Make-It-Stop” morning with his sleeping bag pulled tight over his head.

To this day, buried somewhere in the deepest darkest places of my soul is the suppressed answer that I shrugged away when a well-rested, well-meaning, un-traumatized Dad innocently asked me the next morning, “So, how’d you sleep?”

Expletives deleted.

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But I remember THE moment it all clicked for me. Or, clanged to be precise.

Later that same Weblo camp, our pack ambled up to this glorious gallery of pie pans, hanging paint cans, empty milk jugs, and other random targets – the rock throwing range. They issued each scout and Dad a pail, and gave us a minute to walk the range and fill our buckets. When the range was clear, they blew the whistle and we all took aim.

And to this day, I can still conjure the sound. The glorious cacophony of clangs, thwacks, and plinks followed nanoseconds later by the involuntary whoops of joy from both the boys and the dads – in equal measure and at equal volume — at each struck target. I remember closing my eyes at one point just to soak in the music of boys being boys and Dads becoming boys again.

Fathers and sons sharing the same activity. Enjoying it in exactly the same measure. For exactly the same reasons. Side by side.

It was just that simple.

And I remember it like it was yesterday.

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A couple years later, I remember walking the same trail that tripped him. It was family night at Boy Scout camp, when I was merely up for a quick visit. It was the first summer camp I didn’t stay the week, owing to some work travel. I remember it bothering me more than it did him, though I may have been bothered more by how much it didn’t seem to bother him. He was the newly minted Senior Patrol Leader. The irony of watching him spend most of his time ordering younger scouts to get moving was not lost on me. I remember when I turned to leave with the other parents as the moment I went from yelling at him to hurry up to cursing time to slow the eff down.

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So, this past spring, Peter found himself with one remaining task for his final Eagle-required merit badge: a 20-mile hike, to be completed all in one day.

In what had the makings of another Inspired Mom Moment, Karry, out of nowhere, suggested we do it as a family hike.

It was the kind of suggestion I’m usually the one to make: impractical, fueled more by the heart rather than the head. As I’m an unapologetic sucker for ceremony, the symbolism of crossing this metaphorical finish line together could not have looked more perfect. I quickly affirmed it as a great idea before Karry had time to reconsider its inherent insanity.

We were a couple miles in when we realized that 20 miles is about 18 miles longer than a couple miles.

The longer we went, the less we spoke, reserving our meager stores of energy for just muscling through. Per the requirement, Peter prepared and cooked us a meal of franks and beans about 14 miles in to fuel the home stretch.

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The journey humbled us.

Not the 20-mile hike.

The journey from Cub to Eagle.

From late night eff bombs on the kitchen floor. From earning a knot on his head for running in camp. From always being the last one in line. From abandoning our tent in defeat the first time out.

To the look on his face retrieving his first place car from the end of the track. To earning badges for mastering knots. To hugging goodbye as I left him to his SPL duties.

To one last, long walk.

With a couple miles to go, Karry took the picture below. It stops me in my tracks every time I look at it.

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Years later, it remains a capture of an exceedingly rare moment —  he and I … walking alongside each other …  at the same pace.

But in this one, I’m not slowing down to let him catch up. And he’s not hurrying to catch up to me.

We’re just … catching up.

Fathers and sons sharing the same activity. Enjoying it in exactly the same measure. For exactly the same reasons. Side by side.

All these years later, it’s still that simple.

But there are some important differences in this picture. The most obvious is that the guy on the right has grown up a little bit. I’ve had to begrudgingly admit that he’s taller than me, though on a really curly hair day, my pride still forces a playful protest.

But I like to think the guy on the left has grown up a little bit, too.

Every day I grow more grateful that he still reserves a few steps in his journey for his old man.

 

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