Fathers and Sons, Postcards

The world just went away there for a few minutes ….

April 3, 2020, 11:07 p.m.

A couple weeks ago Karry was violently cleaning out out the dining room, rooting through old drawers, filling garbage bags with stuff she didn’t want to think twice about. Of the two of us, she is, by far, the most qualified for the task. My wife is not the sentimental type. I, on the other hand, ensure that my wife will always have drawers to clean out. But in the midst of her editing, something gave her enough pause to seek me out downstairs. She tossed an envelope on my desk. “Yeah, you probably forgot about that one.”

On the outside of the envelope, my handwriting:

To: Peter

From: Dad

Christmas 2001

Inside, a letter. From me to my baby boy. Days before our first Christmas together.

Buried treasure.

I have no recollection of doing this.

Which is exactly why I did it.

I learned quickly during those eight months that time was no longer to be fucked with. From the moment Dr. Bulseco announced, “It’s a Boy,” we became unwitting passengers on a turbo steamroller, and would spend as much time under it as in the cab.

So, early on I made a point to mark time whenever I could steal a moment. Scribbles in a journal. Postcards from the road. Notes on a computer.

And evidently, letters to my baby.

I did this knowing that whatever I captured would be at best a fractional approximate to the real deal — a few grains of sand brought back from an infinite beach.

I just had a hunch that someday down the road, we might like to be reminded how beautiful things were.

I got that one right.

December 23, 2001

Dear Peter,

A couple days ago, it occurred to me that, when you’re older, you will have no recollection of how much joy you have brought to the lives of your mom (after eight months, still weird to write that) and me. You’ll have no idea how excited we are to be spending Christmas – your first – with you in our house. If anything, you’ll get sick and tired of hearing your old, un-hip parents remind you how cute you were, how anyone who saw you couldn’t stop from smiling. (I hope at least we’ll have the common sense not to show your naked bath time pictures to your teenage friends.) From personal experience, I know that these memories will forever be a part of your parent’s lives. Realizing this, I find the repetitive stories my father tells and re-tells at every family gathering (“I remember the first time Pete saw the Monongahela River …” “Pete could identify every car when he was two….” etc.) more tolerable. I smile, knowing now that the joy a child can bring is irrepressible, undaunted by time. Like me, you’ll just have to get used to it.

But to give you a more refined glimpse into Christmases (and memories) past, I’d like to start a tradition here today, two days before your first Christmas. Drafting a quick letter to record some of my thoughts while they are freshest, to at least help you distinguish between myth and reality when those embarrassing anecdotes come calling in the (hopefully) many holidays to come. Right now, you’re too busy trying out the newest consonant sounds (finally, “mamamamaama,” which Karry has been not-so-patiently waiting eight months for) to be bothered with taking stock of life as an eight month old. Hope this helps.


Last Saturday, your mom and I picked up some pictures at Giant Eagle before hitting the malls. We parked the car in the fire lane outside the entrance to the video store. When your mom returned to the car, we tore into the pictures like you’ll soon be tearing into your Christmas presents. There were pictures from your baptism (a Riddell family photo, us holding you, you with fingers full of icing), from Halloween (you sleeping on the couch in the pumpkin outfit Granny made you), you after returning from the Washington Christmas parade (totally sacked out in your crib dressed in your Santa suit), you totally enamored with the ornament boxes piled around you while your mom and dad decorated the Christmas tree.

After we reviewed the last one, your mom looked at me and said, “The world just went away there for a few minutes.” It’s hard to describe what we both felt at that moment any better than she did. Each picture we flipped through took us right back to that moment in time. For those few seconds, we weren’t in the parking lot at the Giant Eagle. We weren’t 30-year-olds trying to figure out life (and struggling mightily). We weren’t Christmas shoppers. We had no other care than marveling at the incredible gift you are to us. The power of those pictures will never wane, either. Twenty years from now, we will still completely lose ourselves in looking at you at your baptism, your first Halloween, your first Christmas.

Now, in the other room, your mom is changing your dirty diaper. I now thank you for holding off when I changed and fed you when you awoke earlier this morning. You had us cracking up at the crack of dawn, talking incessantly in your crib. Gurgling, ba-bahs, ga-gahs, and what sounded like a purring kitten, complementing the aforementioned mamamas. I tried giving you your binky and turning on your lullaby, in a vain attempt to coax another half-hour’s worth of sleep from you. To no avail.

….

The unquestioned highlight of every day is when I return from work. Your mom almost always has you propped up in the hallway to be the first thing I see when I come up the stairs. And, without fail, you greet me with the biggest smile, so happy to see me (almost as happy as Sadie, who manages to sit perfectly still for the only time all day while I pet her upon entering the garage). Your are 20 pounds of instant stress relief. In the time it takes for that smile to break across your chubby cheeks, all of my problems disappear. And the amazing thing is that you have no idea the power you have. You just like to play … to chew … and to slobber. And it’s more than enough to get us through the day. I hope as you read this, you can appreciate that. If not, wait until you become a dad.

….

So, what’s it like to be a new parent? Not easy. Your mom and me have less time to do more. It’s been a tough adjustment at times. For me, I’m learning to become less selfish. When you are not the center of your own universe anymore, it’s an adjustment.

Make no mistake, though, your mom keeps this house together. She keeps things (including you and me) in order. It’s amazing to watch how she’s become a mother. It’s not something you can really prepare for. To say it’s instinct doesn’t do justice to all the hard work and love she puts into it. But she’s good. She’s a natural at all the things that I have to think through, and usually screw up. Like bathing you (once I sat you in the tub with your diaper on), picking out your clothes (the last time I dressed you unsupervised was also the last time your socks haven’t matched), your breakfast (I fed you the two jars of food she set out, not knowing you were only to have half of each). She has put you at the center of her life. And you are lucky. Try and remember that when she gets on your nerves, or when you tells you no. There’s no one in this world who loves you more.

….

Okay, so what are you like at eight months? What are your likes and dislikes? A quick summary:

Likes:

  • food — which you define in broader terms than the average adult. Food to you is anything that will fit inside your mouth. We always crack up when you see us eating in front of you. You completely lose interest in everything except following the food from our plate to our mouth. And the look on your face of complete concentration … expressionless captivation …, which, believe me, is hilarious coming from an eight month old.
  • Granny — you beam every time you see Grandma Fordyce, and vice versa. She’s been a true Godsend for us. She’s come in and watched you while we’ve worked around the house. She’s watched you to allow us those precious but much needed dinners for two. She keeps us sane and keeps you happy. We are as lucky as you are.
  • having your teeth brushed — you get so excited when you see your mom or me brushing our teeth. Lately, we’ve been taking a wet tooth brush and asking if you want your two brushed as well. You immediately open your mouth and smile as we run it across your bottom lip. Such a big boy.
  • lights, fans (and anything you can get your hands on, really) — I love the way you marvel at the world around you. Your mouth gets as round as a snowball, and you gasp in wonder, “Oh” or “Ah” … as you take it all in. You have reminded us what it means to be awed.

Dislikes:

  • The Boogie Patrol — your mother is vigilant in making sure you don’t leave the house with visible boogers. So she is forever sticking Q-Tips in your nostrils to ensure an unobstructed air passage. This always pisses you off.
  • being on your belly — don’t know if it’s the struggle to elevate your beautiful head, but your patience always wears thin when flopped on your gut. My hypothesis is that you’ll eventually become so angry you’ll start rolling, but your mother usually intervenes to stop your impressively intense crying.

As you can see your likes outnumber your dislikes. But, with parents like us, what’s not to like?


Well, I apologize for the length of this letter. I only kept writing because I had time to do so (your mom has not asked me for anything the past hour). And I know that my bouts of inspiration are usually fleeting. This may be the last letter you ever get from me. But I hope it’s the first of many.

As you get older, and the real parenting kicks in, know that I’ll do my best. I’ll probably screw up, but you will, too. And at the end of the day, you’ll still be the most incredible gift I’ve ever been given.

We’re gonna have fun, you and me.

Love,

Dad

__

Our baby boy turns 19 today.

He’s home.

At the moment, Karry’s hanging Disney decorations in the dining room she worked hard to clean out … and Emma’s in beast mode preparing a by-big-brother-request dinner of fettuccini Alfredo. She made him a double-layer chocolate chip cookie cake for dessert. The presents will be humble, but enough.

I didn’t have the chance to get him a card.

It’s OK.

I think I owe him a letter.

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Fathers and Sons

The Quest for the Creek….

Note: found the below in an old journal, and it struck me as it did then … one of those moments that melts the world around you for a good, long moment … before it, itself melts. When we were kids we’d hold a snowball back and put it in the fridge to save it for summer time. Honoring that feeling by putting this old snowball right here ….

Saturday afternoon, after Peter snowblew the driveway, I shoveled the deck, and Em indulged neighbor kids who came for snow angels and “wheeeeeees” down the humble grade of our yard, the three of us donned our snowsuits, grabbed sleds and tube, and trudged through the woods behind our backyard.  Destination: the big hill that technically belongs to the American Legion but which we unofficially commandeer when there’s enough snow to test the wondrous law of gravity. 

We assessed the snow’s vintage —soft and puffy, in need of some packing. So, following Peter’s lead, we made investments with each run down the hill —and trudging walk back up —  kneading the snow like dough, a little longer, a little wider.

The tube, by far, was the conveyance of choice, offering the pure enchantment of spinning, friction-free descent. 

We spent a glorious hour outside, indulging in a good foot of soft powder and mid-20’s temperatures. There were tumbles, wipe outs, and even an inspired attempt to see if the blue sled would hold the three of us at once (um, it didn’t). 

But it was all mere prelude to the gifts of Sunday afternoon, when Peter and I returned for seconds. The intervening 24 hours had smoothed away the powder and added a thin crust of ice to the previous day’s paths. With our first couple runs, we glided farther, carving fresh prints into the untouched white. With each foray we pushed our ruts out a little farther still. 

After about 20 minutes I looked down from the top of the hill to where Peter had just tubed a new distance record and called out, “We should try for the creek”–pointing to the stream that separates the Legion’s field from the hill of houses on the other side. Even with his last run, we were probably a good 50-60 feet of untouched snow from the water.  

But now we had a quest.

And, where Sunday snow days are concerned, life goes much better with a quest. 

We took turns with the tube, while the other would run the light blue plastic H-2. Each time, a bit farther. We found ourselves feasting on the rarest and most fleeting of experiences —the kind that only get better the next time. Down I went, the gathering speed perfectly pairing with the tube’s gentle rotation. I broke the plane of brush and weeds that rimmed the creek. I lingered for a good moment, transfixed by the simple, timeless sermon all creeks whisper if you bend your ear close enough. 

While I considered this victory, the 14-year-old deemed it ersatz. A purist, he would not be satisfied with anything short of sled touching water. Such are the lessons all children whisper if you bend your ear close enough. 

So he made one more run, hugging the path we had carved into the hill over the past 24 hours …gliding …gliding, pushing through the brush and dumping himself —unceremoniously, or quite ceremoniously, depending on your perspective—into the water, his water-proofed steel-toes earning their keep. We hi-fived our chubby, waterlogged gloves (and promised to not mention the splashing in the creek part to Mom). 

We paused before beginning our final trudge. The waning Sunday sun peeked through the trees in a reverent bow….

What better image than a glistening hill and an afternoon spent carving it with our initials to serve as a reminder to treasure good moments that too soon melt?

We huffed up the hill and through the woods back home, spent but spurred on by the promise of Karry’s killer hot chocolate. 

As I add years, I treasure those experiences that equally captivate the young and those in need of being reminded of their youth. 

This. 

This is my quest. 

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Fathers and Sons

The Things We Remember ….

February 8, 2016

I had the privilege of sharing a few words at Dad’s service on Saturday.

Told those who came that I knew exactly what Dad would say if he were physically able to be with us. 

I was pretty sure he’d have said exactly what he said to me about 8 or 9 years ago, under very different circumstances. 

(Some of you may have heard this story before. But, as some of you may also know, our Dad was not above getting great mileage from a good story – ha). 

He was scheduled for surgery … no, make that surgeries (plural) … on an aneurism in his stomach, and another one in his leg. It was scheduled for first thing in the morning in Pittsburgh, which, when you live in Uniontown, means that you have to get up in the middle of the night. And my sisters Missy and Kim, as they often did, shouldered the burden of getting Mom and Dad out the door and shuttling them to the hospital (no small task, given that Dad had to be early for everything, while our Mom, um, was not as meticulous about her punctuality). Laurie, as she always did, met them at the hospital and made sure they got checked in. 

By the time I got there, Dad was prepped, and was in a room waiting on the surgeon (who was delayed by some other emergency). Mom and the sisters were keeping him good company. After a while, Mom needed to go out for a cigarette (Gram always needed her smoke), and the sisters accompanied her, leaving the boys by themselves for a couple minutes. 

Think about what might be going through your mind if you were the 80-year-old lying in the hospital bed, after having to get up in the middle of the night, suffering that long drive down Route 51 thinking about your pending surgeries, forced into that hospital gown that barely covers your dignity, only to be asked to wait for goodness knows how long on the surgeon? What would be going through your mind? 

Barely seconds after my sisters and Mom left the room, Dad looks up at me, with the biggest smile on his face, and says, “Isn’t it great having everybody together?” 

As naturally as if we were on the front porch on the 4th of July. 

As if he considered the prospect of invasive surgeries a pretty reasonable trade for spending time with his family. 

“Isn’t it great having everybody together?” 

That’s exactly what he would have said on Saturday. 

And that’s pretty much all you need to know about Kenneth Neal Riddell. 

But some of the best parts of Saturday were some folks who wanted us to know some other things about Kenneth Neal Riddell. 

There was Jim, a trumpet player who shared a section and a bandstand with my Dad for a handful of years. He saw me when he entered the church, and, after offering his condolences, told me how Dad was a hero to him who taught him so much about playing trumpet. Said he still can conjure the image of Dad standing up to take his solos. I told him that Dad often said that the trumpet section never blended better than when Jim played. 

There was (another) Jim … a nurse who made weekly home visits to Dad for a while. Jim was a guitar player, which instantly made him my Dad’s favorite nurse. They hit it off so well that Jim re-arranged his schedule so Dad would be his last appointment of the day … allowing him to stick around and B.S. (mostly about music) after he finished his evaluation. Dad came to see those visits as a highlight of his week. Jim actually brought his guitar with him a couple times, and coaxed Dad to break out his horn. Those jam sessions with Jim were the last times Dad ever played with another musician. Jim stopped Saturday to tell the family how much he genuinely loved those visits. 

There was Harry, one of the fixtures of the old Presbyterian church where we held the service. He was one of the army of good souls who helped with the reception after the service. Harry told me how much he admired Dad’s service to the church over the years. Said that they actually named their son after Dad, a fact that I never knew.  

And there were many other sweet remembrances (some of which I hope to share some day) … representing the fabric of a full life, well-lived. That’s what I saw when I looked out from the pulpit as I spoke. There were the grandkids. The great-grandkids. Neighbors. Musician friends. Customers and colleagues from Dad’s years at Sherwin Williams. The amazing souls from the Honor Guard. Church friends. Friends of my big brother and sisters. Friends I grew up with. Friends I made in college. Friends I work with. I knew the day would be over in a blur, and I knew I’d only be able to connect with a fraction of those who came to pay their final respects. I wanted the memory of that beautiful congregation to last me a lifetime.

So, after I told the hospital story Saturday, I rambled on for a few more minutes. But before I sat down I couldn’t resist pulling out a camera and asking those gathered for the biggest smile they could muster. 

Because when I think back on Feb. 6 2016 in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, I know exactly what I will want to remember. 

Wasn’t it great having everybody together.

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Fathers and Sons, The Girls

In a Sentimental Mood….

(For Auld Lang Syne)

Jan 2, 2017

Found myself at Starbucks with Em yesterday afternoon, warming my hands around a small Dark Roast, and my ears around her delightful ersatz British accent as we advanced a few pages deeper into the Half-Blood Prince. 

Though the establishment’s jazz soundtrack was narratively incongruent to the scenes Em read to life … temporally speaking, it was completely in sync. 

I paused Em’s recitation to Shazam the interpreters of In a Sentimental Mood, which had momentarily thieved my attention (Duke and ‘Trane, um, for the record). 

The familiar melody caught my ear. Used to play it — also as an instrumental, though admittedly more ersatz than even Em’s accent — when Dad and I shared the stage as part of Sammy Bill’s band. All those nights playing Sam’s big book has left me a lot of musical bread crumbs that lead me back to those good times. 

New Year’s Eve, in particular, was always special. It was the best gigging night of the year. “The only night you make a little money,” Dad would say. From the time I was 14 ‘til I was almost 30, I never saw a single ball drop on New Year’s Eve. For many of those years, Karry didn’t either, though, admittedly, she had exponentially less fun listening to me play music than I had playing it. 

On New Year’s Eve, there was a sense of expectation that started in the early afternoon when I’d start getting ready, packing my drums in their cases, carrying them outside and setting them on the wall in our front yard, donning my tux. Around 5:30 or so Mac would swing by and we’d load my drums in his van, always in the same order and placement, and climb aboard. My Dad and the older guys would spend the better parts of those rides to the gigs telling stories and reminiscing about all the musicians they played with in high school, in the Army, in other combos and big bands. They’d laugh remembering the characters. Speak in reverent tones about the Players (capitol ‘P’). Lament the passing of colleagues with whom they once shared a stage. Since I was anywhere between 20 and 40-plus years younger than most of the guys in the band, I said very little on those long rides. Was more than content soaking up every word.  

When we’d arrive at whatever hall we were playing at, we’d unload Mac’s and Sam’s vans. I deemed it my honor to try and haul as much as I could up and down the steps to spare the legs of the older guys. Once everything was hauled in, everyone wordlessly knew their roles in the un-packing and set-up … the speakers, the books, the sound board, etc. Dad helped set up the music stands and their accompanying lights before I’d hear the clasps on his trumpet case spring open (one of my favorite-est sounds of all time). After tuning and warming up to his satisfaction, he’d fetch us both a can of Pepsi, always placing mine on the riser next to my bass drum.  

I never played for more appreciative audiences than the older crowds who came to hear the Great American Songbook, whether we were at Linden Hall near Perryopolis, the Palisades in McKeesport, or the Palace Inn in Monroeville. I can still summon at will the inimitable sound — the shuffle-y swoosh — of a dance floor full of fox-trotters tracing ballroom circles back to their youth, our humble renditions their sonic roadmap.

Owing to everyone’s good mood, the playing seemed more relaxed on New Year’s Eve. As we’d near midnight, the sense of expectation in whatever hall we were playing grew more palpable. Sam would do an unscientific countdown close to midnight and we’d break into Auld Lang Syne. One of my most vivid memories is when we’d finish, and I’d stand up from my drums to exchange hand shakes and Happy New Years with the rest of the guys. To be a teenager shaking hands with my Dad and his peers atop a bandstand on New Year’s Eve signified my membership in a larger, sacred fraternity. 

After Auld Lang Syne came the best part of the evening for me. Before the applause and cheering for the New Year died down, Sam would pick out and count off a couple of our better jump tunes, the ones that swung just a little harder. Maybe Woodchopper’s Ball or Two O’Clock Jump (Dad had solos on both). Sometimes, when the spirit moved, he’d pay respects to his idol, Harry James, with a note-for-note rendition of James’ famous trumpet intro over the piano solo in our arrangement of Two O’Clock.  

New Year’s Eve was also one of the rare nights where we might also get fed. Though it was sometimes nothing fancier than hot dogs and sauerkraut, it made us feel part of the celebration in addition to supplying the evening’s entertainment. 

When the actual two o-clock came (which came a lot earlier to my younger self than my present remembering self) and we’d close the night, as we always did, with “C’est Si Bon,” and then Sam’s theme, “I Still Get a Thrill,” part of me always (always) wished we could play some more. Dad often said that playing music made time stand still. I remain grateful that he passed that gene on to his son. 

While we were tearing down (incidentally, you can tell the professional grade of a band by the speed and efficiency with which they tear down), Sam would come around and pay us. I still remember how giddy I felt my first New Year’s Eve when Sam put $75 in my 14-year-old hands. Over the years, we’d sometimes break triple digits, which, when considering we were a 10-piece orchestra, was nothing to sneeze at back in a day. Truth is, Dad and I would have played for free. 

Even after I quit Sam’s band and Dad continued on … and even after the grind of the travel finally forced him, in his early 80’s, to give up playing out, I’d always call Dad on New Year’s Eve, and we’d spend a few minutes recalling those days when we shared stages, and what great times we had. We didn’t have to be in the same room to hear the smiles on each other’s faces.  

This was our first New Year’s Eve since Dad’s passing. I consider it fitting that New Year’s Eve marks the last of “The Firsts.” Can’t believe it’ll already be a year January 29. 

I find myself In a Sentimental Mood. 

Thinking about those good times the past couple days has been like taking a last van ride to one of those old gigs, where I find myself the one reminiscing about all the guys I played with. Laughing at the characters. Reverently remembering the Players (capital “P”). Lamenting those who’ve passed. 

So here’s to Dad. And to Diz. Roger. Joe and Joe. Shifty. Pete. John. Wally. Jess. And all those who piled into vans on New Year’s Eves to make time stand still for themselves, and to give the people a reason to come out and dance. 

For Auld Lang Syne. 

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Fathers and Sons

Ode to Joy….

June 4, 2016 

I have this indelible image in my head every time I think of the years (high school and through college) I was privileged to share a bandstand with my Dad when we were but two pieces (drums, first trumpet) of a 10-piece, big-band-style orchestra. Whenever Dad would take a ride solo, I’d steal a glance to my right, see him stand up from his chair a couple measures before, tip the mic up, draw the horn to his lips, bend his knees ever so slightly as he leaned back, close his eyes, and blow. 

He always solo’d with his eyes closed, the music taking him somewhere else. 

Unconsciously, I’d often close my eyes as well, and try to follow his horn like a compass to wherever it was it took him. He took great pride in never playing the same solo twice. Though they would rarely last more than a couple choruses, those solos were some of the best trips (of many) we ever took together. 

Music has always had that bewitching effect on him (and me) … although it occasionally got him into trouble. He recalled one such instance for my sister Laurie and me when we visited with him on Christmas. 

On their second date, Dad thought he would impress Maggie Johnson by taking her to see Les Brown (and his “Band of Renown”). 

Best laid plans. 

“She got so mad at me because she thought I was ignoring her,” he recalled. Technically speaking, he was totally ignoring her, such a slave his attention was to good music. Fortunately, she forgave him enough to entertain a third date, and the 60+ years of marriage that ensued. 

With Dad confined mostly to his bed these days, it’s become more of a challenge to bring the kids with me for my weekly visits. Knowing how crazy the back-to-school schedule will be, Karry and I seized the opportunity Saturday to bring Emma with us to Uniontown. 

I asked Em if she’d be up for taking her alto sax with her. I figured it would give her something to do (practice), and thought that Pap might appreciate it. 

She’s only in her second year with the horn … but, much to our surprise, we don’t have to twist her arm to practice. She enjoys playing. Enjoys getting better. Seems to take a pride in it.

Dad was resting when we arrived, but a smile broke across his face when he saw Karry and Emma, two of his favorite faces. We weren’t but a few minutes into our visit when he asked Em, “Did you bring your sax?” 

He’d never heard her play before. 

I went downstairs to the basement and dug out his old music stand (it’s been only a few months since the 88-year-old put it away … for probably the last time), and Em pulled her horn from her case and set up in the next room since we didn’t know if she’d be too loud for him. 

She started into some scales, and then some songs she’s been learning for her lessons. 

Dad remarked what a good tone she had for a beginner (the brother knows from tone). We sat without speaking and just listened. She had played maybe a half dozen tunes … before she broke into Ode To Joy. 

By the fifth note, Dad had closed his eyes, and another smile broke across his face. The music was again taking him someplace else. I closed my eyes too, and met him once again in that place. 

After her last note, he opened his eyes, the smile still going strong, and said to the heavens … “This makes me feel good.” 

His words were as much a gift to me as Emma’s notes were to him, and the lump in my throat I feel at the mere recollection of that moment bears testimony to those truths. 

I find myself grateful for the lessons that still abound from the labored breaths of an 88-year-old sideman, who, though bedridden in failing health with a failing heart and a laundry list of maladies much too long to capture … still sifts the precious moments for joy yet and still. 

Find myself grateful for music that can transcend the moment, the physical, the generations, and bring us that much closer together, and to the divine. 

And find myself grateful that the old house on Mullen Street still has a few beautiful notes left in it.

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Fathers and Sons

Boys and Their Dogs ….

Tuesday morning, I’m on no sleep, somewhere in Minnesota, being led by an affable procurement person through casino-resort sized corridors of a corporate HQ of a healthcare company employing 300,000 people globally, running foggy content through my groggy head for the 90 minutes we have to convince a longshot audience we’re worthy of their business.

When my phone dings an incoming text.

This close to Showtime, my cardinal rule is to never check texts or email for fear of distraction, but I see it’s from … our college freshman.

“I’m on deck for presentation 2 this week.” (fingers crossed emoji)

The fog clears. A smile breaks, right before I break my cardinal rule and text back.

Me: “So I’m walking into a presentation, too. Testing the new suit. Do your best. Be yourself. Kick ass.”

He: “Ha. I’ve got my shirt and tie on.”

In the dying light of his last high school summer, we made a pilgrimage to pick him out a new suit for college. In a weak moment, I ended up getting one for myself. Actually, I bought the same exact suit (my wife was not with us, at the risk of stating the obvious). Figured it’ll make for an epic boys pic down the road.

On the morning we break out a few of the pieces for the first time, we’re texting each other encouragement.

I float a life preserver out ahead of us.

Me: “Maybe a Shorty’s run for lunch on Saturday?”

He: “I’ll count on it.”

Separated by 884.1 miles on a cold and gray November morning, father and son turn off their phones, say their customary prayers, don their game faces, and walk into their respective arenas, focused on the task at hand …

… and totally looking forward to Two with Everything.

__

Saturday morning, I’m running errands and get a text shortly after 11. “What U up to?”

I do a double-take.

The last time I remember my son being up this early on a Saturday morning he had a full diaper.

I tell him I’ll be home by noon to help Mom with the groceries and then we can go.

West Chestnut is one of the few car-lined streets in downtown Washington on a Saturday morning. We find a parking spot past the shop and walk back down the hill. The Guy In The Window is there, tending a couple dozen dogs on the grill.

Full disclosure: I’d pay a fee to live stream The Guy In The Window — mesmerizingly speed-forking dogs from the grill into buns lining the length of his forearm, followed by one-fluid-motion fulfillment of the yelled-by-the-waitress commands of customers’ Go-Tos, executed in Jedi-like-spoon-snatching and dolloping combos of finely diced onions, slathered ketchup, mustard, chili, and relish in perfect measure and placement on top of Shorty’s-specially-commissioned-secret-recipe-Albert’s dogs and placement one-two-three-at-a-time on the diner’s signature small plates.

We reverently pause at the window before crossing the threshold to behold a scene unchanged and perfected by time. The old wooden booths that ring the wall to the left and north were full. Fine by us.

Me: Counter?

He: Absolutely.

We grab a couple stools at the far end, leaving one open to my left.

The waitress, descendant of the original owner, welcomes us, grabs our drink order. The menu behind the counter at Shorty’s is as essential as the watch pocket in Levi’s jeans – pure decoration. The only change in decades was when they switched from Coke to Pepsi a few years back – a decision for which my wife has never forgiven them.

Speaking of decisions, my son and I are faced with the biggest one we’ll make this Saturday: whether to split a Large Fry with Gravy or get our own smalls. We agree to share, and shake on ordering a second plate if one of us commands more than his fair share. The rest is a foregone conclusion: Two with Everything for me. For him: One with Everything, and one just ketchup and onions.

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Without making the covenant aloud, we’d been holding conversation all morning until our orders were placed.

We catch up on our presentations from earlier in the week (arse was kicked), Kentucky basketball (his lower case ‘r’ religion these days), NBA (LeBron’s Lakers are rollin’), and just stuff.

As we’re waiting for our order, a guy grabs the open stool to my left. A little rumpled. Gray scraggly beard. I pick up a beer scent. Not fresh, maybe night before. Initiates a familiar patter with the waitress, and the behind-the-scenes fry guy in the back. The reciprocal requisite chop-busting of a Regular. Asks about the Wash High score … they were down 14 at the half. I mention they’ve been slow-starting all season, and before I know it, the guy’s joining our lunch conversation, much to my delight, and my son’s chagrin.

Waitress sets down a hot roast beef in front of our neighbor. I tell him he’s the first person I’ve ever sat next to who’s ordered anything other than a hot dog. Unbeknownst to me, I invite a long soliloquy on the subject.

It’s fantastic, he says. The waitress passing by who’s not in the conversation but is unofficially in EVERY conversation, joins the conversation. “It’s really good. You should try it.”

“But,” the guy tells me, waiting for the waitress to pass before executing a perfect Lean In.

Full Disclosure: I’m an unapologetic sucker for a well-executed Lean In – when, in order to signal the presumptive sharing of a Key to the Universe – one checks one’s surroundings, leans one’s head towards one’s subject, and lowers one’s voice to beg his subject’s full attention before confiding. When one is sitting next to The Leaner at a lunch counter, it somehow carries exponentially more gravitas.

“… you gotta get it when it’s fresh.”

In the movie version of this scene, The Guy would grab my arm for emphasis and hold my gaze for a couple extra beats, before eating the rest of his meal in total silence. The IRL version goes on about 45 seconds too long.

See, the guy tells me, if it’s a slow week, and it sits for few days, the, um, ‘quality,’ suffers (in so many words). His cousin works in The Back (the behind-the-scenes Fry Guy), and lets him know when it’s fresh. “I text him before I come in – hot dog or beef? If he tells me ‘hot dog,’ I know the beef’s been in circulation for a few days.”

Me: So the day rotates is what you’re saying.

He: Exactly. You never know.

This is at once essential and completely useless information.

And why this One will never deviate from Two with Everything.

We return to our comestibles.

When our Large Fry with Gravy comes, Peter squirts a little ketchup on the rim. This is an affront to the guy to our left.

Guy: You can’t mix gravy with ketchup.

Me: I know. Separation of Church and State.

Guy: You know where that comes from?

I’m thinking we’re still talking about gravy and ketchup.

Me: I have no idea (since neither Karry nor I ketchup our gravy).

Guy goes on to elucidate, in meticulous Wikipedia-grade detail, Thomas Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter to the Danbury Baptist Church from 1802, in between bites of his (very fresh) roast beef sandwich.

I find this delicious.

This is why you sit at The Counter.

We polish off our LFWG, and I coax Peter into another round.

And this one comes out PERFECT … the fries a crisp golden brown. For the record, they are always good (the gravy forgives all sins), but sometimes during a lunch rush the Fry Guy plucks them from the fryer a little too soon to get them on the plate, which was the case with our first batch.  But this time … we just stare at the plate for a hot minute.

The waitress in every conversation breaks our moment of silence.

“You ever try ‘em with Red Hot?”

I’m rendered speechless by the suggestion, though my face involuntarily reacts as if she’s just proposed a mustache for the Mona Lisa.

“I know, right?” she says in response to my recoil. “That’s what I thought. But it’s really, really good.”

The second waitress Amens her colleague. “Do you like Red Hot? You should try it.”

Yes is the answer, but that’s not the point. Just like I love Sinatra and Tom Petty, I have no desire to experience them together.

Before I can raise shields, the first waitress gives me a tiny plate so I can separate church from state.

I oblige. They wait, expectant, for me to sample and affirm.

It’s fine. I try not to disappoint them, but a perfect plate of fries with gravy needs nothing but the blessing of some pepper.

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We nonetheless clean the plate, using the final few fries as gravy Zambonis. He drains his Orange Crush down to a dry slurp.

We drop our offering at the register, the tip back at the counter. He and I exchange a silent fist bump.

In this cold, gray, Saturday-morning-November moment, 884.1 miles in the making, summoned to the heart of a down downtown to sit as, and with, Regulars atop old stools to talk basketball and stuff over perfect plates of our Usuals, it’s hard not to count ourselves … Two with Everything.

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Fathers and Sons, The Road Ahead

One Mow Time …

 

I was preparing for The Big Day. Bracing myself for The Goodbye Hug. Steeling myself for The Turn and Go.

Turns out, it was the effing lawn equipment that hit me like a haymaker.

Pulled into the driveway after work on the Tuesday night, and there, arrayed in the back yard …  his motley collection of rescues, resurrections, and acquisitions … all fired up and running full throttle to drain their gas before he left for college the next morning.

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What may look to the untrained eye like a few weed whackers, mowers, trimmers and an air compressor,  registered to my emotional Jell-O as Summer’s F*cking Death Scene.

I began borrowing from the stacks of emotional resolve I’d stockpiled for the next morning.

Didn’t see him at first, until I looked over and there he was, one yard over, having pulled out our old Cub Cadet for his last Official Neighborhood Mow. Boy was all business. I met his gaze and nodded, and he returned the gesture, so solemn I had to turn away for the tear rolling down my cheek.

Hadn’t even made it into the house and I’m reaching for the total meltdown hotline, which put me in touch with its flashback division.

It connected me to a memory 15 years ago, the signal crisp as yesterday. Practically the same scene, ‘cept this time I’m mowing. It was the first time I looked over and there he was, a stout little three-year-old, a couple rows beside me. He’d pulled out the self-growling mower he’d gotten on his birthday and was putting all he had into matching my pace, his two steps to my one.

Boy was all business back then, too.

I looked over and nodded, and he returned the gesture, so solemn I had to turn away to hide my smile.

When we were done, I thanked him for his ‘help,’ and joked to Karry that I hoped he maintained his enthusiasm long enough to eventually relieve me of my duties.

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As soon as he grew tall enough for his upstretched hands to reach the top of the old Club Cadet, he began lobbying hard to take a turn. I remember Karry and I debating whether it was a good parenting decision or not, compromising on letting him tackle the flat rectangle where the flower bed starts in the back.

He put every thing he had into it – muscling a running start, locking his arms, and digging his feet into the ground until he willed it forward. When the boy sets his mind to something, he doesn’t let it go. From the first, he mowed straighter rows than me, which as Karry will tell you, isn’t saying very much.

By his second year in high school, he was handling a rotation of 3-4 neighborhood lawns, which earned him an invitation to help his aunt at her cattle farm. For his pre-driving self, that was the equivalent of making The Show. Once a teenage boy sees the world from atop a tractor, the world never looks the same.

He became as fascinated with the equipment as with the work. He soon started poking around barns and sheds, discovering discards and broke-downs from summers past – an old mower here, an old weed whacker there. Took a shine to a years-abandoned riding mower. Drove his aunt nuts for about two weeks as he futzed with it, before reluctantly admitting what she’d known from the start: that it wasn’t worth saving. But with other stuff, he negotiated a deal with her that he could borrow whatever he could get running. We began noticing our two-car garage getting a bit crowded for the strays he’d bring home. The heart his Mom has for animals, he has for lawn gear.

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He stuffed this last high school summer full with work, fun, and yard work (a summer-work-fun trifecta). He and his buddies took on some landscaping gigs for relatives and neighbors. It gave him an excuse to root around his friends’ garages and sheds, salvaging equipment that had given up the ghost. He pulled a busted mower that had sat idle for years and brought it home to work on. Like the first time his tiny hands wrapped around the bar, he put everything he had into it. Every day that week, whenever I’d ask Karry where the boy was, the answer was, “The garage.” ‘Til I came home from work one night, and he was in the driveway blaring his music.  He skipped “Hello,” for “Watch this,” and with one pull, and a little smoke, the sonofabitch roared alive. He beamed the biggest smile walking me through what he’d found wrong and how he fixed it. I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so proud of an accomplishment. He couldn’t wait to return it to his friend and re-create the moment. When he did, they whooped and hollered so loud, the neighbors came over to make sure everything was all right.

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Eventually, I pulled myself together and made it into the house. After he finished at the neighbor’s and got cleaned up, we enjoyed a humble meal of his choosing — grilled hot dogs and onions, accompanied by foil-packed buttered potatoes, a respectful nod to scout camps’ past. We ate quietly, contentedly, on the back porch.

And much too soon for our tastes, the late summer sun dipped behind the houses across the street, calling us inside for cleanup and the final preparations for The Big Day.

As we carried dishes to the sink, the last of his weed whackers gave a final cough and ran dry in the dark back yard, yielding the evening’s soundtrack to the crickets … silencing a season 18 glorious summers in the making.

 

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Fathers and Sons, The Road Ahead

Ties That Bind ….

I don’t remember much from the dwindling days of my last high school summer, aside from not wanting to think about whatever was coming next. I dreaded the prospect of college, dreaded the thought that all my friends were going to other schools, dreaded the possibility that I wasn’t enough, and dreaded the closing of a chapter whose familiar pages I could recite from memory for all my re-reading.

But I do remember this.

A couple weeks before move-in day, Mom informed me that she was taking me downtown to Morris’s, the men’s store in my hometown, so I could pick out a suit. I remember she brought it up out of nowhere, but the way she said it gave me the sense that there was some gravitas associated with the exercise.

It was just her and me. I remember driving us downtown (my mother was a reluctant, and, by all accounts, bad driver).

When we arrived Mom informed the sales clerk, an older gentleman, of our mission, and he took over from there. When he asked me for my thought or reaction, I’d look to her for guidance. She put it back on me, since I was going to be the one who lived with the decision. The one that stuck was a dark blue navy with a subtle purple pinstripe. I remember breaking into a grin when he pointed out the purple in the stripe. It felt like an adult decision. Maybe my first.

I remember him marking the cuffs and the sides of the jacket with chalk for alterations. That’s when I began to appreciate the gravitas of the occasion for myself, since every piece of clothing I’d acquired in my first 17 years was plucked off a rack close enough for jazz. I remember the clerk auditioning ties, and the three of us unanimously electing a floral print of deeps that winked knowingly at the purple in the pinstripe. The old clerk said it was a very young look. Mom approved.

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When it was time for checkout, he rang us up, and I remember getting a lump in my throat when he announced the total. It was a big amount, well beyond an extravagance for us. I asked Mom if we wanted to maybe look at other options, but she didn’t flinch. “You need a good suit,” she said, closing the case.

When I got home, Dad gave me a crash course in handling my own Windsor. I wore a tie so infrequently I just let them hang tied and lonely in my closet up to that point. Within days, I was off to begin my next chapter.

I put that suit to good use through over the next four years … and beyond. Unfailingly, I always caught a compliment or two on my tie. Whenever I wore it I remember it feeling like armor. It wasn’t a small feeling in those years when doubt and dread always seemed to have the upper hand on me. Mom was right, I needed that suit for college.

For the record, it still hangs in my closet, though the armor doesn’t quite fit the way it used to.

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This past Thursday I accompanied Peter to Duquesne to cross a few things off his list before this week’s move-in. Picked up his parking pass, a laptop at the computer store, and his first bushel of books at the bookstore.

Before grabbing some dinner we made another stop.

“You guys look like you’re on a mission,” the woman behind the counter said.

“Dad says I need a suit for college,” he told her.

Peter put himself in Sara’s capable hands. She brought out options and colors.

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After trying on a couple, he gravitated to a bright blue number with a paisley for the interior. “That’s pretty sweet,” he confessed. He asked me for my opinion. Told him it was totally his call, but nodded my approval.

When it came to ties, he singled out a flowered print that winked at the blue in the suit, and we reversed engineered the shirt selections to match.

When it was time to check out, I was reminded that the price of a good suit can still tempt one to a double-take. But I was taught many years ago that certain college equations call for a higher math, and didn’t flinch.

I am confident the suit will serve him well, and in different ways than mine served me. He doesn’t need it for armor. For 18 he has a pretty good sense of who he is. I’m grateful for that.

So here’s to next chapters.

And to old chapters worthy of an occasional re-read to find your place.

 

 

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Fathers and Sons

To Sunday…. (Father’s Day 2019)

As we got ready for church this morning, I found myself thinking of Sunday mornings as a kid, which were so scented and sounded with ritual and routine.

After morning coffee, Dad would retreat to the basement steps to shine his shoes. Dutifully. Reverently. Different shine depending on his black or deep red shoes. The smell carrying back up the steps, and trailing him as he retired to the bathroom for The Shave, which was as mesmerizing as it got for my single-digit self.

The pop of the cap off the can and gurgly cough of shaving cream into his hand. The magical lathering into a Santa-like white foam beard. The menthol scent. The shhhhhhk of each stroke, followed by the splash, dunk and high-pitched plinks of water back into the sink bowl as he drew his hand up for the next.

At some point he gave me an old razor, sans blade, and, with my trusty can of Crazy Foam, I mimicked every detail — standing in front of him and the bathroom mirror — down to the last ersatz stroke, culminating with the ceremonial splash of English Leather, the official scent of Sunday morning Riddell man- and boyhood.

Dad was always Sunday suit and tie, and I remember the exhilaration of graduating from the clip ons to the real deals, he standing behind me, tying me his patented modified Windsor. I can still hear the sound of tie scuffing against collar as his hands worked their magic as I stood still and straight.

It was usually just the two of us to Sunday School (Mom grew up Baptist, and found Presbyterian-ism a little too tame). We’d park at the Sherwin Williams parking lot, where he was the manager, and walk across the street to Trinity, which was a glorious Dracula’s Castle to me. We’d sit last pew in the back of the chapel for worship before Sunday School. George Tanner, Trinity’s famed basketball coach, typically led the proceedings. Mr. Tanner didn’t have the best voice, but more than made up for it with full-throated gusto. I remember marveling at Dad’s ear … he would sing bass, harmonizing with the melody. I could never figure out where or how he found those notes.

After worship, we’d retreat to our Sunday School rooms, where I muscled through in the way most kids did, giving our patient teachers poor return on their sincere investments.

Then, Church. We’d sit in the balcony, which my tiny self always found hugely cool. Climbing the old wraparound staircase to the top, hand on banister, each creaking step its own punctuation mark. The steps made your arrival a reveal … the cushy pews, the stained glass – it presented as this little gift we unwrapped every Sunday. Then the service’s consistent cadence. The registering in the attendance pads, reciting from the bulletin, roar of the organ, red-felted offering plates, Lord’s Prayer, silver goblets of grape juice on Communion days, and the fire-and-brimstone-less Presbyterian sermons going straight over my head up to the heavens.

After hand-shaking the minister, we’d cross back to the parking lot to graduate to the true Sunday highlight.

Mom NEVER cooked on Sundays, which meant Dad would treat us to lunch. Long John Silver’s was the go to, and in the days when cholesterol wasn’t really a thing, we nourished our freshly churched souls with fried everything. Hush puppies. Fish. Chicken (never fries, tho – they sucked). Alternately doused with / drenched in ketchup and vinegar. I’d invariably ask for a small boat of extra ‘crumblies,’ the small pieces of fried batter that failed to cling to the fish or chicken.

I only learned years later that Sunday Dinner was a big home-cooked deal for most families. I never felt I missed out on anything, though. Me and Dad ate like pirates.

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After we got home from church and the grocery store this morning, Karry and Em (who DO cook on the occasional Sunday) went to work in the kitchen, taking it upon themselves to prepare one of the finest meals ever served in our humble home. I’m confident that future Father’s Days (and perhaps generations) will find us speaking in hushed and reverent tones of Em’s baked mac n’ cheese.

After she said Grace, I offered up a toast to those who made me a father:

  • to Kenneth Neal, who lived his long life as a lesson that time is the only currency that matters;
  • to Peter Neal, who has demonstrated exponentially more patience and Grace with me in his 18 years than the other way around;
  • to Emma Leigh, who lets me believe that I’m the adult in our relationship even though we both know better;
  • and to Karry Colleen, who kicks more ass — a portion of which is typically mine – in her waking hours than me on my best day … but who has been THE common denominator in all of my best days as a Dad.

In good times and bad, I’ve found it’s always good to remind myself that things will not always be like this.

So, to Sundays.

And the only currency that matters.

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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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