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.


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.


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.

the legend

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.



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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.