Friday, May 30, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 13

There's this picture that's been on the dresser in our bedroom for years. It's a snapshot of our kids in the front yard, taken just before our kids were headed off to school, or maybe it was to vacation Bible school, I can't recall. But I do remember that morning, standing barefoot in the damp grass in my bathrobe, my eyes crusty with sleep.
"Go on, give your brother a hug," I said.

Forever since, we've had this frozen moment: under the big maple tree, the girl grinning, her arm thrown around him, her cheek pressed into his shoulder; and the boy, a third-grader in brand-new clothes, squirming, his face screwed up in revulsion. Sisters! Yuck!

How long ago was that? I'm confused. There have been so many moments in this lifetime. I walk out onto the lawn in my bare feet now and I can't tell the years apart.

A few weeks ago, the boy - hardly a boy any longer, but a college graduate - packed most of his belongings into his truck and moved away to another state and another life. His mother and I stood beneath the shade of that same big maple tree and watched him drive out of our lives, toward all those new possibilities.

Today, we pack another car with all the girl's things and take her away to college. I'll take her photo in the morning, by the big maple.

Some time ago, I dreaded this moment. "How will we stand this big, quiet house?" I asked over and over again. We both wondered: What will we do without the distraction of raising children? The idea of an empty nest was haunting, depressing.
But we dread the day no longer. The boy may be gone, but he still calls – more often than he ever did while he was at school. His life is new and exciting, and we are able to share the excitement, even more so because we are free of the responsibility of making decisions for him.

The girl is anxious to go; she's been packed for a week. We share her anxiety and eagerness. We want her to go, too, but not to be rid of her. We're just excited by all her possibilities.

The quiet that I thought might suffocate us will be a nice change. And the telephone will not ring so often. And we will not lie awake in bed each night waiting for the sound of her coming home.

And for a while it will be like it was before we had children. I will walk out into the front yard in my bare feet, and all the memories – as blended and confused as they might be – will still be there.
And we will be alone. But then, there are all the possibilities.

- August 1996


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 12

It seemed like such a long summer, just before their older child went off to college. The telephone started ringing right after high school graduation and didn't stop until that night late in August when they packed the car with all his stuff. The phone calls had exasperated the man and his wife. "No, he's not here. Yes, Shawn/ John/Dom/Don/Dawn, I'll tell him that you called."
"Who was that on the phone?" the woman would ask.
"I'm not sure. Their names all sound alike to me."
But that August night was unusually quiet; the incessantly ringing telephone suddenly fell silent. Most of the boy's friends had already left for college.

The man lingered in the driveway and considered the contents of the trunk. There was his son's new stuff: clean, stiff sheets and towels, pencils and pens and blank notebooks; never-worn socks and shirts. And the old stuff: a skateboard; his cherished wall posters; an old stuffed toy dog that had been around since the boy had first gone to kindergarten.
"I remember that day," the man said to himself, peering into the darkness toward the road where a dozen years earlier his child had climbed aboard the school bus, walked to the back and took a seat, never looking back.

Next day, they crossed an ocean of Ohio cornfields to reach an island of academia, a place humming with the activity of 400 nervous freshmen, moms and dads in tow. They helped haul the boy's stuff into the dormitory. Walking down the hall with cardboard boxes under each arm, the man glanced into the rooms as he passed, and later said to his wife in a harsh whisper: "Boys and girls together, on the same floor! This smells like trouble."

Through the heat of that humid day, they attended to their son's needs. They put the sheets on his bed, helped him hang his posters, went with him to buy a bicycle permit and open a bank account. When it was time to go, Nature gave the signal. The wind picked up and dark clouds rolled in from the west.

The three of them walked quickly to the car as big drops began to splash around them. They sprinted the last 50 yards to the parking lot and then stood huddled together beneath an umbrella by the open car door.
"Keep the umbrella, you'll need it," the boy's mother told him.
They left him that way, standing in the pouring rain, looking a little lost. That's the picture that stuck in the woman's mind as they headed east toward a much quieter home.

"He'll be home for a weekend before long, I'm sure," the man said, squinting at the road ahead of him. The rain came hard and fast and made a racket on the roof. He turned toward his wife and watched the tears roll down her cheeks.

The couple arrived home as darkness fell. Their younger child had already eaten supper and was on the phone, so they fixed themselves something to eat and sat alone at the kitchen table.
The phone rang all evening, all the calls for their younger child. Her father's brow furrowed and he began to mutter to himself.
"Take it easy," the woman said. It's only for another four years, and then she'll be off to college, too."
He groaned and rolled his eyes. And then they laughed. And the worst of it was over.
- September 1992

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dreams of My Children. Part 11

"You had better put some air in those tires," the man said to his son.
"Yeah, OK, but I've got to hurry and take a shower," the boy said. "I have to pick up the guys at six."
"Go clean up then," said the man, heading to the garage to find the pump.

The car was old and crumpled, and as he leaned against the fender to pump the tires, a trace of faded blue paint wore off on his sweating palm.
They bought the car from a friend for $25 and had put 10 times that amount into it to make it roadworthy. It had been poised for weeks now, waiting for that day when the boy received his driver's license.

Presently, the boy came bounding out of the house, all arms and legs, wearing a ball cap and high-tops, baggy over-sized shorts and T-shirt, dog tags hanging around his neck, wire-rimmed glasses and a gold earring: your typical 16-year-old.
"Thanks for taking care of the tires," the boy said. "See ya later."
"Just a minute. I have some things to say to you first."
Watching from the porch, the boy's mother said, "I've already given him the big lecture." But she had a few more things to add. Watch out for children on bikes, and don't be a show-off. Call when you get to the mall. Call when you get to your friend's house.
"OK, Ma. Really!"

The boy climbed behind the wheel and started the engine of the old blue car. It sputtered to life, making the sound that exhaust systems make shortly before they must be replaced.
"Keep your eyes on the road, not on the radio dial," the father yelled.
The boy cupped his hand to his ear and looked at his father questioningly, then turned down the volume of the radio and said, "What did you say?"
"Aw, never mind, the man said. "Have a good time."

And he drove down the driveway, never looking back.

His parents stood in the driveway for a time, looking down the road, listening to the distant sputtering of the old blue car as it headed toward town.
"Now what do we do for the next three hours? Watch the clock and worry ourselves sick?" the man asked his wife. She put her hand on his shoulder and they turned and walked toward the porch together.
"It seems like just last week that we watched him get on the school bus for the first time," he said.

The warm evening passed, as least as far as the young driver's father was concerned, with maddening slowness. And at 9:35 p.m., they heard the old car sputtering up the road, and the man and his wife stepped out onto the porch and watched the boy pull into the driveway.
They joked with him, scolded him and peppered him with questions; they put their arms around his waist and walked into the house. They had let him go, and he had come back. Maybe next time it would be easier.

- June 1990

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

A reader e-mailed a complaint this morning that we had "dropped the puck" by not including in our newspaper a poster celebrating the Pittsburgh Penguins making it to the NHL championship round. "The day of the first game, I expected to see an insert sign that I can hang in my window to brag some more how proud I am of the pens."

This is indeed tragic. But perhaps the reader can acquire a piece of cardboard and write "GO PENS!" on it with a Magic Marker. Better still, write, "SCORE A GOAL, PLEASE!"

Dreams of My Children, Part 10

The little one had asked me to tuck her in. I sat on the edge of her bed in the dark and listened to her weep.
"What's the matter, babe?" I asked her, taking a corner of the sheet and wiping the tears from her cheeks.
"I miss Mom," she managed to say between sobs.
I kissed her damp forehead, smoothed back her tangled hair. "I'm sure I'll miss Mom, too," I said, "but she's only been gone a few hours."
"I don't care, I still miss her," she spoke into her pillow.

Great, I thought. Only 13 days and 12 hours until Mom comes back.
"Cheer up," I tried. "If Mom knew you were crying, she wouldn't be having a good time herself. And we want her to have a good time. She's never been to Europe before; this is a great adventure for her. Let's not ruin it by being sad guys."
She told me OK, and I smiled at myself in the dark, proud of how well I had handled my first crisis of single parenthood.

But before 24 hours had passed, my self-satisfied smirk became the harried expression of an overworked air-traffic controller. Make that heir-traffic. I never realized how difficult raising children can be. I suddenly gained great respect for the single parent who must face this task every day, year after year – not, as in my case, for just two weeks.

What's so tough about raising children on your own? First, there's only one parent for a child to complain to about being bored, and only one parent to come up with ideas to prevent boredom. There's only one parent to do the shopping, to plan the meals, to do the cooking, to make sure everyone has enough of the right things to eat, and only one parent to make sure everyone gets up on time and goes to bed, too make sure teeth are brushed and hair washed, that pets are fed and beds made, that dishes are washed, plants watered, clothing laundered, grass cut and bills paid.

And there's only one parent to do the worrying. "Can I go to the movies tonight?" my son asks. I can't say, "It’s OK with me, but ask your mother." Now the decision is all mine, and what pops into my head are visions of wet highways and car crashes, fights in parking lots, burning theaters...

Single parents don't have the luxury of ignoring their children while the other parent is paying attention to them. Single parents are constantly paying attention to their children, like it or not.

Somewhere on the northern coast of Wales, my wife is probably feeling a little homesick at this moment. Why, I can't imagine, as I struggle to figure out how to get them to and from practices and lessons, when to vacuum the carpets and scrub the tub. How can she miss these things?

But I miss her, in ways I never imagined before. I now have great respect for the single parent. I just don't want to be one.

- July 1990

Monday, May 26, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 9

I spent about 18 years in school, and for the most part, it was a struggle. I was very much the scholastic also-ran, the kid who had to scramble to reach the lofty level of the Average Student. Sometimes, I didn't make it that far.

When I started college, I had this crazy idea that I was bright, perhaps brilliant, enough so that I didn't have to study at all. Reality soon hit me like a stack of biology textbooks, and I spent the next four years running in slow motion through an academic nightmare.

I awoke in a cold sweat just in time to receive a degree, marry and produce children who, quite fortunately, do much better than I did in school. Still, they often come home with report cards that don't accurately reflect their potential.
I tell them, just as my father used to tell me: "Please, all I ask is for you to do your very best, to try your very hardest. If you work as hard as you can, I don't care what your grades are."

Invariably, they don't try as hard as they can, and I do care what grades they get.
"You can do better than this!" I insist. What follows from them are those tired excuses that all parents know – shabby alibis I once used myself. Her are my favorites, my Top 20:

1. "Honest, nobody got a good grade this time."
2. "We only had two tests, and one I couldn't study for because I left my book at school, and the other one I didn't know about because I was sick the day before."
3. "But Mom, C is average."
4. "I did better than Jennifer."
5. "We don't know what the teacher wants and she won't tell us."
6. "If I didn't have to spend so much time practicing piano, I'd do better."
7. "Really, Dad, the telephone and television do not take up too much of my time."
8. "You can't study for that kind of test."
9. "It's not like the final grade of my whole life or anything."
10. "OK, OK, so I'm stupid!"
11. "The teacher a) doesn't like me; b) doesn't understand me; c) is too hard; d) grades on a curve; or e) doesn't grade on a curve.
12. "I didn't do so hot last grading period, but I got a 98 on a quiz today."
13. "Next grading period I will do better because we're going to be studying the really important stuff."
14. "I did try my very hardest. Well, almost."
15. "Report card? Oh, shoot, I left it in my locker."
16. "This is better than the grade I thought I was going to get."
17. "The teacher said this won't count much against our final grade for the year."
18. "Well, it's not perfect, but I'm satisfied with it."
19. (In explaining a dive from all A's and B's to all B's and C's) – "I went down in three grades and stayed even in three."
20. "The teacher made a mistake."

Sound familiar? I thought so.
There is, however, one excuse I never used. I never had the gall to use it, nor have
my children. I think we all realize that a thousand excuses aren't worth a single, honest explanation.
The one excuse we never used: "I tried my very best, and that's the best I can do."
- May 1991

Friday, May 23, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 8

Right after he was born, people talked about how much he resembled me. I thought, huh? How could anyone think that this baby, this squinting, pink little thing that threw up all the time, resemble any adult, let alone me?

When he was a little older, going off to school, people didn't let up. They'd look through our snapshots and say, "No doubt whose boy this is." It just puzzled me. I looked at his long blond hair and his chubby cheeks and saw a stranger - an adorable stranger - but not me.

He grew, as all kids, as fast as corn. He was getting bigger and changing in other ways, too. But he was his own person, unique. He resembled no one else on this planet, except, possibly, his mother, and maybe his sister, just a little.

"He is you," said my wife. "He has your legs."
My own father would say, "He reminds me so much of you at that age." I couldn't imagine why; not until just the other day, that is.

His high school soccer team was playing on the field in the valley, and the late afternoon sunlight burned through the tops of the trees and into the faces of the spectators on the east side of the field. I held my hand up to my brow and squinted in the direction of the players. The back-lighting made silhouettes of them so that it was difficult to tell one from another. After the game, when the kids lines up for the obligatory hand slaps, I walked out on the field to tell the boy that he had played a good game. (I was proud that he had a chance to play at all.) I stepped into the shadow of the hillside and, without having to squint and shade my eyes, saw everything clearly for the first time.

I yelled his name and he turned, somewhat startled to see me. That's when it happened.
Suddenly, I was looking at myself through some sort of time-warp mirror. I realized that his hair had become darker and that he had put on some muscle, and he moved just the way I did, and still do. His uniform was grass-stained and damp, his face and hair speckled with mud.

All the sensations of my own playing days came streaming back: the sweat and the chill, the metallic taste of exhaustion, the sore shins, the ache and weakness left in limbs that adrenaline leaves behind, and the exhilaration. Through all of this, I managed to yell to him, "Good game!"
"Sure, thanks," he said, a little out of breath, before trotting off to the other side of the field with his teammates.

For the first time, I saw him as a part of me. I watched him laughing and horsing around with his friends and I felt a part of it, as if he were a vital organ of mine attached by long, invisible nerves.

Lately, I've been looking in the mirror and seeing my father's face instead of my own. It makes me feel as if I'm on a downhill slide to the grave. But knowing now that I have actually left my mark on this earth makes that descent less treacherous.
He is my flesh and blood.

- October 1988

Today's gripe

A couple of weeks ago, I went down the driveway in the morning to get the paper and found all of the trash I'd put out the night before scattered over the road, driveway and flower gardens. Dog, I thought. "Raccoons" offered my wife.

So I wised up and rigged a bungee cord to secure the lid to the trash can. Well, this morning, I went down the driveway and again found every bit of trash scattered all over creation. Muttering and cursing, I retrieved all the greasy remnants, and then I saw them - in the soft dirt where I'd recently planted grass - paw prints!

If you're reading this, Fido, know that I'm on to you. You've dragged the last chicken carcass out of my can; you've licked your last butter wrapper! You may be able to undo bungee cords, but let's see you figure out the combination lock!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 7

In 1914, my grandmother, then 10 years old, had her First Communion. She posed for this photo, holding a candle and a prayer book. She had arrived in this country two years earlier from Poland, and the prayers in the book are in Polish.

The photo and the book went into a box that moved around with my grandmother, from Pennsylvania to Connecticut. As the years passed by, tiny fragments of her life made their way into the box: letters and pictures from relatives in Poland, obituaries from newspapers, St. Christopher medals, immigration and naturalization papers. When she was old and forgetting things and becoming anxious about losing stuff, she gave the box to me for safe-keeping.
"Take it now," she said. "Someday you'll inherit it anyway."

That's how I was able to put the little prayer book into the hands of my 10-year-old daughter, who quite by accident struck a pose so similar to this one from 75 years ago that I was taken aback.
She was looking for something to take to school – pictures of her ancestors – for a discussion on family heritage. Her small fingers undid the clasp and turned the yellow, brittle pages. "What does it say?" she asked. "Can you read it?"
"No, I can't even speak the words," I said. "It's in our alphabet, but many of the letters have different sounds."

We picked through the items in the box. She held a photo of an old house and read from the back: "The house where we lived in Krasnik."
"Is the house still there?" she asked.
"I doubt it. There were two world wars, and millions died."

"May I take the prayer book to school?" she asked.
"Sure, but you must be very careful with it."
"Because it's so old," she finished for me.
"No, it's not that old," I said. "But it means so much… It's been kept…" I couldn't put into words why it seemed so valuable. But then I began to understand.

During a couple of wars, the great Depression, marriage, divorce and 75 years worth of child-rearing, joy, death, aging and mourning, the little prayer book lay in this old box of mementos. And then it was brought back to life again, bathed once more in a little girl's breath. It seemed a symbol of just how long a life can be.
"Take it to school," I said, "and when you're done with it, put it back in the box, where it belongs.

And maybe in the year 2064, some other little girl will take it out again.

- February 1989

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 6

(Installing carpet in dog house, 1977)

The following is a guest column written by my dog, Rufus:

What I like to do in the morning, just after the sun comes up, is to watch the house, to see the people start moving around, getting ready for school and work, and then I start barking my head off.
After a while, the old guy leans out his bedroom window and flaps his jaw in my direction. It's a scream, you ought to see it.
I start it up again while they're eating breakfast. The old guy usually comes storming out the kitchen door, newspaper in hand, making motions like he's going to use it on me. What a joke.
A little later, when the school bus comes up the road, I start yapping again. Sometimes the old guy comes out the kitchen door, grabs the broom and runs halfway across the yard toward my house, brandishing the thing in the air, his face all red. It's all I can do to keep from laughing.

I can't complain too much. They let me off my chain in the afternoon, and when the kids come home from school, there's always some kind of excitement going on in the backyard. I'm getting old and this arthritis is killing me, so I don't run around with them much anymore or do anything ridiculous like chasing sticks. But it's fun to watch them, anyway.

You wouldn't believe what a scream it is living with this family. The other day, the little girl wrote "I AM CRANKY" with her finger in the dust on the back of the old guy's van. He caught her doing it and he snapped at her, "Whadaya mean by that!?"

You should see the old guy practice golf. He walks around the yard with a pitching wedge and a bucket of golf balls. I curl up by the porch or under a bush where it's safe and watch him. He has no idea where the balls will go when he hits them. He bounces them off the roof, off the walnut tree, off the neighbor's house. It's a scream. In about five minutes he's down to two balls, the rest being lost in the woods. He gets all sweaty and chatters to himself. I can't stand it. I roll around in fits, and then he says, "What are you panting about, hairbag?" He doesn't understand that I'm not panting, I'm laughing my head off.

Oh, I tell you, it's a human's life, isn't it?

- May 1989

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 5

My idea of a vacation is spending some time away from the telephone, television, crowds, and anything remotely connected with news. So when we went to Florida, we did nothing at all - at my insistence.
Some friends were in Florida at the same time, and they took their kids to Disney World. They took their kids to the Seaquarium and museums. Not us. We took our kid's to Grandpa's house, period.
"Are we going to Disney World, too?" one of them asked. "Not on your life," I replied. I pointed to a little toy basketball hoop floating in the swimming pool. We're staying at Grandpa's World. What more could you kids want?"

The kids and their mother protested, and after a few days I began to cave. Maybe I should be making some kind of effort to broaden their educational experience. So I planned an extensive undertaking: One morning, I took my son to the fishing pier, two miles away.

There's more to be learned in a morning on the pier than a week at an amusement park, I reasoned. The first things one learns about are patience, frustration and disappointment. A few people catch a lot of fish, and a lot of people catch a few. And I catch nothing at all. So there we sat, bobbers floating unbobbingly in the green water, bait shrimp dancing on our hooks to empty underwater halls.
Old salts strolled up and down the pier, exchanging comments like, "Can't believe the fishing could be worse than yesterday," and "Why, just last week we were catching snapper and blue runner on bare hooks!"

I watched as a pelican swooped down and perched on the railing three feet from my son's elbow. He looked the boy up, down and sideways, and after a few minutes, realizing no handouts of baitfish were forthcoming, it tipped its huge brown wings and rose slowly above us, then veered off into a grand swoop inches above the waves, its long bill poised to snatch quick, silvery prey.

Below us, a sea turtle surfaced and ducked back into the water. A barracuda, window shopping just below the surface, considered our ridiculous red-and-white bobbers and darted off toward open sea.

The constant breeze off the ocean makes the voices of fishermen seem distant and dreamlike - like the conversations one hears just before falling asleep, or while lying on a blanket at the beach.

I stared at a cargo ship making its way across the horizon of the shining sea from Port Everglades toward points unknown. Time passed. Our unflinching fishing poles performed well as sundials.

"Dad, can we go back to Grandpa's now?" my son asked. I smiled to myself. Too much education, too much enrichment for one day.
"Sure," I said. "Sorry we didn't catch anything."
"That's no surprise," he said.
"It doesn't really matter if you catch anything; it's just being out here," I offered.
"I'm learning that," he answered with only the faintest trace of disappointment.

That's my boy.

- June 1986

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 4

When the disc jockey puts the Beatles' version of "Twist and Shout" on the turntable, the fifth-graders go a little crazy. The girls' high-pitched squeals rise into the rafters like frightened birds, and they, all dressed in cotton dresses and satin ribbons, come up to where the grown-ups stand, pleading and whining. Like Sirens, they lure the teachers to the center of the gym, and laugh with delight as these figures of authority step to the rhythm, shake and grind to the beat.
All around the dance floor stand the parents. Some of them dance, too, but most just watch, laugh and applaud, and yawn and check their watches.

This is the night of the fifth-grade banquet. Every year Joe Walker School in Lagonda holds a covered-dish dinner and dance for its "graduates" before sending them off to middle school. Every year, moms and dads eat elbow to elbow at the kid-sized cafeteria tables, then listen to the efforts of the chorus and band. These kids, who have been playing their instruments for less than a year, make up for their lack of virtuosity with vigor and volume, blurting out "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Yankee Doodle" to the ploddingly slow but steady beat of snare drums.
And when the band is done, and the speeches spoken and all possible thanks delivered, the tables are cleared and the dance begins.

Fifth-graders are difficult to contain. They are static electricity, charged electrons bouncing off walls and each other. They don't know how to dance but dance all the same, mostly girls with girls and boys making dance-like motions in a circle.
"Locomotion!" yells the DJ. The song seems to go on forever, with Little Eva wailing, "Now that you can do-oo-oo it, let's make a train now-ow-ow." The principal volunteers to be engineer, and everyone grabs a waist and joins the snaking line. When it's over, the grown-ups slip back toward the walls and doors, mopping their brows, fanning themselves with their programs.
"You ought to dance," one of the mothers, slightly out of breath, says to the parents in the corner drinking coffee. "Really, it makes the time go faster."

When a slow song plays, kids, still too young to be embarrassed by this, drag their mothers and fathers by the wrists to the middle of the room.

The teachers are old hands at this, year after year sending their pupils off in this manner, but they still seem surprised and delighted by it all. So does the principal. He's used to being despised and feared, but one of the girls, on a dare, no doubt, asks him to dance. Everyone is friends tonight. The moon is full, the night is cool, and nobody has homework.

The parents watch, absorbing this last scene of pure innocence, of youth uncorrupted. The music plays, the evening flies, and when it is over, the children are babies no more.

- June 1989

Friday, May 16, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 3

I had reached the conclusion of my ghost story. A dozen Boy Scouts sat in deathly quiet, their wide-open eyes reflecting the yellow flames of the campfire.
"And so," I whispered, it was the daughter, not the wicked stepmother, who ate the bubbling evil pie that the old gypsy had cursed."
The smoke drifted into the blackness of the sky. The fire hissed and crackled - the only sound on this dark, humid night.
"That's all?" one of the scouts asked in disbelief. "The daughter eats the pie? And that's supposed to be scary?"
"What a crummy story," another one said.
"I knew that one anyway," another boy said. "He didn't make it up. It's from a Stephen Kind novel – one of the Bachman books."

OK, so maybe storytelling is not my strength. Come to think of it, camping isn't, either. Here I am. Spending two nights at Camp Anawanna, supposedly teaching them about living in the wild, when I hadn't been on a campout since I was a Scout in 1961. Back then, driving the cars and making us do all the work and forcing us to build a goofy rope bridge across a creek were my father and a couple of other old grumps. Dad wasn't much of a camper, either, but he was very good at giving orders and yelling at us to keep quiet in the middle of the night.

Boys will be boys, I learned, whether it's 1961 or 1986. They do not like to do those chores that are absolutely necessary for a successful camping trip: staying dry, washing their mess kits, gathering firewood, sleeping. Nor do they enjoy participating in the educational activities planned by the Scoutmaster.

The intransigence makes normally easy-going adults, like me, become mean, cranky arm-twisters.
"We thought camping trips were supposed to be fun," one tenderfoot complained. "All we do is work, work, work."
"Work?!" I exploded. "This isn't work! It's fun! It's play-time!"

At night, I listened to the conversations in the tents scattered through the pine forest. Boys still talk about the same stuff they talked about a generation ago - pretty girls, fast cars and violent movies. They tell disgusting jokes and hold farting contests.

I walked around after midnight, grumbling and making threats to those boys who were too loud, and then I got back in my sleeping bag and tried in vain to brush out all the daddy-longlegs that had walked in the tent while I was out. I thought: Is all this really necessary? I suppose it is. Camping is part of the passage, and it's the job of grumpy adults to make sure no one falls overboard. We want our boys to grow up like us, and to do that, they need some of the same experiences.

Really, it's worth it, I told myself as I dug my fingers into the earth to keep from sliding down the hill and out the back of the tent, having foolishly pitched it on a slope. After all, this is part of my passage, too.

- July 1986

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 2

The man sat down on the stone wall next to his daughter. They were both wearing their blue baseball caps. A breeze wafted up Summit Mountain and touched their bare arms and legs as they looked out beyond the camp buildings at Western Pennsylvania spread out before them like an ocean of green hills. It was 4 o'clock, and parents would soon be asked to say goodbye to their young campers.

Yes, this sure is a nice place," he said. "I sure do wish I could spend a week up here."
And the little one, in her quiet voice so that no one else would hear, said, "I sure do wish I could spend this week at home."

The man put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulder. He knew that nothing he would say would end her trepidation or dam the tears that were sure to come.

The camp was such a pleasant, unthreatening place, he thought, with well-scrubbed walls and benches, and well-scrubbed counselors in their green shorts and white T-shirts, all smiles, friendly and wholesome as cracked-wheat bread. Kids in pairs and threes darted from building to building, squealing with excitement. But something about the place reminded him of his own first experience away from home, and the fear and anxiety that came with it.

Things got worse in the dormitory. "This place is like an asylum," the older brother said. "Do they lock them in at night?" he asked, earning him and icy glare from his mother.

When time came for the families to leave, the little girl could not hold her anguish any longer. She sobbed into her mother's shoulder. She would be brave, though. She sniffed and wiped her cheeks and promised the man that she would.
As they drove away, he peered into the rear-view mirror, expecting to see her crying and running after the car. But no one came running. He felt heartsick.

Two days later, the first letter arrived from camp. Her first day, compounded by a stomach ache, had deteriorated even further. But it was the second letter that made him feel worse. His daughter was beginning to like camp.
"Today was much better," she wrote. The days would become better still, he thought. And next year, she'd probably go off to camp and not miss home at all.

The man sat on his porch and read the letters over and over again. It was so good to be missed, he thought. And he yearned to pick up his little one and hug her and squeeze her and never let her grow up. Why do they have to grow up, anyway?

His melancholy hands slowly unfolded and folded again the letters from camp. He tugged down the brim of his baseball cap and in his solitude, raged against the passage of time.

- July 1988

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dreams of My Children, Part 1

My wife and I found ourselves in an unusual situation. The kids were in bed, her work was done, the dishes were washed, neither of us had a meeting to attend. There we were, face to face, with nothing to do for about five minutes before we collapsed into bed, exhausted.
"Maybe it's my imagination," she said, but wasn't there a time when we could sit down on the couch and talk for a while?"
A distant memory, from when the children were younger, began to form in my head. "You're right," I said. "I do faintly recall that. And I remember… golf."
Alice's eyes glazed over. "Back then, I could lie in the yard and get a tan and read a book. What happened to our lives?"

What happened to our lives is what happened to all parents: Our children hijacked them.
Normal conversation hasn't been possible for years in our house. A person can say only so many words in a day, and most of those are taken up with "For the fourth time, Brody, feed the animals!" and "If you don't stop sucking that thumb, young lady, I'm going to soak it in Tobasco sauce!"

A typical conversation between grown-ups goes like this: "I'll pick up the kids at school and take them to the dentist and then take Cait to Brownies," she says… "But will there be enough time to feed them before soccer practice?" he asks… "Will you be able to leave them at soccer practice and do the grocery shopping?" she asks… "How can I? I'm the coach," he replies… "Well, then I'll have to buy groceries tomorrow night when you take them to swimming lessons," she adds… "You can't because of that meeting at school and Boy Scouts," he says. And on and on and on.

We didn't know parenting would be like this. When we were younger, all we could think of was the joy of a new living being. Sure we had diapers and middle-of-the-night feedings to deal with, but babies sleep a lot, and they don't have to be ferried to dance classes and choir practice at the church. School plays and ski trips and hoagie sales were far from our minds back then. When you become a parent, you give up your own life. The new life you assume doesn't belong to you anymore - you only own a share of it.

I thought about this the other night as I stayed up until dawn, helping my son get through the worst night of the chicken pox. I kicked off my shoes and stretched out on the bed beside him. He was too feverish to sleep, and so we talked, and pretty soon the birds were chirping. Eventually, his fever subsided and he drifted off to sleep. My eyes burned with fatigue, but I felt good, as only a parent can feel good, about having a life that's no longer my own, but that's shared by others.

Happiness doesn't come cheap.

- March 1985

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

Got a call yesterday from an angry reader who said he was 79 years old and had been reading the O-R for a long, long time. He was so upset by the editorial cartoon in Monday's edition that he was thinking about dropping his subscription.

The cartoon was drawn by Pat Oliphant and poked fun at Hillary Clinton for pandering to the "bowling and shot-and-a-beer crowd." But the reader thought the cartoon was insulting to... I'm not quite sure which demographic, either West Virginians or stupid people. He thought if we sold a good many newspapers in West Virginia, that cartoon just might throw the election to her opponent.

Look. We have been publishing Oliphant cartoons in this newspaper for as long as I've worked here, which is going on 36 years. He has poked fun at and insulted every president and every serious candidate for the presidency during that time, regardless of party. He champions no political causes but rails against hypocrisy, dishonesty, indecision and weakness of conviction. So, if you've been reading this paper for a long, long time, are you just now getting around to the editorial page?

And by the way, we sell only a few newspapers over the state line, and we're pretty confident those West Virginians who buy our newspaper aren't dumb enough to base their choice for a presidential candidate solely on an editorial cartoon.

A new series

Even though my son and daughter will, in a couple of months, both be in their 30s, they are forever little children in my dreams. When they walk through my night world, they are not adults but always sometime between the ages of 5 and 14.

I suppose it's only natural; kids that age have a way of hijacking the lives of their parents. Everything their mother and I did then revolved around our offspring. Their education, school activities, youth sports, music and dance lessons and Scouts consumed all our leisure time. Our emotions, our fear, anxiety, pride and disappointment were hyped. So much so that those emotions still bubble up from my subconscious when I sleep.

About 23 years ago, I started writing columns for the Observer-Reporter, and many of them were about family life. They began to peter out when my kids went off to college and then set out on their own. I felt as if I had nothing left to write about, and so I quit the column for good in 2002.

I'm going to go back 20 years or so and resurrect a few of those old columns for this blog - the ones about kids. Because this blog is for people like me who have short attention spans, they will be shorter versions of those columns. I hope that those of you just now going through the trials of parenthood can benefit from our experiences, even though we raised our kids before cell phones and the Internet. And I hope those of you my age and older will appreciate a visit to those days of childrearing that aged us so.

As always, feel free to comment and chime in with your own stories of children and their Grumpy Old Parents. It starts Wednesday. We'll call it "Dreams of My Children."

Monday, May 12, 2008

Additional reading

If you enjoyed "The Spirits of Lebanon" and wish to read more about my experiences on the mountainside, you can read some other stories I've posted over the past three years. Just click on PREVIOUS BLOG and go down the right side of the page to the Archives. Darrow segments were posted Nov. 29 - Dec. 15, 2005; in "The Sense of Smell," posted in October 2006; in "Watertown," from Aug. 7-24, 2007; and "Enter, With Torches," from Jan. 2-11, 2008.

There are a couple of classic novels about prep-school life, of course: "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles and "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger.

My favorite humorous prep-school book is "The Lawrenceville Stories," by Owen Johnson.

For further reading about the Shakers, the following books are recommended:
- "The Shaker Experience in America," by Stephen Stein
- "Simple Gifts: Lessons in Living from a Shaker Village," by June Sprigg
- "The People Called Shakers," by Edward D. Andrews
- "Mother Ann Lee, Morning Star of the Shakers," by Nardi Reeder Campion

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 14

We at Darrow School in the 1960s were no more or less rebellious than teenagers anywhere. But because we could not race around in cars or get into trouble with girls, our rebelliousness was highly focused: It was all about hair. Our goal was to grow it as long as we could. The goal of our parents at home and our masters at school was to cut it.

A barber visited campus once a week. We were often ordered to get haircuts, and not doing so meant accumulating penalty hours - our leisure time reassigned to hard labor. Some boys were willing to toil in order to dodge the clippers, but it was difficult to avoid the wrath of the establishment for long. Our headmaster was so frustrated by our refusal to obey orders that he once grabbed an underclassman named Jones, dragged him into the basement of Wickersham and barbered the boy himself. This photo, taken through the basement window by a student on a dare, ended up in the yearbook.

We were not the first rebels on the mountain, nor the last. Long hair now seems so harmless, especially in comparison to the contrariness of a few years earlier that resulted in the burning of buildings and nearly the end of the school. And even some of the Shakers were dissidents. The tradition in the Shaker community was to allow males, when they reached the age of 21, to decide to stay with the community or leave for life in the world. Many of them, brought to the community as children, chose to leave, and because Shakers were celibate, the loss of these men would prove fatal to the movement. Women, apparently, had no such choice.

Young Shakers were probably no different than any young people: apt to defy their elders and surrender to their instincts. True or not, a legend persisted on the mountainside of a skeleton of an infant, wrapped in cloth, discovered hidden in a stone wall.

That legend haunted me. It was as if the anguish and the pain of that young mother had not left that place and still lingered there 100 years later. In fact, everything around me seemed to be inhabited by spirits of the past. The shaft of the shovel I used to dig ditches was smooth from the rub of hundreds of hands of students before me. The iron door latches were grooved by the countless lift of fingers. Dresser knobs forever darkened by the oil and grime of hands, door jambs dented by so many trunks and suitcases moving in and out.

In my dreams, I am transported back to the mountainside. I find myself standing on the fire escape of Ann Lee Cottage and listening to this chorus of crickets, or meandering through the creaking halls of Wickersham. I wonder if students there today might sense the wandering spirit of my dreams. I wonder if, long after I am dead, part of me will remain there, in scrapes on the floor from my chair, in notes tucked into a library book, or in a birch tree grown bent from my swinging.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 13

When you take about 175 boys and isolate them in the Berkshire Mountains, away from television and radio and, most importantly, girls, something is going to happen. Teenage boys have a lot of energy, and when that is stifled for a long time, it builds up, finds a weak spot and explodes through it. That's how pranks happen.

In the minds of some of the seniors in the spring of 1965, that weak spot was an old panel truck used by Darrow's maintenance department. The truck, its dark blue paint faded from years of exposure to the elements, was regularly seen coughing its way up the dirt road, its gears grinding, in daily rounds to pick up trash from the dormitories. It was manned by two friendly, slow-moving and slow-witted custodians that went by the nicknames of Augie and Mon Petite, the French term of endearment that means "my little one." But Mon Petite was anything but little. He was, in fact, huge, with a rear-end the size of a steamer trunk.

One Saturday morning, arriving for breakfast at the Dairy Barn, which was what we called the multi-purpose building that housed the gym, auditorium and dining hall, we were shocked to find the old blue truck parked in the lobby of the building, painted all over in yellow polka dots, looking like some sort of enormous, dead beetle.

How had it gotten there? The doors to the Dairy Barn were just wide enough to get it in, but how had it gotten up the flight of concrete steps? Presumably, a large number of senior boys had either carried or pushed the truck up all those steps in the middle of the night, doing it quietly enough not to wake anyone.

The entire student body was buzzing with excitement over the prank and wondering what might happen to the culprits if they were identified. The faculty did their best to appear disgusted, offended, disappointed over the outrageous offense, but they could not quite conceal their true emotions. Even with jaws tightly clenched, smiles twitched at the corners of our masters' mouths. Many of them must have thought the prank was simply brilliant.

Our headmaster delivered the obligatory lecture, but his rage lacked sincerity. No one was punished, but the seniors were ordered to restore the truck to its rightful parking spot.

The polka dots, however, were allowed to remain.

Complaints and questions

C: In endorsing B. Hussain (sic) Obama, you have alligned (sic) yourselves with the terrorists who hate this country. They support him too. It is our hope you will give more thought to your position. - T.L.

A: I had no idea that Osama bin Laden was a super delegate. His Obama campaign button should have tipped me off.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 12

Darrow seemed like the same place to us year after year, but the school was - and is - in a constant state of change. Students and faculty come and go, and each of them leaves an impression.

When I was a senior, many of us were thinking how wonderful it would be to try LSD. Darrow boys five years before us had no conception of mind-altering drugs; they were different form us. And the boys (and girls) who came five years after us were probably popping acid tabs for real; they were different, too.

Ned Groth, who graduated from Darrow five years before me, offered some comments on "The Spirits of Lebanon." Following are a few excerpts from his e-mail that add some historical perspective to our story:

"Harry Mahnken not only was the head football coach at Princeton for a few years, he was the original coach of 150-pound football there and coached it for a dozen years or so. He helped establish the league Princeton still plays in (although they call it "sprint" football nowadays.) There's a trophy for the outstanding player at PU, the Harry A. Mahnken trophy...

"Darrow had Princeton hand-me-down football uniforms in your era because of the arson fires of 1963. Before that, Darrow had its own very nice red uniforms (check out some older yearbooks). The gym was one of the buildings torched, and all the sports equipment therein went up in smoke. In the wake of the fires, as Operation Phoenix went into action and the school fought back from the devastating loss of the (original) Dining Hall and Dairy Barn, they took whatever help they could get. Harry called on some old connections and got perfectly good year-old uniforms, if you didn't mind black and orange...

"When I was there, the Medicine Shop was unused as a school building; it was full of all kinds of Shaker "stuff," including a number of large machines (laundry equipment I think), dozens of seed boxes, thousands of bottles of various sizes, etc. If I had only had the sense to know what to steal, it was there for the taking. All that stuff was auctioned off in 1960, when the building was starting to be renovated for use as a dorm (it opened in the fall of 1961, I think.) Richard Bethards, a beloved English teacher and frustrated actor, was the auctioneer… I think it fetched all of about $50,000 at the time. Most of it went to local museums, like the Shaker Museum in Chatham."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 11

In one respect, Darrow was no different than any other boarding school, or military barracks, or prison. In these places, students, soldiers or inmates engage in typical group dynamics: They establish a pecking order, recognize leaders and select victims. To avoid persecution, you had to follow the accepted norms of behavior and fashion, and it helped greatly if you were not ugly, uncoordinated, effeminate, unstable, uncool, physically disabled, or in any other way different.

Some of the nicknames boys acquired were playful, like "Ma" and "Yoyo." Other were considerably more mean-spirited: "No-Chin" and "Dogface." Worse still were the ugly slurs: "Kike," "Fag," "Queer," and "Gimp."

Boys might prey on victims for the most minor of offenses. I recall one student teased and ridiculed because his madras sport jacket was not 100 percent cotton and from Brooks Brothers but rather some cheap blended fabric from Robert Hall.

For some of us - those lucky enough to be considered cool, or at least not uncool, or perhaps just invisible - life on the mountainside was tolerable and sometimes better. For the persecuted, those were years of fear and agony, creeping from one hiding place, such as a library cubicle, to the safety of their dorm rooms.

It is only years later that the regret and shame of it all begins to seep into your consciousness. You feel awful for being part of the pack that pounced on one of these kids, or, at least, for not coming to the defense of the persecuted.

I returned for a reunion 25 years after graduation and was surprised to see that one of these victimized classmates had also shown up. Why, I wondered, would he want to resurrect such awful memories? Why would he risk ridicule again?

Perhaps going through what he did in those years at Darrow made him stronger and hardened him for life at college, and for that he was grateful.

Of course, none of us teased or ignored him at the reunion. We had grown up. We treated him as we treated our old and good friends. We pretended as if the torture never happened. But sadly, none of us had the guts to tell him, "I'm sorry."

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 10

In a basket on our breakfast table is a book of graces my family has used for many years. One of those graces contains this sentiment: "Grant unto us a due sense of appreciation, for those whose hearts and hands have wrought for us." This was written by a Charles D. Brodhead.

I have no way of knowing for sure that this prayer was penned by the Charles D. Brodhead who was assistant headmaster at Darrow School in the 1960s, but the words "hearts and hands" sound awfully Shaker, and our Wednesday "Hands to Work" had no more enthusiastic proponent than Mr. Brodhead.

He seemed ancient to us then, but I am now as old as he was then, and I don't feel ancient at all. Charles Brodhead was a brilliant man, educated at Princeton and Oxford, and a teacher all his life. He was also a bit eccentric. We'd see him marching through the woods and up and down the lane, carrying a walking stick and wearing a tam-o'-shanter, and we'd snicker. "Crazy Charlie" is what we'd call him.

Even though, in our view, he was at Death's door at age 60, he was a strong and healthy man. He coached the wrestling team. He kept his big feet in hiking boots, and his big, gnarled hands were often mahogany brown with the stain of black walnuts. But it was his wild, piercing eyes that made him look a little teched.
We were in the early years of the age of individuality, of nonconformity, when people were urged to "do their own thing," yet we students were intolerant of deviation from our established standards of fashion and behavior and subjected people who were different to ridicule, and worse.

I have written here of the quaint and comical aspects of my Darrow experience; they are pleasant to remember. But there was a darker side to life on the mountain. Darrow could be a cruel place, and torturous for those who did not fit in.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon

As far as prep schools went, Darrow was neither large nor well endowed. Often it seemed to us that we were small and poor, especially when it came to athletics. Take football, for example.

Team sports were not an option at Darrow. We couldn't field teams unless participation was mandatory. And once you had chosen your sport (in fall it was either football or soccer), you were stuck with it, and I was stuck with football.

Our equipment was substandard; the junior varsity team was still using leather helmets. And just as embarrassing were our uniforms. Although our school colors were maroon and white, our uniforms were black and orange - hand-me-downs from Princeton University.

Our coach, Harry Mahnken, had been head football coach at Princeton from 1943 until 1945, when he came to Darrow to coach football, baseball and basketball. When the Princeton team had worn out its uniforms and had gotten new ones, the Tigers' equipment manager sent the old ones to his old friend Harry.

Coach Mahnken had the visage of a man who had played football too long in a helmet without a face guard. He was a big, gruff man who revered toughness and despised foolishness. Our daily afternoon practices were hellish. Every day, he required us to conduct a brutal one-on-one drill: One player was required to stand still while the other sprinted toward him and tackled him. I seemed always to be paired with a classmate named Mike who resembled the Incredible Hulk, but with shoulder pads and without the green skin. Mike was enthusiastic about football. After sailing with me airborne for eight feet, I'd land on my back with his enormous shoulder grinding the wind out of my chest. On my hands and knees, trying to recover, I could hear Coach yelling at me, "C'mon! Get up and hit him back!"

The coach had a couple of favorite plays that bordered on foolishness. At least twice a game we'd run the double-reverse. The quarterback would take the long hike, hand off to a halfback running right, who would hand off to the other halfback running left, who would hand off to the receiver running right. The play was only successful if our linemen were able to stop the rush by knocking down the opponents and lying on top of them long enough for the play to be executed.
His other favorite play was a trick. The end would not join the huddle but rather trot to the sideline and pretend to be talking with the coach, although still standing on the field of play. Our team would break from the huddle and line up for a quick count. The quarterback would then find his receiver sprinting away from our coach uncovered.

My senior year on the varsity team was cut short by a bout with mononucleosis. I was never so happy to be fighting disease. I was the happiest boy in the infirmary, waking from long naps to listen to the whistles and grunts of football practice drifting through the window, hearing the HHRRRUNCH! of another victim having the wind knocked out of him by the Incredible Mike.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 8

The Shakers built the houses in which we lived. They'd made the pegs on which we hung our clothes and cleared the fields on which we played. The inhabitants of the New Lebanon Society had died off long ago, but we lived with their spirits, surrounded by their architecture and ingenuity.

I lived in Ann Lee Cottage, named for Mother Ann, who, the Shakers believed, represented the second coming of Christ. Although it had been retrofitted with a boiler and radiators, wired and plumbed to add sinks, showers and toilets, it was otherwise as it was constructed in the mid 1800s. The double-hung windows (a Shaker invention) were original. Mine faced the west, and in winter, when the wind blew up from the valley, fine little piles of snow accumulated inside on the sill, and the coffee in my cup placed there the night before would be frozen solid by morning.

Handsome and utilitarian, Ann Lee Cottage was nevertheless a firetrap. Our housemaster made it quite clear what he thought about smoking, which was forbidden for all students on campus.
"I know you smoke," he would tell us, "and nothing I tell you will prevent you from doing it. But if you have to smoke, go out into the woods to do it. Because if I ever catch you smoking in this house, and putting the lives of every boy and me and my wife and children in danger, I will make sure that you are gone from this school immediately and forever."
We didn't smoke in Ann Lee Cottage.

Once, I could not contain my curiosity any longer about a third-floor closet, the door of which was painted shut. It was a long, low closet under the eaves. One Saturday afternoon, when everyone else was watching a soccer game, I worked at it with a table knife and got the door open. It was packed full of old chairs. I don't know what I expected to find, but I was disappointed.
Of course, those old Shaker chairs would now be worth a fortune. We had no idea at the time that the old furniture we abused would someday be commanding huge sums on the auction block at Sotheby's.
Many years later, when enrollment had plummeted and the school was in poor financial shape, much of that Shaker furniture was sold. I don't think that Sister Emma Neale would have objected, though. I think she would have felt that it was not the object that is sacred, but rather the work that made it.