There are three stages of a man’s life: he believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, he is Santa Claus. ~Author Unknown
It was a chilly Northern California evening, as I finally settled into the great green chair in the family room. It had been a long day – church school, hiking, playgrounds, muddy dogs and an avalanche of diapers, nuks and mushy Wheat-A-Bix crackers. It was now 9 p.m. and it was my time. The second half of the 49ers game was kicking off, and the last of my feral children was nodding off. As I fell into the deep cushions, a blood curdling scream echoed down the hall. “Pi-yo-yoke!” “Pi-yo-yoke!” It was my two-year-old and it sounded as if the furies of hell had been unleashed in his room. I rushed down the narrow corridor just behind my wife. It was worse than I had expected. His beloved companion Pinocchio, the stuffed toy purchased during our fall visit to Disneyland that was never, ever far from his side, was missing. He was an inconsolable knot of anger, thrashing like a worm on a hot sidewalk and then suddenly going stiff with a form of frustrated rigor mortis. As my wife tried to gently lay him down in his crib, I made a move to slip unnoticed out of the room and sneak back to watch the 49ers game. I’ll just leave you two to sort this out…
“I can’t find his stuffed Pinocchio,” my spouse yelled frantically. She turned and whispered reassuringly to the apoplectic child, “Here’s kitty, honey.” He shrieked louder, tossing the tabby away with agitation, and fell back into the crib in twisted agony. “Shhhhhhh, sweetie. You’re going to wake up your brother and sister.” I stood there, helpless, the UN observer – well intentioned but overmatched. “Don’t just stand there, Michael. Go find Pinocchio!”
As she tried to console him, I tore apart the car and house. I could hear the cries from inside and cringed when new voices join the chorus. I rushed back inside with one of the stupid faces I wear when I am adding no value to a situation. “Wait” my wife blurted. “I know where Pinocchio is.” She hesitated as if retracing footsteps. “We left him at the reservoir today when we went for our walk with the kids. We have to go get him.” I knew instantly what it meant when we was used in this context. It meant I (we) was about to drive through a frigid, muddy night to a rural reservoir and go hunting for a stuffed toy.
Thirty minutes later, I was trudging up a steep slope choked with weeds and soft mud. The state park had long since closed and there was no access except by foot. I slipped and drove my knee six inches into the soft dirt. My foot suddenly disappeared into a mire of fresh mud, finally yielding my sock but keeping my loafer as a memento of the journey. I pulled the destroyed shoe from the wet swamp with a heave and a few choice words. I stumbled on to the hillside plateau and was soon moving along the ribbon of walking trail that paralleled the ebony water. I spied the play structure, but my imagination started to play tricks on me. It was, as the poet Frost described, “a night of dark intent.” It was the perfect place for a serial killing. I could just see the shadow of the 6’8” sociopath with a hook for a hand, dangling Pinocchio from his sharpened prosthesis. “Looking for something, mister?” The probability of a serial killer actually swinging on the sets near my son’s toy was close to zero, but that did not deter my paranoia. I rushed to every corner of the play area with no success. As I dejectedly turned to hike back to my car, I noticed the silhouette of an alpine hat and a jutting proboscis propped up on the picnic table. Geppetto had found his wooden boy.
Eager to be home, I fell down the hill, ripping my sweats on a rock after getting tangled in the roots of an oak tree. As I tumbled on to the street, I approached my car to find a parking ticket tucked neatly under the wiper blade. I grabbed it in disgust and drove silently home. As I crept into the house, I heard the familiar splash of the kitchen faucet and the tinkling of dishes being cleaned. “Great,” she whispered, ignoring my ripped pants and single shoe. She walked down the quiet hall to place the stuffed boy in Cole’s crib. “He fell asleep just after you left.” They say “comedy is tragedy plus time” and I can now chuckle about my winter midnight hike at the Lafayette Reservoir. I was not laughing at the time; I was feeling totally put out. I now realize it was all part of dad duty.
Dad duty changes with each generation as society and social patterns shift. I love to take the starch out of my Father by dredging the comedy and mild dysfunction that has settled deep in the tributary of our lives. Yet, I’ve always known he had no higher priority than his family. I often refer to his generation as the “Dad’s With the Big D.” They were benevolent dictators, masters and commanders. Martial law, a strong hand and absolute respect were prerequisites to survival on their tightly run ship. A Big D Dad was shaped by hands scarred from a Great Depression, world wars and the sense that each generation could improve on the work of those that preceded it. Life outside his neighborhood was reported through newspapers, magazines and an illuminated radio dial. Fear was a stranger always lurking in the shadows as polio, communism, war and poverty made a person conservative, patriotic and self-reliant. My Dad intuitively knew that anything worthwhile was earned and that only hard work could overcome limitations and barriers. The price he and other Dads paid was occasionally missing milestones that marked their children’s progress in the world. Yet, they never wavered. It was their duty.
Dad duty now dictates that a “good” father make every recital, sporting event, choral concert and life moment to be certain we’re supporting our kids. The commanding general has morphed into a more benign therapist who hovers in a helicopter above each child broadcasting carefully crafted messages over a PA system. These dads are modern-day wranglers who must actively participate in guiding every head of the herd as it moves inevitably west. While the new age dad’s job description may have more fine print, the pay remains the same. Your compensation? A first dance with your daughter at an Indian Princess outing. That first hit in tee ball. Introducing a new book or place to your child and watching them revel in the experience. The realization that vicarious joy is deeper than personal satisfaction and that being dad means loving unconditionally; your heart has bandwidth that you never imagined. It crystallizes a concept of the universe where a higher power loves you, blemishes and all, and wants only the best for you. It helps you understand the precious gift of being responsible for another person and it magnifies your respect for other parents. Having my own children finally helped me clearly see the man who was my Father. He was, and still is, a parent with enormous integrity who refused to ever forget that his family was his top priority. His greatest joy was vicarious as he helped guide and support the success and happiness of his four boys.
They may call it dad duty, that’s an oxymoron. The chance to serve as a father is perhaps the greatest gift any man can experience.