You know, raising kids is a full time job for most responsible parents. For me, as I drive a truck over the road with just a three-day weekend at home every couple of weeks, it actually isn't as full-time as i would like. What happens is that it becomes more or less double-time for my long-suffering wife, what with five maniacal imps of chaos spending their time disassembling the house and wreaking havoc in various other ways that I won't go into. Sometimes it seems like the kids are growing up more like those wolf-changelings so common in Hindu folklore, like old Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli.
What in the world possessed Rudyard Kipling's parents to choose to name their son "Rudyard?"Anyway, what this means is that generally when I do come home, it's to a skeptical group of self-aware and highly critical scary geniuses, ranging in age from six to fourteen. At that age, fathers often know very little about the real world, and are generally not competent to venture an opinion that a sub-adult offspring can respect. Golden, my youngest, puts his hands on his hips and speaks slowly and clearly to me when he decides that I need to be educated about how things really work, while my oldest just shakes his head and storms off in frustration. The three in the middle generally roll their eyes when I tell them something, the old "Oh no, here we go again. Don't be fooled . . . " My life at home is full of denunciations of what I know, including the memorable, "Well, when you were young cities weren't invented and everybody lived in grass huts."
So when I do achieve a measure of public validation at home, it's a red-letter day, one that I chalk up in my bank account of credibility that my kids will start withdrawing from in ten or twenty more years, by which time I will hopefully have learned a great deal. And recently, I had not only one good day, but three in a row—three good days in which grizzled old Kevin demonstrated a level of competence in urgent affairs in the life of mice and men that hopefully made an impression on my flinty-eyed brood. Maybe only a temporary impression, possibly, but it was very good while it lasted, and I'll take what I can get, you know.
The First Day: Broadband
The first good day was my first day at home. Since the invention of the internet, my household has remained separated from the dominant culture in a lot of ways, as a result of our choice to live off the beaten path. One of them has been the internet. We've actually had net access for several years, but not in the way that many people consider adequate. After all, we live in a ramshackle old farmhouse, for a hundred years the last house on our road, until Jim dragged an old mobile home down into the copperhead-infested bottom a mile below us and installed power. Not a lot of high-tech compatibility in a house built without running water or even anything thoughtful in the way of electrical wiring.
We had a telephone, although not much of one, so we could have dial-up. But our telephone lines are old, and solid copper. That means that with local dial-up net access, our data speeds are positively chelonian, and it gets worse whenever the wind blows and makes the wires bounce around, or when it rains. But we were used to pressing "enter," and then having to wait two or three minutes for the screen to paint. My kids used the net more or less sparingly, because it was always more exciting to go outside and watch the old trucks rust.
But now things were going to be different, because Kevin was bound and determined to Do Something. I had met another truck driver at a rolling mill in Cleveland, and he had a little gizmo that he took around with him that accessed the net through a cellular telephone connection, right out of his truck, and gave him WiFi broadband more or less wherever he went. What an excellent concept, I thought, and an improvement over the clunky air cards of several generations back (see, you're old, too, now). So when I arrived home, I visited the local telephone company and brought back a little thing about the size of pack of Lucky Strikes, with one button and a little light. A MiFi, they called it. It was even smaller than the little brochure that pretended to be the manual that came with it.
I took it back and plugged it in, which these days is essentially all you have to do with new hardware. After a bit, the little light started flashing purple, and a dialog box on the lap tops' computer screens suddenly inaugarated a new world of broadband net access to the family. We were connected.
"Wow," said my skeptical imps, one after the other. "Look, YouTube even works."
YouTube, of course, is inaccessible without broadband, as are many net features the dominant culture takes for granted, like utilities websites, or the abortive net-based home-schooling program offered by our state board of education. Before, one minute of YouTube took about one hour of download, so we just didn't bother. Now, however, the kids were exploring a world of internet trivia that they had never before thought possible. News, and games, and heavens forbid, FaceBook.
"You're on FaceBook? Since when?"
"We use the WiFi at the McDonald's."
I remember signing onto FaceBook, from about the first day it went online. But it quickly turned into more of an annoyance to me than it was worth, and I deleted my account. I haven't been back since, but my kids got on all by themselves.
Even Shawna was impressed, which takes a lot as well. I tried to present it in its best light.
"Look, Shawna. Now you can pay all the bills online, twice as fast as before."
"Thank you. Very nice."
And so the day was a success. Dad had demonstrated himself competent on the cutting edge in the modern world of high tech, and introduced something previously unheard-of to the household electronics menagerie. Even if he couldn't figure out how to make the mean-faced little mercenary jump out of the attack boat in his son's murderous video game, at least he could install broadband. The kids disappeared to investigate the stimulating new world of intermittent high-speed internet, and Kevin retired to the couch.
And the evening and the morning were the first day. And it was good.
The Second Day: The High Board
The second day was clear and warm, with a blue sky that just invited a day outside for the whole family. And so, of course, we drove all the way to the local public swimming pool in town.
We have a perfectly good tree-shaded swimming hole just down the road from where we live, past the abandoned schoolhouse and the flat spot by the creek where the blacksmith used to be. But there's nothing like novelty to excite the kids, and the swimming pool in town has real diving boards, after all.
Now, diving is not something that one normally practices in the kinds of swimming holes that we have near the house, both because the only available places to dive from are generally the old bridges across the creek, and because the water under them is not usually deep enough to go into headfirst anyway without risking cervical readjustments of the type not normally recommended by the local chiropractor. But the pool in town has two diving boards, one about four feet up, and another way up in the sky.
"Kevin, you're going to dive off the high board," challenges Griffin, my Number One son, and the one most skeptical of my general abilities and wisdom.
"Okay," I say nonchalantly, looking up at the underside of the board, way, way up there in the clouds.
I looked it over while the kids got wet. Out here in Appalachia, the high boards are more or less considered crazy zones by everybody. Nobody ever goes off them headfirst, for two reasons. First, there simply isn't any good reason to go and do something as dumb as dive headlong off a little springy platform up in the altosphere, and second, there is no need for any other reason beyond the first.
But today, Kevin had a good reason, because the kids were watching, and gauging, and making conclusions.
"Have any of you kids ever dived off the high board before?"
"Of course," says Griffin. "And I've jumped off the high board, too."
"I've jumped off the low board," says Devra.
"Me too," says Paoli.
"All right," I say, heading for the ladder. "You all watch."
Up on top, I look down into the cool water far below. It's really only twelve feet, but to leap off anything from twelve feet headfirst is not something that is instinctively attractive. But I step to the end of the board, give a big bounce, and do a test jump into space, feet-first.
Wham! The water hits my feet like a flat paddle and I'm instantly enveloped in the cool blue wetness. Not so bad, I think, surfacing and swimming to the side. Hauling myself over the edge, beard dripping, I get back in line for the high board, with the kids still watching critically. Nobody, ever, dives off the high board at this pool. My moment has come.
At the very top, I wait patiently until it's my turn to walk the plank. I pause halfway out, judge my distance, and with three quick steps and a jump, I launch my fat old fatherly figure into the air, arching into my best interpretation of a classic swan dive, heels together, toes extended, arms out and then swept into position in front of me, as the blue blue of the water rushed forward into my face as I descended.
Wham! Old dad hits the water in a vertical dive. Probably not something to score for at the Olympics, but the first dive off the high board this little pool has seen all week, I imagine. I arch up to miss the bottom, and break the surface in the middle of the deep end, flicking my head to clear my ears while I tread water.
To my great satisfaction, I am facing a row of open-mouthed astonishment, as my kids observe that once more, useless old Dad can accomplish something that nobody else dares. This is too good not to milk some more, I decide, and head up the ladder to the high board again. My triumph is reinforced again and again, as I repeat the performance under the eyes of my children, until I finally decide that even I have had enough accolades, and take a break.
And the evening and the morning were the second day. And it was good.
The Third Day: The Serpent
Out in the sticks, we have a lot of wildlife, of various kinds, sizes, and taxonomic affinities. Some of them are snakes. We have copperheads, the beautiful but poisonous pit vipers down in the bottom lands. We have a myriad of lined snakes, ribbon snakes, garter snakes, and so on, down in the grass and on the edges of the swimming hole, all Thamnophis, but beyond that beyond my remembering. We have the clownish black and brown hognose snakes, always ready for a bout of playing possum. And we have the elegant rat snakes, Elaphe obsoleta.
The rat snakes are viewed with suspicion by the locals.
"Those black snakes are interbreeding with the copperheads, you know," Jim tells me.
"How do you know that?"
"Just look at 'em," he says. "You can tell."
I happen to love the Elaphes, and catch all that I can get hold of to let go around the house to keep the mice down. This often makes for amusing travel, as after I pick one off the road I have to drive home in the old one-ton, shifting the four speed while holding a struggling three or four-foot snake in my gear shift hand. Once I had to stop as one tried to escape down the ventilator duct on the floor of the truck. Not a good place for a snake to die, so I held tightly onto his tail and eventually coaxed the busy end back out of the hole. Elaphes are pretty docile, as snakes go, although they will happily bite you a good one if you introduce yourself to them too abruptly.
"Dad, there's a snake on the porch," announces Devra, my number one daughter.
"That's nice," I say. "Is it alive?" First things first. With cats and dogs in the house, we have lots of things show up on the porch that aren't alive, and in many cases aren't even anatomically complete. So I always ask.
"Yes. Come and see."
I get up from my lunch and step out onto the kitchen porch, where all five kids are staring intently at something half-concealed in the tall weeds that fringe the ancient concrete slabs I dragged there when we re-did the meeting house sidewalks. We're cheap, so I'll make a porch out of anything handy, and these old slabs of sidewalk work great, both for us, and as warm relaxing places for visiting snakes.
Resting calmly on the concrete is the head and a few coiled inches of a large snake. A good-looking black one. So far so good.
I step over to the snake and look down, making sure I know what I've got. We don't have cottonmouths this far north, but whip snakes and racers are sometimes dark, and they're nervous snakes, prone to bite. The hognose snakes won't bite, but this isn't one of them. It's a nice big rat snake, maybe even one of the ones I dropped off on the property a season or two before. No way to tell how big it is, as it's mostly hidden in the weeds.
Shawna stands inside the kitchen, watching through the screen door and trying not to look anxious. She's not scared of snakes, really, at least when she's inside and they're not, but she'd usually just as soon not have them surprise her by twisting and writhing under her bare feet when she steps onto the porch in the morning. Mice are another thing entirely, and will always cause her to scream as they scurry across the kitchen floor, tail straight up and diving for shelter. But the kids watch me and the snake closely, looking to see what I'll do with this interesting anomaly.
And I know just what to do with big snakes, which is always what I do: pick 'em up and see what they look like. I carefully reach down to grasp the rat snake behind the head, but as soon as I touch it, it jerks its head backwards and scrambles for safety, the weeds next to the slab suddenly coming alive as it boils and loops itself around to disappear.
But I'm prepared for this, and quick as I can I reach down grab the snake by the middle, and swing it up out of the grass, where it hangs reeling at both ends like a flexible black thunderbolt in the hands of Zeus.
And like Zeus, I triumph over nature. I spin, gently swirling the snake out like a rope, and then quickly swing it between my legs and clamp them shut on it, trapping its head behind me with its tail end still firmly in my hand. But my triumph is somewhat marred, as I inadvertently leave too much snake loose behind me, and the offended reptile lunges its snaky head around my leg and firmly bites down on my trousers, a bit too close to my trouser fly for comfort.
Shawna gasps and wrings her hands from behind the kitchen door. The kids stand and stare, and Dad carefully disengages the lovely four-foot snake's jaws from his unharmed leg and loops the body around his forearm, in the correct herpetological manner of holding a snake to both calm it down and keep it from harm. The snake becomes immediately docile, and I invite the kids over.
"You can tell it's a rat snake because it has a completely flat belly, with the body like a loaf of bread in cross section. See the white belly with the little dots?"
"Can I touch it?" asks Starbuck.
And so as the evening progresses into a gentle calm, and the lightning bugs venture out to illuminate the hilltop, I spend a few minutes basking in the warm glow of accomplishment. And I realize that this was the evening and the morning of the third day, and it was just as good as the two just preceding it. In a scant three days, I had demonstrated a practical grasp of modern high-tech computer science, physical bravery in the face of almost certain death, and a mastery of the mysterious things of biology heretofore only expected of nature gods and other fabulous characters.
And I also know enough to enjoy it while it lasted, because one of the things that grizzled old gray hairs know for sure is that the memories of the young are ephemeral things, and while I'm looking good today, tomorrow won't be building itself on any foundation older than its own sunrise.
But by gosh, it's good to look good, every now and then. And doing it three days in a row was a gift that doesn't come often.