A Cup of Conversation – May 2016

There are moments in our kids’ lives, pivotal moments defining who they are and what they’re destined to be. Some twenty years ago, summer in Oregon came early. Our youngest was just a year old and headed back east with her mother. Mary was going to visit an elderly grandmother not doing so well, leaving father and fourteen-year-old son to do the bachelor thing for a couple of weeks. Tod was a tall, lanky kid, the kind of boy hard to forget. He had his mother’s smile, sense of humor and crazy Motown rhythm. He was all-boy, in every respect. I remember worrying over his lack of motivation in school and his penchant for mischief rivaling only myself at that age. I thought our son’s class-clown routine and lazy bent was going to be his ruin so when he asked for an advance on summer wages earned, the word ‘NO’ immediately popped out of my mouth.

“But Dad….it’s something really important to me. I’ll work really hard in the shop this summer and not complain once. Please, Dad!” My curiosity got the better of me. What, son? What could be so important motivating you to work so hard without complaint? He said, “A remote control race car, a real one…not a toy, the kind you build from nothing.” I asked him if this was like the model rocket he and the kid next door inadvertently fired off in the house a few summers back. He looked personally offended, “Dad….you know that wasn’t me. Tank did that…and I paid the price for what he did. (Note to parents…never live next-door to a kid named Tank.) Dad, I still have the callouses from digging that monster hole in the back yard only to have to fill it back up…over and over again.” I smiled inwardly at the ingenious punishment of the never ending hole. “Hmmm…answer is still no.”

I’m not sure how the clever boy convinced me to go with him to Al’s Hobbies downtown but something deep in my boyhood psyche moved this dad to at least take a look. We walked in the door and the boy makes a beeline for the professional hobby section, grabbing a box almost as large as him. I heard the shop keeper clear his throat and turned around to see him dragging his finger across his neck as if to say, “Not a good idea.” I quietly asked him why and he explained it was a professional racing kit, too complicated for a novice builder/racer, especially a kid. Turning to look at my son’s face as the shop keeper delivered the bad news, my heart broke. “OK, this might be an expensive mistake for the both of us…but let’s give it a go.”

It was a late Friday afternoon when we pulled into our old farm house driveway. Tod jumped out of the truck with his prized new possession. I could only shake my head when he ripped into the big box and began unpacking what can only be described as the impossible. Countless small plastic bags of the tiniest complex mechanical parts to assemble engine, transmission, suspension, chassis and controller littered the new dining room table (what was I thinking?). The boy’s thick dark hair could have been on fire as he rifled through the box while I thumbed over the two-hundred plus page instruction manual he tossed aside like a weekend book report assignment.

I gently placed the manual back on the table and gave him a pat on the shoulder silently lamenting I had just set him up for disappointment and failure. The only good thing was his mother wasn’t home to read me the riot act. After dinner, the boy sprinted back to the perfect mess heaped on the table. By bedtime our son who could never focus long enough to finish homework was neck deep in the minutia of professional model race car engineering. I told him to not stay up too late because he had to work the next day (the advance on wages made him my indentured servant pretty much through forever).

Upon waking at 4:45 am, the first thing I noticed was the burning smell from the soldering iron leaving a nasty charcoal engraving on his mother’s new table. Just before freaking out of control, I turned to see the boy at the end of the disaster area. He looked like a mad scientist completely absorbed in applying delicate pin-striping to the body of this large, beautiful model race car, fully built and looking ready to run. I realized he had not gone to bed but worked through the night. “SON…HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND! WHAT DID YOU…DID YOU SLEEP…DID YOU SEE THE TABLE…YOU COULD’VE BURNED THE WHOLE…WHAT’S THAT TERRIBLE SMELL?? THIS PLACE LOOKS LIKE A WAR ZONE!!”

“I know, Dad, I know….I’ll clean it all up…and I’ll pay for the table…somehow…and no I didn’t sleep but…LOOK!!” He lifted up the completed race car and beamed a smile bigger than a Rogue spring salmon. “It’s done, Dad, I did it! You want to go with me outside and start her up?” I was still blindly leafing through the manual’s hundreds of torn, burnt, hot-glued pages of exploded diagrams wondering how the kid ever pulled it off. I was speechless, not knowing whether to hug him, lift him up on my shoulders in victorious celebration or pistol-whip him with his hot-glue gun.

Any paternal fears of the car not starting and the ensuing anti-climactic fallout disappeared when he fired up his fine work of remote control engineering and raced the car down our long driveway at over 40 miles per hour. The look of pride and accomplishment on his face illuminated by the early morning sun just beginning to lift over the horizon is forever engraved on my mind…a memory every bit as deep as the burn in his mother’s dining room table. From that very moment, I understood our son’s gift and knew humanity would someday benefit.

If there was ever any doubt, Tod spent Christmas in 2004 on the scene of the Indonesian tsunami disaster. For weeks on end, his engineering team kept the powerful Sikorski rescue helicopters in the air as they pulled countless bodies out of the water, delivering endless sorties of food, fresh water and medical supplies to a suffering people. Our roguish boy is now a Chief Naval Officer, a good man of great honor and serves a great and compassionate nation.

Be good, not bitter.