S&R Literature

S&R Nonfiction: “Saturdays in Kid Heaven,” by Allen Long

About 7 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning in July, 1990, I slipped out of my bedroom and into the hall, relieved I hadn’t woken my wife, Linda.  I knew she’d rise shortly, and then I’d have an hour or less to get our three sons fed, dressed, and out of the house before she started screaming at us to leave.  She’d been like this ever since we’d moved into this house the previous month and she’d claimed the extra room as her studio for her fledgling landscape architecture business.  A large drafting board covered with new graph paper, rulers, rubber guides, and other paraphernalia dominated this converted-garage room, and the boys and I knew we’d be instantly eviscerated if we ever dared to cross the threshold.

No sound came from Ben’s bedroom—our three-year-old son was the most talented at sleeping in—but I heard strains of “Tiger Sharks” coming from Mathew’s bedroom, and when I cracked the door open, my sons Matt, 8, and Josh, 6, sat on Matt’s bed watching the program with rapt attention.  They were pleased to see me, but Josh frowned, knowing his cartoon time would last only until I returned with a box of donuts purchased from the shop a few minutes away in downtown Castro Valley, a small, unincorporated township near San Francisco and Oakland.  However, Matt’s face grew animated.

“Making a donut run?” he asked.

“Yep, wanna come?” I said.

Matt smiled, leapt down from his bed with a thump, and snatched up a pair of sandals. I winced at the noise, hoping it hadn’t woken Linda, but I was happy.  Sometimes Matt was just as much of a tube zombie as Josh, but on days like today, he really wanted to hang with Dad.

When we entered the donut shop, we received a satisfying blast of warm, moist, sugary air.  The middle-aged Chinese woman at the counter named Faith smiled and said, “Hello, Mr. Long!  One dozen like usual?”  She reached for a large pink box.

“Want to pick ‘em, Matt?” I said.  “Get a couple of maple ones for your mom, then pick out what you and your brothers like.”

Matt pressed his face against the glass.  “What are those?” he said.

I followed his gaze. “Bear claws,” I said.

“Are they real?”

“No, they’re a pastry, like donuts.”

“Can we get some and eat them here?—we could buy some milk.”  His face was bright with excitement.  I pictured Linda standing by the bed, hearing the low-volume TV, and jerking the belt of her bathrobe into an angry knot.  The clock was definitely ticking now.  I felt my usual Saturday morning spike of anxiety.  Still, the little guy had given up his cartoons to hang with me.

“Sure,” I said.  “Grab us two milks, and I’ll pick everything out.  We have to hurry, though.”

Matt almost knocked over a chair in his rush to the milk refrigerator.

We sat at a bright yellow table near the window.  While Matt snarfed down his bear claw between gulps of milk, I nibbled mine and glanced at the front page of The Daily Review.  Russia had recently become a sovereign state within the Soviet Union, and a headline predicted the entire Soviet Union was headed toward dissolution. 

“Donut Man!” Matt and I yelled as we burst through the front door of our house.  This was the only moment we were allowed to make noise. Linda was showered and dressed, her shoulder-length blonde hair combed but damp.  She shot me a warning glance—my time was almost up.  Ben was on the move, and Linda had unplugged Josh from the tube.  Everybody was hungry.  I poured glasses of milk, and the five of us stood over the pink box on the kitchen counter, devouring donuts, almost as if we were predators and prey in Africa sharing an uneasy truce while lapping water from the only stream within miles.

As soon as we were sated, I rushed to dress the boys.  Except for some crooked buttons I could fix later, Matt and Josh were fully clad.  This allowed me to focus on Ben.  He was easy enough to clothe, but finding his sneakers was another matter.  Ben subscribed to the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer philosophy that no shoe was a good shoe.  He would fling them into distant corners the moment we returned home from the outside world.  I conducted a quick survey of the living room, the play room, and Ben’s bedroom.  No Keds.  My anxiety spiked again.  We had T-minus two minutes to vacate the premises before Linda’s screaming commenced.  I deputized Matt and Josh to help me, and they found Ben’s tennis shoes in Matt’s bed, where Ben had taken them off to watch TV the previous day.  As soon as they made this discovery, Matt and Josh shot out of the front door, quickly followed by yours truly carrying Ben in one arm and his sneakers in the other.

“See you at dinner time,” Linda said as she closed the front door behind us and slipped on the chain.

You can never go home again, I thought, echoing Thomas Wolfe.  At least not until dusk’s long shadows.

We piled into my blue Ford Ranger pick-up.  Matt rode shotgun, and Josh and Ben sat in the jump seats in the rear.

“Where to, guys?” I said.

They all answered at once, “The Pirates!”

I drove us to Lake Chabot, a beautiful jade body of water surrounded by woods and hiking trails occupying 300 acres.  I was ever-thankful this majestic and peaceful setting lay only fifteen minutes from our house.

As we stepped out of the truck, a warm breeze carrying a pleasant floral scent—jasmine?–caressed our faces.  We began our walk.  The sun was hot, but live oak trees shaded much of the path.  We marched resolutely to the half-mile marker, which was just beyond a grove of shady and fragrant bay trees, then descended a side path leading to the water’s edge.  Within a minute of hiking along the shore, we came to the boys’ favorite place to play, The Pirates.  The boys loved the movie Swiss Family Robinson, and this was the spot where they could best enter that world.  While my adult eyes saw the remains of a teenage party, complete with a burned out campfire and a scattered variety of empty beer cans and bottles, my sons saw the remnants of a recently abandoned pirate campsite.

“Dad, were the pirates just here?” Matt said.

“I think they left at dawn, so they’ve only been gone a couple of hours,” I said.  I pointed to the small island about half a mile from shore.  “That’s where they hide during the day, and they’ve got their pirate ship hidden on the other side of the island so we can’t see it.”

“Have you ever seen it?” Josh asked.

“Just a couple of times, once at sunset and once at dawn.”

The boys examined the island carefully, looking for movement in the woods and signs of the Jolly Roger flapping through the treetops.

“Do the pirates like skipping stones?” said Matt, skipping a stone across the water.  It bounced five times.

“It’s one of their favorite activities,” I said. “Particularly when they’re full of rum.”

Matt continued to skip stones, which inspired Ben to pick up the largest rocks he could find and plop them into the water to see how big a splash he could make.  Meanwhile, Josh, the engineer in the family, became fascinated with a fishing pole holder constructed out of niched branches and fishing line.  Over the next half hour, he would take it apart and reassemble it.  I watched the boys as they played, making sure they were safe and not getting too wet, since going home for dry clothes was not an option.

While they played, I thought about how I’d met their mother at Virginia Tech our freshman year in 1975.  I first noticed her in my English class, where I thought she was a pretty blonde with a nice smile who seemed down-to-earth, unlike many of the stuck-up good-looking and popular girls who’d attended my high school.  We shared two classes, ate in the same dining hall, and lived in adjoining dorms.  We kept crossing paths.  At one point, I learned Linda enjoyed Fleetwood Mac.  I liked them too, and my cousin Jeff, who lived in my dorm, owned all of their albums, so I invited Linda to my room on a Saturday night for a Fleetwood Mac fest. She accepted, we sipped cheap red wine while we listened, and I kissed her after I escorted her back to her dorm.

She seemed surprised but pleased.  “We’ll see about that,” she said as the door closed behind her.

Christmas break followed almost immediately, and we exchanged silly postcards.  We both had long-distance lovers with whom we’d rendezvous over the holiday, but those romances hadn’t been going very well, and we knew our kiss was the start of something special.

However, when we returned to school, Linda was solemn.  She’d had sex with her boyfriend over the holiday without birth control, and she was terrified she was pregnant.  She told me this as we stood in the courtyard between our dorms one evening when the temperature was in the teens and the wind whipped wildly about us.  I held her for hours, comforting her, and when we finally parted, we were in love.

A loud splash startled me out of my thoughts.  At first, I was terrified one of the boys had fallen into the lake.  However, I quickly surmised Ben had dropped an unusually large rock into the water.  His brown corduroy jumper was wet from the splash, and I pulled him onto my lap so he could dry in the sun.  He asked me a long stream of questions about pirates, and I told him everything I knew or could make up.  Matt concentrated on digging miniature channels from the lake inland, and Josh had the fishing pole holder apart and was laying out the pieces in an orderly manner.

I hoped Josh felt okay.  The previous weekend, his best friend, Seth, had thrown a birthday party and failed to invite Josh, instead inviting a group of older boys he wanted to impress, and they had attended because Seth was the only child of indulgent parents, and he had the coolest toys in town.  Linda and I had been upset and angry when we learned of this treachery, but here’s the difference: while I quietly seethed, Linda phoned Seth’s mother and screamed at her.  Every now and then, it was handy having a banshee in the family.

While I tend to characterize Linda as a banshee, witch, succubus, or other evil creature, I also recognize she was deeply unhappy, and I remind myself to feel compassion for her.  Even as she destroyed virtually everything in her path, she was desperately searching for inner peace.  After we divorced–two years following the events of this story–she earned a Ph. D. in spirituality.  When that didn’t bring her calm and contentment, she went to Nepal on a spiritual quest.  I don’t know if she ever found the tranquility she sought.  A sad thought is she might have avoided a lifetime of misery by simply consulting a psychiatrist, which she refused to do. At the time of our divorce, her doctor brother and nurse mother told me they suspected she had a chemical imbalance in her brain.

Anyway, back to my concern for Josh. He looked like he’d regained his high spirits—just a few days earlier, when the trash truck made an unusually deafening noise in front of our house, Josh ran up to me and said, “Daddy, the trash truck just crashed into your Ranger!”  Of course, I ran to the front picture window only to be confronted by my unscathed pick up and three wildly giggling boys.  I was so grateful I was surrounded by these happy little guys in a marriage that had begun to scare the hell out of me.

After Josh reconstructed the fishing pole holder, I noticed the boys’ interest in their play waning. I suggested we hike a little farther along the shoreline.  At first the boys weren’t keen on this idea, but I piqued their interest by pointing at the hut-like brown-and-gray thatches of cattails around us.

“See these huts?” I said.  “Witches live in them, and they’ll come out and eat us if we aren’t sneaky and quiet as we hike past.”

Suddenly, everybody was up for a hike along the witch trail.  Matt picked up a cattail.

“This is a kitty protector,” he said.  “If it meows, we know there’s a witch in the hut.”

“Kiddy protector or kitty protector?” Josh asked.

“Kitty protector, as in cats,” Matt said.

We each picked up a cattail, and we quickly navigated the next half-mile of witch huts, quietly rushing past any that elicited a “meow.”

At the end of the witch trail, our kitty protectors suddenly turned into swords, and we fought one another valiantly until we each held the useless nub of our hilt.

“You guys ready to do something else?” I said.

The boys nodded, shouting out a variety of destinations common on Saturdays: Village Toys, Toys R Us, Crush Comics, Play It Again Video, Burger King, the Oakland Museum, and the Oakland Zoo.  They left out the more mundane activities, like picking up my shined shoes or dry cleaning, but they were always good sports about even these dull ventures.

We ascended a path leading to the main hiking trail and headed back toward the truck.  We proceeded without incident until the boys asked if they could sit in the last bit of shade before the parking lot to cool off for a few minutes.  I assented.  Ben immediately took off his shoes.  I watched him with a sharp eye, making sure his sneakers didn’t disappear into a clump of poison oak.  When it was time to move on, I helped Ben back into his shoes.  While I was thus engaged, Matt decided to conduct a gravity experiment.  He rolled a large rock off the edge of the trail down the embankment leading to the lake’s edge, curious to see how fast the rock could travel and whether it could make it all the way into the water.

I cringed, then thought, oh well, probably no harm done. Just then, we heard a loud clank and a scream as the rock smashed into the base of an aluminum chair occupied by a fisherman.  The man, who was about sixty, sprang out of his chair, threw his white cap into the dirt, and charged up the long flight of oak stairs leading from the shoreline to where we stood on the main trail.

“I’ll teach that little son of a bitch to scare the shit out me!” the man yelled, his blue Hawaiian shirt and formerly combed-over gray hair flapping in the breeze.

Matt stared at the approaching man, terrified.  “Dad, I’m sorry,” he said.  “It was an accident!”

“He’s just a little kid,” I shouted at the angry fisherman.  “It was an accident, and he’s sorry.”

“Sorry’s not going to cut it,” the man yelled back from halfway up the stairs.  “He’s going to pay!”

“Dad, what should we do?” asked Matt in a paroxysm of anxiety.

I quickly assessed the situation.  Should we do the right thing and stay and apologize to the enraged fisherman?  My mind and body screamed, No!  I didn’t like that the man was swearing, I didn’t like that he’d already rejected the possibility of an apology, and he sounded as if he intended to strike Mathew.  Having received many severe spankings as a child, I was not about to let this happen to Matt.  Also, I’m an introvert, and I get tongue-tied when an angry person is yelling at me, so I didn’t think I could talk the man out of his fury.

“Run!” I shouted.  I snatched Ben up into my arms and ran as fast as I could; Matt and Josh streaked down the trail well ahead me, almost as if they were twin versions of The Flash, one of Matt’s comic book heroes.

Although we glanced back a few times, we didn’t look carefully behind us until we arrived at the truck.  I quickly locked the boys inside and turned to see if the angry fisherman was rapidly approaching, but there was no sign of him.  He’d been noticeably overweight, he’d probably been winded by his charge up the stairs, and the boys and I had just sprinted a quarter mile flat-out.

I took my place behind the steering wheel, buckled up, and said, “Who wants ice cream?”

“I do!” everyone shouted.

Usually making a pilgrimage to Loards Ice Cream in Castro Village, our town’s main (and almost only) shopping center on Castro Valley Boulevard, was a sacred afternoon activity reserved for family Sundays.  If Linda learned we’d visited on a Saturday without her, we all risked losing major body parts—all she’d have to do was cruise down the Boulevard on an errand and spot the Ranger.  Also, her best friend Susan’s daughter, Emily, worked here—we’d tried to sit in her busy section when we arrived, but she gave us a sad smile and gestured for us to sit in a less crowded area served by a cute red-headed teenage waitress.  So word of our transgression might get back Linda, but I was willing to take this chance.

We were shaken from our experience with the angry fisherman, and I figured we could use a shot of sugar and endorphins to steady our nerves.  Besides, it was too early for lunch, but we were about to crash from our donuts.  Out of the many positive experiences I arranged for my sons on our Saturdays out, I confess teaching them good nutrition was not one of them.

Speaking of those donuts, it occurs to me now that I ate them in a similar manner to Wonderland’s Alice drinking from the bottle of magic potion that shrank her to a tiny size.  The donuts allowed me to revisit my own childhood so I could best relate to my boys and keep them pleasantly occupied, since we had nowhere to go if we got bored.

Although many of our town’s citizens mindlessly flocked to Baskin- Robbins, we knew Loards had been producing some of the best ice cream in the Bay Area for decades, and we loyally stuck to our brand.  I wanted my boys to become gentlemen of discerning taste.

We were soon gorging ourselves on ice cream fit for the gods. While the boys ate simple or crazy flavors like strawberry or bubblegum, I indulged in the mighty Fudge-Anna, a combination hot fudge sundae and banana split.  I was thirty-three, trim, and didn’t yet have to worry about what I ate.

I was very proud the boys said please and thank you to our server, whose name was Kate.  I once read that a woman on her first dinner date should decide whether to grant a second date based partially on how well her date treats the waitress.  If he treats her well, that’s probably how he’ll continue to treat his date.  If he treats her poorly, that’s probably how he’ll treat his date in six months.  Even then, I was confident my boys would earn second dates.

As we consumed our ice cream, I realized moments like these with my boys were the happiest of my life, and maybe being kicked out of the house served the higher purpose of allowing me to spend Saturdays exclusively having fun and bonding with my sons.  I was glad Linda wasn’t with us.  Her sour presence would have added an element of tension that would have ruined our wonderful, guys-only enjoyment.

I didn’t know it then, but Linda would have a mental breakdown sixteen months later on Thanksgiving Day.  After that, she was in a constant state of rage alternating with bouts of suicidal depression.  The boys and I endured this situation as long as we could.  Six months later, I filed for divorce, and Linda moved out.  Our boys’ Saturdays continued long beyond Linda’s evil reign.

After the divorce, the boys and I spent Saturday nights watching Indiana Jones or Star Wars movies while eating pizza with root beer float chasers, our menu reflecting the same junk food fare over which we’d bonded.  At one point, I asked Josh how he felt about our new circumstances.  His answer warmed my heart.

He said, “Well, I think we’re all going to learn a lot, and we’re going to have some great bachelor parties!”

But let us return to the main action.  As we finished our ice cream, Emily’s mother, Susan, came into the shop to deliver her daughter’s lunch.  She worked as a dispatcher for the Oakland Police Department, and Linda shared her jaded view of the world.  Susan spotted us immediately and came over to our table.  We are so dead, I thought as I stood up to greet her. But she looked at me with deep sympathy.

“You guys still doing your Saturday thing?” she asked.  I could see she knew Linda had kicked us out of the house.  We said yes.  She leaned so she could whisper into my ear.

“Is Linda still riding her bike insane distances?” she said in a low voice.

“Yes.”  It was true.  Almost daily, Linda wheeled the Specialized carbon-frame racing bike I’d given her for Christmas out to the street, where she’d take off on 50- or 100-mile rides without a word.

“Be careful.  I think she’s going crazy.  My sister did the same thing right before she cracked up, only she was obsessed with running.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” I said.  On the surface, Susan’s suggestion surprised me, but a deeper part of me recognized the truth of her words. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, I thought, but my main mission is to protect the boys.

Susan smiled and stroked my back in a way Linda hadn’t touched me in months.

*******

After Loards, the boys and I walked across the now-blazing parking lot to Village Toys, which was run by two brothers, one of them a father himself, who loved children.  I always relaxed when we entered the store because the brothers doted on the boys as if they were young millionaires with the potential to buy anything they desired.  In fact, when I asked the brothers if I could go next door to Jordan Books for five minutes, they said they’d be happy to watch the boys.

At Jordan books, I selected a Ross Macdonald detective novel entitled The Chill.  At that time, I read about a novel a week.  I was unhappy at home and work—I was employed by a dishonest and unethical management consulting firm– so books and the boys were my primary means of escape and pleasure.  As for Linda, every night after dinner, she locked herself in the bathroom while she soaked in a hot bath, and then she later holed up in our bedroom with a closed door to read and avoid the boys and me in a mini-version of the exile she imposed on us on Saturdays.

When I put my book on the counter to pay, the fetching brunette cashier in her mid-twenties smiled and said, “Nice T-shirt!”

I wore a white cotton T emblazoned with the orange image of The Thing, my favorite Marvel comic book hero.  “Thanks,” I said.  “I guess some kids never grow up.”

“I like a man who still has some boy in him,” she said with a brightness of eye that went well beyond routine store clerk courtesy.  “Did you know the Rowell Ranch Rodeo is next weekend?”

“No,” I said.  “But it sounds fun.”

“It’s really great,” she said.  “And they have a chili bake-off with some of the best chili you’ll ever eat.  Would you like to meet me there?”

My spirit started to soar, only to be anchored firmly by a sudden tightening in my stomach. This is what it feels like to be offered a fresh start on love when you’re deeply unhappy in it.

I held up my wedding ring finger.  “I can’t tell you how much I’d like to go,” I said.  “But I can’t.”

My face must have telegraphed pain or sorrow because the clerk, whose nametag read “Trisha,” came around the counter and gave me a hug that had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with comfort.  On one hand, this kind-hearted embrace felt wonderful, but it also saddened me because it wasn’t coming from Linda.

Back at Village Toys, the boys lined up the merchandise they wanted on the cashier’s counter: two LEGO sets for Matt and Josh, and a firefighter-themed Duplo kit for Ben.  Although I’m not very mechanical, my sons only desired toys they could construct.  Perhaps Matt and Ben shared some of Josh’s engineering ability, perhaps it was reassuring for the boys to build something with their hands while they were enveloped in a disintegrating marriage, or perhaps they simply were displaying their high levels of creativity.

Next, we went a few doors down to Play It Again Video, the first and only video store in town, which was run by a family of handsome and beautiful blondes who loved working together as a family at this new, high-sales business.  After examining every video in the crowed store, we selected the original Star Wars movie, along with Swiss Family Robinson.  After we’d rented these movies a thousand times, I finally wised up and bought copies.  As a side note, Play It Again met a sad fate when Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came to town: the happy blonde family quickly sold out to an Indian gentleman, the store gave up half its floor space to another store, and it opened up a small corner room filled with pornographic movies.  A year later, Play It Again no longer existed.

During the second year of my relationship with Linda, she screamed at me for the first time.  We cooked a meal in her off-campus apartment, and I was in charge of slicing and sautéing a green pepper.  In high school, I spent three years cooking at Pizza Hut, so I definitely knew my way around the vegetable in question.  However, as I finished slicing, Linda yelled at me, “What are you doing?  That’s not how you slice a green pepper!”  Her face was heart-attack red, and her eyes filled with fury.  Mental illness, I correctly diagnosed.  Flee now while you still can! And then a stream of counter-thoughts rushed through my mind—maybe she had a really bad day, maybe she’s having her period, she’s never done anything like this before, maybe I should give her another chance….  At the time, I didn’t know where these thoughts originated.

Now I’m certain they came from a weak part of my psyche riddled with low self-esteem resulting from the harsh punishments my brother and I endured as children.  We’d been raised by seemingly loving parents who nevertheless frequently transformed into ogres and beat the childhood innocence out of us, so marrying a witch or banshee wasn’t that much of a stretch.  I had a very high tolerance for abuse, which was familiar, and, foolishly, I decided to stick it out rather than flee.   Of course, all of these decisions were subconscious.  So I stayed with Linda.  The result was fifteen years of often unhappy marriage and the birth of three wonderful sons.

From Play It Again Video, we drove down Castro Valley Boulevard a few blocks to Crush Comics, which stood next door to the Chabot Cinema. Matt excitedly picked up the latest issues of several series of Spider-man comics.  I was pleased I’d turned at least one of my sons into a comic fanatic, not because I wanted Matt to be like me, but because I wanted him to experience the same deep pleasure I had.  I flipped through the favorite comics of my youth: The Amazing Spider-man, The Fantastic Four, and The Incredible Hulk.  Just seeing these familiar heroes brought happiness to my heart.

Josh and Ben explored the store with less interest.  Josh eventually picked out an Invincible Iron Man, and Ben selected a Tales from the Crypt.  The first time I bought comics for the boys, I thought Linda was going to rip my lungs out, but eventually even she recognized the pleasure they gave the boys, especially Matt.  She even bought Matt a pile of comics once when he was ill.  As we moved through this quiet, joyful room toward the cash register and clerk, I realized how much this little shop nourished the spirit of boys of all ages.

*******

After Crush Comics, we refueled at Burger King, then drove west on I-580 to the Oakland Zoo. Back then, the zoological park was a beat-up, old-school enterprise with bars and cement enclosures.  However, a patron donated a large sum of money the zoo spent wisely, and it seemed like every time we visited, another animal had been liberated into a new roomy and natural habitat.  After we arrived, the boys begged me to go on the Sky Ride with them.  The Sky Ride consisted of plastic benches hooked up to a pulley that enabled passengers to view the animals from above their enclosures.

This was the last thing I wanted to do; I was afraid of heights, and the Sky Ride didn’t have any flooring to anchor our feet, and the thin aluminum safety bar across our laps felt like I could bend it into a pretzel Superman-style if I gripped it too hard.  Also, the plastic seats were slippery, and I worried we would slide right out from beneath the bar.  In addition–I don’t know whose bright idea this was– the Sky Ride traveled directly above the open lion and tiger exhibits.  One simple slip and you were literally dead meat.  As I looked at my sons’ pleading faces, I thought, come on, don’t disappoint these guys, how scary could it be?

            So I succumbed and bought four tickets.  As soon as we squeezed into our bench, it swung wildly as Matt and Josh squirmed to find comfortable positions and Ben pulled at his shoelaces.

“Don’t move,” I said in a panicked voice.  “Stay still.”

“You scared, Dad?” said Josh, pumping his legs like he was on a swing.

The bench spun with a strong jerking motion.  The tigers below watched with keen interest.

I was soon drenched in sweat, and our seat suddenly grew wet and slippery.  I jammed my butt into the curve of the bench and willed myself not to slide out.  This was like a nightmare I sometimes had where I let myself fall from a tremendous height because I could no longer bear the fear of falling.  Somehow we made it back safely, despite our sweaty squirming.  As soon as we docked, I hurried the boys toward the men’s room—and not because they were the ones who needed it.

We spent a long time in front of the savannah containing giraffes, eland, and a wide variety of African birds.  The boys gawked at the strange shape of the giraffes, and they laughed in wonder when the sound of approaching dinner inspired several of the creatures to run with a surreal gait toward one of their high feeding baskets.

Of course, we visited the monkeys and chimps—Jane Goodall was conducting a study of chimps in captivity there because of their outstanding natural habitat enclosure.  And we flinched at the fierce and fury-eyed baboons who charged any spectator who accidently met their hostile glare.

As we toured the zoo, I lived in the moment as much as my sons.  Looking back, however, I recognize two thoughts flickered in the back of my mind.  The first one was about the progression of our day.  We first visited the site of evil pirates and witches, who were now no longer a threat; then we’d entered the fantasy world of superheroes where evil was almost always vanquished by good, and now we were contentedly observing the natural world as it was, a world of tremendous fascination and adventure.  We had temporarily purged the evil from our lives and were living in a state of grace.

The second thought was about my father.  He never would have spent a day like this with my brother and me, although he occasionally took us on walks through the neighborhood, flew kites with us, and terrorized us as a sea monster at the swimming pool.  Basically, he engaged us in activities he enjoyed, but he never showed an interest in entering our world.

My father has many times told my brother and me he’s nowhere near the father we are to our sons.  He’s right.  Interestingly, my dad’s father delighted in taking us boys fishing so he could share this great, manly pleasure with us.  These outings were short-lived, though, because our grandfather fell on ice soon after he retired, and he injured his legs, which had to be amputated because poor circulation prevented them from healing.

We saved the elephants for last.  As we plopped down on a bench facing their enclosure, a zoo keeper with a red face and walrus mustache finished filling up a large hole with water from a hose.  While he threw apples into the makeshift pool and coaxed the elephants to swim to retrieve them, he recited a long string of facts.  For example, these awe-inspiring creatures have 150,000 muscles in their trunks, and they can use this appendage to suck up to 15 quarts of water at a time, which they then squirt into their mouths.  Also, he said, elephants can hear with their ears, trunks, and feet.  In addition, these captivating mammals are believed to have the same level of intelligence as dolphins and non-human primates, and they can feel grief, make music, show compassion and kindness, mother one another’s infants, play, use tools, and recognize themselves in mirrors.

When some of the elephants exited the pool, they used their trunks to throw dirt on their backs.

“Dad, what are they doing?” Ben asked.

“Putting on sunscreen,” I said.

The boys giggled.

The zoo keeper continued to lecture, but we tuned him out and focused solely on the elephants as the great, gray, wrinkly creatures with the small dark eyes and long eyelashes and formidable, floppy ears shaped like the African continent bobbed and swayed in the hot July afternoon.  Perhaps the boys’ minds wandered briefly to Babar, one of their favorite books about an anthropomorphized elephant, just as mine may have flashed briefly upon the proverbial elephant in the room at home, but our thoughts quickly returned to the magnificent elephants and our simple but immense male joy.

2 replies »

  1. Wonderful, poignant story I can relate to, having formerly been long married to a woman suffering bipolar disorder, who was also resistant to treatment and medication to help control it. Mental illness can strike at any time, and it is a tragedy for all concerned when the person you thought you knew starts turning into something else.

    For those living with the mentally ill, I think there can be a kind of codependency, like that experienced by those living with people suffering from addictions. The story seems to imply that the wife killed herself not too long after the divorce, which would be a pity. Perhaps if there wasn’t as much social stigma attached to mental illness (sometimes unduly perceived or exaggerated by the victims themselves), more people would seek treatment, and the author, his wife, and their children could have rediscovered happiness together.

    I hope telling this story helped the author release some of the bitterness that is only natural–but still toxic–and enjoy more tranquility through forgiveness towards his former wife, who shouldn’t really be judged too harshly for the behavior caused by her illness.

    • I agree with your sentiments completely. Fortunately, Linda is still among the living. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, she has never consulted a psychiatrist or alleviated the mental anguish that spurred her wild and unreasonable behavior when we were married.

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