At first, his karate demonstrations seemed like aggressive splashing games while he waited for waves to bodysurf.
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when 1 got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” — Mark Twain
Among the indignities a father might wish to spare his son in this life — colic, skinned knees, getting beaned with wild pitches, the hormonal madness of puberty, heartbreak, poverty, and congenital disease — one of the more avoidable filial pitfalls is the compulsion, at middle age, to hug trees, pound on drums, and weep with other men because Dad didn’t spend enough time with you as a lad.
It was for this reason, among others, that I invited my son along to the pistol range in Escondido to shoot holes in photographs of my ex-girlfriend.
The idea came to me one afternoon on the beach at Coronado when I asked my 15-year-old, whom I’ll call Jason, to show me some moves he had learned in karate class. I was waist deep in water and he to his chin when he proceeded to launch feet, elbows, and the heels of his hands at me in blows that were hardly the schoolboy swats I anticipated. Two things occurred to me for the first time: 1) My little bundle of mortality might well be able to kick my ass if he wanted to, and 2) He wanted to.
In the seven years since divorce, I have made several attempts to draw Jason out on the subject of his parents’ dissolved marriage. Surely there was a flood of emotions he had been containing with little understanding of what they were or how to express them. Sorrow, fear, anger, resentment, rejection might be likely reactions, but Jason has always been an even-tempered, well-adjusted, amiable, and not terribly complicated person.
When his mother and I were discussing the separation one night all those years ago, and the volume rose on the recriminations and tears, Jason, then eight, woke up, himself crying. This was unusual; Jason was a sound sleeper and had rarely cried at all since infancy. His mother and I, at a momentary truce, went upstairs to see to him. “What’s wrong. Honey?” His mother cradled his head.
“Don’t do it,” he sobbed. Mom and Dad looked at each other, then, feigning innocence, back at Jason.
“Do what, Honey?”
His answer was between sobs and around a hole where, until recently, two front teeth had been. “The theperation!”
Jackie Cooper bawling, “Please don’t shoot my dog!” has nothing on this scene. Whenever I run a little low on guilt, I summon the image of toothless little Jason, and I’m into paroxysms of self-loathing for days.
But that was it, basically.
For years afterward I studied him for aberrant behavior, suffering schoolwork, cracks in his composure (and I will return to karate fighting on the beach and the pistol range in Escondido) — anything that might betray the internal scars resulting from the meltdown of his nuclear family. Nothing. The kid seemed to be enjoying a much happier childhood than the one I remembered, which included the frequent wish that my parents would divorce.
The only evidence of being snubbed by my son coincided with the arrival of children his own age at the house on Saturday or Sunday afternoons — my time with him — usually to play video games. This was more a function of his being an only child than anything else, and I didn’t take it personally.
One Christmas two years ago I had him overnight at my apartment. We rented a stack of horror movies that I might rent myself without admitting it to anyone. We share a taste for self-consciously bad films in this genre and what appeared, until that night, to be iron stomachs: an inability to be frightened by anything we saw on the screen. That night we were watching Hell-raiser II. A scene came on in which a mental patient hallucinated being covered with writhing maggots. He stabbed at them and himself with a straight razor until Jason and I simultaneously stabbed at the stop button on the VCR. We looked at each other and laughed. We had finally seen something too gross even for us.
“You wanna see the rest of this?”
“I don’t know, I guess.”
“I’ll watch it if you want to.”
“I don’t care.”
“It’s up to you.”
“Maybe there’s something on regular TV.” I flipped around the non-cable channels. The only thing that looked passably entertaining was West Side Story on PBS. “This is kind of cool,” I said, meaning the Jets and Sharks and everything. He seemed intrigued by the choreography and the music. Hmmm. I sat back and drank a glass of wine, determined that I would broach the subject of his parents’ split once again.
After another glass or possibly two, I was swept away in sentiment and guilt and just asked, “Jason, do you ever still feel bad that I’m not living with you and your mom?”
“Hmmm mumble...” He shook his head from side to side.
“Well, I do sometimes. I still feel bad about it sometimes. You never say anything about it, and you seem happy, but...”
His attention remained on Natalie Wood.
Looking back now, I know it was more for my purposes than his that I pressed the issue. “C’mon, Jason, talk to me.”
He swivelled his head and shrugged, “I told you, it’s fine,” and turned his attention once more to the tube.
I reached over and switched off the set. Probably breathing wine into his face, I demanded to know about any lurking unhappiness. “I just want you to look at me. Tell me how you feel. It’s important to me.”
He did look at me, exasperated. He folded his arms and said again, “It’s fine. At first I didn’t want you to go, and for a while I wanted you to come back, but I don’t feel bad about it anymore.” I was a little deflated by this news “.../or a while I wanted you to come back.... ” Did that mean he wouldn’t want me around these days? I told him I was glad and mumbled that I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.
The next evidence this wasn’t Jason’s complete take on the situation was that day at the beach. At first, his karate demonstrations seemed like aggressive splashing games while he waited for waves to bodysurf, the kind of thing we had done dozens of times over many summers. After a few kicks that knocked what wind I had out of me, I said, “Okay, wait a minute. Show me that again, but in slow motion, okay?”
This time he blindsided me when he turned his back, then spun, feigning a kick and landing a blow with the heel of his palm on my cheek. No slow motion. The punch was hard enough that I bit down on my tongue and tasted blood. “Easy, easy! Goddamnit!” Jason grinned. “Hey, I’m not kidding. That hurt. Now show me this stuff slow. No real kicking or punching.”
His next move was to splash water in my face and launch another kick to my stomach, which Caused me to lose my footing. As I went down, I thought to myself: The little mother is having fun showing me what a wimp I am.
Regaining my balance, I T’d my hands as if to say, “Time out,” and pointed to an imaginary wave. “Total gnarl tube, dude!” When he turned to look, I caught him in a half nelson. He relaxed and wedy slipped through my grasp, spun around, and sent a punch toward my head again, which I caught with one hand and diverted. 1 turned him and got him in a headlock. He alternately struggled and relaxed, a good thing to do. As his struggles became less considered, he caught me with his fingernails across my left arm. It stung and I let him go, laughing, about to say something about girl tactics. But when I looked up, Jason wasn’t laughing.
His face was red and angry. If we hadn’t been in the water, I would have said there were tears in his eyes, but I don’t know for certain. “Hey,” I said, “hey, you all right?”
“Yeah,” he said and then pointed to my arm, which was raked with four shallow furrows, bleeding more than was called for. “I didn’t mean to do that,” he said.
“ ‘S’all right,” I said, feeling the salt sting and watching the blood trail down my arm like a Baja road map. “You ever hear of a nail clipper?”
“I did mean to do that though,” he said and pointed at my mouth, which 1 now realized was bleeding from the lip as well as the tongue. “But not, you know, to make you bleed.” He smiled. Abashment and triumph.
“Yeah, well, good job, Grasshopper. I’m gonna go in now before ! attract sharks. Get a little iced tea, shot of Geritol.”
Walking toward the beach, I saw the girl I was then dating watching us. Jason liked her because she was and is young, very pretty, and she and Jason shared an interest in heavy metal and cool cars. It occurred to me that this little exhibition might have been for her benefit. Freud and Sophocles whispered in my ear, but it was the one I had burnt out years before with rock and roll.
At the pistol range six weeks later, Jason protested against the ear and eye protectors (saying they hurt his head) and seemed frightened by the sounds of gunfire. He refused to fire the Browning high-power 9mm semi-auto or the .357 revolver.
I wasn’t going to be one of those fathers who insisted on it, but I tried to point out to him that if he obeyed all the rules, it was perfectly safe and actually kind of fun. “You can get out some hostility, like in a video game,” I said flippantly, shouting because of the ear protectors. “Only this is a little more real.”
My friend Owen, our host at the range, was firing a .44 Desert Eagle semi-automatic at a target ten yards away, shredding the thing into confetti and letting out high-pitched giggles as the shell casings were ejected, striking him repeatedly in the forehead and leaving livid welts. This had a less than reassuring effect on Jason. But it was Owen who took him aside and shouted, “You can do this! We wouldn’t let you get hurt!” Owen’s face was inches from Jason’s. The man’s hair flew out at Christopher Lloyd angles from his head. His Groucho mustache twitched. His forehead looked like someone had tapped him a half-dozen times with a ball peen hammer. “You don’t have to, but I’m not kidding, it’s fun!” He giggled again.
Still Jason stood a few paces back looking uncomfortable. Owen pointed to the red marks on his forehead and shouted at Jason. “Cheap reloads! If this were factory-fresh ammo, there’d be enough powder in the brass and gas in the chamber to launch the spent casing another foot over my head!” His words were mostly lost in the echoing hail of gunfire. Jason remained with his back to the wall, his arms folded.
It wasn’t until I produced an envelope with pictures of a woman Jason knew, a woman I had loved a lot for little reason. It was not the girl I was currently dating, nor the one whom I’d loved when I left my marriage, but someone I’d been involved with for three years between them.
The photo I taped to the target sheet was taken by a fashion photographer. The woman was reclining on a beach at low tide. Jason looked at it and said, “Hey, that’s whatsername! You gonna shoot her picture?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of an inspiration to me right now,” I said. Jason chuckled darkly.
“Okay, let me shoot too,” he said.
“Really? Sure.” I mounted the target on the clips and sent the sheet out about ten yards again.
When the shooters to either side of me saw the photo of the babe, we heard a chorus of catcalls and some pantomimed applause. I bowed briefly to either side. A ponytailed girl in her 20s wearing a DKNY T-shirt smiled, gave me the thumbs up. She held a Ruger .357 in one hand, a speed loader in the other.
I realized then it was my solemn responsibility to Jason at that moment not to infer in any way that I was encouraging violence toward women or any living thing. Turning to the boy, the revolver poised toward the ceiling, I shouted, “You realize, son, that this is a symbolic, cathartic act. The photograph is a therapeutic projection, not to represent a person, but an emotional event or events that remain conflicted or unresolved. The completely harmless acting-out of repressed, potentially destructive emotions has a salutary anti-anxiety/antidepressive benefit that I think you’ll discover for yourself. In other words, this is not a person we’re shooting, but a picture! Got that?”
“Duh!” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Good boy!” I pointed to the targets several people had purchased with the face of Saddam
Hussein emblazoned on the yellowed paper. “Just as those people are not shooting at a Middle Eastern gentleman with whom they disagree politically. They are voicing a patriotism and outrage at an act of transgression that otherwise has little outlet besides football, drinking enormous quantities of beer, or writing letters to an editor!”
“Yeah, yeah!” Jason nodded, watching me mouth my difficult-to-hear yet so necessary perspective on this ritual. “Let me shoot!”
I knew that in his own way the boy was affirming what I had just told him. If he had the words, I knew he would be saying in his own ingenuous way, “Yes, Dad. I get it. Old whatsername is the Saddam Hussein in that Kuwait of your heart.”
I gave him the Magnum and showed him how to hold it with both hands, balance the gun, draw back the hammer, and squeeze the trigger. He put a tight cluster of five holes dead center of the target, rendering the photograph a moth-eaten beachscape. More mimed applause from around the range. Jason was grinning, his face aglow.
I taped three more photos of whatsername to three more targets. My bullets went mostly wide by a few inches. Jason’s first time out with a handgun showed him to be a natural marksman and a darned pithy photography critic.
In the second week of October, a few friends and musical associates of mine rented a 36-foot sailboat for a five-day trip to Catalina’s jazz festival. I didn’t care about the festival, but I saw it as an opportunity to spend five days in a row with Jason if I could persuade his mother to let me pull him out of school.
I anticipated resistance and prepared a speech. It would have gone: “You know, Jane, I never spent five days in a row with my father. If I had, it might have changed my whole perspective on things later. It would have been something I remembered forever. It might have made me a less harsh man than I became seven years ago. I might have made better choices. Our marriage might — Well, heck, I won’t speculate on that, but, as you know, my dad died when I was 17, and the chance never came. The fishing trip never happened, the drive to Florida for Cubs spring training never happened. It was just too late, Jane...” At this point I figured she would have buckled, but I never had to use the speech. The idea of Jason out of the house for a week sold itself.
He and I shared the forward cabin. Maybe three feet separated our heads, but our feet met at the bow, and we were into a kicking contest for foot space that lasted all five nights. Still, this was the closest I had slept to him since he was months old and would fall asleep in my arms, his fingers curled tightly into my chest hairs.
I was so high on the idea of this vast stretch of time to be with my son that I never envisioned within 48 hours, the adult members of the crew — myself included — would be drawing straws to see who would tie up the little headache in his sleep and who would throw him over the side.
Jason is a pretty good sailor. He’s had enough experience with his maternal grandfather to know the difference between the main and the jib sheet. He knows which side of the cockpit to shift to if the captain calls, “Come about, Jason, sheet the main!” or to duck the boom when this happens. The trouble, of course, was that he knew, I mean, everything.
Mark Twain’s famous observation on his own father’s stupidity and wisdom when Clemens was a teenager was brought home during the trip.
“Why don’t you just drop the anchor near
the dock so we don’t have to use the dinghy? Why don’t we just use the motor? Why does the course have to be 133 degrees? We know we’re going south and east. There’s La Jolla!'How can we get lost?”
It has dawned on Jason that IQs drop at an inverse rate every day after one’s 25th birthday. This revelation undoubtedly accompanied the epiphany that he, having turned 15, now contained The Sum Total of All Knowledge, encoded subliminally into his cortex by an alien intelligence via the flashing digital readouts disguised as video game scores on a cathode ray screen at the 7-Eleven at Robinson and Fourth.
While struggling with his physics homework on the deck at anchor in Avalon one morning, he groaned and protested, “This is stupid. This is stupid....” Finally, after getting bloodshot, hung-over looks from the crew (who had been at the jazz festival and the bars in town the night before), looks that seemed to say, You kill him or we’ll do it, I approached Jason, saying, “What’s the problem, son?”
“This.” He handed me his textbook and pointed to the diagram and question. He looked at me with real satisfaction as he could see my complete fuddlement.
“As you know, son, I am a moron. None of this means anything to me, but I can guarantee you what the answer is not. The solution they are after here is not ‘This is stupid.’ ”
At that point, our captain offered to help. Les is an engineer for Convair. He looked at the problem and explained what they wanted. His rephrasing of the question enabled Jason to come up with the Correct equation. “Is that it?” he asked.
Les nodded, “That’s what they wanted. And you’re right, they put the problem kind of stupidly.”
Jason and I dove off the boat for hours, snorkeled around the bay, rowed the dinghy in circles because of Jason’s insistence that he had a superior method of rowing. He played tag with a sea lion, an idea I did not recommend, but Jason knew better. Fortunately, even the sea lion must have sensed Jason’s insufferable perfection and took off before he bit off one of the kid’s ears.
He threw food at seagulls, shouting, “Here birdy, birdy, here birdy!” at great volume in the quiet bay and then dove on the gulls when they got close, as if he were trying to tackle them. He kept up this mindless activity for over an hour until a neighboring boat at anchor with a retired couple on board called out, “You wanna hold it down a touch, young fella?”
At night, we broke out the guitars and played blues and jazz improvisations. Jason listened attentively and for the first time in memory asked to play my guitar. We listened to him for 45 minutes as he struggled with the eight-note phrase to a Metallica song. It was monotonous, obnoxious, and amusical, but when he finally got it down, he looked up at me and grinned, and I felt I might explode. I wanted to get to a phone immediately and call Juilliard, Carnegie Hall, Star Search.
I haven’t seen the pictures from the trip yet, but there’s one I know won’t be in there, one that I wanted to shoot but couldn’t. Jason’s camera was jammed and I didn’t bring one. Jason had been tinkering with the film advance crank, and it suddenly stopped turning. He worked at it for several minutes, and when I asked to take a look, he said, “No, you’ll wreck it.” So, fine. No more pictures. We had plenty anyway, I figured. But on the way back to San Diego, I was leaning against the mast, and Jason was at the bow dragging his feet in the swells that rose to meet the deck, and I was thinking about that day at the gun range and whether or not Jason thought of old whatsername as being responsible for his parents’ breakup or symbolic of what broke them up — or was I just reading too much into his sudden enthusiasm about shooting? I wondered what Jason was seeing, thinking, hearing at that moment. Was that smile triggered by the simple sensation of water against the soles of his feet? Was he in the throes of some adolescent video game power fantasy? Did he hear Pruffock’s “mermaids singing each to each”? And then, suddenly, Jason stood, clutching the stanchions, and pointed starboard.
A school of dolphins, maybe two dozen of them, were leaping into the air and racing alongside us to our right, closing the distance rapidly. Jason kept shouting, “Look! Look!” though indeed everyone on board was looking.
The dolphins arced and splashed Jason at the bow. They scratched their backs on the hull, raced ahead, slowed down as if challenging us. All the while Jason kept turning to me, smiling hugely, his eyes as large as Oreos, his face red; the first human ever to see such creatures. He stabbed his finger at the mammals and kept shouting, “Look! Look!” and meaning, “No, really look!”
I never got the actual photograph because Jason wouldn’t let me touch his camera. But in a way I have it. And it’s not likely to fade.