My mother, who was a career stay-at-home mom and farm wife, was actually an accomplished writer in her own right, did a column for our local newspaper called “Family Matters,” and occasionally wrote a sort of poetic prose, not unlike Dr. Suess, but not so crazy.
One of my favorite pieces was entitled “There is Joy in a Boy” and it came from observing three sons, their buddies and four grandsons when they were little. She only lived to be 66, but I’ve never forgotten her observational skills. There was no genius in her observation. She simply took the time to do it.
I didn’t appreciate those skills near enough with my own children as a younger man, although I had enough of my mother in me that let me feed my own column writing habit with watching other people. As a grandfather, however, watching my seven-year-old grandson and his buddies is better than watching a good high school football game.
If you don’t sit from a distance and watch little kids at play (without attempting to regulate, manipulate or generate something) you’re missing a whole lot. Little kids are pretty much brilliant in their ability to turn things into play. They are naturally competitive, naturally curious, naturally inclined to change rules to benefit themselves.
For my grandson’s seventh birthday, he received a vastly upgraded bicycle, a size one notch below a full-sized bike. It is red. The waves parted. The earth came into perfect alignment. It is freedom at a faster speed.
So we’ve been biking these past couple of days, any time we can. The first night out on the new bike was a bit of a learning curve. He’s actually not quite tall enough for a perfect two-toes-on-the-ground fit. But it’s close enough. Starts were iffy, full stops even more challenging until he got some things figured out.
Henry Ford was once asked when the first car race happened. He answered, “The minute the second car came off my assembly line.” Boys and bicycles are meant to race and it was pretty much all he wanted to do. At their core, little boys are the beginning of the hunter-gatherer. They have in their soul the yearning for adventure, the need to prove themselves against anyone in ear or eye shot.
They race to prove themselves worthy of riding a shiny new red bike. They race to challenge themselves against an older sister, a neighborhood buddy, an aging grandfather. He made it clear that he was better than me, the old guy trailing him on the battered blue Schwinn mountain bike.
We ventured out again on Monday, Memorial Day, with the women of the clan doing their own style of foraging in the retail spaces of Des Moines. The sun was sort of out when I agreed to ride with him as long as I picked the route, which included a run through Oakview Cemetery and a stop at the American Legion Hall for the Memorial Day ceremony.
I shot photos of the Honor Guard performing the 21-gun salute and taps in a pouring rain. And then we rode back to his mother’s garage in a downpour. There was no complaint on his end, because the occasional puddles he had driven through the night before, had now turned into an endless stream of water that was impossible to avoid. There was a near constant rooster tail coming off his back tire and up his back as he laughed and shouted his way through each ponding of water.
It was better than the water slide at the aquatic center because it was faster, more daring and he was in control of his destiny. We got back to the garage and the first thing he said was, “I beat you Papa.”
Indeed you did, little buddy. You conquered Everest, sailed the Pacific, hiked The Bob. You were captain of your own destiny.
There was joy in this boy and it was the sunshine a rain weary grandfather needed.
There was no Little League game to attend Tuesday night. No high school varsity softball game to announce. No chance to mow a soggy lawn. It was the middle of what would be a three-inch plus rain. So I hunkered down with a David Baldocci novel before watching the only new television show on this summer, “Blood and Treasure.”
But I remembered back to my childhood, during another abnormally wet spring, sitting in the living room of our farm house watching my farmer dad pace in front of the big picture window facing fields to the west, listening to the rain hit the roof and attempting to watch our black and white television through lightning interuptions.
Deep in thought, wondering how he would get our crops planted without the kind of short season hybrids available to today’s farmers, my father didn’t hear my older brother and me punching each other on the couch to pass time.
My mother did, though, and she banished us to the basement and when we made too much noise there, to our grandparent’s house a few yards away. Grandpa and Grandma needed a couple of housebound boys to take their minds off the rain.
In his 50+ years of farming, my dad never failed to plant (or harvest for that matter) a crop, but there were times he had to wonder. Times that yields were damaged from late planting and early frost, by hail storms and once a rare fall tornado that scrambled a field of corn.
Today’s farmers, with multi-row planters and magnificent short season hybrids, with crop insurance and preventative planting options, have an almost super human ability to plant thousands of acres of corn and soybeans in a short period of time. But I feel them pacing. I feel their worry. I pray for their patience and a break in the weather.