It is a law of nature that fathers can be dangerously stupid around their sons. You have seen the shrieking sideline daddies: “Your left foot, your left foot!” as six year-old soccer players mill around the ball. You have seen the red-faced baseball daddy yelling from the stands, “WATCH THE BALL, DAMN IT. WE PRACTICED THAT. JESUS!” And, you’ve seen daddies who want their sons to fight, or who want to fight other daddies.
But stupid daddies can also appear to be perfectly ordinary. They chortle when little Josh falls over the soccer ball; they tuck The New York Times under one arm and clap smiling encouragement when he strikes out for the third time. You know these daddies; they’re the ones who sometimes take their sons on “adventures,” informed by an idealized notion of father-son-hood. These are the daddies who end up in places where bad stuff happens, and precisely because they have done something so stupid they cannot imagine how they managed it.
The adventures of these commonplace, nurturing daddies might go something like this: I grew up on West End Avenue, Hollywood, Florida, and Santa Monica, and so the very first thing I choose to teach my son on his very first camping trip is to chop wood. How hard could it be?
Or, perhaps they have car adventures. Does a father have any holier obligation than teaching his son to drive? How else does a boy become a man? If Dad happens to have a sports car, one that is the envy of all the other sons in the neighborhood, even better. First, the boy sits on your lap and steers. Then he shifts while you use the clutch and brake pedals. Then he turns eleven and his legs get longer…
Naturally, there is another car in the family of the commonplace daddy. The boy’s mother has a car. As we might expect, it is a more adult car, a modest beige Toyota station wagon that, when loaded with camping equipment, tends not so much to drive as to wallow. Still, there are certain imperatives when one heads for the woods. Before a Dad and his lad can chop wood and build a hazardous fire, they have to find just the right destination. And, sometimes reaching the destination requires a shortcut. Well, maybe not requires exactly, but if you’re adventuring deep into the heart of British Columbia, what’s the point of going around when you can go across? As it happens, there are a number of points. Gas is a point. Washed out and rutted dirt roads are points, as are stream crossings. That the next town is a very long way off is a point. That there are, despite Dad’s fondest desires, no camouflaged auxiliary gas tanks bolted to the hood is also a point.
There is, however, stowed amidst the survival gear, an inflatable boat. And, never was a tool of destruction designed more explicitly for the dangerously stupid daddy than a floating vessel. Through some ineffable magic, even the innocuous Sea Eagle, with its foot pump, plastic oars and rubber flag can become a menace in the hands of an idiot father.
And so, as he must, one morning Dad awakens at dawn and crawls out of his sleeping bag. The lake is still, reflecting the massive peak looming above the opposite shore. Working quietly and quickly in the cold, Dad builds a fire and heats water for hot chocolate and coffee in the metal pot that is, almost immediately, too hot to hold. Eager to wake the troops and using the melting sleeve of his polyester fleece sweater to protect his hand, he pours water into the cups resting in the dirt next to him. They are also metal and also too hot to hold, but plastic is impure.
After breakfast—bacon and eggs fried together over the fire in a cast iron skillet—they zip the tent and push the Sea Eagle out into the mountain lake. The sun is warm and there’s a slight breeze at their backs as Dad rows, according to Mom’s explicit requirements, along the shore. They’re headed for a high rock promontory where they’ll read in the sun, swim in the lake, and picnic on sandwiches made from last night’s pan-fried pork chops. Dad’s son takes the oars from time to time and, in a blizzard of expert instruction, moves the little boat in a relatively straight line.
They’ve been on the water for an hour and a half when they reach the sunlit promontory. They drag the boat onto the pebbled shore and haul their paraphernalia up to the warm, flat rock where they spread out as if for a day at the beach. At seven years old, the boy isn’t content to read for long so he and Dad clamber down to the water for a short row along the shore. “Can I row out alone?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Do you think you can keep the boat straight and use both oars together?”
“Sure, you showed me before. I won’t go far, I promise. Please.”
“Ok, but right here, just in this little cove, ok?”
He gets into the boat and I push him out a little so the oars don’t scrape the bottom. He rows, turns the boat, rows back, and then along the shore. I scramble up the big rock to show his Mom, who sits up and looks at her son, floating alone in a piece of blue and orange plastic. “He’s fine,” I say. At which point, and quite suddenly, he isn’t.
I had over the years been fond of regaling my son with my half-century-old outdoor wisdom from summer camp. On our morning voyage to the promontory, for instance, I expounded on the vagaries of lake weather—how, without warning and despite blue skies, afternoon winds can transform a serene mountain lake. And now it is afternoon and a strong, cold wind has begun to carry the little boat away from shore.
I stand on the rock shouting instructions to my son, whose best efforts are having no visible effect other than to spin the boat in a circle. My son’s mother is also shouting instructions, though hers are directed at me and tend to focus, without much anatomical logic, on certain of my body parts—where I might put them and what I may have once done with one of them to my own mother. The gist of her comments is, however, quite logical. Do something.
The wind is stronger and pushing the boat faster towards the middle of the lake. We are miles from anywhere so I do the only thing there is to do, which is to dive off the rock into the water and begin swimming as fast as I can. The water is frigid and I am immediately breathless. I swim hard but I can see the boat is moving faster than I am. So, I swim harder, losing strength and gasping with every stroke. I am very cold.
And then, at what seems the end of my endurance and the mid-point of my terror, I’m clutching the white plastic rope strung along the side of the little boat. I manage to haul myself over the side, pretending to my son that this has all been a bit of summer fun for the family album. I wave to his mother, whose homecoming queen wrist twist suggests that fun is not the word she will use when we return.
It does not take long to row the few hundred yards to shore, but it isn’t easy either. The wind is strong against us and whitecaps break over the bow making the boat heavier. I am shaking. Onshore, we wrap ourselves in towels and lie on the warm rock. The lake looks benign and we eat our picnic, telling each other how hungry we are.
At this point, you can probably figure out who that little kid is running towards his daddy at the top of the page. He’s thirty-eight now and about to publish his first novel. He still thinks I’m pretty dumb sometimes but, really, he has no idea.