Fathers, You Must Mark the Trail

By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF

“If Oedipus Rex had taken that kid to the ballgame more often, we wouldn’t have had all that trouble.”

                           — Ancient Greek Historian

OK, so my good friend, Herb, and his two sons go down to Florida every year for Spring training. Big deal. I just know they spend the whole week arguing about the younger kid’s new house with the flat roof that collects water better than the LA Reservoir. (“Four years of college at 5K a year and he buys a house with a flat roof. Why didn’t he take a basic roofing course instead of American Lit?”)

My other pal, Randy, and his kid, they get a guide and go fishing up in Michigan. Every year. How much fun can that be? Father, son, and total stranger in a faded mackinaw, huddled around a dying campfire. Picking fish bones out of their plate and wishing there was a McDonald’s around the curve of the stream. Randy, just dying to make some constructive comments about the kid’s wife – but the guide, who’s spitting tobacco in the fire, likes to stay up all night and tell stories about really successful fishing trips – not like this one. “You shoulda been here in the Summer of ‘92 – Gee Golly!”

Well, me and my boys don’t shiver around campfires or pontificate over roof design. But we’re plenty close. Don’t we spend hours on the phone talking about their sister – my daughter – who only remembers my birthday if I begin a barrage of postcards “Don’t forget Pop’s birthday” six months early. Me and the boys are pretty close. We talk about stuff like that all the time.

Fathers and sons. Just like any relationship, there’s a duality involved – the dream and the real world. In the boys’ eyes there are two fathers. FATHER, the Icon; and then there’s Pop, who thinks it’s 1960 and a five dollar bill buys supper and a movie for two. Pop, the champion sleeper who nods off in the living room recliner. He’d be in the Olympics if there was an early to bed category.

Dad is the large male adult in the house whose happiness is wrapped around economic survival and a synchromatic release of the five-speed clutch in the old, 2004 family Honda. He hates that stone-on-blackboard sound, coming out of the garage when Jr. misses reverse gear. And since he can’t gracefully find reverse or a part time job, Pop wonders if this cub will ever learn to hunt alone.

But most sons, like wolf cubs, can’t wait to leave the den. There’s a neat parable about a family who lives happily in a modest cabin surrounded by a thick, pathless woods. Beyond the woods is a bright meadow with streams and orchards.

The father knows that sooner or later the son – energized by an impulse to see the world – will leave the bosom of his family. The father knows about the memorable and honorable rebellion of sons: since a replica of the man’s heart beats in the bosom of the son. He’s been there. Ah, but those woods. Dark, frightening, full of brambles. The boy will never find his way back to the cabin once his restless heart is satisfied.

“When you leave,” said the father, “you must mark your trail because someday you’ll want to return. Don’t forget.”

“Right,” replied the confident youth. “But why do you always think me a half grown fool who can’t even find his way home and why do you assume I’ll return? The people out there (and he gestured beyond the cabin walls) will think me wise and beautiful. You’ll see.”

Soon after this confrontation, the boy left. Early in the morning he stole out of his bedroom window and stepped into the impenetrable forest. He brashly rushed through the woods in his eagerness for freedom. At a safe distance followed the father, diligently marking the trail through the dark green woods. Then with a long look at his son briskly striding over the meadow, the father returned home.

Some days later, the youth returned full of wondrous tales of the woods and the world beyond.

“And did you have any trouble finding your way back to us?” asked the father.

“None whatsoever,” replied the son. “Piece of cake – the trail is clearly marked”.

So says the legend. It’s not a bad moral. They all come home sooner or later. But you must mark the trail.

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