The Knucklehead is 13.
It’s the summer of 2008, and I and The Knucklehead are on a road trip. Westward ho with us, we’re taking a week to drive from our central Pennsylvania home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin then onto Minneapolis, Minnesota, then heading south for a side trip to Dyersville, Iowa before pointing the car back home. Not the usual Disney or shore vacation, I know, but this is as good a place as any to tell you about what Knucks and I had been doing since 2002.
In 2002, I took The Knucklehead to his first major-league baseball game. We were on a road-trip vacation in Massachusetts, and we took in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park against the Cleveland Indians. There were rumors at the time that the Red Sox were going to tear down Fenway and put up a new ballpark (thankfully, this did not come to pass), and I wanted Knucks to see the place while it still stood. Also, there are some New England roots in my family, and I wanted my boy to have a shared experience with at least the ghosts of the family past. Both my parents died before my boy was born, and all my grandparents were long gone, so ties to my family were always something The Knucklehead was on the lookout for. The Sox won that day, but that didn’t even matter. The boy was hooked. In his 7-year-old mind, there was no such thing as millionaire celebrities playing baseball, so he kept yelling things like, “You can do it guys! Work together as a team!” Fans in our section were having as much fun watching him as they were the game. In the row in front of us sat a foursome of dudes who looked to be in their mid-late 20’s, and judging by the way they “adopted” The Knucklehead and filled him in on all they players, I’m guessing at least a couple of them had knuckleheads of their own at home. I still have a picture of Knucks posing with these guys at the end of the game in our baseball scrapbook. That game, unavoidably, made The Knucklehead a Red Sox fan, and it led to my return to baseball after a long absence. Still, I remember clearly watching my kid fall in love with that team that night, and thinking of the certain heartbreak this would bring him. Remember, this was 2002, when it could still be considered child abuse to expose your kids to Red Sox fandom, and people all over New England were driving around with bumper stickers that read, “The Red Sox Killed My Father, And Now They’re Coming After Me.”
We talked that fall about other parks we wanted to visit, but it wasn’t until the World Series that year, between the Angels and the Giants that our plan started to come together. During a game in San Francisco one of the announcers waxed poetic on the aroma of garlic fries that were filling the ballpark, and one of us mentioned “That sounds pretty good. We should go there and try them sometime.”* And with that offhand comment – so offhand, I can’t even remember which of us said it – a plan was born.
A few days later I opened a map of the US and Canada, and started marking off major-league ballparks. There’s an idea out there that baseball is a rural, pastoral game, but it’s not true. It’s a game born of 19th-century industrial cities, and played by the single young men who flocked to those cities for work and needed something to occupy their time and attention in their off hours. Until 1962, there were no major-league baseball teams south of Washington, DC or west of St. Louis (though, it must be said, lots of great baseball throughout the rest of the country), all because of the need for baseball teams to be within railroad distance of each other. For us, that meant that 20 of the 30 major-league baseball parks were within a 2-day drive of our central Pennsylvania home. We could do this. If we planned it right (and I spent the next nine years of off-seasons planning it) we could hit every major-league baseball park in North America. If we grouped them together right, averaged three parks per road trip, we could do them all before he left high school.
So, we return to 2008. We are on our way to our 22nd and 23rd ballparks. In Milwaukee, we see the Brewers blank the Toronto Blue Jays in an interleague game 7-0. Earlier that day we decided to hit Solly’s Grille, a place we’d heard about that’s famous for serving a Butterburger – a cheeseburger topped with a fist-sized chunk of pure Wisconsin butter.** That lunch stop led to another side trip – to Sprecher’s Brewery, just down the street, which serves the creamiest root beer we’d ever tasted (an advantage of auto travel over air travel is you get to pack the trunk with two cases of root beer, cream soda, orange soda, and stout for the trip home). Thus is the nature of road trips in America; one thing leads to another. The next day we were in Minneapolis visiting relatives and strolling the Mall of America. We watched the Twins pound the Nationals 9-3 in another interleague game where the ball was threatening to bust its way out of the Metrodome. Returning home via Dyersville, Iowa added a lot of miles to the trip, but we wanted to stop by the Field of Dreams, where the 1989 movie was filmed, and we could play catch on the field. (Me, on the mound: “See if you can hit my curveball.” Knucks, at the plate, quizzically: “You don’t have a curveball.” Me, rolling my eyes, “It’s the Kevin Costner line! Can’t I say that?!” Knucks, grinning: “Oh right!”)
There was a lot going on that summer. The Midwest had been devastated by flooding that year, and the damage was still fresh as we saw the country from ground level on that trip. From time to time we’d have to improvise bootleg routes to avoid roads that were still flood-damaged, or still underwater. It gave us a lot of extra time in the car by ourselves. And we had a lot on our minds.
I’d gotten engaged on New Year’s Day that year, and the wedding was planned for the fall. In a couple months, life was going to fundamentally change for us both. We were both excited; Knucks and my Bride had hit it off from the start, and I think he liked the idea that there would be somebody else to look after me when he wasn’t around. He was going to be best man at the wedding, and was instrumental in the proposal. It was going to be a great day for both of us, but it was a huge change, nevertheless. This was to be our last “boys-only” road trip. My Bride would finish the project with us (and in later posts, you’ll find out what a hoot some of those trips were for the whole family), but in many ways, we were crossing a dividing line in our lives, and we were both aware of it. We had miles of road, hours of time, little scenery, and lots on our minds. And we were sitting eighteen inches apart.
Boys (and men) often need a push to start talking. Important subjects are rarely tackled directly. When he was a toddler, I could get The Knucklehead to talk about what was on his mind by asking him what was going on in the family of dinosaur figures he was playing with. Later, if we needed to talk, we’d go outside and play catch, or throw around a Frisbee or football. Conversation seemed to flow more easily then. For road trips, I kept a small paperback in my glove compartment that was filled with ethical-type questions. You know the kind: “You find a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk. What do you do?” On long trips Knucks might pull the book out when he got bored and we’d take turns asking each other questions. We did this for a while on our way to Milwaukee. But the book had already been in the car for two years, and halfway through the first leg of our trip we’d pretty much gone through the whole thing.
So, when I noticed a Barnes and Noble across the street from our motel room in Milwaukee, we stopped in there to see if I could find another book of ethical-type discussion questions we could use to get us through the rest of the trip. I found quite a few, but thumbing through them, I didn’t see anything that really grabbed my attention in any of them. Bored, my hand fell on a small paperback. Barguments, it was called, by Doug Hanks. The first question in Barguments? “Who wins in a fight between a lion and a bear?”
Now this was a fun book. “Would you rather be able to breathe underwater or become invisible?” “Name the grossest item on the menu of any major fast-food chain.” “Would you rather give up chocolate or cheese?” I bought it.
Now, this is a far cry from discussions of morality. In fact, about a third of the questions in the book involve sex or alcohol, and so are inappropriate for a 13-year-old. Fortunately, my son has inherited my Northern European gene for horror of embarrassment, so we were both happy to skip the questions that we really didn’t want to know each others’ answers to. But I also believe that any conversation with your child is preferable to no conversation, so we began gleefully quizzing each other from Barguments. The beauty of these questions is that they don’t let you off the hook with one-word answers; they beg for elaboration, and the defense of one’s own position is half the fun. We were having a blast.
But here’s where the interesting thing happened. Late in the trip, we returned to our original book of ethical questions, and conversation began to flow more freely. Here’s what would happen before Barguments: one of us would ask an ethical question, and there would be a minute of silence. The Knucklehead would use this minute thinking to himself, “What answer does my dad want to hear from me?” I would spend that minute thinking, “What’s the proper answer a father should give to help guide his son?” After that minute, we would each present our honest, but carefully-constructed responses, and we would both think, “Whew. Skirted that landmine.”
After Barguments, the discussion became much more relaxed. Now, if The Knucklehead asked me, “If you were given $1 million, how would you spend it?” my answer would be different. Instead of jumping straight to the soap box, or high horse, or however you want to imagine it, I’d say, “Well, I think this would be how I’d like to think of myself spending it. But this is how I’d really be tempted to spend it. I think what I’d really do might depend on who was watching, and how much moral courage I woke up with that morning. Or, maybe thinking ahead, and wondering how I’d feel a year from now about how I’d spent that money.”
The silly questions allowed us to be ourselves, to joke, to relax, to laugh at each other. To open up a little bit more. To offer a peek at the individual standing outside the parent/child relationship. Humor, for some reason, allows us to open up a little more of ourselves, which allows a little bit of vulnerability to creep in, which allows for trust. Knucks knew I wouldn’t jump all over him if he strayed from the party line and admitted to temptation, and I knew I could relax and admit that sometimes choosing the “right” thing to do is pretty hard, but worth striving for even after we sometimes fail.
That was a good trip. I learned a lot about my son, and about parenthood on that trip. And the next summer, when the three of us traveled to Missouri (this time we flew, but rented a car while there), we had lots to talk about on the road.
*We had no idea. Words cannot describe the sublime decadence of garlic fries, when we finally got to sample them in their natural environment.
**See footnote above.