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On Father’s Day, let’s honor ‘emergency dads’

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Updated: July 17, 2012 12:41PM

You look up and your kid is gone. Your stomach feels as if it flipped over and you drop everything and run.

Michael was 6 years old and nowhere in sight. I took my eyes off him for a single minute to sort through mail while sitting on the front steps. But it was enough time for him to somehow disappear from the bicycle route we allowed him, a three-block stretch in full view from our Evergreen Park home.

It was 1981, and ever since little Etan Patz had gone missing two years earlier in New York, every neighborhood felt like a potential death trap for an unguarded child.

I sprinted to where I’d last seen him, and when I got to the corner, I could finally exhale: His blue White Sox hat was bobbing up and down as he pedaled his 20-inch two-wheeler along the sidewalk.

Rattled and panting, I slowed to a jog and finally a walk as I got within shouting range and called out.

He stopped and swiveled around, the bill of the cap too wide for his head. He seemed to be looking over my shoulder, maybe deflecting the hot water he was in with me, when I heard a voice from behind.

“Hey, buddy?”

I turned to see another cyclist, a grown man with a beard and bicycle helmet, and a boy younger than Mike on the child seat behind him.

“Is that your kid?” he asked.

I felt angry, or defensive, or just annoyed at the intrusion. What was his problem?

“Yes,” I said.

He remained on the bicycle, while duck-walking closer.

“Do you mind if I ask the kid?” he said.

All in about three seconds, I went from wanting to hit him, to taking a breath, to feeling chastised.

After he confirmed with Mike that I was his father and not some ghoul hassling a little boy, I thanked him, and then he and his passenger went on their way.

Mike lucked out, since I was hardly in a position to reprimand his disobedience after he vouched for my identity.

But I lay awake an extra hour that night, bothered by wild scenarios where Mike was approached by someone who was not his father, and nobody came to his rescue.

The fact that the bearded man had exercised his care so nonchalantly, made it less an act of a Good samaritan, and more like, well, a father.

Filling in as an emergency father — to protect, advise, or just make things OK — when the biological parent is not there is behavior worth acknowledging and honoring on Father’s Day.

And the world would be safer if more of us stepped up to the plate as community fathers when the need arose, though it isn’t always easy. People hesitate to take responsibility or interfere, fearing repercussions.

While it’s a no-brainer, for example, to help a tiny kid who falls off his scooter, how many of us are willing to wade in when neighborhood kids are fighting, or to object when one is bullying another?

There may be some risk or potential liability, but I’m glad such concerns were not impediments for another angelic stranger, years later, who knelt on the asphalt and cradled my same son, victim of an automobile accident at 95th and Francisco, till paramedics arrived.

He made a full recovery, thanks in no small part to that compassionate person who did not think twice about “fathering” in an emergency.

I’ve since scoured my own childhood memory, recalling, for instance, the “father” who saw me wandering lost in front of his house and calmed my crying and panic with a glass of Tang while he phoned my folks.

Nor was it always a nick-of-time rescue, as I recall Jesse, a machinist at the south Western Avenue factory where I had my first full-time summer job at age 16, who patiently listened to my gripes during the morning coffee break.

“Be glad your old man even bothers,” he said, before relating some sad consequences of his long-ago unsupervised adolescence.

Filling the rare role as co-working equal and adult sage, Jesse made me think twice about my rebellion against my own father’s limits and motivations.

So recently, as I prepared to go home at the end of a long teaching day, Nick, a former student, knocked on my door, not for the first time, with another molehill of a problem, clamoring for attention.

Logic, convenience, sanity and predictability all called for me to tell him come back tomorrow. But knowing what I’d want others to do, if this were my own son far from home, I removed my jacket and offered him a chair.

It’s a lesson I learned from many fathers.

David McGrath is emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, and author of The Territory, a story collection.

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