Updated: August 9, 2013 12:46PM
‘Do you want to take some kind of talismanic good-luck charm with you?” I asked, as my son prepared to leave for China. He looked at me blankly. “It could provide comfort in times of duress.”
That sounds a little robotic, now that I write it down. But it is what I actually said, or close to it. I don’t talk that way to everybody. But my oldest boy — now 17 — well, he has a pilgrim elder’s formality; God knows where it comes from. Not from me, surely. He addresses his parents as “Mother and Father.” So, talking to him, I tend to slip into a kind of mannered decorum myself, which is surprising, since I’m in no way like that. Part has to be that I’m choosing each word precisely, since he’ll leap to correct my grammar if I don’t. (Note to proper fathers who raised their sons correctly: Yes, yes, I understand that you would have put him over your knee and tanned his butt with a hickory switch the first time he did it. But he was very small, it was not my way, and I was too taken aback. We fell to discussing whether it is “who” or “whom” or whichever fine point of language he was chiding me on, and now it’s too late).
He wasn’t completely against the lucky charm idea, so I fished a little medallion out of my briefcase depicting a Cracker Jack seaman in a peacoat: “Lone Sailor — U.S. Navy.”
“Here,” I said. “I got this aboard Old Ironsides. “There’s a poem on the back I like.”
I started reading:
“Eternal Father/Strong to save/Whose arms hath bound/the restless wave/Who bids the mighty/ocean deep/its appointed/limits keep/Oh hear us when we/cry to thee/for those in peril/on the sea.”
But he waved it off. No poetry. “OK,” I said. “How about Ugly Dog?”
If you are familiar with the fine line of Ugly Doll comfort objects, they range from enormous, pillow-sized stuffed creatures to little, soft, keychain figures. I’ll be damned if I recall when I got this 4-inch, rust-colored cyclopean dog hanging from a clip. At least four years ago, because it was dangling from my backpack when he and I climbed Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone in 2009. Lately, it has been guarding a lamp in my office. I jiggled the dog between us. He appraised it, then put it with his passport and wallet.
“I’ll photograph it at the Great Wall,” he said. I waited until he was out of the room. “Keep an eye on him,” I whispered to the dog.
The joke I always made to my wife when she was pregnant was, “At least we know where he is.” I tried not to hover — you can damage your kids that way too. And in the main I haven’t. But a good-luck charm, well, I’ve always employed them. As did my mother before; she took a dime-store glass elephant with her to Europe when she sang with the USO at 17, and my father — Mr. Rational Nuclear Physics — toted the thing around the world, from Auckland to Zaire. Regular readers might wonder how this descent into magical thinking jibes with my vaunted reasoning, and the honest answer is: I have no idea. Chalk it up to being human.
We tracked the plane on the American Airlines website — technology does shrink distance. He had asked for my laptop, and I extorted a vow: He would write every day.
The first email can stand in for them all:
“Mother and Father,” it began. “The first day was nice, we visited the Jade Palace (Qing Summer Home), went on a short boat ride, had lunch, saw our pen pals, learned about traditional Chinese medicine and got foot and shoulder massages, had Peking Duck for dinner, took lots of pictures, and saw a Kung Fu show. Great wall etc. tomorrow, and hope all is well. Regards, Ross”
Ignoring that run-on sentence, it wasn’t exactly the printed itinerary, but close. Both his mother and I wrote back: But how are YOU? How are you feeling? Send photos!
Nothing beyond more itinerary. Though true to his word, a daily bulletin did arrive. A dozen days flew by — that was the most surprising part. We were OK — son No. 2 got extra attention, the house was very clean — no pile of papers on the dining room table, no nest of blankets and books on the sofa.
“This is what it’ll be like when he goes to college,” I told my wife, and we agreed that it was not bad. It isn’t that I’m eager for him to leave, so much as his wings are formed and the time to fly nears. China was a dry run.
Suddenly, he was in the driveway, wearing cool Chinese sunglasses, his pal’s father having picked the boys up at the airport. “Jacob lost eight pounds,” he announced.
Inside, he handed out the riches of the Far East, like Marco Polo returned to Venice: chopsticks for me, a model terra cotta warrior and jade bracelet for my wife, even a Mao hat and a bag of gooey rice candy for his little brother, presents bought of his own volition, my wife and I noted. Growing up.
Attached to his suitcase handle was the orange Ugly Dog. “Job well done,” I said softly, unclipping the inert little thing and returning him to his regular duty post in my office.