It was quiet in the car when Joe, his mother and I drove home.
Karin broke the silence.
“You’ll be a different man when you return,” she said.
“Is there anything you’d like to do before you head out?” Karin asked.
He’s gotten pretty quiet of late, probably thinking about the changes that await him.
Our son is the youngest of four and our only boy. If you’re doing the math, that tells you that he has three big sisters and was, aside from me, the only other guy in our house. When he was born, one of our best friends—the mother of two boys—was overjoyed for us.
“You got a boy!” Cindi said. “It’s a different experience.”
How right she was.
The first change that Joe brought about was to unravel our bedroom situation. I just knew we’d have another girl. So I’d assumed we’d double-up the girls, two-to-a-bedroom, in our three-bedroom abode. But it soon became apparent that we’d need another, bigger home.
So we moved from Redding out to the country into a sprawling, five-bedroom disaster. It would be too kind to call it “ramshackle.” When we were shown the place, it sat empty. The hall ceiling had collapsed due a leak in the cooler, and one bathroom had a window that looked into the plasterboard of a new wall. The house had been added onto with all the forethought of the Winchester House of Mystery. Our realtor laughed, thinking that no one in their right mind would want it.
But we told her to put in a bid.
We had little choice; our outsized family didn’t have a budget to match. So the fact this oddball place was within our price range—and walking distance from one of the best K-8 schools in the county—clinched the deal.
If not for little Joe, we’d probably still be living in Redding.
So we packed our brood off to Palo Cedro, and began our journey through the Shasta County school system. Our three girls preceded Joe, and we got used to them coming home from school, sitting down and doing their homework.
But when Joe came home from school, homework-in-hand it was as Cindi predicted, a different experience. He and I began a long and lively conversation about the merits of “doing your homework.” This would be a staple of our interaction for years.
“You’re not going outside until it’s done,” I’d threaten.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because it’s required.”
“But I got the second-highest score on the test,” Joe said.
And this was the pattern. Joe would skip his homework, max out the test, and get less-than-stellar term grades. Karin and I pointed out, as only concerned parents can, that he could do so much better if he’d just do the work. Instead, he came home and read.
And read some more. We had a policy of buying the kids all the books they desired, if they’d just read them. He even immersed himself in Gray’s Anatomy – the book not the TV show – while still in grade school. Joe won the “most books read” award in fourth grade. The teacher was skeptical, given his lackluster grades. But I assured her that he’d really read all that stuff.
And he had. Joe had boundless energy when it came to taking on things he loved. Reading was one of his passions.
Games and competitive sports were another.
Competition. If there was a game afoot, with winners, losers and a way of keeping score. Joe was in. He even invented a game. When he was in second grade, he was out ill with a cold. Karin was working at a new job, so I used some sick time to be home with my son. He wanted to play cards and he taught me a game he’d devised. But each time I thought I was about to win a hand, Joe informed me that there was another rule that prevented me from having my moment of triumph.
“You can’t do that, Dad.”
“Do what?” I asked.
“Play a king on top of an ace.”
I looked at him suspiciously.
“You did that last hand.”
“But it was a red king on top of a black ace.”
I looked at my black king of spades and the red ace of hearts that he’d discarded. Just then, Karin called from work to check in.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“Joe’s teaching me a game he invented,” I said.
“Really? What’s it like?”
“It’s called Rainbow Sprinkles,” I said. “As far as I can tell, there’s just one rule.”
“No matter what, Joe wins.”
This was my first indication of how competitive our son is. He loves games, and played soccer for years. He was small for his age, and yet was unafraid of facing off against bigger players. Once, he was scrambling for possession near the goal, and an opposing player booted the ball right at Joe’s face. Instinctively, he threw up an arm, and the ball ricocheted off his elbow, scoring a game-winning goal.
For the other team.
This didn’t make him the most popular player because the loss kept us from advancing into the finals. I’d forgotten this detail until I asked Joe if he remembered his elbow-goal.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “My friends never let me forget.”
In addition to sports, Joe played the drums. Joe picked them, in part, because all his sisters played wind instruments and he wanted to do something different.
Being a drummer meant hauling a lot of gear about. During the four years Joe played for the Foothill High School band, he was usually one of the first ones to arrive at the football games and the last to leave. He was a stalwart in making sure that the percussion section had what it needed and that the instruments were all safely secured. This can-do attitude and dedication won him, as he graduated, the Marine Corps “Semper Fidelis” award.
His band director told us Joe was selected for this honor because he was “the guy you could count on.”
This is one of the things I most admire about my son. He’s his own person, and he has always been willing to do what he thought was right, even if it was unpopular. He stood by a friend when the young man came out and openly revealed his sexual preference, and Joe used his first vote at age 18 to support a political candidate that most of his classmates detested. His car was repeatedly vandalized, and a political bumper sticker ripped off and shredded. Joe picked up the pieces and stuck them, mosaic-like, back on his car.
He’s not a quitter.
Yet after high school, Joe tried college. He signed up for courses out at Shasta College. But his heart wasn’t in it. I lectured him on how important education was, as only a teacher can do, but to no avail. He decided to take another path.
Karin took this better than I did. She could see that he wasn’t ready to spend more time—doing homework—in school.
After looking at his options, Joe joined the California Conservation Corps and learned rough-and-tumble business of clearing trails and rehabilitating streams. He’d live for weeks at a time in the woods, running saws and moving massive logs with hand-driven winches and pulleys.
He liked the physical activity, and the challenge of dragging around downed trees with the simplest of tools. The harder the work, the more he liked it.
It helped that he’d grown to be six feet tall.
As his time with the “C”s drew to a close, he was offered a chance to fell big trees, a skill that could land him work in the lumber industry. But Joe had other plans. He wanted to take a different path, travel, seeking newer and bigger challenges.
He signed up for the Navy. Joe took the ASVAB, blew it away, and was offered a chance to study nuclear engineering.
Now, I’m not exactly what you’d call a military-kind-of guy. Others in my family are. My Dad was serving in the US Air Force when he met my Mom, and her brother was a Marine. My father-in-law and brother-in-law are Navy veterans, as are a niece and nephew. But in all the dreams I’ve for my son, it had never occurred to me that he’d want to join the service.
So I was stunned.
I wrestled with this for some time, fearing the changes this might bring in him. Basic training is, in part, learning how to handle weapons and use them for something other than skeet-shooting.
While I worked through this inner conflict, I found comfort in an unexpected place—the Carter Center for Peace. While visiting Atlanta, I toured the Presidential Library and Peace Center, and learned about how important the Navy was in shaping Jimmy Carter’s character.
Carter is not always afforded the respect other presidents are, and that’s a shame. He’s brilliant. He led his class in the academy, and was selected for difficult and important posts. But Carter’s affable nature and big, toothy smile were satirized in a way that made him look a bit loopy.
But he’s not.
I realized this as I read about his life—he’s still out there pounding nails for Habitat for Humanity—and I gained a fuller appreciation of how much Carter has done for the cause of world peace and global health. His presidency, like his naval career, are only a part of a life that’s quite well-lived.
There, in the Carter Center, it occurred to me that Joe could be a nuclear engineer—as Carter was—and still be a compassionate, decent man. It could even give him a better world-view than I had, too.
It’s a comforting thought.
As my children have grown to adulthood, I’ve tried to get out of their way and let them become the people they want to be. It turns out that this has been hardest with my son. He’s truly a person who marches to the beat of his own drum. But in so doing, he’s taught me a thing or two. I’ve learned a whole new and deeply personal respect for the men and women who dedicate themselves to military service.
And I’ve learned that the rules of Rainbow Sprinkles still hold. Joe continues to surprise me.
But the one thing I’ve yet to master, I’m afraid, and that’s how we’ve going to live without him around. He’s the last of the brood to leave the nest. And it’s going to be very quiet without him here.
Take care, Joe, we’ll miss you.
And watch where you put your elbows.
Robb Lightfoot will be off in November, working on his next book: Problem Child: The View From The Principal's Office.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. He has two humor books in print, The Doggone Christmas List and The Stupid Minivan. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County, Northern California.