A chip off the old joke block

A friend of mine, a former college athlete who's recently taken up the position of dad, told me he was determined not to bully his son into sports. "If he wants to play, that's great," he said. "If not, no problem."

His little slugger ran upstairs wearing baseball pajamas. The lamp next to his bed is a shaded football. Sure, no problem.

Any modern parent worth his weight in self-esteem knows we're not supposed to force our own interests on the kids. Stage mothers are vilified. Overzealous Little League dads are denounced in op-ed columns.

Let a child's natural interests blow about like milkweed seed on a clear summer day. Sure, no problem.

Except, of course, we can't help peering at them all the time from afar, hoping for signs now and then that these little friends will discover some of the same delights in life we have.

For me, it's Halloween. Not the scary Halloween of vampires and witches, but the sparkling sense of comic absurdity that rises out of the ground on Halloween and haunts certain people all year long.

My grandfather had it his whole life. One Halloween night, he sneaked off from the party. He took one of the pumpkins, cut out its bottom, and put it over his head.

As the unsuspecting guests sat on the deck out back, he came running around the garage, moaning and shrieking. Before anyone could see him, though, the clothesline caught him hard across the neck and flung him down a steep embankment.

I watched my daughter closely the first time she heard that story. If she looked worried about his safety, I knew I could live with that. After all, the world needs those sweet, concerned souls, and somehow I would come to accept her for who she was. But when she dissolved into giggles, I knew I'd found a kindred spirit. (My grandfather was fine, by the way, if you're still wondering.)

Last year, we filmed a series of Halloween commercials with the video camera. In one, she and I play archaeologists searching for treasure in the haunted basement. In another, a witch discovers a new broom that picks up 50 percent more werewolf hair. In our favorite, Mr. Whipple demands that the grocery shoppers stop squeezing the mummy wrapped in Charmin toilet paper.

I guess that's something like discovering your son can keep his eye on the ball. Of course, you'd love them if they had the wit of a cow or struck out every time, but it's a thrill when they hit the ball - or the punch line - out of the park.

A few weeks before this Halloween, I was leading my daughter through the dawdling routine of spelling words and hair- and teeth-brushing before bed. I was tired and preoccupied with a stack of unpaid bills downstairs, but she seemed to have more energy than ever.

I turned off the lights. We each said what we were grateful for. We recited the 23rd Psalm. Then she said, "Dad, you know, I've always wanted a rubber chicken."

It was a moment of pure parental bliss. She could have said an American Girl doll or pierced ears or a pony, but what she really always wanted was a rubber chicken. Am I fortunate or what?

The next day, I set off to a costume store near the office. "Excuse me," I asked, "Do you have a rubber chicken?"

The man in the store shook his head almost with shame. "No," he confessed, "I don't. I used to, but I don't anymore."

"Can you tell me where to get one?"

"I don't really know anymore."

"My daughter told me she's always wanted a rubber chicken."

"Then you must get her one," he said, showing the same emotional determination I felt.

Two days later, while walking back to the office from a business lunch, I spotted an old-fashioned "joke shop" on the edge of Chinatown. Nothing had changed in the 30 years since I'd been in such a shop: shelves and shelves of colored wigs, whoopee cushions, spilled soda, Groucho glasses, hand buzzers, parlor tricks, invisible-dog leashes, plastic doo-doo, itching powder, black soap, and silly obscene paraphernalia. A young man stood at attention in front of the counter.

"Excuse me, do you have a rubber chicken?"

He raised his hand for me to wait and returned a moment later with that classic prop. At the counter, it was obvious the older man behind the register was his dad.

"That'll be $1,200."

"Would you take this Boston Chicken coupon instead?" I asked.

The old man nodded.

"My daughter told me she's always wanted a rubber chicken."

"Everybody should have what they've always wanted," he answered.

"How long have you guys been here?"

"I've been here... let's see ... three weeks," the old man said.

I turned to his son. "This is my first day."

Here is another proud father.

At home, the rubber chicken, now named Fred, has become a ridiculous prop in everything my daughter does. The rubber chicken eats dinner with us. The rubber chicken studies spelling. The rubber chicken brushes its teeth. (Don't ask.)

"Good night, Madeline," I say.

"Good night, Dad," she answers. "Good night, Fred."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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