Young children sometimes get strange notions into their heads. Before I had any knowledge of what my father actually did every day when he drove off to work, I had formed the definite conviction that he was "an AA man."
At that time, AA (Automobile Association) patrolmen had a very distinctive persona and silhouette. They were always out there on the roads, driving their motorbikes with sidecars. They wore (am I inventing this memory?) leather gaiters, yellow and black uniforms, and had peaked caps like a chauffeur's. Their motorbikes were somehow part of the same livery.
In my infant imagery (and partly because we had, and played a lot with, a favorite Dinky Toy miniature of an AA man on his motorbike with sidecar), I was absolutely sure that they never stood up. All AA men were in a permanent sitting position.
The other fascinating and notable thing about them was that they saluted. They were almost invariably automatic about this duty. We would get quite indignant if we passed one and he forgot to salute. After all, everyone in our car saluted him!
If you were a paid-up member of the AA, your car sported a distinctive AA badge in front, like a shield. Patrolmen were expected to notice it.
Saluting is still, even in our ruder times, part of some people's driving habits. Most hand signals are gone forever, but thanking a polite driver for letting you into a line of traffic, or some other such courtesy, still elicits a thank-you salutation from some drivers. I'm not certain this is part of other cultures, but when my wife was a child, whenever she went with her Uncle Kenny in his car, he thanked people frequently with a salute. She didn't realize, at the time, why he did it. She just thought he had a vast number of friends.
Anyway, I early numbered my father among AA men. I don't think I had told anyone about this. But finally, standing in the stained-glass light-and-shadow of our front porch one day, I remember the extreme surprise among all those high-level adults when I inadvertently let it out.
"Wherever did you get such an idea?" one of them asked incredulously. "What could possibly have made you think that?!"
When you think about it, my characterization of Dad as an AA man was no more peculiar than some of the nonsense children received directly from adults: stuff about tooth fairies, Easter bunnies, and Santa Claus. After all, one of my earliest memories of my father was seeing him with his gas mask on. He was in the "Dad's Army" (the local Home Guard), and in his gas mask he looked like an alien. AA men looked much more acceptable. Maybe I invented this as his day job to compensate for the gas mask.
When they asked me how I had arrived at his AA-manship, my reply must have surprised them even more. "I thought he was an AA man because they are short," I said.
He wasn't short. He was a good six feet. But there you are. I had it all worked out to my satisfaction. AA men never stood up. So AA men were short. My Dad was short. So he must be an AA man.
I did, though I say so myself, have a certain watertight logic. Once or twice in later years people have suggested I should have been a lawyer. I always take this to signify stupefied admiration for my way of arguing both sides of a question with equal certainty. Either that, or they think I'm impossible. Maybe both.
My parents later told me (because I had no recollection of it) that as a small child I pestered them so continually about going for a train ride that they eventually gave in. It seems likely that my idea of a train was fed by the Hornby toy trains we played with, just as the AA-man image came from a toy. We would endlessly brrm-brrrm and chug-chug these toys around the floor, and they were doubtless more real to us than what they represented.
This would explain my behavior on the day they finally took me on the train ride I had longed for. After they lifted me up into a compartment, the porter blew his whistle, men shouted, and steam gushed and hissed and surged. The train slowly creaked and lurched into motion, relentlessly gathering speed and then, at last, rattled rhythmically over the rails ... and I burst into an uncontrolled cataclysm of tears.
.When the assembled adults managed to calm me down a bit, they asked: "But you wanted to go on a train, didn't you, dear? And here you are, on one. Having a train ride. Why don't you like it?"
I replied, between sniffles and gasps of the most dramatic sort: "B-but (gasp) where (sniffle, gasp) IS (sniffle gasp gasp sniffle) the TRAIN (snasp, giffle)?
I still think this was a perfectly reasonable question. I thought I would be able to see the train from the outside as we went along. But all we could see were seats and luggage racks and dirty windows. Not at all the experience I'd expected.
Sunday is Fathers Day in the United States.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor