FATHERS and Their SONS
WE climb onto the Van Nuys Flyaway bus and take the seats directly be-hind the driver. Across the aisle from us sit a man and his teenage son. The man is in his 40s, burly and gravel-voiced. He wears glasses, an anorak, and one of those brimmed caps with the plastic snap-band in the back.
The son wears sweat pants. His hair is very short. He sets his brimmed cap on the knee he has cocked against the partition that delineates the entry area; the word ``Navy'' is embroidered on its front. At first glance, I estimate that he is 18. I wonder if he is in college, and I do that because my own son is in college. In fact, my wife, Donanne, and I have just flown into Los Angeles from Albuquerque, N.M., after seeing him. We visited Anasazi Indian sites with Paul and his friend Abe during their final week-long spring vacation in college.
As we pull away from the airport, moving toward the freeway and the parking lot in Van Nuys, Calif., where we've left the car, the man across the aisle makes desultory conversation with his son. Overhearing his words, I smile. He is trying to connect with his kid. And the kid is replying in the barely audible monosyllables that make fathers feel like the most superfluous creatures on earth. I revise my estimate. Maybe the man's son is only 16.
The next time I look over- we are on the freeway now - the kid is asleep, his head pillowed on his dad's shoulder. The man is holding his son's knees - not because it is necessary to do so, but because he loves his son. He wants this small bit of contact with the boy while he sleeps.
In my mind I say to the man: ``If you are wise, you will memorize the feel of your son's head on your shoulder, the feel of his knee grasped by your hand. Your son is almost a man, and he won't be sleeping with his head on your shoulder much longer.''
In directing these mental words to the man across the aisle, I am, of course, talking to myself. That's because my son, almost 22, two months away from being a college graduate, slept with his head on my lap this morning. And as Abe drove us through the rain that became snow, moving out of Chinle, Ariz., at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly into New Mexico, I wondered if Paul would ever sleep with his head on my lap again.
Perhaps before we know it - you seem only to look away for a second and these things have happened - Paul will have married and have a child of his own sleeping on his lap.
As a kind of conformation of his pulling away, a funny thing often happens when he is with Donanne and me. ``Why don't you get out of Santa Barbara?'' he asks us. ``It's so stodgy.''
``Why don't you move to Santa Fe?'' This he suggested during our recent trip. He was holding a real-estate brochure - he always finds them somewhere - and was touting a place that would be just right for us up on the road toward Taos.
Thank you, but we like California. In fact, my only real-estate thoughts focus on paying off our mortgage. The truth is: I don't want to move to a house Paul has not lived in. I like living in a home that has a ``Paulie's room.'' I like his being with us - even when he's far away.
Musing about houses, I remember walking my son around the neighborhood of the first house we ever owned. I would come home from my job where things were not going all that well, and we would take walks. Paul was 2. With his tiny hand held in mine, we would trudge along a lane behind the houses, a place where no cars came. We would make a daily inspection of the neighborhood, note seasonal changes, and say hello to pets.
Sometimes walking with your two-year-old is less than fascinating. But I do recall telling myself: ``Be here now. Don't think about other things: tomorrow's work, this job that isn't going well. Be here right now - with your child. Let your thoughts be in the hand holding his. And then later you will know what that hand felt like as you held it.''
ONCE again, I notice the man across the aisle. His hand pats his son's knee. And in my mind I say to him: ``Remember what that feels like.'' And I'm glad that I can remember what it felt like to have a two-year-old hand in mine on late afternoon walks.
And I think of my dad. I wish I had known him better. The 1950s were a time when men did not expect to express their feelings. Perhaps I remember the feel of my father's handshake. I think I do. But we didn't hug each other - and I am privileged in this less- uptight time to hug my son - and I don't remember his arm around my shoulder.
But he certainly loved us. When my brother and I wrote a musical show in college (we were in the Midwest), we turned to Dad. ``You're in L.A. Can you find us an arranger?'' And somehow he made time from his architectural practice to locate a man in Hollywood who taught people to play piano by ear. That man scored our songs -
quickly and nicely - for a five-piece band.
Dad also enrolled my brother and me in a very expensive college and my sister in boarding school - all at the same time. My mother told me later that sometimes at night he paced the floor. I did not know that then. I suppose my brother and sister and I just thought that Dad was doing what every father did. But as I reach the finish line on college payments, I know how much love that represented.
The `50s, when I was Paul's age, now seem an innocent and idyllic era. (With the cold war and nuclear threats, they did not seem that way then.) Even so, I'm glad that we live now in a more expressive time. We are better able to hug, better able to talk about who we are.
AS a last whole-family activ-ity, my parents took all five of us to Europe. It was 1957. During that trip, my Dad notified us that he'd been nominated to become a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). I remember our stopping the trip for a day or two while he organized data to support the nomination.
As it turned out, he was not elected. Some time after we returned from the trip, our mother broke the news to my brother and me. We said: ``Oh,'' and ``Gee, I'm sorry.'' And nothing more was ever discussed. Not: ``How come?'' Not: ``Gee, Dad, how does that feel?'' Not even: ``Can you be nominated again?''
(In fact, he was nominated again and elected. Later he served as chairman of the jury that selected AIA Fellows, the Institute's highest nonelective post.)
In the `50s, young people had no idea - and little concern, I admit - about what people experienced in their middle years. In movies that appeared just before the emergence of TV, people got married and the movie ended. Everyone lived happily ever after.
In this more expressive era, I've tried to share my life with my son. To enjoy the flush times and fill them with laughter. And not to deny the lean times - when laughter is maybe more important as we bite our fingernails and tighten our belts.
I've tried to express to Paul how it felt to leave that job that was not going well when he was 2. And how getting through that experience led to opportunities I'd never dreamed would come my way.
The bus moves off the freeway at Sherman Way. The man across the aisle nudges his son awake. The boy sits up and looks around. Glancing at him, I think maybe he is only about 14. After a moment, he snuggles back against his father's shoulder.
WHEN the bus parks at the Flyaway station, the kid stands, still half asleep. His brimmed cap drops into the aisle. I pick it up and hand it to the father. ``Thanks,'' he says.
I scramble out of the bus and hurry off to fetch the car. It's parked in the far reaches of the lot. By the time I bring it back to the baggage-loading area and help Donanne with the bags, the man who sat across the aisle is moving off to get his car. The kid, still stuporous with sleep, sits nestled among the family baggage. In my mind I say to him: ``Remember this moment, kid. Your dad loves you. I hope you know it.''
Donanne and I shove our bags into the trunk of the zippy little red Honda. (``Why did you get that car?'' Paul asked when we told him we'd replaced the Cadillac.) We are already thinking of home, of the house in Santa Barbara were Paul is present even when he's not there. We get into the Honda and flyaway home.