As a cadet at VMI, fall made me anxious. While others were tidying up the frat house or skipping that first-period seminar, I was sprinting back to barracks and diving into a window. I had to beat the clock and the bugle. Everything was a race. Get there or get demerits. November, in particular, was rough. The season happened around us, and the cool air was a reminder that exams were close. We got up before the sun, saluted a flag we couldn’t see, and longed for more sleep.
This all came back to me at a recent cookout, a moveable feast of sorts. There I was with some guys I’ve known since I was six, not VMI buddies, but good friends who’ve seen all the chapters of my life. We had brisket, cooked in one of those awesome Green Eggs. Dawn made her Texas caviar that I love, the one where she shaves the corn cobs and adds fresh garlic. I showed up, eager and alive to see old buddies and to pick up where we left off, which, with these guys, requires little. We had gathered to merge our parenting lives, to let off the throttle for a minute and coast. But no matter what we do, it all circles back to our youth. It only takes a word or someone to bring up that basement on Monument, and then we return to our teenage selves: boys who lived off of “your mom” jokes and leftover Domino’s. These were the guys who watched me lead the conga line at Dave’s wedding and who I cheered on when we set fire to the bamboo in Boy Scouts. We were a John Hughes film without the cool guys or the Porsche. Now, we are the adults, looking at our own kids, some of whom are the very age now that we were then when we first met. It was in that moment when Andrew, who was wearing 12-inch rubber gloves to tackle the beef, said, “Man, we are so done. Can you imagine having another kid?”
I shake my head, but there are moments when Dawn and I do want more kids. Then I hear about a classmate whose (go for a girl!) third child turned into twin boys, and I imagine us hauling around our own quartet. Today, we can’t go anywhere without our 20-cubic foot car topper. When I was a boy, a car trip meant stealing the AA batteries from the emergency lantern for my Walkman. My sister Susan and I shared Eddie Murphy’s Raw cassette tape (thank you, Grandma), and we were happy. A movie was watching the rows of corn go by. Dad said little and stayed in the right lane while Mom guarded the Cokes and the Nabs. If you ate your ration too early, you went hungry.
Something about two boys makes it different – magical and tortuous. Just recently, they finally started playing in a way that others would identify as joyful. Dawn and I remind each other not to interrupt. “No one is crying, and the power is still on.” Then we see them climb out of their bedroom window or ask for nails. Today we threw away a plastic flute that had ended up in someone’s butt. After the episode, Dawn put the instrument on top of the fridge. When I heard the story, I said, “Let’s just throw that away.”
So at this party with the Green Egg, we intentionally only took one boy. We wanted to avoid battles over who got more ketchup.
“What? Where is your other one?”
“Oh, you mean the 4-year-old? He’s with his godmother. We want to be invited back.”
They laugh, and I laugh, but I’m serious. Anything with a lock, they can bust. Anything meant for future grandchildren, they will destroy. It is never done out of vengeance or anger. Instead, heirlooms are discovered for what they are, like the missing link for the nuclear submarine they are building in the basement. Who knew that a WWII binocular case could also hold water? We have friends who go to hotels and stay in the same room with their offspring. Last time we did that, the front desk called and told us to stop throwing books at the walls. I know it isn’t like this for everyone, but for two boys – no, two Morgan boys – it is different. With one kid at a cookout, you can eat seconds of slaw and keep track of your beverage. With two wild ones, the new badminton net gets wrapped around the host, and the metal stakes become swords.
Over the years, most holiday memories have stuck. I can name every one of my Halloween costumes. I can remember the tire pressure recommendation on the Schwinn Thrasher that came down the chimney thanks to St. Nick. But Thanksgiving feels less complete. When I do reminisce, I don’t see a homemade meal. Instead, I see myself back at VMI with that panic and distress, marching down a hill in my best dress uniform. Together, we sat fifteen to a table for the big feast. We looked the part until after the pumpkin pie when we threw turkey carcasses and punted plates with our polished shoes. Tables were flipped sideways to create makeshift bunkers. We fired mortar reports of sweet potatoes, forks, and knives. Some Orwellian loudspeaker barked for us to conform. In the end, the entire corps of cadets was put on confinement and three guys needed a medic.
I’m not that guy any more. The uneasiness is gone. But sometimes, being a dad feels like I’m enforcing those rules. I hold the bugle and dish out the demerits. But in that backyard, Dawn and I lapped up life, going back to the cooler one more time. Of course, with only one kid it was easier. We cruised through the crowd without a whistle or a threat. I understand it now. The food was sweeter not because I was reminded where I come from, but rather, in thinking about who my boys might become.