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The Road to Manhood


Harry Buschman

Tommy became a baritone today. How can such things be? It was only yesterday he was an alto, and the day before that Tommy Alexander shat in my lap while his parents did their weekly shopping at Waldbaum's. "It's okay, it's okay, Mrs. Alexander," I said, " ... please don't fuss, it'll wash out. We were watching Hawaii 5-0 and Dan-O's car went into the bay."

The Alexanders used to leave young Tommy with me without a word of warning. Lacking the benefits of a personal live in grandfather, the next best thing was the old widower living next door.

We accepted each other, Tommy and me. I wouldn't say we were buddies, we were friends at arms length. There was no blood relationship, and he often eyed me just as warily as my cat Mehitabel eyed him. People of kin can turn their backs on each other in relative security. They can be separated by fifty or sixty years and still know what to expect from each other, but there is always a break-in period for strangers. I know this argument doesn't hold water when you look at Cain and Abel and the English history plays of William Shakespeare, but those cases are rare, so rare that they've found their way into religion and literature. As far as you and I are concerned, if we have a brother, we can pick up the soap in the shower with reasonable safety.

So Tommy and I had to go through our break-in period. We had to get used to each other. That took a while. I would read him stories of pirates and Huckleberry Finn rafting down the river -- he, in turn, would look at me dubiously and occasionally pull my eyeglasses off my nose. Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain joined me in the humanization of Tommy Alexander, I could not have done it alone. His mother and father would probably have preferred Dr. Seuss or Disney, but if that's what they wanted they should have left him with somebody else. I never condescended to my own children, or kootchie-kooed them either, and I certainly wasn't going to pull any punches with Tommy.

Tommy had a real grandfather, but he lived in Midville, Iowa. I had a real grandson, but he lived in Montreal. So on holidays, Tommy and I wouldn't see much of each other. We were more than casual acquaintances however -- somewhere between the man who comes to read the water meter and the man who reads you asleep at bedtime.

The Alexander's were young. They were in that consumer phase of life and their nest was sparsely feathered. They bought things every week, furniture, lawn mowers, washing machines -- you name it, they bought it. Children can be a burden when you're shopping for major household items and they severely limit the cargo capacity of the average American automobile. When you consider the car seat, the stroller, the toys, the food and the changes of clothes, a tot like Tommy can be an albatross around the neck of the dedicated shopper.

It was easy in the beginning. Phyllis would appear at my door with Tommy in a basket. He would be sound asleep and looking like something out of Norman Rockwell.

"Would you mind keeping your eye on Tommy? We'll only be an hour or so, we need a new mattress." In the basket with Tommy would be two bottles of formula and an assortment of playthings .... enough to keep him busy for four or five days. I would watch them drive off, then turn and look at Tommy. He would grow restive and wake in a foul mood almost immediately.

He would begin with a tentative whimper, hardly louder than the squeak of new shoes. Finding himself in unfamiliar surroundings, the whimper would blossom into a whine, then to a sob. Seeing me, he would commence to gather breath in preparation for an all out trumpet blast of protest. This was my moment for the first bottle. As his chest expanded for his first salvo of grievance, I would insert the nipple and put him and the basket on my back porch.

Because I am on the La Guardia approach pattern, I have installed triple glazed windows back there and very little noise can get through. I would go about my work inside, glancing at him from time to time. I would see little more than a gaping toothless mouth surrounded by a crimson face of fury. When he exhausted himself and became passive, I would go out and have a chat with him. He quickly learned that in order to get any attention from me he must be calm and above all, quiet. Then, and only then could we discuss Huckleberry Finn and Long John Silver.

He grew to toddling age, and as neighbors will, he would wander in to visit Mehitabel and me. On his own, he learned to steer clear of the rose bushes and Mehitabel's summer outdoor sanitary facilities. I would simply tell him, "Stay out of there, Tommy, Mehitabel shits in there." I am subject to my cat's preferences. People living alone are easy marks for domestic animals. Lacking human companionship, they must obey the whims of animals or suffer even greater loneliness. Tommy would approach Mehitabel's sandbox, turn to me and say "Hnits." Therefore, after Daddy and Mommy, his third word was "shit." I considered that a sign of great promise, he was beginning to put things in their proper perspective.

When he toddled off to school with his mother, I was as buoyant as she. She, because he was out from under foot part of the day - me, because I could renew acquaintances with people my own age, and Mehitabel, who could now stalk sparrows and use his sandbox without fear of interruption. Yet, sad to say, from that day forward, a curtain of estrangement descended between Tommy and me. A new and exciting world had opened up to Tommy Alexander. A search for self, for recognition and praise from students and teachers alike. He drifted away.

I have always noticed that neighbor's children grow in spurts. My own children, though well past mid-life crisis, seem to be mired in infancy. It was only yesterday I held them at the Baptismal Font; it cannot be possible they are now planning for retirement. I would turn my back on Tommy, however, and when I looked again he was on a bicycle or in a baseball uniform. His alto voice could be heard from time to time in anger and ecstasy with friends and family ... and just today he appeared as a baritone at my front door wanting to know if I would consider him as my 'lawn mower'.

It will require thorough consideration. I am sure he is a terrible lawn mower, and if such is the case, it could strain our relationship even further. On the other hand, it could rekindle old ties.

I wish life would work these things out for itself instead of involving me.

©Harry Buschman 1998

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