Kid catcher

When I was a much younger man, I had blond hair. Now my hair is one part dark, one part gray, and one part gone – these parts are neither equal nor listed in decreasing order. In my young, blond days, I would sometimes let my hair grow long. It would get very curly on the ends. Historically astute friends compared my locks to those of Lt. Col. (a.k.a. General) Custer.


My hair twin. He was brave, warlike, and a heavy greaser. I am none of these things, which may explain why I have outlived my hair.

During one of my Custer periods, I worked with a Native American woman. My historical doppelgänger notwithstanding, we got along well. She made dream catchers and one day she presented me with a very attractive dream catcher as a gift.

If there were any irony in this hand-made Native American craft being given to the look-a-like of General Yellow Hair, it did not stop me from accepting the gift. To this day, it hangs over my bed.

It works pretty well at catching bad dreams. Unfortunately, it does nothing to stop children from coming to me in the night. What I really need in my room is a kid catcher.

The other night, Big Brother woke us up to announce that he’d had a bad dream. I know he has his eye on my dream catcher, but he’s not getting it. I earned that dream catcher by proving that all guys who look like Custer aren’t jerks to Native Americans.

Custer's dream catcher

It used to be a bit more ornate, but time and curious children have taken their toll.

I was too tired to endure him climbing over me, so I moved over and let him sleep on the edge. That’s when I remembered how much I hate the middle. There was no hope of rest between two such interpretive sleepers as my six-year-old and my wife.

I was saved from this spot by the silhouette of Buster, back-lit by the hall night light, standing still in the doorway. Whether he’d had a bad dream, or was merely plagued by too many toddler worries on his mind, he did not say.

As Big Brother gets less creepy about coming into our room in the night, Buster picks up the slack. Buster silently hovers in the doorway, a mini shadow of the human form. The mere vibe of it, spurs everyone to full wakefulness.

Since there was no room for a fourth in our bed, Mommy got a brilliant idea. Both kids should sleep in Big Brother’s bed and keep each other company. “Would you like to sleep in Big Brother’s bed?” she asked Buster.

“No,” he replied. “Sleep with Daddy.”

Her great idea wasn’t a total flop. She somehow used the momentum of it to get Big Brother back into his own bed, even without the company of Buster.

But that still left us with an extra human in our bed. Buster tossed and turned as he thought his deep thoughts, and so did I, even though my thoughts were comparatively shallow.

We do have a kid catcher in our room after all. Mommy and Daddy have always called it by the wrong name: our bed.


Don’t expect William Henry Harrison to do you any favors

Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers regarding the outcome of the War of 1812. If you have not yet seen this war and don’t want the ending ruined for you, proceed with caution.

My smoldering annoyance with William Henry Harrison burst into open flame recently. You see, we couldn’t find New Baby’s birth certificate. Our natural reaction was to curse the name of the late Mr. Harrison.

No friend fo mine

William Henry Harrison: trouble maker. I’ve taken the precaution of blocking him on Facebook.

History buffs may recall that old Billy Harrison was President of the United States for 32 days, or even that he was governor of Indiana during its short pants youth as a territory, before it grew up into mature statehood.

Those are fine accomplishments, if you’re into that. But I will always remember William H. Harrison as the commander of US forces at the Battle of the Thames. This battle took place in southern Ontario in 1813. The good news, if you are cheering for the US in the War of 1812, is that Harrison’s army won the day. The bad news is that it didn’t do a thing to lessen the amount of paperwork needed to cart a family, by the most direct route, from Michigan to New York in 2014.

But it could have.

The Thames battle site is right in the middle of that aggravating little strip of Canada that hangs down into the Great Lakes between Detroit and Buffalo. In 1813, Harrison won control of that area. He could have stayed there and maybe moved the border crossings off to the north so that we could scoot through without having to wait in line to reveal to a complete stranger the intimate details of our vacation plans. Then we wouldn’t have had to turn the house upside down searching for a single slip of paper we had no hope of finding. In the end, we wouldn’t have had to drive through Ohio and add hours to our already too long road trip.

War of 1812

The area in question is the off-white bit that separates the Michigan Territory from New York. The battlefield is the dot marked #4.

Harrison could have accomplish these great things, but he didn’t. He packed up his army and went home. He probably didn’t even give a single thought to the inconvenience this would cause me and my family. I begin to think he did it out of spite.

We collected all the boys’ birth certificates in anticipation of pleasant encounters with border guards. On the morning of departure, Big Brother’s was there; Buster’s was there, but New Baby’s was missing. This odd disappearance might as well be blamed on Harrison’s ghost as anybody else. Why he carries his vendetta beyond the grave I don’t’ know.

As we were standing still amidst Cleveland road construction I conceded that he’d won this round.

Death of Tecumseh

Another result of the battle: Tecumseh was transformed from feared Shawnee war chief to popular lawnmower engine. (Currier & Ives)

Serious historians may suggest that my animosity toward Harrison is misplaced. After all, the Treaty of Ghent restored the original boundaries, regardless of the placement of armies at the close of hostilities. So even if he had homesteaded southern Ontario, it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. The historians may be right, and this is why I’m also pissed off at the negotiators who approved the Treaty of Ghent. They were jerks too.

Come on, Canada. Let’s deal. There must be something you’d take in trade for the right-of-way between Michigan and New York. I think we have some nice tropical islands: sun, sand, and surf; and you wouldn’t even need a passport. Think about it. Call me.

Let’s play 20 (thousand) questions

If you are the father of a new baby boy and you are feeling a little left out because junior only seems to have eyes for Mommy and her rolling hills of milk and honey, take heart. Your day will come. Your day will come with a suffocating vengeance. Junior will cover you with love, elbows, knees, and incessant questions before you know what hit you.

Boys start climbing up and down Daddy as toddlers. This isn’t so bad. Toddlers aren’t very heavy. Yes, they have sharp corners, but there is usually not enough force behind the pointy parts to cause Daddy any serious internal damage. More importantly, toddlers don’t ask a steady stream of questions just to hear themselves talk. They may talk a steady stream of gibberish at you, but all you have to do is smile and nod to keep them happy.

a horse of course

They’ll ride you like an army mule.

Five-year-olds are a different story. They can get to be heavy. We’re talking a serious bag of rock salt here. Their love for Daddy can be a painful one. Worse, five-year-olds are full of Daddy questions. These are not to be ignored, even if the answers are right in front of their faces.

I’m not talking about the occasional, meaningful question – the one that lets a boy put together the pieces of his world to help it make sense. I’m talking about the “narrate the world to me as it passes so I don’t have to pay attention to anything on my own” questions.

Our five-year-old likes to watch history documentaries, especially those dealing with the World Wars. I like watching them too, so this isn’t a problem – until his mouth starts running. For the life of me, I can’t get the boy to understand that if he would just shut his pie hole and listen to the program, most of his questions would be answered before he asked them.

Moreover, his endless questions make it difficult for me to hear the TV, meaning I have more trouble answering his questions. That is, when his question is something more complex than the ubiquitous, “Are those Germans?” That one I can usually handle without the narrator’s help.

I’ve missed out on a myriad of fascinating tidbits of history answering the “Are those Germans?” question. But the boy occasionally asks a thoughtful question. It’s just too bad he can’t write these down to ask after the program.

WWI German artillery

Yes. They’re Germans. Now can we remain quiet and listen to the program for 10 seconds?

In an awkward oversimplification, I have categorized Nazis as the “bad Germans” for him. This leads him to the very reasonable question: “What happened to all the good Germans.” I only wish I were smart enough to answer that. This boy has a strong sense of right and wrong, and great pride in his German heritage. It pains me that I can’t reconcile these things for him. Even his good questions give me fits.

The good news is that I only have to hem and haw over the deep questions I can’t answer for a few seconds before we fall into our old, comfortable give and take:

“Are those Germans?”

“No. They’re Italians.”

“Oh. How about those? Are they Germans?”

“Nope. Greeks.”

Meanwhile, the unheard narrator drones on with his superfluous facts, far less important than labeling everyone in every picture.

Mr. Washington’s sauna

When I asked my son if he wanted to visit Mr. Washington’s house, he asked what any righteous four-year-old would. “Can we go to Mr. Lincoln’s house instead?”

Though his priorities were above reproach, I was left with the sad duty of explaining to him that Mr. Lincoln’s house is in Illinois and we were going to Virginia. Once he understood how harsh geography had robbed him of his first choice, he agreed that Mr. Washington’s house would be a fine substitute.

I like Mount Vernon. It is interesting and beautiful. It is also on a hill in Virginia – an important consideration if you are visiting in the heart of summer with small children.

Mount Vernon front gate

A beautiful home, if you can make it there before you melt.

I guess the area around Mount Vernon is called Northern Virginia to trick people into thinking it might not be hellishly hot there in July. I won’t be fooled again. In fact, I am rethinking my January beach volleyball plans in South Dakota.

Mr. Washington built his house on a hill overlooking the Potomac. It was a good idea for someone with a horse to carry him back up the hill every time he wanted to go dip his toes into the water.

Potomac wharf

It looks like a carousel but there are no horses. Just like there are no horses to carry you back up the hill. Psych!

Many interesting parts of the estate are downhill from the main house. My wife and I didn’t have any horses to carry us back up the hill in the stifling heat. Fortunately, our boys did. They had a couple of plodding nags, affectionately called Mommy and Daddy.

My wife had the foresight to bring the double stroller. I’d wanted the single. While the little guy could only be expected to toddle odd bits of the greater Washington area, I argued that the big boy could do his own walking. It was no smooth sailing, pushing that cart loaded with 65 pounds of childhood up dirt paths, but without it, my four-year-old and I would still be on the banks of the Potomac, arguing about how he was going to be transported up the hill.

Mount Vernon carriage

This belonged to Mr. Washington, but I could swear I pushed my boys up that hill in it a few times.

By the time we toured the main house, everyone was tired and sweaty. I have observed that tired, sweaty kids are not always on the their best behavior. If Mr. Washington’s spirit happens to flit around the halls of his home, he has now observed it too.

Mr. Washington’s house is full of interesting knick-knacks. He, and anyone truly devoted to preserving his legacy, would certainly want a curious child to try to touch them all. Undoubtedly, he would encourage such a child to stray from his group and open any door that might have been closed against the public by mistake.

Mount Vernon overseer cabin

Washington’s overseer had sense enough to barricade the doorway of his cabin so the young’uns couldn’t get into his things.

Mr. Washington was a good marketer. This was the man who slyly wore a military uniform to the meeting where they were going to pick out an army commander-in-chief. This strategic thinking persists at Mount Vernon, where the gift shop straddles the park exit and beguiles weary tourists with its air conditioning.

We did not buy any souvenirs, but I cannot tell a lie: a one-year-old I know might have rearranged the display of some of the trinkets in the store.

The river looks so beautiful, cool, and inviting. Ignore it and go to the gift shop. That's the trap with the air conditioning.

The river looks so beautiful, cool, and inviting. Ignore it and go to the gift shop. That’s the trap with the air conditioning.