The gift of having a son is an eye opening experience for any man. I find myself constantly comparing my relationship with my son to my dad’s relationship with me. My dad was always great at finding father son activities to do with me. Most of them revolved around sports and outdoor activities. I try to engage my son, who is four, in the same type of bonding experiences, with varying levels of success. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m quite as adept as my dad was at teaching my son about “the great outdoors.” Allow me to elaborate.
About a year ago, when my son was three, we took a summer trip to my uncle’s lake cottage in western Michigan. It’s where I was born, and where I spent two years during graduate school. However, I grew up for the majority of my childhood in Florida (please don’t hold it against me.) I am by no means your average Michigander. Yes, that is what they are actually called. Regardless of my mitten-state roots, “lake people” I ain’t. That title belongs to others in Michigan, including most of my cousins, aunts, uncles, acquaintances, mortal enemies, people to whom I probably owe money, etc. Long story short, I suck at wilderness.
This tangible inadequacy didn’t stop me from trying to prove my Michigan-y-ness to my son while visiting my ancestral home. One afternoon during the trip, I looked down onto the lake shore and noticed my uncle’s old canoe and oar just sitting there, begging to be misused. My wife, who works way too hard most of the time, was taking a much-deserved afternoon nap. My parents and sister had left to visit family, so it was just my son and I, left to our own devices.
We were staring blankly at each other on the living room floor, when I got an Idea. Father son canoe ride! What could be more “Michi-grand” than that? (#Wordplay) The time had come to introduce the fruit of my loins to the majesty of the American wilderness. It would have been a unforgivable travesty to deprive him of this gift. More importantly, the cottage doesn’t have cable, so what the hell else were we supposed to do?
I put on my state-of-the-art master canoeing gear, and did the same for my son. Translation: I put on my flip flops, and put him in his Crocs. We walked down to the lake and I slid the canoe off the sand into the water.“Go ahead” I said. “Get in!” He proceeded to walk into the lake, soaking his shorts. “No no no!” I said. “In the boat!” He looked back at me and burst out laughing. The bottom half of his shorts were now dripping wet. Obviously I couldn’t just throw him the canoe and act like nothing had happened. So I gently set him in the canoe, and acted like nothing had happened.
I pushed the canoe a little further into the water, then hopped in myself. My son was sitting in the center, and I was in the back. As soon as I started paddling, I panicked. I had forgotten to grab my cell phone! What if something happened? Like we got lost on the lake?! or someone in my fantasy football group shared a scathing Tom Brady meme?! I gave myself a hurried pat-down, and to my relief, I had accidentally done the right thing and brought my cellphone. “Whew.” Never mind that my battery was at 3%. The odds of me needing to respond to more than one Tom Brady meme on this little sojourn were minuscule.
Furthermore, I had been on this lake a hundred times since childhood. I had almost drowned there at least 4 times in the last 15 years. So yeah, I was more than qualified to tackle this challenge. I started to paddle straight out from the cottage, and noticed that my son was taking in the natural beauty. There was a nice breeze at our back, and It made paddling even easier than I had anticipated.
“Do you want me to paddle us to uncle Fred and aunt Donna’s house?” I asked him. “Yes pease. Maybe they have candy for me.” he responded. His only motivation for ever visiting anyone is the hope that they may offer him some sort of candy. Like father, like son
My aunt and uncle live on a small inlet to the right of the cottage. I figured we could call them out onto their deck to say hello. I put my oar into the water, assuming the drag would turn the bow of the boat to the right. It did not. The wind was a little stronger than I had planned for, so it pushed against the side of the canoe, and pointed us straight back toward the opposite end of the lake. Once again, the cottage was behind us, and it was getting further away.
“Oops!” I said. “Oops!” my son repeated with a giggle. “My candy’s over there!” he squealed as he pointed toward the inlet. “I know buddy. We’re going there.” I told him. It was going to take more elbow grease to get us through the crosswind and into the inlet. I put the oar on the opposite side of the hull and started paddling with force.
The wind continued to blow us straight toward the center of the lake. “My candy! My candy!”he repeated, as we got further away from the inlet. Now not only was I tired from the strenuous paddling, and annoyed at the persistent wind, but I too couldn’t stop thinking about candy because he wouldn’t stop screaming about it.
“That’s OK buddy. We just have to wait for the wind to stop, then I’ll turn us around.” “OK. I’ll wait right here” He said, as if he could wait anywhere else. I pulled the oar back into the canoe, and waited. Finally the light wind that had been nudging us away from our projected course subsided. It was replaced by gale force winds that made us slice threw the water like a rocket-powered hydrofoil.
“Shit!” I said.
“What’s chit?” he asked.
“Sorry buddy. It’s when you go poddy.”
“Oh. Do you have to go poddy?” he asked.
“No. Why?” I replied.
“Cuz I have to go poddy.” He said.
“Shit!” I said again.
“Chit!” he repeated.
I told him to hold it as long as he could.
He said “OK.”
Then he said “Never mind. I went.”
“Peepee or caca?” I asked.
“Peepee” he said.
I moved on
I told him to relax and look at the trees until we got to the other side of the lake. I continued trying every possible means of turning the canoe, to no avail. The wind was simply too strong. I had resigned myself to the fact that we were doomed to run aground on the opposite side of the lake, approximately a mile away from our intended landfall. Pure Michigan my ass.
I pulled out my cell phone to call my wife. I knew she would be worried if we were gone when she woke up and we hadn’t left a note. I saw a notification on the screen “Pigskin Pimp posted a new image – Tom Brady’s Gameday Hair Regimen.” Naturally, I clicked on the notification to see the meme before calling my wife. The phone died immediately.
“Hey buddy” I said to my son. “Just wait a couple more minutes. We’re gonna’ stop on the other side of the lake and go for a hike!” He didn’t respond. The magical wilderness tour that I had planned was so exciting that he had dozed off in the middle of the adventure, sitting in the middle of the boat, careening wildly through the middle of the lake. He was swaying back and forth, which necessitated me holding him up with both hands while trying to direct the canoe with the oar at the same time.
After about 20 minutes, we made it to the far end of the lake. I prepared to run the canoe aground in between some of the smaller rocks in the shallows. As we approached, I could hear the faint whisper of Celine Dion serenading to me that her heart would go on. The canoe stopped, and I stood up. I felt the warm rush of the urine and lake-water marinade that had collected on the floor of the canoe.
Once I stepped out onto the rocky shoreline, I picked my son up and put him on my shoulders. He was less than thrilled to be awoken from his peaceful slumber. I carried him through thick vegetation toward the nearest house, about 30 yards away. I could hear the poison ivy plants jeering at us as we passed by them “Fresh meat!” they said to each other as they puckered and whistled at us.
After a few minutes we made it to a dock. “Is this uncle Fred’s house?” my son asked. “No it isn’t.” I said. “Do you think these people have candy?” he continued, keeping his eyes on the prize as usual. “I don’t know. We can ask.” I said. The house had two flights of stairs going from the dock up to the house. We walked up the steps to the back porch. I was certain I would be confused for an intruder and instantly shot. #PureFlorida. I told my son to sit down on the steps while I went to knock on the home’s rear sliding door.
After a minute of knocking, a thin man with a mustache walked around the corner and looked at me with a confused expression. I pointed to the life vest that I was still wearing, for some unknown reason. I think I figured it would imply that I was somehow shipwrecked, which I was. In hindsight, only an idiot would get shipwrecked in a tiny Michigan lake, so that maneuver probably damaged my credibility with him. Nevertheless, he opened the door.
I explained our predicament. He looked like he didn’t believe me. I tried to appear as non-threatening as possible, smiling and laughing as I told our harrowing story of 20 minutes lost at sea, without a single piece of candy. He was neither amused, nor all that interested. He just looked at me like I was hustling him for change in a 7-11 parking lot. #AlsoPureFlorida. “Can I just use your cellphone to call my wife?” I said “I’ll have her drive over here and pick us up.”
He didn’t say a word. He just handed me his flip phone. Maybe you didn’t hear me. I said he handed me his FLIP PHONE. This guy was definitely a serial killer. I could only hope that Dateline would do our story justice, and air it in a primetime network slot, as opposed to an overnight cable slot. We deserved at least that much.
I called my wife. No answer. I called her again. Still no answer. It was way too far to walk back to the cottage, so I tried calling my parents. I hoped that they were back from visiting our relatives. There was no answer on their cell phones either. Just then, I saw my dad and my sister coming around the lake in the pontoon boat. They must have come home and noticed the canoe missing. We were saved!
The boat sped around the edge of the lake, as much as a pontoon boat can speed. They came directly toward us, and my son and I waved at them. They didn’t even notice us, and kept going around the lake right past us. This was definitely going to be a seminal moment in our Dateline special.
Host – “If only you would have looked up at the house in that moment, the Flip Phone Killer would have lost his opportunity.”
My Dad (holding back tears) – “If only I would have looked up…They’d still be here.”
I followed the boat with my eyes as it continued to speed around the perimeter of the lake. When it returned, I walked about halfway down the stairs toward the shoreline, making myself more visible. Finally, my dad saw us and pulled the pontoon up to the man’s dock. He and my sister looked pretty worried. We grabbed the canoe and threw it onto the deck of the pontoon boat. We bid farewell to our potential killer, and headed back to our side of the lake.
I assumed I would find my wife weeping at the end of our pier, consumed by unrelenting fear and soul-piercing sorrow. Instead, I found her still napping in the bedroom like a kitten with mono. I woke her up to describe the near-death sea-faring odyssey we had just survived. I waited a moment for the shock to pass, and braced myself for her passionate embrace. “That’s what you get for not charging your phone, dumbass.” I gave her some space to continue processing.
The only other person who could fully grasp the magnitude of this life-changing journey was my first mate, my three-year-old son. I figured this would be a good teaching moment. I sat him down and talked to him about the power of nature and the importance of respecting its will. When I had finished I asked him “Is there anything about what I just said that you don’t understand?” “No.” he said seriously. “Do you want to ask me any questions?” I inquired. “Yes pease.” He said. “Go ahead. You can ask me anything.” “OK. good” he said. “Because I was just wondering…Now can we get my candy?”
For more stories about being a father and growing up, check out Look At My Manhood