When my own son, Jr., was eight, I took a daylong tour of his elementary school. I had an interest. I brought along one disposable camera, a pen full of ink, a mechanical pencil full of lead, one notebook/journal, glasses (sun-, reading-), pepper spray (half can), twelve individually wrapped candies, and a change of socks all zipped up in a belt-bag that clipped about my waist with such ease a child could have done it. I was there to learn; mine was a fatherly interest.
Clarence Cannon Elementary, as a structure, reflected the spurts of the town’s reproductions rates. The Great Boom following The Son’s First Uprising. The Front Street Fallout. The Fathers’ Famine. The Money Years. The building fattened, shrank according to the town’s offspring and thusly held stammering halls of arms, legs of pre-pubescent sons, classrooms broad in the sudden ways of developing daughters. Floor’s cracked in modest linoleum irruptions. Teetering shrieks, voices edging towards maturity, sixth graders mostly, were the only sounds that birthed echoes. A hall might turn one-hundred-and-seventy degrees quite suddenly and begin walking there along beside itself. Materials seemed generally stressed. Buried about that awkward body was the George Washington Memorial Gymnasium.
Clarence Cannon Elementary: A building engaged in a deathless development, perpetual pubescence.
Clarence Cannon: A man. Former Senator. Full grown, long dead.
George Washington: A man. First President. Full grown, long dead.
For three weeks now, Jr. had mistook a portrait of George Washington, hanging with cocked corner there above Clarence Canon Elementary’s gymnasium’s double-doors, for God. I held his hand, bending minimally to do so; Jr. would lead me on a tour and I would get to the bottom of it. We passed into shadow beneath the entrance’s tin-roofed carport and Jr. demonstrated his qualifications as a tour guide without hesitation.
He said, We stand here huddled after school some afternoons so as to avoid the rain.
His small voice would sing me through the tour, a real fine waltz, and I’d come to know his mistake, my mistake.
Though God’s looks should not receive elucidation, delineation, suggestion, what not, in the public education offered by Clarence Cannon Elementary, George Washington’s should.
I pulled the disposable camera from my belt bag (the convenience) to snap a picture. Instructions for operating the camera were printed in austere commands right there on its cardboard shell. I complied and took a fine shot: the building’s hollow-tongued entrance, Jr. there, looking away. His patience with me was immeasurable.
I received few stares trailing behind my own son past the front office. I expected to eventually encounter trouble of some form or other, as Clarence Cannon’s student body receives careful instruction from twenty-four sons in total. Twenty-four post-pubescent male citizens who had yet to father and thereby cease to be sons, each naturally resentful, ceaselessly casing we fathers, recruiting our own sons for our own embarrassing damnation (frustration, senility, death, what not). They would surely offer trouble. I announced my tour three days prior and had since received three written threats folded carefully beneath my car’s wiper, penned by sons. They’d promised mild physical violence and signed each:
– God (George Washington (Man (First President)))
The front office, though, sat dissected by felt walls and was walled ultimately by glass and made-up almost entirely of fathers with three mothers as secretaries.
Twelve percent of the kitchen staff was fathers.
Pauley, the janitor, a son.
The counseling staff held a six-three majority over we sad fathers.
I waved to Mr. Delaney (a father) who sat behind his desk in the front office smiling at me through glass. In an attempt to make my lips more readable, I yelled, My son is taking me on a tour today! Mr. Delaney waved back.
The possibility of the portrait of George Washington being taken as both George Washington and God: not precluded.
The opening corridor of the school forked and Jr. took me straight to the image in question. I kneeled beside him, led his eye with my raised arm.
It had a certain presence. A bust portrait, black backdrop, George Washington’s puffy colonial dress billowing up like something white whipped about the sky. Some dark nothing hanging below, pouring on past the cut of its canvass, hurdling over its walled frame. These were textured strokes. And his face. A wise indifference splashed in the pale hues of his skin, set in the firm clasping of his lips. A fine portrait.
I said, Is that Him?
Again, I read the instructions printed in neat scrawl on the cardboard coat of the disposable camera. I pressed the button when I saw red and, again, a beauty of a shot. Jr. beneath a portrait of his god misread within a portrait of George Washington, the first President of the United States of America.
But, being George Washington in addition to being God would undermine His God-ness. Similarly, being God in addition to being George Washington would undermine His George Washington-ness.
Eddy Declue (Phys-Ed, a son) parked three spaces to the left of me in the lot, gave me a smile through his passenger window there, hunched over his half-folded front seat, and he threw me a good long look now, shuffling by my and Jr.’s crouched observance (I knelt; Jr. leaned against my shoulder). He did not wink. He did not smile. He did not form a playful pistol with thumb and forefinger and fire a shot. He didn’t say, Hello. He didn’t say, Hey, with that admirable nonchalance of sons. He did not say, Good morning gents, a fine bust portrait of George Washington, the first President of the United States of America, eh? No. He stared. A stare that lingered, threatened, some tacit promise to carve a patricidal son from the loose, tender material of Jr., his body, mind. I longed to give him a violent shaking by the collar.
Kneeling before the portrait of George Washington, one is washed over with a certain calm. One is pacified. One is not pessimistically contemplative but optimistically so. One is staring at a foreign world suddenly, rendered, opened, stretched to the flat tranquility of a millpond. One is certainly less likely to engage in a throttling.
My investigation began, of course, with my own son. As a fatherly gesture, I approached Jr. as a victim of some form or other. As one acted upon. Inevitably, this engendered a certain congeniality between the two of us and I intended on cashing in. He opened up; we spoke in plain language.
It’s God, you say?
Yes, Father. A bust portrait of God.
And what, may I ask, led you to this conclusion?
The look of it.
It is, without a doubt, George Washington’s portrait, a portrait of our first President.
I’m not convinced.
Who, then, led you to this conclusion?
Jr. said nothing: my first clue.
Though I admit the George Washington bust portrait’s mistakability for God (the quiet dignity, the indifference, what not), a young man, my own son, does not recognize a portrait of George Washington as God all on his own. Recognition requires more than that. Requires someone, someson, saying, God? Yes, well: Fair skinned, male, late fifties, early sixties, white hair, white sideburns, all of it curly in a refined sort of way, bald about the crown of the head, and often looking quite striking in the garb of a late 18th or early 19th Century man of the world.
My tour guide led me still by the hand, my body still contorted minimally and we stopped briefly to appreciate the restroom. Jr. answered my question before I asked it, telling me that construction on the commode was completed approximately three hours prior to The First Ribbon Cutting.
Bathrooms downsized to accommodate children have a sobering effect and I froze for a brief moment, stooping to relax my tour-guide’s arm, struck by the unreality of urinals so miniature. I found flushing them immensely pleasurable, akin to the joy one receives upon realizing the special capacity of an action figure, a doll with a string and a jaw that flapped about with the voiced coos of its modest squawk box. I knelt again for a sip of water.
A gaggle of sons had gathered in an adjacent corner of the hallway. They were there to give me trouble. The hard linoleum leant a rough texture to the cap of my knee, sand there between bone and skin against pant-leg crinkled in my kneeling; I slurped from the fountain and received the sons’ gifts, listening.
J.J. (Jonathan Jr. Kruthers) gave me but a few words, muttering, An odd place for a tour, old man.
To which Charles Johnson Haddow IV offered, Goddamn everything!
And Sunus Watkins flew me the bird, my final gift. I saw this standing from the fountain, the fat middle finger’s dozen hairs black and rather unsubstantial, even for a son.
I said, I am on a tour with my own son.
They were nothing in the way of a threat, nor were they suspects (too placid, a complete lack of moralistic sting in their comments, what not), and so I bent my body again to accommodate my tour guide’s meager size and apologized for the dramatic wait.
But why George Washington? Why not Clarence Cannon? Why not Daniel Boone? Why not Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn? Why not the informant himself? Approached with an inquiry from my own son, he could have described his own look and could have suddenly become God. Why not Jesse James? Why not Lewis? Why not Clark? Why not
Jr. took a break of his own, granting me my own free time for observation. This was not idle time for my own son, but merely a halt in touring. He engaged in a concentrated bout of coloring, trapezoidal blocks filled in one by one according to a color code whose key stemmed from some basic arithmetic deciphered in the blocks above. If all went well, some image would reveal itself, likely some exotic beasts or a geographic wonder. Certainly nothing domestic, no scene from that life. The decoding and coloring wouldn’t reveal a generic father and son image, for instance, no son playing with trucks, blocks, what not, before a father’s reclined recliner, slippered feet, face obscured by the open palette of the paper, The County Bulldog. I watched over Jr.’s shoulder to be sure. This after some conversing with Ms. Stone, the math/art teacher, who I assured that yes, all was well with my tour and that I did not need a pass. My knees pained me greatly and so to relieve them I pulled a miniature chair beside that of my own son’s, giggling as I fell into the tiny palm of its offering.
Ms. Stone was of no concern to my own investigation, nor was any other woman within Clarence Canon Elementary – I had narrowed things that far – and so I acquiesced the third time that she asked me to leave, stepping out politely after telling Jr. that I looked forward to the remainder of the tour, to the end of his break; he colored.
And what of the larger scheme? The only discernable goal: undoing the father by misleading the son. But the undoing? What scenario could undo by means of such a mistake? Jr. and I attend a 4th of July celebration in the park? and eat hot dogs and funnel cakes and bomb pops? and take in a dramatic reading of The Declaration of Independence? and the reading is performed by a group of historical reenactors? and they’re in their period dress? and Jr. and I get front row seats? and “George Washington” makes his entrance and struts about? and Jr. hollers out, Look father, look Dad, look Pop, it’s God! and the crowd laughs? and at me?
The hall monitor (female, third-grader) approached me while I paced in the hallway outside Ms. Stone’s classroom. Across her chest was a silken sash that read HALL MONITOR. She gave the sleeve of my shirt a firm tug and I knelt beside her.
I got what you’re looking for, she whispered, keeping her voice there between the two of us, her hand a little concaved shell ensuring secrecy.
Do tell, I said.
She took a step back and held out her hand, It’ll cost you.
I gave her four of the candies from my belt bag, placing one in her palm first and then another and then another and then another until she withdrew the loaded limb. She unwrapped each and tossed them all into her tiny mouth at once, the sugar rocks clacking together like marbles, a rivulet of spittle slipping down her chin. She still wasn’t talking and so I forked over the sunglasses. She put them on straight and then slid them down to the ball of her nose. Silence. So I gave her the Mace. She tucked it behind her sash and said nothing. I gave her the mechanical pencil then and, holding the utensil right before my eyes, she jackhammered an adept thumb atop its eraser, loosing the thin sticks of graphite one after the other after the other after the other.
I gave her a good, serious look, a father’s look, and said, What’s the big idea?
Coach Declue, she finally said, The mis-informant is Coach Eddy Declue.
Then she fled.
But the slighting had been done, no two ways about it. My hands were tied. The attempt at disrespect was an act of disrespect and George Washington was not God nor did the two look alike and no son would get off scot-free with such dilly-dallying in matters civic and theological. There was little choice in the matter.
The cafeteria, Jr. said, our tour continuing, was modeled after the Wellsville Junior High School dining room with only a slight variation in table placement.
Indeed. Kip Brucker was the designer for both cafeterias and I say he did a fine job.
Jr. sat and ate at his corndog, rolling the golden breading in mustard and then ketchup every other bite. I received further gifts from twelve percent of the kitchen staff who hollered over the roar of dishwashers, over the hum of oven vents, over the metal tings and tangs of silverware.
Bit of a lengthy tour, eh Pops!
You’re embarrassing yourself!
Shouldn’t you be bringing home the bacon!
Some role model!
Hey, Jr., what kind of teeth does God have!
I pointed a stern finger, a father’s finger, at the hair-netted hecklers and said, You do not speak to my own son.
Protocol, a father’s, my own, dictated that, if he apologized: I’d wag my finger in his face and give him a good talking to. If he ran: I’d run after him. If he trembled in fear: I’d say, Yes, yes, be afraid. If he trembled in anger: I’d swell my own chest. If he wept: I’d pat his head with my hand, offer forgiveness and one of the remaining candies. If he denied it: I’d bend him over my knee and administer a firm spanking.
I sat at a miniature desk in Jr.’s social studies class with my hand raised high above my head.
Very few of the students were participating in the day’s lesson: a recounting of the adolescence of the father of our country, the commander of the revolutionary forces, the first president of the United States of America, George Washington himself.
Mrs. McLoud said to the class, The father of our country began wearing powdered wigs around the age of twelve.
I raised my hand higher still.
And the father of our country grew out of his pantaloons so fast that his mother purchased linen in bulk.
My hand was certainly raised higher than any of Jr.’s classmates’. I raised it up very high.
And the father of our country loved his vegetables and always drank his milk.
Mrs. McLoud did not not look my way, but, still, her gaze, its pattern, seemed too convenient. I waved my arm a bit, kept my fingers dancing.
And the father of our country cut down a cherry tree and could not tell a lie.
In order to keep up blood flow, I switched to my left hand, raising it as high, if not higher than I had achieved with the right.
And the teeth, you ask?
My hand raising then raised my body, just enough so that my thighs bumped the base of the miniature desk as I was lifted from its miniature chair. My papers slipped away and fell like little light wings without their bodies. All of the children turned their heads, and laughed at me.
But . . . The father of our country . . . He fathers one nation . . . One nation, under God, indivisible . . . Allfather . . . Now, son, take your punishment, come now, son . . . My father, Jack’s father, Phil’s father, Walter’s father . . . My great, grand father . . . My own son’s father . . . One nation, a darling baby boy, weighing . . . Allson? . . . He’s a son of a son of a . . . Goddammit, son . . . Confess . . . I’ll run for the belt . . . For the doctor . . . For the priest . . . God cannot tell a lie . . . God, in whose god-ness we are made . . . God cannot unchop the cherry . . . Father’s had a long day . . . Touring, touring, touring . . . Father needs a rest . . . Needs a lounge . . . Needs a whiskey . . . A cigar? . . . The paper? . . . A footrub? . . . I’ll confirm thy soul in self-control and I mean it . . . A son himself . . . Whippersnapper . . . what not.
What crowd of fathers had gathered was modest at best, and quiet, awaiting my arrival there before the front office just as I had instructed them over the P.A. I snapped a picture from afar, yet another fine shot, three of the bunch staring back. Outside the cafeteria, a miniature chair stood isolated, there for the purposes of teaching especially rambunctious boys or girls the value of proper behavior in proper contexts (lunch), and I grabbed it by the neck as I strolled by. Coach Eddy Declue, cinched in a headlock at my side, had trouble keeping up with my admittedly frenzied pace; he tripped over his own feet to the point of me basically dragging him. The thin sea of spectators parted as I beckoned and I placed the chair there center stage. A hush was sustained. Fathers stood with gawking mouths. I did not know each personally but pegged them as fathers following protocol. I could tell just by the look of them. The wisdom of their anticipation. The gray of the hair. The cut of the brows. The slouch of the guts. Certainly no sons, no trouble. The fathers following protocol had seen to that, tying simple, strong knots from the same rope around the doorknobs of each son’s classroom. I laughed again as I fell into the tiny palm of the chair and Eddy seemed to chuckle right along with me, may have shared my own sensitivities, may have let out a peeling cackle had my hand not been slapped so firm across his kisser, had my sock not been stuffed so full in his mouth, had my own hands not been tied so completely. I had only the belt bag but its nylon strap stretched some three feet. In an observance of lesson and ceremony, Jr. tied one double bowline at its free end. The fathers begged quietly for more and then begged loudly for it. I kept them hushed with my raised arm, held their attention, commanded it.
And then I administered the spanking, saying in time with each whip, Good boys do not tell lies, Bad boy, That will teach you, I’ll give you something to cry about, Obey the father, Abide the father, what not.