I feel old. It’s not my knees or my eyes. Nothing physical. It’s bigger than that.
Be Kind to Him, World
My mom framed a column she read in the St. Louis Globe Democrat in about 1969, just about the time I started kindergarten. The Globe title was “Be Kind To Him, World,” but Dan Valentine’s orginal title was “Dear World.”
That column moved from place to place in our house most of the time I lived at home. I never read it all. It was gushy, sentimental stuff. It begins:
My young son starts to school today...It's going to be sort of strange and new to him for awhile, and I wish you would sort of treat him gently. You see, up to now he's been king of the roost...He's been boss of the backyard...His mother has always been near to soothe his wounds and repair his feelings. But now things are going to be different.
If you’ve ever sent a little one off to his first day of school, you know the feeling. Valentine goes on:
This morning he's going to walk down the front steps, wave his hand, and start out on the great adventure...It is an adventure that might take him across continents, across oceans...It's an adventure that will probably include wars and tragedy and sorrow...To live his life in the world he will have to live in will require faith and love and courage.
Today, my youngest natural son joined his older brother Jack by taking up the age-old battle for freedom. Today, Patrick swore his oath of enlistment and left our home for Navy boot camp, just as I did on November 9, 1984.
Patrick engaged me in this text conversation from a bus approaching the gates to Naval RTC Great Lakes about five minutes ago:
That will be my last conversation with Patrick for several weeks. I feel, now, like Dan Valentine felt on his boy’s first day of school:
So, World, I wish you would sort of look after him...Take him by the hand and teach him things he will have to know. But do it gently, if you can. He will have to learn, I know, that all men are not just, that all men are not true. But teach him also that for every scoundrel there is a hero...that for every crooked politician there is a great and dedicated leader...Teach him that for every enemy, there is a friend. Steer him away from envy, if you can...and teach him the secret of quiet laughter.
Patrick is older than Valentine’s son was, of course, and my son has already learned some of these lessons. But, as I’ve learned in 52 years, there’s always more to learn:
In school, World, teach him it is far more honorable to fail that to cheat...Teach him to have faith in his own idea, even if everyone says they are wrong...Teach him to be gentle with gentle people and tough with tough people. Try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when everyone is getting on the bandwagon...Teach him to listen to all men - but teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth and take just the good that siphons through. Teach him, if you can, how to laugh when he's sad...Teach him there is no shame in tears...Teach him there can be glory in failure and despair in success.
No shame in tears, thank God. I have done plenty of crying today. Like right now.
I’m crying because I know that, no matter how manly and mature Patrick will look in his uniform, the little boy’s still there. His irreverent humor will always run strong. His endless curiosity will never be satisfied. And he’ll always be my boy.
While the Navy must toughen him up and prepare him for missions and battles, I hope they can do so without disturbing that boy I love so much. As Mr. Valentine asked of the world for his son:
Treat him gently, World, if you can, but don't coddle him...Because only the test of fire makes fine steel...Let him have the courage to be impatient...Let him have the patience to be brave. Let him be no other man's man...Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself. Because then he will always have sublime faith in mankind. This is quite an order, World, but see what you can do...He's such a nice little fellow, my son!
With two sons in the Navy, I can finally relinquish some of the responsibility I’ve always felt. I know that. But responsibility for what?
I thought it was responsibility for the country. As I wrote Patrick in a letter to carry him through boot camp, it’s humbling to think that I now rely on my sons to protect me from evils of the world. For so long, my job was protecting them.
But that’s not really the job I’ve given up. Instead, it’s the job of preparing them for manhood. While I’m still here to listen to their stories and give advice when asked, I’ve really done all I’m allowed to do for them. They belong to the world now. They own their own lives.
Be Kind to Him, World
Now I know why my mom kept that yellowing, sloppy, sentimental column around the house so long. I just realize today that, to her, I’m the same little boy that walked up Scanlan Avenue to Epiphany of Our Lord in September 1969. And Patrick is today the same little boy who climbed on a bus on Fullerton Meadows in August 1998.
Right now, Patrick is standing in a long line, heel-to-toe with other young men and women who left their families this morning for a world they could previously only imagine.
Right now, someone is screaming at my son, telling him his momma’s not there to wipe his nose. (Well, wipe something.)
“I’m your momma now,” the company commander yells.
“You keep telling yourself that, dude,” Patrick thinks. (God, please, let him only think it.)
I know Patrick will weather the storm and emerge a proud American sailor in eight weeks. I just ask the Navy to send him back pretty much the same kid I hugged goodbye this morning. And on his first day of school.
I know that’s quite an order, even for the Navy, but I hope they come through. He’s such a fine fellow, my son.