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This is heaven

By Lawrence Henry
web posted October 15, 2001

This is heaven.

The fall days have bloomed in glory, with temperatures reaching the seventies by mid-afternoon. The sun shines, and intermittent breezes blow. You can see for miles through the cloudless air.

Every day after school, mothers and babysitters bring their children to the wooded parks in our town. Playmates shout greetings to one another.

Athletic little girls show off their gymnastic skills on the monkey bars, hand-walking fluently from one end to the other. Little boys organize their cohorts into "clubs" and carry out mysterious campaigns of battle and betrayal and loyalty.

The women sit on benches marked by brass placards - "Donated in memory of Jack and Elysse Morgan"; "In honor of Esther Quinn" - and pass out juice boxes, wipe noses, change the occasional diaper. Once in a great while a child screams at some vast moral outrage, and has to be soothed or distracted or punished.

Long ago, at the dedication in his name of my old junior high school, Carl Sandburg stood before the student body and said, "I can half-close my eyes, and you all look like flowers, so colorful." In 1961, no one snickered or laughed. Today, in the wooded parks of our town, with eyes half-closed, children look like fabulously plumed birds, zipping from one play apparatus to another as though between outcroppings of blossoms - for the play structures are colorful, too.

Here, I am truly the odd man out - usually, in fact, the only man, and certainly the only smoker within a two mile radius as I sit on my bench, light my pipe, and read a book. And watch. Is there anything so beautiful as a young woman carrying a child? They are so strong, these young women, with their smooth uninjured arms, capable of lifting a child on each side, and then hooking a tricycle with a spare finger, walking easily to a parked car.

My two boys have their routines. Bud, at age seven, dashes for the "river," as he grandly calls the narrow brook that borders one side of the park. Whether he's a born leader or simply a born troublemaker I don't know, as he gathers up his "club" of followers and leads them across stepping stones to the brambles and trees and thickets on the far side.

More than one mother has called her boy (always a boy) back from Bud's club, insisting that there must be poison ivy on the far bank. My laissez-faire fathering style mirrors my politics. Bud has been playing over there for almost two years, and hasn't gotten poison ivy yet. If he had, I figure he'd stop his river exploring, and would have learned a lesson. For now, he only gets his shoes and socks muddy on various failed stepping stone skips across the brook or up and down the banks, or in falls from Tarzan-like hanging branches that tempt him to make longer and longer swings across the water.

Joe, age two, will happily join any group of bigger kids who will have him. He follows up ladders, down slides (and up slides, too; he's a good climber), across the "bouncy bridge." He'll hang from bars, chin himself - yes, at age two, Joe can chin himself - and generally display his tough, muscular good nature.

At four o'clock, the ice cream truck arrives, playing a crude chimed rendition of the first eight bars of Scott Joplin's rag, "The Entertainer." The nice Italian man has a roll of paper towels along, and knows the names of all the ice cream treats ("You wanna da peanut butta? Oreo? Da fudge?") but very little else.

Like a flock of birds once again, all the children run for the truck, and the ice cream man does a land office business. Joe and I sit on a bench, sharing a fudgesicle or a hard-frozen shake. Bud gobbles an ice cream cookie sandwich and dashes back to the river, wiping sticky fingers on his shirt. Business done, off goes the truck to another park in another part of town, playing the truncated Joplin rag.

In the week after September 11, from time to time we would hear a military roar overhead. The young mothers and nannies and I would look up, and of course we would not see anything, because the fighter jets flew too fast and too high. In the weeks since, we still check out air traffic, and we still keep our eyes open.

This is heaven. We know exactly what we're fighting for.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right.

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