From the time I was, oh, six, I could smell rain coming. I can’t put it into words, what it smelled like. Expectancy. There. It smelled like expectancy, something about to burst forth. Kaboom.
On this Saturday morning, I finished breakfast and went out the sliding glass door to the back porch. I closed my eyes and sniffed the wind. No rain today. The world was my, you know, oyster.
Where would I begin?
I could play by myself. For example, I had a cardboard fort out past the tall grass. You couldn’t see it unless you were right on top of it.
When I was out by myself, I’d be more careful where I went. I knew when all the neighborhood bullies lived—and I knew alternate routes that would get me wherever I needed to go in the neighborhood without getting close to a bully’s house.
What did I ever do to them?
I had a few friends who were a few years older than me and bigger than my bullies and I could go anywhere I fucking wanted to go when I was them.
But the friends were who my real friends were pretty much wimps like me so they would avoid the bullies, too. If we were together, walking around, we wouldn’t say anything out loud but we’d just naturally avoid the parts of the neighborhood where the bullies lived.
Or I could play with friends. The Barker boys and I had built a jump at the bottom of the hill that sloped away from the grade school, using wood we’d swiped from local construction sites. No broken bones to date, but Barry had bunged up his knee pretty bad. We told him, don’t be a homo, so what was he going to do? Go home crying to mama?
This was long before anybody had thought of wearing helmets when riding one’s bike. Knee pads didn’t even exist.
Boom-Boom and I had talked about riding our bikes to Bellevue Square to browse languidly at Uncle Harold’s model shop. From there, we could get just about anywhere good.
Or I could stay home and play with Legos. Boom-Boom and I would play Legos together, usually creating spaceships—and we were damn good at it.
“Hey, Tiger,” my dad said leaning out of the sliding glass door. “What’s say we go fly a kite?”
I thought we had come to an unspoken agreement, my dad and I. He didn’t try to do stuff with me, and visa versa. It never ended well. Him blowing his stack. Kaboom. I can remember like I can taste it the few times he had tried to help me with my homework. “I already explained that!” he’d cried, all rattling gaskets and escaping steam. “Christ Almighty, John!”
Maybe it was just once. I looked it up on Google. It’s a thing. Single-incident trauma. My dad traumatized me. I realized this the other day when I was working with my blogging mentor, a young woman in Nebraska. She was going too fast and she kept asking, “Do you understand?” I didn’t but I said I did. I was afraid. She had become my dad to me. A danger.
I used to think trauma was bullshit, like a lot of people who grew up in the 60s. Whiny. Now I know better.
He did the best he could. He meant well. He loved me with his whole heart. He just didn’t have the first clue how to express it. I think he was mystified and mortified by the prospect of raising a boy, being one of three sons of a terrible father. So he kept his distance. Didn’t want to be his dad. He’d interact with me in small doses. But you could tell when he’d reached his limit, when things had got too scary for him.
Looking back, I'm sure there was some sort of cause for this kite excursion idea of my dad’s. That's the thing with the universe. Everything was knocked into motion by something else. Either the universe is an unending succession of knocks or there was a Prime Knocker. An Uncaused Cause. God. Maybe some guy at the country club was bragging about doing stuff with his son and my dad felt guilty.
“Kite?” I said, turning to my dad at the sliding glass door.
“Perfect day,” he said. “Windy and bright. You can see for miles.”
“Do we even have a kite?” I asked.
“We’ll pick one up at Safeway,” he said. “A box kite. They’re the best flyers.”
“Uh . . . okay,” I said. “When?”
“No time like the present,” he said. “C’mon, let’s go!”
Was he going to tell me I was adopted? Some dark secret? Pass on some heirloom? My father’s father gave this to my father and he gave it to me, John, and now I’m giving it to you. Was he dying?
Was I dying?
So it came to pass that I found myself with my father on the playground at the school putting together a box kite. We had the place to ourselves.
“Goddamn instructions were probably written by Japs!” he said, futzing with the superstructure of the kite. “Screw the instructions! Goddamn Japs. Christ Almighty!”
Maybe he’d blow his stack, kick the kite, snap it like a twig and all this would be over, thankfully, before it really began. It was only a matter of time. It was bound to get worse before it got better.
When the kite was complete, it was just me and my dad under the widening sky.
“Okay, I’ll take the kite and walk over there about 50 feet or so,” he said. “When I tell you, start running and I’ll throw up the kite.”
“That’s how you do it?” I said.
“Trust me,” he said. “This isn’t my first time.”
And, indeed, it worked like a charm. Soon enough, the kite was aloft. My dad walked to me.
“What do you do now?” I asked. “Just stand here?”
“Make it do stuff,” he said.
“Stuff?” I said.
As he said this, I noticed two other kids wander on to the playground, one of them carrying a kite. Obviously, old pros, as the one carrying the kite stopped and the other kid, who was carrying the . . . spooly thing . . . with all the kite string rolled up, kept walking until he was about 25 feet away. Without being told, the kid holding the kite raised it above his head and, as if they shared one brain, he tossed it up the second the other kid began to run.
“Just a delta,” my dad said, seemingly to himself, squinting up at the other kids’ kite. “And not a very big one. We can beat that.”
My dad looked at me and then looked over at the other kids then up to our kite as it bobbed in the breeze.
“See, you can make the kite go back and forth by twisting the . . . “
“Spooly thing,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Twist it to the side then pull your hands over and—you see?—it swoops over. See? It’s easy.”
“Not really fun, though,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.
He looked down at me, “Yeah?”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s okay,” I said, re-shrugging. “We’re just standing here, though. Even with the . . . swooping.”
He looked down at me. “Yeah?”
I squinted up at him. Was this going somewhere?
“We can have a dogfight,” he said.
“A dogfight?” I said.
“With those kids,” he said, motioning his head toward the other kite flyers.
I looked over at the kids, who were just minding their own business, having as much fun as it is possible to have with a kite, which isn’t much, if you wanted my opinion.
“Make our kite go over toward them,” my dad said.
“Toward them?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “How else are you going to do a dogfight?”
“You know—a battle,” he said. “Take him out.”
“Out?” I said.
“Win the dogfight.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Swoop over to him and force his kite down,” he said. “You win.”
I looked up at the kite and then over at my dad.
“Swoop?” I said.
This is my dad. The lawgiver. It was up to my mom to take care of day-to-day discipline. My dad’s role was to yell, “Do as your told!” from the couch, to enforce the law. That’s how things were done in the 60s.
Now he was asking me to do something . . . really bad. I mean, just mean. Something like what the bullies did to me.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just swoop over. Swoop.”
“Swoop?” I said, pushing my kite a bit toward the other kids’ kite. “Like this?”
“No, do it more,” he said, placing a hand on my hands and pushing them to the right. Our kite shot toward the other kids’ kite and they politely nudged theirs out of the way.
This was obviously not my dad’s first dogfight.
Had he been a . . . bully? Was it, “Oh, here come those terrible Draper Boys? Someone should do something about them!" Did they egg each other on? Who could be the worst. That’s the game. Those awful Draper boys!
Or, maybe, was he . . . picked on? Like me. Was my dad . . . me? Was this some kid of revenge? Payback.
“See?” he said. “Simple. He’s afraid of you.”
“He is?” I didn't know that was a thing.
“Yeah, you’re in charge.”
“That’s kind of . . . mean, Dad,” I said hesitantly.
“Nonsense!” he said. “Have some fun. You’ll only be a kid once.”
The kids moved several steps in the other direction. What did they ever do to us?
“See?” my dad said, nudging me in the direction of the kids. “Take ‘em down!”
I’d remember this day until my final breath, I realized as I adjusted my grip on the . . . spooly thing.
Here goes. I careened our $5 box kite, this tool of Satan, at the pitiful kite piloted by the hapless boys who were just out for a bit of whimsy. Little did they know.
They pulled their kite out of harm’s way. Or so they thought.
“Good try!” my dad said, placing his hand on my shoulder and whispering like a good co-conspirator. “Don’t give up now!”
“I’m not!” I said testily, keeping my eyes on our kite in the field of battle, pulling it back to try again, gain a head of steam. “Watch this.”
Our kite divebombed—there’s no other word for it—the other kids’ kite.
“Hey!” one of the other kids said.
“That’s the ticket!” my dad said.
Our kite plowed through the kids’ kite like a bear scattering campers. Head for the hills!
“Hey!” the other kids said.
“Sorry, boys!” my dad called out. “Our mistake!”
Our kites were now one, misshapen kite, beyond redemption, an affront to the Good God of Peaceable Kites, to all the normal kites rolling off the Japanese assembly line as per specs, every tongue and groove in place.
The force of the collision sent our Franken-kite spiraling downward. The union musicians in the orchestra pit, as if of one mind, began a cascade of downward notes toward the floor, the violins trilling like piss on a griddle and the trombonists—tromboners?—lowing like lonesome dairy cows, down, down, down until, finally, the percussionist clonks a cowbell a with one hand and whacks a cymbal with another.
“Hey!” the kids said together.
Our mish-mash of clonk-splash lay upon the playground grass, twisted and woebegone, struts akimbo amidst ripped tissue paper. On one shred, you could read the brand-name of the kids’ kite. High-Glider.
This was winning. Taking us both out of the sky. Ours had been a Kamikaze mission. Male bonding
“Whatcha do that for?” one of the kids demanded, bearing down on me with his accusing eyes. “We weren’t bothering you any!”
“Sorry, boys!” my dad said. “Tricky winds.”
The boys looked at my dad then at me. You could tell—at least, I could tell—that they couldn’t choose the words to use. Yes, sir. No, sir. What the fuck?
What were they to do? No one had ever had the first thought to prepare them for this eventuality—a rogue grown-up. This guy was just like their dads, standard-issue authority figure, all pleats and seams and coffee breath. Supposed to be safe. What were they to do?
“Okay,” one of the boys said.
His friend looked at him as if he had spoke in foreign tongue, a stranger fresh off the boat—and then, he saw as he came to his senses, just his friend. Co-victim.
“Yeah,” he capitulated. “Okay.”
I looked up at my dad, who was smiling at the boys, then at the boys, then back to my dad. What was my part here?
“Yeah,” I said unconvincingly, squinting up at my father. “Tricky winds.”
“These things happen, boys,” my dad said but they weren’t listening. They had turned to their erstwhile kite at their feet.
“Shit,” one of them said, nudging the former kite with a toe as if checking on a frozen cat.
“Yeah,” the other kid said, shoving both hands into his jacket’s pockets.
My dad looked at his watch. Did he have a golf game?
“Well,” he said, “some fun. Let’s head home.”
He had me disentangle the fuselage of our kite from the other kids’ kite and carry it from the playground.
And we went our separate ways. He’d reached his limit.
Did you like this essay? Why not share it?
If you liked this essay, you’d probably like Nakedness. Check it out—and subscribe to the newsletter. It’s free to subscribe.