“So Clubius”, mom said, “Are you excited that it’s almost your birthday? You’ll be THREE YEARS OLD!”
I nodded. I WAS going to be three years old and I WAS excited. But I think they already knew that so I’m not sure why they even asked me. Grownups were always asking kids questions that the grownups already knew the answers to. She, dad and I were sitting at the table in the kitchen eating dinner. It was macaroni and cheese that I liked and that other salad stuff that I was supposed to eat too.
I didn’t like to talk very much, though I knew lots of words that mom and dad said and could say them if I wanted to. I just said “yes” or “no” sometimes if mom or dad asked me something and I wanted to tell them but they weren’t looking at me. Or if I got scared I might say “mom” or “dad” really loud if they didn’t see what was scaring me or figure out I was scared. The rest of the time mom and dad figured out what I wanted.
My friend Molly liked to talk a lot, so I didn’t need to talk very much when we played together, because she always knew what I was thinking, at least most of the time. She lived across the street and she was older than me right now because she was already three. That’s what she said. She also said that when I had my birthday and was three like her, then we’d be the same again. We both liked it when we were the same.
I was excited because I remembered that mom and dad had got me presents on my last birthday, which was a really really long time ago. I got Tinker Toys, soldiers, cars and boats. Those were all “toys”, and they helped me do more pretend stories.
Then this other time called “Christmas”, they put this tree in the house, which was strange, because all the other trees were outside. Then they put little lights all over it that were different colors, and then other shiny stuff they called “ornaments”. All that stuff came out of this big box that dad got from the “attic”, which was this place on top of my bedroom that you had to go up a “ladder” in my closet to get to. Putting all that stuff on the tree was strange too, but dad liked it and mom liked it A LOT. It did look neat when it was nighttime and those little lights were turned on.
But then they said this guy called “Santa Claus” would come on “Christmas” and put presents for me under the tree. That seemed really strange. Mom read me stories about him. He was this big fat guy in a red suit that flew in the sky in a “sleigh” that had these flying “reindeer” animals that pulled it through the sky. She showed me pictures. Then this “Santa Claus” guy would land on the top part of your house and go down the “chimney” with a big bag of toys. He’d take the ones out of the bag that were for you and put them under that special tree inside your house.
It didn’t make any sense that he would come to our house because I had looked around and we didn’t have one of those “chimney” things. We did have that attic on top of my room, so I wondered if he would come down from there, but I didn’t ask about it, I just listened. Then one night mom said tomorrow was Christmas, and while I was sleeping he would come. That made me worried that he would come down into my closet from the attic, but mom was so happy that he was coming that I didn’t say anything. But I kept opening my eyes all night waiting for him to come out of my closet but he never did.
But in the morning mom came into my room and said that he came and left presents for me. I ran out into the living room in my pajamas and there were those present boxes under the tree like in the stories she read. I was so excited to get more presents and I could tear that special paper off to see what they were. I got Lincoln Logs, a baseball glove, and more Tinker Toys.
So now that it was my birthday again and I was hoping I would get more presents. Molly had gotten presents on her birthday. Mom and dad hadn’t said I would get more presents so I was worried. I figured maybe if I talked they would know that I wanted more presents and I would get them. If I didn’t talk, maybe I wouldn’t get any. I wanted more toys so I figured I better talk.
“I want presents for my birthday”, I said. I’m pretty sure I said that the right way.
Mom and dad didn’t think I would talk, so when I did, the two of them looked at each other, tried to keep from laughing, but finally did laugh. I didn’t like it that they were laughing about me. So I decided to ask a question too. I couldn’t remember ever asking a question before but I knew how to do it. You started with one of those special question words.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
They both stopped laughing and looked worried. And I could tell they weren’t worried about me but worried they had laughed at me.
Mom looked at dad again and then made a sad look on her face. “Oh my god Jonathan”, she said, “We are so sorry we laughed. We were just so surprised and thrilled that you”, and she stopped to do more thinking before she said, “Spoke your mind”. She looked at dad and he looked at me kind of sad and nodded.
“Jonathan” was that name that they sometimes called me when they were really worried or really mad at me. They said that was my “real” name. Other times they mostly called me other names like “Clubius”, “Cloob”, “Zuper” or “Sweetie”, though they called my friend Molly “Sweetie” too sometimes. Other grownups mostly called me “Jonathan”, except for Molly who called by “Coob”.
I nodded, but I was thinking that they never laughed at me when I didn’t talk. It seemed like grownups didn’t tell you what they were really thinking, not even mom and dad. They did a lot of things and said a lot of things that didn’t make sense. They were so big and mostly looked down at me and looked worried a lot. They would throw a ball with me, even throw it so I could try to hit it with my bat, or take me over to the park and sit and read while I played. But a lot of the time I did not understand what they were up to or why. Like mom, who seemed to do lots of things she didn’t want to do.
Dad made more sense, though he seemed to feel one way and pretend that he felt another way. He liked to read and write and sat down in his “office” in the basement with his shelves of books and read them, and wrote things on his typewriter. He liked eating donuts, sweet rolls, and ice cream, as much or even more so than I did. He wanted the Michigan football team or the Tigers baseball team to win, and was mad when they lost. I could tell other things made him sad and worried, but he didn’t say what they were and I couldn’t figure it out.
The other people like me, kids, were different. If they wanted stuff or liked stuff or didn’t like stuff, they told you, at least they told other kids.
After dinner, dad put water in the bathtub for me. All five of my plastic ships and some of my plastic soldiers, green Americans and gray Germans, were in the plastic “bin” thing so I could play with them. Also a little “wiffle” ball. I remembered stuff from that Treasure Island story dad had read me, but I wanted to change it all around to make my own story.
I got in the tub and sat in the middle so the back part of the tub was on my left and the front part was on my right. I put my toy ship that looked like that one from the pictures in the Treasure Island book in the back part of the tub. That was the “pirate ship”, and it was in the “secret cove”. I put the other four ships in the front part of the tub. They were the “goodguy ships”. My body was the mountain island between the secret cove and where the goodguy ships were. I brought my knees up so there was no way for the ships to go between the front part and the back part, and they couldn’t see the other part either because of the mountain.
I put some of the gray soldiers on the top part of the tub in the back. They would be the pirates who were on the shore of the secret cove finding a place to make a base so they could live there. Some of those pirates could see on the other side of the mountain island in the middle, that is me, and see the good guy ships.
“Uh oh”, said one of the pirates, “The goodguy ships are trying to get us!” He jumped in the water and swam over to the pirate ship to tell the captain.
“Good”, said the pirate captain, “We know where they are and they don’t know where we are so we can shoot at them with our cannon!”
“Okay captain”, said the other ship guys, and they started firing the cannon over the mountain at the goodguy ships. I took the wiffle ball in my left hand and threw it up in the air towards the front part of the tub. It landed in the water there but didn’t hit any of the goodguy ships.
“Oh my god”, said the sailors on all the goodguy ships, “Someone is shooting at us!” There was more talking back and forth between the sailors on the ships and they told all their captains.
“Hmm”, said the captains of those ships, “It must be that pirate ship. It’s here somewhere hiding and trying to get us. We have to figure out what to do!”
I took the wiffle ball in my left hand again and threw it way up above the front part of the tub. It bounced against the wall and came down and hit the blue and white goodguy ship. I made an exploding noise.
“One of our ships is hit!” said one of the sailors on the main green and yellow goodguy ship.
“Which one?” asked the main captain.
“The blue ship”, said the sailor, “Five sailors are dead and three are wounded!”
“Take those wounded guys to the shore so the doctor can take care of them!” said the main captain.
“What about the dead guys?” asked the captain of the blue ship.
“Don’t worry about them”, said the main captain, “They’re dead. We have to figure out how to get that pirate ship!”
I took three of the green soldiers from the bin and laid them down on the edge of the front part of the tub. I took another green soldier that wasn’t holding a gun and had his hands on his sides and put him standing up looking at the wounded men lying down. He was the doctor. He looked at each wounded sailor and had to figure out how to fix them.
I did another shot from the pirate ship cannon. It splashed in the water near the main green and yellow ship. Two sailors on that ship got wounded, but they were only wounded a little bit.
“I have a plan!” said one of the young sailors on the main green and yellow ship, “We need to take some guys and try to go along the shore around the mountain and try to see where the pirate ship is so we can get it before it gets all of our ships.”
As the pirate ship kept shooting its cannon at the goodguy ships, the brave young sailor was in charge of other sailors that went on shore to try and get around the mountain island in the middle. I put five green soldiers in a row on the side edge of the tub. The young sailor leading them was a soldier with a pistol in one hand and pointing ahead with the other. It would be very dangerous, but the only other choice was to let the rest of the four ships get all wrecked too. If a team of brave sailors could make their way to the cove they could see the pirate ship and maybe figure out a plan to attack it. Cannonballs from the pirate ship kept coming down from the sky.
Dad peeked in the bathroom door to check on me. He saw the boats and the soldiers on the edge of the tub. He saw me worried, looking at the soldiers on the side edge of the tub.
“Five more minutes”, he said. It was kind of like he was just saying it but also kind of like a question. I nodded without looking at him, too busy thinking about the next thing in my story. He went away.
The team of sailors started on their dangerous “mission” to try to get around the mountain to figure out where the pirate ship was. They had to walk one behind the other along a narrow path with a steep cliff on either side. As I slowly moved five green soldiers along the top rim of the tub towards the back, one slid off and fell to the floor outside the tub.
“Oh my god”, said the young sailor in charge, “He has fallen and is probably dead or dying, but there is nothing we can do for him now! We must continue or all is lost!”
Finally the rest of the four sailors made it around my body to the back part of the tub. They finally saw the pirate ship in the secret cove.
“There it is!” said the young sailor in charge, but the pirates on the shore in the back part of the tub saw him and the other sailors and started shooting at them. The young sailor in charge got shot in the arm.
“I’m hit!”, he said.
“Oh no!”, said the second sailor behind him, “Now what do we do?”
“I’ll make it”, said the young wounded sailor, “Everybody get down so they can’t shoot us very well, and we can still shoot them!” I laid all the sailors down. Another one slid off the edge of the tub.
“Oh no”, said the second sailor, “Not another guy!” Now the team of five sailors was only three.
The goodguy sailors shot at the pirates on the back edge of tub and got one who fell into the water.
“One less pirate to worry about”, said the young sailor, even though he was shot in the arm. He told the other sailor on his team to go back to the goodguy ships and tell them where the pirate ship was so they could shoot at it.
Dad peeked in the bathroom door again. “Hey Cloob, I have to grade some papers so if you want me to read you a story you need to wash yourself including your hair and get out!”
I thought about where I was in my story. From the books dad had read me, I knew that the long stories were in “chapters”. I would remember where everything was when this chapter of my story ended and start the next chapter tomorrow night.
“Okay”, I said, “I’ll wash up and get out!”
Dad grinned, I could tell he liked hearing me talk and then asked, “Do you need help washing your hair?”
I shook my head really hard and said, “No!” Mom or dad used to wash me, but I didn’t want them to anymore, because that made me feel like a little kid. I wanted to be more like a big kid so I wanted to do it by myself.
I cupped water in my hands and poured it over my head like dad had shown me. Then rubbed the soap bar in my hair until it got bubbly and slippery on my head. Again cupping water in my hands, I dumped handfuls of it on my head. All the boats quivered in the water. I imagined it was nighttime in my story, and all the boats were shaken by the waves. The goodguy boat that had got hit by the pirate cannonball sank. Luckily all the sailors but one were able to escape and not get drowned. I now took the soap and rubbed it all over my body including the parts of me that were under the water. Now all rinsed off I picked up each toy ship, looked at it closely and put it back in the bin just outside the tub. I put all the green and gray soldiers back in the bin. I got up in the tub and used my foot to flip the drain lever open. Dad did it with his hand, but I liked doing it with my foot pretending it was another hand. The water started to glug glug out of the tub. I got out of the tub and stood on that special towel that was always on the bathroom floor, and I rubbed myself with the other towel dad had left for me and then walked naked back into my room. I looked behind me and there were wet spots on the wood floor where my feet had been. Finally, I put on my pajamas and got into bed under my covers.
“I’m ready!” I called out. I was getting used to this talking thing.
Dad came into my room grinning, holding a book in his right hand.
“So the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, chapter 17?”
I nodded but also said, “Yes!”
He sat in the rocking chair across from my bed and started to read. In the chapter he read yesterday, Tom and Huck had gone to Jackson Island and everyone thought they had drowned in the river. In this chapter everyone in town was sad thinking that they were both dead and got ready for their “funeral”, whatever that was, that you did when people were dead I guess. But Tom and Huck had snuck back into town and were hiding and surprised everybody by showing up in the middle of their own funeral! I had liked the story so far, and I liked this part because I liked surprising people, like I did today when I talked to mom and dad. It was neat to surprise people.
Dad finished the chapter, closed the book, looked at the cover thinking, and put it on his lap. He was wearing just a white t-shirt and shorts.
“So what shall we sing?” He asked. I thought I would surprise him.
I said, “Everything!” and he laughed! Then he was thinking for a minute and looked worried. Then looked at me and said, “I’m not laughing at you. You just said something funny.”
“I did?” I asked, and he nodded. I HAD said something that was a surprise, and I guess because it was a surprise, it was “funny” too.
One of my favorite things was to listen to dad sing. It wasn’t just the words in the song, but hearing him sing, and all the things he did around singing that I liked. He looked up at the ceiling thinking, trying to figure out what to sing first. Then he nodded and smiled, when he figured it out. He raised his head again, opened his mouth, took a deep breath and sang. His voice wobbled a little but sounded good. He loved the “college” songs about being good to your “school” and its “team” and not liking the other school and their team. But he also liked sillier songs about being in college. He started out with one of my favorites, “I Want to Go Back to Michigan”…
I want to go back to Michigan
To dear Ann Arbor town
Back to Joe’s and the Orient
And back to some of the money I spent
I want to go back to Michigan
To dear Ann Arbor town
I want to go back
I got to go back
Mother and father pay all the bills
And we have all the fun
In the friendly rivalry of college life (hooray)
But we have to think of a hell of a lot
To tell what we have done
With the coin we blew in dear old Michigan
I liked that the guy in the song story seemed more like me, like a kid, maybe an older kid, who was able to trick his mom and dad.
He sang two more college songs, including the regular words and then the silly words of the “Indiana” song. Indiana was another school team that the Michigan school didn’t like I guess, so when the guys that liked Michigan sang it, they sang it with silly words.
The regular words were…
Indiana, oh Indiana
Indiana, we’re all for you…
At the altar, you never falter
From the battle, you’re tried and true
The silly words were…
Indiana, oh Indiana
Indiana, the hell with you…
At the altar, you always falter
From the battle, you’re black and blue
I liked the way just a couple of the regular words were changed to change what you were singing about. As he sang the silly words he would wink at me and I got the idea that you said bad things about them just to “tease” them, but you didn’t really not like them.
After singing the three songs (I counted them) dad said, “Just one more!”
I knew what I wanted to hear.
“Don’t fence me in”, I said, before he could start singing anything else.
He nodded, but I could see him thinking about something else and not the song. He finally started singing it and I got to hear the feelings of wishing for something he didn’t have in the way he sang…
Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in
That song made sense. The guy singing didn’t want anything to stop him from having an adventure. I wondered if that guy was a grownup or an older kid. There was no wink from my dad like with the Indiana song. This wasn’t a silly song, at least to dad.
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
Gaze at the moon ‘til I lose my senses
Don’t like hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in
The last thing he did every night, after reading and singing, was the saying goodnight stuff. He would get up from the rocking chair, come over to the end of my bed by the door, feel around to find one of my big toes under the covers and wiggle it, and say, “Sweet dreams kiddo!” Sometimes I would play a little game with him and move my feet around so it was hard for him to find one of my big toes, but tonight I didn’t make it hard.
After he left mom came in.
She looked at me with her big eyes and shook her head and made a pretend sad face. “I wish I could sing like your dad!”
She came around to where my head was and kissed me on the cheek.
“Night night sweet Zuper!”
Instead of nodding I said, “Night night mom.” I could tell she liked it more when I talked instead of just nodding, when I said her name.
She looked at me and grinned, touched my cheek again with her fingers and left the room. I knew they were both happy that I had decided to talk. I wondered if that would help me be more like a big kid.