The following song:
The little boy with dandelion puff hair looked up at the old man with astonished wonder.
Hands gnarled from years of hard labor, heavily veined and callused, the old man held the small model plane before the blue eyes, round as saucers, looking up at him.
“It’s the kind you flew, Papa?”
“…The kind I flew,” the old man responded back.
“Back when?,” the little boy piped up, from his lap.
“In the War, of course.”
“The big one?”
“The big one.”
The little boy had always been fascinated with planes, stretching back to before he could even remember. Prob’ly even as far as four or five years, when he was just a kid. Now he was six, and everyone knew that “six” meant things. You had been around a while by six, knew what was what, at six. Silly things didn’t bother you as much, then. Things like best baseball cards, and who got the top prize from the cracker jacks box meant less than the important kind of stuff. Like cowboys and murder and death.
He had a little bit wanted to be a cowboy once, but it hadn’t lasted long. And that was only cuz Will Rogers was such a thing at the time. He’d long ago gotten over the Little Orphan Annie radio program, and Spy Mystery Magazine. One time he thought he might take up astronauting, as he’d rather liked the sound of being first man in space, but had given up on that plan when he’d learned about Bugsy Malone, and thought a life in crime might do the trick.
Mom had been against it though, which was just like her really, when you came down to it. How a fella was ever gonna make his mark in this world without his mom always butting in, the boy with the dandelion hair, just couldn’t figure out. Seemed everything swell and stellar was against the law somehow, and most without even trying that much. Still, he’d had hope.
No matter what, there was always Papa to go to.
With Papa, you could really talk man-to-man.
…He had a mustache, for one. A bushy one, that twisted into a little fishing hook at each end. And he smelled of mint snuff and this stuff called “aftershave lotion.” The little boy had tried some once, but it’d stung, so he decided it must have been a special thing, meant just for Papa’s n’ things.
…Not that he wasn’t interested in the stuff. He’d fully intended on wearing some himself, one day. Some time, when he’d got good and old. Like twenty, or so.
By then, he’d prob’ly be needing it too, he’d guessed. As that’s when Papa had met Gram, way back in the forevers.
Papa, had told him the story, maybe a zillion times or more. How he’d been dressed in his uniform, on “leave” in this place he called “Frisco.” And how he’d just been walkin’ by, and looking in a drug store soda-fountain window, saw this girl.
The girl had been sitting alone, reading a book, Papa had said. Just all alone, without so much as a banana split to keep her company. And Papa, passing by had seen her there. He’d stopped to watch her, through the front picture window with “Schweps” written in cursive on the outside. And Papa had got to thinking, just by standin’ there and lookin’, that he guessed maybe she’d like some company.
…Or maybe he’d just wanted an orange pop at the time. The little boy could never seem to remember that one part.
…But either way, the story had always ended the same: Papa on a stool, just there, beside the girl. And how she’d taken no notice of him at the time. But, in a while, she’d had to, on account of he’d bought her a cherry Coke, with an extra cherry in it.
…And how he’d known that of all the drinks in the whole of the world, THAT was the one the girl had liked the best…and how an “extra” cherry was like a secret password, the little boy would never forget.
“But how did you know it was her favorite?” the little boy would ask, every time the story was told.
“Because I just did,” the old man would eye him suspiciously and wink.
“But what if it WASN’T?” the little boy would counter in concern.
“Well, that would have been a thing, wouldn’t it? You might never have been born, I guess.”
Answers like this always floored the little boy. The largeness in repercussion of “what if,” seemed never to matter more to him, than when ultimately leading to his never once even taking a breath.
How could that be? Not to “be?” Not to sit here, on Papa’s lap, like he always sat. Listening to stories about olden times, like when Mom was a kid. And how he used to work in that steel mill, and fly planes all during the war.
How would it be, if Papa was a Papa to nobody? No kid with dandelion hair to sit on his knee and ask him a million questions that needed answering? If the questions weren’t asked, would the answers still be known? And if not, then how would we know? Know all the stuff that Papa’s know? Stuff that seems to be long ago forgotten, ‘cept by special people who know all the secrets, who know all the answers, of every wonderment ever thought up, in all of time?
“Papa, why do logs float?”
“Papa, how does a bird fly?”
“Papa, how far is it to France and back, only one way?”
Papa knew all the answers to everything. Hadn’t he proved it time and time again, to the thousandth degree, to the little boy?
…And hadn’t he continued to do so, all the other years that followed?
Until the little boy with dandelion hair had shed his tuft, and freckles, and knee socks, and grown into a man.
And in all that time, had Papa ever steered him wrong?
His hands grew more gnarled, with arthritic knobs at joint’s end. And his mustache, tipped like smiling fishhooks, had gone snow white with age. But his advice was sage as ever, his blue eyes matching that once little boy’s, still sparkled with humor. His legs, now arrested in a seat for good, had never altered his spirit, and the little boy of then, never remembered the distinction of “before” versus “after that.” To him: Papa was and always would be, Papa.
…The man with the model plane pointing out all the parts and pieces and teaching you all the radio calls. He was still the man who slipped you goodies when Mom and Gram weren’t looking, the one who snuck in mystery magazines to you at nap times, and helped you build a soap box car for Boy Scouts. He taught you how to row a boat, was there when you caught your first fish, built tents with you in the back yard, taught you all the Navy flag signals, and helped you look up all the bugs in your bug collection.
…The same man who helped build your first car engine, pick out your first suit and tie, and waved you off to your Senior Prom.
A funny thing to think that all that coulda been “not,” had a fella not looked in a soda-fountain window one day, about a million years ago.
The little boy wouldn’t know it yet, not really, not for years and years to come, but one day, he’d be awfully thankful for that cherry Coke. And a couple of other things, besides.
Standing at the front of the church, beside a woman in white, who would soon be his wife, the little boy…now a man…looked to the family pew opposite. Full of those closest in all the world. Full of Mom, and Dad, and Gram…an empty seat just there, beside her.
The once little boy, if he could have changed anything in his life up to now, would have only picked one thing. And it would have been for today.
…An old man, smelling of mint tobacco and aftershave, sitting there in his place. Where he ought to be. Smiling back at him. Knowing all the wonders that other little boys…his own, with dandelion hair, not yet even born yet included…would never know now, first-hand. As every little boy who ever lives, should.
By a Papa. Like that one.