This column, first written, in 2000, has held up through the years. This year, I got all the way to the second bullet before I got teary. Enjoy.
The children of America have gone back to school. And, in nearly every household, there is at least one person who is standing over the kitchen sink in tears, wondering where the years have gone.
Every year at this time, I remember a wonderful essay I heard on NPR the summer before The Lad first went to college. A woman talked about the day she sent her daughter to kindergarten for her first day of school. "My husband told me not to cry," she wrote, "because tomorrowshe would still be in kindergarten."
"But, he was wrong," the essay continued. "'Tomorrow', she went to college."
When The Lad was born - from the second he was born - he became the most important thing in my life.
I spent Saturday mornings with The Lad at the Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. Later, it was afternoons at the Little League field in McLean, Virginia. Still later, Sundaybreakfasts at our favorite deli in Dallas, Texas.
Very early one morning, in August of the summer before the Lad was to go off for his freshman year at the University of Texas, I was driving to work in Dallas. I oversaw operations in the Middle East so, to keep up with employees spread over nine time zones, I often went to work at about four A.M.
Driving up the Dallas Tollway, the overnight sports station was conducting yet another arcane discussion on the state of the Dallas Cowboys defensive backfield, so I shut the radio off and started singing "Puff the Magic Dragon," to which I can sing the harmony. In college, when I was a pretty good folk guitar player, it was a staple in my repertoire.
I was singing - in pieno voce - when I got to the line:
A dragon lives forever;
but not so little boys.
Painted wings and giant's rings
make way for other toys.
I tear up at Christmas coffee commercials. I sniff and wipe my eyes at every happy ending in every movie I've ever seen - including movies on airplanes which generally precludes any further conversation between my seatmate and me.
The "…but not so little boys" line caused me to pull over to the side of the road and stop, not just to wipe away a tear, but to actually sob. Which, on the Dallas Tollway, even at four in the morning, is no mean feat.
The woman who wrote that NPR essay said that she had divided her friends into two groups: Those who understood, and those who didn't.
Around the United States, in addition to all the young men and women who recently left home for their first year of college, there are thousands of families whose children are guarding our freedoms in far away places. Yesterday they, too, had left for kindergarten not knowing that the place in which they awoke this morning even existed.
During my Iraq days, I wrote about a 23-year-old 1st Lieutenant in Fallujah:
We just keep growing these kids, asking them to do unbelievably important things in the harshest possible circumstances at an age when we should be worried if they aren't home by midnight much less home by next September and, oh, by the way, please be responsible for the lives of a couple of dozen other soldiers most of whom are years - or decades - older than you are.
The day after The Lad went to kindergarten, he left for college. The following afternoon he was working for the President of the United States. Then he was helping to re-elect the Governor of California. Now, he and his wife, The Ladette, have two children of their own. Our granddaughters.
He is still the most important thing in my life. Where ever we are, we talk almost every day, The Lad and I. And now, at no additional cost, I get the daily report on the children.
Welcome, sweet little girls. Tomorrow you'll go to kindergarten; the next day, to college. Take my hand and walk with me for a little while until I have to wave goodbye and leave you to explore, with your mom and dad, the magic corners of your worlds.
"In a land called Honalee."
On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: The definition of pieno voce, the Mullfoto of the next two generations.