Posts Tagged ‘airplanes’

Conversing with a five-year-old

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

By Allan Roy Andrews
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This essay is an expansion and rewrite of a column I published during my tenure as editor of Pacific Stars and Stripes in Japan. That column, originally titled “A Ride Home from the Airplane Base” was published in 1996.
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My middle son, now in his twenties, was one year old on the day my wife, our oldest son, and I took him on a Boeing 747 and flew for about 17 hours to Tokyo, where I became a civilian editor with the Department of the Army working for Pacific Stars and Stripes, the U.S. government’s daily newspaper for overseas military personnel stationed in the Far East.

The newspaper’s offices were located in downtown Tokyo on a tiny U.S. installation known as Hardy Barracks, and most personnel with the paper—both military and civilian—were housed at the larger military base, Yokota Air Base, about 50 kilometers west of Tokyo. Civilians were granted base privileges comparable to military personnel, and the Department of the Army paid most of us who worked as civilian editors the salaries we’d be paid if we were serving as colonels or captains in the armed services.

My wife was no stranger to Tokyo, she is the daughter of American missionaries, and had been born at a hospital near Tokyo and had lived most of her life in a western suburb on the Seibu-Ikebukuro train line before going stateside to attend college. For that reason, we did not choose to live on base, but instead rented a house “on the economy” in the neighborhood in which my wife had been raised. Our Japanese home was about 30 kilometers outside Tokyo and about 20 kilometers east of Yokota.

In the eight years plus that I held the job with Stripes, I learned to drive around the Kanto Plain in a series of automobiles we purchased during our tenure. All of them used, all of them Japanese-made cars—Hondas, Nissans, and Toyotas—all of them with steering on the right, and most with standard-shift that required me to learn to shift gears with my left hand. Because Stripes was an evening newspaper, editors began work around 5 a.m. Tokyo’s commuter trains did not begin running until closer to 6 a.m. Thus, I became an adept morning commuter and fairly competent at reading Japanese road signs.

At that time, gasoline was sold on base for about half of what it cost at a neighborhood Japanese service station. As a result, we made frequent trips from our home to Yokota Air Base, not only for gasoline, but for inexpensive shopping, entertainment, and, despite our growing love for Japanese food, a welcomed taste of America.

On one particular occasion I was driving home from the base with my five-year-old son as a passenger beside me. It was dusk when we left the base, and I could see that he was on the verge of falling asleep. I recall that it was this son who insisted we should call the place we’d just left “the airplane base,” not the air base, which makes good sense if one thinks about it.

“The best thing you could do,” I said to him, “is lie back and go to sleep.” We’d already eaten supper. Neither of us was hungry, and we were both somewhat eager to get back to the comfort of home.

“Go to sleep?” he said, a bit astonished. “Go to sleep without any diaper pants?”

“You don’t need diaper pants,” I said, trying to be an encouraging father and strong male who shared grown-up mastery of the sphincters.

“What if I pee all over the seat?”

“You’re the one who knows if you’re going to pee,” I said.

“Well, Dad, let me know if you think I’m going to pee.”

“You’re the one who knows if you have to pee.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “but let me know if you think I’m going to pee.”

Seeking to stop this circular talk, I said, “Well, you shouldn’t have to pee, because we went to the bathroom just before we left the air base.”

“You mean the airplane base,” he said. O.K., I thought, we’re off that topic.

“You know what, Dad?”

“What?”

“Sometimes just after I pee I feel like I still have to pee again.”

Sometimes a father can do nothing or say nothing more. I’ve discovered that some conversations are best unfinished; or rather, they’re best finished by the child rather than the adult. Children know when such conversations are supposed to end; adults don’t.

Several minutes later, he picked up our conversation. “How long before we get home, Daddy?”

“About a half an hour.”

“A half an hour and how many minutes?” he asked.

“A half hour is 30 minutes, so about 30 minutes,” I said.

“No, Daddy, a half hour and how many minutes?”

“A half hour is 30 minutes.”

“But Daddy, a half hour and how many minutes.”

At that point, I realized again that adults often don’t know when such conversations are finished, so I figured I’d better invent an answer just to keep us from going around in what I perceived to be endless circles.

“A half hour and two minutes,” I said, grabbing a number from the air and wondering what I’d say if he replied, “That’s thirty-two minutes.”

He didn’t say this, and I was happy; I don’t appreciate precocious mathematicians. He seemed to understand (even if I didn’t).

“Oh, is that what you meant?” he said as he glanced out the window at a truck we were passing.

“Yes, a half hour and two minutes,” I repeated, happy to have worked my way out of that conversation.

“Well, you said a half hour. I must have been confusing you,” he concluded.

Children also have a way of making adults feel small and foolish, especially when we attempt to be too rational and meaningful. After a few more minutes passed, my son turned theological:

“Can I ask you some Bible questions, Daddy?”

“Sure.”

“These are going to be really, really, really hard questions,” he said in a tone meant to reassure me that I shouldn’t feel too bad if I couldn’t answer them. To drive this home, he added, “I’m not sure I even know the answers myself.”

“O. K.”

“What day did Jesus die on the cross?” he asked.

I recall that this conversation took place shortly after Easter, so I assumed he was recalling something he picked up in Sunday School.

“You mean what day of the week?” I asked.

“Yeah, what day of the week?”

“It was Good Friday,” I answered.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, that’s what the Bible tells us. Then it says that on Sunday — Easter Sunday — he rose again.” I’m really not trying to sound like a proselytizer, I just figured I’m repeating what he’s learned.

“Is that when he went up to heaven?”

For me the conversation had subtly shifted. “Yes, I guess so,” I said, pondering exactly when Jesus went to heaven.

“When he died on the cross he was already in heaven,” my son pronounced with the aplomb of a dogmatic theologian.

I remained silent. The mystery of this conversation had already gone beyond me.

“Here’s another really hard question,” he continued.

“On what day did David begin to play his harp?”

“I don’t know. Was it a Monday?”

“I don’t know.”

End of discussion.

I loved those drives; they provided conversations that kept my mind turning long after the wheels of our car had come to rest at home.