We were waiting outside a women’s restroom when Chris brought him to my attention. The restroom was in no ordinary place. We were in Carlsbad, California, in one of the funkiest amusement parks to which I’d ever paid too much for admission, especially considering this one was made of Legos. It might as well have been Mecca (a Lego Mecca, no disrespect intended) for my six year-old Legomaniac. We had spent half the day so far amidst the creations of man and woman-children and at the moment Chris’ bubble was broached, we were waiting for his mom and infant sister to emerge from the women’s room freshly diapered. His sister, not his mom.
Across the walkway from us was another father and child combo, this one with a girl, and dad, to Chris’ astonishment, was enjoying a cigarette. Chris tugged at my hand and whispered as nonchalantly as alarmed six year-olds can, “Dad! Dad! That guy is SMOKING!”
He sure was, non-filtered to boot. PallMalls, my dad’s brand. Cigarette in one hand, his little girl’s hand in his other, and she was as nonplussed about her smoking father as Chris was shocked. See, save for his earliest years in North Carolina, Chris spent the rest of his formative seasons in St. George, Utah, a mono-theistic, mono-cultural small town by California standards and Chris had not seen a smoking man or woman up to that very impressionable point in his life, though he’d been warned against them, and not just by the rather negative stereotype perpetuated by the cigarette smoking man on X-Files.
His strained whisper, “Let’s get of here!” He was truly afraid.
“‘Cause he’s SMOKING!” Big emphasis, Forrest Gump style, on the i-n-g ending.
“What’s the big deal?”
“So what?” I said.
“Smoking people are bad.”
“Really? And where’d you learn that, Buddy?”
Primary is a youth organization for kids under twelve years of age in the Latter-day Saint Church, kind of a Mormon catechism.
“Okay,” I said, not moving. One thing Chris liked as much as Legos was spying, so I suggested we watch the smoking man for few moments. Chris kept his eyes both peeled and glued on his unsuspecting cancer stick sucker.
People walked by, his little girl still held his hand, he tapped the ashes from his cigarette into the planter upon which he was leaning.
“Did you see that guy trip anybody?” I whispered.
“No.” Whispered back.
“Didn’t he just boost that guy’s wallet?”
“Did you see him smack around his little girl?”
Of course he didn’t, but he watched him even closer, reluctantly shaking his head.
“Then what’s so bad about this guy?”
And as if I still didn’t understand the precariousness of our proximity, he said it again, “He’s smokIIINNNGGuh.”
At the time Chris loved Chips A-Hoy! Chocolate Chip Cookies. So much so that once or twice he ate too many resulting in A-Hoy! puke. We were both hungry, having yet to eat lunch and I said, “Would you like some Chips A-Hoy! Chocolate Chip Cookies?”
“Like a whole bag of ’em?”
“Yeah, as many as you could eat, and all the milk you could drink.”
And then he recalls.
“Oh, well maybe not.”
“Why not, Chris?”
“‘Cause they’d make me sick.”
“Yessir, Buddy, and that makes you a bad boy.”
Totally incredulous, “Nah huh.”
“I’m not a bad boy, dad.”
I just looked at him, my precious good boy.
And at that moment when the light goes on and his defending gaze shifts in slow motion from my eyes to the cigarette smoking man and his daughter, I realize I actually did something right that day as a father.
His face returns to mine, totally changed. Gone is the judgement replaced by giddy realization, “He’s not a bad guy, Dad!”
“He’s not, Chris. He’s just smoking.”
And Chris is nodding his head, “He’s just smoking.”