On day three of our week-long fathers-and-sons trip from our homes in Maryland to a wrestling camp in Vermont, the boys finally get what they've been demanding for a year: Friendly's ice cream.
"We're going to Friendly's every day!" our wrestling coach's son had promised his teammates on the same trip last summer. It seemed a reasonable pledge, given that the restaurant stood less than a block from the National Guard armory where we bunked. But we never made it down the street that year, a failure that has been brought to my attention intermittently ever since.
This time -- with thunderstorms canceling an afternoon swim in a rock quarry, and with the boys (ages 6 through 16) having exhausted the entertainment value of basketballs, hockey sticks and a crushed soda can skitting around the floor of the armory's gymnasium -- my suggestion that we finally take them to Friendly's is hailed by all as brilliant. Because we are all wearing black National Guard T-shirts bestowed on us by our hosts, the nine dads put the 16 boys in a formation somewhat resembling two parallel lines, and march them somewhat in step to their mountaintop.
It's 4 p.m.; plenty of time to digest a little ice cream before the three-hour wrestling camp that begins at 5:30. That is, unless you order something stupid.
Enter, my son.
To be fair, Alec is not alone. Several boys, apparently having been raised in Oliver Twist households where no one gets a second scoop, open the menus and grow weak-kneed over its seductions. They ditch their plans for cones in favor of candied, whip-creamed and syrupy extravaganzas that shamelessly spread themselves out in explosions of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.
My 12-year-old sets his sights on a four-scoop thing with two candy toppings. Sitting next to him in the booth with two other boys, I fulfill my parental obligation thusly: "You might not want to eat that before wrestling. You might throw up."
This child, the one who has tested into two magnet schools for advanced students, smiles and nods in that way that says, "This is dumb, but I'm gonna do it."
Most of the other boys engage in similar excess, drawing reactions from the dads that are a mix of admiration and wariness, like the way I felt when one of my childhood buddies bent over and farted while he ignited a lighter at his butt.
Off to wrestle we go. Some 100-plus kids cram into a high school gym that, despite this being Vermont and despite several industrial-sized floor fans sucking air out the doors, maintains an air quality that can best be described as, "Let's open some damn windows."
Within minutes, the oldest boy on our squad flees for the bathroom. He regurgitates and sits out most of the evening's session. I feel bad for him, but I'm also annoyed that he has wiped the shine off my brilliant suggestion. "Friendly's- - great idea!" a couple of my pal dads say with a laugh.
The other boys are fine, I note. I go jogging.
I return just after the halftime break in wrestling to find Alec sitting on the wooden bleachers. His face is a textbook illustration of nonverbal communication. It says, "I just threw up."
How, I wonder, could this happen when he made it through 90 minutes with no trouble? Apparently the key to this achievement occurs during the break, when you buy a slice of pizza and a 16-ounce bottle Powerade. Alec later confesses that he wasn't even hungry; he joined the food line because that's what he always does.
I vow to tell our school district that its magnet school tests are worthless.
Making things worse is that the evening's instructor is teaching a series of moves built around the "tight waist." This involves starting on top of your opponent and squeezing his midsection, not to cause pain but to help you crush down on top of him and/or turn him on his back for a pin. The instructor does not mention that the move is best executed without a gut that is trying to digest ice cream, pizza and two cups of liquid.
The rebellion by Alec's stomach solidifies the theory among my friends that going to Friendly's was idiotic.
But hey -- I warned him. I figure that the lesson he learned is more valuable than me ordering him not to get the big ice cream.
This sophisticated rationale is not shared by his mother when she hears about her son up-chucking in a far-away high school locker room toilet. When I tell Regina the story that night, instead of guffawing about our crazy kid, we have one of those cross-examination conversations:
Me: "Well, he ordered this four-scoop sundae with two candy toppings."
"Where were you when this happened?"
"Sitting next to him."
"And you didn't say anything?"
"I told him he shouldn't order that because he might throw up."
"And you let him order it anyway?"
Several times during my subsequent defense, Regina mutters, "Un-be-lieve-able."
I have landed on a common father/mother divide. Fathers tend to parent with more risk tolerance than mothers do. When we see our kids about to do something they shouldn't, we are more apt to warn them but let them go ahead if they foolishly dismiss our advice, as long as the risk isn't horrible -- like breaking an arm or knocking out the cable during a Sandra Bullock movie. This way they learn to make decisions when they're not living with us, which we hope is next month.
Mothers are more likely to stop their children from doing something stupid or painful. Regina would not have let Alec order the big ice cream.
Just like she won't let any of our three children go out inadequately attired for winter weather. Such attempts ignite a battle over the meaning of "cold" and end with a maternal order to bring a jacket -- which the child grabs with a growl. Me? I let them go shiver.
I was happy to see some friends demonstrate this same dichotomy several years ago. Alec and a few other boys had won the freedom to bike around the neighborhood in groups, and they showed up at the door of their friend Parker asking him to join their convoy.
Parker asked his mom, who went to her husband with her dilemma: "Parker wants to go ride with the boys. What should I do?"
Dave shrugged and said, "Let him go ride?"
She did. Parker lives.
So does Alec. I trust that in the future, he will not gorge himself into puking. If he does, I want to be there so I can say, "Told ya."