One Big Family

Originally published December 2008 in the Chesterfield Observer: Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

One of the great things about being a dad is that you can inculcate your kids with the illusion of infallibility right out of the gate. From the moment the child can focus on your face, you can portray yourself in stories as a hero, an intellectual giant, and a pillar of good judgment and wisdom.

So I can’t figure out how it came to be that my kids’ favorite story is about the time that I hit myself in the head with a baseball bat. And, believe it or not, it’s actually stupider than it sounds.

When I was growing up, our family had an over-sized knock-off of the classic Hippity Hop™. This fake Hippity Hop® was big and pear-shaped and sort of chemical-orange in color, and instead of a ring to hold on to (as one would find on the original Hippity Hop©), it had antlers. Not reindeer antlers but a pair of long, twisting antlers, like the horns on an Eland, curving outward from each other. We didn’t know what it was called, so we just called it a Hippity Hop, but we didn’t include the ™ or the ® or the ©.

Anyway, one afternoon when I was about 13 we were playing baseball in the back yard, and I got a great idea. Standing at home plate and holding my 28-inch wooden Louisville Slugger, I asked my friend Matthew King to pitch me the Hippity Hop instead of the tennis ball we had been using.

He obliged, tossing the super-bouncy orange orb toward me in a high arcing pitch. I kept my eye on the, er, ball, as it came toward me, then unleashed a vicious tomahawk swing that I was sure would send the thing flying over the Hague’s garage roof, an automatic home run.

However, the Hippity Hop knock-off and Sir Isaac Newton had a surprise in store for me, as my bat bounced back sharply off the giant rubber ball and nearly 100% of the energy of my swing was unleashed instead into the top of my forehead.

The next thing I remember, I was standing on the King’s patio, leaning forward with blood pouring off my head onto the bright white concrete. My younger sister Linda was patting my back and reassuring me I’d be all right and Mrs. King was yelling for Matthew to go get my mom.

Amid all the blood and the throbbing and the chaos, one alarming question stood out clearly in my mind: why was my sister being so nice to me?

Was I dying?? I must be dying if Linda was being nice to me!!

See, my sister and I – actually, all my siblings – did not exactly get along. We didn’t fight like cats and dogs… we fought more like tigers and wolves. So when Linda suddenly showed up at my side softly telling me I was OK, I was sure I was either dying or Candid Camera had staged its most violent hoax yet.

As it turns out, though, Linda was just practicing what our parents preached… and preached… and preached – that family is the most important thing a person has, and that brothers and sisters need to be there for each other, no matter what. In fact, that day was sort of a turning point for Linda and me. Over the next few years, as we moved into our teenage years, we became closer and closer – in fact, all of us did – until we became something of an indivisible unit.

As we grew into adults, we also grew secure in the knowledge that no matter what happened to any one of us, the other three ALWAYS had our back, and were supporting and encouraging us.

It wasn’t always easy. When my sister decided to move west, to Colorado and then Idaho, we knew we’d miss her, but we also knew this was what she wanted, so we supported her. Now she is very happy with her husband Lee (a Cajun forester and wildlife management professional, sort of a Daniel Boone of the Bayou) and their two beautiful kids, living literally in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. We couldn’t be happier for her, and if the economy collapses, we’ll all be moving out to live with her and survive on Lee’s annual elk hunt in the High Country.

Actually, Linda may have just learned about that plan as she read this. (Yes, they are regular readers of the Chesterfield Observer, and in fact they have some questions about this grinding issue we seem to have here…).

Someone once asked me whether the fact that another of my siblings was buying a nice house was a problem for me. I literally did not understand the question – it was based on a zero-sum view of a family’s potential happiness, as if my sibling’s success was a setback for me.

I can’t see how a family can operate that way and still make individual or collective progress. We may sometimes disagree, but when one of us succeeds, we all succeed, and when one of us fails, we all come together to pull the other back up to his or her feet. Simply, we are stronger together than we are apart.

Here’s the thing: we just had a huge family meeting about a big decision. It took (God help us) over two years to complete and then, on Tuesday, Nov. 4, we all held a family vote, and the issue was decided.

Now it’s time for our family to move forward together, to have each other’s backs, so that we can ALL make progress. We will not succeed as a family (and that’s what we are) and solve the big problems we ALL face if we are calling each other nasty names, undermining each other’s goals, suspecting sinister motives, doubting each other’s good will, or spreading rumors. Family members do not – CANNOT – treat each other that way.

Not if we want to survive.

Retrospective Notes for One Big Family (bringing us all up to speed since it was published eight years ago):

  • Obviously, this essay was as much about country as family.
  • Unfortunately, although my siblings and I have gotten tighter, the country has gone the other direction.
  • I have liberal friends who will argue until they are blue in the face that it’s the Republicans’ fault, and conservative friends who will argue it’s the Democrats’ fault, and I will tell you they are both right.
  • There’s lots I could say on this topic, but suffice to say that if you are sure the problems we are having are all other people’s fault, then you are part of the problem. You can’t change them. You can only change you. Be the change you want to see in the world.
  • That said, I’m sure you are wondering what “grinding” issue my sister Linda might have been curious about back in 2008. Long story short: after an Observer photographer took shots at a homecoming dance of high school kids dirty dancing, the parents of Chesterfield County lost their minds. There were news stories and letters to the editor and accusations and denunciations and for a while there I forgot all about the fact that our country had just fallen into the worst recession since 1929.
  • A couple weeks later the grinding issue went away and it hasn’t come up again since.
  • To close the loop on the Hippity Hop, a year or so later I killed that damn thing, but it took its pound of flesh in the process. I was dragging it down the road on a 30-foot rope tied to the back of my bike (I have no idea why), and as I went tearing down the street, the Hippity Hop skipped over toward the curb like a drunk skier and got jammed under a parked car. The good news: that thing was destroyed by the impact. The bad news: the force that destroyed it was caused by my bike going from 25 miles per hour to zero in a split second as I reached the end of my rope. Like a cartoon dog on a short leash, my bike was yanked violently backwards (and bent in half in the process). I, on the other hand, continued moving forward over my handlebars at 25 mph, at least until I hit the pavement. Head to toe, the skin on my right side was torn off in jagged patches, and the plastic of my windbreaker was shredded and embedded deep into my flesh, along with tar and rocks.
  • But that son of a bitch was dead. I’m only sorry I didn’t mount those orange antlers on my wall.