Culture

Southern Boys and Sticks

A stick isn't just a stick to him: it's everything.

All that boy ever wants is a damn stick.

Not the swing-set and slide it took three grown men an entire afternoon and the first half of a SEC Championship game to put together – in a cold, December drizzle, nonetheless.

Not the tee ball set his momma and I drove to three different stores to find amidst the chaotic rush of yet another Christmas shopping season – a time of year when even the most devout among us is prone to take up cussing like a sailor at the stress and stupidity of it all. Or maybe we just ordered the thing off Amazon. Who knows?

Not the small plastic lawnmower that goes pop pop pop when you push it or the little motorized camouflaged 4-wheeler that lets out a high-pitch whine as it chugs slowly across the drive (do they make kids’ toys sound annoying on purpose?).

Not the tiny plastic house or the Paw Patrol big-wheel or the Spider-Man tricycle – all thankfully quiet – or any of the other dozen or so little toys that litter the backyard and occasionally find themselves under the blade of my very real and very loud lawnmower, where they’re chewed up and spit back out in broken pieces.

Nope. All my two-year-old wants is a simple, boring, plain ol’ stick.

Ain’t that something?

Granted, he will at times climb up his slide and pause at the top so that me or his momma can count him down – one, two, three – before he pushes off and comes rushing down, often flying off the end of the thing and landing hard on his butt in the grass. He’s yet to learn he’s supposed to stop himself with his feet so that this won’t happen, but we’re working on it.

Or he’ll set the ball on his tee and hack away at it with his yellow toy bat till he makes contact, the ball never going more than a few feet in front of him when he finally does. Or he’ll step inside his tiny house and pull me in, where, once inside, with my knees tucked under me and my head cocked at a damn-near perfect ninety-degree angle so as to not hit the ceiling, his little ass will dart out of there, slamming the door shut behind him to trap me in. And I’ll watch through the tiny house’s even tinier window as he sprints across the backyard towards something else that’s caught his attention and will more than likely get him in trouble, once I wiggle out of the house and catch up.

But here’s the thing: he’s too easily bored by all this. He’ll go down the slide once, maybe twice, the entire time we’re outside, which is usually hours. The ball: it’ll get smacked off the tee maybe once, if at all. And the whole “lock daddy inside the house so I can run away” trick, he’ll pull that one out only when he remembers.

A stick, though – a simple, boring, plain ol’ stick – he’ll play with one of those suckers for hours and never even lose his smile.

And you ought to see the way he lights up at the mere sight of a stick. He freezes, hips punched forward, back arched, arm extended out in front. Like one of those hunting dogs rich folks use that get still and point their snouts when they’ve found their target. And every time, frozen in place, he’ll scream out the same thing: “Wow.” Keep in mind, he’s only two, so his vocabulary is limited. But I don’t think that matters. Even if he was the world’s most brilliant two-year-old and had somehow managed to have complete command of the English language at such a young age, he’d still scream out wow. There isn’t a better word to describe his particular feeling; that boy is amazed by a damn stick.

Ain’t that something?

See, to you and me, a stick means absolutely, positively nothing. Hell, it might even mean less than that, considering I couldn’t tell you the last time I so much as had a single thought about a stick. This – what you’re reading right now – is the most thought I’ve ever given to a stick. A stick is just a stick. But that ain’t the case with my son.

To him, it’s everything.

Sometimes it’s a weapon. He’s known to snatch up a stick and, without hesitation, go to bashing the side of his swing-set or the plastic house or the pitiful looking fir tree out beside the fence that ain’t doing nothing to nobody except living. And he’ll swing away on those things with as much viciousness as a toddler can muster. Which I suspect, if you were to find yourself on the receiving end of this beating, you’d admit was quite a bit.

As I watch him attempt to beat his swing-set to death, I sometimes wonder if the devil himself didn’t snatch ahold of him. He’s a sweet kid, and I’m not just saying that because he’s mine. Ask anyone. There’s a sweetness and tenderness about him that’ll often manifest itself in random, unsolicited hugs and kisses that’ll just about bring a tear to your eye. But you put a stick in that boy’s hand, and something changes.

Between you and me – and don’t you dare tell her I said this – he gets that devilish side of him from his momma. She comes from a people full of hell-raisers and moonshiners and folks who are no stranger to the law or fistfights. A long time ago, one of her kin burnt down an entire jailhouse with a kerosene lantern. This was back before electricity came to the land, so lanterns were still commonplace, and I reckon this fella behind bars just decided he didn’t want to be there no more and burned the place to the ground to escape. My wife’s grandfather, he shot and killed a man in Alabama before running off to Chicago, where he changed his name and became a police officer. True story. And it was years before they finally caught him, but that’s a tale for another time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying my wife comes from bad people. She has the kindest soul, the biggest heart, and the warmest, brightest smile that’ll light up even the darkest of dark places, and traits like that don’t come from rotten people. I’m just saying that when it comes to her people, the devil inside can be quick to make his presence known.

When I watch my son beat the fire out of something with a stick, I have no doubt which side of the family that comes from.

Sometimes, a stick isn’t a weapon to my son but a companion, something meant to be taken with him wherever he goes. Some kids have a soft blanket or special toy. Mine has a stick. And when our time outside comes to an end for the day, he often wants to bring the stick inside the house, and we are left to explain to him sticks are meant to be outside toys. Depending on his mood, he either accepts this reasoning as logical and sound and sufficient, or the devil inside gets one last moment to step into the light. If this happens, our two-year-old has a colossal meltdown where he – screw it, you know what a toddler meltdown looks like. It ain’t pretty.

Sometimes, a stick isn’t a weapon or a companion but a thing meant to be admired and studied the way you would a dinosaur fossil. He’ll shove the stick in our faces and babble words that aren’t really words, but you get the gist of what he’s trying to communicate. He wants you to look at it, wants you to see it the way he sees it. When he does this, I often say something along the lines of “Yeah, buddy, you got a stick.”

To which, if he could reply properly, he’d probably rattle off something like, “No, you idiot, it isn’t just a stick. Can’t you tell this one is special? Can’t you tell this one is different than all the other ones I’ve picked up today? Are you a dumb person? What’s wrong with you?” I think that’s what he’s trying to say, at least. And what a beautiful way that is to look at the world. To constantly be amazed at the strangeness and uniqueness of it all, even if all you’re talking about is boring ol’ sticks.

Sometimes, he doesn’t do anything at all with the stick other than tote it across the yard and throw it down. Like the stick and him spoke a language only the two of them understood, the stick simply asking for a little change of scenery, and my two-year-old more than happy to oblige. Then, once he’s made good on his word, he’s off to find another stick.

Because there’s always more sticks to find. The world hasn’t run out of them.

Not yet.

In between the sticks, he runs. He’s always running. With his incessant need to run, you’d think there’s somewhere he needs to be, but there isn’t. He’s two. Two-year-olds have nowhere to go – they just go. Anywhere and everywhere. And mine, he hauls ass to get there. If you asked him and he could answer, he’d probably tell you he runs because he just likes running. Which is about a good enough of a reason to do anything, I guess. I think there’s more to it, though.

My son was born in December 2019, only a few months before the entire world got sick, and we all sheltered inside our homes, to stay safe from the outside that had suddenly turned dangerous. Deadly. And we stayed like this for a while. We missed out on birthdays. Holidays. Words like social distancing become woven into our everyday vernacular. Folks passed away in hospitals, completely alone, as their loved ones watched their final moments through Facetime, with nurses trying desperately to steady their hands, to steady the camera, as they wept behind masks.

After some time and a tremendous amount of suffering, the danger of the outside world faded. At least a little. And the ones of us still here, we emerged from our houses and back into the sunlight, trying to find a new normal. Even though my son’s far too young to remember any of this, maybe he internalized this somehow. Because once you’ve had something taken away and you’re lucky enough to get it back, it takes on a greater importance.

To my son, the outside is always perfect – doesn’t matter if it’s storming or it’s cold or it’s raining or it’s pitch black. However it is, it’s perfect. Just because it’s still there. If only we all could think like that.

But then again, maybe none of that matters. After all, he is a little boy, and perhaps that’s just how little boys are. They always want to be outside. And maybe it’s just me who’s grown to appreciate these moments.

So for now, my son runs and picks up sticks and plays freely in the way only one can who’s yet to be touched by the hurt of this world; whose bruises, at least for now, exist solely on the flesh and not on the heart – where the pain is deeper and sometimes never heals.

To me, a stick is just a stick. I don’t possess the childlike imagination, wonder, and innocence that often elevates even the most mundane of things to that of something special, of something meant to be celebrated, cherished. Life has a cruel way of beating that out of you over time, and I suspect it vanishes completely once the light bill starts having your name on it. But for my son, that hasn’t happened. Not yet. It’s coming, though.

One day, a stick will mean as much to him as it does to me. One day, I’ll watch him pick up a stick and twirl it around his head for the last time, and I won’t even realize what just happened.

A great tragedy in life, one of the many, is that it doesn’t alert you when something happens in front of you for the final time. It just happens, and the moment goes, like any other, and we keep on living. It’s only years later, when all of it has turned into a memory, that we begin to miss it. And if we’re unlucky and life decides to be particularly cruel, even the memory of it vanishes. And we’re left with nothing.

But for us, for me and my son, that day isn’t today. It won’t be tomorrow. We have, at least I hope, the gift of time still.

I hope we’re one of the lucky ones.

So, for now, he’ll keep on running. He’ll keep on picking up sticks. He’ll keep shoving them in my face and bashing them up against the side of his swing-set. And as he does, I’ll watch him. Trying all the while to block out of my mind the sad, inevitable fact that each stick he picks up brings us closer and closer to the last, to the day when a stick becomes a simple, boring, plain ol’ stick.

My son. I hope you pick up every stick this whole world has to offer. I hope, no matter how hard life becomes, and it will seem unbearable at times, I hope you never lose the magic. At least not all of it. Take your lumps and your bruises, some of which will turn permanent. But whatever you do, fight like hell to keep just a little of the magic alive. You only need a little to keep you going. And don’t you ever stop running. Life’s too short, too precious, to stand still. If you’re lucky, and your momma and me did right by you, you’ll have little to run away from and everything to run towards.

The whole world rests in front of you, kid. And there’s plenty of sticks out there, just waiting on you to find them.

So run wild, my son. Run wild.

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