By B.J. Hollars
It was a weekend we’d always remember—that’s how I billed it at least. Henry, my four-year-old, was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. This was to be our first father-son getaway, and since I’d been invited to give a couple of readings at a local book festival, we had our destination picked out for us: Appleton, Wisconsin—the Las Vegas of Appleton, Wisconsin.
Prior to our journey, Henry had spent much of the week prepping to serve as my dutiful bookseller, and while that scenario provided us no shortage of valuable math lessons, unfortunately for him, my books did not sell at a cost of three apples take away two.
Eventually I broke the news that someone else would be selling the books—someone with a calculator, not a fruit basket—which, judging by the look on Henry’s face, was a betrayal of Judas proportions.
“But hey, you can help me work the crowd,” I’d been quick to reply. “Help me talk to strangers.”
To a well-trained, oft-lectured four-year-old, my encouragement to “talk to strangers” had seemed like a trap.
“But…what if the strangers are bad guys?”
“Well, what I meant is…”
What followed was a 25-minute lecture outlining the many “do’s” and “don’ts” of stranger-talking, a conversation that surely obfuscated the issue beyond repair.
“You should talk to nice strangers,” I found myself saying mid-lecture, though when he called me out (“How do you know a nice stranger from a not-nice one?”) I frantically backpedaled: “Ok, let’s just go with never talk to strangers.”
But that afternoon we did. Following the first reading, Henry and I drove to the nearby city of Neenah where we stumbled upon a lighthouse on the shores of Lake Winnebago. There, we waved to strangers, smiled to strangers, struck up conversations with every nice stranger we passed. After all, it was a beautiful day and we had to tell somebody; who better than a stranger?
Later, we found ourselves in a glass museum, and since admission was free (and I wanted to keep the docent on his toes), I unleashed my four-year-old amid the exhibitions, a bold move that served as the impetus for further conversations with strangers. “Does he have a history of breaking glass?” the docent inquired. “Nah,” I replied, thinking: but maybe a future.
Much to the delight of the docent, we left that museum just as we found it, then burned off as many of the wiggles as we could in the playground across the street. We’d only been there for a few minutes before a six-year-old stranger pushed Henry on a swing, followed up soon after by a ten-year-old stranger committed to helping him climb the slide. To Henry, these strangers were hardly strangers—just kids like him lost in the throes of play.
From my place on a nearby bench, I began revising my stranger lecture. And then, once I figured I had it cracked, I revised it yet again.
How, I wondered, do you keep your kids safe without making them fear the world?
That afternoon I came to two conclusions: first, my guidelines for strangers was severely flawed (after all, isn’t everyone a stranger at the start?); and second, that’s okay. As a parent, I needn’t be a paragon of clarity, or an answer-filled oracle. Mostly, all I need to be is a guy willing to wade into the hard conversations, to go chest-deep into the muck of confusion and eventually find my way out.
Better still if we find our way out together.
That night in Appleton—long after the pizza and the root beer and the three swims in the pool—Henry and I venture into our hotel hallway with an ice bucket in tow. We look left, look right, but find no signs of the ice machine.
Midway through our search, we come across a middle-aged man wielding his own ice bucket.
“Any luck?” I ask the man.
“Nothing yet,” he says.
We split the territory, promising to find one another if our reconnaissance yields results.
Five minutes later our reconnaissance does, and after filling the bucket, Henry and I shift our mission to finding the middle-aged man.
We crisscross hallways, walk a few flights of stairs, shout into the echoing stairwells. Had I had them handy, I might’ve sent up signal flares but alas, on that night, we were flareless.
Since we never leave a man behind we don’t, and within ten minutes or so, we find our ice bucket brethren. I’m touched, I admit, that he hasn’t left us behind, either.
“It’s on the second floor,” I report to the man.
“Yup,” he nods simply.
After our extensive search we’d managed to find one another, though we’d paid our price in melted ice.
Henry and I reenter our room, at which point he immediately resumes jumping on the bed.
“We found our stranger!” he calls. “Yes!”
“That’s no stranger,” I say, dunking a cup into our bucket of water. “That’s our friend.”
B.J. Hollars is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. He the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: http://www.bjhollars.com