“Hey, Dad, watch me.”
I waved. “I’m watching. Go for it!”
My five-year-old son, Owen, was on the swing set kicking higher and higher and higher until he was nearly parallel to the ground.
“Dare me to jump?” he asked.
I was just about to yell, “No!” when he jumped.
I watched as he flew through the air like his favorite super hero Superman. He was in the air for so long that time seemed to stand still. But, of course, it didn’t.
“Yippee!” he called out, waving at me before he crashed to the ground. Fortunately, the area under the swing set at the park was full of beach sand, and the landing was relatively safe.
“Good jump,” I called running over to him to check to see if he was okay. “You were really flying there.”
He got up, dusted himself off, and hugged me around my knees. “Oh,
Dad, this is so much fun. I wish we could do this every day.”
“Me, too, buddy,” I said squatting down to brush off more sand. “Me, too.”
But that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, if ever. Owen’s mother, the light of my life for the last ten years, had made it clear what she wanted. And what she wanted was, as she put it, “some space.”
“Why?” I asked at the time.
“I’m not sure I love you anymore.”
Ouch. Could she have been any more blunt? Or succinct? I doubted it. So, six weeks ago I moved into a small efficiency apartment on the edge of downtown Minneapolis and tried to adjust. I worked for Hennepin County Recycling driving one of their trucks so I was unaffected by the pandemic. My wife worked as a sales clerk for one of the big box stores in near downtown, and she was given the option of staying at her job or taking a leave of absence. Her employer paid more money if she continued working so rather than being furloughed, she stayed. Her younger sister took care of Owen when she was at work. I did whenever I could.
I loved my son and would do anything to be with him. My apartment was about two-hundred square feet so there was not a lot of space. Taking him to the park worked out great, and I enjoyed taking him.
After I’d cleaned him off, we stood up. “Look over there,” I pointed to a war memorial in the center of the park. “Do you know what that is?”
Owen laughed. “It’s a truck like you drive, silly!”
I laughed with him. “No, it’s not. It’s called a tank. Do you know what that is?”
He frowned and shook his head. “No.”
“Shall we go see it?”
My dad was a veteran of the Vietnam War who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD after he returned. He had been drafted in 1970, spent his year “In Country” as he called it, and came home to a world he couldn’t adjust to. Mom told me once that my dad had witnessed the Mai Lai massacre and it had changed him forever. No one, especially not me, expected that’d he’d shoot himself in the head at the age of forty-two after a night of heavy drinking while on a solo camping trip in the hills above Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. I’d been five at the time, the same age as Owen was now.
Did I have an ulterior motive when I took my son over to the tank? I’m not sure. But, in retrospect? Probably.
We walked through lush green grass toward the tank. It was a sunny day in June and three months into the pandemic. The park was small and we had it to ourselves except for an elderly couple on a park bench fifty feet away in the shade of a huge oak. They were wearing their face masks and quietly reading. To be courteous as well as cautious I took ours out of my pocket.
“Here,” I gave Owen his. It was blue and had a picture of a flying superman on it. “Put this on.”
I put on my black one.
I glanced at the old couple and the guy waved at me and nodded his head. I gave him the thumbs up sign. Solidarity, I joked to myself.
The grass was ankle deep. The word was that with the pandemic, lots of services were being cut back to encourage people to stay inside. But we were outside, and I saw no problem as long as we masked up and kept social distance when necessary. Like with the old couple.
The park was about the size of two football fields placed side by side and ringed with large oaks and maples providing shade around the perimeter. In the middle it was sunny and as we approached the tank, I could feel the heat reflecting off it.
“This is cool, Dad,” Owen said holding my hand. “It’s…”
I’m not sure what he was going to say because he was distracted right then when a bird flew out of the barrel of the tank. “Dad, look,” he pointed and excitedly jumped up and down. “It’s a bird. A pretty bird.”
It was a pretty bird. I was a backyard bird watching enthusiast (until I’d gotten kicked out of the house), and I could tell by the raspberry red feathers on his head what kind it was.
“It’s a house finch.”
Owen’s eyes went wide. “Cool.”
“You know, it might have a nest in there.”
“Yeah. Want to check it out?”
We quietly approached the end of the barrel of the tank. I looked in. Sure enough, there was a nest about three inches from the end. There was just enough light to tell it had four brown speckled eggs resting in it.
I picked up Owen, “Here. Take a look.” I held him close so he could see.
“That’s so cool, Dad!”
I smiled beneath my mask. “Yeah, it is.”
Behind us a voice said, “I see you’ve found the finches.”
I turned. It was the old man. “Yeah, we did. I was just showing my son.” I set Owen down and he took a hold of my hand.
The old man was staying away a respectful stance. He smiled, his eyes crinkling, “My wife and I have been watching the finches every day for the last couple of weeks.” He knelt down so he was eye level with Owen. “The eggs should hatch any day, young man. Then in about twenty days the babies will fledge.” When Owen frowned at the unfamiliar word, the old man added, “It means they’ll fly away.”
Owen turned to me. “That’s so cool, Dad.” Then he thought for a moment and asked, “Can we come back again to watch them?”
I looked at the old man. “Would you mind if we joined you sometimes?”
“Not at all. By the way I’m Fred. Fred Anderson. My wife over there is Edna.” I looked in her direction and she waved. I waved back. I turned to Fred and said, “Hi. I’m Loren and this is Owen.”
Owen said, “Hi,’ but was distracted watching the finch who was perched in a nearby tree, chattering away like mad.
Fred Anderson said, “We should move away and let the mom and dad bird come back and do their thing. They’ll alternate sitting on the nest until the young one’s hatch.
“Good idea,” I said.
Fred walked back to join his wife and Owen and I stepped back from the barrel of the tank. In a minute a female finch, distinguished by being a duller color than the male, flew into the barrel. I had no doubt she got herself positioned on the nest to keep her eggs warm.
Owen watched the whole process with wide eyes. “That’s so neat, Dad.”
I nodded, “Yeah, it is.”
We were standing next to the sign by the side of the tank. I pointed it out to Owen. “Want to hear about the tank?”
He dragged his eyes away from the barrel and said, “Sure.”
I read, “This World War I tank was made from molybdenum infused steel. The steel’s superior durability, corrosive protection and much lighter weight than the original tungsten steel made it an excellent building material for tanks.”
I turned to Owen. He looked up at me and said, “What’s that mean, Dad?”
What it meant was that it was great for warfare because their light weight allowed them to travel at higher speeds and cover more ground and kill more people. But I wasn’t going to tell him that. Not after what my dad went through. Instead, I said, “What it means it that it makes a great home for birds.”
Owen clapped his hands and smiled. “It sure does.”
We watched as the male finch brought a piece of food to his mate. “Do you want to come back tomorrow? Check on how the birds are doing?”
“Yeah,” he jumped up and down. “I’d love to.”
I looked over at the old couple. They both waved.
I thought about Owen’s mom. I knew she worked tomorrow and her sister was going to be with Owen. “I’ll tell you what. How about if I take the day off? Me and you can spend the day here. I’ll pack a picnic. We can play on the swing and watch the birds. Make a day of it.”
Owen hugged me. “That’d be great, Dad.”
I couldn’t get the whole day off, but I did get the afternoon. We came to the park and saw the birds and made it a point to come every day if we could. We were even there when they flew off, or fledged as the old man said.
Owen’s got their nest in his room. “To remind me of how much fun it was seeing the birds,” he tells me.
“I’m glad,” I tell him. “It was a great time for me, too.”
And it was.
One of these days I’ll tell him about the tank and war and all that stuff. Maybe even about my dad. One of these days. When he’s a little older. For now, I’ll let him enjoy being a kid. For a little bit longer.
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in over two-hundred online and print publications. His short story “Aliens” has been nominated by The Zodiac Press for the 2021 Pushcart Prize. His collection of short stories Resilience is scheduled to be published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing and Short Stuff a collection of his flash fiction and drabbles will be published by Chapeltown books in 2021. In addition, Something Better, a dystopian adventure, will be published by Paper Djinn Press in early 2021. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.