A couple of memorable things happened to me on the home front this year.
L One was that my 5-year-old son learned how to hammer a nail.
The first time I saw him wielding my hammer, I tried to take it away from him. I was convinced he was going to clobber somebody, or something, or damage my prized hammer.
I dimly recalled that his big brother had gone through a stage of fascination with hammers and screwdrivers. But using a combination of stern warnings and a set of toy tools, I had steered the first son clear of my workbench.
This didn't work for son number two. He liked real tools. He wasn't satisfied with toy versions. Plastic tools, he said, couldn't do anything.
And he wasn't afraid of tools, even after he once sent the workbench crashing to the floor.
So, whether I was ready or not, I taught my son how to hammer nails.
We worked, as most fathers and sons do, with tension between us. I insisted on showing him the "right way." He insisted on hammering "his way." I wanted to share the grip on the hammer. He wanted to strike out on his own.
At times I secretly rooted for him to fail, so I could be invited back in the project. But no matter how many nails he bent, he refused to cede control. He remained in charge, and pretty soon his steel will and heavy hammer were driving nails into the pieces of scrap wood.
On Saturdays he now entertains himself by pulling out a box of nails, a hammer, and whaling away at a piece of lumber we have agreed is the household nailing board. If he hurts himself, he rarely cries. This kid is not a complainer.
Which brings me to another notable event of the past year, the night I carried this boy into the hospital.
It began when we were visiting friends. The kids were playing, then the 5-year-old uncharacteristically complained of a headache and said he wanted to take a nap on the sofa. He woke up screaming. His head hurt. He had a fever. Then he had chills. His neck stiffened.
My wife and I knew that a stiff neck was a sign of meningitis, an inflammation of brain and spinal column. When a child's neck got stiff, health books warned parents, in capital letters, to SEE A DOCTOR IMMEDIATELY.
We did. And on a balmy night of Labor Day weekend, when the fraternity houses at nearby Johns Hopkins were having rush parties, I carried the limp body of my sweet son into Union Memorial Hospital.
He spent several nights there. He did have meningitis, but it was viral, not bacterial. The pediatricians -- there were two now, our's and the hospital's -- explained that viral was a much less severe form of the illness.
My son was out of the hospital in three days. By the fourth day he was running around the house, hammering.
Months later our family pediatrician told me that viral meningitis is one of those afflictions that scares parents more than doctors.
It sure scared me. Memories are still with me. I remember our oldest son asking me if his little brother "was fading." I assured him that everything would turn out all right. But his question made me confront for a fleeting, yet terrifying moment, the possibility that my son might die.
I think of that now, months later when I see families sending their sons and daughters off to the Persian Gulf.
And I remember that life flattens when you are in a hospital room. That there are few of the ups and downs. That all you want to do is get your child out, and get home and get back into those simple, wonderful rhythms of Saturday-morning life.
Which we did. And now the son I taught how to hammer has already mastered the screwdriver. And now he wants me to teach him how to saw.