THE FIRST TIME my son saw a horse close up, he burst out laughing. He just laughed and laughed. It wasn't long before I had to agree with Jackson, who was then a year old, that horses were about the funniest creatures imaginable.
We'd had a pretty good yuk when suddenly the horse was smitten with the call of nature. And this was no routine summons, mind you. Before Jackson and I were through convulsing a second time, I thought sure we'd need medical attention.
That summer Jackson was splashing about in his wading pool when he, too, was called to duty. His eyes grew wide, and a horrified look suffused his face. Not being the brightest parent, I had no idea what was about to happen. When it did, I tried my best to keep a straight face because Jackson was crying. When he saw the result, he made a desperate attempt to salvage the situation. He looked down, then looked at me and pleaded, "Boat, daddy?"
We don't laugh at horses anymore. Horses, after all, aren't all that much sillier than we are. Besides, there are so many other things in this world to amuse and amaze us. When Jackson was 2 we went to visit the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, at its memorial and final resting place along the Thames River in Groton, Conn.
He wanted to know, of course, what submarines do. I explained that they hid under the water so they could sneak up on other ships and blow them up. At first he thought I was kidding. When I finally convinced him, he just shook his head in astonishment. It is an odd notion, if you think about it.
Other peculiar phenomena were easier to explain. "Why do the New York Yankees stink?" he wanted to know. They never take showers, I replied. A fuller explanation will have to wait a few more years. Actually, we watch the Yankees on television, so he'll probably figure it out for himself by the All-Star break.
He has also picked up a few things watching his daddy play senior hockey. During one epic contest, he was the only fan. There was no one there to teach him the finer points of sporting etiquette. Between periods, the referee looked into the stands and, seeing Jackson, waved. Not knowing any better, Jackson waved back. When the teams assembled at center ice, the ref asked, "Whose boy is that?" I confessed he was mine. "What a nice little boy -- he waved at me," the man in stripes replied. This was apparently a first. "Look, don't get too excited," I told the ref. "It's just a phase."
Jackson is now a worldly 4 and doesn't wave at referees anymore. He understands hockey, too. One day we were playing "porch hockey" on the deck and I stole the puck from him. Like a veteran, he hauled off and smacked me right in the ankle bone with his stick.
But he probably has learned the most in the locker room. At first, he would pull my sleeve after every "bad word." Finally, I had to explain that it was all right for big boys to talk that way in the locker room. One day he and his mother were waiting in line to get an ice cream cone when Jackson loudly inquired, "Mommy, do you like dirty jokes?" The line erupted in laughter. "No," Mommy dissembled, she didn't think dirty jokes were funny. Jackson, understandably, was confused.
For a while now he has been learning things from other people and other sources, like television and the teachers and children at nursery school. It is frightening in many ways. During the gulf war, his play got louder and more intense. He could "Bam!" and "Boom!" for hours on end. There were Scud and Patriot missiles all over the place. As usual, I couldn't tell if this was bad or good. Once he stopped and asked, "Are Iraqis bad?" It was a very good question, and he seemed somewhat disconcerted by my generic answer. "No," I said, "Iraqis aren't all bad. No people are all good or bad."
The war is over and Jackson has stopped fighting it, too. Conflict still rages in the living room, but it is between good guys and bad guys. It is both exhilarating and humbling to see the world again through the eyes of a child. Before they learn to take things for granted, children look at the world straight on. And what they see is often preposterous.
Although I don't remember it, my mother insists that I came home from my first day of kindergarten and told her that my teacher was nuts. "She makes us say nice things to the flag," I supposedly said.
I wonder how much of all he has experienced so far Jackson will remember. I plan to remind him about the time we laughed at that horse.
David Holahan writes from East Haddam, Conn.