A Green and Wrinkled Father

June 17, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington -- Fatherhood is full of surprises, big and small. There is the special thrill that comes on one's way to the bathroom in the dark of the night after one's bare foot has stepped on a tiny little ''power sword'' held aloft by a tiny little plastic Power Ranger action figure.

There is the singular amazement one experiences after discovering how many chocolate-flavored Cocoa Puffs tiny hands have stuffed into the floppy disk drive of one's home computer.

But nothing surprises a dad more than the strange out-of-body experience that comes when you hear yourself saying to your son something from your own lips that you swore you would never say, as your own father said the very same thing years ago.

Now that the future Nobel Prize-winner Grady Jonathan Page has turned 5 (my, how time flies) and appears to be stretching the ''terrible two's'' into a record-breaking fourth year (a period that child psychologists will record as the Teamster Negotiator Phase), I have discovered a surprising but enduring truth: Like fine wine and decent shoes, those stupid things my parents used to tell me get better with age.

For example, I fondly recall my father's most-used mantra, ''You must think I'm made of money.''

Of course I didn't. I did not think my father was made of money. I could see as plain as daylight that my father was made of flesh, blood and scratchy beard stubble. If he were made of money, he would be green, crinkled up and covered with pictures of dead presidents.

Still, he never stopped saying it, unless he was saying something equally stupid, such as, ''You must think money grows on trees.''

Wrong again. I might have been a bit unsure about Santa and the Tooth Fairy, but I knew good and well that money didn't grow on trees because I had looked. Vigorously. I knew apples grew on trees. So did pears, peaches, cherries and long skinny catalpa beans that we kids, imitating our elders, would hold in our lips like cigarettes as we strutted around.

But if money grew on trees, I knew my good buddy Grant ''Butch'' Mitchell, who could climb a tree faster than anybody else on the block, would have stripped it all away before any of it could ripen past nickels or dimes.

And now that I am the father of a young son in the television age, I understand why my father made silly metaphors about money every day. It is because I made silly requests for it every day.

Shortly after young Grady Jonathan mastered the word ''No,'' he picked up the phrase ''I want.'' It greets every single television commercial for a toy or cereal, regardless of expense, durability or nutritional value. Maybe the nuances of decision-making come next year. For now, every product receives an equal grade: ''I want that!''

It was sometime around what must have been the 14 zillionth time I heard him say ''I want that'' that I responded with a weary laugh, ''You must think I'm made of money.''

He whipped around and gave me a curious look, as if I had just said the dumbest thing he had ever heard in his short life. Suddenly I felt a bit green, papery and crinkled up.

But I stood my ground. Fathers must stand their ground even when they know they have said something dumber than a post. It says so in the Father's Secret Handbook.

Now that Father's Day is upon us once again, I offer to all the other dads out there a gift more practical than a necktie. It is a list of Stupid Things Fathers Can Say When Good Sense Isn't Enough (accompanied by the thoughts your child probably will be thinking when you say it):

Discipline: ''This hurts me more than it hurts you.'' (Maybe. But not in the same spot.)

Noise abatement: ''Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about.'' (Are you nuts? I already have something to cry about! Otherwise, I wouldn't be crying.)

On the road: ''Do I have to come back there and separate you two?'' (Yeah, right. Just try it and try to drive the car at the same time. I dare you.)

Also: ''Why didn't you go when we stopped at that last gas station?'' (Because I didn't have to go when we stopped at that last gas station. I have to go now. By the way, are we there yet?)

Making faces: ''Don't stretch your face (or cross your eyes) or your face will freeze and you'll always look like that.'' (Coo-wuhl!)

Nutrition: ''Eat your broccoli. Children in [pick your country] are starving.'' (And how is this going to help them?)

Tidiness: ''Pick up your toys or Santa Claus won't bring you any more.'' (Hey, it's only summer. I'll have plenty of time to recoup brownie points before Thanksgiving.)

And my all-time, knock-down, hope-to-die grand prize winner: ''Just wait until you have children of your own.'' (No way. When I'm a parent, I'll have everything figured out.)

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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