Elian's choice, as seen through the eyes of a child

Empathy: To form an opinion, an American boy puts himself in a Cuban child's place.

April 23, 2000|By Gerard Shields

With all the 21st-century might a television remote control can bestow, I close the curtain daily on the numbing, maniacal theater that has become the Elian Gonzalez custody battle.

The angry grimaces, mouths wide open, dental fillings exposed. The yellow tape barricades and shrieking hand-scrawled signs. The passionate monologues near the house in Little Havana. It's a drama with all the venom of a Shakespearean tragedy -- and I can remove it from my world with a press of a buttom.

But just when I consider myself free of the nonfiction soap opera captivating world attention, Ben Wade drags me back.

The 7-year-old Louisville, Ky. boy recently visited with his dad, Scott, a former colleague.

Since Ben's birth, my Indiana-born pal with the Mayberry RFD innocence has sharpened his young son's critical thinking skills like a butcher grinding the cutlery on a stone.

Chess, tracking stars with a backyard telescope, pitching tents in parks, swimming lessons, studying Chinese -- the two seem inseparable, a real-life "Courtship of Eddie's Father."

So when his slender offspring with the dark-haired resemblance to Elian the Cuban ping pong ball began quenching his curiosity with endless questions on the boy's plight based on the television and newspaper accounts, Scott saw another opportunity.

Dad, why don't they want Elian to go back to Cuba?

Poverty and oppression, son. They throw reporters like Daddy in jail for writing about liberty.

Scott, the former high school baseball pitcher who once faced the pride of Evansville, Ind. -- New York Yankees legend Don Mattingly -- waited for the right moment to throw his son the curve.

"Ben, what do you think about Elian?"

Scott's pride and joy had silently absorbed a week of Dad's vacation discourse and banter about how the boy should be returned. So Scott expected his son to regurgitate it like one of those tiny tape recorders he uses for interviews.

But the tiny Louisville slugger knocked Pop's pitch out of the park, employing textbook reason by starting his response with four simple words: "If I were Elian..."

As a nation, our positions have been shaped by armies of pompous talking heads, their gray brain matter pinched between scented hair gel. We ignore the opinions of sources most knowledgeable about the boy's plight: our children. The crescendo of the well-worn struggle occurs during Easter Week, between two nations professing more than 70 million Christians. The sides will take a break from Elianvision to celebrate the spirit and teachings of a man who urged civilization to navigate life's tortuous complexities with the dignity of simplicity: retain the heart of a child.

"I assure you," Jesus Christ is quoted. "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

At 6 and 7, children have yet to develop the sense of shame, calculated selfishness, insecurity and the need to be perfect. The American seed of judging others by material gain has yet to sprout, true happiness instead found in childhood imagination and Huckleberry Finn, carefree days. Their waist-high view of the world comes with the blessing of not being sensible enough to be afraid to speak their minds.

So Ben stunned his father, countering Dad's position.

"If I were Elian," he said, "I would want to stay here."

Scott grinned with the glee of a wolf discovering the hen house door open, thinking his son had walked into his trap as expected.

Dad moved son into check with the poison of our civilization -- guilt.

"But wouldn't you miss me?" Scott retorted.

"I would," Ben replied, before moving his father into check-mate position.

"But if you truly loved me, wouldn't you want what's best for me?"

Gerard Shields covers City Hall for The Sun and is a former government reporter for the Orlando Sentinel in Florida.

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