Father knows how to teach all of the good stuff

By Jane Flanagan

People are surprised when I tell them that when I married my husband I gave no thought to what kind of father he would make. Probably because I was too busy obsessing over what kind of mother I would make.

Talk about lucky.

Sometimes it seems that everything my son Rusty, 4 1/2, knows, he learned from his Dad.

This morning, Rusty sat at the kitchen table wearing a bicycle helmet and swimming goggles and held a plastic cup over his nose and mouth.

“I’m Chuck Yeager’s friend,” he said, as he pulled the cup (his oxygen mask) aside. “Watch me take off.”

Chuck Yeager is the famous pilot of the 1940s and 50s who broke the sound barrier. My husband, Bob, and Rusty have watched the movie “The Right Stuff,” together at least a dozen times. It’s based on the Tom Wolfe book about Yeager and the origins of the space program.

As they watch, Bob identifies each plane and its parts. At bedtime he reads to Rusty from the book, extrapolating specific information to keep a four-year-old riveted. They also go to hobby shops searching for the models.

My husband is in his 50s and his interests stem throughout the 20th century.

Last Halloween, Rusty wanted to be John Phillip Sousa, the famous bandleader of the early 1900s. Bob suspected that the marching tunes might appeal to a 3-year-old. Soon Rusty was high stepping around the apartment with a pot and wooden spoon to “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

This winter he introduced Rusty to basketball, bringing him to games up at Columbia University. Soon, rambunctious Rusty transformed himself into a captivated spectator who sat still through each half. He picked a favorite player, “Cuff,” and for the next several months became Cuff as he dribbled down the hallway or shot a plastic ball into the kitchen garbage pail.

“Cuff is a freshman,” Rusty informed me one day. “He’s going to play for three more years.”

The previous evening Bob and he had been studying the players guide. They called me in.

“Mom, Rusty has something to tell you,” Bob said.

“Freshman, sophomore, senior, junior,” Rusty said.

“Oh, he had it just a minute ago,” Bob said.

Other nights while studying the guide, I could hear Bob ask, “How do you spell ‘Cuff’?” “What number does he have? Can you count to 12?”

And, of course, the trains. Bob has been collecting Lionel trains all of his life. We have a house in New Jersey and its basement and attic are filled with them. The two spend hours working on the layout.

Over the weekend we took Rusty to an outdoor museum with restored, early-20th century trains. As I climbed aboard the cars, it never occurred to me that they had different names. I soon learned otherwise. “This is a caboose,” said Rusty. “This is a locomotive. That’s a GP-9,” he said.

Recently they have been playing a computer game, “Civilization” with historical characters. One evening Rusty asked me if I wanted to know how the Hudson River was made.

“Well the Barbarians poured water over the sidewalk,” he said. “And then Julius Caesar came.”

The other day I found myself in circumstances illuminating just how ill-prepared I am to provide anything like the education Rusty gets from his Dad. I accompanied Rusty to a public bathroom. He looked around at the cement walls and metal fixtures.

“Tell me how bathrooms are made,” he said.

Fortunately, I am not the only person far behind. At a preschool parent-teacher conference, Rusty’s 20-something teachers wanted to know one thing.

“Who is Chuck Yeager?”


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