Terra Incognita

by Ed Wagner


Jordan rushed into the kitchen and said, “Dad! Come quick!”

Every parent hears that urgent plea from time to time. When it comes from my teenage son, it could be anything from a flat tire to a broken leg. Drama is a daily occurrence. He was walking, so it wasn’t a broken leg this time. He’s quick and lean, with that casual athletic look that comes so easily for young men. The girls love his blue eyes and long lashes, but I’m betting his girlfriend would prefer that he shave more often. The stubbly beard and buzz-cut hair just show that he’s unaffected by vanity.

Mary cried in the living room, her shoulders heaving from long, wracking sobs. Her hands covered her face and a wadded-up tissue fell to the floor. My wife cries at weddings and funerals. She cries in movie theaters. I’ve learned to gauge her moods. This one was serious.

“We were driving home from the grocery store when Carrie Underwood’s “Just a Dream” came on the radio,” Jordan said. “It’s a song about a soldier who dies. Mom listened to it and started crying.”

She had good reason. Jordan signed his Navy enlistment contract last week. Mary deals with anxiety by cooking and cleaning incessantly. The vacuum has had quite a workout. The song was just enough to break her composure.

My own unease caused me to reflect on that same period in my life. I was in college when the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University. The students were protesting the war in Vietnam. The Guardsmen felt threatened by the crowd, so they opened fire. Later, Governor Rhodes would exonerate the troops of all charges. It was a turning point, leading to my life-long distrust of authority.

This year, we could only watch as our son made his decision and signed his contract. We were entrusting our boy into the care of the very people I’d learned to distrust most. I was tempted to dig my heels in and scream, “No! You can’t do that!” However, I’ve learned to respect his decisions. It wasn’t easy, and it included keeping my mouth shut while he made some truly bad ones, like putting off maintenance on his first car until the engine seized one night. That’s a hard thing for any parent to do, and maybe I’m more adamant about it because I was never given that respect at his age. My own parents were reluctant to teach me to drive, let alone have my own car, so my independence extended as far as I could walk. In a sense, my rebellion against authority that began with Kent State was also a rebellion against my parents.

It’s impossible to escape self-analysis when you have teenagers in the house.

My son is stepping off into the unknown. His initial training will be near Chicago, and his specialty school is in San Diego. He’s to be assigned as a mine man. It’s likely he’ll be in the Persian Gulf. On old maps, he would be going into those areas marked with the legend, “Here Be Dragons.” Jordan sees this as an adventure because he gets to blow things up. Yeah, a young man and high explosives. How could that possibly worry a parent?

I can empathize with his desire for adventure to some extent, but I’m about to watch my boy go off into terra incognita, a place where I can no longer help or protect him. Mary broke down and cried at hearing a country and western song. Anxiety makes me irritable and short-tempered, so my inner struggle is to keep that contained.

Jordan is free to make his own choices, and I’ll support his decisions, beaming with pride while my stomach is clenched in a knot.