favourite son

Dad was a prankster and, as a man who prized excellence, he was an excellent one. To whatever he did he gave his all.

We’d just moved into our new house a couple of weeks earlier—Mom, Dad, and we three boys—and, tonight, were at a backyard BBQ being hosted by our next-door neighbours, the Rutherfords, to welcome us to the neighbourhood. There were about fifty of us all together.

Ralph Rutherford was a big, affable accountant, a partner in a CA firm. His wife, Ruthie, was a much smaller but equally affable accountant who ran a bookkeeping service out of their home. Unlike most couples on the block, they had no children.

“It’s not that we don’t like children,” said Ralph. “We do. We enjoy children. We just prefer they be someone else’s.”

They laughed heartily and seemed a lot like children, themselves. They even owned their own candy floss machine. You smiled just being around them.


Dad had been warned beforehand that, for fun, as a kind of ice breaker, Ralph took delight in asking new neighbours which of their children they liked best, then pushing them to come clean and tell the truth. So it came as no surprise that, as a group of us were gathered around the grill holding our plates out for another burger, Ralph pointed his spatula at me and my brothers and asked Dad which of us he liked best.

Dad looked the three of us over, thought about it for a bit, then pointed at my older brother, Carl.

"Him," he said. "I like Carl best."

Ralph burst out laughing. My younger brother, Jimmy, burst into tears.

Darting an angry glance at Dad, Mom immediately knelt and threw her arms around Jimmy. "There, there, Darling—your father was only joking."

“No, he wasn’t,” cried Jimmy.

He was sobbing and struggling to free himself, but Mom held tight, caressing his back, showering him with kisses, quietly reassuring him that Dad didn’t mean it, that he loved us all equally and was just making a joke.

It took a few minutes but, after she’d calmed him, she wiped his tears away with a tissue, took his hand in hers, and announced she was taking Jimmy home but would be back shortly. She assured everyone that he’d be fine and, as she closed the gate behind her, shot another angry glance in Dad’s direction. Ralph, too, was looking at Dad, and whispering something to Ruthie, who was frowning.

The party stalled for a bit but, as promised, Mom returned shortly and, first thing she did was reassure us that all was well. She wasn’t about to let Jimmy’s little incident spoil her evening, she said, and hoped we wouldn’t let it spoil ours. And, with one exception, we didn’t.

"Having his joke go awry like that seems to have thrown Ralph off his game,” said Mrs. Willis."

“He’s never handled curve balls very well,” said her husband.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

After the party, soon as we got home, Dad said, "Congratulations, everyone! Well done! You, especially, Jimmy! You were something else again—even had me tearing up!"

"Get ready, Hollywood!" said Mom. "Here comes Jimmy!"

"You were pretty damned good, yourself," said Dad.

Mom took a curtsy. "When will you tell the Rutherfords?"

"In a couple of days," he said. "I’d like to milk it a while longer."

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

The following Sunday morning, Dad was washing the car in the drive. We brothers had been horsing around in our bathing suits, batting a beach ball back and forth over a lawn sprinkler but, having tired of it, Carl and I were flopped down on the lawn, now, sharing a Coke and watching Dad put the finishing touches on the car. Jimmy had retrieved his bike from the garage and, mimicking Dad, was wiping its chrome with a damp chamois.

"So, Dad," I said, "all joking aside, being completely honest, which of us do you, really and truly, like best?"

"Carl," he replied. "I like Carl best. You already knew that."

Jimmy began quietly crying, which Dad didn’t notice at first and, when he did, he started laughing. Then, he stopped. Then he began laughing again, then stopped again and, after taking a closer look at Jimmy, put his chamois down and came over and put a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, which Jimmy angrily shook off and, mounting his bike on the run, peddled off, at full tilt, in the direction of the water tower.

Dad shouted after him to come back, that he was only joking. But Jimmy, by now, was already rounding the bend and would soon be out of sight.

“He’ll get over it,” said Carl.

“I know,” said Dad. “But it hurts me to the core seeing him upset like that.”

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

Jimmy was gone for a couple of hours. On returning, he locked himself away in his bedroom and played loud music.

When Dad knocked on his door and called out to him, Jimmy shouted, “Go away!” and cranked up the volume. And, a little while later, when Dad knocked a second time, he cranked it even louder.

“I think it best we leave him be,” said Mom.

Dad agreed and, eventually, to everyone’s relief, the loud music stopped and Jimmy emerged from his room. With a slight nod to me, he walked straight away to the kitchen, grabbed a Coke from the fridge, and slipped out the back door.

A few minutes later, Carl and I caught up with him in the park.

"You know what?” said Carl. “You were fantastic! You really should go to Hollywood. I can’t wait to see the look on Dad’s face when he learns he’s been pranked."

"Me, neither," said Jimmy, then, imitating Dad, "but I’d like to milk it a while longer."

We laughed. We’d pranked the prankster.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

A few days later, after dinner, Dad said, “You’ve probably noticed, lately, that I’ve seemed to be somewhere else. And I have been. I’ve been deep in thought about my failings as a father and, about how, over time, these failings have impacted your young lives, left you quick to laugh at the expense of others, for instance, and slow to laugh at yourselves. I’ve been thinking about how, with my frivolous pranks, I’ve been distracting you from what’s really important, failing to prepare you for life’s harsh realities. I’d go back, if I could, and be a better dad," he said, "but I can’t, so here’s what I’ve decided to do, instead. To help clear your slates of all the damage I’ve caused you over the years, to help you realign your priorities and focus on what’s really important in life, I’ve enrolled the three of you in a one-month wilderness survival program in Nevada.”

He passed each of us a pamphlet. On the front was a photo of two boys down on their knees drinking from a stream. Inside was another photo—a night shot of three boys huddled together beneath a blanket, roasting scorpions over an open fire, which, it said underneath, they’d started with nothing more than a few sticks, a shoe lace, and a rock. On the back, there were glowing endorsements from parents whose sons, said one, “went away boys and returned men.”

Carl’s face was beet-red. “I’m not wasting the whole month of July in some crumby boot camp,” he yelled.

“Calm down,” said Dad. “It’s not a boot camp. And it will be far from a waste of time. You’ll be taught self-reliance, how to fend for yourself in the harshest of conditions. You’ll be learning which leaves and berries are the most nutritious, which grubs and caterpillars are the safest to eat, how to catch fish with your bare hands, how to lance a snake bite. You’ll be learning to face life straight on, to meet its many challenges with courage and determination. You’ll be the toughest kids on the block when you come home.”

“I don’t want to be toughest kid on the block,” yelled Carl.

“Me, neither,” said Jimmy.

Carl angrily tore up his pamphlet and stood to leave. Dad grabbed his arm.

“Gotcha,” he said.

Dad had been right about our being slow to laugh at ourselves. We were still grumpy a couple of days later.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

But that was a lifetime ago.

Jimmy‘s been dead, now, for over 10 years—was killed in a boating accident at age 55. Carl and I, for most of our adult lives, have been living on opposite sides of the globe and, till today, hadn’t been together since the funeral. Over a beer, we were reminiscing about our childhood. Carl was recalling the favourite-son prank we’d played on the Rutherfords.

“We weren’t the only ones slow to laugh at themselves,” he said. “After Dad informed them they’d been pranked, remember how, for the longest time, they gave us the cold shoulder?”

“I do. And I remember Dad being upset about it—he liked the Rutherfords. They eventually came around, but I don’t think they ever fully trusted us again, especially not Dad.”

“And rightfully so,” said Carl. “Though they could have—he never pranked them again.” 

“Remember that time we pranked Dad?” I said.

"I do. I remember it well. Though I’m not so sure, anymore, that it wasn’t he who pranked us. Looking back, I suspect he was on to us from the start, just pretending to be taken in, that he was probably already planning how best to one-up us—which he certainly did with that wilderness survival prank."

"Now that you mention it, Dad’s saying that it hurt him to the core to see Jimmy upset like that struck me, at the time, as a little off—it didn’t seem like something Dad would say."

"He was very good," said Carl, "but he was no Jimmy."

He took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and, after asking if I minded, which I didn’t, he lit one and took a long drag, which he savoured a moment, then blew at the ceiling.

“Ever wondered, all kidding aside, which of us was truly Dad’s favourite?”

“I think he liked Jimmy best,” I said.

“I think so, too,” said Carl. “And, to be honest, Jimmy was always my favourite, as well.”

I pretended to cry.

“Suck it up,” said Carl. “You can’t help liking best who you like best.”

Carl sounds a lot like Dad when he laughs.

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