Last night Elliot was “rescued” in the hills west of the 241 Freeway by the Anaheim Police and Orange County Sheriff. It was dark. They needed a helicopter to find him.
The ordeal began when he texted me yesterday afternoon. I was working in San Clemente. He asked if he could ride his bike to his friend’s house in Newport Beach. We live in Anaheim Hills. Elliot had never rode his bike outside the neighborhood. I first said “no.” He texted “why?” Then I thought for a second. A 20 mile bike ride is just really a series of shorter rides. It’s like letting your teenager ride to a friend that lives 2 miles away, for 5 days.
Then my thoughts went on.
Most of the kids in the world ride bikes for hours and walk for hours and it’s been that way for hundreds of years… you never hear about 14 year old kids getting kidnapped unless you watch the stupid-ass local news and it’s always a relative… we live in the safest place…the homicide rates are the lowest they’ve been since 1990… you’ve gotta let your kids get out of the f***ing house and go on an “adventure” once in a while… and isn’t it amazing that having your near 15 year son ride his bike in posh Orange County California during the day in Anaheim Hills and Tustin and Irvine and Newport Beach is considered by many parents today to be considered an “adventure”?
Anyway, before he left, I took all the precautions to make sure he’d survive the potential perils of riding your bike. Make sure your iPhone is charged and you keep the ringer on. Make sure the tires are inflated. Make sure you ride in the bike lane. Make sure you wear your helmet. Make sure you stay east of the 55 freeway. (I didn’t want him to veer into Santa Ana, where he might be murdered. Even though his brother goes to school at Mater Dei, in the heart of Santa Ana.)
Right after he disembarked, my youngest sister, Teresa, who lives one door down with her husband and teenagers sent me a text. I could tell she was probably concerned.
“Raindrops and 52 degrees and Elliot is riding his bike to Newport Beach?”
Me: “This is summer for most of the country :)”
Teresa: “In a t-shirt and jeans holding a jacket and a helmet.”
I get Teresa’s worry. She’s a good mom. A normal and caring mom. But I’m just not sure that kids die of cold here in Southern Cal and I heard recently that you don’t’ even get sick from cold; you get sick from coming in contact with a bacteria or virus.
So I called him about 20 minutes after he left. He said he was in “some rural area,” on some path, going up a steep hill. He then informs that he used some GPS app and it took him not around the hills of Anaheim and Orange, but THROUGH them. I assumed the flipping GPS thingy would take him down Santa Ana Canyon Road, into Tustin, into Irvine (one of the safest cities in the US), etc.
I told him to send me his location. I didn’t recognize any of the streets because he was miles away from streets.
Then the rest happened in a flash.
I call him again.
“Do you know where you are?”
“There’s nothing out here. Just some small trail.”
“Are you at the bottom of the hill?
“Dad, I’m fine, I think so.”
I breathe. I recite all my thoughts about homicide rates being low and all that.
(Honestly, there’s a war going on in my mind. On one side all the statistics. All the facts. He’s totally fine. It’s brute irrationality to be worried. He has a phone. He’s in Orange County. On a nature trail. On the other side, the 1/10,000,000 chance of a murderer, or serial rapist, or mountain lion finding him. Back and forth and back and forth, facts versus irrational feelings, facts versus irrational feelings.)
I wait about 15 minutes and call him again.
Elliot, calmly, “I don’t think I know where I am.”
Paul, mild stress, “Can you find your way back home.”
Elliot very calmly and with an almost mysterious tone in his voice, “I’m pretty sure. It’s super quiet out here.”
Me with a sense of urgency, “Okay, go back now and send me your location and keep your phone on.”
Elliot, reflectively, with a sense of triumph and confidence,“Dad, can I hang out here for a few hours? It’s so cool.”
Me, forcefully, “Elliot. No. Get home now. I’ll call you in 5 minutes.”
Four minutes later. He texts me.
It was already dark.
I realize I need to call the police. Ask their advice. Not because Elliot’s in grave danger. I keep assuring myself of the facts. But if his phone died, and he got lost, and it would be in the mid 30’s in those hills, and all that, something could go wrong.
The officer tells me to have him call 911 so they could get his location via GPS.
“Dad, seriously, this is so lame! I’m totally safe. It’s amazing out here. I’ll go home but why call 911?”
“CALL 911 NOW.”
Within a few minutes my phone is ringing. I hear a helicopter. “Mr. Martin. We’ve dispatched officers on both ends of the trail and have his GPS coordinates and our helicopter is trying to locate him.”
And then they called a few minutes later and had him.
He sends me this photo.
Why the heck would he want to go home?
In a country that is riddled with chronic anxiety and worse case scenario thinking, this incident is considered a “close call.”
But in most countries when you’re exploring in the hills at dusk it’s called living. And when a 15 year old boy is living, there’s no need to “rescue” him; you rescue people who are on the verge of dying. Plus, in other countries, there’s no 911, anyway–no squad cars and search helicopters and rescue dogs. No GPS tracking devices.
I have no regrets. None. Hearing Elliot’s voice. Hearing the sweet sounds of adventure. Experiencing my curious and ambitious teenager exploring the world around him, wanting to flap his wings a bit, etching a memory into his mind—one that he would have never had had someone, “safely,” taken him to Newport in the car with airbags and seat belts.
And hearing him tell the story later that night. Of getting lost in the middle of nowhere. Of his name blaring from a police helicopter. Of the beam of light illuminating everything around him. Of the dogs barking from hundreds of feet above him. Of being driven home in a police car and getting to interrogate officers about what they do.
Experiences like last night’s are what life’s about.
Some of you disagree.
For me, I refuse to have irrational fear determine how I raise my kids. I refuse to sequester my teenagers–who for most of history raised families and fought in wars–to the couch or some sports field or carpool lane where mommy and daddy could keep them “safe,” based on one in a million worse case odds, chronic paranoia, the crap you see on the local news.
I will live my life without paranoia. I want the same for my kids.
Yeah, my kid got rescued by a helicopter last night.
That’s the kind of stuff that happens when you refuse to be a helicopter parent.
These faces are the real thing. Not contrived. We were at this ghastly place called, Zara. Shot the day after Christmas at South Coast Plaza in Orange County.
Women, there’s nothing for us men to do in Zara. THAT is the psychological phenomenon. We have no interest in women’s clothing AND we simply do not enjoy shopping.
Hence, our facial features arrange themselves according to our respective states of mind. (But Bree felt loved because her dad and two brothers, by the sheer power of their collective will, withstood over 10 minutes of Zara.)
Other than two years in London, I’ve spent every Christmas Eve with my mother, Louise Maria Zeppetella Martin. And this woman “brought it. Every year. The (Italian) spirit of Christmas. Old world tradition. The seafood that Uncle Phillip and her would go find in Santa Monica at 5:00 a.m. because, apparently, it was the freshest.
I remember those years of listening to Nonno and Nonna and Uncle Tony and Uncle Phil and Mom all yelling. “The clam-ee look-uh good… but-uh-the squid-ee, they look-uh too small. What are you going to do?” Hours of near obsession over the color of the octopus and shrimp and eel and hovering around the sauce and sampling the salt and consistency and they’d argue about it and you’d hear things like sta ‘zitto here and there.
Oh, and the pasta was hand made. From duck eggs.
You’re supposed to have ham and turkey and prime rib. All my friends did.
And our family doesn’t even get normal pasta and red sauce. Ours is made from duck eggs—of course fresh duck eggs—with clams and octopus—of course fresh clams and octopus—smothered in red sauce—of course fresh red sauce made with fresh tomatoes.
Every Christmas Eve for my entire life except the time in London—every one full of the chaos of gifts and baking and seafood runs and preparation and I never really thought much of Mom during it all and just how much her culture and traditions meant.
Oh, and those waffle cookie things with powdered sugar. And those long fried cookie things. And that real dark hard cake thing with walnuts, and lots of pepper. Why would anyone put pepper in a cake?
She always–ALWAYS–wanted me to eat the things I didn’t like, as a child, as a grown man.
Last year, keeping with the tradition, she made me eat that detestable pepper walnut thing.
This year she won’t
Thank God, Mom is alive. Recovering from the massive stroke she had in August. Now talking and laughing. And as witty and as sarcastic as ever. And she flirts with the male nurses and it’s hilarious.
But, this year at least, she’s not in a place to remember all those wonderful traditions that I took for granted.
She’s here. And she’s gone.
On and on and on, the paradoxes of life.
Sometimes only loss allows us to appreciate what we have.
I often write about how I don’t have a wife. I do this for a reason. If you’re married, there’s no way for you to understand how much your spouse helps you. Only when you’re alone again can you understand. I want to help married people count their blessing. Before my divorce, I never thought too much about all my wife did. She did a bunch, especially during the holidays.
Now I do it all on my own. All on my own. And it’s not easy.
And with work and commuting and doctor appointments and shopping and cleaning and taking the car to get the flat tire fixed and the dry cleaning and helping with homework and helping with college applications and driving and driving and all the driving and buying Ed contact lenses and visiting Mom and “quality one-on-one time” and “all this running around” as Tale Impala says in Let It Happen…
All this running around Trying to cover my shadow An ocean growing inside All the others seem shallow All this running around Bearing down on my shoulders I can hear an alarm Must be morning…
I’VE FORGOTTEN IT’S CHRISTMAS.
IN FIVE DAYS!
So, as I procrastinate, even now as I write this post, I will soon begin, within the hour, the festivities.
Without a wife, I will make the best of this procrastinated Christmas.
Set up the manger, the one I made in 2010. The one with the sticks and pine needles we gathered from North Lake in Bishop Creek Canyon, the place we camped every summer for 10 straight years. The one with the wood from old grape crates from when dad used to make wine. The one with the Italian figures that I searched for on eBay, because those were the ones I have the fondest memories growing-up, just a toddler, then an 8 year old, then a 16 year old, and they would mesmerize me, and they will this afternoon.
Lecture them about how, in ancient times, all homes had mangers. The animals stayed in the home, in a separate room. That it wasn’t some random stand-alone stable like today.
“Dad, you tell us this every year!”
Set up the Lionel train—the one I had as a kid, and the transformer thing probably won’t work, again.
Buy the tree. All three kids must come because if we’ve been able to hold to any tradition over the years it’s the one of them playing hide-n-seek in the Home Depot tree lot. And today they still will play, competitively, even though the boys would deny it to their friends.
Heat the Trader Joe’s spicy apple cider and we all drink it out of English tea cups while listening to Vince Geraldi (did I spell that correctly?) while we decorate the tree. Sift through a bunch of very tired and random and insignificant ornaments and tell myself I’m going to get rid of them this year.
“Getting organized” is the single best thing to procrastinate.
Bake. Christmas is better when baking is going on in the house. But it takes a long time.
Insist we all put on pajamas.
Light some candles that smell like cinnamon.
Try for another year to read aloud Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (like I try to every year but all the boys do is make jokes).
Read The Lion The Which And The Wardrobe because it reminds me of Christmas even though it really has nothing to do with Christmas and is much more appropriate for Easter.
Make a beef stew and add a little extra thyme and wonder for another year why stew is made with cheap beef and why you don’t make stew with porterhouse or filet mignon.
Watch It’s A Wonderful Life even though Edison never likes to because he says “it’s too emotional.”
(Every time I watch it I swear my life has such a parallel to George Bailey, primarily the part of feeling stuck in a boring town and wanting to dust this boring town off my skin forever [I would go write somewhere in Greece or Italy or Spain or Tunisia or anywhere along the Mediterranean].)
On a lighter note, to cheer my melancholy self up a bit, watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and argue with the kids. When they’re all goofing around during the rehearsal—which is the best dance? (Linus’s is the best. Hands down.)
Keep telling the kids to get off their iPhones while we’re watching (even though it’s, somehow, okay for me to keep checking mine).
Fall asleep with Bree cuddled up next to me and hear “Dad, are you sleeping?” from all three and keep lying to them and telling them that I’m not.