The holiday season, aka Christmas time, was upon us and Cub Scout pack 42 was in full holiday swing. As the leader of our older son Atticus’ WEBELOS den I had vied with other den leaders to create fun-filled skits and to provide diverting games for our scouts and their families, immediate or extended. Family and scouts jammed Nixon Elementary’s cafeteria and the throngs responded to the raucous, G-rated fun with abandon as scouts, parents, brothers and sisters as well as the stray grandparent, aunt, uncle or cousin joined in the merry making.
Our older son had turned ten-years-old the day before and today had been Cedar Rapids last day of school until January fifth, a full dozen days away. Christmas 2003 fell on a Thursday and, call the holiday break what you will, it centered around Christmas; the First Amendment’s opening line of, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” notwithstanding. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and tonight’s Pack 42 Holiday Party had been a big, though perhaps not a total, success.
Jeremiah, a boy in Atticus’ grade but not in his class or scout den, had seemed listless and lifeless as he roamed from activity to activity, his mother and first grade sister sitting as far from the excitement as the cafeteria boundary allowed, watching without participating. The night wears on and our holiday meeting ends. I’ve volunteered to stay late and do a more thorough clean-up after the scouts strip off the first few layers of festive detritus.
“Okay,” I say to my wife and our two sons, “I’ll walk you out to the car but then I need to go back in and cleanup some more.”
“You sure you don’t want us to stay and help?” my wife Misty asks.
“No, no. I’ll be fine. I should be home by 8:30. I like walking.”
“There’s no moon, you know,” Misty says to me, head cocked to the side in interrogative.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll take sidewalks the whole way. There’s just that little part on Council Street.”
“Okay, crazy man,” Misty replies, shaking her head. “At least it’s not cold out.”
“Wait! Did you just say thirty-two degrees isn’t cold? There’s hope for you yet!”
“Oh, it’s cold. It’s just not Iowa cold and it certainly isn’t Joe Kleen cold. See you in a bit. Say goodbye to your father, boys.”
“Oh! Hang on,” I add, “I have a flashlight out in the car. I’ll walk you to it. Hey, Harrison,” I say to the other fourth grade WEBELOS den leader, “I’ll be right back. Just need to head out to the car.”
Harrison nods acknowledgment and we exit with the trickle heading up the stairs and out Nixon’s split-foyer front entrance. Walking by the school-bus loading area I see Jeremiah’s mother looking agitated as she speaks with the car’s driver. I slow and notice that it’s Jeremiah’s father and I motion Misty to take the boys to the car.
“What are you going to do?” She asks insistently.
“I don’t know, but there are empty beer cans all over the floor of Jeremiah’s car. I can’t let him get in there. Please get the boys away from here; okay?”
Misty’s lips disappear as she pulls them in tightly while her nostrils simultaneously double in size. “Fine,” she says, sounding anything but.
“Hey,” I say, speaking to Jeremiah’s mom, a big grin on my face, “everything okay? You guys need anything?”
Jeremiah’s father cannot focus on my face and I say to his mom, “You’re just up the street a bit, right? Why don’t you catch a ride with my wife in our van?”
Jeremiah, his mother and sister look at one another, hesitate, and Mom shakes her head. “No, Mister K,” she whispers. “We’re fine.”
“Hmm. Nice night for a walk. How far is it to your house? Three-quarters of a mile? I could use the exercise?”
The children and their mother again confer wordlessly. “Yes,” mom says, “that would be nice. Clear our heads. Thank you.”
“Yep. Let me tell just go tell my wife.”
I instruct Misty to call Harrison and let him know what’s up. She gives me a look that is an odd mixture of anger and admiration, but she does as I request. When I get back to the car Jeremiah’s father is passed out in the driver’s seat.
“Uhm,” I preamble, “you’ll need keys to get into your house, won’t you?”
Mom looks at me, inhales, takes the keys from the ignition and closes the car’s doors. “Yes. Yes we will. Thanks for walking us home.”
“Sure,” I croak, tears constricting my larynx. “What are neighbors for?” I ask as we walk in the cold, dark silence.