KIDS ARE DOING EVERYTHING earlier these days. That's not a fresh thought, to say the least. You have to figure that every generation of parents in history has said the same thing. Go back a thousand years to the Norman conquest, or two thousand years to the life of Jesus, or three thousand years to the building of Jerusalem by King David, or four thousand years to Pharoah seeing the Jews walk through the Red Sea and saying, "If they can do it, we can do it. Follow me." It's not hard to imagine an ancient father lecturing a precocious son with, "I don't care if Isaachar's parents let him go to the bazaar alone. If Isaachar jumped off the Tower of Babel, would you do that, too?"
Still . . . Kids are doing everything earlier these days. Our oldest started sleeping over at friends' houses last year. He was six. Just before we drove him to the first sleepover, I said to my wife, "You know, honey, I don't believe I stayed at anyone's house until I was twelve. Maybe more." She pretended I hadn't been speaking, and off we went.
Recently, he turned seven, and The Divine Mrs. M. suggested we retaliate with a birthday-sleepover at our place for all the kids who had previously hosted him. "Suggested" is probably the wrong word, since it implies that there was some give-and-take on the matter. The result: Two Fridays ago, six boys descended on our house for playtime, dinner, more playtime, a movie, still more playtime, and, ultimately, sleep. In theory. Our mandate was twofold: first, to make a good faith effort to return all of the children to their parents the next day alive. Failing that, I was prepared to bury them out back and swear no one had ever arrived. Second, we were stocked with the most important ingredient of the affair, a constant flow of sugar products in the same ratio to body mass as the ant with the cube on his back.
And, I must say, I was very pleasantly surprised to see how smoothly things were going; at least until the children arrived. From then on, the house looked like an 18th century French asylum during a breakout. You know, the ones where the inmates never actually leave but just skip around, screaming and laughing and setting fire to everything that burns.
Now, of course, none of these kids had driven himself over, so the opening ceremonies included a dinner for the parents, which is a pretty good-sized crowd for people you don't like. I'm kidding, I just threw that in for the joke. We like these particular parents a lot. My wife is really good friends with four of the mothers, and I'm very fond of the guys as well, and not just because they drink. One of them is the scoutmaster for our cub-den and has covered my butt more than once when I forgot the secret pack salute, and another is a furniture maker who insisted on taking a broken chair with him to fix for us. Good people, and the meal with them was nice, so nice, in fact, that I kept remarking that we should do things like this more often, and that an evening together didn't have to include having the kids stay over. Everyone laughed when I said this, as if I was trying to be funny.
But the whole point of the evening was that the other parents got to leave, wanted to leave, and then, well, left. When they did, I tried crying like a pre-schooler saying goodbye to mommy. This did not work, and as quickly as you can say, "Please, don't make me beg, although I will," we were alone with the wolves.
There was a silent beat, the same kind of quiet that descends in a forest when the devil is about to stroll by. They were all motionless, like that shot of the dogs all looking the same way from "The Omen," and I swear their eyes even started to get that red glow you see in bad photographs. But this was no class picture. I cleared my throat and smiled like a guy walking into a tax audit, and herded them--the right word--to the bedrooms we had turned into playrooms. And this worked well enough for my wife and me to begin cleaning up the kitchen.
Unfortunately (or predictably), there was a serious dust-up about every ten minutes, and I'd have to go down the hall and separate the combatants with things like, "Okay, let Charlie be the robot first, and Evan will be the ghost. Jake, you're the spy, and the rest of you are the policemen who arrest the monster." Kofi Annan has nothing on me.
When linear logic began to fail (as it always does), I retreated to my old standby: colorful threats of dramatic violence.
"If I hear one more scream like that, I'm going to come in here with a two-by-four and smash everyone's head to a pulp. Your brains will explode like melons, and your skin will shrivel so badly no one will be able to sew it up. And you'll never stop bleeding." Boys being boys, they all thought this was hysterically funny, which was fine with me, since laughing stopped them from whatever they were doing in the first place. Everyone was happy with this system, too, until I began to run out of interesting ideas. Even a guy like me, who's supposed to have at least a fair head for making things up, quickly starts to run dry, and by the fourth threat I was down to things like, "If you don't shut up I'm going to pick up a . . . very big thing, and . . . use it." Luckily, just when they were beginning to smell the fear on me, it was time for the movie.
DID YOU KNOW popcorn shreds? Well, it does. The only thing I recall ever doing with popcorn is eating it, but when you throw it at someone by the handful or the bowlful, and then roll around on it like a giddy mastiff, the stuff de-kernels itself down to a fine dust which, in a very short time, makes your den look like an anthrax factory. Even vacuuming the next day didn't get all of it, and I have a feeling that in twenty years, when we go to sell the house, every potential buyer will walk out saying, "Hey, honey, how about we stay in tonight and rent a movie? I suddenly have a craving for Milk Duds." Speaking of which, the flick we screened was "Like Mike," a very good movie they had all seen before, but not above a thousand times. On this night, though, crushed food and wrestling were the main attractions, and we could have been showing "Mrs. Minerver" for all they knew.
Soon it was time for bed, at least for me, but there was no way with the kids. I would've had more success trying to convince Jacques Chirac to rent a summer home with Paul Wolfowitz. Eventually, though (in other words, three hours later), we got them upstairs and into their pajamas, and I have to say that seeing six exhausted, barefoot boys silently lined up behind the same the same toilet was pretty darn cute.
And before too awfully long, after ten visits to threaten, and a dozen or so forced separations, they drifted off, and that was that. Nothing to it. Even the dog slept with them, which was, again, pretty cute.
For some reason, however, it had eluded my crack deductive powers that if you go to sleep with a Little League team in your house, they will still be there when you wake up. And so at 5:36 a.m., to my great puzzlement, the starter's pistol went off again (a child screaming), and the race of the lunatics was on once more, with me in charge of the juice and the cereal and the light-sabers, and my wife doing what she does every morning, sleeping deeply and leaving everything to me. It was a kind of progress that I had moved emotionally from even attempting to care who got hurt. On further reconsideration, perhaps this was owed to the residue of the three tumblers of firewater I slugged back the night before, after they retired.
The parents were scheduled to return at 9:00 for their offspring, and, as time has a way of doing, it went by. The first to arrive was my friend Paul, the scoutmaster, and I smiled to see him, but he walked in with an ashen face and said, "Did you hear about the shuttle?"
And that's how I found out. I hadn't heard, and he gave me the details, what little was known that first morning, and my shoulders slumped, and I sighed. In the background, the kids were laughing and playing. Which is correct, of course. That's one of the blessings of our country. Our children can play even when great sadness occurs, and leave the grieving to their parents. That's, incidentally, one of the things the terrorists want to stop. "We will see to it that your country is as awful as ours." We're not going to let them, but that's what they want.
I stood silently with Paul, and then his son ran up and hugged him. I got him a cup of coffee and went into the living room. One of my kids looked up at me and smiled, and I put my arm around him. And then he asked if he could go back to playing, and I watched as he ran off to the others.
My wife came out of the bedroom and saw my face, and I told her. And, like me, she went into the living room to hug a child.
WE ALL LEARNED THE REST over the next few days, the stories of these magnificent people. The man who is a mainstay of his church, the woman whose birth country, India watched the heavens as one with a great pride, the Israeli pilot whose bombing mission in 1981 prevented the Iraqis from facing our soldiers today with nuclear weapons. Brilliant, loving, loved, dedicated, they are, all of them, truly the best of us.
It's astonishing to me that these heroic people knew the risk. They knew that, far from routine, each flight of the shuttle carried great danger, that being in space, and getting in and out of it, is terribly complicated, that every certain number of missions, something goes wrong. And Columbia was, dear God, how can one say it? Overdue.
It angers me that so many people in the world must have laughed with glee at the news. It angers me that more in our Congress they don't understand that the measure of a people is not only in its love for those with the least, but in its never-ending commitment to the exploration of the universe God gave us. It angers me that so many in our country used the tragedy to spring backwards into their own narrow agendas. "We grieve for the families, but let us now renew our commitment to bi-lingual education."
I know what we Americans will do. We will go about our lives even as the alert status changes from yellow to orange, and, God forbid, maybe one day to red. We will never forget as we barbeque and watch a movie that our soldiers are training in the sand to see to it that monsters can't get to us. And we will never forget the seven beautiful souls who went to heaven for the glory of all mankind, even as we continue vacuuming popcorn.
Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.