I grew up in a sleepy little country town in Virginia where the biggest threat to a young boy's mortality was dying of boredom.
Crossing Main Street on foot was a relatively simple task, except on Friday nights when every redneck in the valley came to town for the weekly pickups-with-gunracks parade.In the five years I lived in my great-grandfather's house, I don't recall ever feeling endangered. In fact, as a long-haired rebel on two wheels and a banana seat, I was probably the central threat to local stability.
Other than the night the sheriff got drunk and drove his cruiser into the courthouse wall, nothing exciting ever happened. The people were odd enough, though, and that kept life interesting.
We had our own Barney Fife, a Goober, a Gomer and a Floyd. We had a Jim Bob, a John Boy and even a Cletus.
And we had Stevie Fleishman.
Stevie was the only kid in fourth grade who couldn't cross the street without parental supervision. He wasn't allowed to ride a bike at all. He didn't even have one.
He couldn't stay out past 7:30, even in the summer. He could only play touch football, but we always tackled him anyway. He certainly couldn't handle a BB gun and wasn't allowed to go to the town swimming pool.
He was the butt of many jokes, including some of my best juvenile humor.
Stevie, of course, never crashed on his bike or broke his collarbone playing sports like I did. He never got in trouble for shooting out street lights or stealing gum from the 7-Eleven like other kids in our class.
He went on to be a successful mortician like his father.
In thinking back now on how overprotective Stevie's family seemed, I realize it had a lot to do with his father's profession. His was the only funeral home in town. Victims of farm accidents and wrecks on the nearby interstate, victims of their parents' inattention or of their own carelessness were paraded silently through his office door.
No one in town, I know now, could comprehend the fleeting nature of life quite like Stevie's father. Through my own work, I have come to understand why he kept such a tight rein on his only son.
For more than a year now, my focus at the Deseret News has been on transportation. With nearly every issue I've covered, public safety has been an issue - from light-rail mass-transit to I-15 reconstruction, hours of work for truckers, air bags, auto-pedestrian accidents. I've reported some grim statistics and talked to parents who've lost children in most unfortunate ways. It can be overwhelming.
Unlike the Fleishmans, my wife and I are raising our children in the heart of a major metropolitan area. Compared to rural Virginia of the '70s, Murray is rife with danger. We live just down the street from the 5400 South-1070 West intersection, plagued by a rash of serious accidents. Suzy and the kids were just five cars behind a major I-15 pileup last week. What we see, hear and read about in one week would have driven Stevie's dad insane.
Our oldest, 7-year-old Emily, can't draw a picture of a car without getting car sick. We tried having her sit on pillows. We encouraged her to look out the window. Nothing seemed to work. But sitting in the front seat, we eventually discovered, helped a great deal. As long as we weren't on the freeway, Emily was allowed to sit up front.
Our little Hyundai doesn't have air bags, but I still worried about having Emily in the front seat, even when we drove neighborhood streets. One day last fall I heard a radio spot suggesting that kids always ride in the back. It was the first time I can remember hearing a public service announcement I wasn't already in compliance with.
On the way back from the grocery, I made Emily sit in the back. And I haven't let her back in the front since, although my lectures on safety and stories about Stevie Fleishman don't quell her protests.
But relegation to the back seat isn't the only restraint Emily and her 3-year-old sister Samantha must endure. Bicycle and roller-blading helmets, unheard of in my youth, are mandatory. When Sammy climbs the monkey bars, I hold tightly onto the back of her coat like a mother cat clutching a kitten's scruff. In parking lots, I insist on holding both girls' hands and get panicky if they stray more than a foot away when I open the car doors.
I don't let the kids use knives, not even butter knives or the plastic ones from Boston Market. We have no toy guns or swords, and anything with a long handle or stick - like a balloon or pompom - is quickly confiscated or adapted. And I can only get through a few sentences without uttering my favorite phrase: "Be careful!"
We lecture Emily repeatedly about what to do if approached by a stranger but do all we can to avoid any situation where she is out in the world alone, even for a minute. She's not allowed in the front yard unless one of her parents is there, too. After allowing her to walk to school with two neighbors last fall, we now drive them every day.
There are so many things you can't protect your kids from. Last Saturday, Samantha fell off a barstool and smacked the kitchen counter, cutting and bruising her forehead. The next day she fell and cut her chin at a birthday party. Like Elvis Costello said, accidents will happen. But not if I can help it.
I know Emily is only 7. She'll get older. But I can't imagine ever letting her go to the mall with friends or attend a party, at least not like the ones I went to. Going out on a date? Forget it. When she's 21 or leaves the house, whichever comes first, we'll talk about boys. In less than nine years, she could have a driver's license (if they don't change state law by then). I'll have to start saving now to buy her a big pickup (without the gunrack) or maybe a tank.
I know I'm setting myself up. Emily won't rebel for a few more years, but one day I'll hear it: "Dad, I can make my own toast now. I'm 23."
Maybe she'll grow up resenting me. Maybe she'll grow up to be a mortician. But at least she'll grow up. And that's all that really matters to me.
That's all Stevie's dad cared about.