The day will never come when I don’t find it thrilling to find my name in the pages of the same magazine I read as a car-crazed six-year-old, but this month is more special than most.
This month you’ll read about how I took the AMG GT-S and the 911 Carrera GTS to Carolina Motorsports Park so I could introduce them to a pair of Vietnam veterans — my father and his Carolina neighbor, a former Marine aviator named Jim. We had a brilliant time on that summer day in Kershaw. Jim couldn’t get his mind around the idea that I was the son of his very squared-off and correct friend: “Look, he just wears whatever clothes he wants! He just has his hair all the way past his shoulders! And he’s not really a marathon runner type like you, Kevin!” But at the end of the afternoon, after we’d lapped the track a couple dozen times, he told Dad that I would have been a great Marine aviator. I think he means that I would have been a great Marine aviator in an alternate universe where Marine aviators spent their time between missions at Ruth’s Chris and/or Guitar Center.
There are times I truly feel fortunate. Usually when I haven’t looked in a mirror in a while. To have an entire racetrack to myself so I could drive those magnificent cars and swap stories with my dad and his pal… well, it meant something. As a child I didn’t know if my father and I would ever really see eye to eye. I didn’t know if he would ever value anything I’d accomplished. We’ve always been such different people, doing different things. But when that blood-red 911 came to a halt in pitlane and we both stepped out laughing, it felt like the happy ending of a film forty-three years in the making. Having moments like that would be worth breaking my leg a dozen times.
If you flip backwards through the magazine the way I always did as a child, you’ll find Sam Smith’s monthly column after my comparison test. He tosses me a very kind name-check in the first few paragraphs, but the real meat of the story is in his careful dissection of how a single ritual — in this case, the operation of a manual transmission in a manner that satisfies his father — acquires meaning that is both permanent and ever-changing. Near the end of the column he confesses that at the time of writing he hadn’t spoken to his dad in a few weeks. I know that’s no longer the case; at the very least, the two of them are motorcycling together in the Pacific Northwest. Sam and his dad are both fundamentally much kinder and easy-going people than my father and I are, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t always on a journey themselves, from the misconceptions of childhood to the sorrow of the deathbed.
Within the pages of Iron John, Robert Bly writes that in modern times “…there is not enough father.” He contends that society venerates motherhood but it holds the father up as someone to be mocked, and that the children a man sees at the end of each day receive “only his disposition or temperament, which is usually irritable and remote.” Much of Iron John is about having the courage to seek out and know your father as well as you truly can, regardless of the difficulty involved.
Far more difficult than seeking out one’s own father, however, is the task of remaining just opaque enough to one’s own son. To communicate that you will always love him without accidentally communicating that you will always approve of what he does; that’s how helicopter parents and boomerang children are made. To inspire enough respect in him that he will follow your commands while simultaneously freeing him to excel above and beyond you.
This weekend was tough for me and for John because we couldn’t really fight. We had to settle for a modified Marquis of Queensbury ruleset where I lay down on the couch and used my left arm as my sole entry in combat. He awarded me points for a clean strike but deducted them if he could punch or kick my arm before it withdrew. Every once in a while, if I started to pull too far ahead in the points, he would feint at my leg. He knew it was off limits but he also knew it was a weakness. To have a strong-willed son means to be continually evaluated for weakness, the way Prince Hal must have sat in the bar with Falstaff and considered every one of his options in the matter a thousand times.
When the weather popped above forty degrees, we poured water on the driveway so he could practice drifting his remote-control car. Since watching my race in the rain three weeks ago, he’s become very curious about what happens when cars hit low-traction surfaces. This allows him to test theories; on his own, he came up with the old highway patrol select-reverse-on-the-column-for-a-reliable-low-speed-180 maneuver, via the expedient of pulling back on the forward/back stick just as he initiates the turn sharply with the front wheels.
He’s also discussed with me his independent theory of why the January crash happened: a back wheel hit some ice, causing me to correct first to the left then to the right when the tires hit dry pavement.
“You see, Daddy,” he told me, with this grim seriousness on his face, “if you had just gotten the car straight after you hit the ice you wouldn’t have gone sideways the other way before the man hit us.”
“You don’t say, kiddo,” I replied impassively.
“So why didn’t you?”
“Can’t say, exactly. It’s been a long time since that happened.” Then, after the deep draw of breath to send the lie straight and true: “Haven’t given it much thought.”