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The Guy Chronicles

Letting a Lesson in Work Wash Over Them

July 21, 1999|CHRIS ERSKINE

A boy's life is not all comedy. There are rivers to explore and bugs to kill and endless chores. Always, there are chores.

"Wash the car?" the boy asks.

"That's what I said."

Today's lesson is how to wash a car, a lost art in some families, a dying art in others. Like bunting a baseball or shoeing a horse.

Not everyone can wash a car these days, which is why we're here in the driveway, passing this art on to our children, who, we hope, will teach their children. Then car washing won't be lost.

"This," I say, beginning the lesson, "is a garden hose."

"Huh?" says the little girl.

"Slow down, Dad," says my older daughter.

"Yeah, I'm taking notes," the boy says with a smirk.

So I slow down. Talking slowly, as if underwater, which sort of annoys them and fascinates them all at once.

"This," I say, "is . . . a . . . car."

They look at the car. They look at me.

"He's a good teacher," says the little red-haired girl.

"Yeah, he's the best," the boy says.

*

Washing the car. When done right, it helps develop a work ethic in children who otherwise might not ever find one. It teaches them the challenges and rewards of a simple job done well.

But not so far. So far, they shuffle around the driveway, pulling on their chewing gum and walking half out of their shoes, trying to remember which one is the car and which one is the garden hose. So far, their work ethic isn't working.

"Remind me, Dad," my older daughter says. "Which one's the car?"

"That's the car," I say.

"So this must be the hose?" she says.

"No, that's the sponge," I say.

"He's a good teacher," the little girl says again.

It has been a good summer for them, filled with cooking classes and baseball camps and instant messages on the computer.

"Hey, what's up?" an instant message asks.

"What's up with U?" the older daughter replies.

"Nothin. What's up with U?"

For hours, they will try to decide what's up, hoping that something is up somewhere, but it rarely is, this being summer and all.

"What's up with your sister?" they'll ask.

"Nothing, what's up with your sister?" they'll ask.

And when they're bored with these instant messages, they'll lie around a little, then they'll lie around a lot.

Some afternoons, they look like the cast from a Tennessee Williams play, half-dressed and sort of sweaty, waiting for something to happen in their lives, reading old magazines and rubbing glasses of iced tea across their foreheads, waiting for something to happen.

Then it does. Chores happen. If you wait around long enough on a summer day, chores happen.

"Missed a spot," I tell them as they wash the car.

"Where?" the boy asks.

"Just the roof," I say.

"The entire roof?" asks the boy.

"We have to wash the entire roof?" the little girl asks.

Bad enough they have to wash the car. Now I make them wash the car's roof. The entire roof. Next thing you know, they'll have to wash the tires.

"Don't forget the tires," I say.

"The entire tires?" my older daughter asks.

*

As they wash, I sit on the porch, thumbing through an old copy of "Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain's manual on boyhood. Found it in my son's room, where he was using it for a coaster.

"You ever read 'Huck Finn'?" I ask them.

"I read it," says my older daughter.

"I read it," says the little girl.

"What's it about?" I ask.

"This dude and a raft," my older daughter says.

"Sounds lame," says the boy.

"Hey, Huckleberry, you missed a spot," I say, pointing to the hood.

"We have to wash the hood?" the boy asks.

In this one passage of the book, Huck is floating down the Mississippi, admiring the sound of a fiddle in the distance.

Sometimes we'd have the whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark--which was a candle in a cabin window. . . . It's lovely to live on the raft.

In front of me, the boy stands--dripping wet and dirty, the Huckleberry Finn of a suburban summer.

The car is gleaming. He isn't. The dirt that was on the car is now on him.

"Nice job," I say.

"How's the book?" he asks.

"It'll never catch on," I say.

"Can I read it sometime?" he asks.

"No way," I say.

"OK," he says with a shrug.

"Maybe when I'm done," I say.

"Thanks," he says.

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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