By Rick Kaempfer
When I saw that Kim had agreed to chaperon a school trip to Washington, I was impressed. I'm not what you would call the volunteering type.
Don't get me wrong, I have done my fair share over the years. I did coach soccer for several years, and I have volunteered to do a few presentations about radio and writing at several schools in the area over the past few years, but "chaperoning?" That sounds like a lot of pressure.
I've only done it once, and I didn't exactly volunteer, either. It was for a Boy Scout trip.
After the previous Boy Scout trip, an overnight stay at Detroit's Greenfield Village, the Scoutmaster had had a little chat with me when he dropped off my son Tommy.
"I really think you should come along next time," he said. It didn't sound like a request.
"Was there a problem?" I asked.
"Well..." he didn't want to say it, but I've been living with Tommy for years. I knew.
"Did he wander off?"
He looked relieved. "Yes."
I should explain the Tommy dynamic to you. Tommy is the classic absent-minded professor type. He's a brilliant boy intellectually...so much so that he has a few deficiencies in other areas. What he really needs is a personal assistant--someone to remind him to do the little things in life, like put on his pants, eat, and open the door before walking through it--you know, the sort of things that people tend to notice.
That job has fallen to me, which is ironic because I was the same way (minus the intellectual part) when I was boy. I was one of those kids that we now refer to as a "creative type" but back then was called "spacey," or "unaware," or "hey kid, don't run into traffic!"
Which brings me back to scouting. Now that I've described our uniquely incapable father-son team, try to picture the two of us on a Boy Scout trip. The Boy Scouts have managed to encapsulate all of our weaknesses into one handbook, and built an entire organization around it. This was going to have to be the right kind of Boy Scout trip or we had no chance.
At first blush the next trip on the calendar sounded good on paper, so I agreed to come along.
We would drive in a caravan to Iowa to something called "Merit Badge University." There would be no camping involved, which meant that we wouldn't need to set up a tent. Tommy would be working on his computer merit badge--which is certainly NOT among his weaknesses. There would be ten other dads going on the trip so I wouldn't be in a position of responsibility. What could go wrong?
I found out in less than twenty minutes.
As the caboose in the caravan, I somehow got separated from the other cars in a traffic jam just past Chicago. Even though we were given walkie-talkies to stay in touch with each other, this is what I heard through the speaker.
I found out later that the garbled mess was telling me to turn onto the next highway. I missed the turn, and just like that, we were lost. Luckily another dad was in my car and he helped me figure out how to get back on track. Even luckier, we caught up to the caravan when they stopped at a truck stop near DeKalb.
The next morning we drove to the University of Iowa campus. I helped Tommy find the right classroom for his merit badge study. Tommy's teacher, however, was having a bad day. He couldn't figure out which key to use to get into the classroom. Once we got in the room, he couldn't figure out how to log onto the computers.
He looked around for help, and the only other parent who had decided to stick around was me. I saw the look in his eyes. That's when it hit me. What kind of a dad volunteers to teach the computer class (as opposed to knots, survival skills, aviation, rocket propulsion, etc) at a place like this? The same kind of dad as me!
So I hopped right in to help. Between the two of us, we finally figured out how to handle the computers: by asking the kids. These kids, most of which were just like Tommy, were wizards on the computer. One helped us decipher the sign-on codes. Another one managed to identify the IP address of each computer in the room. Still another worked with the other dad to take apart a computer and point out what each part did. Another one walked the rest of the class through databases on Excel and Access. Tommy showed some of the kids how to use Powerpoint.
The entire day was an unqualified success.
It's still the last time I volunteered to chaperon, but I went out on my own terms: At the very top of my game.
Unlike Michael Jordan, I knew when it was time to retire.
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