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A Father's Journal > Columns > A Father's Journal Index

Timothy McVeigh Died Today
by Forrest Seymour

Nestled here in the granite hills of northern New England FM radio reception can be a bit of a problem. Our battered kitchen radio, tucked on top of the fridge, its antenna brushing the ceiling, often struggles to separate those weak bottom of the dial frequencies where the brash and unpredictable state college station, one minute playing hip-hop, the next Mozart, often drowns out he more staid voice of public radio.

This morning, while I shaved, dragging the blade across my neck, this same radio, now balanced on the bathroom towel rack where it seems to get the best signal, I listened to a live report from Terre Haute (which ironically means something like "high-ground"), where Timothy McVeigh was about to die. In the longish pauses following the reporter's comments phoned in from the scene, while the newscaster searched for a question that hadn't already been asked a thousand times before, the college station would burst through with something melodic, quite, mournful. I quickly realized that this was far too melodramatic to be purposeful, yet it seemed just right to me this morning, this blend of melancholy music and meaningless chatter about a man who, while I shaved, was being killed.

A few moments latter I trotted into the kitchen, late as usual in our Monday morning routine, and whispered to Nancy, "they're executing McVeigh right now," intending, out of some naive sense of fatherly protectionism, to withhold this update from the kids. Despite being in the next room, and apparently occupied, as is often the case, in some monologue of her own, Emily zeroed right in on my words.

"What? What?" she asked running to me, wide-eyed. "Execute who?"

So I sat my seven year old down and did my best to explain. She took it stoically, no jokes, which means she's thinking it over, no comment at all, other than, "you're bleeding."

Indeed; I had cut myself while shaving.

After cleaning up, we bustle the kids off to school. Jake, at two, is completing his first year in a wonderfully warm morning Montessori program, though next year he'll be going to a day-care based at the state college, a lab school for their Early Childhood Education students. We've kept this move from him, somehow thinking we're saving him from the inevitable loss of friends and teachers. We can foresee the benefits of the attention and creativity to be found in a lab school, but for Jake, like the Zen master of all children are, he lives in the moment. Today, which is the day we tell his teachers that we've finalized this decision, in this moment, as we drop him off, he clings to me in a way he never has all year.

"I push you out," he instructs near tears, playing out our usual morning ritual as he pushes me out of his classroom and down the hall.

But today there is another step.

"Now you take me back," he commands reaching out for my hand. "Do it again."

How many times will we parade up and down this hall this morning?

How aware is he of the immanent loss of "his" school? What did he make of the serious talk Emily and I had at the breakfast table, about killing and death and justice and revenge? How can I best care for this fragile little boy?

As Father's Day approaches an effort is afoot in our state capital to form a Commission on the Status of Men. I can't decide if this move is too retro or too progressive, but clearly it is destined for failure, and this is too bad. In my work, with felons, with addicts, with the homeless, with sex offenders, I've met many men who are also destined for failure by forces beyond their control, beyond their grasp. Machismo and homophobia are like a one-two knock-out punch to many a man's potential; "Hey, no problem," and "Don't @#$%in' touch me," the mantras of male self-destruction. To me these are the causes of men's issues, of high levels of violence, depression, addiction, incarceration and limited life expectancy, but I have little faith that the general public, much less our good old legislators, are ready to question the dominant paradigm of male dominance.

But who's to blame them. Most of us guys don't want to admit our weakness and incomprehension, and even if we did our homophobia keeps us from doing anything about it collectively, unless our organizing is fueled by anger (the one socially sanctioned male emotion). Too much of the men's movement these days is indeed lead by men who are angry about child support and custody. Probably there is some parallel with where the women's movement was at some stage of the 70s or 80s, when angry confrontation dominated debate, but this historical perspective does little for those caught up on any side of the current battle; Women's groups don't seem to trust the motives of the fledgling men's groups, and vice versa.

After school today, as I changed his diaper and readied Jake for his nap, he smiled up at me and said proudly, "Me bad boy."

"No you're not," I joked back quickly, nuzzling his nose. "You're a good boy."

"Me bad boy."

"You're a good boy."

"Me bad boy."

And I realized that despite the smile he was serious.

"Why are you a bad boy," I asked with some trepidation.

"Sometimes me hit Emily. Me bad boy."

"You hit Emily so you are a bad boy?"

"Yes. Me hit Emily. Me bad."

Immediately I think of McVeigh, now just a few hours cold. Does Jake's black and white approach to right and wrong have anything to do with his overhearing my early morning execution chat with Emily? Certainly capital punishment arises out of, and for that matter encourages, the moral sophistication of a two year old. How much of this could he have picked up?

I choose my words carefully.

"Mostly we are nice. But sometimes we hurt people. Then we say we are sorry. Mostly we are nice."

This seems to satisfy him, and his conversation drifts elsewhere, as he eventually drifts off to sleep.

We long to protect our children from harm, from hideous acts like the bombing of daycare centers, from soulless sex-offenders, from loss and change, from the harsh realities of the human psyche. But at what price; and does it really work. Who are we kidding? Emily hears my whisper, hears the radio, hears her peers; Jake senses the moment of a conversation, the concern of his parents for his coming loss. How much of our protectionism is to avoid those difficult conversations wherein we parents are forced to understand and explain human cruelty, or simple carelessness.

We need a Men's Commission, or something, to help us understand why men are bad. Why, as a society, do we put badness on men? Why not a little sugar and spice? As parents, Nancy and I search for settings that will nurture our son's empathy and caring, as well as give him room to play with balls and run. What does it take to help a boy past the limitations of traditional manhood? How can we detour around the pitfalls of anger and violence that dominate so many men's lives? It is in many ways a frightening time to raise a boy.

I tuck a sleeping Jake into his crib with his favorite bear, a symbol of fierce wildness tamed. I wrap him in his light summer blanket, and turn to go. This morning, I now remember, before anyone else awoke, Jake had climbed alone out of his crib and stood at the top of our steep stairs, calling out. My fatherly fears about this adventure focus mostly on the decent from the crib top, his little round body teetering on the edge of a fence that once contained him.

And now, do I leave him to nap with the crib side down so he can get out more easily and safely? Or do I leave it up and hope he deigns to remain in there and await help upon waking? I stand half turned and struggle with this decision for several moments, then go. From the door I look back on a typically little vulnerable boy, sleeping in his safe cage, the door wide open.

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