Nearly three months have passed since my sons and I stood at the international terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, craning our necks over the railing as the passengers, having just cleared customs, began making their way up a passageway toward the waiting crowd.
“Is that him?” one of my sons asked every time a teen-age boy appeared.
We were waiting for the 13-year-old son of my German cousin. In keeping with a long-held family tradition--a kind of informal exchange program between our families--Thomas would be staying with us for the summer. Next year, my oldest son will go over there.
Finally, we recognized our guest: a tall and lanky kid with tousled light brown hair and bright, blue eyes. He carried a shy expression, along with a small stuffed animal tucked discreetly under one arm.
It was then, for the first time, that I realized the responsibility that rests on Ventura County’s shoulders. Everything Thomas saw, everything he experienced, would represent America for him.
His impressions would probably stay with him for the rest of his life--just as my memories of the summer I spent with his grandparents when I was the same age have remained with me.
What, I wondered as I drove, would impress him most deeply?
I wish with all my heart I could say that I showed him only the finest the county has to offer: the beaches in Ventura, the historical and very American-looking sights in Santa Paula, the hiking trails along waterfalls above Ojai.
But the truth is, after a few weeks of acting as tour guide, I exhaustedly allowed him to make some choices on his own. To seek out the things about America he liked best.
And that, I must admit, was my big mistake.
Like a teen-age moth to a flame, Thomas zeroed in on what he insisted was the real America--the one his accusatory expression insinuated I had been concealing from him.
He wanted to go to the pizza parlor down the street, having no interest in simply ordering over the phone. Once there, he fed hundreds of quarters--which he clearly had confused with pennies--into the video-game machines.
The games had names like “Streetfighter” and “Mortal Kombat,” and showed headband-wearing thugs kicking police officers, beating each other and chopping each other’s heads off. As I took a bite of pizza, computer-simulated blood spurted brightly on the screen.
“Yeeesss!” Thomas yelled happily, feeding more quarters. Soon, he begged to rent All-Star Wrestling videos. And he wanted to go shopping for “gang pants,” trousers that make wearers look as if they’ve shrunk five sizes.
His appetite for anything remotely connected with violence seemed insatiable.
But it was a magazine Thomas bought one day that finally made me confront the picture of America developing in his mind:
Thomas held up a recent issue of Rolling Stone, his expression like that of a prosecutor who knows he has just convinced the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. On the cover were two cartoon figures, and above them was written: “The Voice of a New Generation.”
Thomas, the American monster I’d somehow created, wanted to hear that voice.
And unfortunately, so did my kids.
Twenty years ago, no editor would have allowed me to talk about the cartoon figures in question, who owe their fame to a half-hour show on MTV.
The cartoon, called “Beavis and Butthead,” chronicles the adventures of two juvenile delinquents with IQs of a German thermometer in winter. In the episode I watched with Thomas and the kids, the two characters laughingly threw a dog into a dryer at a Laundromat and then stole clothes. They shot down an airliner and then guffawed when passengers pleaded for help. In between were bathroom jokes.
These were the voices of a new generation?
Maybe of sociopaths, I thought. They’ll be the ones who, with no one to monitor how many quarters they put in video arcades or how much violence they absorb, will end up writing to advice columnists for guidance:
“Dear Cool Dude: My mother is a hopeless invalid and has been bedridden for months. I finally stole enough of her disability checks to buy a new wardrobe. So what should I get?”
But it wasn’t going to be the voice of the generation sitting on the couch in front of me. I rose and walked over to the TV.
“That,” I said pointing to the screen before switching it off, “is not America. That,” I added for emphasis, “is VERBOTEN! “
Thomas left for home not long ago, and a few days ago I received a letter from his father. I braced myself for reproaches about subjecting his son to the underbelly of America.
But the letter contained nothing of the kind. Just gratitude for teaching him so much English. Thomas said he loved going to the beach, his father wrote, and bowling. He still complains that he can’t buy a hamburger like the ones at In-N-Out.
At that moment, I was very sorry Thomas was gone.
I never got the chance to take him to the county fair.