Portraits Without Fathers

In news film from the Philippines and photos from Africa they look, well, just like children, boys and girls waving at the camera, trying to look older than they are. And then you notice what they're carrying: bandoliers of bullets, machine guns , and rocket-propelled grenades. Last week an international coalition of rights groups estimated that 300,000 children in 41 countries are active combatants. These little shooters are great for wars, being easily kidnapped, easily managed and expendable.

It's heart-wrenching to realize that so many youngsters like the ones running around our Little League fields today dodge through bushes elsewhere, spraying roadsides and each other with bullets.

And then you notice what is not in these news pictures: the fathers of these children. On this special day our society innocently devotes to honoring fathers with neckties, shavers and crayoned love notes, it's chilling to think that so many children have no dad. Although U.S. teen pregnancy figures indicate an encouraging decline, the sad reality is that too many thousands of American children grow up fatherless. Even some of those with fathers may seldom see them.

In the 1940s many households were fatherless, at least temporarily. So those adult males not away at war conscripted became surrogate dads for the entire neighborhood, umpiring street baseball games, talking to misbehaving boys, helping mothers with household repairs and, come fall, often hand-making the identical wooden toys that showed up for the holidays in numerous homes, as if distant dads had sent the same toy.

Every dad has his own style. There are dads who read, dads who play catch and shoot hoops, dads who go to ball games or play video games, dads who appear at noontime spelling bees, dads who tell corny jokes, dads who really listen, . dads who teach firm handshakes and telling the truth. The activity matters far less than the attention lavished and the memories forged.

In the black-and-white days before TV and "Sesame Street" there was at least one dad who taught the alphabet to one preschooler by cutting each letter out of wood, one letter each evening through all 26, and then back through again until the list was learned. The big hands guided the small hands guiding the little saw through each character, which was carefully sanded and painted any color--except the vowels, which had to be red because they were somehow special. The dad predicted that his son would be a writer someday.

The wooden letters are gone now. And so is that dad. Now, that preschooler is a father himself with his own grown and growing children and grandson. It goes like that. On this Sunday--maybe also other days--everyone lucky enough to have them should treasure their own memories of Dad as we ponder fatherless youngsters elsewhere who crawl into foxholes instead of onto laps.

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