A grandfather’s many responsibilities

It was at the moment that the brakes failed on my elderly but beloved VW-GTI that I finally and rather suddenly understood, with the sort of clarity born not of fear but utter exhilaration, what my fundamental responsibility is to my 6-year-old grandson, who was riding behind me in his car seat: To provide excitement.

I had just picked him up at the north-end ferry.

“Woohoo, kid! We got no brakes!! Can’t slow down so I guess we’ll just have to speed up!”

“Go for it, Grampa!” he yelled, right fist pumping the air. (I love this kid.)

So it was that we careened all the way through town and south to the Burton Coffee Stand, brakeless and having the time of our lives, ignoring that those lives might at any moment abruptly be cut short.

My own son, my grandson’s father, would have done no such thing. He had the misfortune of being born at the age of 40. How, given his genetic heritage, is a matter of some mystery. He is smart, thoughtful, caring, careful…and, when it comes to thrills, no fun at all. When he was little, his mother and I just tossed him into a Porta-Crib in the back of the rusty old VW Squareback Wagon and took off into the sunset. Car seat? Hah!

Had it been his brakes that failed, he would have called a tow truck and, as a consequence, missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Wait, maybe I should rephrase that…

Anyway, as is so often the case with mechanical failures, this one occurred on a Saturday morning. In town — the kind of town where Bob’s Bakery is run by a chap named Paul — Doug’s Auto Shop, run by a guy named Mike, not Doug, was closed.

So was the Burton Shell Station, which sells neither Shell gasoline nor any other brand and hasn’t for years. They do car repairs, though, and this is why you know right away it’s not a gas station, because as we all know, gas stations exist to sell the major fuel groups: gasoline, beer, cigarettes, chips, dips and candy.

At the Burton Coffee Stand, I inquired whether any of the loitering customers had knowledge of automobiles which, as a writer, I lack completely. A really lovely blonde woman named Sandy — a woman, for goodness sake! — got out my owner’s manual and suggested I check my brake fluid reservoir.

With my grandson peering into the engine compartment alongside me, she located it. It was empty. She suggested I add brake fluid. This is where I got to show my grandson my superior reasoning ability, not to mention my spirit of adventure.

“If it’s just going to leak out again, why would I put more in? Plus, it costs four bucks!”

“Good thinking, Grampa!”

“We’ll just motor on over to Engels on Maury,” I said. “They’re open Saturdays.”

“With the kid in the car?!” said the Greek Chorus, grasping their coffee cups in panic.

“We are adventurers!” I shouted.

“Yay!” cheered my grandson.

Last I saw the customers, they were all standing in the middle of Vashon Highway watching our departure, like vultures awaiting road kill.

After we offered the ailing vehicle up to the tender mercies of the good folks at Engels, grandson and I went out onto Dockton Road to hitchhike home.

Now, if you are an older guy who probably should have shaved and showered yesterday, a small child is a great asset in hitchhiking. Drivers will stop for a small child and, if it is clear said child is legally attached to older gentleman, they will offer you a ride, though warily.

“Grampa, you forgot the child seat.”

“It’s an adventure! Danger and risk at every turn! A day filled with excitements, my little man! Live safe and you live dull!”

“Yay!” he shouted.

The driver, whom I rather wish had spent more time looking out the windshield rather than eyeing us in his rear view mirror, let us off at Vashon Highway, and we hoofed it home, singing bawdy camp songs as we went. After all, he is going to Maury Island’s Pirate Camp next summer; I wanted to give the kid a leg up.

Even though it was now only 11 in the morning, we stopped at the Harbor Mercantile and picked up a bottle of wine, declining a bag as environmentally wasteful and far too safe. I let the boy carry the bottle. It was a great accessory to his outfit and taught him to be careful of important things.

Back at the beach where I live, we spent the afternoon flipping barnacle-encrusted rocks to expose the baby crabs beneath, getting filthy and wet amid much hooting and hollering, especially when I slipped one of the little crabs down the back of his shirt. Boy, can that kid dance!

Later, we split the bottle of wine, and I let him beat the pants off me in Monopoly Junior, all the while teaching him the ribald verbal ripostes typically associated with guys playing games.

Next day, I took the sleepy tyke across the water to his waiting father.

I knew the kid would never tell. We’re adventurers.

— Will North is a Vashon novelist. His next novel is set on the Island. No children were harmed in the writing of this column, and only the best parts are true.

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