I ate with friends I haven’t seen in a million years. I ordered a New York strip. It was overcooked. But the beer was cold.
Long ago, somewhere along the line, I realized most of my good friends were fatherless.
When I discovered this, it sort of confused me. It’s not as though I ran an ad in the Thrifty Nickel that read: “Looking for friends without dads. Apply today. Must like beer.”
I first realized this as a young man, during a camping trip with a few friends. We sat around a campfire in Andalusia, Alabama, on a Saturday night. The stars were doing what they do best. And I’ll never forget this: one of my friends was trying to cook a ham sandwich on a long stick held over the campfire.
The bread caught fire and his dinner turned into an inferno. So he flung the flaming ham sandwich into the dry field. It set the grass on fire, which was soon creeping toward our trucks.
After several minutes, we finally got the fire extinguished. When all was said and done, we were out of breath, and we even laughed about it. Then we fell silent.
“You think you’re ever gonna have kids one day?” one of us said.
“Yeah,” said another. “I wanna prove it can be done, my old man left before I could walk. I’m gonna be the best dad you ever saw.”
Another chimed in: “Me, too. I want lots of kids. I’m gonna take’em all over the world and stuff, and take’em to Disney World.”
“I ain’t never been to Disney World. You?”
“Disney is for babies.”
“Who’d ever wanna go there?”
“I ain’t been, either.”
That night, we discovered that none of us had ever been to Disney World. During the summers, when other local families would travel to the Most Magical Place on Earth, we didn’t.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Big hairy deal, so you never went to Disney World.”
It wasn’t about that. Not really. This was several boys admitting to each other how lonely they were. Disney World was just a disguised way to do it.
Decades later, I finally went to Disney World with my wife. I got sick on the teacup ride. I ate a horrible bratwurst that, to this day, is still lost somewhere in my lower intestines.
Anyway, tonight I arrived at the steakhouse before anyone else. I found a table in the corner. I saw families come into the restaurant. I hardly recognized them. Middle-aged men. There was gray in their beards. Big waists. Lines on their eyes.
They all had kids.
Soon, the table was on fire with rosy cheeks, braces, glowing cellphones, and wild eyes. Children. Everywhere.
A five-month-old named Jared, with a round belly, chubby thighs, and what appeared to be Easy Cheese on his face, wore a onesie that read: “Lock up your daughters.”
Our wives were strangers. Our conversations were awkward. When the subject of the weather came up, everyone was grateful because anyone can talk about the weather with authority.
And when it was time to say grace, the little girl named Riley folded her hands and spoke in a loud voice.
“Dear God,” she said, wedging a crayon behind her ear for later use. “Thank you for my mom and dad, and for their friends, and food…”
And I thought about a flaming ham sandwich, and a bunch of young men who were directionless in life, but aren’t anymore.
“Amen,” we all said.
Andrew pretended to go to the bathroom, then tried to pay for everyone’s supper. But someone else had already beaten him to it. And when we all shook hands in the parking lot, we agreed we ought to do this again.
We won’t, of course. Life has taken us in other directions. But that’s okay. Because we don’t need the things we used to. Not anymore. We are living beautiful lives. Wonderful, rewarding, simple lives. We are rich men.
“Hey,” I yelled to one friend who crawled into his minivan. “You ever make it to Disney World?”
“I get season passes every year,” he said.