The b Word

, Monday, January 28, 2008

You might think that since I live with 3 women I’d be used to that one word that starts with a “b,” but I’m not. My 43 years have left me unprepared. I sound like Porky Pig every time I try to say it, which is more frequently now that the girls are teenagers. I try to use the word, but quickly find a substitute when I can’t spit it out. The word I’m talking about, of course, is “b-b-b-boyfriend.”

Elizabeth started having an interest in a nice young man last spring, and eventually our household started using the “b” word. The word fits – they like to spend time together, talk on the phone, sit closely when we’re watching movies. He’s polite, smart, talented, sensitive and fosters a relationship with her parents (one of which is me, of course). So my reluctance has nothing to do with the person himself, I just don’t like to use the word. Something about it goes against the grain of my protective fatherly instincts.

Since the girls were little, people have told me things like, “You’re going to have to beat the boys off with a stick!” They’ve given me advice on how to intimidate the boys that come home for approval. Joel told me his gun always “needed cleaning” whenever his younger sister brought home a new boyfriend. I don’t typically go for such theatrics, though.

Last summer I was looking for rock climbing partners, and my radar was up when Tony started coming around our house. Would it be weird to invite my daughter’s boy “friend” rock climbing, though? When I learned that Tony confessed a fear of heights, my decision was made; I invited him along.

Our first outing broke the ice. We climbed the local limestone icon called “Sugarloaf” which is visible from my front porch. Sugarloaf isn’t a huge climbing challenge, but standing on top gives a thrilling perspective of our home town. Tony was sufficiently impressed, and by the end of the outing he was starting to catch rock climbing fever and was anxious to go again every time I had a day off.

Eventually I took him on a climb called The Pedestal at Devil’s Lake. I traversed the Pedestal’s first pitch and belayed him off a tree. On the tricky crux, Tony’s hands greased off the holds and the rope came tight below me. My belay device caught his fall before I even knew he fell. “That was scary,” I heard him say from around the corner. Neither of us could see the other, but it was clear that I’d have to lower him off the climb because he had swung onto a blank section of rock. My belay device was jammed tightly though, and it took some time to transfer the load and free up the device.

In my efforts to get him back safely to the ground, he had a good long time to…contemplate life. He was wearing my glacier harness; not so comfortable, to say the least. He hung helplessly off the end of my rope, finally admitting that, “I can’t feel my ‘boys’!”

I held my reply.

By the time his feet touched the ground, his legs were too numb to stand. How's that for intimidation, Joel? Score one point for me.

In October we enjoyed our last outing of the fall, this time at Taylor’s Falls. The hardest climb we attempted all year included a rather intimidating setup above the St. Croix River. There is no access to the base of the climb because the cliff drops directly into the river. I lowered down and started the climb back up, feeling bold from the security of a top belay rather than taking the lead from below. I jumped for a hold, knowing that if I missed I’d be caught in a heartbeat. I did miss. But I wasn’t caught. As I waited for the rope to come tight I closed my eyes until I splashed into the river below. My breath caught short and my feet scrambled to find purchase on something near the cliff. It turns out I knocked Tony off his feet with my fall, compromising the belay. Fortunately my fall ended in a splash rather than in a puff of dust Wile E. Coyote style. “Beep-beep,” score one point for the boyfr Pham!

A week ago I thought it’d be fun to climb up Sugarloaf after a fresh batch of snow. We brought crampons and ice tools to make it a real alpine-like adventure. It took much longer than I expected to lead up to the first platform because I had to brush off all the snow and look for adequate holds for my spikes. The belay bolts were buried in snow and hard to find, and by the time I brought Tony up his hands were getting very cold. The temperature was hovering near zero degrees, and the wind was getting pretty stiff as I climbed upward. We decided to end our little outing, so I climbed to the next small ledge where I could set up a rappel off fixed chains. I anchored in and lowered Tony down rather than bringing him up to the next ledge. But I got tangled in the rope as he descended, and I was pulled off my little ledge and became helpless to lower him any further. The setting sun was fire red and the intensified wind instantly froze my face. My fingers turned to wood as I tried to correct my mistake. For a short time we both dangled helplessly at opposite ends of the rope. It was only by working together that we got back safely to the ground. I don’t know which us gets intimidation points for that one. Maybe we should stop keeping score.

Tony and I are planning a climbing trip to Colorado next summer. We’re both really psyched, and it’s been fun to help him shop for gear. We’re planning the details together; when to leave, what to eat, what climbs we want to do. We’re anxious for the rock climbing season to begin so we can improve our skills. We’re united in our passion and we’re pursuing a common goal. In short, I guess you can say we're bonding.

It may take some time to get warmed up to the “b” word, but "friend" is coming pretty easily.


  1. anne said...

    Tom, Is this one going to the newspaper? It should. I really enjoyed reading this. Anne

  2. Tom Smart said...

    Unfortunately I'm out of the newspaper pool, so I guess not. This is something I'd submit if I were still doing it, though.

  3. Melinda said...

    Goodness, Tom, are you the most awesome and wonderful dad or what??? Can you imagine if the father of any girl you admired in high school had spent time with you this way? What an investment in the life of a young man. No matter where his relationship with your daughter goes in the future, you have set an incredible example of fatherhood/manhood for him.

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