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Excerpt: 'Father Knows Less'

Father Knows Less Book Cover

1. Why?

I remember the white-hot highway, the exploding chrome highlights of the other cars, the blast of humid air through the open windows. But most of all, I remember the roar of the road.

Our blue Volkswagen station wagon had no air conditioner. The engine was in the back, not under the hood, so it vibrated and heated up the rear seats where my sister and I sat, lap belts loose around our waists. We didn't have much to do back there-this was before Walkmans or iPods or portable DVD players, and the whipping wind violently fanned the pages of any book we tried to open — so we just sautéed in silent misery. Outside, Long Island flew by like a freight train, the summer sun burning away all the textures of the world and turning each receding line of trees and houses a lighter shade of green-gray.

I must have been five. With nothing else to do, I began to daydream.

This can be dangerous.

I didn't think about our destination, the little brown house on stilts we rented near the beach on Dune Road. Nor did I look forward to playing in the sand, or in the bay, or watching the sailboats glide beneath the drawbridges that connected Dune Road with the mainland. And I didn't ruminate on the horseshoe crabs I'd see crawling along the silt, even though, unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, they are among the most bizarre and fascinating creatures on earth.

I thought about something else.

Why was the road so incredibly noisy? Where was the sound coming from? How can wind make noise? It's just air, invisible air, moving fast, right? And in this case, the air wasn't even moving — the car was. So why was the highway so loud?

I leaned forward and shouted to my father. I may have had to do this a few times to be heard.

"Daddy, why is the highway so loud?"

Here is what he said:

"Because all the people who live next to the road have their vacuum cleaners on."

I knew vacuums were noisy; I thought of ours at home, thundering along the rug. Then I imagined one blasting away in every other house and made some careful sonic calculations in my head. His answer made perfect sense. I leaned back, satisfied, returning to my spot in the wind tunnel.

Cut to Christmas morning, a few years later:

We lived in a brownstone row house in a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Park Slope. We always had very nice Christmases here, both before my parents got divorced and after. My sister, Lindsay, and I would get up in the milky early — morning light, retrieve our bulging stockings from the mantelpiece and spill them out on our beds. We'd tally everything up. Then we'd get our parents through the glass-paneled doors that separated our rooms and drag them, groggy but game, downstairs to the tree.

But this year was different. Lindsay had lost a tooth on Christmas Eve and placed it beneath her pillow. The first thing she did when she got up was look to see if the tooth was still there, even before retrieving her stocking. And it was.

"Daddy," she called, bursting angrily through those glass-paneled doors, her feet stomping. "Daddy, wake up. The tooth fairy didn't come. My tooth is still there. There's no money under my pillow. Why didn't the tooth fairy come?"

Here is what he said:

"She got run over by Santa Claus's sleigh."

My mother laughed. My sister did not.

Children ask questions; that's a fact. For someone whose age is in the low to mid single digits, the world is a blank slate waiting to be asked about, every long-held assumption and familiar sight to a tired adult an intriguing and potentially fascinating mystery. And every answer can beget a new question, until parent and child are locked in that final single-word checkmate: "Why?"

Every parent, I imagine, has his or her own technique for dealing with this phenomenon. Some improvise, some turn to the dictionary, some go online, some say, "Ask your father," or "Ask your mother." Some just shrug and say, "I don't know" — a phrase that would seem like a surefire way to end the process but can be surprisingly ineffective. My father, on the road or in the bed on Christmas morning, liked to make things up. This wasn't necessarily because he didn't know the answers, or that he found the questions annoying, or that he was drunk. It just seemed to amuse him, giving funny answers. My mother laughed along, too — hey, Wendell, you didn't really think everyone by the side of the road had a vacuum on, did you?

I was twenty-two, driving down the Long Island Expressway in my own un-air-conditioned Volkswagen, when suddenly it hit me: I'd been duped.

Of course, my father didn't always make stuff up. Sometimes he thoughtfully tried to explain the world, even when it was scary.

I was watching the news one evening in the living room. I did this every night: even today I can recall the twin sensations-audio and tactile-of hearing Walter Cronkite's voice ("And that's the way it is...") while wearing footie pajamas. My cousins from North Carolina used to say I was a weirdo, always watching the news, but I was entranced. On this particular evening, with my parents entertaining neighbors in the kitchen, the stories and pictures were especially fascinating: war in the Middle East. A very pale-looking man, speaking slowly and with apparent pain, appeared on the screen. He described being tortured. He said electrodes had been attached to his testicles.

"Daddy," I screamed. "WHAT ARE TESTICLES?"

My father came in from the kitchen. He leaned down, lowered his voice and said, "Testicles are the little things underneath your penis."

I was horrified. Why would anyone do that to another person?

I wished he'd made something up.

Now I have two children of my own. The older one, Dean, is seven and has been in full-bore question mode for about four years. It began as a trickle, turned into a rushing stream and then a wild river. Why do ships have round windows? What does it feel like to get stabbed? Are killer whales mean? Am I allergic to metal? Can a crow peck your eyes out? Why do you like beer? Why can't I drink beer? Why were the Nazis bad? What's a cadaver? Why do policemen like doughnuts? Why, why, why, WHY?

I've wondered how to handle this. What do I do with the questions that I cannot answer, and those I'd like to know the answer to myself? (Why, exactly, do policemen like doughnuts?) Do I reveal to Dean that I am but a mere mortal? I think of my dad and the roadside vacuum cleaner symphony. I wouldn't want Dean going through life believing something like that. Well, it would be funny, but...

My cousins from North Carolina like to talk about me watching Walter Cronkite because I eventually became a newspaper reporter and editor. Maybe the two are related; perhaps that's where it started. Or maybe it started with the rolled-up copy of The New York Times that appeared inside the front gate of the house in Park Slope each morning, freezing to the touch and dusted with snow in January, limp from humidity in August. Either way, as I think about Dean and his questions, the irony is clear: I ask questions for a living, whether interviewing the mayor or a policeman or a grieving widow, or asking a reporter who has just come into the newsroom what the mayor or policeman or grieving widow had to say. I met my wife, Helene, at a newspaper: she was a crime reporter; I wrote obituaries. ("What's a cadaver?") We courted with questions. For us, with our tiny first-newspaper salaries, questions were sometimes the only commodity we had to work with.

I ask, and sometimes I get answers.

So I began writing down Dean's questions, no matter how strange or dark or ridiculous. I used pencils and pens and — computers, whatever was at hand when the question popped out; once, on the street, I called the office and left myself a voice message. I thought it would be fun to show him all the questions he had asked when he got older. But then I had a better idea.

I'd give him the answers, every last one.

I planned my strategy. Should I open books or cruise the Internet? Too easy. No, I'd really give myself a challenge: I'd get each answer from a real person who knows it by heart, someone whose very livelihood depends on the knowledge that he carries in his head, or someone whose personal experience is an answer in itself. I'd make nothing up, tempting as that might be. I'd call fire chiefs and doctors and paleontologists and movie directors and astronauts and ship captains and magicians and my mother-in-law and anyone else who might know a thing or two about something a seven-year-old wants to know. This would be my gift to him.

But I wouldn't sugarcoat and I wouldn't simplify. If Dean wants the answer, he's going to get it-unedited, unexpurgated, with all its scientific minutiae and detail. I'm taking a stand for all parents who, whether rushing to get out the door in the morning, squinting to see the highway exit sign in the sun, straining to catch the weather report on the radio or craving that first sip of wine after a tough day at the office, must pause for sometimes crucial seconds to explain why blood is warm, why we have eyebrows, why people race cars or why the dollar sign has an S in it. So I'd slake the curiosity of my friends' children, and the children of their friends, too. I'd take questions from boys and girls everywhere, the sons and daughters of friends and strangers, and I'd nail them. Maybe by the time Dean is twenty-two and riding down the highway in his own hot car, he'll understand it all.

My daughter, Paulina, is three and has not yet started to ask about everything. But when I look into her giant brown-black eyes, I know what's going on. They are taking it all in, supplying the raw material for the questions she's storing in the file cabinet inside her head. She is reviewing them, alphabetizing them, collating them, polishing them, preparing them for the day when they will be unleashed in a rushing avalanche, a cascading mountain of queries, to bury her father once and for all, to finish the job her brother began.

Well, little one, bring it on.

I'm ready.

"Why is the highway so loud?"

-Wendell Jamieson, age five, in the summer of 1971

Geoffrey Patterson, motion picture sound mixer on dozens of films, including Twister, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award:

"There's the engine, the exhaust pipes, there is aero-dynamic resistance-which is the wind noise-there's horns and there are radios. But the number-one cause — seventy-five-percent of all freeway noise is the tires, the friction of the rubber on the asphalt. The solution, ironically enough, is that the more progressive state transportation agencies are using old rubber tires in their asphalt reconstruction projects. The rubberized asphalt reduces the freeway noise by five decibels. To give you an idea, a reduction of ten decibels would be perceived by the human ear as half as loud. So it's kind of a clever solution, using tires to combat the tire noise. When we are making a movie, we have to play the cards that are dealt us, and the only way we can beat it is to hope that actors are louder than the freeway."

"Why do policemen like doughnuts?"

-Dean Jamieson

John F. Timoney, Chief of the Miami Police Department, former First Deputy Commissioner, New York City Police Department:

"It's because doughnut stores, especially in New York City, are everywhere, they're ubiquitous, and they are often open twenty-four hours day. The ethnic foods can change from neighborhood to neighborhood, but the one staple is coffee and doughnuts. It's quick and easy; if while you are eating in the car you happen to get an emergency call, you can discard them easily-the loss isn't a hell of a lot. You throw them out the window and you are gone. It's always easy enough to get more."

Excerpt from FATHER KNOWS LESS, OR: "CAN I COOK MY SISTER?" byWendell Jamieson, by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright (c) 2007 by Wendell Jamieson. In stores September 6th.>

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Wendell Jamieson