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George Gendi for the Globe and mail (George Gendi for The Globe and Mail)
George Gendi for the Globe and mail (George Gendi for The Globe and Mail)

Globe Essay

The burden and the glory of fatherhood Add to ...

I've been reading the Hardy Boys to my son. Alex was 8 when we started and there are approximately 98,000 books in the series, so by the time we finish, I figure he'll be reading them to me.

My own father was a largely absent figure when I was growing up, so in a textbook case of compensation, I decided that my son and I would bond over books. My dad loved books, but he was hardly ever around to read them to me. Fortunately, I had three stalwart older brothers. Unfortunately, their tastes in literature ranged from the gruesome to the gory, much of it of the blood-splattering sword-and-sorcery variety.

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Indeed, one of my earliest childhood memories is of cowering behind a clutched pillow, sheets smelling faintly of urine, while my brother Ian recited in lip-smacking detail the tales of Conan the Barbarian. There were approximately 98,000 books in the series and he managed to get through every one of them. They had manly titles like Conan the Destroyer, Conan the Usurper, Conan the Ambidextrous and so on, the gist of their message being that, at any time, at any place, a demonic creature is liable to leap out of the darkness and pull your entrails out through your spleen. (This is where I learned the word "entrails." And the word "spleen.")

The payback for the trauma my brothers inflicted upon me was wholly accidental, but sweetly satisfying nonetheless. Conan also came in comic-book form, you see, and as an angelic young child I had merrily snipped out an order form for X-ray specs from the back of a rare first edition of Conan the Barbarian No. 1, which my brother Ian now insists would probably be worth at least a million bucks had it not been for my act of vandalism. (The X-ray specs didn't even work. All they did was create a hazy double-image that looked vaguely skeletal. Hardly worth the million dollars we forfeited.)

So, when my own son was old enough to ask for regular bedtime stories, there were two conditions I insisted upon: No Conan and no entrails.

Instead, we turned to the Brothers Hardy. It was an inspired choice.

Aside from their classic literary stylings - " 'I'm awfully sorry,' Chet said apologetically" (Volume 10, W hat Happened At Midnight) - the Hardy Boys books, like all great works of literature, raise more questions than they answer. Questions such as, What is it about the town of Bayport that attracts smugglers so?

It's often commented upon that in the world of the Hardy Boys, the worst one has to face is illegal importers lurking in the shadows ready to evade regulatory government tariffs at a moment's notice, usually with a hearty laugh, head tossed back, fists on hips. There are no financial meltdowns, no global warming, no home invasions, no environmental carcinogens, no gang swarmings or random shootings. In fact, there is no random anything. Everything has its place, everything has its reason.

Less commented upon though is the intelligence of said smugglers, especially as they ALWAYS GET CAUGHT. You'd think word would have gotten out by now. Surely there is some sort of smuggler's grapevine. "Pssst. Whatever you do, avoid Bayport. Pass it on."

Equally odd is how Frank and Joe Hardy are always rubbing their jaws and trying to figure out what's going on this time around. "All these mysterious comings and goings, what could it possibly mean?"

You'd think by now, every time a scowling man in an overcoat shouldered past them on the street, Frank and Joe would look at each other and immediately say, "Smuggler. Better nab him now."

Alex had figured this out by the third book.

"I bet it's the stranger who pushed past them on the street!" he'd say - breathlessly at first, then with less vim on each passing tale.

Reading the Hardy Boys when you're an adult is very different from when you're 8. As an eight-year old, you say, "Hooray! Mr. Hardy is away again. Frank and Joe will have to solve the case on their own. Again!" Whereas, as an adult, you find yourself wondering about Mr. and Mrs. Hardy's marriage. You start to think maybe there's a reason Detective Hardy is always out of town on business.

For Alex, that doesn't matter. For Alex, the Hardy Boys are all about possibility. The possibility of adventure hidden in the day-to-day details of life. When you're 8, life is an open promise; it's an age when astronaut-archeologist-cartoonist is still a viable career path. The past is so small, the future so overwhelmingly large.

I remember Alex at 4, rummaging through leaves, searching for lost treasure. Gold coins, maybe. Or rubies. These would be leaves I had just raked. Ten minutes before. And there's me, in spite of myself, hoping maybe he'd find some.

Or Alex at 3, sitting on my lap as I read him a story about a little boy who makes friends with a duck and how the little boy visits the duck every morning at the pond and how one day the little boy gets sick and doesn't show up, so the duck leaves the pond and comes to the boy's house instead and goes up the stairs to the little boy's room to cheer him up.

Alex became very quiet, and when I asked him what was wrong, he said, "How come, in storybooks, ducks and little boys are friends but whenever we go to the park and I try to say hi to the ducks, they just run away?"

Why? Because life doesn't work that way. Because there are no friendly little ducks who come to visit you when you're sick and there are no smugglers lurking in coves for plucky youngsters to thwart and there is no treasure hidden in the leaf pile, except maybe what the neighbour's cat has left.

That's not what I told him, though. What I said was, "Well, I think the ducks in the park are a little shy is all. How about some ice cream?"

As a father, one of the hardest burdens you have to bear is the wonderfully heartfelt and wholly unjustified faith your children invest in you. The teenage years are coming, sure enough, and with them the inevitable discovery that, far from being a paragon of manly perfection, I am in fact little more than a walking compilation of flaws and foibles. But not now. Not yet.

When I took Alex to the Calgary Stampede, he was 5 and wearing a hat with a whistle on it. I wanted my son to see the bull riders and chuckwagon races; true he-man events. I hadn't thought about the calf-roping. By the time the second calf had been yanked off its feet and tied down, Alex was in tears. "Make them stop," he said. "Make them stop."

It's a burden and a glory, being a dad. It's the one time in your life when someone really believes in you, really believes that you can stand up in the middle of a grandstand of 20,000 people and say, loudly, firmly, in much the same manner as you'd announce it's time for bed and no more dilly-dallying, "This has to stop. Right now! I'm sorry, but I'm the dad and you have to stop hurting those little cows."

But I can't. I can't stop it any more than I can stop the pain from coming, or the heartaches, or the darkness from falling or the sadder truths from dawning. All I can do, I suppose, is make the landing a little softer.

Will Ferguson is the winner of the 2010 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour for his travel memoir Beyond Belfast: A 560-Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet.

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