Sunday, November 8, 2009


The summer before my son turned eleven, a total eclipse of the sun crossed our planet over an area that included Hawaii and Baja California. Our former downstairs neighbor, Peter, a freelance audiophile, reviewer and writer, had begun life as an astronomer and still followed things solar, planetary, stellar and universal. Knowing of Justin's interest in astronomy, he had given him a telescope when he moved to San Diego a year or so before. He now planned to take in the eclipse, traveling with a busload of scientists going south from Berkeley by way of San Diego, and offered to take Justin along. He even offered to make the travel arrangements.

Peter put off making Justin's reservation until, for some reason, he could only order a ticket for his own use. He explained to me matter-of-factly that Justin would have to fly under his, Peter's, name, and that we would explain to the airline that Justin was Peter's nephew and was named after him. It was my idea to add to the official story that young "Peter's" middle name was Justin, which was the name he went by. I knew that Justin wouldn't remember for five minutes that he was supposed to answer to "Peter," even if I remembered, which I wouldn't. In the event, as we stood in line at the airport, I found myself reciting our usual litany to my excited young traveler: "Justin, come here"; "Justin, please don't do that"; "Justin, get over here"; "Justin, quit climbing on that, it won't hold your weight"; Justin, I asked you not to do that"; "JUSTIN. . . .!!"

Through age ten, a child traveling alone is eligible for the airline's escort service. I'm sure some eleven-year-olds are level-headed and attentive enough to get themselves onto and off a plane and even to change planes in Chicago or wherever it was. Justin's capacity for sustained attention to anything not chosen by him was just this side of nonexistent. Fortunately, he qualified for the escort service by four months, and the airline agreed to keep an eye on him. They gave him a plastic bag on a strap to keep important things like his ticket in. That didn't mean he couldn't lose it, but it improved the odds.

A day or two before Justin was scheduled to leave, he developed a sore throat worthy of a throat culture. The next day I got a call from the doctor, invoking some magic words: strep, antibiotic, contagious, immediately. I called Justin's summer school in Framingham and suggested that they keep him away from everybody until I got there. The doctor gave him an antibiotic and told us it would be all right to send him to San Diego in a couple of days.

It may have been that same day that I got a call from Peter. It had come to his attention that the Mexican government takes a dim view of foreign children traveling with adults not related to them. To take Justin out of the country, Peter would need (1) a notarized affidavit stating that Justin had my permission to go to Mexico, and (2) either a similar affidavit from Justin's father, or a copy of the divorce decree giving me custody and thus the authority to grant permission.

My affidavit was easy: I borrowed some wording from a lawyer I worked for at the time, and he notarized it for me. An affidavit from Justin's father, however, was out of the question. He'd refuse to do it just because I asked. The box of papers relative to the divorce was not in Medford, where we lived, but in my mother's attic, sixty-three miles away. I dropped everything and drove up Route 2 that night, taking Justin and his antibiotic along. He slept in the passenger's seat most of the way.

Back in Medford, I extracted three documents from the box: the final Judgment of Divorce, dated February 24 of whatever year it was (my sister's birthday; her divorce was final on my birthday in a much earlier year); a second Judgment of Divorce dated June Something of the same year "as of February 24," having to do with a loophole in the original Judgment that Justin's father tried to drive a truck through; and the all-important judgment in the child custody action, dated three years later. On the advice of my lawyers at the time, I had obtained from the Court three official copies of the custody decree, all with gold seals. I still had at least two of them. Since sending Justin's documentation along with the most scattered ten-year-old in Middlesex County was not to be thought of, I packaged up everything and delivered it to the post office before the witching hour of 3:00 PM. The post office swore that Peter would have it by the time he had specified.

He didn't. He claimed the post office was incompetent. I reserved judgment on that point; Peter has been known to mess up. I put together a second set of documents, including the remaining gold-sealed custody decree and a second notarized affidavit, and then, against everyone's better judgment, shipped out this active and selectively oblivious child with his documents (like Miss Flite in Bleak House): the legal documents in one name, and his airline ticket and related form(s) in another. If he goes astray, I thought, I wonder what the authorities who find him will make of it all.

He didn't go astray. He had a wonderful time at the eclipse, totally focused and businesslike throughout, hopping to do Peter's bidding. After it was over -- maybe eighty seconds of eclipse, after all that preparation -- he let loose and ran around saying, "That was so awesome! That was so awesome!!"

Back in San Diego, he developed an ear infection and required yet another antibiotic ("The meaning of life is infections," he said when he developed an eye infection on another trip) and was instructed not to travel until the antibiotic had done its work; so he got to hang around Peter's swimming pool for an extra week. Swimming apparently was all right, at least with the doctor Peter took him to.

When I picked him up at the airport, wearing sunglasses and an Eclipse 1990 T-shirt, he reported having learned on the bus what a German scientist says when somebody upsets a gallon of water onto his newspaper. He says scheiss. He says it a lot. I hope Justin learned more than that. At the very least, he had a good time comparing notes on eclipse experiences with his fellow astronomers at the club he belonged to. He remembers the trip fondly and thinks it may have contributed to his present conviction that complicated and difficult things can be accomplished.

My sister, a mother of boys, says anyone but me would have abandoned the eclipse trip, if not at the first sign of trouble, at least two or three troubles down the road. My position was that the opportunity to travel to a total eclipse in a bus full of scientists wouldn't knock again, and come hell, high water, streptococcus, airline hassles, or the Mexican government, he was going.