Of course a city garbage truck—big, dangerous, smelly—was the big hit at the local Touch a Truck event today, and both kids and parents enthused over it. My younger son had volunteered to help staff the event, and it was one of our first cold mornings of the fall in St. Louis. When I walked over to the park, he was sitting hunched over in his hoodie with nothing to do yet, in the deep shade of the open-air pavilion, with a dozen other teen volunteers he probably did not know.
I knew better than to go right up to him and kept his mother with me.
Hello, I texted. He raised his head and looked around warily. His head went down as he typed.
Don’t come over here, he texted back. This is the arts and crafts tent you’ll look like a creep.
I assured him I had no plans to do so but wondered if he wanted the five dollars I had brought, or a couple of mini-Snickers. He did not want those.
I’m in charge of the tattoos, he said.
There were two fire trucks, two semis from the ‘50s, a bus or two, diggers, and a crane. An air ambulance landed next to the Navy jet permanently installed on a stand, which makes it look like a big toy. The park has a nice playground, and a couple of food trucks were selling barbecue and shaved ice. A team of karate kids was breaking boards in a field.
There were quite a few little girls enjoying the machinery and the day, but I have never seen so many little boys, outside a school or scout jamboree, all about the same age, with the same haircut. Every young mother had two or three. They were tap dancing in the buckets of front loaders, sitting in the drivers’ seats of the trucks, and blasting their horns at each other.
The event felt like no big deal, like an event in a smaller, more rural town. That was one of its draws, but it was potentially not worth it to visitors who had to park at the high school a half-mile down the road.
Having raised two sons to the point of near self-sufficiency, I know parents expend a ton of energy to get kids to an event like this. I always enjoyed it, even when it was a pain to get there, and it was fun and touching to see things through our children’s eyes. But I understand now, in ways I did not then, that to make the lazy choice, and leave them sitting on the living room floor, would mean paying infinitely more dearly later.
Childhood is short. Events like these are a thrill for the kids, but they also help parents make peace with the future, the way toys give children the agency and safety to understand objects, forces, and processes bigger than they can manage. It takes a certain view to love a garbage truck, but that view is worth developing.
My son gave me the comic side-eye of gratitude as we walked out. It was not 1:00 pm yet, but just to be weird I texted, Goodnight.
See ya, he answered.