“Son,” I said my voice slow and serious, “Today we are hunting tigers.”
Nathan laughed, “There are no tigers in Alabama” he said
“Hunting tigers is never a laughing matter.” I said still being serious.
He looked at me then with a question in his eyes. He was still trying to work out if this was a game or for real. “Dad, I’m not a baby, I’m 5,” he said holding up 5 fingers, “I know there are no tigers in Alabama.”
“But we aren’t in Alabama,” I said, “We are in the jungles of China and right outside that door there is a tiger that has been stealing little children.”
Nathan understood then. His eyes sparkled with the excitement of the game and he dove into the fantasy head first.
“So what are we hunting with?” He asked.
“Just our knives and our swords”
“But daddy,” he said in his you-should-know-better voice “tigers are fast and strong and have big sharp teeth. We need a gun to hunt them.”
“But we don’t have a gun”
“O,” he said, “then how will we catch him”
“We will have to use our wits,” I said.
“Our wits. It means our brains. We will have to use our brains to catch them. There will be many times in this life when you won’t have the tools that you need; and that is when you have to use your head to figure out what to do next.”
Nathan jumped off my lap then. “What are we waiting for, there’s a tiger out there to kill” he said and headed for the back door.
“Wait,” I said “we need to get our gear first.”
Nathan ran off then back to his room. I followed slowly and stood at the door. I watched him dig his way through his box of toys. He made a small pile of supplies that he felt we would need. First he dug out the two plastic swords that had been a part of many of our fantasy adventures. Then he began sifting through the rest of the toys weighing in his mind the uses of each item on a tiger hunt. In the end we each had a sword and a bottle for water. Nathan had a New York Mets batting helmet on his head and I was wearing a set of toy binoculars around my neck. In Nathan’s pocket were a compass, an old shoelace, and some plastic lizards. “For bait,” he had said when I asked him about the lizards.
Equipped for our journey we headed out the back door. Nathan immediately started running towards the wooded area that ran along the back of our house, but I called him back.
“We aren’t hunting in there today,” I said, “The tiger is hiding in a new place”
As he came running back to me I picked him up and carried him to the car. I placed Nathan the tiger hunter in back seat of the car and strapped him in. Then I got in and we headed down the road. Nathan was pensive as we drove. I thought that maybe he had decided that this wasn’t that fun of an adventure after all when he said, “The tiger will have the advantage if we are going to some place that we don’t know. Are you sure that we can’t use our guns.”
“Nope,” I said, “We have to work this one out in our heads.”
“Alright,” he said, “But stay close to me. If the Tiger comes at us I will throw the lizards at him and maybe while he is eating them we can get away.”
I chuckled but Nathan said, “Hunting Tigers is never a laughing matter”
I drove to Old Creek Town Park. It was a municipal park with baseball fields a boat dock, some picnic tables and a playground for children. Nathan sat up a little straighter as we drove into the park. The playground had been the setting for many of our adventures, but when I turned left at the entrance he said, “Dad, the playground is that way,”
“I know,” I answered, “but the Tiger isn’t on the playground.”
“Then where is he?”
“He is hiding in the woods,” I said.
“So do we really have to go and find him?” Nathan asked looking longingly at the playground.
“Of course we do,” I said my voice becoming serious, “Tonight there will be all sorts of children here playing ball. Do you think it will be safe for them here with a tiger on the loose?”
Nathan sat and thought for a moment. I could see that this game had become real to him in a way.
I parked the car and turned around to face him. “Nathan,” I said, “I will give you the choice. We can keep hunting this tiger or we can go play on the playground and leave the tiger for someone else to find and catch.”
He looked out the window then at the trees beside the road. It was mostly pine trees as most of Alabama seems to be, but there were several trees covered in red and yellow and brown leaves as they readied for the winter. Nathan peered into the darkness at the base of those trees and then down at the gear he had brought with him on the seat.
“If we don’t hunt the tiger then who will, Dad?” He asked. At first I though he had made his decision and was just asking a rhetorical question. But he had wrinkled his forehead and the two lines that came out between his eyes that came out when he was working out something in his mind were bold in the afternoon sunlight.
“I don’t know,” I answered, “Maybe someone else will come and maybe they won’t. You can’t control what other people will do. You have to decide what you will do.”
He sighed then he smiled as he said, “Well dad, then let’s go catch us a tiger”
I smiled too and got out of the car. I helped him out of the back and we collected our gear. We stood together at the entrance to the rarely used walking trail that wound around the park. We were each holding our plastic swords and Nathan had given me some of the plastic bait lizards, “Just in case.”
We walked side by side up the trail and into the trees. As we passed into the shade of the trees Nathan looked up and me “There isn’t really a tiger is there?” he asked.
“Does it matter?” I replied
“No, I was just wondering.”
Nathan took my hand then and we stalked up the trail looking for signs of our tiger.