Duel Without End

After some years of newspapering in New York HYMAN GOLDBERG served in the army during the war and is now a writer for King Features.

ALL the parents I know — and, alas, I know a remarkably large number of them have a huge fund of tiresome stories which are endlessly recounted as irrefutable evidence that in a battle of wits their sprats could have had Oscar Wilde tongue-tied in minutes, and that even Milton Berle, with his vaunted 250,000 squelchers for hecklers, would soon be reduced to tears.

Almost invariably the person bested by an infantile wit (who is rarely older than three or four) is the parent himself. I’ve heard, in my time, thousands of these alleged razor-edged ripostes that were sprung by children, and I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone who will admit that he’s been defeated by a citizen who can’t even read or write, and who is just beginning to learn how to blow his own nose with some efficiency, must be a dope.

I am a parent myself. My threeyear-old son hardly keeps silent for a minute in his waking hours; and that he’s at least as sapient and an courant. as most kids his age, judging by the stories their parents tell, I will prove by the following anecdote.

The other day he pointed to a ladder in the kitchen. “What’s this made of?" he asked.

“That ladder is made of wood,”I said.

“This ladder,”he said twinkling merrily, with the air of an afterdinner speaker or a master of ceremonies who is signaling broadly that he’s going to tell a joke, “is made of wood, and so is your head.”

Now I am certain, as certain can be, that any of the parents I know would have immediately seized that little boy in their arms and hugged and kissed him hysterically, and would have dashed to a telephone to call all their sorry acquaintances to tell them about that little boy’s wisecrack.

Not I. If I couldn’t hold my own with a three-year-old, if I couldn’t outsmart someone who can’t count above ten and who even gets confused occasionally below the number ten, how long do you think I’d last, in my line of business, where the only law is the law of the jungle? You know what I said to my son?

“If my head is made of wood,”I said, “you know what your head is made of?”

“What is my head made of?” he asked, falling neatly into my trap.

“Bone,” I shot back at him, “and you’re a bonehead.”

I don’t want to be misunderstood; I’m not trying to pretend that a remark like that is really a sample of any great wit, but I do say I got the better of that exchange, because I silenced him, which is no mean victory over a three-year-old.

My son has a particularly nasty trick of trapping people into asking simple questions that show them to be utter imbeciles. If I hadn’t seen him pull this stunt on his mother on a number of occasions, I might have been caught by him — once, anyway. But as it was, I was quite prepared for him.

He showed her first a small toy automobile that he owns. “Ask me,”he said, “‘Where are the wheels on this car?’” His mother asked him where the wheels were, and he proudly showed where they were.

Then he showed her a little wooden wagon. “Ask me,”he said, “‘Where are the wheels on this wagon?'" She patiently asked the question, following him along she knew not where.

Next, he showed her a little boat. “Ask me,” he said again, “‘Where are the wheels of this little boat?'" And she did. “Where are the wheels of this little boat ?” she asked.

That was the one he was leading up to. “Boats,” shouted my son triumphantly, “don’t have wheels! They don’t have wheels!”

Not a half hour later he approached me, dragging along an assortment of his possessions. I pretended to read a magazine. “Pa,” he said, I looked up. “ Yes, boy,”I said, “what is it?” He was holding up his car. “Ask me,” he said, lisping prettily, “‘Where are the wheels of this car?’” I complied, and he showed me where the wheels were. Then came the wagon, followed by the request, the compliance, and the answer.

I tried to control my excitement, and I must have succeeded in hiding my tenseness, for he then held up his boat. “Ask me,” said my three-yearold son, “‘Where are the wheels of this little boat?’” I leaned forward in my chair and stared right into his bright blue eyes. “I know where the wheels of that little boat are,” I said firmly. “The wheels of that little boat are right in your head.”

He looked at me for a moment and what emotions he felt I don’t know, for his face was impassive. Then he turned silently away from me and went back to his toys and he played quietly until his mother led him away for his bath.

Like all other parents, I went through a period when my son kept whying me to madness. It was why this, why that from morning until night. It would start like this: Q. Where is that dog going? A. It is going for a walk. Q. Why is it going for a walk? A. Because it feels like going for a walk. Q. Why does it feel like going for a walk? A. How do I know why it feels like going for a walk? Q. Why don’t you know why it feels like going for a walk?

Well, sir, let me tell you how I foxed him on that one. These days I make it my business to see that damn dog first. And I’m the first one in there with the question.

“Where is that dog going?” I ask my son. “For a walk,” says he. “Why is it going for a walk?” ask I. “Because,”says he.

“Why because?” say I, and by that time he gets fed up with the entire matter and goes away from me and leaves me alone to my own devices, which I, for one, find vastly more fascinating and constructive than playing a buffoonish straight man for a very small boy.