I met him at the country fair, son. The smell of sweet caramel corn and hot apple cider, with bales of day and everyone celebrating the fall evening. I was nine years old, then time when dads push you into football and moms into playing the piano. My friends wanted to throw darts at balloons, my father wanted me to try the high striker and mom, she just wanted to buy her good little boy a hot chocolate. My friend Tina was the only one who sat with me, staring at him, dancing on a string. “You really like it, don’t you?” I looked at her and smiled, “Just look at how he dances and sings and makes everyone laugh. It's gotta be hard controlling it and all, don’t you think?” Your mother was all of 12 at the time, but she seemed so much older and wiser. She reassured “Don’t worry about all of them. If you try hard and practice and really like it, you can learn it and be great.” So I used months of pocket money to buy Al from the fair that night, and dangled him off the side of my bed, looking at the mirror.
I learnt to make him walk and jump and dance and sing. He could make anyone smile, and be whoever he wanted to be. Because of him, I learn different sounds, accents and tones. I learnt to write jokes and stories, I learnt to be whoever I wanted to be. My voice was changing and so was my body. Your mother was the prettiest person I knew then, and she was already in high school. She bought me books, and bits of cloth and string and wood to change and make Al grow and morph. Dad frowned when he saw me practice, admonished me with guidance like, “Go throw a ball like a real man!” or “Learn to shape wood, at least you can get a job then.” Mom was sweeter, but hoped I would rather spend time studying for a scholarship or help her with the chores. I was quite good at my hobby and favorite pastime, but I also wanted to be a good son. So I learnt the woodworking and I played ball and did the laundry and took out the trash and studied very hard. It was only when I was alone at night, I would bring Al out.
I built him a theater with, and a metal coat of armor. I wrote skits and stories, and comedy for the fairs. I could sing and groan and squeak as the story demanded. The booth brought in money, I bought everyone fancy Christmas presents. I was expecting a scholarship now, at the school Tina had been attending. Then the draft picks came out. My number was called. It was time to serve. I packed a light bag, we were told to bring one item of our choosing. People brought a guitar, magazines of women, charms dear to their family or simply snuck in cigarettes. As my parents hugged me with pride, I grabbed the only thing I wanted to take, of course it was Al.
The military is a strange place, son. Just as high school was. And society is, in general. Discipline and respect were most important. Pride and honor. Yet, smoking and drinking were alright, as was speaking obscenely about women, fantasizing things that were far from respectable. Playing the guitar was cool, there was talent there. Playing with dolls, as they mocked, was not. I got my fair share of tough love and brotherly taunts. Water thrown on your face on a cold winter night, was also perhaps in good spirits, as were the mice in my socks. They were however all my brothers in that division. And they would look after me, as I after them. When the bells rang, we picked up the rifles and marched into the fire. That night lasted forever, or four days to be precise. The jungles were dense, we were out of food and far from the camp, deep into enemy territory. We couldn’t go back. Battered and bruised, we heard footsteps. Without a clue of where to hide, the three of us, Uncle Pat, Uncle Tom and I climbed a large tree.
We heard footsteps all around, they were looking in the trees. They were closing in. I saw two of them stand below the branch I was clinging on to. Pat couldn’t get a clear shot, he gestured to me. Al was in my pocket as always, I dangled him with a rope from my pack, and projected my voice into a grunt, the way I had so many times before. I heard them turn, and the rifle click. 3 shots rang. The enemy soldier fell to the ground. His comrade was not far. I swung to the nearby branch. They heard me. It was alright though, Al was there. String, drop and repeat. 2 more enemy soldiers fell down. We marched on as night fell, looking for water, and a way out of the jungle.
Being captured is the worst part of war, son. It doesn't matter which side you are on, all honor and respect is lost. Shame is forgotten and humanity is left behind. We were tied to a tree, rifles pointed at our heads, whipped, starved and humiliated in the hope that some secret would spill. We had no secrets, and no tools or weapons. Just Al, clung to my back that night, cutting into my aching back. His metal armor was cold and rough. It was just what I needed. I pushed him harder, father down my back, onto my bottom which was stinging and sore against that rough tree. I pushed and rubbed, till he reached the rope near my ankles. Through half the night I rubbed Al against my bruised and bleeding ankles till finally, the rope came free. It must have been hours before I could kick and lift him to my hand. I suppose sports practice was not useless after all. Just before dawn, I used his metal armor to free my hands, then Tom and Pat. We ran all morning, for our lives. We ran from the jungle, for days and away from that dreaded war for years to come. Away from the greed for oil and global dominance, we left it all behind. In no small part, thanks to Al.
When I finally reunited with your Tine, she was a graduate. She had a job, and was beautiful and confident and happy as could be. I was damaged, body and mind, broke with no education and no skills but combat, the only thing I would not do. I wish I had learned more carpentry, as even for that more experience was needed for the lowest of jobs. “I can’t even get through an interview for an apprentice. Everyone else seems smarter or more skilled or just...more motivated. How long can I stay with you, living for free, like a loser?“ I signed and sat beside her on the bed one night. But your mother, she held my hand, and looked into my eyes and smiled. Just the way she had years before. “Don’t worry about them all. You can do things nobody can, just believe in yourself, and work hard.” I liked her comforting tone, but replied rather mopingly, “Work hard at what Tina?” With that she placed a book in my hands. It was my old book of stories and skits. I had no idea she had held on to it all these years. She picked up Al from the nightstand. “Start tonight honey, put on a show for me.”
From that night on, son, I practiced day and night, wrote and trained my voice. I showed up at fairs, subway stations and talent shows. I started getting gigs, small at first with just me an Al. Sometimes at bars, enough to take your mom for a drink. Then the gigs turned bigger. My stories got picked too. Not just for shows with Al, but shows with actors. And that led to everything we have now, the fame, the books and the TV show performances, the house and car and your private boarding school that you leave for tomorrow.. Your father would not be the artist he is, if it weren’t for your mother, and Al.
Which is why, from tonight on, Al is all yours. Take care of him son, as he took good care of me. And remember son, don’t worry about what they say, what they expect you should do. Don’t be the puppet on the string, made to dance to the tune of society. Be a master of puppets, and your own destiny.