Last weekend my family and I went to a pumpkin patch, one of those innovative venues that reminds you that not every farmer needs half-a-dozen federal subsidies to make a living. There are tunnel slides beneath a mulch mountain, and a pond with paddleboats, and hayrides, and an air-propelled pumpkin cannon. Pumpkin launching is popular there, evidenced by targets arrayed in a field, at which one can take aim with pumpkin slingshots.
There are dozens of other things to play on or in here, and, of course, there is food, including pumpkin chili. I don't know how much this family makes from their pumpkin farm, but they always earn a good bit of our cash, and we leave happy.
This year we decided to try the corn maze. All of us walked warily into the entrance, the children who can walk clustered around my legs, baby Isaiah in a wagon I pulled behind me, and their chuckling mother bringing up the rear. We figured we'd knock out this maze in 15 or 20 minutes and get back to the business of slinging pumpkins.
An hour later, as we trudged down what seemed to be the same long path for the third time, I began to wonder if we were going to get out before dark. Judging from what we could see of treetops along the edges of this large cornfield, we were far away from our starting point. I began surreptitiously breaking stalks that hung over our path, as a not-so-subtle means of marking where we'd been. I figured if nothing else the search parties might find them helpful.
I realized, looking back at the expectant faces of my children and wife, that I was in the midst of a walking metaphor. Here was a fork in the trail. "Which way, Dad?" Me peering intently at the sky, as if my dollop of Cherokee blood could somehow make up for a serious deficit in the area of spatial reasoning.
"That way," I replied with an authority I didn't feel. On we trudged, and soon passed underneath broken stalks. More backtracking. Me with some encouraging words. Grumbles in response. Sweet wife in the back, trying not to laugh at me. Across some rows of corn we saw people walking. Naturally their path looked more appealing. They looked wistfully toward us, no doubt envying our path. We passed a trampled-down trail made by someone trying to reach a more appealing row. "That's for cheaters," Caleb announced.
More walking. The baby sputtered as low-lying stalks brushed his face. A dead end. Eli and Isaac were now officially worried that we were lost, and that we would have to spend the night in the creepily towering corn. "Listen," I announced, "if it starts to get dark, we are marching straight across this field, path or no path." I meant to look tough, but for some reason they giggled. Their mother led them in a prayer as we walked. I decided to take that as encouragement on her part, rather than doubt.
The prayer had barely ended when we came across a promising path. Soon we were racing back toward the part of the field from which we'd come. We stumbled upon the exit. Out we poured, cheering ourselves, high-fiving, their mother reminding them how we'd found the path after we prayed.
And this is how it is, I suppose, for fathers, for all parents. They follow us wherever we will go, and they expect us to lead them safely home again. Sometimes we don't know the way, and we do our best to keep our fear from penetrating them. On occasion we have the good sense to remember prayer, and sometimes, when we think we're going to be wandering through that maze into darkness, we find our way home.