My 11-year-old son, Leif, is in the midst of an extended, if not permanent, Viking phase. While I encourage his deep dive into our ancestral people, I am eager to see one thing literally fall apart: the horned helmet he’s worn night and day since January 2020.
More than any of my other children, this son with the Viking name has delved into several long-lasting phases.
First it was the residents of the Island of Sodor — wooden trains pushed around wooden tracks, over wooden bridges and through wooden tunnels. By the time he was 2, Leif held his Thomas the Tank Engine like a 13-year-old does a first smartphone — all the time.
Weeks before I gave birth to my fifth child, we went to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. While looking down from a bridge at a duck pond, Leif accidentally dropped his 3-inch train into the murky water below. While the aviary staff scrambled to rescue Thomas, 2-year-old Leif cried at decibel levels commensurate with the horror and grief he felt over his dear train’s fate.
A few months after he turned 4, Leif tossed Thomas to the curb like yesterday’s losing lottery numbers after watching “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” a documentary about a prehistoric 42-foot snake. Its mind-boggling enormity inspired Leif to learn more about megafauna and soon thereafter he launched into a very long dinosaur phase.
A year later, three of the four walls of Leif’s bedroom were decorated with dinosaur stickers. He informed me that, starting from wall with his doorway, the beasts were organized in geological order — Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Yep, my kindergartner knew more about paleontology than his college-graduate mum. Pretty cool.
Less fun was a wee kid regularly correcting my pronunciation of various dinosaur species or taking the Brontosaurus’s very existence from me, “There’s no such thing as a Brontosaurus, just Apatosauruses!” he’d assert whenever I’d call one of his long-necked figures the B-word.
“Then just where do you think the Flintstones got their Brontosaurus burgers from, huh?” I’d triumphantly counter with adult imperiousness. Leif would roll his eyes and shake his head at my ignorance, and then giggle.
A parallel, yet complementary, focus, Legos have been like a brick foundation supporting each of Leif’s phases from paleontology onward. The clever Danish company has kits for most things boys find interesting (girls, not so much), and Leif is no exception. His lifetime allowance earnings have largely been spent on interlocking bits of plastic.
For about nine months, dinosaurs had to share space in Leif’s brain with all things Harry Potter. He read the books, wore ill-fitting graduation gowns and fake glasses and learned to play the John Williams’ theme song from the movies on our piano. (This was a definite improvement after months of him banging away at “The LEGO Movie” theme song, “Everything Is Awesome.”)
Then, poof, Potter and his Hogwarts companions were gone as suddenly as if someone had cast an avada kedavra spell on them.
Vikings invaded and conquered Leif’s absolute attention in the middle of his fourth-grade year.
This is no coincidence. In Waldorf schools, such as the one Leif attends, Vikings are the culture fourth graders study. In a roundabout way, this pedagogical choice is also how Leif came to be called Leif.
My second son, Hugo, also became obsessed with the Vikings in the fourth grade. Upon learning he would soon have a third brother, 12-year-old Hugo confidently stated, “My other two brothers are alike. This one will be like me and I will raise him in my own image and name him Leif.”
And so it was.
Hugo and Leif are bold extroverts with similar personalities. It was Hugo’s old fabric Viking helmet-hat, with a ring of faux-fur trim and soft horns on the sides, that Leif pulled out of the dress-up box just weeks before the COVID pandemic changed everything.
“I really like your hat,” strangers regularly tell Leif.
“Don’t encourage him,” I say. “He’s been wearing it for over a year!”
“Yeah, I’m gonna keep wearing it just to bug her,” chimes Leif, pointing a thumb in my direction.
Pick your battles.
The hat has grown dingy (he never washes it) and a little tight on Leif’s head. After two summers hidden from the sun’s kisses, his hair is now resolutely dark.
I let it go. I can think of far worse obsessions a nearly 12-year-old boy might have than a ratty old hat. It also doesn’t escape me that the Vikings, and by extension the hat, have perhaps helped Leif through the pandemic and the end of his parents’ relationship.
I figure before he goes to college Leif will crush on someone who will tell him, “I’ll go out with you, sure, but only if you lose that moldering rag on your noggin’.” And just like that it’ll go the way of Thomas the Tank Engine.
And for all my lighthearted complaints, I know that years after it does, my heart will swell when I see photos of my Viking boy in his helmet.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 17, 2021.