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The day this issue hits the streets this week is Junior's 18th birthday, if you can believe it. The Observer surely can't. All the long years we've known that baby and boy and now man have slipped past in less time, it seemed, than it takes to wipe a tear from the cheek.

If you've watched this space for the past 16 years or so, you've seen that child grow up before your eyes, or at least in your imagination. The Observer, who often goes to the well of our own experience when we're hurting for an offering to leave on the altar of Great God of All Journalists Phil D. Hole, has often fallen back on Junior's trials, turmoil and tribulations to gin up column inches over the years. Fatherhood — which we came to with a nervousness and sense of apprehension that still hasn't fled — has been good for Yours Truly, at least career-wise.

His Dear Pa both envies him and fears for him here on the doorstep of adulthood, for the same reason: The road in front of him is so much longer at this point than it is for his old man, so full of bends and long straightaways, so much intrigue and sorrow, days and nights full of ... who can say? We have tried, in our clumsy way, to instill in him both the things we wish we'd known and the hard lessons visited upon us: that women are no more or less strong, capable, fragile or ethical than men; that he should never be ashamed of a work shirt, but value a nice suit even for occasions other than weddings and funerals; that out of every 10 people, regardless of gender, orientation, religion, cash flow or color, there will be a solid 10 percent you can count on and 30 percent with all the brains God gave a ferret; lefty-loosey, righty-tighty; that he should save his apologies for when he truly screws up and his attempts at justifying bad behavior for God; that money can't buy happiness, but it can buy him time to find it; that he should take care of his teeth, feet and back, because when they're kaput, he'll miss them.

What a thing it has been to be that child's father. The job is not over, of course, not until they lay The Observer in the clay, but you get what we mean. If you don't, maybe you will someday. As we learned soon after Junior — born on the bayou, in Lafayette General Hospital, way down in south Louisiana — came home, they don't give you an instruction manual on your way out the door of the maternity ward. All you've got is that grand old standby: The Best You Damn Well Can. That is what we have tried to do. When he turned 13, The Observer wrote him a clumsy poem to mark the occasion. It still applies. Happy birthday, Sam. You make your old man proud every day.

I am no poet

But I will write one for you, because you have suffered me:

Where is the child I knew?

Whose cry I wept and blubbered over

Until a nurse took my elbow and ushered me out?

Who I once held cupped in both my hands

All of you in one place for the only time in your life?

Time has replaced you, cell by cell

Made you taller than me at that age,

Taller, nearly, than my own father ever was

Mist on your cheekbones telling me

The clock is always sweeping toward daylight.

When you remember me someday

Separated by distance and eventually more,

Don't remember me in my failures

A thought worse than the grave

That longer death of having the best of me forgotten.

Instead, remember me as I remember my own father:

In dusk, in firelight, at the darkest ebb of the eclipse

Walking in steep and treacherous places

Surefooted enough that I can remember

Every time I ever saw him stumble

And save himself from gravity.

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