As the Democrats prepare to take the reins in both houses of Congress, questions abound. Will they be able to withdraw troops from Iraq, reduce the federal deficit, stabilize oil prices, and raise the minimum wage? But perhaps most hotly debated is whether they are for or against "flat dads." Yes, flat dads. As The New York Times reported several weeks ago, the National Guard has begun sending home to anxious military families life-size, full color, hardback cutout photos of Guard members serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thousands have already been produced and shipped. Apparently, all such images depict fathers. So far, the only flat mom they've sent home was Lynndie England.
Like many of the real dads, flat dads arrive home in a box, although the US government will let you photograph a flat dad. Generally speaking, flat dads are quite photogenic. They hold still, they smile, and they rarely blink. Like most of us, they have a good side and a bad side. Usually, we see the good side. They are typically privates who don't do corporal punishment. Flat Little League dads are less likely to get into brawls with coaches, umpires, players, other dads, and other flat dads. They are more accepting of errors, called third strikes, and rain delays. They are even good for a catch now and again when taped to a brick wall.
For some reason, the National Guard can often afford only half a flat dad -- featuring head and torso -- giving the cutouts the macabre appearance of a double amputee and providing a dramatic moment when real dad comes home with one or more legs. Some kids never get over that shock. And while most moms are grateful for their flat dad, they offer little competition for real boyfriend. Also thriving on the home front are real plumber, real handyman, real cable guy, and real sympathetic guy at AA meetings.
The Pentagon originally estimated the need for 300 to 400 thousand flat dads to win the war on loneliness but later scaled down the number drastically at the behest of outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The resulting extended deployment can be hard at both ends. Like real dads, flat dads must spend time away from their flat wives, flat kids, and flat friends. In addition, they can't always be sure their flat jobs are waiting for them when they get home.
Unfortunately, there is still no money in the federal budget for flat dad updates. Battle scars must be pencilled in at home, eye patches improvised, and tourniquets fashioned from old bed sheets. Full-sized, rubberized, three-dimensional, anatomically correct dads promise a much needed improvement but are still on backorder from Halliburton. Meanwhile, in the development stage is virtual dad, due out virtually the same time as the pullout from Iraq.
Critics have called the flat dad program possibly the perfect symbol for a war that has fallen flat. However, the Bush administration and its supporters -- both of them -- remain pleased with the program. Flat dads don't require body armor. Only a small number of flat dads have gone AWOL or MIA. Even fewer have exhibited post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, chronic back pain, flashbacks, or addiction to painkillers. And while it is true that like their real dad prototypes, flat dads can become battle-worn, frayed, and rough around the edges, there is one major consolation. Old flat dads never die -- they just fade away.
Rich Herschlag is the author of, among other books, Lay Low and Don't Make the Big Mistake (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and Women Are From Manhattan, Men Are From Brooklyn (Black Maverick, 2002). Also an engineer, he runs a consulting business, Turnkey Structural, that specializes in the rehabilitation of residential and commercial buildings. Visit him at RichsRant.com.