When I was a freshman in high school my hero got his ear chewed off in a bar fight in the parking lot of the Four Roses Bar.

The Four Roses was a last stop type of bar, resting at the side of Route 22, a crowded, cranky highway that stretches from Newark, N.J. to somewhere deep in Pennsylvania. It had a blinking neon sign with the outline of a red rose, and a parking lot big enough for short-haul trucks and lots of motorcycles. Standing outside, if the wind was blowing from the east, the stink of industrial New Jersey held forth, smothering everyone with its eggy kisses.

I wasn’t there on the night of the fight. Even a place like the Four Roses wouldn’t let a skinny 14-year-old kid in the door. But I have always liked to think that if I was there, I somehow could have stopped it.

This memory came to me, unbidden but not unwelcome, during a recent high school orientation session for the parents of next year’s freshman class. There was a banner on stage that read: Welcome Class of 2022. This will be my son Hardy’s class.

I stood there staring at the sign with a group of parents, all of us slightly paralyzed or knocked off balance by the weight of this next stage of life we are about to enter. The sign was a punch in the gut, or rather two punches in the gut, making clear my son’s rapid aging and my own speedy decline. A high school memory of my own was a welcome diversion, even one as grisly as Jeff Hoffman losing his ear.

Parenting is like that I have learned, one long journey down a two-lane road. One lane leads forward into the future while the other lane flows backwards into the past where I once lived as a child.

Jeff Hoffman was the captain of the wrestling team, a senior stud with arms as big as seaplane pontoons. I sat at the other end of the spectrum, an 83-pound freshman with puberty still mocking me from some far horizon. I had been tough in middle school but this was another world, where men like Jeff ruled.

For a time he was everything I wanted to be.

Our first match that year was against Middlesex, a town located a few miles away down Route 22. I stood at the edge of the mat quaking with fear as I stared at my opponent, a hairy chested dude with a shaved head and a chipped front tooth I was sure was a badge of honor from some rumble gone bad. He looked meaner and tougher and in no time he began proving it. When the whistle blew he grabbed my head and stuck it in his armpit just because he could. He smelled like stick shift muscle cars, school suspensions and a broken home.

He pinned me in less than a minute.

When I came off the mat, my head hanging low to hide my tears, Jeff kneeled down in front of me so we could go eye to eye.

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t sweat it. Let me show you how it’s done.”

And he did. Jeff played to the crowd, not crushing his opponents quickly but toying them, lifting them high in the air and putting them in painful positions. Mostly it ended with a pin or lopsided score, only rarely was it close, but every once in awhile he lost. I never knew what to do then, my hero bathed in sweat, his muscles inflated from exertion and his face buried in his hands while he sat silently at the end of the bench.

I have no idea if this is true, the decades too many to recall, but I imagine it was after one of those losses that Jeff visited the Four Roses Bar and said the wrong words to the wrong group of men.

I watched Jeff obsessively that season, learning his path through the hallways where a group of girls always trailed him, the heavy scent of lip gloss surrounding them like a moat too wide to cross. I found out where he lived and on nightly jogs through town I would pass his house, along with other homes of people I was interested in — the girl I had a crush on, a teacher who lived in town, friends and rivals. Our town was neither rich nor poor, and so the shapes and sizes of the homes did not differ much. And yet for me, running at night and pausing to watch how the light shined from what I imaged were bedroom windows, how a door stood solid or fragile, the lawns lush or left to fend for themselves, I felt I knew these people better who for a time meant everything to me.

A few weeks into the season, I won my first varsity match. Jeff greeted me when I walked off the mat, grabbed my arms and lifted me in the air, turning slowly a full 360 degrees so that everyone in the gym could see me and I could see them, standing and cheering and stomping the bleachers so hard I can still hear them.

I can’t remember how long Jeff was absent from school after the fight at the Four Roses or how many times that week I reached up to feel my own two ears, trying to imagine what took place that night and how.

Eventually Jeff returned but when he did I did not ask him any details about the night. Instead, I joined the rest of team asking to see what had happened. Jeff shrugged and pulled back his hair, revealing a small mound where an ear should have been.

If the story had ended there I would not still be thinking about it as my own son prepares for his journey to high school. A parallel to such an extreme event is thankfully highly unlikely. But here’s the thing, later that week as we rolled out the mats in the gym, getting ready for our next match, I looked up at the wall, where the roster of wrestlers usually hung. But instead of a list of names, someone had moved the letters around to read: Hoffman Has No Ear, Ha, Ha, Ha.

Rather than getting mad or saying anything to Jeff, I, like the rest of the team, laughed.

It is always perplexing which memories attach themselves to you. That moment did not have tragic consequences for me nor does it rank anywhere near the worst things I did as a young boy. And yet it stays with me, often center stage, as a moment in time when I was trying so hard to figure out what sort of man I wanted to be, and often fell far short.

Last night I taught Hardy how to shave. It wasn’t a long lesson, just a bit of shaving cream on his upper lip and a few swipes of the razor to clear away the small line of dark hairs that has appeared in the last few months.

As I stood in the bathroom with Hardy, watching him hold the razor with confidence, staring at his reflection, I saw myself in a similar bathroom with my father standing behind me. And then the image widened to include Jeff Hoffman lifting me in the air after that first victory. This was followed by a long line of father figures who have traveled in and out of my life. I wanted so badly to tell Hardy about what I was seeing, about the boy I was and the man I have become, hoping this combination will be enough to help guide the two us during his high school years, when joy and cruelty so often walk hand in hand, along with confusion and wide-eyed wonder. But I had no idea how.

Instead, I pointed to his lip and said, “you missed a spot.”