HOME . In my childhood, my best friend was my grandfather. He was a teacher of Mathematics and Science at a boys' academy.

Terry's Grandfather

My grandfather was a teacher. Here he is trying to look like the drill sergeant of your worst nightmare -- and fooling no one.

From the very beginning, he encouraged me to read. He wanted me to be a scientist so he bought me books about science and let me putter in his lab at the school. Unfortunately for his hopes, my bent was toward the humanities. I soaked up mythology, King Arthur, epic poetry and adventure. The only science I absorbed was of the fiction variety.

Though he would have preferred I read something else, he indulged my passion for the kind of books I liked in a big and generous way. He was also indulgent in other ways and I could get passionate about other things.

Other Things

I could be passionate about other things, too. Here's one of them.

So, one day, in 1958, my grandfather took me with him to the W.T. Grant store in Putnam, Connecticut. It happened that they had in a shipment of stuffed animals. My eyes fell on a tiger and I had to have him. I mean I had to have him in the biggest way. I loved tigers. They were the neatest of all creatures.

When my grandfather said "no", I threw the most colossal tantrum of all time. It was a truly unprecedented display of raw desire for something on my part. Wild, animalistic, raging, incandescent. I must have scared everybody in the place with my screaming demands. He gave in and the tiger went home with us.

That stuffed tiger was very important to me. He came to be my imaginary friend -- a very big and strong imaginary friend who never failed me through many hard and lonely times.

Four decades later, that tattered and faded old thing sits on a shelf in my office among all the rows of books, some of which my grandfather gave me, where he remains as an object of affection, sometimes inspiration and always a legacy of my grandfather's love and generosity and a reminder of my capacity to want something so much that I would make an absolute, unstoppable, howling hurricane out of my desire.

Tiger Display

That tattered and faded old thing.

In 1991, I was in Washington, DC on a visit to my sister. She took me to the National Zoo. Of course, I wanted to see the tigers. Growing up has not changed me very much. As I watched them in their habitat, the thought of someone who was becoming very important to me suddenly came into my mind. He was a policeman I knew, a magnificent man with the magnificent name of Constantine. And I thought: "Constantine -- what a perfect name for one of these."

Tom Constantine

A magnificent man with the magnificent name of Constantine.

Before we left the zoo that day, I found a photo booth where I could have a picture made of myself and any creature in the zoo. You guessed it. I left with a photo of my inoffensive self and a pretty fierce-looking tiger. For a long time after that, I carried it around with me and I would show it to state troopers I met. Their boss Mr. Constantine was a very formidable character to deal with. I would show them the photo and tell them it was my favorite picture of the two of us. They all thought that was funny -- and apt. And so it was.

Terry and Tiger

My favorite picture of me and the Boss.

Well, Mr. Constantine went on to become a very great man, which didn't surprise me. He even became a teacher like my grandfather. And he was always very important to me. So important that one day, I was walking in the park thinking of him and how much I admired him and how fond I had grown of him and I felt all of a sudden as though I were standing on the edge of a high cliff possessed of the urge to jump. It was one of those moments when I just had to have something, just like that moment all those years before in the W.T. Grant store when I wanted the tiger. (Like I said, growing up hasn't changed me very much.)

And so, I jumped. Not into space, but a leap of heart and imagination that brought together all kinds of powerful feelings and memories and symbols gathered together out of a lifetime -- the ones that mean something to me and me alone -- the things that will keep me going when I have nothing else. And I thought: "There's nothing for me to do but to adopt this man." So I did.

"And what," you might ask, "does that make him? Your son? Your father?" Well neither, actually. He's my imaginary friend -- the biggest and strongest and best imaginary friend a man ever had. You see, if I have an imagination at all, I wasn't born with it; it is something I had to develop to accommodate someone I love as much as I love him.

An Imaginary Friend

He's my imaginary friend.

And do you know what is really very remarkable? The place where he ended up having an office after he retired and came home was right across the street from that spot in Washington (of course) Park where I made that decision.

I have a lot of friends who are cops. They all tell me the same thing: There's no such thing as coincidence.

Terry and Tom

The biggest and strongest and best imaginary friend a man could have.

Terry O'Neill
1 October 2000

tyger jumping through hoop

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