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THE BUSS STOPS HERE

Every night, without fail, my five-year-old son stalks me down for a goodnight kiss. What's nice about this ritual, other than the smooch itself, is that it's something he's wanted to do ever since he could muster a pucker.

At bedtime, we have to fire up the cattle prod to get the boy to pick up his toys or brush his teeth or make one last trip to the bathroom, which he fights even when his bladder is threatening to explode like the Hindenburg. But he always wants to kiss his dad goodnight.

Sometimes I get one of those perfect, wonderfully sincere "I love you, Dad" kisses. It's just a coincidence, I'm sure, that these are most common when I've just surprised him with a new toy or promised to one day buy him his very own pirate island in the Caribbean.

Sometimes he gives me a wet, silly fish-lips kiss. Sometimes it's a brownie-flavored kiss, if the remnants of his favorite late-night snack are still smeared all over his face. Sometimes I'm the lucky recipient of what he calls a "movie-star kiss." That's when he grabs my head, crushes his mouth against mine, and holds me in a Hollywood-style lip-lock that lasts until he needs to breathe, which can take up to five minutes.

And sometimes--usually when Mom has promised to read him the latest installment in a long-running, particularly exciting bedtime story--I get "chicken quickies." These are like the sanitary, speed-of-light pecks you give your mustachio'd Aunt Mildred on Thanksgiving Day when she's standing there waiting and there's no escape.

Frankly, I love 'em all. Even when I'm left gasping for air, groping for a washcloth, or feeling like somebody's Aunt Mildred. And if it were up to me, I'd still be getting goodnight kisses from my son when he's a 42-year-old, 6-foot-7, 240-pound outlaw biker nicknamed "The Killer" by his former cohorts from prison.

By then, however, I won't have much say in the matter. By then, I'll be a slobbering geezer and my son will no doubt think he's too old or too cool or too masculine to do anything so little boyish as kissing his father.

Oh, maybe I'll be able to manipulate him into the occasional "chicken quickie" when there's no one around, I'm waiting and there's no escape. But fish-lip, brownie-flavored and movie-star kisses, I fear, will be out of the question entirely--unless he somehow evolves into such a pathetic wimp that I'll be able to remove my farina bib and unhook my heart-lung machine just long enough to overpower him.

At the rate this kid is growing, though, the safe money is on the "Killer" scenario. Instead of goodnight kisses, I'll soon be getting firm handshakes. Or pats on the back. Or a speedy "See ya, Dad" as he bolts home to someone he's not too old or too cool or too masculine to kiss. But you can bet the farm that, before he leaves, he'll plant one on his mother. Otherwise, she'd overpower him. Even if his nickname is "The Killer."

If it seems like I'm doing an awful lot of advance worrying, well, the transition from kisses to handshakes has already begun. I walked my son to school the other day and made the mistake of trying to kiss him goodbye in front of his classmates. "Daaaa-aaaaad," he groaned, "I gotta go." And off he ran, surely wondering how he was going to explain his father's mortifying behavior to the guys on the playground.

Now, I happen to be an understanding parent. I wouldn't want a large, bearded man in a Hawaiian-print shirt kissing me in front of all my friends, either. But there are greater humiliations. Like when you're caught, red-handed, watching Sally Jessy Raphael on TV while appearing to actually be enjoying yourself. Or when reliable witnesses claim that you once considered buying a Yugo.

You know what I'm talking about. Things you could never live down. Things that could earn you the nickname "The Really Stupid Guy" instead of "The Killer." Things that, by comparison, make kissing your father seem perfectly respectable.

Ah, well. I'm willing to give and take. I'll settle for a firm handshake in the schoolyard. It's the goodnight kisses I don't want to negotiate.

Last night, as I was putting my boy to bed, he gave me an "I love you, Dad" kiss and a movie-star kiss, both brownie flavored. During the ensuing hug, I broke down and asked if he'd ever get too big to kiss me goodnight.

"Daaaaa-aaaaad," he groaned. "I'm your son. Sons always kiss their dads goodnight."

Hold that thought, Killer. At least until my heart-lung machine conks out.

I walked my son to school the other day and made the mistake of trying to kiss him goodbye in front of his classmates.

I wouldn't want a large, bearded man in a Hawaiian-print shirt kissing me in front of all my friends, either.