If you want to see a real sign of the times, you don't have to look any farther than a billboard along Interstate 75, between Mitchell and I-74.
It pictures a baby wearing only a diaper and an expectant look. ''Wanted: My Daddy.'' There's a number to call - (800) IDENTITY. This is DNA testing at the retail level. Failed marriages. Gray-market adoptions. Deadbeat dads. Out-of-wedlock children. It's a growth industry. Big business. Cincinnati business.
It gives me the creeps.
''I can see why you would feel that way,'' says Elizabeth Panke, a distinguished pathologist and president of Genetica DNA Laboratories Inc., the company that rented the billboard. ''But I strongly believe we are doing something positive and wholesome.''
No big deal, really. Just a tiny needle prick, five or 10 drops of blood from the child and possible father. Genetica charges $470 for results by mail - $420 if you come into their Kenwood lab. ''We have a lot of walk-ins,'' Dr. Panke says.
A less invasive test also is available for men who fear fatherhood and needles. Cells can be swabbed from inside the potential father and the child's cheeks. This is $50 extra.
She says a negative result is 100 percent accurate. A match is ''greater than 99.9 percent accurate.'' That would be good enough to convince most people, not counting the O.J. jury. Paternity can even be discerned between brothers.
Results can be had in seven to 10 days. And, presto, instant father. Sort of.
David Blankenhorn writes in his book, Fatherless America, about five ''almost fathers.'' There's the Deadbeat Dad, the ultimate bad guy. He might grow up to be a Visiting Father, ''what a reformed Deadbeat Dad can aspire to.''
There's the Stepfather and the Nearby Guy. ''We get desperate,'' he says. ''In a culture of fatherlessness, anybody can be a father.'' Which brings us to the last one, the Sperm Father, who ''completes his fatherhood prior to the birth of the child, a minimalist father, a one-act dad.''
He can run. But now he can't hide.
''I truly believe,'' Dr. Panke says, ''that we're in the business of building families. It is better if the truth is known as soon as possible.''
Dave Kelley, an assistant Hamilton County prosecutor who handles most of the paternity cases in the child support division, says there are many good reasons to have the paternity of a child established legally.
''Social Security benefits, maybe medical insurance, inheritance,'' he says. And sometimes, it's simply to fill in the blank. ''Nobody wants a 15- or 16-year-old kid to have to show a birth certificate that doesn't have a father's name on it.''
A better dad
Geez, Dave, I say, this is pretty discouraging. I mean, I'm not totally naive. I know that a third of all the children born in this country are born out of wedlock.
That's a lot of little kids in diapers looking for daddies. And if you need to be urged into parenthood at the point of a needle, it hardly seems you're ever going to be a candidate for Father of the Year.
Dave sounds like a nice guy who has seen his share of Deadbeat Dads and Nearby Guys. He'd like to make me feel better, I can tell. ''Sometimes it might just help to settle a guy's doubts. If he knows for sure this is his child, it might help him to become a better father.''
That would be nice. A father, a dad, a daddy. Somebody who would take the training wheels off your bike and run down the street holding the back of the seat until you stop wobbling. Somebody who will buy your Girl Scout cookies. Somebody who will give you a dollar for every A.
Maybe the 800 number will locate the billboard kid's Sperm Father. But I hope he doesn't really expect to find his daddy. That test is a lot more complicated. And it takes a lot more time.
Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.