On becoming a man
If you had the (mis)fortune of being born a male, you know that you must endure certain rites of passage to manhood. However, no one ever asked me if I want to participate in these rites. They were not optional. But they were thrust upon me. Unfortunately, no manual exists for these rites of passage. Sometimes, I didn’t even know I was undergoing one of these rites until after I had passed it.
The real question about all these rites of manhood is, “Is there a defining moment when you pass from boyhood to manhood?” You know, one moment you’re a boy, then something, je ne sais quoi, happens, and suddenly you’re a man.
I bring this up because my friend Jim, according to his father, had such an experience. Let me explain. Jim and I met at Gage Park High School in physics class and he encouraged me to join the chess team. We soon became good friends. In fact, we’re still friends to this day.
Anyway, we would visit each other at home and occasionally play chess. I got to meet his entire family because I visited them so often. Once when they went to a family reunion in Kentucky, I got to tag along. Actually, I think they needed another car and I was willing to make a road trip with them. I really liked Jim’s mother because she always laughed at all of my jokes. And I do mean ALL of my jokes. So, naturally, I always enjoyed talking to her. Jim’s father, on the other hand, sometimes made me feel a little uneasy. He always exuded this high-testosterone manhood, even when he fell asleep on the sofa with a beer in his hand while watching TV. He was a hard-working man who enjoyed a beverage or two (especially ones containing any amount of alcohol) after work. Sometimes, he would talk to Jim and I. He enjoyed telling us about his work history. He was truly a working man. He was never unemployed the whole time I knew him. He always worked and he took great pride in that. Once, he didn’t like how he was being treated at work, so he quit his job and found a new one the very next week.
When I started working at Derby Foods as a manual laborer, Jim’s father was so proud of me. He held me up as the ideal role model of a working man. Suddenly, in his eyes, I had achieved manhood by virtue of being a working man. I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t like to see Jim be put down by his father. “Jim,” his father would say, “Dave and I are working men. I hope I live to see the day that you work.” Despite what he said, I felt very much the same as before, like an overgrown boy, but I wasn’t about to tell Jim’s father. I was a working man and old enough, at age nineteen, to buy my own beer and wine in the state of Illinois. Jim’s father was proud of my manhood. He soon started telling Jim, “If you ever worked a full day’s work and then drank a six-pack after work, you’d probably drop dead!’ He really wasn’t happy until one day Jim was working at the same factory as his father. But he would not concede to the fact that Jim was now a man.
One day, I went to visit Jim and his father answered the door. I could tell that he was either hung over or drunk, or both. He was smiling like never before. I had never seen him in such a mood. I asked him if Jim was home and he smiled proudly. Jim came down from his bedroom just in time to hear his father say, “Dave, you should be very proud of your friend Jim. Today, Jim is a man!” He then put Jim in a headlock that looked potentially fatal. Jim immediately freed himself from his father. “See!” his father said. “Jim is now a man!’ He tried to explain further, but neither Jim nor I could fully understand him. But I had never seen him so proud of his son before. He soon decided that it was time to go to bed. Jim thought it would be better if we left the house.
Later, he explained that the night before his father had gotten really drunk and he was looking for a fight. He started up with his wife and he was holding her so she couldn’t get away. So, Jim grabbed his father, which totally surprised him because Jim had never had a physical encounter of this sort with his father before. So his father turns to assault Jim, but Jim managed to throw him to the floor. Jim really thought his father was really going to tan his hide. At first, his father was angry as he got up, but then he realized that his son was no longer a boy. Jim then yelled at his father to go to bed and go to sleep. Surprisingly, Jim’s father obeyed.
For a few months after that, Jim’s father would beam with pride and tell me that his son was now a man. Jim had stood up to his father–who if you believed his father’s stories. he had never lost a fight–who was a real man. Jim had knocked him, a real man, down. For a while there, I really envied Jim. He was a man now!