I must have been 11 or 12 years old before my father put a gun into my hands and told me to shoot. By then, I had been out hunting with him several times a year but I had not ceased marveling at the efficiency and grace with which he handled a shotgun or a rifle. Once, I remember, we had just stepped into the woods a few yards when he motioned me to stop. I saw nothing but watched as he took two shells in the fingers of his left hand and pumped one into his Winchester .12 gauge. He hit the first grouse as it burst into the air, and by the time the second had gone a few feet higher, he had ejected, reloaded, and brought it down.

We were less than a mile from that spot, when he put the same shotgun in my hands and told me to shoot at a stump. I was nervous and asked him why he was standing so far behind me—it seemed like eight feet. “Don’t worry,” he said, “just shoot.” I squeezed the trigger and the whole universe blanked out. I woke to find my father catching me almost in midair.

I learned several things from that experience: for example, why skinny little boys don’t hunt with .12 gauge shotguns, why “kick” is a more graphic term than “recoil” for what a gun does to your shoulder, and why a lifetime of shooting had dulled the hearing in one of my father’s ears. I also learned to take guns very seriously, indeed. My father refused to let me have an air rifle, because he thought it encouraged a careless attitude toward firearms, and his favorite form of instruction was encouraging his children to learn from their mistakes. I learned all I need to know about cigarettes, when he found me imitating Bogart. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “if you want to smoke, go ahead.” He lit the cigarette and urged me to take a deep drag. Finally that experience with the shotgun taught me, perhaps not for the first time, that fathers positively enjoy seeing their sons taken down a peg. That enjoyment, in my father’s case, was bound to be replaced by the realiziation that his son would never come close to being the shot he was.

In fact, the boy grew up to be a mediocre marksman and a less than mediocre hunter. While in my imagination I hunted and fished with Hemingway’s Nick Adams, the truth was that in performance I more resembled Faulkner’s Boone Hoggenbeck. Even so, I still enjoy a walk in the woods better if I have a gun in my hands and once went through the necessary training to be licensed as a hunting safety instructor. As Thoreau suggests somewhere, a gun gives you something to do, a purpose that quickens the senses. A camera might do as well for some people but not for me. If I wanted to make pictures, I should have learned to draw. Besides, the only machines that really satisfy the inner man are those which work the soil or wreak destruction. If automobiles weren’t dangerous, no man would buy a Lamborghini.

Fast cars, loud guns, and big mouths—they are all part of the painful process by which boys are sometimes transformed into men. I say sometimes, because the process is not automatic, and it is one that requires more than time. There is hardly a human society that does not recognize the difficulties of adolescence by providing for elaborate rites of passage. Plains Indians would fast and mortify their flesh in hopes of receiving a dream message or a spirit friend, and nearly everywhere there are special classes, items of dress, and initiation ceremonies by which troubled youth is gradually absorbed into the manhood of the tribe. The American system of schools, styles (punk or prep), and graduations may be the least effective that could have been devised. Where are the wise older men who give instructions into our tribal lore (college professors?), the grueling ordeals that give proof of manhood (SAT’s? GRE’s?)?

It is small wonder that at most high schools and colleges the most respected men on campus are the coaches. “Bear” Bryant and the late Woody Hayes were forces more than human, and the mild-mannered Dean Smith (North Carolina’s basketball coach) was—and, I believe, is—revered as the fount of all virtues. Critics of professionalized college sports generally miss the point when they complain about the unwholesome influence of big-time football and basketball on campus. It is precisely in sports that boys might learn the ancient tribal secrets of America: that winning is everything, that the rewards for success in any endeavor go only to some combination of natural talent and hard work that is denied most people.

What, on the other hand, do aspiring men learn in nonathletic subjects? It is hard to say, exactly. They do not learn the history, foreign languages, and literatures that might initiate them into an entire civilization. Some are clever enough to regard the whole affair as a sham and learn all too early that fawning upon professors is a surer route to success than studying books. The most successful cynics quickly become class president and, after graduation, learn to play the same games in a broker’s office or as lawyers with political ambitions. This system of institutionalized toadying, the art of mediocrity we call higher education, goes a long way toward explaining the power exercised by young foxes and weasels in every profession in which there is money or power to gain.

Things do not, generally, turn out so well for the young lions who try to become men the old-fashioned way. A few of them draw large salaries in professional sports, most do not; but even those who do have rarely taken the trouble to develop much more than physical skills. Len Bias, before taking his fatal overdose of an illegal drug, was described as a “student” at the University of Maryland, despite the fact that he had not completed even a phys. ed or ed psych course in the previous two semesters.

How much are college coaches to blame for the poor performance and dismal life-histories of college athletes? In the case of Mr. Bias, Coach Drizell has a reputation for subordinating everything to one object only: a winning season. But even the most ruthless coaches function only as camp guards in a much larger system. University officials, prominent alumni, and state legislators are the parties to be held responsible when the time comes for a sort of Nuremberg Trial.

Here, then, is the paradox. High school and college sports (and the increasingly effeminate armed forces) provide the only initiation rituals for American boys, some of whom have lived in sterile suburbs under institutional circumstances (school, day care, YMCA classes) all their life; and yet, those who devote themselves to sports typically emerge, by the age of 21, as both ignorant and unprincipled. (While many recent MBA’s are equally ignorant and even less-principled—that goes without saying—they succeed in the only way in which we measure success.)

Some boys do turn out better—we have seen them: healthy, intelligent, with some of the intellectual, moral, and physical tastes that used to characterize the gentleman. There are still creditable military officers to remind us of a lost era of American soldiers. In any era of human history, real men of any kind are a minority, but if the minority is large enough, as it was at Sparta, at Rome, or in the British Empire, then an entire society is pulled, perhaps unwillingly, in the right direction.

There is a good deal of truth in Gaetano Mosca’s argument that a civilization is characterized by its elite class. If King Leonidas can be taken to represent Sparta, Cato Rome, and the Duke of Wellington the British Empire, then the United States is in a terrible state. The most representative figures these days are schemers and connivers—”prevaricators and prognosticators,” as Captain Boyle would call them. Any list would have to include, in politics, such worthies as Howard Baker and Jim Wright. Business might be represented by Lee Iaccoca, famous for his ability to hoodwink politicians into advancing him credit, or—better yet—Ivan Boesky (Chrysler, after all, still makes products, while Boesky dealt only in deals). In “the arts” we are treated to the spectacle of self-advertisers like Norman Mailer, the late Andy Warhol, and Leonard Bernstein.

But why go on? We live in an age that has lost its sense of shame. A good and wise President is not embarrassed to be called “the great communicator”—as if he were an advertising genius—and his former associates will do anything to trade on their familiarity with the President. Mr. Stockman tells tales out of school, and Mr. Deever does not even try to pretend that his influence-peddling was not immoral: Was it illegal, will he have to pay?—that is the only question.

The shamelessness and effeminacy of public men was the most salient quality of the latest Iranian fiasco. Out of weakness, the administration went back on its sworn word not to deal with terrorists—a terrible mistake. But what is the response? The press, aided by the Democratic majority, seize the opportunity to emasculate a Presidency in its last two years. The security and welfare of the United States—so badly damaged by the Watergate affair—are once again threatened and by the same vermin prating of the public’s right to know. Even if Mr. Gorbachev seized West Germany, Sam Donaldson would not allow it to interfere with his dreams of book contracts, Pulitzer Prizes, and movie rights. The President’s men were, if anything, even worse. Secretary Shultz tried to stick in his thumb and pull out a bigger plum in the form of increased control over foreign policy. What a good boy he was to oppose covert action! Robert McEarlane—a key player in the whole scandal—displayed his mettle by allegedly attempting suicide. On the most charitable interpretation, McEarlane bungled the job as badly as he bungled the arms deal. Now hostile correspondents like Daniel Schorr now treat him with benign contempt. In response to questions about his future plans, McEarlane confesses, “I love government.” As if we hadn’t guessed.

In all this disgraceful episode, one man did his duty and has so far attempted neither to shift the blame nor turn the affair to his own profit. That man is Oliver North. If we can believe administration sources, this young Marine colonel was virtually running American foreign policy—drawing up vast plans, carrying out illegal deals, all without the knowledge or complicity of senior officials. If North is really guilty of all this, the entire administration should resign and, preferably, go into exile. It is as if a commander should blame a defeat upon an adjutant. No President is perfect, and of all the mistakes Mr. Reagan has made in this business, the worst may have been to change his mind about North. If history has any lessons, we can expect Col. North to play the part once assigned to G. Gordon Liddy, one of the few men to come out of Watergate with his honor unsmirched. If North is the man he seems to be, then he will probably do time. At this rate, America will come to resemble the Soviet Union, where the best men end up in jail.

The moral cowardice, the weakness of the American elite class, is a problem that transcends distinctions of liberal and conservative. There have been principled leftists with a sense of honor, and the conservative movement has a full measure of weasels and foxes at every level. The degeneracy of upper classes is not, of course, a new theme, but in former times the American people constituted an apparently inexhaustible repository of virtue and character from which new leadership classes could be drawn. What Clyde Wilson likes to call the yeomanry and what William Jennings Bryan referred to as “plain people” were the farmers and small-town tradesmen who were suckled on adversity. The men conducted business on a handshake, while the women zealously enforced the moral and social code by means of the most powerful weapons available to the human race: gossip and shunning. As my father used to drum into my head, “If a man is only as good as his word, what is left of a man when he breaks his word?”

The sad truth is that the plain people no longer constitute the American majority. The family farm is virtually extinct, and increasing numbers of small-town merchants begin to resemble their big-city counterparts. Morally, at least. Main Street is turning into an extension of Wall Street. Even if we set aside the larger moral and cultural questions, the situation is a calamity for a United States that is called upon to exercise a responsible role as an imperial nation. Who have been the heroes of every war since the Revolution? The stockbrokers? People in “service industries”? Alvin York and Audie Murphy—both rural Southerners—come to mind whenever I see a list of casualties from Vietnam (or Lebanon). Why are small, rural states so disproportionately represented? We know the answer. Young men from Arkansas and South Dakota are still willing to defend their country. City boys know better.

Rural Americans may be as clownish and savage as they are portrayed in films (although I doubt it), but as a class they have been vital to the national interest. There is no one at hand to replace them. When Rome succeeded in civilizing all the barbarians within the empire, she gradually came to rely on German mercenaries. When the Goths seized control of the Western Empire, the Romans realized their mistake. Fortunately or not, we have no hardy barbarians to recruit on the other side of either of our borders. (Canadians are softer than we are, and the Mexicans have not had to fight a foreign enemy since we mopped up their professional army in the Mexican War.)

In one sense, the Romans were in a better situation, because their upper class maintained, for some time, an attachment to military sports and a commitment to public service. The Emperor Marcus had been raised in the lap of luxury, and yet he spent his life in camp. When the heart is gone, there is still some hope for a nation whose head is sound. But that is precisely why we are doomed: We are filling our service academies with women, and the one official who has spoken out—James Webb—is running into stiff opposition on his nomination as Secretary of the Navy; the Marine Corps is being transformed into a set of uniformed Alan Aldas who are upset with Clint Eastwood for Heartbreak Ridge. In fact, we don’t have anything resembling an elite class, military or otherwise. All we have are children of the rich and famous.

If I were writing a Frank Capra scenario, I should pin all my hopes on the Boy Scouts. Imagine boys from all over—cities, suburbs, farms, and small towns—learning woodcraft and discipline from Mr. “Jeff” Smith. Life at home might be soft, but once a week and every summer American boys live like little Spartans who forage off the land or go hungry, who learn to face danger without flinching, who live according to the simple code of the Boy Scout Oath:

On my honor I will do my best:

to do my duty to God and my country,

and to obey the Scout law;

To help other people at all times;

To keep myself physically strong, mentally

awake, and morally straight.

The 80’s are not the 30’s (which were bad enough), and we would be hard pressed to find a Mr. Smith to send to Washington. And if we did, he would have a hard time conveying a sense of shame to the men who run the show. And the Boy Scouts? After flirting with social activism in the 60’s and 70’s, they are settling back down to the scouting I remember from the 50’s: mostly sissies who learned to make things out of raffia and earned merit badges for helping Mom out in the kitchen. Here and there one runs into good troops, and they do less harm than most organizations, but I wish they’d go back to woodcraft. On my last camping trip as a Second Class Scout, we slept in beds in a heated cabin, cooked foil-wrapped shish kebabs the mothers had prepared in advance, and hot-wired the scoutmaster’s ear to go joyriding. I quit the Scouts, not long after.

I ran into our assistant scoutmaster two years later. I was in the woods with a friend who had a pump air rifle that stung like the devil when you got shot. The Scout—about 19 years old—and two friends had brought a .22 but started fooling around with our BE gun. “Run, you S.O.B.” one of them shouted as he shot, repeatedly, his friend. Sick of the whole thing, the friend grabbed the .22 and proceeded to shoot between the legs of his tormentor. Bullets kicked chunks out of trees and ricocheted off the rocks and water of the stream he ran across. We grabbed the air rifle and took off. With any luck, the Scout and his friends grew up to be investment bankers, political activists, or Presidential advisors in charge of this nation’s destiny.