“Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” God knows, Tammy Wynette had hard times to complain of, but if being a woman is difficult at the end of the millennium, becoming a man has always been hard. Increasingly, as I look at males of my own age, to say nothing of “guys” in their teens and 20’s, the whole thing seems impossible. The entire century looks like one long adolescent male whine, from Alee Waugh’s The Loom of Youth to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me to the feeble whimperings of Jay McInerney and the other quasimale members of the bratpack. In retrospect, it is easy to admire Hemingway for his virility, but as my own father pointed out to me very early in my reading career, real men do not talk about being real men any more than saints think of themselves as saintly. The real thing is always unconscious of itself; the genuine article is always naive.
My father was a hard man to emulate: a great shot, a legendary fisherman, a man who could be as dangerous with his fists as he was abusive with his tongue. I have inherited the tongue as well as his taste for whiskey. One or the other is sure to kill me.
From everything I have heard of my father as a young man, he was as much the playboy as the hero of one of his favorite plays. A brilliant student, he got himself expelled from school, mostly for insolence. But for all his early days as a roistering merchant seaman, he had a puritanical streak when it came to women, and a Catholic regard for modesty and honesty. And yet, he refused to set foot in the Church of his ancestors until my mother converted to Catholicism in order to drag him in. Of course, his favorite drinking companion was a two-fisted monsignor who, even in the 1960’s, would expel improperly attired women from church.
His intellectual hero was Mencken, whom he knew slightly in his youth. Accused of prejudice, he would inevitably paraphrase the master: “Take away a man’s prejudices, and what is there left?” Whatever side of the political divide he happened to be on, my father would be at the barricade he had erected between himself and the forces of darkness. Like so many men who see the world in terms of black and white, he saw everything in red down to some time in the 40’s. Despite a defective heart, he volunteered repeatedly for the marine corps during World War II but ultimately had to content himself with being a merchant officer on convoy ships. The inability to shoot back must have driven him half crazy, and it is sure that one disastrous trip, on which his ship leaked so much oil it was expelled from the convoy, triggered the ulcers that were to torment him the rest of his life.
Whether it was over German music or American politics, the old man was never known to pass up a good fight. As a red organizer for the National Maritime Union, he was there when Joe Curran was axed in the back; indeed, he was beaten to the ground trying to protect the NMU leader. As time went on, he mellowed considerably, becoming a kind of conservative in politics and accommodating, to the point of deference, to my mother. One of the last pieces of advice I received was that I should not always try to have the last word with a woman, especially with a woman I was married to.
I suppose I inherited my horror of marital infidelity and divorce from my father. A man is only as good as his word, he would say, and if he breaks that word he is nothing. It had nothing to do with what the priests taught. A man who cheated on his wife made himself a cheat in his own eyes. My mother told me she never doubted him, even when she received a telephone call warning her that her husband was out late with a showgirl. As it turned out, some less perfect husbands had used my father’s reputation for fidelity as an alibi.
He was not an easy father. Stern and exacting in all the things he cared about, he had no patience with a boy who could not keep from getting a backlash just as he was about to hook a huge northern. Playing noisily and unconsciously in the afternoon, we hushed immediately when the dreaded words, “Your father’s home,” were spoken. If only I could inspire that degree of respect. As a small child, I remember playing with my father and being called foolish nicknames. As I grew older, the fun came to an end, and we found ourselves arguing about politics and literature. He was an individualist; I stood for community and tradition. His idea of folk music was Richard Dyer-Bennet singing Beethoven’s setting of Burns and Scott; I played Dylan or Guy Carawan. I was all for civil rights; he said he had been there, and all it now amounted to was the government telling small businessmen what to do. I went in for philosophy; he preferred history and polemics. He once remarked sarcastically, knowing I was an atheist, that I was the first man in my family to have a supernatural bent. “But,” I protested, “I thought there were bishops and even cardinals in the family.” He conceded there were, “but none of them believed anything supernatural.”
Visiting a town where we had once lived, I ran into several of my father’s acquaintances. “You’re his son? He was a real S.O.B.” went the response half the time. Other times it was, “He was the greatest guy I have ever known.” Even in old age, my father could walk into a hotel bar in Mexico City and within 15 minutes strike up a friendship with the proprietor of a distant hacienda who would offer to take him there, along with my mother, in his private plane.
Alternatively, he might provoke someone into taking a swing. Nearing 70, my father was standing in front of a sporting goods store in Atlanta with a group of even older men, mostly ex-baseball players. A pair of bikers in their early 20’s approached them, mocking and threatening the old men. My father, I was later told by one of his friends, held up one hand to say “Come no further,” and when one biker kept coming with raised fist, my old man decked him with one punch. His friend wisely ran away.
Like most of the men in my family of whom I have heard, my father was better at making money than keeping it. Nonetheless, he was a good provider and died in comfortable circumstances. In his last years, he used to say that he never feared losing all he had, because he knew that he could walk into any city of the world and get a job, any job, and work himself up to running the operation within a few months. If this was vainglory, it is the vainglory of a free man who, even if he finds himself working for an employer, knows in his heart that he will quit rather than endure insult.
There was a great deal wrong with the men of my father’s generation. They were less educated than their own forebears and more prone to credulity, easily duped by schemes that would have struck the men of earlier ages as ludicrous: socialism in all its forms including National Socialism, sentimentalism toward strangers, preposterous theories of human equality. My father, in his youth, apparently believed in women’s rights; my mother, on the other hand, was convinced that female suffrage was a mistake. That she had herself voted for John Kennedy because he seemed nicer than Mr. Nixon seemed to clinch the case.
It was my father’s generation that installed FDR as dictator and backed him as he dragged the nation into war; it was they who suffered the infamous tyranny of the withholding tax that confiscates our wages before we receive them and forces us to beg for the return of what is ours. And yet, looking back at them from this age of iron, they seem like heroes. Sure enough of their manhood not to crow about it, they could afford to tolerate homosexuals, because they did not fear them. One of my earliest memories is of staying home to keep my father company. He had been badly burned in a fight with several men who wanted to have a good time picking on my effeminate (and homosexual) piano teacher. To teach him not to defend queers, they held his arm down on a red hot stove until they had burned off the skin. or most boys today, their life is endless bullying by well-intentioned schoolmarms who work night and day to exterminate the first signs of manliness.
For a man like my father, the piano teacher was simply a friend, a cultivated man in a community of savages. Homosexuality he regarded as a nauseating vice, but other people’s vices were, for the most part, none of his concern. Today, I am not sure which movement would offend him more: gay rights or the men’s movement, both of them bizarre deformations of virility. More than either, I think he would have despised the cult of machismo, to say nothing of the self-fetishists, the body-builders. Most conservatives like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies, but there must be something a little odd about a man who would want to look like a freak, much less devote years of his life to the process. In Arnold’s defense it can be said that his fetish made him rich, but in the end he supported George Bush against Pat Buchanan, something no entirely normal man could conceive of.
My father has been gone for a decade, and as badly as he botched the job of fatherhood, I know I am doing a worse job. In looking at the boys my sons’ age, I see as little hope for their generation as for my own. Perhaps less. For most boys today, their life is endless bullying by well-intentioned schoolmarms who work night and day to exterminate the first signs of manliness. When they do assert themselves, it is almost always in some bizarre and perverse form, as semi-professional high school athletes or as skinheads and punks. In their eyes, the choice is either mindless conformity or sadistic rebellion; victimization or racism; careerism or the gang. As a father, I pray they will choose the safe route, but as my father’s son and his father’s grandson, I know that it will be a long and difficult time before they find themselves as men, and if and when they do, everything they think and do will probably be against the
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