National Geographic : 2017 Jan
making a man 103 passing along the tradition of unstructured self-discovery that I inherited from my father, who did not buttonhole me for mortifying talks about birds and bees, or show me how to knife a wild hog, or concoct the Connecticut atheist’s equivalent of a bar mitzvah. I don’t know what passed for rituals that ushered me from boyhood into whatever it is I embody now, with a roster of half-baked competencies and a list of things I still can’t do. Rewire a lamp. Shuck an oyster. In my father’s final months last spring, I asked him if he had tried to prepare me for manhood, and when he looked baffled, I asked him if he thought his father had done anything to set him up. More bafflement. I imagine his manhood came courtesy of the U.S. Navy. Toward the end, he couldn’t remember at noon what medical pro- cedures had been performed on him at 11:45 a.m., but he could recall all the shipmates he served with during World War II. He was 19 when he crossed the Pacific on an oceangoing tug. He nav- igated by sextant, boxed with fellow sailors, and off Okinawa fired his sidearm at a kamikaze. He sailed into Hiroshima Bay two months after the atomic bomb and saw the starkest consequences of men at war, an experience that inspired him to compose a poem that was published in October 1945 in the New York Herald Tribune. It earned him $12, his first wages in a long career as a writ- er. Protect. Provide. I found a photocopy of the check in his files after he died. Absent rituals, I think manhood in my family must be a code of values, transmitted mostly by example. My father once explained to one of my college roommates, whose family had a ranch in Wyoming, why he didn’t need a gun to protect his family. In a line that now seems not just the high-water mark of a certain kind of liberal ide- alism but looms as central to my father’s idea of manhood itself, he said: “The day I reach for a gun instead of a lawyer, there will be nothing left to defend.” That seems almost quaint now in an age when man-boys are trotting to class at the Uni- versity of Texas with pistols in their pants. And I wonder if there is a manhood ritual artful enough to convey the values my father saw in the two art- ists who shaped his sensibility—the humorist Robert Benchley and the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong—both of whom he revered for their “humor, decency, and joie de vivre.” I don’t know how useful it is for Oliver to know there are a million definitions of what it means to be a man or that he is free to choose his own, to figure out on his own what it takes for a boy to qualify. I hope he grasps the responsibilities manhood entails and rejects the inequities it per- petuates and understands what part is biology, what part culture, what’s estimable and worth conserving, what cries out for change. I hope he becomes a man however he manages to define it and expects no special dispensation for fulfilling that vision of himself. He too has a bloodline of ancestors, somewhere out there in the dust. He could do worse than to set his compass by the polestar of humor, decency, and joie de vivre. j After the circumcision Sadik’s father offers him a blanket. His transition to manhood is stark: Previously his mother’s child, he is now his father’s son. He will be exempt from household chores and live in his own hut, listening to his father’s advice instead of his grandmother’s stories. Chip Brown wrote about Sherpas in Nepal in the November 2014 Geographic. Pete Muller’s photos of Sierra Leone’s Ebola outbreak are in the July 2015 issue.