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The Making of Men


By: Bill McFadyen

          My favorite wake-up call in the pre-dawn comes by text from my swell pal about 10 minutes before my alarm goes off. I already tumble between sleep and consciousness, having looked at the time thrice in the last two hours out of fear of oversleeping. So the text ding jars me up in bed, grabbing for the phone as if something is wrong. The message is short with the intent of driving me into the dark-before-dawn, bound for some prearranged destination: “It’s a man’s morning!”

          My male peer group has had about 35 years to accomplish being a man. Some golf. Some hunt and fish. Some run marathons. Some do all of that and more. Some just watch television. Most have sired children, which is pretty easy actually. The ones endeared to truly hard work take a serious role in guiding that offspring into adulthood. The sorry ones adopt the easy work and just sire more.

          Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio has become my favorite social commentator. He said recently, while disparaging Johnny Football’s entourage, that men tend to hang out with versions of themselves. So most of the guys with whom I regularly consort know from one day to the next what their children are doing and most of them require at least tacit endorsement of those adolescent activities Since this is CityView’s “Be a Man” edition, I confine my parenting corollary to making men of boys.  (Blessed with a daughter, too, I save that musing for the issue on “Perseverance through Confusion and Self-Doubt”).

          My first ideas for becoming a man came from the pages of a book.  The Old Man and the Boy, a Carolina classic, by Southport-native Robert Ruark, compiled in 1953 from magazine articles about his young life in and around the briny water at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. As “the Boy” in the story, Robert Ruark had my help reeling in every fish, pulling every trigger, training every bird dog and eating every meal. I had two “Old Men” in my life at that point, showing me how to do those kinds of things. One of them was dying. The other came out to admire my garden just days ago.

          When I finished the book, I started it over again. There is no tally of the times I have picked it up since then. Before Granddaddy died, I wrote a report on the book for Miss Gay Watson, my junior high English teacher.  She sent it in to the Board of Education for a creative writing contest. It was my first published article, I suppose. The mass production of it was probably on one of those hand-cranked mimeograph machines in some teacher’s lounge, one of the ones with the blue ink that ran all over everything when you changed the paper on the drum. That compilation of young local authors made its way into my mom’s hands somehow in May of 1974, just about a week after Granddaddy was buried. I think my brother read my thesis aloud at the first family gathering after the funeral. 

          A framed edition of that book report stayed on Mom’s wall wherever she lived thereafter. In 1991, she brought it to my newly acquired home on Middle Road. It hangs there still.

          No doubt, I wanted to be the kind of man that young Robert was becoming in the book. I saw romance and self-gratification in catching fish from small boats, having my own bird dog, creeping out of the house early on cold morning, cooking what I killed. I have done and still do all those things.

          Eventually, we boys are turned loose upon the world, free from the watchful eyes of our Old Men. It takes so very little to ruin ones self when the Old Men are not watching. My hero, Robert Ruark, drank himself to death. He might not have called it tragic, as he had been all over the world doing things he wanted to do all along the way. It was tragic to me, though, for all the lost words he could have written in his sixties and seventies.

          The realization came at some point that the true hero, the real man, in that book was the Old Man, Cap’n Adkins. He was the teacher, the imparter of wisdom, the disciplinarian and the doer of the truly hard work.

          Thus, it occurs to me that my like-minded entourage and I have progressed to the point in life of being the Old Men. It matters far less now as to whether we win the next law suit or close the next the real estate transaction or develop the next piece of land. We receive far more scrutiny (as well we should) based on the job we do in the time after the siring of the offspring and before loosing these boys upon society. In the context of having children, X or Y chromosome children, the true test of manhood is the job we do in turning them over to the world.

          The success and failure of parenting is mostly in direct proportion to the amount of time we spend doing it.

          That surviving Old Man of mine that drove out to see my garden the other day is the last adult in my life who sees me as a child.  Only through his eyes now, am I “the Boy.” He sees me as smallish enough to not impede progress in the bow of the boat over all the waters we paddle and as his bird dog in that rainy dove field near Westover School where now so many houses stand. Only he sees me as the kid fumbling to tie a blood knot. Only he sees me shouldering an Ithaca .28 gauge, not because I so love the particular bore now, but because a .20 gauge is still too big for me.  In his eyes, I am eternally young.

          Thank God for the hard work of parenting. Praises for all the true guardians of our children. It is work far more joyous than arduous and it spawns indescribable love. Still, in those times that we men dream our dreams, we don’t really want to be better men. What we really want to be, even for just a day, is “the Boy.”