Boy-to-man starts with physical changes: the youngster’s body begins to muscle up and grow hair; his voice breaks in public one afternoon, embarrassing him; he may experience a growth spurt that makes him uncoordinated for a while; his beard starts growing. But beyond the physical changes that arrive imperceptibly, a boy’s road to manhood will see a lifetime of passages, tests, competitions, and perhaps, initiations and battles.
The journey turns hazardous while he’s a boy, an out-of-control period in most men’s lives. My friends and I put ourselves in jeopardy every day with risky behavior. From the time we were seven years old, we led physical, out-on-the-streets lives: playing stickball in vacant lots, roller hockey on busy streets, football with older, bigger, merciless guys – games that sent us home limping, bruised, and beat up; tearing around the neighborhood on bicycles, dodging traffic; climbing to the tops of decrepit, abandoned buildings, picking up dirty lumber, linoleum, nails, and tiles, cutting our hands, getting stitches and tetanus shots; running, leaping, falling down hard; staging snowball fights between gangs of kids, twenty-five to a side; busting things up not meaning to – sometimes meaning to; playing hockey on a thinly iced pond miles out of town with no one else around; getting chased by a pissed-off trucker after we’d pelted his rig with snowballs – “Hey mister, we’re only kids,” we yelled back at him as we ran; breaking up pumpkins on Halloween and getting caught by the cops; bicycling to the train yard, jumping inside the tracks and bumping over the cross ties, dodging freight trains as they rolled in – talk about stupid! – jumping back out, calling up to the engineer to throw us down a fusee, lighting that fusee, running like hell.
We sustained injuries in some of these escapades, and others could have killed us, though I’m sure our lives were low-risk compared to those of many other boys. Testing of strength and endurance, taking risks, running your body ragged – these are the boy’s life. Our masculinity starts at this young age, and has evolved over millions of years, imprinted in our genes, psyches and minds. I feel it.
As a male navigates manhood, he faces passages and perhaps, initiations. An initiation is a life-threatening trial the boy must pass to be welcomed into adulthood by his people. Traditionally, it has three parts. First, he is separated from the group, especially from women, and taken to a sacred place where one or more elder men guide him through a potentially lethal trial. If he passes, he experiences a spiritual death and birth: a boy dies; a man is born. Finally, this new soul is reintegrated with the group and allowed to take a wife.
America has a few of these life-threatening initiations, many taking place in the country, as we’re about to read. In “Bully Battle,” we’ll watch David L. Walker’s left jab-right cross combination launch him into manhood, and witness his acknowledgment by the tribe at large and a woman in particular. In Scott T. Hutchison’s “Farm Baptism,” we’ll see the boy’s trial by steel, his removal to a men’s sacred place, a trial by water, and his reintegration into two tribes. Joe E Armstrong leaps into a pen of potential death in “Hog Killing,” sticking knife in his hand. It’s a story that takes place across the globe.
We can think of passages as turnstiles of relationships and experiences that mark the man as he passes through them: his father, who he chooses for friends, his first competitive sport, first fight, first dance, first girl, first intimacy, young love, marriage, maybe divorces, his woman’s first pregnancy, fatherhood, job, military service. Passages blanket this anthology.
In this section, Don Doyle’s “Am I A Man Yet?” tells of a father’s planned passage for his son that misfires. As both a boy, when the action takes place, and in later life, Doyle shows insight into his father, a man different from himself.
In “Being a Boy,” Julius Lester recalls his painful passage as a bookish youngster running a gauntlet of agonies and beatings.
It’s not scarring initiations that are missed; boy can become man without having to survive a life-threatening initiation. It’s in guidance through tricky passages, some arriving suddenly, that a boy needs the help from an older brother, friend, uncle or other good man ready to advise the youngster. But elder guides are not always at hand during these passages. I imagine most men miss this at points in their lives.
The journey through manhood never ends. Every day of a guy’s life sees tests of his skills and strengths. Every day his manhood evolves.
These are stories of boy as he passes to man …
rough and tumbled.