There is no defining moment of manhood’s arrival; it is a lifelong evolvement. 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. Beyond the early 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 nine years old, we led physical, out-on-the-streets lives: playing stick ball 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 bikes, 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, fifty to a side; busting things up not meaning to – sometimes meaning to; 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 the tracks and bumping over the cross ties, dodging freight trains as they rolled in (talk about stupid); calling up to the engineer to throw us down a fusee (a flare), lighting that fusee, running like hell; playing hockey on a thinly iced pond miles out of town with no one else around.
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. The masculinity that has evolved over two-hunderd thousand years is so embedded in our genes, so part of our psyches, minds, and cultures, that we’re largely unaware of 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 an elder man (or men) guides him through a potentially lethal trial.2 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 you’re about to read. You’ll see the boy’s removal to a sacred place, his leap into a pen of potential death, his metamorphosis into manhood, his welcoming by the tribe at large and by women in particular.
We can think of passages as turnstiles of relationships and experiences that mark the man: his father, who he chooses for friends, his first competitive sport, first fight, first dance, first girl, first intimacy, young love, marriage – sometimes divorce – his woman’s first pregnancy, fatherhood, job, military service. You’ll witness some of these passages in these chapters.
It’s not scarring initiations that are missed. It is elder guides who are rarely in place for the boy during these passages: good men ready to advise the youngster on his voyage to manhood. I’d imagine most Western 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 various strengths. Every day he is becoming a man.
You’re about to read of David L. Walker’s bare-knuckle fistfight, Scott Hutchinson’s farm baptism – a trial by anvil and water – and Joe Armstrong’s initiation by gun and knife. Don Doyle recalls his shotgun passage, and Julius Lester his painful journey as a bookish youngster.
You may be entering unknown territory in this section. There’s guy-stuff here … rough and tumbled.