The Hero in Each of Us

There comes a moment when our very manhood is up for grabs.

For each of us there comes a week, a day, an hour, a moment when our very manhood is up for grabs. In all our lives, there is that morning when we wake up, stare into the mirror, and have no idea who the fuck is looking back at us. In this moment we realize that the rules we’ve been playing by no longer apply.

For some, this moment arrives as a result of our own of mistakes, landing us in jail or on the curb (that would be me); others stumble into them by pure luck, whether by grace or calamity.

These defining moments that have always fascinated me. When I hear another man tell me, candidly, about the time in his life when the chips were down, when he had to rebuild himself from the ground up, it strips away differences in color, sexual orientation, and background. All that matters is courage.

I have often said that the Good Men Project is purely selfish on my part. I get to hang out with and write about men who have become my personal heroes. Some in their everyday lives, others for the more monumental tasks of things like risking their lives to show the world the truth of war through pictures or change the prison system from the inside out.  But whether its watching a father die, or taking in a long lost daughter, or learning Karate to survive and ending up a Hall of Fame football player, these men, and countless others like them who I have met as part of this journey, are my heroes.

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Despite our disagreements, my mom and I were tight, and we became drinking buddies when I was about fifteen. She’d take me over to the Ground Round or the Ninety-Nine, and we’d hang out and drink and eat potato skins. Going to bars with my mother was a nightmare, though, because the minute we’d walk in, there’d invariably be some guy checking her out—some tough guy usually, some really drunk tough guy. And she’d look right at him and say, “What the fuck are you looking at?” I’d apologize and laugh sheepishly, and then, under my breath, I’d say, “Mom, leave it alone.” But she’d ignore me and keep at the guy.

“Yeah, you, tough guy, I’m talking to you! You got a problem?” Usually the guys knew her, and they would laugh, and often they’d even buy her drinks. But sometimes we’d run into a guy who took offense and wanted a fight—not with her, mind you, with me. It was a familiar feeling for me, being stuck in the middle of a fight.

—Kent George, “Fight or Flight”

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The moment for me was when I pulled the trigger on a BB gun in a friend’s back yard in winter. I was around 12 or so. We were having fun aiming at chickadees or titmice in a tree and on a clothesline. I hit one. The little ball of feathers fell to the ground fluttering. Blood and tufts of down spread on the snow. I realized that actions have consequences in a way I hadn’t fully appreciated until then. I’m not against hunting, but—again—that was the first time I realized the power of humans over the other inhabitants of this little blue dot.

—Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth Blog, NYTimes.com

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I started thinking about what I could do even while I was still in prison. Sing Sing is all long-timers, lifers, gangbangers, so there’s constant violence. When somebody’s going to be stabbed, you move out of the way. You don’t want to get any blood on you because if you do, you have two options: talk and then get killed by another inmate, or be put in the box for not talking. So when someone was stabbed, you didn’t react with concern for this other human being.

One day, after I started going to the seminary, I was walking toward the chapel when up ahead of me a guy got stabbed really badly. Everybody just kept walking. “It ain’t none of your business,” someone said. Guys were jumping over the body and the pool of blood. When I got to the man he was bleeding out onto the floor and, I swear to God, I could not walk over that blood. It was like something was pushing me to look at this man, look at what was happening here. Guys were like, “Yo! Yo!” But I could not move. All I could do was say, “This shit has to stop.”

The guys looked at me like I was crazy; at one time I was involved in half the stabbings at the prison. They started swearing at me, saying,“What the hell are you talking about?” I said it again: “This just has to stop, man. We have to stop killing one another.”

Everything changed for me at that moment. Finances didn’t matter anymore. It didn’t matter if I traveled around the country, or if I could do whatever. It didn’t matter. It was like, how do I not help people? How do I not stop and look at the humanity in each person, man? How do I recognize that these are all God’s children, man? And how do we become part of that human family so that we don’t kill each other?

I got the guy up off the ground and got his blood spattered all over me. The guards came running to us and got me out of the way. They didn’t question me because they saw what I had done. They thought I was crazy for helping this guy.

—Julio Medina, “Blood-Spattered”

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I got married young, at 20. So I was a dad at 22. I did the expectant-parents classes with my wife. And I was in the delivery room when my son was born. But after 13 hours of labor, I was so exhausted I remember very little about that day. What I do remember was when my wife and son came home, my mother-in-law was there. She came to help. And she and I were standing there in the kitchen when she looks at me and says, “So, you think you a man now?”

—Rodney A. Brooks, Deputy Managing Editor, USAToday

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I never set out to cover wars. I saved some money and went to art school in New York to be a fine-art photographer. My daughter and her mom stayed behind in New Jersey. I dropped out of school when the money ran out, and I started trying to make it as a photojournalist. I worked construction during the week, then shot on the streets of New York at night and on weekends, peddling pictures to the wire services for 25 dollars apiece.

In 1987, when I was 24, a friend was going to Haiti to cover the first election after the fall of “Baby Doc” Duvalier and invited me along. A community newspaper in New York gave me credentials and a promise to give my work a look when I returned.

There were no battle lines, no armies in uniforms. On a steaming November morning, I found myself in a room full of women and girls who’d been hacked to death with machetes by Duvalier’s thugs.

Later that morning, those thugs, the Tonton Macoutes, caught me out in the street, photographing a fresh corpse like it was some sort of anthropological experiment …

A few minutes ago, this man was alive, breathing, going home to his family, working on his dreams for tomorrow. Now he lay dead on the pavement. I wanted to know why. I thought my camera might reveal an answer, but I had lingered too long. The killers trained their guns on me, talked for a moment, and then drove away. Other journalists were killed that day. I was spared. For days afterward I shook so badly I couldn’t pick up a glass of water; sleep eluded me for months.

I’ve covered a dozen wars since then. I manage it better now, but that feeling of absolute, heart-pounding terror never goes away. In Iraq, near An Nasiriyah or Mosul, we would drive down a dirt road where, a day or two before, a Humvee had blown up; we would see bodies being carried out in small pieces. You knew the insurgents had been out at night setting new IEDs—improvised explosive devices—and so you’d sweat and clench and swear you’ll never do this again. If you can just make it through this time, you promise, you’ll never come back. Then you turn around and do it again the next day or the next week, and you can’t explain why.

Some men think it’s bravery. John Burns, the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times, once told me that much of what is termed bravery is simply men being too obstinate, or too dumb, to understand their own mortality. I don’t know what it is for me, but I sometimes feel as if I’m standing on a beach and there are waves smothering me—waves of advertisements for shit I don’t need, of profiles of people who’ve never done anything except be famous, of politicians mouthing platitudes, of hundreds of TV channels showing nothing. And sometimes I can take one picture that lets me grab onto something real in this world.

—Michael Kamber, “Shooting the Truth”

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There was a karate school in my neighborhood. I always wanted to go in, but Mom would never give me the money. I didn’t realize she couldn’t afford the 25 dollars a month it cost for lessons, not if she wanted to feed us and put clothes on our backs. Finally, when I was eleven, I learned that the Boys & Girls Club was holding karate classes. That’s where it all started for me. I learned a lot about self-defense, and I competed in a lot of tournaments. Even though I started just to protect myself, I learned to love martial arts. Mom gave me the discipline, but karate gave me more structure. It gave me something to look forward to. It was something that I could call my own.

A core idea of martial arts is something called “beginner’s mind.” I’ve been doing karate for over 30 years now, but I’m still a beginner. You should never think your ranking is so high that there’s nothing more for you to learn. If you do get to that point, you should find something else to do with your life. No matter how high your ranking, you always want to keep a beginner’s mind. If you do that, there’s nothing that you can’t achieve in martial arts and through your training.

Having a beginner’s mind means that you’re open to new ideas. No matter how good you are, no matter how strong and fast you get, no matter how good people tell you that you are, you have to want to continue to train and to get better. You have to have the eagerness—and you can’t let preconceptions come into your thought process. Those are the keys to being an athlete and a martial artist.

—Andre Tippett, “Heart of a Beginner”

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My parents adopted Wendy from an orphanage in Korea in 1959, when she was 6 months old. I was adopted in 1966 after spending the first two years of my life in an orphanage in Albany.

My first memory is of the night I was adopted. My new family and I were in a hotel room, and I became tremendously ill from the chocolate the nuns at the orphanage had given me as a gift. I woke up several times in the middle of the night to throw up more violently than I ever have since. After one of these episodes I lay down in my bed and realized someone was sleeping next to me: Wendy.

As a young woman, Wendy was smart, very funny, and almost always kind. She did not have the physical courage of an athlete; she had the moral courage of a leader. To her family she was everything; to the rest of the world she was nothing. She bore this burden with unimpeachable courage and integrity. There was never a moment when I did not want to impress her.

At the funeral home, I stole a moment to be alone by Wendy’s open casket. I did not know what I wanted from her. I touched her hand, refusing to accept what it meant that her hand was cold. I knelt to tell her how much I loved her, but anger overtook me, and instead I told her, “I will not die this way.” In that moment, I began living sober.

Living sober has meant remaining steadfast in the belief that our lives have a purpose, a destiny. Twelve years after Wendy’s death I saw my daughter’s head, then her face, and then her hands, and finally and miraculously her whole body emerge from her mother’s womb and into the world.

—Rolf Gates, “A Death and a Birth”

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In July air thick as soup but clear as cold water, I step hard on a spade’s edge and push it into Iowa’s rich, black dirt. Setting a tetherball court will be tougher than I had thought.

My back reminds me why I have made a life in which I work with my mind. I wipe my face with the red bandanna I have tied at my throat. I am shirtless, 37, wearing blue running shorts and cheap nylon running shoes.

Yards from me, on the cracked driveway, I’ve stacked three bags of concrete mix in a squat pyramid. I realize I have purchased enough mix to set the landing strip for an F-14 fighter jet. Sweat burns my eyes. The hole grows to a foot deep and twice as much across. My kid needs stability.

She is 8 years old, and she is coming to live with me. I am terrified.

Perspiration flows in rivulets down my forearms. Once my terrycloth tennis wristlets are saturated, the shovel handle becomes slick. A blister rises on my thumb; another swells across my palm. My hands are the soft hands of a writer who teaches.

I hold the short stub of the tetherball post erect while the concrete base hardens. The post base is actually a short length of pipe. I prop it straight with a few bricks. The next morning, after I set the kit’s five-foot pole onto the base, I tie a clothesline rope to the post top and attach the tetherball to the other end of the line. Then I run at the post, hitting it as if it were a tackling dummy. It bends, then springs erect.

In such ways, I make myself ready.

—Perry Glasser, “Iowa Black Dirt”

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Who does history commemorate if not those men most effective at marshaling their aggression to shape the world? Do we ever outgrow our savagery? Is there any way to strip from us the masculine pathologies acquired over millions of years of evolution?

Let me put all this in a more personal light: How am I to protect my son from a world that lives inside of me?

I have plenty of fancy ideas about how this might happen, about what it means to be a good man, and I’ve spent many years trying to publicize my own glowing empathy. But the truth is, I remain a prisoner of terror and rage, one minute puffing out my chest, the next cowering, dreaming of a power that resides in valor, in the ability to inflict physical harm. It’s horrible who I am.

So now you know why I feared having a son, and why, when I gaze down at my newborn boy sleeping—he is 3 days old as I write this—I am sometimes filled with dread. I offer no happy ending here, no 11th-hour homily about the rescuing powers of forgiveness. A quick look at the state of the world should dispel such mush. All I can say is that I’ll do my best with the love I have. I’ll hope my boy becomes someone different from his father, braver in the right ways, less frightened. This, it seems to me, is the only reasonable hope fathers can offer their sons.

—Steve Almond, “Here’s the Bad News, Son”

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As a dad, I was above average. Unlike lots of other guys, I stayed around. I cared, got involved, and gave it my best. So what did it get me? A silent house, tears on my pillow, and a heart that felt hollow for a long time.

What happened? My children grew up.

—Stephen Karl Klotz, “Graduation Day”

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David had a wonderful artistic sensibility. He pursued photography and went to Hawaii to work on his craft. He returned to Boston two years later, landing at my apartment and talking about a show he hoped to have presented in Provincetown through a connection he had made with Diane Arbus’s daughter. I never knew if he was telling the truth about the show, but within 48 hours he was driving me crazy, bringing people home at all hours of the night. Wendy had bought a tiny, two-bedroom shack on Plum Island, about an hour away on the North Shore of Massachusetts, so I told David to go there and stay for a while.

A couple of days later, I was shopping at the mall next to my apartment when I bumped into Wendy. She was on her way to lunch with a friend. We said hello to each other and went our separate ways. Then my cell phone rang, and it was Michael, my younger son. He had gone up to Plum Island to see David and found him in bed, not moving.

I found Wendy at the restaurant, and we drove to the shack. When we arrived, police cars were parked outside. We would learn that David had died of an overdose of prescription drugs. He didn’t leave a note. I went into the shack and opened the door to the bedroom where David was. But I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t bear seeing him dead. So I closed my eyes and shut the door.

—Norm Appel, “Plum Island”

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Busking is a genuine artistic experience. No gatekeepers determine whether you’re good enough; the audience does. People either dropped money into our guitar case or they didn’t. Some, like the crowd outside Fenway Park, were surly and drunk and not into having their hearts moved by a young girl. Others were encouraging, like the woman who told Fifer, “Jesus loves you, honey.” Fife turned to me, and, without a trace of irony, said, “That’s so nice!”

We had hecklers. My ex–business partner said, “You’re teaching your kid to beg, huh?” But in what other job can an 8-year-old make over $300 in one summer? Fifer gave some of the money she made to charity, and she put some in the bank for a car, but then she bought herself a powder-blue iPod Nano for which I paid only the tax. It was a proud moment in my parenting career.

We didn’t do it for the money, of course. There were times when we would be walking to our spot, and one of us would freak out a little and ask, “Why are we doing this again?” And the other one would respond with what became our mantra: “To face our fears!” We did it for that moment after we had set up our music stands, when we had taken a deep breath and were looking around for a sign that we knew wasn’t going to come from anywhere but inside us. And then we would start.

—Stuart Horwitz, “The Act You’ve Known for All These Years”

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For the first three months I was in the Peace Corps, I lived with a host family in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Then one day a Peace Corps official told me, “We’re proud of you. You made it to your three months. You’re now fluent in Russian and Mongolian. We think you know how to survive. So here’s $200, here’s the city you’re going to be in, and here’s your apartment. We’ll see you next year.” Or words to that effect.

Bulgan was in the middle of a country on the other side of the world with a culture I still knew nothing about. A lot of people had a postcard image of what their Peace Corps experience would be like, and when it wasn’t like that, they crumbled; they gave up. I didn’t give up.

I lived in a Soviet-era apartment. It was a couple hundred square feet and made of concrete, which was constantly crumbling. I had a toilet but no hot water. I had to wash clothes by hand. I didn’t have a refrigerator for two years. During the winter, I would buy extra meat at the market—they would kill the food right in front of you and then give you your slab—and I’d put plastic wrap all over it and then hang it outside and let it freeze. By December, the whole country was a freezer.

My first day in Bulgan, I watched the TV that the Peace Corps had given me. It was small and old, and the one channel that came in consistently showed nothing but European fashion programs. I hadn’t showered for two weeks and I felt like shit, but I could watch Italian supermodels all day. I watched the TV because it was the only way I could hear English and listen to music I recognized.

—Curtis B., “Khan Without the Wrath”

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As the weeks and months passed, the man I called Dad steadily disappeared down a very long tunnel. Like so many people with dementia, he periodically would manage to rally and reemerge, as if to say, “What’s wrong here? I’m giving this the fight of my life, but it’s not working.” He went from being 6′ 3″ and more than 225 pounds to not much more than skin and bones, a shadow of a man, fueled mainly by chocolate milkshakes and delirious daydreams of when he would see his girlfriend next and maybe, just maybe, get to go home with her to stay. And all the while, the strangest goddamn thing was happening: the motherfucker was gaining grace, integrity, and even character by virtue of his will to endure.

—Paul Furtaw, “The Most Normal Thing”

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For many years, because he is who he is and I am who I am, I was not even aware that I never had told my father I love him. I want to tell him now, but it has taken me weeks to get around to it. I want to say it so it stays said. I want it to be final.

I have put it off until the last minute of this trip home to Helena, Montana, until this morning, as I am about to get on a plane. It is early, and we hang around, waiting for my flight to be called. We look at our shoes and chat. I know Dad is happy that I have taken an interest in him, in his history and in Butte, where he grew up. We talk about his name, about how nobody in Butte ever called anybody by their real name. So, instead of John, he was always Skeff, after the Irish patriot. Somehow he is Skeff more than Dad when he tells me more funny stories about Butte, about his life as a lawyer, about his father, Con. I try to tell some funny stories, too. We are laughing when I hear the voice on the speaker announcing my flight. Time to go. Looking at my shoes, I tell Dad I’d better get moving. He reaches out with his right hand, his good hand. I shake it, and when I pull my hand away there is a 50-dollar bill in it. “Spend it on Jill,” he says. I nod; Jill is my wife. “I will.”

As he walks away I think it is now or never. I shout after him. It’s louder than I’d planned, more awkward than I’d hoped. “Dad!” I shout.

“Dad! I love you!” He turns only half around, and when he does he stumbles a little bit. For just part of a second, for just long enough for me to register the image, Skeff looks like an old man. But then he doesn’t anymore, and he smiles, and he is still smiling and already turning away when he replies, “Thanks.”

—John Sheehy, “Skeff”

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Early one morning she leaned over to me, and with tears in her eyes she said, “I love you so very much.” We kissed. She wanted to apologize for whatever she thought she might have done wrong in the 35 years we’d spent together. There was nothing to apologize for.

We sat in silence for a long time, and then she wanted to talk about my future, telling me that I should date, get remarried, go on with life. I didn’t want to talk about those things.

A week later, one brilliantly sunny January afternoon, I was sitting beside Pat, not really paying attention, looking up at a frozen, crystal blue sky, when she took her last breath. Her breathing had always been quiet, but at that instant there was silence, and I knew she was gone. I had thought I would be prepared for this, that I was in control, that I would be OK. But that final moment is as vivid today as it was almost 17 years ago. That silence was the loudest sound I have ever heard.

I held Pat’s hand for a while before finally getting up and kissing her warm face.

—Joe D’Arrigo, “Silence”

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You haven’t read the book yet? Seriously? No time like the present.

Check out the rest of our “Men and Heroism” section.

The “Men and Heroism” section was run and edited by Dave Kaiser.

—Photo by Cheryl VanStane/flickr

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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. Valter Viglietti says:

    @Tom Matlack: “these men […] are my heroes.”

    And you are my hero, Tom.
    For creating and assembling such a powerful and moving and meaningful place like this one.
    Sometimes a hero is someone who gives his very best to improve the world.
    Thank you very much.

  2. I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the structure of your website?

    Its very well written; I love what youve got
    to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with
    it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only
    having one or two images. Maybe you could space it out better?

Trackbacks

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