“Tell it again,” my son would shout from the back seat, asking for his favorite story, one of the few from my childhood I ever told. Sometimes I would add a detail to fill in a scene or amplify a point, but it was basically the same each time. Sometimes he’d ask me to demonstrate the punch, that stiff-armed windmill angling right to left, the sideways tilt of the fist, slicing awkwardly down. And he would laugh in surprise and delight that such a punch could ever land and that I threw it. I’m not the kind of father who would teach his son to box in the basement or watch mma on Friday nights. But I’m still built like the defensive end I was in college, and though I’ve gained a little weight, I work out each day. My arms and shoulders stretch the fabric of my work shirts and the muscles in my back still fold and flex. I’m vain enough to want to look and feel strong. Because the truth is, I am all bluff. I have thrown two punches in my life, and that was one of them. I know this story makes me a hero to him, that the point about my fear is mostly lost. How I was backed into a corner, how I didn’t have a choice. Not like Eric, who came to my side willingly, insanely driven by some code of loyalty I did not deserve.
Eric and I had only a few years left together. I sometimes wonder if we would have remained friends and if we had, if I might have made different choices, aspired to different things. That was before I found my way to the gym and girls. Back then we were both nerds who liked Doctor Who and Star Wars.
To our surprise, Kozak and Beneventi never killed either of us, though we were certain death waited every day as we left the bus for the five months until summer, lurking behind an open locker, in a boys-room stall or the bus stop. Sometimes I would wake screaming from nightmares of Beneventi and Kozak taking turns punching me bloody in front of the entire school. But the days passed without incident. And when the summer was over, all of them were gone, Eric to private school and Beneventi to Xavarian, a Catholic trade school in Braintree. As for Kozak, his family moved down the road to Canton. I wouldn’t see his face again for two more years.
When I think of them now my memory is kinder to Kozak. Beneventi was vicious, rabid, and skittered through the hallways of our lives, never moving in a straight line, pitching from side to side, pinching girls, knocking books from skinny arms, inflicting pain for its own sake. He liked hurting people and did so randomly. I don’t know what his limits were or if he had them, and when I try to imagine the man he’d become, I shudder for the people in his life: his children, if he had them. What pleasure did the man seek out, what damage did he do once he had access to the weapons and resources of adulthood? I don’t think a kid like that can change. When a child learns to take pleasure in the pain of others, he is close to lost.
Though I didn’t know his family or his life outside school, I imagine much of Beneventi’s need to be a cruel and violent kid stemmed from his need to prove something to himself. We all felt that. Whatever differences I had with the other boys, each one of us was measured, sized up against each other and our fathers and the action heroes we watched on Sunday afternoons – men with guns and blunt-force, monosyllabic names like Clint and Chuck and Bruce, tough guys who drove tough cars, speaking only when they had to. Women and sex were not pursued but part of their environment, their gravity. They were powerful and cool, seething with pheromones. You came to them when you had to, sought them out, or backed away, hid from them in fear, sometimes both. And except for Schwarzenegger or Stallone whose voices we’d mock when headed to the restroom, these men weren’t “ripped” or “jacked.” They had chest hair, grit and scars.
Still, though I was aware of those big-screen gods, I didn’t need them for a model. Mine lived at home. Most memories I have of my father in those days smell like cut grass on a spring morning. They form like puffs of breath in the cold. He is huge, stalking the sideline of a football field or brooding in the dugout, his ice-blue eyes staring under a baseball cap pulled low. He is tense, like a coiled spring, and when a player makes an error or an official a bad call, he explodes, leaping up suddenly to blaspheme like a sailor. “Godddamnit, Jesus Christ, what the hell is wrong with you?” Or he is standing on the pitcher’s mound, flannel sleeves pushed up, darting baseballs toward me in the early April cold. “Head down, Joel, you can’t hit what you can’t see. Come on, stay in there, I’ll only hit you if I want to.”
Or he is standing above me in late autumn. I am lying on my back on the dewy grass at Ames Street playground, strapped loosely into shoulder pads, helmet, football pants. My hands grip the earth. I can feel the other boy’s helmet touching mine, hear his breathing rise and fall, see the gray sky broken into squares by the grid of my face mask. The drill is fairly simple. Two boys, one a blocker, one a tackler, lie down on the ground between two tackling dummies. A runner takes a football five yards back and at the coach’s signal, must run through that corridor. This drill is a one-on-one test of quickness, strength, ferocity. You must scramble to your feet and beat your “man” as the other boys watch, nervous and quiet.
A quick bleat of a whistle, then my father’s voice, starting soft and low. “Down.” Then a bit louder, drawn out slowly. “Set.” What I always remember in that brief pause is terror, fear, shame. How much I hated football. How badly I wanted to get up, walk away, tearing off my uniform as I strode toward the chain link fence, leaving shoulder pads, arm pads, elbow pads behind me in a trail, to swing open the gate and slam it hard behind me in a satisfying clank.
Before each game, from Pop Warner through high school and college, I would throw up in the locker room. It was my ritual, standing over the commode in uniform, helmet tucked beneath my left arm, right hand gripping the top of the stall’s partition. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good. I was fast off the line, undersized for a lineman but explosive, with what a coach would call a good motor. I started on offense and defense in high school, was a captain my senior year, making the Associated Press all-star team that season. But part of what made me good was terror. In that pause between the drawled out “Set” and “Go,” I felt the adrenalin build, spidering along my spine, fanning across my shoulder blades – fight or flight. And despite my fantasies, flight was not an option.
My father was a three-sport athlete in high school and an all-American catcher in college. In the little Massachusetts town where I grew up he was a legend. People loved or hated or feared him, sometimes all at once. Carved into the bathroom stalls in anger that read like lust amid the phone numbers of girls who would do this and the names of boys who liked that, I’d read my father’s name etched into the metal in rust: “Joel Peckham sucks! Fuck Joel Peckham!” I loved my father, but I got it. He wasn’t a man you “liked” and he didn’t seem to care very much. He once told me, “If everybody likes you, you probably have no character” – still, I believe, one of the wisest sentences ever spoken. He had no patience for people who chose to do the wrong thing when right was clear. And for him, it was mostly clear. He inspired strong reactions. With jet-black hair, a square chin, and a presence that could push air out of a room, he seemed larger than he was, too large to be a high school guidance counselor and baseball coach. Even when he was assisting someone else – offensive coordinator for the football team or jv basketball – he seemed outsized, like a very large man forced into a skinny suit. When those teams didn’t win, anonymous letters would come in saying he should take over. It sometimes hurt his friendships.
To his credit, my father was not self-consciously macho. A trained counselor who read poetry and who drove through the 1970s in a VW bus with an enormous sunflower decal on the side, he never seemed to need to prove his manhood or pressure others to do so. Though he could be brutally harsh on his players, I can’t remember him ever emasculating them. Unlike my other football and baseball coaches growing up, he never told a child that he threw or hit “like a girl,” never called anyone a “pussy,” “homo,” or “fag.”
There were no shortcuts with my father. Where other boys could prove their manhood by hitting the gym and working their abs, lying about sexual adventures, telling dirty jokes in the locker room or by ruining someone’s dental work in the visitors parking lot opposite the high school, I had to live up to something more abstract and complex, something bound up in concepts of power that involved visceral sexual appeal but also intelligence, raw emotion and emotional restraint.
My father combined a potent combination of explosive anger and tenderness. What mattered to him wasn’t about being a man, but being a Peckham, being part of his family, living up to the expectations he set for himself and for us.
I often think my image of him, the myth of my father, was driven as much by those around me as by anything I saw in him. The image of my father as a man, as “The Man,” like all images, was based on what people saw in the glimpses they caught in the high school corridors and on ball fields. Images and symbols are representative though, and as such they both expand and reduce their subjects. When a man comes to represent something, he immediately grows in stature, becoming an object of lust or fear, admiration or envy. But he also shrinks, his personality simplified for easy definition and use, a cartoon of himself, reduced to his most repeatable characteristics – a steady gaze, a lifted chin, a slow swagger, shoulders squared.
My best friend, Neil, loved to impersonate his tilt of the head when he talked, his wide kick of the infield dirt when angry, his heavy Boston accent: “Jeeeeeesuz Joel, what the hell ah yah doin’?” And I laughed with them, at him, but uncomfortably. As much as I told everyone who would listen that I was “nothing like my father,” and to stop calling me “Jo Jo,” short for Joel Jr. (“Joel, it’s Joel”), I secretly enjoyed being a junior, being this man’s son, The Man’s son.
Even when I try to focus on the complicated, fragile elements of his personality, I feel myself watching him as if he were in a scene from an old noir film. Identity slips and changes, not over time, but in a moment, like a halfback turning on a dime. And masculinity as a concept, as cultural currency, as a way of understanding how boys and men should find their way through the world, is fluid and messy while seeming, at the same time, rigid and inescapable. There’s little evidence to prove any biological basis for traits we often identify as masculine, but masculinity feels essential to the person experiencing it even as he struggles after its unattainability. Certainly it seems obvious that the fact of male biology – the testosterone, the adrenaline rushes, the requirement of penetration to achieve sexual intercourse, the phallus etc. – all seem to naturally lead to traits of strength, power, violence and anger. But I’m always nervous about things that seem, ideas that move from assumption to assumption with only the appearance of reason and logic. It’s an unsafe structure on which to build a man.
What I as a heterosexual white American male can say about masculinity, is that the ideal man is a myth we create and recreate every day out of our fathers, celebrities, leaders, the very language we use. We construct the concept through association and opposition. What’s not feminine (read soft, weak), and what is most like the powerful and attractive men we see or know at any point in time, is masculine. So masculinity is mythological, which is not to say that it is in any way unreal – any more than my image of father was unreal. When I say that, I feel sorry for him. It must be exhausting to have a real, flawed, human being under all of that.
Sometimes I believe we’re all animals trying to be human, expected to be angels. The few who are asked to be gods bear a heavy burden. For psychological purposes the myth is real in the same way hope, longing, love and greed are real. It operates as a fundamental part of our psychology, as part of what we want, and know we are supposed to want, have, and be.
Originally published on Heart of a Man
Read part 1 here
Part 3 coming soon
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