A missionary growing his first chin hairs comes face to face with revolutionary soldiers in the Dominican Republic.
The summer after my freshman year in high school I was able to grow my first bit of facial hair—perceiving it as a true sign of masculinity—while in the Dominican Republic during an attempted coup d’état. While the coup had very little to do with my chin hairs, the timing of the adventure challenged my notions of manhood.
I was part of a church missions trip, whose intention was to build a church or at least a community house structure of sorts in the middle of one of the poorer places in the Dominican mountains—the same mountains where Ché Guevara and Fidel Castro trained their men to prepare for the overthrow of Cuba’s Batista government. We flew into Miami for a night to meet with all the other bands of mission-oriented groups coming from New Jersey, North Carolina, Holland, and of course, our crew from Texas.
Through a bedding miscalculation I was roomed with the gang from New Jersey—a group of decent men who were every bit the stereotypes given me by the likes of “Saturday Night Live” and “Welcome Back Kotter.” In turn, they asked if I rode a horse to school, as if that was how we all got around in Texas. (This was before the Internet and the information surplus.) We stayed up much later than I wanted to in order to watch Mike Tyson knock out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds, perpetuating my confusion as to why men watch boxing in the first place. So much talk and build up for such a non-event.
The next day we took off for the Dominican Republic only to be redirected to Puerto Rico to wait out the coup for six hours. When we finally landed, tanks were on the edge of the runway and soldiers in camo with all kinds of heavy firearms guarded every doorway or gate. It looked just like it does on TV, only without the dramatic commentary. Just a silent tension. And many of these soldiers didn’t look much older than myself, but I was under the impression they had to act like men even if they didn’t feel like that way.
As we drove out of the capital and into the mountains along potholed roads, passed repeatedly by fast moving, overloaded minivans, there was the occasional soldier with an automatic rifle slung over his soldier, glaring at our busload of white people. At one intersection, a soldier said to me, caressing his AK-47, “Go home, American. Why you here?” A question I felt far too young to answer in more ways than just literal.
Our days were spent mixing cement and placing cinder blocks or hosting a day-care of sorts for kids that burned most of their time running around the village, half-shirtless looking for entertainment or making their own. In essence, not much different than myself back home, just a year or two earlier. For whatever tough skin they attempted to wear—puffing out ribs or picking fights with one another—they were still little boys looking for someone to notice them. And maybe that wasn’t too far off from what I was attempting to do with growing a goatee.
The reality of my life at the time—beyond the adventures of international travel, culture shock, jungle-like humidity, dehydrated milk and cold showers—was one filled with every drop of lost, teen-angst we associate with puberty. Earlier in the year I had considered the peace that would come with taking my own life, stepping off the carousel. To add to the mix, my parents were divorced—with dad moving away to the other side of the country—and I was pretty much on my own even though I had a brother right there with me in the Dominican.
I wasn’t ready to grow up, but I was having to faster than most of my friends. While I could outwardly joke that the scruff on my chin was there because I just didn’t like shaving, inwardly I was hoping it would give me some external credibility for the growing older that was taking place on the inside. I wanted to be noticed for all that I was navigating, that felt like the stuff of adulthood.
When we landed back in Texas, each of our parents gave sly commentary about the “dirt on our chins.” We were not taken seriously and propriety guaranteed we would all be clean-faced by the following morning. Most parents hugged a little longer, squeezing out the fears they lived with upon hearing about the coup.
Even though no one seem to see, I was sure I had moved one step closer into manhood. It wasn’t the hair on my chin that gave credence. I had the chance to see what others thought it took to be a man—guns, boxing, street fights on red clay—and none of those had any resonance. Growing up was going to take a lot more unseen work than I would wish. I was only beginning to learn the truth of what Richard Rohr meant when he said, “We don’t get to the Second Half of life without major shadowboxing”—that somewhere on the other side of the darkness was the place where boys are men.
These days I grow a beard every autumn to keep my face from freezing through the cold and snow of winter. I may be compensating for the lack of hair on my head or just lazy. The questions I was trying to answer externally back when the peach skin turned to real whiskers, I found through the quieter, difficult journey inside; the place where the coups d’état are more about overthrow of my adolescent ego, thus ushering in the kind of revolutions that make for authentic humanity. It seems puberty is less about the hair one can grow, or the octave drop in a voice and increase in libido. While important aspects of growing older, they aren’t signs of growing up.
Image credit: Angel Ramos G./Flickr