The search for manhood is like climbing a cliff to jump into a lake, going up is easy, but it’s a long way down.
When I was a boy, manhood was a riddle I was hell bent to solve. I knew it smelled like Red Man chewing tobacco and tasted like the beer my father drank. My uncle had rabbit dogs and I figured that was essential, as were pocketknives, overalls, and an exhaust that made the 327 in my father’s ’67 Camaro sound like that engine could rip apart my house with nothing more than its rumbling.
I spent my entire childhood doing the things that I thought men did. I felled trees, built forts, caught lizards, gutted fish, threw knives, smoked cigarettes, and built fires that got the law called. I shot holes in No Trespassing signs, jumped off railroad trestles, and by most accounts did everything I could to get myself killed. Where I grew up, boys never cried. A dare was a dare. We crossed our hearts and hoped to die. There was no place for backing down.
The search for manhood was very much like climbing a cliff to jump into a lake. Going up isn’t bad, but when you get to the edge and your knees are shaking and all you want to do is chicken out, you realize you’ve gone too far to turn back. There’s no way to climb down. All you can do is hurl yourself into the sky and pray to God you hit water.
I look just like my grandfather. That strong chin and nose trickled down through blood, first to my mother then on into me. In the mirror, I see his wiry build, the 6’5” frame that helped him take the Chattanooga Free Press Golden Gloves at 160 pounds in 1940. This is a man who fought in the Second World War, a man who helped build the Blue Ridge Parkway with his bare hands. This is a man I never really knew because he died when I was four. All I remember of him is a single memory, one image that still wakes me from dream: the day he carried snakes.
I couldn’t have been more than two or three years old standing beside my mother at the French doors when I saw my grandfather with the snakes. It was the middle of summer and I remember this because of the sound I hear. Summer in the South has a sound and it’s the drone of heat bugs, the falling cries of cicadas that start off deafening before slowly fading back into silence.
My grandfather had come from the mountains and was standing in the backyard to help my father dig out a stump near a tulip poplar. The tree had rotted and fallen and the stump it left was jagged, and my father and grandfather were chopping at the roots with shovels, taking turns trying to rock what was left from the ground. All of a sudden my grandfather knelt and shoved his hands into a break in the clay, first one hand then the other. When he pulled them free there were dozens of baby copperheads writhing in his fists. He stood up and looked to the house, seeming to see me there, me hugging one of my mother’s legs, and he smiled while snakes twisted from his fingertips.
The stump must’ve burned into the night after my father doused it with gasoline and lit both the stump and the snakes afire. I don’t remember the flames or the smoke or the smell or anything else about that day or my grandfather, just that single image. But I do remember the charred stump that my father dragged not too deep into the woods being there for my entire childhood like some ashen relic. I do remember the hole in the yard that never leveled out and went years just a red scab of Carolina clay before it finally grew over with grass.
What haunts me still is this fearless confidence that my grandfather had beaming from him, something that even early on I associated with masculinity and manhood, something that despite how hard I’ve tried, I’ve never seen in myself. When I dream about this, I wake up sweaty with fear and overcome with feelings of failure. What I saw in my grandfather that day might be the one thing I don’t see of him when I look in the mirror, and when I’m entirely honest with myself, I recognize that it’s probably the only thing I want to see.
One afternoon a few years ago I was back home visiting my parents and was riding with my mother somewhere when she started telling stories about her dad. She said she only ever saw him cry one time in her entire life, and though I expected her to say something along the lines of when he buried his parents, that’s not what she said at all.
My mother’s eyes glassed over with tears and she said the only time she ever saw him cry was on the day Nat King Cole died. I can remember thinking as soon as she said it just how profound that was. For my mother, that was one of the times that defined the man, and when I asked her why, she told me her father always sang. Nat King Cole was his favorite. The reality is that it doesn’t matter why that singer meant so much to him, or at least it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that it was a moment of tenderness that made him a man, and the older I get the more I recognize that she’s right.
At night, I wonder if I’d witnessed him cry if that would have been the thing I remembered. I think about what I was brought up to believe, what the world taught me about being a man. Though I hate to admit it, I doubt that moment would have been nearly as symbolic had I been there. Knowing what I was taught, I would have probably turned away. That would’ve been a moment I forced myself to forget, as it would’ve softened something I’d idealized. If I’d seen him cry, I would’ve only thought him weak.
Though I never really knew my grandfather, I think it’s that fact, the fact that I didn’t know him, that allowed me to use the stories I heard and the one image I had to construct some glorified model of masculinity. The man who haunts me, the man who carried snakes, is not my grandfather. He is something created, partly on my own, partly not. Sometimes I wonder if these hardened notions that boys deify are what come to raise violent men, if it’s the bottle-it-up, never-cry mentality that leads to why so few of us will ever tell someone how we feel, why none of us feel alright asking for help.
When I was a child, I constructed a cliff from things unsaid, from images quietly observed. I climbed to the ledge and stood where I believed all boys stand, though looking back, no one told me that was where, and maybe that’s part of the problem. “There’s water down there,” the man who carried snakes said. “You’ll be fine.” And with knees shaking, I tiptoed to the edge and chucked myself off into nothing. That was thirty years ago now. Sometimes I think I’m still falling.