Monday, August 08, 2011

Boys To Men

Once upon a time, I lived in a magical trailer park kingdom beside a cursed pond, went on adventures with Huck Finn, was betrayed by a double-headed silver dragon, battled Moby Dick on the high seas, flew like Superman, met the real Superman, came face to face with a merciless bird of prey, feasted on ants and rotted pine, and dreamed of being a preacher like Jimmy Swaggart.

In those days, I was 5 years old. In those days, at least in my eyes, Jimmy Swaggart surpassed all orators. I much preferred him to Billy Graham, who was my father's favorite. According to my dad, in the course of religious education, watching Graham was mandatory: a core course. Swaggart was optional: an elective. Swaggart adorned our TV on occasion, but everything stopped for Graham. We watched Graham, religiously, every time he came on. This was, outside holidays, the number one tradition in our family. Still, I gravitated toward Swaggart. He was more fiery and passionate. His zealous emotional charisma enchanted me. I have a hunch that I wasn't alone and that, at least in 1979, every little boy liked Swaggart more than Graham. Swaggart was a flurry of sound and fury. One moment, crying; the next, pleading; the next; exhorting. Graham was decidedly more pedestrian in 1979. I preferred Swaggart for the same reason I liked fireworks more than fire.

In those days, I'd already made up my mind that I wanted to be a preacher. Maybe Swaggart had something to do with this, but I doubt it. I wanted to be a preacher because it felt like what I was, and what I was created to be. In the succeeding years, I changed my mind pretty often about calling and career. At one point, I flirted with making a career of out of superhero-ism. Then, for about 5 years, I wanted to be an Air Force pilot. When I got to college, my first major was Early Childhood Education. Then, I majored in a slew of other things: Criminal Justice, English, and finally Communications. After college, I thought about being a Lawyer, a Doctor, a Policeman, A Public Relations Specialist, a Real Estate Agent, an Ebay Sensation, and even a Writer. However, in the end, I opted to go to Seminary, and I ended up as a PCA teaching elder. It turns out, my first instinct was right. I wanted to be a preacher before I wanted to be anything. I wanted to be a preacher when most boys wanted to be firemen, and here is where Swaggart comes back in: not so much as my inspiration, but as my model. I wanted to be a preacher, and Swaggart was, in my 5 year old mind, the best preacher ever, ever, pinky swear.

Of course, it wasn't long before Swaggart had a tragic public downfall, and my model was broken to pieces. Graham, ever a tradition in our house, marched on in a blameless life and marked the passing years with various TV specials. My dad had been right all along. I never told him, but he certainly would have approved, when I switched my model to Graham. This was my first lesson in discernment.

In those days, my little brother Billy and I got in some death defying adventures. Mainly, it was my brother who got into the adventures. He was a 4 year old incarnation of Huck Finn: playfully rebellious, uncannily street smart, prone to befriend interesting strangers, and prone to get in innocent trouble that left my mom in tears, and my dad without a belt. My brother was smaller of stature than most other boys. He wore glasses. This didn't seem odd to me then. It didn't seem that important. It wasn't until a year later, when he was ridiculed as 4 eyes, I took note of his struggles. This little difference, being born with bad vision, cast him as an outsider when he got to school the next year, and he endured the fate of "Piggy" in Lord of the Flies.

A few years ago, I asked him what the single most important fact of his life was, and he responded, "Being born with bad vision. That has affected me every day." Yet, in 1979, he didn't seem to care that he had bad vision, and I never noticed. He had good enough vision for me. He stalked the earth fearlessly, restlessly, looking ardently for innocent mischief. I stalked the earth after him, trying to keep him out of mischief.

Billy and I looked like twins in those days -- but if he was Huck, then I was anti-Huck: responsible, cautious, and pensive. Looking back, I gravitated toward being anti-Huck because I was the older brother. I felt in my bones that I was my brother's keeper. It was my job to look out for him. This was my first lesson in responsibility.

In those days, Billy and I often played with two brothers in our neighborhood. They also looked like twins. They were age 5 and 7, but they seemed older, much older. They both had silvery blond hair, and -- at least in my memory -- perpetually wore sarcastic smirks. They were t-r-o-u-b-l-e. They were educated beyond their years in dastardly deeds, and they were intent on instructing me and Billy in all the forbidden knowledge they had acquired.

For example, they hatched a plot to sneak away for an all day fishing trip without telling our parents. Who ever heard of 4 kids under 7 going on an all day fishing trip by themselves without notifying any adults? Apparently, the evil twins had. I don't remember much about the fishing. I have a vague sense that it was a delightful boyous romp. I know for sure that we caught one fish -- the equivalent of Moby Dick to our little fishing crew.

After the fishing trip, the evils twins secreted Billy and I away to a tree house to teach us cuss words. The older kid revealed each word as if it was a profound secret, patiently explained its etymology and range of meaning, and then sat silent for a moment while my brother and I stared on in awe. Then, when each word had its effect, he'd burst into wicked giggles.

At last -- after an 8 hour excursion that left my parents thinking we were kidnapped -- we ventured home proudly, a posse of foulmouthed sailors who'd conquered the seas. That one day is littered with some of my strongest boyhood memories. I remember the joy of catching a fish. I remember the feel of the tree house: close, and cramped, like a hideout. I remember the smirk of the evil twins. As I marched over a hill and saw my father in the distance, I remember a sense of expectation: a certain expectation that we would be rewarded as expert fishermen. I even remember one of the cuss words. However, above every memory -- above all the fishing and all the cussing -- what I most remember from that day is the spanking I received. This was my first lesson on the need to choose friends wisely.

In those days, my greatest fear in the world was the pond which lay seductively close to our little trailer. This pond became a makeshift ice rink during the winter. The neighborhood kids played on it with abandon. Then, in 1979, tragedy struck. A boy fell through the ice and drowned. This legend dominated the trailer park kingdom; it was our Fall of Troy. I say it was a legend. It did really happen. It was in the newspapers, and everyone talked about it. Yet, as my parents told me the story, it never seemed to me strictly true. It was more than true. More than factual. It was a fable. It was a cautionary tale like something out of The Brothers Grimm. As my parents relayed the story of this tragedy, it spoke of bigger, greater truths.

"Life is frail." "There are dangerous spots in this world. Places you can fall through." "Children are not invulnerable." "Take every step with care."

I got all that, though my parents never said any of it. They just told the story. I got all that, and the real practical application for me was clear, "Don't go out on the pond when it's icy." This was my first lesson in wisdom.

In those days, my mom dressed my brother and I in the same clothes, and we didn't mind one bit. Her favorite outfit for us was brown slacks and a grey shirt. The grey shirt had a red V pattern around the collar. I loved that shirt. It looked like something a super hero would wear. My earliest memory from that time -- maybe the earliest memory of my life -- is running around our front yard in that shirt, pretending it was a super hero costume, and believing I was Superman. I jumped on, then off, then on, then off my dad's truck bed in a heroic -- and not entirely futile -- attempt to ascend in flight. I could do this for hours. And, I swear to you, this adventure was more satisfying and more fun than any video game you've ever played. This was my first lesson in masculine identity.

In those days, my 4 year old brother snuck into my dad's truck while we were all out in the front yard. Who knows what he planned to do? Was he planning on going somewhere? Probably. This was just the kind of thing I'd never do -- just the kind of thing my brother always did. Anyway, the truck slipped -- or he maneuvered it -- into drive. He swears it slipped. Then, the truck headed down the yard, past me, my mom, and my dad, and toward a small cliff. My dad sprung to action as I looked on in horror. He ran alongside the truck like some kind of stuntman -- like the real Superman -- opened the door, jumped into the driver's seat, and hit the brakes in the nick of time. For the rest of the day, we talked of what-ifs and whys. What if my dad hadn't been there? Why did the truck start rolling on its own? After many years of reflection, I don't know the answers to those questions -- but this I know; set this down: my dad is a hero. He jumped into a speeding truck to save his son. Funny, in 1979, I didn't think about it like that. I assumed he was just doing his job. I assumed that's what any father could and would do. This was my first lesson in fatherhood.

In those days, I had a mean kindergarten teacher. Her name escapes me, but I like to think of her as Ms. Eaglebeak. The one thing I remember about her is that she had a sharp, angular, face -- like an eagle. It may not have even been geometrically sharp, but that was the impression of her bearing: sharpness, uptightness, and even cruelty. Charles Spurgeon said children are a good judge of character because they know innately who their friend is. In 1979, I hadn't thought much about character, but I knew Ms. Eaglebeak was not my friend.

We had a kid in our class who always showed up late, dirty, and without lunch money. So, when the day of our big field trip came, it was no surprise that he didn't have the requisite $1.50 to pay his way. Ms. Eaglebeak decided to make this an object lesson. She refused to let him go on the field trip. It just so happened that I was standing nearby when her TA -- I remember her as being short with blond hair -- pleaded on behalf of my penniless classmate. I remember feeling terrible for my classmate, and hoping with all my might that the TA would save the day. Well, the TA did save the day with pity filled reasoning I still remember -- "It's only $1.50. This will crush him. It's not worth it." That made sense to me then. It makes sense to me now. No one knew that I was standing close by, overhearing everything said, silently pleading for my kindergarten colleague. I'm sure that TA has no idea how much she taught me that day. I doubt she remembers that day. Come to to think of it, I don't even remember where we went on our big field trip. No matter; that conversation was the big field trip for me, and that episode is one of the most powerful memories of my childhood. This was my first lesson in compassion.

In those days, I sang the ABC song on the way to school -- loudly, repeatedly, every morning, for 6 months. Mastering the ABC's was my soul educational goal in 1979. In the end, I learned my ABC's, but that's not why I was singing. Singing, and showing off as a good student, were my means of getting dad's attention, and making him proud of me.  Learning the ABC's was secondary: the result, and not the cause, of my singing. I was singing for my father. I sang every day, without fail. I know my dad got annoyed with this ritual on occasion, but he never said so. He always listened. This was my first lesson in pedagogy.

In those days, my favorite meal was "ants on a log." This 5 star boy's meal consisted of celery stalks coated with peanut butter and topped with raisins. The final product really did look like black ants marching across a brown log. It's genius -- just the kind of thing that appeals to a little boy. If I'd been served, "Non-fat, high-protein vegetable fruit medley," I would've protested, and perhaps forced my lunch down. Instead, I was served "ants on a log," and I devoured ants, log and all like a famished barbarian. Who can top this meal? I was making variations on this meal into college. It's simple, imaginative, healthy, and fun. I've always heard, "You eat with your eyes first." Well, in 1979, I ate with my imagination first. This was my first lesson in creativity.

These are my strongest memories from the fifth year of my life. In the year of our Lord, 1979, I learned some of the most important lessons a boy can learn. Yet, what impresses me now is reflecting on what I hadn't learned. I hadn't learned that, sans Nikes, I "didn't fit in" with the other kids. I learned that in 1982. I hadn't learned that my brother, also sans Nikes, plus poor vision, "didn't fit in" either. I learned that in 1986. I hadn't learned anything about the dog eat social structure of a public school. It took me a long time to learn that. I finally got the point in 1994 when, as a Senior in High School, I shamefully ignored a girl who was outside "our group."

1979 seems distant now -- almost a different lifetime. I look on the boy I was then as a different person. Yet, that's not an accurate perception. For one, I find that many of the lessons he learned, I need to learn again. I need to learn with him about discernment, friendship, wisdom, fatherhood, and creativity. This time, hopefully, with more depth. There's also a sense in which I need to learn from him. In his youthful naivete, there were many things he hadn't learned. I may be wiser than him, and I've surely learned a lot more since my fifth year: many more first lessons, with a few diplomas on the wall to prove it. I may be much wiser than him, and older, but I will never be younger. And there's one advantage the young always have: there are some things they haven't learned:

"The tender age of little children is distinguished by simplicity to such an extent that they are unacquainted with the degrees of honor, and with all the incentives to pride; so that they are properly and justly held out by Christ as an example (John Calvin)."

by CK

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