In two weeks, on the evening of Monday, February 11th, I will facilitate the first session of “Men in Transition”, a men’s group. We will meet weekly for 8 weeks at the office of Two Rivers Counseling. Four to six men will meet to lay their stories out. The stories will likely be about change and the sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful, paradigmatic shifts that are the bread and butter of life.
This upcoming Men’s group has spun my head around a few times. I began to search my neural pathways and the tenacious, yet fragile tissue of my heart for the beginnings of being a man. It was not an easy search. Honestly, I really didn’t know where to start. In America, in the 1960’s, passing into manhood was vague.
Fully unrecognized by our culture as a definitive event, boys often found their manhood by accidents of their own creation. Loss of virginity, puking up bad beer, getting married, walking through the jungles of southeast Asia and seeing your buddies get shot, going 100 mph on a deserted highway in the middle of the night when your parents thought you were asleep downstairs… I confess to some of these. I deny the others.
But, as with most things precious and poignant, my passage into manhood was not of my own doing, nor was it culturally prescribed. My maternal Grampa placed me on my launch pad into Manhood. It was perfect and simple, and timeless. It is the way of our ancestors. An older wiser man helping a young boy to know that part of the heart that holds strength and fear and kindness…man stuff.
On a dark, thick, humid, sycamore-scented 4 a.m. morning in the Ozarks, my Grampa took me by my 5-year old hand. There was a pipe in his mouth, which he slowly puffed on in the way that older men make moist, slow thoughtful draws on the wooden stem. His hand was possibly the biggest hand that had ever been wrapped around mine. We walked downhill to the lake. “Watch out for poison ivy”, he would say, as if I knew what it was. But I pretended that I was avoiding plants every so often because I wanted to know so badly that one of them was poison ivy. The infertile chert-ridden hardscrabble soil made clinky sounds underneath our feet.
We reached the lake and the small aluminum boat that was powered by Grampa’s blue Evinrude motor. I could smell the lake, and I remember it all these years later. Equal parts fish, algae, and the strange admixture that is gasoline and oil. The smell of a two stroke engine. It was partly because the lake smelled like fish, that I knew I had to go out into the darkness with my Grampa. Anything that smelled like fish must have fish in it and I was drawn inexorably out into the early Ozark’s morning.
I sat in the front of the boat holding a flashlight, “So that the other boats will know we are here,” he said. Faint streaks of light were in the Northeast, as he pulled us to a place just off a jut of land I could almost make out. “The big largemouth bass like these spots,” he told me. I knew to put out the light. I knew to pick up my rod and reel. I knew to look at my Grampa and that he would motion with his hand towards where I was supposed to cast. I casted repeatedly towards the jut of land in near darkness. I so badly wanted to catch the one big fish that made the lake smell so fishy this way. He smoked his pipe and watched me. He looked up into the sky. He was in the prime of his manhood. He was being patient with the dawn and with me, the next generation.
And at that moment something happened that I don’t think either of us anticipated. From the shoreline in the increasing light of an Ozark’s morning, I heard a sound that I had never heard before and for which I had no rational or emotional context. It was the primal snarl and growling of an animal that brought upon me a twofold effect. I was at once terrified and happily excited beyond reason. I felt it in my stomach. It tugged at my little boy muscles and rearranged the intercostals between my ribs.
At that moment, I was the young Maasai boy in front of the lion. I was the frontier boy out bird hunting who spots a grizzly bear. I was the young Sioux warrior who spots the eagle feather’s of an opponents leggings. Grampa looked toward the shore. I looked toward Grampa. He slowly turned his head and in a low whispered voice, he said, “BOBCAT!”
From that moment onward, I would never forget that humility and courage are two of the quintessential parts of being a man. At that moment they both lived in my stomach, and they would stay there…through wedding ceremonies, and childbirth, and child death…on the highest ramparts of my happiness and in the darkest canyons of my despair. Thanks, Gramps. Rest in peace…
Jeffrey Post-Holmberg is a contributing writer for River Notes Blog. When he is not busy starting men’s groups at Two Rivers, he is wrapping his hand around his son’s 2 year old hand and taking him out to where Bobcats live…sometimes in the dark.