Monday, February 28, 2011

American "Manhood"

I am around a half-century old, and as such, was probably in the last cadre of Americans saddled with the notions of American manhood that would have been recognizable to DH Lawrence:

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.

I have come to realize that the notions I was raised on and which I absorbed from a million TV westerns and adventure shows was a fraud, and a terribly destructive one.

I have done so much in my life in an ultimately fruitless attempt to live up to a species of manhood modeled in a million ways in my youth - I hunt deer, drink scotch, volunteered for the US Army in my youth like all the generations of men in my family did, and so on.

I got a hint that what I was searching for was an illusion during my tour in the Army.

When I was fresh out of basic, I had a Sergeant I’ll call Sergeant Williams, who had been in Vietnam. I was telling him one day about my eagerness to see action and so on (I was an especially clueless human being when I was young.)

He looked at me a moment and then said, “Let me tell you a story.”

He then told me a story from when he had been a much younger man, and was out on a patrol in the boonies in Vietnam.

His unit took fire from a treeline, and a couple guys were hit. Amid the noise of the firefight, his lieutenant came to him, handed him the radio, and said, “we have fast-movers [an air strike] coming in – talk them in.”

Williams marked their position with smoke, and guided the planes in…and they dropped napalm on that treeline. He then spent the next few minutes (minutes he would give anything to forget) listening to men about his age — just as scared as he was, loved by their mothers just as much — burning to death.

Because of him.

“That day gave me some idea of what Hell might be like” said Sgt. Williams, eyes fixed in the middle distance.

Clueless me said, “Yeah, Sarge, burning is a tough way to go…”

He looked at me sharply then, and, stabbing his finger into his chest, said: “No, Talbot. I’m talking about the way I felt that day.”


John Wayne. John Wayne. John Fucking Wayne.

But the thing is, John Wayne himself couldn't live up to his own image - he smoked 4 packs of cigarettes a day, and pounded down enough scotch to put a bison into a coma. He couldn't do it either. John Wayne himself couldn't be John Wayne.

Well, I'm done with that. No more.

That mythic American manhood doesn't really exist. It never did.

My God, but I'm tired of chasing ghosts.

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