By E. Adam Porter
Editor in Chief, News of Sun City Center
My eldest son is coming home for his annual visit this month. Chris is in the USAF, stationed overseas. Has been for over three years now, returning home for a few weeks each year at the indulgence of Uncle Sam. After this visit his next duty station will be South Korea, where he’ll be for a year before he finishes his initial six-year hitch somewhere stateside.
As I write this, we’re still several days out from picking him up at the airport, and his mama can hardly stand it. His little brothers, too, are about to come out of their skin waiting for “Bubba” to get home. My middle son was barely three when Chris left for BMT, and the littlest guy was practically brand new. Mostly, they know their brother as a vaguely man-sized person on a computer screen, and the guy who shows up once a year for weeks-long wrestling parties and occasional boat trips.
For his mom and me, the transformation has come in fits and starts. While the change over eight weeks of Basic Training was noticeable, the growth we’ve seen in the past few years has been remarkable. I guess it’s always that way with parents of young 20-somethings.
It’s more than the stripes he now wears on his arm, or the team that depends on his judgment. Every time we talk with him his voice is deeper, more self-assured, and his conversation sounds more like a man. Sure, there are times when the mask slips and the boy underneath comes out for a bit of reassurance or (relative) wisdom, but, more often than not lately, he’s talking sense and making sensible plans.
I’m beginning to wonder if he’s the exception more than the rule. There seems to be an epidemic in our culture of boys who have no interest in becoming men. I’m not talking about guys who like games or Big Boy Toys or enjoy watching Star Wars. There’s no getting around it, most of us still love to play, no matter what age we are. Whether our poison is sports cars, pickleball, camping, poker, boats or football, we all have something that brings out the kid in us every time we connect with it. But, as adults, we know when it’s time to shoulder responsibility and Get To Work. Most of us learned that ethic as kids, growing better at it as life got more “real”. Letting the bumps and bruises of life finish the job of turning the boy into a man.
I was fortunate on that score. Growing up first on an island where Boat Work is never done and then on a horse ranch, where the business of recreation requires constant daily upkeep, you find plenty of opportunities to learn responsibility by doing. You also learn the consequences of carelessness in real time. Nothing like a swift kick from an aggravated equine to remind you to pay attention.
Something was always in need of mending, and the return home from summer camp was always briskly followed by helping the farmer down the road bring in his summer crops. Usually a variety of squash. We always got a bushel to take home. Most of the time our offerings of “thanks, Sir,” almost sounded sincere.
My brothers and I are all very different people, but we never had to be cajoled or threatened to Get Up and Get To Work. Most of the kids we knew came of age with similar mindsets. Things are a bit different these days. It’s become so common, psychologists have named it: “extended adolescence”. Pop culture calls it “failure to launch” and folks from all walks of life wring their hands in worry and wonder.
Some suggest extreme measures. Compulsory military service, for example. Others say it’s just natural as we’re more affluent and living longer. We’re just adjusting to a “new normal”. Sorry, if “normal” means guys don’t take responsibility for themselves until they’re 30, deal me out.
There have been other times in our history when young men faced few job prospects and difficult starts. But a combination of cultural expectation, government programs and marketplace innovation created opportunities that led to great things being accomplished.
Multiple parks in our state system were built by Civilian Conservation Corps crews. Young men who may have been unemployed otherwise. Others learned a trade and found a passion. These opportunities still exist today. There are millions of available jobs in the skilled trades, and many manufacturing companies are even reaching down into secondary schools to train the next generation of designers, builders and fixers.
What is too often lacking is cultural expectation. In some ways, our system is setup to train boys to never want to become men. It punishes behavior that our parents would have understood as just Being a Boy. Aggression, dangerous curiosity and a thirst for exploration are whittled down. Legitimate adventure is replaced by virtual escape. Risk is “mitigated” while comfort is celebrated as the end goal. I could go on, but at this point, you’re either on board or not.
This isn’t a call for an extreme pendulum swing. You don’t have to be a cave man to Be A Man, but I will say this: It’s a good feeling when your “boy” starts living – not just sounding and looking – like a man. I wish every parent that joy.