Episode Twelve: Real Men
In the early 1960s, men were men and, as the saying goes, “women were glad of it.” John Wayne was hitting his stride, and Rock Hudson was a ruggedly closeted heartthrob. Although men ruled their homes, as in the Cleaver household in Leave it to Beaver and the Stone household in the Donna Reed Show, the “man as tough guy” image was often overshadowed by the “man as vulnerable hero” (Jimmy Stewart), as a debonair ladies’ man (David Niven), and as a suave secret agent (Sean Connery as James Bond). Villains, usually played by Lee Marvin or Edward G. Robinson, were exaggerated masculine images, but they were bad guys and often looked like nothing more than childish bullies on the screen. Fuzzy was tougher by a mile.
I was jealous of the tough guys, but I don’t think I ever really wanted to be one. Not that I liked being the skinny weakling, but I learned early on that strength isn’t always measured by the size of one’s biceps. In other words, I knew what a “real man” was. Of course, the lesson reached me through the medium of television.
The first male role model I recall was Chuck Connors’ character in The Rifleman: Lucas McCain. It’s funny, as I write this I am sitting at my favorite bar intermittently reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home. On a page where the child Alison is oblivious to her father’s attraction for young men, there appears on a TV screen some scenes from The Rifleman. Somehow a book about coming to grips with one’s sexuality—and one’s father’s—fits in a chapter about real men.
Lucas McCain was a real man, and not because he carried his eponymous weapon. The lessons I gleaned from McCain, the ones he taught his son (played by Johnny Crawford, a kid whose looks I was jealous of), were about helping those less fortunate, obtaining justice for those denied, and choosing delayed (over instant) gratification. Lucas McCain had the coolest gun, but he tried not to use it. To use your primary weapon outside of absolute necessity is to abuse it. I don’t think McCain ever said that, but he could have.
Guns were an integral part of play for the boys in my neighborhood. We’d choose sides—good guys versus bad guys—and divvy up the arsenal of toy revolvers, automatics, and rifles. Sometimes as many as eight or ten guys would join the battle. But when I was by myself I played with plastic soldiers.
Three nights later, while kids and parents were still talking about Combat!, ABC also rolled out a quieter, more introspective war series: The Gallant Men. It featured a squad of G.I.s fighting their way through Italy in 1943.
The Gallant Men was an unusual war show in that one of the main characters was a war correspondent. I don’t remember whether the man was a pacifist or not. At that time I had no clue what that word meant. But I never saw him carry a gun, only a pencil and a pad or a typewriter. What courage, I thought. What determination. To get the story out to the world. To put the truth above your own safety. That’s what I wanted to do. Most kids’ first “when I grow up” job was firefighter or veterinarian or baseball player. Mine was war correspondent. I found a copy of Ernie Pyle’s Brave Men in, of all places, my brother’s library. I wanted to bring stories back from a war I didn’t even know existed at the time. I took it so far that when playing The Game of Life I’d desperately want to land on the spot that made one a journalist. That dream ended after a two-year stint as gossip columnist, under a pen name, for my college newspaper.
The Gallant Men lasted only one year. Nobody watched it. When I’d tell the gang about the latest episode they’d get on me about watching a sissified version of a war show. Judgment reached a new low when I, as much a war lover as anyone, was chastised for choosing the wrong WWII TV series. I guess real men were watching Combat!.
Hollywood’s role models changed over the years, but my one constant image of a real man was my dad.
Pop was never that tall, barely topping out at 5’10”, although he shrank considerably in the waning years of his life. He was more wiry than muscular, though he managed to play a little semi-pro football in his young adulthood. We never had a gun in our house, but Pop was reputed to be a crack shot with a .22 when hunting rats on Pumpkin Patch, a sandbar off the coast of Canarsie Pier. In other words, he did traditionally manly things, but he did them in his own non-traditional ways.
Pop was a bundle of contradictions. He was a fiscal conservative, a political moderate, and a staunch union man, all the while voting straight ticket Republican his whole life. Actually, that wasn’t too much of a stretch. Pop lived in an era whose Republican stars—Eisenhower, Nixon, Rockefeller, even Barry Goldwater—would be vilified as flaming liberals by today’s GOP standards.
Pop was no liberal, but he was no party’s fool either. The same could be said of his religion. In the jargon of his day, Pop was a fundamentalist. That meant he adhered to certain doctrines such as biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, Jesus’ death on behalf of humanity, and Jesus’ physical resurrection and eventual return. Other than avoiding habits like drinking and smoking, Pop’s fundamentalism didn’t meddle much in people’s lives.
Still, the fundamentalism of Pop’s day did give rise to contemporary evangelicalism, even though evangelicals in the 1950s were considered by fundamentalists to be only slightly right of the worst of the liberals. Again, Pop’s personal expression of faith did not toe the party line.
One “Pop story” stands out in my memory as an example of that faith. It happened on a Sunday afternoon when Pop said, after a service at Grace Church, “Don’t put your play clothes on after dinner. We’re going out again.” (No matter that I was probably fifteen by then, whatever I changed into after church was always “play clothes.”)
Whenever Pop spoke like that, I knew an adventure was in store. Pop’s adventures could be pretty unusual. Like the time on a family vacation somewhere in New England when we visited a waterfall. Pop noticed a series of rocks jutting out to the middle of the river just above the falls.
“Phil, do you think you can climb out there?”
“Sure thing, Pop!”
With a twelve-year-old’s bravado, I risked life and limb maneuvering myself to a precarious perch above the raging waters. I even hung on with my feet alone, raising my hands triumphantly as Pop got out his camera...which he turned to the shore as he yelled, “Hey Fran! Look what your son is doing!” He wanted to capture Mom’s terrified reaction.
This day’s adventure, beginning right after Sunday dinner, surprised me more than most. We dashed to the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser and headed toward the Belt Parkway. Pretty soon we were in a section of Queens I’d only seen before in passing. We never stopped there. At least I’d never stopped there.
Exiting the parkway and winding through city streets until we ended up back near the Belt, we pulled up to a white clapboard-sided church. Pop parked the Olds, and we walked toward the front door.
“What church is this?” I asked.
“I know some people who go here,” Pop answered. “They asked me to serve on an ordination council. Today that young man is going to be ordained as a minister.”
I didn’t recognize the name on the announcement board in front of the building. It wasn’t a Baptist Church, like the ones on the Island we played volleyball against. It wasn’t another Independent Fundamental Church like Grace. It was a Church of Christ or something.
The name wasn’t the only thing that was different. Once inside the door, staring at row after row of maple-stained pews, I noticed that Pop and I were the only two white faces in the building.
“You know these people?”
“Well, some of them. We go way back. I sing here sometimes. They wanted an impartial layperson to serve on the council, so they asked me. That’s why I was away some evenings last month.”
Stunned, I sat beside Pop through the solemn service that was punctuated by outbursts of “Amen” and “Well” and “Yes, yes” along with loud, joyful, definitely not Grace Church-style, singing.
“Who is Pop?” I wondered as we drove quietly back to Canarsie. There was no easy answer. But over the years I grew to respect and admire the quiet strength, courage, and contradictions that were the real man I knew as Pop.
The visit to that church in Queens wasn’t my first lesson in black and white, as you’ll see in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.