August 19, 2014

Fellas, when did you think you became a man?

     Epiphanies don’t always come as in an Ah-ha! Moment.  Often, the realization hits you later. Ladies, remember when you first felt like a woman?  While you are thinking about that, I recall three distinctive steps into my manhood.
Twenty-nine years after Alan’s underage-driving epiphany, 
he and his dad really have “grown up.”  Alan celebrated 
his 41st birthday on July 31, 2014.   His blow-out-the-candle helpers 
are sons,  from left, William, 5, and Fenn, 3.
     The first was pure fantasy, but I can still feel the sensation.  Sitting in Ralph Grantham’s barber chair, I heard the whir of his hot-lather machine.  I had dreamed about that day.  For years, I watched men get their necks shaved after haircuts.  And since graduating from the booster board across the arms of the barber’s chair, I had anticipated the day Ralph slapped that hot lather on the back of my neck, after “getting my ears lowered.”
     And then it came.  Somewhere around my 12th birthday, without a drumroll or a red bow attached, Ralph presented me with a handful of extra warm shaving cream. He didn’t sing Happy Birthday, but his straight razor, stroking the leather strop, was music to my ears.  I remember thinking: “I’m on my way to becoming a man.”
     That was boyish foolishness, but the next epiphany was closer to reality.  Much of my boyhood was spent in a close-quarters apartment in the back of my dad’s funeral home.  Many nights, my sisters and I fell asleep listening to mourners grieve on the other side of our bedrooms’ walls.  One of my first jobs was washing ambulances and hearses and dusting caskets.  
     As soon as I was big enough to wear a Warren Sewell-from-Bremen suit, I was helping with funerals.  Big Dink thought I was a Godsend with my long arms.  I could tote six potted plants in a slow, dignified trot from the church sanctuary to the gravesite, before the family got to the funeral tent.  
     And then the day came.  I was 16.  My dad had two funerals when another death call came.  Hanging up the phone, he handed me a clipboard with the funeral-plans questionnaire.  “Son,” he said, “I need you to put on a suit and tie and visit with the family to get information for the obituary and the service.” 

     I gulped and said, “Me?”  Putting his hand on my shoulder, he squeezed and said, “Yes, you.  And you’ll know what to do.” Driving out to the Spring Grove Road residence, in his 1964 teal-blue Buick, I swelled with somewhat nervous pride.  I thought: “I cannot disappoint him, now that I’m a man.”
     Fast-forward 20 years.  Our oldest son, Alan, was not quite 12.  Just as my uncles Joe and Billy had done with me, I had let Alan learn to drive a straight-stick.  When we were inside our gate—on private, flat dirt roads—he quickly showed his skills.  I wasn’t about to let him venture onto asphalt, but both of our confidences had grown.
     And then came that day, about dusk.  When we got to the gate, it was locked.  The keys were back in the cabin.  “Alan,” I asked, “do you think you could go and get the keys?”  His grin illuminated the cab of the tiny Nissan pickup.  Leaning against a fencepost, I lifted a prayer.  A few minutes later, the prayer of safekeeping was answered.  I heard the 4-cylinders whine and gears shifting, just before spying headlights bouncing in the distance.
     As Alan moved over to ride shotgun, he said, “Dad, I have to tell you something.  I know you told me not to fiddle with the radio while I am driving, but I did.  And I swiped a small pine tree and knocked the passenger-side mirror off.” 
Reaching over, I squeezed his shoulder and asked,     “Did you get hurt?”
     “No, sir.”
     “Did you learn something?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “Then, let’s say a prayer of thanksgiving and go home.”
     After a few miles of silence, except for the hum of the tires, Alan said, “Dad, I think you and I really grew up tonight.”
     “How’s that, Son?”
     “Well, I made a mistake, but I told the truth.”

     “And you didn’t get mad.”