Making a Man

It’s been a whirl of a night. The buses were delayed on account of winter and drivers getting used to it; I tore down some boxes for recycling and emptied the dishwasher, then drove out to a frou-frou burger joint for takeout; we watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and I poured myself two fingers of scotch blend, too late as always, to enjoy along with it; and now we’re rearranging the dining room as I idly checked mail.

There was yet another Hadassah fundraiser plea and a Macy’s catalog. Out of morbid curiosity I poked through the catalog. Chukka boots, I noted, or Macy’s version of them, how quaint. But at $70, what could you possibly expect with these? Then I got a whiff of perfume. Or cologne. It was so sophisticated I couldn’t tell the difference. There was a mannishly dressed woman on the sealed insert, so it was either for her or meant to attract her, which was still intended for her in a sense.

But the scent took me straight back to the military. When I was in high school, my parents informed me that they would not be paying for college for me and if I wanted to go—and I would go, if I wanted anything to come of my life, they informed me—I’d better pay for it through the military. They arranged for Marines recruiter to meet with me and give me some sort of aptitude test. I’m not much to look at now, but if you’d seen me in the middle of my high school career you’d know how ludicrous the mere notion was: 98 pounds soaking wet, starving myself so I wouldn’t hit 100 pounds and therefore have to grow up and start being an adult. That’s the deal I made with myself. I was not Marines material, and I’m sure even a desperate and rangy recruiter could see that.

As it was, I did very well on this written test. My parents reported to me that the recruiter had related that he was “blown away” by my score, had never seen anyone score so high before. Well, duh: he was going after Marines material. Regardless, I went with the Army because, between the GI Bill and College Fund, I stood to earn $25,000 for college, an amount that could (and did) only increase over the years. The Army’s college package was the best out of all the Armed Forces in 1986. I spent my senior year in their Delayed-Entry Program, which I guess meant they could call me out before they instituted a draft. This never happened, I only added this phantom year of nonservice to my seven years in active duty.

My first permanent party station was in Fort Ord, California, right before they shuttered it and sold it back to the state for its prime ocean-side real estate. I trained as a phone/radio operator, having guessed wildly in a vacuum of ignorance that these skills could possibly translate to a real-world occupation. Fort Ord was the home of 7th Infantry Division (Light), and we were a serious unit that trained frequently and stayed in fine shape. We packed up our Commo trucks and caravaned out to Fort Hunter Liggett or cross-trained at Camp Pendleton. We stayed out for weeks, returned to the rear, cleaned the mud off our telephone wire and the sticks out of our camo netting. This was my first experience living away from home: a schedule provided for me (exercise in the morning, training and maintenance all day, dressing up in civilian clothes all evening), meals provided for me, and a more-than-full-time job to keep me busy.

When I was in high school, I hadn’t planned on joining the military, and I certainly had no idea what I was going to do for college, where I’d go, what I’d study. I was in a comfortable twilight of being provided for as a large child and bearing some mantle of respectable adulthood. I took the opportunity to develop myself as a person and explore the potential for being a real man.

This meant busing out to Fisherman’s Wharf and buying CDs of the exciting new bands I’d heard on KSPB, a high school radio station, the diametric opposite of anything I’d been forced to listen to in northern central Wisconsin. (Fun fact: if you drive into Wisconsin now, 30 years later, you can still tune in to the same playlists I grew up with.) It meant a subscription to GQ, in fact, whose dense tomes I would read out in the field. That’s what we called training, being out on maneuver, drills.

I had no idea what it meant to be a man. My father divorced my mom when I was 7, and I rarely saw him after that. He certainly wasn’t around to teach me adulthood, and I probably wouldn’t have wanted to learn it from him anyway. My step-father was inhuman, treating the family like a business department; he cheated on my mom with his mousy secretary, and all I learned from him was how not to conduct myself.

It fell to GQ to begin to teach me what a man was and should be. Bad idea? Sure, but there was no one around to school me otherwise. When I was done digging a foxhole and laying telephone wire to network the greater camp, when I was done playfully recombining the components of early MREs into food simulacra, I was left alone to crouch on a wooden folding stool, M16A1 strapped to my back, clay-like camo paint clogging my pores, and study GQ.

The men were lean, clean, and angular. Their hair was excitingly stylish, their expressions were distant and troubled. Not troubled with weighty thoughts like an Irish writer: troubled like someone had given them a story problem right before taking pictures. These were petulant, gorgeous men in elegant suits and calculated poses. They slouched in breathtaking European locations with underfed women bearing personal grievances against the photographer, women who didn’t speak English but could strip a Kalashnikov, women who were the fortuitous offspring of demons and horses.

I couldn’t be those men, but I could crib some notes. I learned that your shoes had to match your belt, I learned the Savile Row fold. The Army taught me the half-Windsor and to align my shirt’s front seam with my belt buckle with the fly of my pants, always, always. I didn’t get much from my father, but he did impress upon me the importance of always keeping a Trim nail clipper, a tube of Chap Stick, an unbreakable comb, and a packet of Sen-Sen on me at all times. I still have the first packet of Sen-Sen he gave me. It lasts.

The goal of this was to allure women, of course. That’s what being a man was all about, a seducer of women, and in the Army there was no one to tell me otherwise. The best advice I received was “don’t be a dog.” Among the worst was “make sure your first is American, at least.” Parting words from my commander as I packed up for South Korea. In contrast, thinking that I had to be clean and well-groomed wasn’t the worst education. I would never be able to afford those suits and I would never, ever meet women like in those grainy B/W photo shoots.

But I could open up the cologne inserts and rub them against my neck. As inappropriate as that was to do when I was supposed to look like a well-armed tree, out in the field or in a foxhole for two weeks. I smelled nice (or terrible, I didn’t know) and I daydreamed about going back home with new musculature and a new wardrobe and… personality? There was nothing in the magazines about that. All I knew was how to avoid the worst a man could be, but that still left a lot of opportunity. Nothing discouraged me from seeing women as conquests, and nothing informed me that I was supposed to be anything other than successful with women. Everything and everyone around me told me that was how the world was structured, and the only contradiction was my persistent and invariable failure to form any substantial relationship with women for the next dozen years. I had no idea what was coming, sitting there in tight combat boots, cupping a boiling hot packet of reconstituted pork patty, shreds of old uniform breaking up my helmet’s profile in the Lightfighter’s signature style (we were so mad when the Marines ripped that off from us). I only thought that GQ would make me desirable and being in the Army might make me interesting. I was so desperate to figure out who I was supposed to be and what a man was supposed to be, but I didn’t even know how to ask for an instructor.

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