Guys of a certain age will remember Chuck Connors, TV’s version of Charlton Heston, who blasted his way across the small screen as “The Rifleman” for five seasons beginning in 1958. Week to week, he was the consummate straight-shooter: a widower riding the West with his pre-teen son, working hard and saying little, encountering trouble (usually a gang of black-hatted bad guys stealing livestock), and doing justice in his square-jawed, reluctant way by shooting two or three with his rapid-fire rifle, which he wielded like a handgun.
It was pure testosterone fun.
Connors came to mind when I was considering the topic of this article: “How Do You Know You’re a Man?” He starred in a less popular TV series in the late 60s called “Branded,” also set in the Old West. This time he was an Army commander wrongly accused and court-martialed for deserting his troops under fire. The dramatic opening scene each week showed Connors being stripped of his hat, insignia and sword and marching out of the fort as the high wooden doors closed behind him. The theme song ends: “Wherever you go for the rest of your life you must prove you’re a man!”
It was a great theme for a 10-year-old kid like me to hear. The sense that there was a measure for manhood and the possibility of being cast out and BRANDED was instructive and somewhat frightening. How would I respond to the challenge? Would I cut and run to leave my men, my friends, behind? Would I be willing to suffer and die for others, for a good cause? How would I shape up under fire, or the battle of life?
How would I prove that I’m a man?
Our American culture lacks definitive rites of passage for bringing teens into manhood. There are some unofficial rites, such as getting a driver’s license, ordering your first legal beer, getting drunk, and even graduating from college, but somehow many guys manage to remain adolescent in action and attitude through all these passages. First sexual experience has served as a last-resort rite of passage for generations, but we know that premarital sex is more a sign of irresponsibility than maturity. Not even marriage seems to be a popular passage into manhood, with most men waiting until nearly 30 years of age to tie the knot, and then not too tightly.
Maybe we don’t want to run the gauntlet with the elders of the tribe hitting us with paddles as in some primitive cultures, but we American males could use some more defined ways of declaring ourselves bona fide adults – grown men with a mission.
I welcome male readers to give their own answers to these basic questions:
When did you first know you were a man?
Was there a moment or passage you experienced?
How do you think our culture can better prepare our adolescents for the challenges of manhood?
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.