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What is it to be a man?

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: May 7, 2008 2:44 a.m.
Updated: July 8, 2008 5:02 a.m.
‘You'll be sorry," was the accurate prediction sounding off from the guys sitting on the barracks' steps as our ragged lot passed by. We were brand new recruits at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Station in Manhattan Beach, in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was early June 1945.

The war in Europe was over and we, no doubt, were being considered for cannon fodder in the assault planned on the mainland of Japan. The truth of this situation was somewhat obscure to me. I was the typical adolescent looking for a bit of adventure, a bit of excitement, a rite of passage to becoming a man. But I didn't think about that.

I had just barely graduated high school. The chemistry teacher said the only reason she passed me was that I was going into the armed forces the next day. That was when there were a lot fewer basic elements.

Is one oxygen? See, I'm not completely lost. I'd be in big trouble now; there are a lot more today. I knew for sure I had no interest in science or in numbers. My 10 fingers and 10 toes served me well enough. Did I have any thoughts on who I was? I doubt it.

Training was a lot more intensive than high school gym. The petty officer leading us was a show-off. He'd
run backward when we could hardly keep up as we ran forward. Was this a display of machismo or did he want us to see what horrible shape we were in?

Being a clever boy of 17, I had picked the Coast Guard as the safest service to be in. Coast Guardsmen had the easy job of piloting the landing craft that would be used to transport the infantry onto the beaches of the Land of the Rising Sun. What a racket. Just like the bus driver letting the kiddies off at school. Was
it my fault I hadn't seen the movies of the D-Day landing at glamorous-sounding places like Omaha Beach, where LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) soldier dump trucks got blown at least 100 feet into the air and came back down as scraps of metal and carne asada? Fortunately, the war ended with the dropping of the A-bombs, and I eagerly became a civilian again. I don't know how manly that was, but I was ready.

The thoughts around the above were not the thoughts I would have had today. They were probably unknown to me as opportunities for reflection on what it was to be a man.

I'm not sure what makes a man. Is it being macho? Is it being strong physically, a good fighter? Is a real
man without fear? Does a real man need to be eager to fight for his country? Does he need to protect those he loves every way he can? Does a real man have to make a lot of money? Does he have to be gung ho on sports?

Or is a real man some of the above and also contemplative? Does he care deeply about others? Does
he care about himself? Does he want to make a difference? Does he care about the Earth? Does he have
to love war or just put up with it, as many do?

What if a man would rather write poetry or paint a picture, go to an art museum, a classical music
concert or, like Thoreau, saunter through a forest and spend an hour watching an ant colony do its thing?

What if a man is just trying to figure it all out, leaving his gun at the door until he knows if he does
or doesn't need it anymore?

Is a Marine a better man than a philosopher? Is a soldier more or less valuable than a saint? And what
about the guys who might read this article and would wonder what the fuss is all about?

Would a man ask himself some very personal questions?

How many people have I helped today? How many people have I hurt today? Did I act out of my best self today on most occasions, or did I let my egocentric mind lead me into fear and anger? What do I want for

Way, way back, as man stepped out of Africa and spread throughout the Earth, there was a monumental thing that happened. A human kind realized at some point that it was possible to reflect on one's own inner thoughts. Man had become self-aware. Now a person could actually direct his thoughts and actions.

He realized that he could contemplate and shape the world around him rather than being inundated in needs and fears that he now could better deal with. This awareness is what distinguishes man from other animals that occupy the Earth. How did it affect the basic role of males?

We know from studying indigenous people that males in most cultures tend to be the dominant gender. Tribes seem to be led by an alpha male. The leader may excel at hunting and warfare but frequently is also a bastion of wisdom. (Chief Seattle: "All things are bound together." Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce: "We will fight no more forever.") Some primal characteristics have carried over to modern man, who through self-awareness discovers he doesn't have to embrace some traits anymore.

Man is surely in transition. The characteristics he once coveted, such as aggression, may have their
place, but some have discovered those characteristics can be self-defeating. Sitting across a table with
those with whom we differ can produce a more desirable result.

Of all the things a man can be practicing, love, affection and caring are the most permanent and
rewarding. They are most likely to answer courageously the question: What is it to be a man?

Phil Rizzo is a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views, not necessarily those of The
Signal. Full Speed to Port, by Rizzo and Valencia resident Gary Horton, runs Wednesdays in The Signal.


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