Manhood is sort of an elusive term. Some guys prove their manhood by womanizing, smoking, drinking, fighting, tattoos, and all manner of things. Others prove it with professionalism, money, promotion, possessions, and stuff like that. In America, the unofficial manhood initiation is a driver’s license.
Most 16-year old guys are talking about cars and driving. In high school most guys spend their free time telling stories of speeding tickets or accidents. If you had a driver’s license, you then needed a car. A guy with a driver’s license and a car was considered a man. This works out well for most guys.
It didn’t work out well for me. I was born legally blind. I have a hereditary eye condition passed on to me from my grandfather through my mom. I can see stuff but I miss out on details. My depth perception is a bit off as well. I could never pass the eye test to get a driver’s license. Cars were sort of the enemy for a while. I was bitter about it when I was 16.
Every day at school the guys would be talking about cars and driving. Complaining about their latest speeding ticket they got after school yesterday. I wish I could get a speeding ticket. My friend Don fell asleep at the wheel and drove his car into a ditch and flipped it, totaling the car. Cool, I wish I could do that. But I couldn’t. There was no official initiation into manhood for me.
I was silent at home for a few years in high school. I didn’t want to talk about all the junk going on, the disappointment of not being able to see. I didn’t want to tell my parents because, to be honest, I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, I didn’t want to hear about driving at all, school was enough. There also wasn’t anything they could do about it, what would be the point of bringing it up? But my parents could tell something was bothering me.
One day after school they came into my room and asked what was up. They wouldn’t leave until I told them. Finally, through many tears, I did. They understood, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. They tried to convince me it wasn’t an issue, but it was. It was huge for me. It was nice to talk to them about it, to release some of the pent up feelings. There wasn’t anything they could do about it, but it helped to know they cared.
My parents told me I would never be able to drive when I was quite young. As a kid I wanted to grow up and be a truck driver, my dream was dashed when I was told I was blind. I remember going to school after that and bragging to my friends that I was blind. Cool. As a kid, you don’t understand what it all means. But I understood enough to know that I better find something else to do! I took to biking. I could see just fine to get around, I could probably even drive most of the time and be fine, but biking was more manageable and I liked it.
When I was in seventh grade I picked up a paper route. It was a mile from my house and was a mile long. The papers needed to be delivered before I went to school. Every morning, seven days a week, I was out there, biking three miles. The first mile to the route I was carrying a load of papers on my shoulder. The Sunday edition was incredibly heavy. Many mornings my shoulders ached from carrying the weight and the beautiful relief of getting rid of papers to relieve the pain was great.
My dad used to help my sister on her route, which she kept for a mere few years. He used to go collecting with her and delivering papers. But not me, I got it Dad. It was a matter of honor to do the route by myself. I woke myself up, did the route, showered, got ready for school, ate breakfast while reading the paper all before 7am. What a man. I’m so glad they let me do that.
The first huge thing I bought with my paper route money (and by the way, I made a ton of money on that route, not sure how, but I did, I had a knack for money, which was nice), was a Raleigh road bike for $300. I also bought a cool helmet, a bike computer and biking shorts. I was the man. I biked all over Racine County. I did several 100-mile rides and other long rides, all of which they knew about and encouraged. I can’t say I never worried them, I did, but they let me go. I needed that so much. The day I rode my bike 20 miles in one hour remains one of the highlights of my life. I had all kinds of experiences that I desperately needed since driving was not an option for me.
At the same time, no matter what I did on a bike, I knew that driving or biking was not equivalent to manhood. No external thing meant manhood. Manhood was something else entirely, a different entity in itself. I’m not sure if a boy ever fully becomes a man. Usually we mark it by an event, drivers’ license, graduation, marriage, fatherhood, but it’s not these things. There are plenty of boys who have kids or are married. Manhood is a matter of character.