Only a man can show a boy how to be a man. No woman can do it. This is a hard but necessary truth, and inescapable. There are as many ways to demonstrate this as there are men. It is not a matter of one’s occupation or social status, though these, to be sure, shape and culture this manhood. It is, rather, that such a thing comes from the man himself. And the hard thing of it is that every man can only show a manhood imperfect and flawed. This is the way of it, and it is best to front it as best one can.
Like as not, for many Kansas boys, the shape and culture of the way of being a man will have in it the grit and dust, the mud and manure, the long summer days of the Kansas farm. That way of life may already be separated from them by a couple of generations or more, but it will no less color what they see and think. This way of living is a sort of calculus of sweat and chance and blood and piety. In its own way it is a sort of hermitage atop a tractor, an anchorage in a pickup truck.
But let’s not mistake it for something idyllic. This way of life may have its mysticism, but its liturgy is the diesel sputter, the feedlot smell, the sun turning the back of the neck to leather. It is a life lived full-facing the ancient curse put on the land. So it is full of asketic hardness, of cause and effect, of a doing that supplants being. If it is not saved by humility and a certain kind of loving, it will turn graceless, and mercy will become karma.
A boy can take this in unknowing. While it is a Gospel truth that a boy becomes a man through testing and trial, apart from humility and love and mercy, it becomes an endless quest to do a thing right. For while there might be a couple of ways to do a thing properly, there is a seemingly endless variety of ways to get it wrong. And in a way of living shaped by a daily existence on the edge of catastrophe, the fear of getting it wrong breathes death and judgment down one’s neck.
This is a hard way to learn how to become a man. It is not this way for every boy, to be sure. But when it is, it can instill a deep uncertainty and a never-answered question. The doubt and the question are ultimately unendurable if left unresolved, and so they get pushed down deeper and deeper under layers of achievement and more doing. God help the boy who cannot find an arena of success. He may never become a man, his heart having given out before his first beard.
But the grace of the Kansas wheat-field, the mercy of the cattle herd, the lovingkindess of a hardened nature is that Kansas men can learn to be broken. The wrenching circumstances of a lost crop, a decimated herd, the destruction of the twister is a backwards mercy that will undo a man and tear up all his layers of doing and working and leave him bare before the Almighty. It will make a grown man cry, where nothing else will.
It is a frightening thing, make no mistake, and many men will yet run from it. Some will run from the land itself. Others will seek the solace of the beer can. Most all will look to the woman, as futile a quest as it is unfair. The breaking is not an easy thing. But it is a grace nonetheless, the love of a providence everlasting. If a man attend to it, he will be given back the land, he will find his solace, and he will be able to offer his strength, which, in the end, is all he has to give.
If a boy looks on these things, he may yet be given that humility, see that mercy, know that love that is absolutely necessary if he is to become a real man.