It was the summer of 1979. I was not quite 18, still living in my parent’s Allamakee County, Iowa, home, and found myself temporarily penniless. This was a problem, as it was Saturday night, the local hamlet of Highlandville, about five miles away, had dances every Saturday night in the summer, usually with a good local band. There were usually a couple of kegs of beer, and all the local teenagers of both sexes (we only had two back in those days) would come on in to dance and have fun.
But I was broke, and my car’s gas tank was dry.
My parents were headed into town for a meeting. I asked the Old Man if I could take his pickup into Highlandville, but earlier in the week I had done something to annoy him (hardly unusual in those days) and so he declined, advising me to ride my bike to the dance. Well, that was a non-starter; there’s no way a 17-year-old boy could look cool arriving at such a deal on a bicycle.
This is all relevant, I promise.
After the folks left, I mooched around the place, wondering what to do, when my eyes lit on my Dad’s old 1956 F-900 Ford dump truck. I didn’t need keys for that old beast; the ignition switch was long ago hor de combat and had been replaced with a Radio Shack toggle, which you need only flip to “on” and stamp on the starter button on the floor to bring the old beast to rattling, smoking, flatulent life. I did so and proceeded forthwith to Highlandville.
A couple of hours went by. I had consumed several beers and failed to attract the attention of any of the girls at the event. About nine o’clock, I was standing out by the keg when one of my buddies asked, “Hey, if you were to get in the back of that dump truck and have someone dump it out, how long do you suppose you could hang on?” Well, we tried it, several times, until someone pointed out that it was only a matter of time before broken bones ensued. There were already some bruises and black eyes in the group.
Moral of the story: Young men are idiots; young men who are showing off for young women are even bigger idiots.
Now we have scientific evidence of this principle, namely that men in societies where they must prove their manliness may well give their lives in the process.
Given that studies have repeatedly shown men to undertake more risky behaviors and to have shorter lives than women, a team of psychologists explored whether societal beliefs in precarious manhood might play a role in those differences. Their results were published in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinities.
“Countries that view manhood as more precarious likely exert more pressure on men to uphold male role norms… via regular risk-taking activities, pursuit of risky occupations, and lower rates of preventive and health-promoting behaviors,” the researchers wrote.
Well, if that’s not belaboring the obvious, I don’t know what is.
In countries high in precarious manhood beliefs (one standard deviation above the average), men lived 6.7 fewer years compared to men in countries low in precarious manhood beliefs (one standard deviation below average). The result held even when controlling for potential confounding variables such as human development and availability of physicians.
“This finding is perhaps the most exciting and powerful to emerge from this study,” the researchers commented. “Country-level endorsement of the belief that manhood is ‘hard won and easily lost’ uniquely and strongly predicts how long men in that country will live.”
What would be interesting indeed would be to correlate those high-risk societies with the prevalence of the phrase, “Hold my beer and watch this,” because, honestly, I’ve said it a time or two myself.
A willingness to take risks isn’t a bad thing. Recklessness is a bad thing, but there’s a big difference. Manliness doesn’t necessarily involve recklessness. Examples abound of a calmer, more measured, yet still profound masculinity. My Dad was an example of such and tried to pass it on, although it took some time – really until I was about 30 – before it sunk in.
Masculinity, of course, is not popular in some circles nowadays. But there will always be a place for men who are willing to take calculated risks, and in my considered opinion, based on experience in a “hold my beer” culture, it seems that the willingness to risk big things, such as starting a new company, joining the military and volunteering for combat, or becoming a police officer, is taught by risking smaller things, like jumping a dry creek bed on a spavined old bicycle. That’s how strong men are forged. We should be accepting and, indeed, encouraging boys and young men to be willing to take risks, as long as things don’t get too out of hand.
And that last bit is why we have fathers, who presumably have gone through the same things themselves and learned a thing or two from it.