So many of the most touching, joy filled moments of my life have been experienced in my encounters with men.
My father , who was a passionate lover of literature, history, music and above all his children, was the first man to open my eyes to the beauty, terror and magic to be found in life. Dad would tell us stories in which we played the starring roles. You cannot imagine the thrill we experienced when we heard our names spoken as we bravely faced monsters or rescued our siblings from danger.
Dad hugged and kissed us with ferocious love. When he arrived home from work each night there was a stampede as five ecstatic children rushed to the front door to greet him. Again, Dad’s magic was in play as he greeted each one of us with our special nicknames and a tickle on the tummy or affectionate rub of the neck.
I still recall the rush of warmth which flowed through my body each and every time this ritual took place.
It was easy to love my dad. He made us feel special. Dad told us tales of terror and inspired my love of history with his endless passion for great men of the past. He made me think about the raw courage of great warriors or the inspired genius of Mozart and Beethoven. He read the classic Matthew Arnold poem, Sohrab and Rustum to my brothers and I each night and although we were only young boys of primary school age, we grasped enough of the poem to appreciate the tragic ending… A father unknowingly kills his only beloved son in mortal combat, and discovers too late, that the man dying on the ground at his feet is the son he has longed to find.
I remember to this day, the quiver of emotion in my dad’s voice as he read this heartrending scene and though much of the text was beyond me, I saw how deeply it moved my father…and I have never forgotten.
He spoke; but Rustum gazed, and gazed, and stood
Speechless; and then he utter’d one sharp cry:
O boy—thy father!—and his voice choked there.
And then a dark cloud pass’d before his eyes,
And his head swam, and he sank down to earth.
But Sohrab crawl’d to where he lay, and cast
His arms about his neck, and kiss’d his lips,
And with fond faltering fingers stroked his cheeks,
Trying to call him back to life; and life
Came back to Rustum, and he oped his eyes,
And they stood wide with horror; and he seized
In both his hands the dust which lay around,
And threw it on his head, and smirch’d his hair,—
His hair, and face, and beard, and glittering arms;
And strong convulsive groanings shook his breast,
And his sobs choked him; and he clutch’d his sword,
To draw it, and for ever let life out.
But Sohrab saw his thoughts, and held his hands
And with a soothing voice he spake, and said:—
“Father, forbear! for I but meet to-day
The doom which at my birth was written down
In Heaven, and thou art Heaven’s unconscious hand.
As I reflect upon my childhood, I believe more than anything else, it was my dad’s passion for films which carried a recurrent theme and our exposure to them which first awakened me to the many wonderful qualities possessed by men.
These films reinforced the message that most men are strong and good. The Yearling, starring Gregory Peck tore my heart out, but it taught me a lesson I reflect upon to this day. When a young fawn, adopted as a pet by the only child of a poor family, continues to destroy the family’s desperately needed crops, the family has no choice but to shoot the fawn. The young boy, Jody, has to carry out this deed himself as his father is bedridden with torn back muscles. Jody carries out the execution but his heart is filled with rage and hatred for his parents who he believes have betrayed him and his beloved yearling, Flag.
After running away and going without food or shelter for three days, Jody finds his way home and when he is reunited with his adoring dad, Penny, he receives a little wisdom from his father.
‘..Ever’ man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. ‘Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but ’tain’t easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin. I’ve been uneasy all my life…I’ve wanted life to be easy for you. Easier’n ’twas for me. A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. Knowin’ they got to get their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What’s he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.
The classic Dicken’s novel, A Tale of Two Cities was adapted to film on more than one occasion. The Ronald Colman version stands as the most powerfully moving of them all.
I saw a man offer up his own life so the woman he loved more than life itself could find happiness in the arms of another man. In the moments before his own death he comforted a frightened young girl, and helped her to face her last moments on earth. As he stood before the guillotine awaiting his execution, his final thoughts etched themselves in my heart:
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
When dad introduced me to the film, Goodbye, Mr Chips I was not to know how deeply it would influence the direction of my life and the career I chose to pursue.
Mr Chips forged deep, lasting friendships with the students he taught. He became a true educator when he dropped his defenses and showed his humanity to the boys in his care. When I became a teacher I never forgot the lessons I learned when my dad first introduced me to dear Mr Chips.
Throughout my career in education my guiding principle was nothing simpler than to love the children in my care and not be afraid to bring them into my life or reveal my own fear and vulnerability. Many years earlier, as a boy, I learned that we can only build deep, lasting relationships by doing just that. I did, and still do and have been able to forge my own precious friendships with many of the kids I have taught. All this has come to pass in a way that makes my life seem magical.
We watched Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) defy an oppressive, unjust system in Cool Hand Luke and win the hearts and minds of his fellow prisoners with his courage and charisma. One scene which touched me deeply was when Luke was informed that his mum had died. This “cool hand” grieves his loss by strumming his banjo and singing his mum’s favorite song. I saw a strong man shed tears of grief without losing the respect of his hardened, criminal peers. As a boy these lessons were carved into my heart.
I was mesmerized by the power of one man, who, armed with nothing but a sharp mind and moral courage, was able to sway a jury which had been convinced of the guilt of a young man and were willing to see him die.
The most powerful moment came at the end of the film. The character played by Henry Fonda walked over to the man who had opposed, abused, belittled and antagonized him throughout the long night as they debated the case they had witnessed. When this broken jury member revealed the true motivations behind his rage, Henry Fonda reached out with an act of such quiet tenderness that even as a boy it struck home so powerfully I never forgot it. Watch from the 1:17 mark for this simple gesture that says so much. For me it encapsulates the quiet, almost unnoticed gestures men so often perform, gestures which carry deep love, tenderness and compassion.
I experienced such gestures on many occasions when I was battling bone cancer. My mates would come and sit quietly by my bed, unsure about what to say or do. When the time to leave arrived, they would shake my hand and hold it firmly and meaningfully for far longer than a normal handshake required. It filled me with such warmth, as everything they felt and wanted to say was expressed in that passionate grip of my hand.
One evening my rugged brick laying brother in law came to visit with my sister. He stood in the background throughout the visit. When the time to depart arrived, he walked to my bedside, still not having uttered a word, bent down and kissed my forehead.
Another man, who I had only got to know because he was a parent of a boy I taught, came to me well after visiting hours were over and sat beside my bed in silence. I had a fever and he simply placed a cool, wet cloth on my forehead. When it became hot he rose and placed it in cold water before returning it to my burning face.
I have not seen this man in over 25 years, but I will never forget the love he showed me on that long, dark night.
We watched Atticus Finch defend a black man against a false rape accusation. He did so with such courage and dignity and showed such tenderness and love for his children even in his darkest, most fearful moments.
Captains Courageous broke my heart yet again. The courage and incredible love and tenderness shown by Manuel (Spencer Tracy), the rough fisherman, to the young, spoiled rich boy rescued from the sea, caused a huge transformation to take place in the young man. Manuel became yet another role model for me to try to emulate in my own small way.
And that simple song Manuel sings as he plays his hurdy gurdy is unforgettable.
One Saturday night dad sat me down alongside him on the couch and suggested I watch a film that was about to start. It was called The Man Who Would Be King. The two main characters, Daniel Dravot(Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan( Michael Caine) could best be referred to as lovable rogues. In the final moments of the film, when the two best friends are facing death, you see men at their finest. I saw two noble, dignified mates who stood side by side and looked their mortality in the face without regret or recriminations.
These glorious films seeped into my blood and bones along with the literature and music dad drowned us in.
I loved men. I believed in their innate goodness. I was not disappointed once I left the bosom of my family and ventured out into the world.
My life is littered with countless moments of the most exquisite tenderness and compassion in my encounters with men.
Don’t be mistaken. I have been married to the most beautiful human being I have encountered. Her name is Maggie and she is my soulmate. I have a daughter and a son and both are a source of endless joy in my life. I loved my mum with all my heart and we had a close relationship. I have many close female friends………but the men. There is something in them which has the capacity to move me in a manner that I find hard to explain.
Why should I try?
I simply love the many men in my life.
I have written many simple poems about my dad over the years. Here is one to finish my small tribute to him and all of the beautiful men in my life..
He carried me in his arms late at night
When I cried in pain or felt afraid
He soothed me with tender words
And gentle movement
He washed me in the bath
And then dried me vigorously
-never forgetting the gaps between my toes
He told me stories of great people,
Brave men who died for love
Or a simple idea
He scared me with terrifying stories of axemen
And long, dark corridors
He introduced me to the world of music
And planted a deep seed of love
By showing me
A young boy and his deer,
A king and his dream
And a little girl who finally understood
That there is no place like home
He welcomed me into a game which became a part
Of my heartbeat-and we shed tears of joy and anguish
Over many years as we followed our beloved Collingwood
We shared all the emotion the men in black and white brought us
And we retold and relived the countless moments witnessed
Year after year- with passion
I was hurt
I was sick
He stroked my face
He squeezed my hand and kissed my forehead
He wheeled me in my chair
I said, “I love you, dad”
“I love you too, son.”