Copying Courage — Learning to Walk Like a Man

Originally published by The Guy Code on August 6, 2000.

In “Captains Courageous,” Rudyard Kipling tells the story of a spoiled rich boy whose life is saved – not because he falls off a boat and doesn’t drown, but because the Gloucester fishing boat that picks him up also makes him a man.

When I was a semi-spoiled middle-class boy growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., my father wanted me to read this story. I think he figured it was the next best thing to having me fall into the hands of gruff fishermen. At that age – 12 to 16 – I tended to “talk back” a lot to authority figures with whom I disagreed, such as my dad. This did not please him; he also considered sending me to military school.

Given the two choices – read an adventure novel or go to military school – you might think I would crack the book. Sadly, I was as stubborn then as I am now. At the age of 12 or so I agreed to take a look at it. However, when, about four pages in, our hero turned green as the result of some strong tobacco, and fell overboard, the description seemed a little too vivid. The book had done for me what the tobacco had done for young Harvey. So I put it down, and never picked it up again.

Until a few days ago, that is. While visiting my mom’s house, I was hunting for reading material on the way to the can. Squirreled away among her Christian literature and vegetarian tomes I found an old paperback copy of “Captains Courageous.” Soon I had moved through the passage that had stopped me before, and – by now, well off the can – had started to see why my father had liked it.

Come September, I will have lived for more days without a father than I lived with one. I’m late to reach that odd milestone; my younger sisters and brother reached their own such points years ago. My brother was only 11 when he lost his dad, which means that for him, “Captains Courageous” means nothing at all, while for me, it means something complicated. At 32, I’m still looking to see what manhood was for my father, and therefore what it ought to be for me.

Working on the fishing boat gave the formerly spoiled Harvey a sense that he belonged – a sense he had obtained nowhere else. His labor was needed there, and his improvements were noted. An only child, he had previously spent most of his life with his mother, an indulgent, anxious woman who suffered agonies of worry whenever her son so much as got his feet wet, and traveled from place to place in an effort to calm her nerves. His father stayed behind, too busy enlarging his piles of money to spend time with the boy.

For years Harvey had laughed at his mother’s excessive concern, but laughing at her had not made him a man. Although he didn’t know it, what he really needed was the approval of other men. And only hard work and skill could earn their respect.

Studying manhood

Here he is, after more than a month at sea:

Boylike, Harvey imitated all the men by turns, till he had combined Disko’s peculiar stoop at the wheel, Long Jack’s swinging overhand when the lines were hauled, Manuel’s round-shouldered but effective stroke in a dory, and Tom Platt’s generous “Ohio” stride across the deck.

” ’T is beautiful to see how he takes to ut,” said Long Jack, when Harvey was looking out by the windlass one thick noon. “I’ll lay my wage an’ share ‘t is more ‘n half play-actin’ to him, an’ he consates himself he’s a bowld mariner. Watch his little bit av a back now!”

“That’s the way we all begin,” said Tom Platt. “The boys they make believe all the time till they’ve cheated ‘emselves into bein’ men, an’ so till they die – pretendin’ an’ pretendin’.”

What a scene. We can smile at the way the rich boy has learned to imitate the men who are truly effective in his new world. Our smiles may widen when Long Jack the Irishman notes that after a few weeks at sea, Harvey already fancies himself a bold sailor.

But Kipling also wanted the male reader to smile at himself. The old reporter recognized your own predicament. Without meeting you, he knew that you had learned to follow the stances and expressions of your elders, who had picked them up from elders now gone.

Tom Platt is a comic figure in the book, constantly seeking to impress his shipmates with tales of his days on the “Ohio,” a warship he had served on years ago. As you read the book, you learn to tune out Platt’s speeches just as his mates do.

That’s why Platt’s wisdom here catches you off-guard: “The boys they make believe all the time till they’ve cheated ’emselves into bein’ men, an’ so till they die – pretendin’ an’ pretendin’.”

Was my dad always a man?

I saw my dad as a man who had always been a man. I had no idea what he had to go through to reach that point. Still don’t, really.

Part of being young is failing to appreciate that your elders, too, are faking it. As you get older, you start to see the cracks in their facades. Sometimes you may even hate them for their “phoniness.”

But you keep getting older; life teaches you about aging, whether you want to learn or not. By and by, you catch yourself pretending, too. And as you forgive yourself, so, one hopes, you forgive those who pretended before you.

On a ship, there are sing-alongs, and the food tastes good after a hard day’s work. Most of us lack those consolations, as we lack the feel of the salt air and the wiry frames we’d need to climb rigging day in and day out.

But we know what Harvey felt, as he swaggered around with stances copied from the older sailors. And we know what Tom Platt felt, too.

It turns out pretending’s not so bad, after all. It’s the only way up from being a boy.

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