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Preface & Reader Response



A solid, ephemeral student-teacher relationship with a wise older man outside of the home is a necessity for a young man.

 


THE PERSONAL UNIVERSE



Bonds Out of Blood

SOCRATIC MEN & THE LADS WILLING TO LISTEN

Every Young Man Needs a Grizzled, Gravel-Voiced Guide

by Jerry Murley

A solid, ephemeral student-teacher relationship with a wise older man outside of the home is a necessity for a young man. The bonds may be short lived, but the impact is incalculable. Our society has lost much that is irredeemable if the decades of growing distrust, incivility and irresponsibility – and false presumptions of purity – have lessened the opportunities for eager-to-learn youth to observe and interact personally with experienced men – older men deserving of much attention and respect as they age and continue to pursue their daily chores, civic responsibilities, avocations and pastimes.

Two such men, now neighbors, I see weekly. They have been work companions and guides for over 30 years. They are a large part of the attraction that brought and settled me into the area of Tennessee where I now live. A recent morning greeting on the road of "Hi yah, Jerry" from one of these men set me thinking about the contributions of such men to my life.

One of these men, the man on the road, was called on for advice some thirty years ago about development of the rural land that my wife and I bought at 28 years of age. He met me one crisp fall afternoon on the land. Within minutes of arriving and looking at the lay of the land and the creek and the hill, he told me where I should build my bridge, how my driveway should curve, and the exact spot where I should build my house. Of course, I did exactly as he advised and have found that he was absolutely correct in his practical judgment.

I have known peers and younger men who reject such advanced experience in the form of gentle advice from an older neighbor, relative or co-worker, seeing it as intrusive and disrespectful of their own sensitive egos – an affront to an inflated but fractured and vulnerable sense of self-esteem. Somehow they muster the temerity to shun, even spurn, sincere, often good advice, freely given – counsel that might be subtly solicited or issue unbidden. In part, I half believe that these younger men don't even recognize the wisdom in such older men – the men, willing to talk and knowledgeable, whom they see in the community so often. In part, I see this youthful error as a psychological defect indicative of weakness, an inability to acknowledge a personal need to explore through the seasoned experience of another.

When worthy wise men advise a young man, the advice might come indirect and tactful or be delivered direct, broad-shouldered and gruff. But in general it is meant to help the protégé advance and avoid harm, rather than to baldly manipulate the life of a trusting but stalwart younger man. So interesting and so deep is the experience of these men of stature, who have lived a different life and who will take the time to befriend a young neighbor or associate, that I find it impossible to withhold respect and a bit of my time from them despite their occasional flaws and mistakes, and in some areas, inexperience and shortsightedness. Having not been in the military myself, from my affiliation with older wise men, I think I understand clearer the military dedication to a older, experienced unit leader – to learning the tricks required to stay alive and to thrive with less suffering and a modicum of achievement and pride.

Let's be clear about this. These men are not father figures. They are different from my own father in significant ways. My father is much closer in age to me; with his youthfulness, he has never had the craggy, grizzled look and rough speech. Also, a father, at least my father, will do many things for his son without request, and what he does do holds little or no expectation of near-term reciprocity in the bargain – not even the hope that the son will converse frequently or even listen occasionally. In addition, I would not hesitate to ask my father for help in the grandest or most trivial undertaking; whereas I have been and should have been much more circumspect in imposing on these older men outside the home and bonds of blood.

For practical reasons of self-reliance and artful evolution, a modern, young American man is not inclined to immediately embrace, or even see, the skills, wisdom and character of his own father. Even though the father's skill, wisdom and character are comparable or superior, a young lad is not likely to acknowledge the facts until he has attained some degree of independence – and suffered the consequences.

These Socratic men, let's call them that, are more detached. There is an element of testing in the relationship, as well as something mutually beneficial. I could imagine at the time that the Socratic men in my life were friends, but as an older man myself now, I know that the "friendship" from their perspective was provisional for a long time, or at least markedly different from their friendships with their own peers.

There are even moments when the detachment and testing are a little intimidating: These men delight in testing just how far youth will go in following their lead and example. Would youth do this dangerous task or attempt that extra burden or follow this costly advice? What was borderline unnerving for me, in such relationships in the past, was that the wise men had laughed so many times before at youthful blunders and expressed contempt for the errors and inabilities of novices in their respective field of action that I was not quite sure whether they wanted me to succeed or fail or to totally exhaust myself in free but well-fed labor just for the kick of it. The point is that they half expected me to fall short in a task or a goal, and I half expected they wouldn't much care if I stumbled, failed miserably, injured myself, or immediately disappeared from the face of the earth after work was done.

Sometimes the family members of these Socratic men, especially the children and wives, if they have them, are a bit bewildered by the attachment. It is as if they are asking, "What do you see in this man?" and "What on earth does he see in you?"

Let me speak in more detail about my personal experience with such relationships to see what we saw in each other. There can be no mistake that the Socratic men got a trade off in the bargain just as did I. Foremost, they got undivided attention and work. It is quite an honor when a much younger man – perhaps a young man of some merit – not of your immediate family, respects you as a wise teacher, especially if you have no other such young man around at the time, and especially when you need such acknowledgement and a helping hand. I was far better than a dog, as a dog can't lift the far end of a fourteen-foot 2" x 10" plank of green oak when needed.

There were no expectations but to pay attention and toil – and strive to get things right. I was like a migrate worker – all ears, eyes, smiles, muscle, effort and perseverance. These men like having young blood willing to follow orders, but they also want their followers to maintain an independent streak and not to be entirely unquestioning. In fact, they like the questions. One could almost say that the questions stimulated the mind of all involved more than the answers, except that the answers – and the stories told as illustration and punctuation – generated more and more questions. In a backward-flowing Socratic method, it was the pupil asking the questions of the older wise men that was the verbal basis of the education and the relationship. But a pupil who talks too much risks losing the opportunity to be taught. There is no higher educational experience than to maintain a proper balance of talk and silence and to share physical labor that has elements of nature and strategic thinking – that employs leverage, rudimentary science, and social tradition in the open air under a canopy of trees.

The older wise men tell stories. I enjoyed the lively stories and can recall much of the detail and inflection of voice years later. These experienced men talk; they love to tell stories that amaze and that bring a laugh or a grimace. Their stories recount and re-examine the folly of inattentive youth and the soft, vulnerable consumerism of inexperienced young men, neighbors, and business associates. Or the stories feature their own and other men's inconsequential (perhaps playful) missteps to better underscore the cagey nature of men like themselves: clear-eyed men of skill and the land. And they identify everything for the novice from the names of trees to the names of tools, as if it is all dearly important – which, if youth has the sense God gives an ant, he will clearly acknowledge is very important.

I think I first knew such a man as a baseball coach when I was in elementary school. I was a somewhat successful pitcher and hitter on a fourth-grade team, but a few years before that I was a bat boy for a team of older boys. I loved the uniform, the dust, the smells, and the night-lit dugout. I also encountered such men as Sunday school teachers at my church.

Mr. Mills was my fifth-grade math and science teacher and field coach in Houston, Texas. I had been uprooted from my old friends and boyhood haunts in Memphis. Not only did I turn my school interests even more to math and science, but I devoured his every word and even spent my summer occupied in science camp, dissecting frogs and taking field trips to manufacturing plants and the like. In other words, I saw another world. This, like the baseball bat-boy experience, was one that my parents encouraged. This, of course, was the era when people trusted other people to teach their children, and therefore the children learned much, much more from multiple adults and perspectives than they ever would have by staying home day in and day out locked in the house in front of a black and white television set.

There were coaches and bosses in junior high and high school and early college, but none stand out in my mind at this moment. In college, I did meet some slightly older guides in my fraternity; they somewhat fit the profile as being a bit frightening in their sudden detachment and their delight at the spectacle of nudging a novice into temptation and failure. But none of these fit the bill of characteristics of worthy wise men that I am describing now.

Next in my life came Dr. Marcus Orr at Memphis State University. He was an incredibly worldly, gravel-voiced raconteur who took an interest in my education at a time when I needed such a mentor. I was amazed that he actually seemed to want to hear my thoughts about history, philosophy, and art in the context of my very own life – as if my life was as important as the greats of history and the larger world. His brief tutelage was a lifetime challenge to the way I thought about the world and interacted with it. It was his Renaissance history course that so bewildered me, especially in terms of his approach to teaching and the unavoidable attention to art and craftsmanship – an area about which I should have known more but didn't – that helped induce me to quit school in order to work and travel – and to risk the attention and ire of my local draft board. It certainly was not his intention that I take such action, but he did not really try to dissuade me. I think he actually sort of admired that a student such as I would conceive of doing such a thing in such times.

Later, after ten or twelve months, our paths crossed again. In the interim, I had been a land surveyor, worked in a Los Angeles Chrysler plant, made a last-minute decision not to transfer my studies to Berkeley, sold my motorcycle, been called in for a physical by the draft board, and fought a bout of cancer that the draft-board physical discovered. Though I took no courses from Dr. Orr at the time, the books, the art and the ideas to which he introduced me served as the equivalent of an extra semester or two of college. He eventually tried to insist on selecting a profession for me – medicine – that I did not want to pursue, which somewhat strained our up to then open-ended, no-strings-attached conversations. Maybe we had exhausted our supply of mutually interesting extracurricular subject matter – and our spare time. He had a similar, but greater, falling out with a close friend of mine. In truth, he had done his job too well, we had become confident of ourselves and set out to make our own mistakes.

Yet when I quit college a second time, I silently debated with Dr. Orr for the next sixteen years about the meaning of the term “the good” and the value of institutions and college degrees. When economic necessity finally forced me to return to finish my baccalaureate, I changed my major from psychology to history, and I took Dr. Orr's Medieval and Renaissance history courses in the English-tutorial style. Those many years before, I sat rapt by his lectures in both courses, but without course credit. Most of our exchanges this time were at a distance of 200 miles, with frequent, long afternoon visits to his home in Memphis. Dr. Orr died shortly after this course work together. I may have been the last student, or among the last, in both of his signature courses.

When I left Memphis State for the second time, I worked to save money for travel to Europe alone. I wanted to see Italy. Not only did I want to see it, I wanted to live in Florence – another influence of Dr. Orr. After a few days in Florence I met for the first time a friend of a mutual friend who was from Memphis. We rented an apartment in a villa at Due Strade on Via Senese. One cloudy Sunday afternoon, my new friend came back to the apartment from reading in the small garden attached to the villa. His teeth were darkly stained. He said that he had met a Sicilian man who worked the garden, orchard and vineyard for the Signora. The man was Vincenzo Amato. He must have been in his fifties. He was stout and short. He wore a sports jacket and carried a briefcase to and from work every day. My friend and I became his pupils and work hands in the garden for the remainder of the summer. Vincenzo was a significant part of my life for about six months, until the grapes were picked and pressed in October.

He lived with his wife in a small apartment a few blocks toward the city on Via Senese. His wife had a small shop and was a seamstress, specializing in baby clothing. One day while walking in Boboli Gardens, I was surprised to see Vincenzo working there as a part-time gardener.

I could speak only basic, survival Italian and could understand a little more than I could communicate myself, so Vincenzo and I did not talk much. I was taken with his little hut in the vineyard. That hut was sort of the men's club of the villa, where we spent much time learning about how he gardened, digging new patches for him with the zappa, drinking his wine, and laughing. He laughed often at our efforts at gardening our small rocky patch behind our apartment, and he laughed at my capacity to dig long and hard at a furious, and foolish, pace. Vincenzo shared vegetables and some wine with us for our efforts, but most of all he shared his companionship.

Stupidly, I insisted on wearing my long hair and cutoff shorts and tennis shoes whether gardening on the villa or walking on Via Senese. This was a little bit of an embarrassment for Vincenzo. It took a while, but I eventually figured out just how proud he was. In late August, my friend and I gave up our apartment and hitchhiked through Yugoslavia to Greece. After my friend returned to America and graduate school, I returned to Florence to help with the grape harvest. I was about a week too early. Vincenzo allowed me to sleep in the hut, and if I walked out the back gate and walked alone to his apartment, he allowed me to eat the evening meal with him and his wife. He laughed heartily at the quantities of his wife's cooking that I could eat.

While waiting for the grape harvest, I traveled to Spain for a week. After a few days in Spain, I decided to get my hair cut. I think it was in Granada. When I returned to Florence, the weather was cooler, so I exchanged my shorts for jeans and a shirt and sweater. Vincenzo then allowed me to stay in his apartment and sleep on his couch, in part because I now looked presentable and in part because a huge wine vat now occupied the whole of the hut. One day while walking home in the evening to his apartment, I discovered what Vincenzo carried in his briefcase each day. He carried vegetables, particularly lettuce.

The harvest took only a few days. By far the best part was eating big meals with all of Vincenzo's children and grandchildren at a long table set up next to the hut in the vineyard.

I can still remember Vincenzo's broad, yellowed smile as he said, no sang, "Jerrrie!" With few words, I learned more about how to conduct a productive and joyful life from this beloved man than from all my textbooks and Sunday school lessons combined. That is the lesson that I learned from all the worthy wise men who have graced my life.

 

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