What Real Men Do

      “Chris,” my dad began, “there are two things in this world that mean everything to a real man. I’m talking about the ingredients that make real men. Do you understand me? Are you following my thinking on this?”

     I slurped up another spoonful of Frosted Flakes. I nodded my head “yes.” I remember having absolutely no idea of what he was talking about.

     My dad continued after clearing his throat noisily. “Real men go to law school. You hear what I’m saying? A real man becomes a lawyer. And it doesn’t matter what kind of law he practices. The main thing is that he has studied, has passed his bar exam, and has gone into practice of the law.”

     He stopped to sip from his coffee cup while he stared intently across the kitchen table at me. It was still pretty dark outside. The sun had barely begun to rise.

     “Do you understand, Chris?”

     “Ahm, so, I’m not a man . . . ’cause I’m not a lawyer?”

     “Well, Chris, law school’s a few years off yet, so I’m not saying it’s your fault that you aren’t a lawyer this morning.” He pounded his index finger on the table twice to emphasize “this morning.” “But before you know it, you’ll have your college degree and then you’ll be off to law school. See?”


     “Yes, Chris?”

     “Does a lady going to law school become a real man too?”

     “No.” He shook his head. “She becomes, well, a real woman, I guess.”

     “Did Mama go to law school?”


     “So she isn’t a real woman?”

     “Ah, well . . . .” Several steamy coffee sips went down. “Yes, she is a real woman.” He leaned over the table toward me. “She had you, didn’t she?” He reached across and messed up my hair with a big, hard hand. His logic was working at too high a level for me to grasp, but I nodded as if I did understand.

     “Did you go to law school, Daddy?”

     My father turned to look out the window and inspect his prize anthurium bed. He looked the huge bed over very carefully. It seemed as if he were trying to memorize the position of each blossom.

     Finally he put his coffee cup down gently.

     “Did you, Daddy?”

     “Yes, Chris,” he nodded slowly, “I did go to law school.”

     “I thought you did insurance. I didn’t know you’re a lawyer guy?”

     “Well, Chris, I’m not. I had to quit law school to come back to Hawai’i and make money – so your mom and I could live. If I’d been able to stay in law school, I’d be a lawyer now. Like your uncle Alec. You know uncle Alec is a lawyer, right?”

     “Uh uh,” I answered.

     “Well, he is. He was lucky enough to be able to finish law school. And today he’s a very important lawyer in Honolulu.”

     Now it looked as if my dad’s eyes were closely inspecting the ceiling.

     “Oh,” I said, looking up toward the ceiling too, trying to see whatever it was he was staring at. “I didn’t know that.”

     After a long pause in our conversation, I asked, “Daddy? Can I have more cereal?”

     My dad smiled, returning his gaze to me. “Of course you can. But you’re old enough to get your own cereal, aren’t you, little man?”

     I shook my head “no.” “I can reach the cereal box, but I still can’t get the milk down. Pretty soon, though.”

     “Okay,” said my dad, rising from the chair, “you get the cereal, and I’ll get the milk.” He assumed his racing stance so that I’d start running for the cupboard. I already knew he wouldn’t run, but, at that age, I still couldn’t control my urge to meet his challenge and outrun him. Of course, I arrived at the cupboard before he strolled over to the refrigerator.

     Once my bowl and his coffee cup were refilled, he sat down and just watched me eat.

     Finally I asked, “Daddy, what’s the other thing that makes you a real man?”

     “Ah, yes, thank you for reminding me, Chris. The other thing is boxing. I’m going to teach you how to box.”

     “Do you know how to?”

     “Yes, don’t you remember? Remember how I told you I used to box in high school and early on in college?”

     “Oh, yeah, I guess.”

     My father went back to examining his garden through the large pane of glass that was our kitchen picture window. “You remember how I could have had that boxing scholarship in college. I could have saved all my money for law school. But,” he looked back at me, “remember why I had to quit boxing?”

     “Ahm . . . .” I thought hard, looking at the bowl of milk and soaking flakes to try and refresh my memory. “Ah, you had to do something else, right, Daddy?”

     “That’s right, Chris. Just when I’d won the boxing scholarship, I got drafted. By the time the Army finally let me go, I was too old to box for the college team anymore. So,” he brought his coffee cup down with a thud, “I had to spend every cent I made, working three jobs, on my college education.”

     The look in his eyes scared me. I shivered.

     He shook his head as if coming out of a dream he did not believe, then gave me a reassuring smile. “So law school was out – especially once I met your mother.”

     “You got married, huh.”

     “Yes, we did.”

     “And that costs lots of money, huh.”

     My dad laughed out loud. “Very expensive, Chris. Very, very expensive.”

     Suddenly he clapped his hands together. “You know what, Chris?”

     “What?” I could feel the excitement.

     “Today, after school, I’m going to take you to Sears!”

     “Really?” I nodded my head enthusiastically. “Why?”

     “Why? Because I’m going to buy you some real boxing gloves.”


     “And I’m going to buy you a heavy bag!”


     “And I’m going to buy you a speed bag!”


     “And I’m going to buy you a jump rope!”


     He was rubbing his hands together so hard I could almost see them smoke.

     “Daddy, we have a jump rope at school. All the girls really like to play it.”

     “Oh, I’m not talking about that kind of jump rope. I’m talking about the kind of jump rope real men jump rope with.”

     “Oh, okay. So Karen can’t use it?”

     “Well, if your sister wants to use it, she can. We always share, right, partner?”

     “Oh, yeah, right.”

     My dad positively glowed. I hated to bring him back to the nuts and bolts of the matter.


     “Yes?” He looked at me again.

     “I know what the boxing gloves are . . . .” I took a long, worried pause. “But what’re those bag things you said?”

     “Don’t worry about it,” he assured me. “Don’t you worry about a thing. Everything will be explained. You’ll understand all of it, once you see them, and once I show you how to use them.”

     “Oh, okay.” I liked it when my dad showed me how to do things or how things worked.

     “We can’t worry too much about law school yet,” he encouraged, “but we can begin on the boxing right this afternoon.”

     I nodded hearty assent.

     “Now clean up those dishes, and let’s get ready for school.”

     While my dad and I carried our dishes to the sink, a thought hit me. “Daddy?”

     “Yes, Chris?”

     “What if . . . what if I don’t want to go to law school? Will I just be a half of a real man?”

     “Don’t worry about it, Chris.” He patted me on the back. “You’ll want to go.”

     “But what if I want to do insurance, or teach, like Mama?”

     My dad leaned forward and looked hard into my eyes. “Chris, you know you shouldn’t take everything I say so darn seriously. Don’t I always tell you, and your sisters, that whatever you want to do when you grow up is okay by me?”

     “Uh huh.”


     I couldn’t understand exactly what he meant. “So are we gonna go to Sears today?”

     “You bet we are, Chris.” His smile was enormous. I gave him a huge smile right back. This sounded like it would be a lot of fun. My dad and I – boxing partners.

     As I walked upstairs to get ready for school, I saw my dad lean hard against the sink. He’d stopped smiling. Staring out the window again, he must have been inspecting his prize anthurium bed, but from another angle this time.

                                        Fathers are teachers of the true and not-true, and no

                                         father ever knowingly teaches what is not true. In a cloud

                                        of unknowing, then, the father proceeds with his instruction.

                                                                              Donald Barthelme

                                                                              A MANUAL FOR SONS

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