Balls, Fire, and Birds on the Wing—Traditions That Remind Us Who We Are

Photo by Roman Pohorecki from Pexels

Man Without Fire Has Backyard Barbecue

Note: in the city, the rooftop is often the backyard. Even during the craziest, most turbulent times, holding up important traditions is like saying you’re committed to things being okay, despite it being a shitshow right now. When it’s about people coming together, there’s an “I’ve got your back” feeling, which, more than ever, is needed during those times.

In a Facebook group chat, some friends were talking about setting up a rooftop BBQ. A brave man offered up his place (everyone knows he’d be left with most of the cleaning, as befits the host). His offer came with conditions, though. He could give his rooftop, but he had no idea how to make a fire or how to BBQ. Someone else would have to do it.

He was a cheerful one, who didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed by his revelation, and for their part, the folks in the group chat were only mildly mocking. Not being able to make a fire isn’t something to fret about.

In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, points to the advent of fire and cooking food as the catalyst for the evolution of a smaller intestinal track and a larger brain. If you follow the winding, indirect path, then fire is what got us to where we are today. It made us smarter, faster, and more efficient.

Collecting and chopping the wood, stacking it just right, gathering the twigs and small dry bits that will get the fire going, and the bigger logs with water inside that will pop as the fire goes and shoot embers up in the air. It’s a process. It’s exciting. Over the next few hours, as your fire grows, providing light and warmth to those around, and a place to cook your meat, your fish, and your vegetables, your pride grows a little too. Maybe you remember that first time you made a fire.

Firebuilding Is Key to The Camping Trip

Those who come from a camping family are old hands at fire-making. It’s second nature. Part of the camping process. Squeaky voices and skinny tummies stand in front of the collection of wood and coal, ready to strike the first light. When it gets going enough to warrant an approving nod, the torch is passed on, and from then on, fire-making is a shared activity.

There’s a familiarity to the discomfort of camping that we revel in. Children don’t get a free pass from the discomfort, if you’re camping, you’re a part of it. You accept it and you make do.

Samuel Brewer was your regular Bear Creek camper who shared a time when he tried to “make do”, in the middle of a thunderstorm, flanked by his son and two friends. The group had gone backpacking along the Appalachian Trail. On the second day, the rainstorm hit, and their fire fought bravely. With a little help, it managed to survive and they were able to cook their food.

On the third day, thunder and lightning joined the rain, and then it came down as he’d never seen before. The trail they were following was ankle-deep in water. It could have been a shitshow, but they were together in the middle of the most beautiful forest. Samuel recalls that moment vividly, where he stared up at the trees, mountains, valleys, and creeks, and looked around at his friends and son.

“The air felt so clean like I was breathing pure oxygen for the first time. The smell was fresh and alive, and I knew I would never forget this camping trip.”

It’s steeped in our hearts, this grip we have on wild, rough nature. We’re against it and we’re with it. We’re there to overcome the elements, to prove to ourselves that nature is tough, but we can survive there, even if it's just for a few days, even if we’ve packed all the supplies, and even if we’ll be going home to our beds and warm showers. We came out, slightly scathed, but better for it.

Most of us Still Remember Who Paid on Our First Date

A 16-year-old boy walked hand in sweaty hand with his 15-year-old almost-girlfriend, clutching the money his dad gave him. It was just enough for popcorn, soda, and movie tickets for both of them. He might be able to get ice cream too if they shared. That would be romantic, right? They ordered the popcorn and she started taking her money out, but he beat her to it. He threw the crumpled notes on the counter. The cashier smiled reassuringly, took it, and gave their change, their treats, and their tickets. He didn’t have much, but he felt good being able to pay for that. “I’ve got you.”

That first date check pickup, which symbolically conveys the message, “I’ll do my part, give my word, and be a reliable, dependable person” could lead to (eventually)...the stag do. Not the one with strippers and the sex one last time before exclusivity. Not the one filled with drinking and drugs and a night you hardly remember. It’s not about that. It’s about men getting together in a group - whether it's a steak dinner or a camping trip or a party - and understanding that a commitment is a next step. Good friends support this commitment - the last hurrah is a dance to freedom, which doesn’t mean confinement will follow, but rather that there are different responsibilities, and manhood is about committing to these responsibilities in a fun, serious, next-step in life way. It’s not the end, it’s the next foray in manhood.

Tom Brokaw Eats What He Kills

For 22 years, Tom Brokaw blasted into our living rooms and onto our screens every evening from 6.30 pm to 7:00 pm to deliver the daily news. Whether he was talking about wars waging around the world or dancing squirrels, his segments were delivered with a cool, calm tone, letting us know that everything would be okay eventually.

In the autumn, when he wasn’t shouldering the responsibility of a wise, trusted doctor associated with news anchors back in those days, he retreated from the daily limelight to his South Dakota sanctuary. He wasn’t the only big city boy who sought refuge in these lands during this time. The area draws most of its old inhabitants and even new, non-residents around October, and they all come for one reason: pheasant hunting.

South Dakota, with its grasslands, myriad of trees and shrubs that ward off the heavy rains and cold days, and the ideally placed food crops, is pheasant heaven. It’s where Brokaw grew up with his two brothers, his mother, and his father. His mother was a post-office clerk and his dad a construction foreman, so they’ve never had a lot of money. He was bookish, like his mom, but he and his dad bonded overhunting. It’s how he spent time with his friends too, and it didn’t matter if it was winter, summer, or Sunday straight after church, they’d take their .22s out to the woods and camp out.

He grew up on the prairie, surrounded by rolling hills and the Missouri River. Tom recalls almost drowning in it once when he was playing cottonwood tree jumping with friends. He was meant to grab onto the next tree, but he missed it and got swept up in the current. His Sunday school teacher jumped in and saved him. That experience turned him into an expert swimmer and a lifeguard.

His friends are retired doctors, lawyers, and politicians now, but those days along the river are what shaped them. It’s why they come back every year, to make sure that they’ve still got that mold. To reinforce it if it gets slightly eroded by the lights and sounds of the city. Back then, the pheasants roamed free, like the boys. It’s a bit different for the birds and boys now, though.

Paul Nelson Farm sounds like some chicken farm in the middle of nowhere, but it's actually one of the most revered wingshooting farms in the country, and also, it’s the ultimate man cave. It’s got cigar lounges, private bars, massive television screens, and birds everywhere. It’s where Brokaw and a team from Covey Rise magazine went for some hunting shots and a cool story, which turned into a fully-fledged Covey Rise episode complete with a camera crew.

Brokaw says that despite living in cities now, his connection to the prairie hasn’t changed. It’s where he belongs. There’s an anchor to his childhood experiences in the woods with his friends, chasing and catching birds, and eating what they caught. Doing it now draws him back to that time, and it can be grounding and reassuring, like a parent comforting a child after a hard day, except you’re a senior citizen now and you’ve lived life.

“We eat what we kill and it's been a part of my life and has been a part of this country for a long time.”

You Can’t Beat A Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn Christmas

Holidays are rife with traditions, and these are fun because while they all have a similar foundation, families have adapted these foundations differently to go with their loves and lifestyles. Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn have been together for as long as Hollywood has been around - okay, 40 years, slightly shorter, but in screen terms, that’s two lifetimes.

Their kids are all grown now, but that hasn’t stopped them from roping their grandchildren into their night before Christmas rituals. Before the little ones start getting nervous, thinking that Santa might skip their house because they’re up too late, The Hawns and Russels gather the crew, suit them up in their best pajamas, and plonk them around the roaring living room fire.

There’s a lot of commotion going on as the kids shove each other and jump around while they put their stockings up. Their tummies are full after the big meal, so it doesn’t take much to settle them down. Once the commotion turns to quiet, someone picks up their copy of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and starts reading. At some point, they’ll hear sleigh bells, and that moment of silence is interrupted by pandemonium as everyone runs up to bed.

One Turkey Pardons Another

Note: That headline is my editor’s sense of humor :). The press were gathered outside, their quick cameras brightening the daylight. It was a warm day for November, and people were wearing their prettiest dresses and sharpest suits. The chill was looming, but not yet there. What was there was a turkey. A big ‘ole bird ready to flap its wings to excited shrieks and then served at the dinner table to close family and distinguished guests.

It was 1947 and the chairman of the National Turkey Federation was doing his first of what would be many marches up to the White House lawns. He presented his most prized turkey to President Harry S. Truman, who declared it fit for a feast. Later, along with the rest of the country, Truman and his cooks would serve the turkey to his guests.

Back in their homes, mothers turned cooks and fathers turned sous chefs were stuffing their own turkeys, stirring the gravy, mashing the potatoes, baking the cornbread, and pouring the cranberry sauce. Most dishes used grandma’s special recipe, which was passed down to her by her mother, which was passed down, and so on.

For many years, the turkey presented to the president was eaten, with an unexpected, spontaneous pardon by Kennedy one year. These days, the turkey is pardoned and sent off to live in happy turkey land. Who can forget Former President Obama’s witty turkey pardon speeches coupled with dad jokes that saw Malia and Sashi visibly cringe:

"I want to take a moment to recognize the brave turkeys who weren't so lucky. Who didn't get to ride the gravy train to freedom? Who met their fate with courage and sacrifice and proved that they weren't chicken." 

The turkey presentation has undergone a makeover in the last 80 years, but it’s become a time-honored tradition that is a proverbial cutting of the cake, signifying the start of thanksgiving day.

Donald Trump did it too, despite the turbulence surrounding his presidency each year. It provided some form of normalcy, some form of humor, and a little stability. A turkey provided stability. Who woulda thought.

Robert Redford Stories Are Steroidal Things

Many of us come from traditions of campfire stories or at least bedtime stories. Some might remember listening every week to the General Electric Theater or General Mills Radio Adventure Theater. Others of us, like the Redfords, tell true stories—documentary style.

The Redford family has its own twist on stories. In an interview for Walker Art Gallery, actor, director, and Sundance Festival founder, Robert Redford sat down with his grandson, Dylan Redford. Dylan, an artist, gallerist, and Walker Bentson’s Research Associate recalls the significance of storytelling in their family and where it came from.

His father, James Redford, is a documentary filmmaker, so that drive to tell a story has passed through the Redford generations. For Robert, it started when he was a kid growing up on the working-class streets of Los Angeles. They didn’t have much, but they did have stories. These stories could be weaved, molded, and adjusted to fit the moods, experiences, and lessons of the day. Robert was a particularly active child, so his father calmed him down at night with stories.

Throughout the interview, Dylan references some of his favorite stories that his grandfather has told him. There’s one, in particular, that takes them both down memory lane. Robert is an 18-year-old aspiring painter hitchhiking through Europe during winter. He arrives in France, where it’s a little warmer. He has no money and no place to stay, so he finds solace on a pier bench. As he’s laying there, thinking about his journey and his next move, he hears music and laughter. He looks up and sees the lights and grandeur of the Hotel Carlton. “What’s it like?”, he wonders. “What’s it like to be up there in your tuxedo, dancing and laughing without a care in the world?”.

16 years later, he’s invited to the Cannes Film Festival with Sydney Pollack. They’ve just released Jeremiah Johnson. He stands in the room at the Hotel Carlton, buttoning up his tuxedo as waiters serve champagne and hors d’oeuvres. He opens the balcony doors and steps out. Below, cameras flash and the crowd roars. As he looks up from that crowd, he sees the pier.

So, what’s it like?

“Well”, he says,  “it’s not as great as I thought it would be.”

Dylan and Robert end their interview by talking about how to tell your own stories and find your own language that isn’t somebody else’s. How do you relate to a larger conversation? As Robert says,

“You think you know who you are until you put yourself in a situation where you have to look at yourself beyond the point where you did before and you see another person there. That’s when you get scared. That’s when it’s frightening”

Traditions help us tell a story. It’s a story that’s passed down from generation to generation, and then we get a chance to tell our part of the story too, and we pass that down and hope the next generation does the same thing. It’s a way for us to try to find out who we are, and what we’re a part of. It’s a way for us to have some kind of legacy.

Many of Us (Especially Doug) Love Our Balls

Douglas Hartmann, Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, describes his father—grade school principal, no time for small talk—as a stickler for sporting traditions. His father wasn’t a particularly gifted athlete or sportsman—actually, not many men are—even if a vast number remain absolutely fascinated by the sport. In his feature article, The Sanctity of Sunday Football: Why Men Love Sports, he talks about his bonding time with his father around sports. They spent Sunday afternoons watching football games on television and summer evenings listening to Jack Buck announce St.Louis Cardinals baseball games. Between that, his dad took him to every sporting event in town.

Sometimes we find our balls later in life. Sean Connery liked golfing. It’s said he liked collecting rare and expensive automobiles too, but as he got older, Connery started off his week with a game of golf. What became a ‘personal tradition’ didn’t come from his family background. He grew up poor and had to start working when he was nine-years-old. As a child, he didn’t have those rituals with his friends and family. As an actor, he could enjoy his favorite activities at leisure, and these often included sex, wine, women, and golf.

Tradition is an Active Memory

The first fire, picking up the first check, the seasonal hunting, cutting the turkey, or baseball with the boys, all seem so different, yet there’s a rooted similarity between these activities. Sometimes, it’s the competitiveness and the thrill of a potential win or losses, sometimes it’s the teamwork and being able to stand up for yourself and for others. It’s also a form of expression. You’re saying something to yourself and the people you’re with.

Finding a place in society isn’t an easy, “let’s have a sit down” chat kinda activity. It’s an active memory. It’s doing something that you can go back to, where you can grab that feeling of independence and achievement. Doing this activity as often as possible brings back that feeling and as Brokaw said, it’s like going home again, even if the home is 50 years behind.

It’s pretty standard stuff. It doesn’t require a lot of money or skills or even time. It doesn’t require much mental bandwidth, so it’s easy enough to just flow with it instead of having to think about the next move and the consequences of that. Or, if you do have to think of the next move, the consequences are a lot more limited and manageable, unlike everything else in life.

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Cael Woolward

The days are filled with research, the dark nights with terrors—or at least the terror of writing. It started in Cape Town, but now happens in Danang, where a journalism graduate brings stories to life, one phở chay and cà phê đen đá at a time.

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1 thought on “Balls, Fire, and Birds on the Wing—Traditions That Remind Us Who We Are”

  1. Rob Lowe says his family’s annual Turkey Bowl football game has been held religiously since the 1970s. The Kelman’s in Great Falls used to save the silver coins they emptied out of vending machines. The tradition fed a hobby that became a family business (Great Falls Coins & More). Bit about Brokaw… In his 70s, after a cancer diagnosis, with trips to NYC for treatment, he tracked bird hunting season like a newsman, ordering a recoilless 28 gauge that wouldn’t bruise his bones.

    Some traditions I witness a lot:
    * Taking your kid to a baseball game – getting a hotdog from the vendor
    * Taking your kid on his first hunt – giving the kid the ‘shot’
    * Cigars and scotch with a friend – a bonding ritual
    * Buying someone a beer – very common gesture of regard and good will
    * Minor hazing – snipe hunt – way of welcoming someone into your circle by acknowledging we all have weaknesses of perception

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