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Giving Free Rein to Male Image Search

March 03, 1994|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

Like a lot of boys and men, I grew up much influenced by the more obvious forms of the "male image."

As a 6-year-old, I was constantly playing Army, lugging a plastic gun around the neighborhood, looking for fascists. A little later, I got a cowboy style "Fanner-Fifty" six-gun and holster, which I wore slung low, and practiced many hours at the quick draw and attendant deadly, squint-eyed stare. I was good.

Of course, there was the Steve Canyon jet helmet that turned me into a fighter pilot, a child's plastic bow and arrow set that transformed me into Cochise, a battalion of miniature plastic tanks that gave me a taste of Pattonhood, a large plastic knife that brought to mind Tarzan stabbing the alligator underwater (my brother played the gator), gladiator helmets and swords that returned me to the glory of ancient Rome, plastic Civil War weaponry that magically changed our suburban Tustin household into a tragic Shiloh of the imagination.

Being a hero was mandatory, easy to do and affordable. More or less, it kept you out of trouble. None of the neighborhood parents, in those far-off days, worried that by buying their kid a toy six-gun, the kid would actually turn out to be a gunfighter, though I suspect that a lot of those boys would--in their hearts of hearts--rather be gunfighters than perform the dreary jobs they hold as adults. Who wouldn't?

As I reached high school, my male role models suddenly went from the imaginary to the real. What a letdown.

Gone were the days of Army and the Old West. Forgotten were the fury of Cochise, the trials of Hercules, the glum existential resolve of Sgt. Saunders on "Combat."

Instead, I was supposed to canonize the quarterback of the football team (a moron with a fair arm), and, well, what? Dream of the day when my skinny body, thin neck and wobbly knees would catapult me to stardom on the gridiron, in a patently boring game revolving around punts and real estate? Sure, there was Muhammad Ali, but I was too small, too weak, too white, and Sonny Liston terrified me.

The world of college and pop culture did little for my male image search. To play it straight and emulate my literary heroes, I would have had to become a dead genius, two criteria I had little chance of meeting as an undergrad with a healthy body and mediocre SAT scores. Anyway, Joyce was a great writer, but he had bad eyes and carried around his wife's underwear in his pocket.

Turning to the counterculture, I could certainly wear flannel shirts, grow my hair and affect a stoner's countenance but could never remember if "Heart of Gold" went C-F-G or F-C-D and, truly, I wasn't much drawn to being a miner anyway.

At some point, most adults realize that it's too time-consuming to live their lives while trying to be somebody else, too. But that burning desire to step into the hero's shoes never really goes away, which is what led me a few weeks ago to the Club riding school at Sycamore Trails Stables in San Juan Capistrano, determined to learn how to ride a horse.

With a little time on my hands of late, I'd been keeping out a keen eye for an interesting frame in which to put myself, a fresh context, something challenging, something new, something . . . manly. Happily, I had been given two riding lessons as a birthday present by a good friend, one of the Club's apprentice instructors, Donna Shabdue.

I made the appointment, struggled into a pair of cowboy boots and drove out to Sycamore Trails. Heretofore, my experience with horses had been comprised of two events--one unhappy and one tragic.

As a 10-year-old on Grandma Mae's farm in Ohio, I'd mounted a barnyard pony that simply walked over to the fence and rubbed me off like I was a piece of chewing gum stuck to his side. As a 30-year-old, I watched a horse up in Mendocino County throw and trample to death its rider, a young girl named Julie.

This time, I was given Hudson. Hudson is 17-plus hands, 20-something-years-old and was saved from slaughter not long ago, then taken to Sycamore Trails and fattened up. His reputation is as a gentle and tolerant animal who can abide fools like me. At our introduction he regarded me with huge soulful eyes and an expression of uncensored distrust. I ran my hand down his neck, truly amazed at how strong this animal was. We brushed him down, saddled him up and led him to the arena.

My first idea, once on horseback, was wow, that's a long way down. I recalled Thomas McGuane's remark about how for a rider, after age 30, the ground just keeps getting farther away and harder. I kept hearing my wrist bone snap. I grabbed for the saddle horn, but there was none, Donna having decided I should begin English style. Hudson glanced back at me like a getaway driver looking for cops.

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