Subtext: Two men who will always save you, or: it’s all about fidelity

[Again, this is a building block post and out of order, as I didn’t finish writing about Vicar of Dibley yet. It’s about why I am inclined not only to like, but also to feel ambivalent about certain kinds of characters, as a prerequisite to figuring out why Mr. Armitage’s acting affects me so much. It’s been percolating for awhile but is prompted by the fact that a generous friend helped me to see Strike Back episodes 1 and 2 and I am having a rather emotional reaction. My writing’s been disrupted not only by this reaction, but also by finals at my university and ongoing family issues, but I hope this post marks a return to regular posting. It won’t all be this serious.]

Where and when I was growing up, there were two men who would always save you. To be more precise, two kinds of men. The farmer and the serviceman. It follows as a direct corollary that two sorts of men were unreliable: the townie and the bureaucrat. I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s in a small town in the Up North of the U.S. that was near what we termed a big city (c. 30,000 people at the time). My family –both sides: my parents can’t tell you when they met because they have always known each other; they were married when they were both 19– was, since the mid-nineteenth century, from a much more rural farming community about 40 mi. west.

A story: The winter I was nineteen, I was temping for an attorney in town over my Christmas break and four months in Texas had weakened my weather awareness. Up North you never leave the house in winter without winter gear along (even if you don’t have it on), just as your car should always have a big bag of salt, jumper cables, and a blanket in it. It didn’t help that, in a fit of pique over my decision to go so far away to college, my mother had given away most of my really warm gear with the justification that it should go to someone who was going to use it. In a combination of not having the gear and not thinking much about it, I drove to work and stopped afterward to buy a few things at K-Mart. It had been snowing when I left work but by the time I came out of the store the snow had become a blizzard. I was only about ten miles away so I decided to drive home figuring I would be there before things got really bad. Well, I hadn’t been watching the sky, or I might not have made that decision. And this was before the days of cell phones. I was fine till I got to the edge of town but the country roads were bad and slick and at some point, after braking, I did a 360 degree turn that I couldn’t steer out of and landed the car hood first in a big, deep ditch. What was I going to do now? The blizzard was intensifying, I had no chance of getting the car out of the ditch, and I was dressed for work at the attorney’s: trench coat, polyester blouse, wool skirt, hose, black ballet flats. I was afraid to get out of the car, and I couldn’t see anything. As I was beginning to wonder what was going to happen, a figure appeared at the door of the car. It was my dad. When I hadn’t gotten home on time he’d gotten worried and started on the road to town to look for me. He pulled me up out of the car, put me in the cab of his tractor, attached the car to the back of the tractor, then drove himself, me, and the disabled car all home, all in the midst of a raging blizzard. On the way home he saw another car in the ditch, stopped, got out, discovered the neighbor lady and her toddler in it, took the child out and gave it to me, then drove us all home, detached my car, and went back for the neighbor lady and her car.

You might be tempted to think this was just my dad, or that it had something to do with me, but this was the expected standard of male behavior in my community. (Whether it was always fulfilled, and what that meant about the expected standard of female behavior, would be topics for a separate post, and maybe they will be, some day.) This was not bravado, or macho heroics. My parents did not farm, but most people did, and my father still sees himself as a farmer. My brother lives on the farm where my father grew up now, and he’s just the same. There’s a self-confident, non-aggressive vibe about all the men up there: if they were forced to put it into words, they might say: We do what we have to do, and we will do what we say we will do because we can count on ourselves to do the job. We won’t talk big, we won’t promise anything we can’t deliver, but we are watching out for each other, and–equally important–we won’t make a big deal out of it.

I think the vibe was also heightened by the social connections of the men in the community with the military. Conscription in the state was absolute by county, not proportional by population. Probably half the state’s population lives in its two largest cities, so disproportionately more rural dwellers went to WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Veterans’ Day was a solemn day in my community. Almost all the dads and uncles of my classmates had served. My dad and both uncles served, as did all of my great-uncles on both sides. (My grandfathers were both exempt, I’m not sure why.) All of my male cousins have served, and many, many of my classmates at school. My brother has not, mostly through historical accident. I say this not to stress my family’s patriotism or give them or me points, but to suggest that this experience of shared service created a sort of community ethic that may have been peculiarly enhanced in the wake of Vietnam and U.S. perceptions of its outcome in rural areas. That is, men have been particularly reluctant to let each other down because they felt let down by the country. If they couldn’t have the support of their nation, at least they could show each other, and each other’s families, how an ethic of service and commitment really looked. These stances are not unabashedly positive, even as there is a lot of good in them, and I won’t hash that out here now, but key for me is that this is what I was raised to believe a real man was: a farmer, or a service man. As a friend of mine said of her partner: these men are true blue.

The service man wore combat boots; the farmer wore work boots. If a dancing man makes me hot, a man in combat boots or work boots makes me trust that he will do what he says he will do and not let me down.

~ by Servetus on May 14, 2010.

22 Responses to “Subtext: Two men who will always save you, or: it’s all about fidelity”

  1. What a lovely story about the man with his truck! I find that the further away from the city I get the more acts of kindness I encounter.

    I have a split reaction to men in uniform. Half of it is filled with a sense of gratitude for their good will and public service, the other half is fearful and aware of the immunity that some men in uniform are given.. the uniform/service presumes the man who wears it to have all the idealistic qualities we bestow on it. From personal experience, I know this is not always the case. I’ve not grown up in a family or community where the military was prominent. Even though there is a small base where I currently live, much of my knowledge of service men is through the newspapers and reports of rape, sexual harassment, mistreatment of new recruits, solider suicides, inadequate health care and cover ups. So, trust is not a feeling I share towards the service man. I know what I hope to feel, but my knowledge and experience tells me to feel something else. My feeling is – who will save me from the man who is *supposed* to save me? For me, the mythology is true blue, the reality is more mixed.

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  2. Apologies for leaving it so long between visits – I’m trying to catch up on all my favourite blogs. What a great post to restart my blog reading with!

    My family also have strong ties with the armed forces. My great uncles all served; my maternal grandfather was killed in WWII in Libya, my maternal uncle was a Naval captain. My mother always held any serviceman in high esteem. My father served in WW!! (lied about his age so he could go into the Army). My paternal grandfather however was a Quaker and therefore I imagine may not have served (it is never spoken about). ANZAC Day is practically sacred for my parents. I hear Skully however as my cousin had always dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps and went to train as a Navy officer. He was discharged however on the grounds of “blood pressure” but if truth be told, he is gay and they didn’t want him. So there are good and bad stories about people in uniform. In their defense however one of our navy frigates regularly visits the city and without fail the sailors come to the special school I work with in order to build gardens and complete any jobs that are in need of doing. They fund raise a significant amount of money each year to help the children. I think servicemen are still held in high esteem in my neck of the woods.

    Farmers have always been seen as the “backbone of our nation”; the great Aussie “battlers”; That sense of “neighbourliness” I suspect is still alive and well out of the cities. Mates helping mates.

    On reflection, I still trust a man in a uniform and farmers :).

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    • Blood pressure! Ha, so that’s what they used to call it! My grandfather attempted to enrol during WWII but was declined because he was too old. As far as I know his blood pressure was ok! (But he was a communist in his younger days). His brother died in WWI. An ex of mine came from a miltary family. As a result I don’t have a favorable view of the Navy in particular, lots of bad stories there.

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      • I know that my paternal grandfather left my grandmother to farm and worked in shipbuilding during the war, but I don’t know what the deal was with the other. It can’t have been that he was too old.

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    • Welcome back!

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  3. Lovely to have you back, servetus, with more food for thought.

    I have no personal experience of the military, and having been brought up, and living amongst, academics, have been slightly wary of the idea of “might is right” and military aggrandisement. However I chose to marry a “handyman” (engineer) with a heart of gold. I think that academics are good at talk, but when it comes down to it, most women feel safe and secure with a man they know can, and will act, when the chips are down. This is certainly part of the attraction of the role of Porter, quite apart from the fact it’s RA playing him. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve taken to the character.

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    • Yeah, I think one reason I became an academic was to try to disentangle myself from the many myths I was raised with — and I am a pacifist now. But the myth is powerful, and the depiction of Porter as the man who will not let you down is powerful (aside from all of the other things, like h/c, that are inclined to make us like this despite all the violence and flagwaving.)

      Thanks for your kind words.

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  4. My mothers family is five generations of Army, while the men in my Father’s family did their time in various armed forces. My great Uncle, and last male of his family line, was one of the first Americans to die in the European Theatre of WWII in the disastrous Dieppe Raid. I have known and worked with with Veterans of WWII and Korea. My father was a Naval pilot, my brother was in the Corp.

    And I agree with Skully there are some serious problems with how American service personnel are being, picked, trained, and taught to be soldiers, and how they are taken care of both over there and when they come home. The incidence of sexual assault on female service personnel by men in their own units, sometimes by superior officers, is shocking. I was speaking with an Australian that had been stationed in Iraq and he said they often had to escort Iraqi women in the streets to protect them. Not from Iraqis, but American soldiers. The lack of appropriate training before they are sent on rotation leads to high casualty rates. And the length of their rotation, there are soldiers who have been in Iraq longer than men were stationed in WWII. The lack of medical and psychological support from the administratively over-bloated and money guzzling VA is also obscene, leading to the incidents of violence and suicide. My father left the service after Vietnam becuase he saw how the military had stopped breaking men down to build them up again to servicemen who could think for themselves and lead if need be, and just broke them down and put a rifle in their hand. You can’t say such things to a modern service personnel because they have been trained to close ranks and some will become extremely hostile when you point out even bare statistical facts, and of course war and it’s effect on human being is never pretty, but there is a problem with the American military system and what they are teaching these kids. I don’t think a service person is a bad person by nature and I do not assume I am speaking with a bad or out of control person when I talk to one, but I think the system is screwing over a lot of people.

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    • Thanks for this. I’m really interested in the perspectives of people who were or are “on the inside” in this. One thing that has always made me sad about the U.S. military is the way it uses the dreams of people to make a better life for themselves via education. I wish we could find a way to separate the dream of education and social advancement from our military. But that may be illusory.

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      • Well the thing is it used to be that. The Military used to be not only an acceptable means of educationally, economically, and socially advancing oneself, it was admired one. But at some point the military stopped going after “the best and brightest”, stopped trying to be an organization an intelligent high school or college graduate would seriously consider as a life path, and started going after the desperate for whom the military was their only option. A recent article in Time said that only 71% of new recruits had their H.S. diplomas. Targeting high school drop outs with hefty signing bonuses taking the place of encouraging service personnel to better themselves over the long term and creating an organization they want to stay in for their entire adult lives.

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  5. As for the topic itself, men you can always trust, living in a miniscule town in Maine where I was related to everyone either by blood or by marriage, and then moving to Los Angeles as a teen (and then as an adult living in a lower-middle class neighborhood in which I was the only Caucasian resident for a three block radius) has taught me that you simply cannot read a book by it’s cover.

    One gentleman I worked with a bank seemed like a typical 2nd or 3rd generation latino Angeleno: Pleasant, friendly, humorous, family man with pictures of him and his sons at the Dodger stadium, clean cut, shirts stretched, and tie straight.

    Until you got him on a tank top at the company picnic and saw the gang tattoos covering his arms. He came out of the Barrio. Sweet man, but had I first encountered him on a day off, I would have jumped to the wrong conclusion.

    Again, I was at the Santa Monica Pier and saw a this kid striding by in a full gang-banger dress with the rolling strut…who then went and sat down with his cello to play with the his fellow USC music school students for charity.

    Driving beaters, I have broken down on the side of the 405, 110, and 605 and been helped out by complete strangers of various types that most WASPs would look at little cross-eyed at first.

    So I don’t make assumptions about anyone.

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    • You can’t. Indeed, to do so would be prejudiced, I think. But the issue for me was what I was taught to believe as a child. I didn’t discuss the negative aspect of that (e.g., members of races or religions who were never to be trusted under any circumstances) but it was there, too.

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  6. […] many of the commentators to the previous post noted, the picture of the serviceman as someone who will always save you is highly problematic […]

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  7. Just wanted to mention a very insightful thing RA said in an interview for Strike Back (I can’t remember which one, I only heard a few, could be from the audio excerpt that was tweeted). He talked about the duality that combat soldiers have to negotiate – to be a nurturing family man and a killing machine. He also mentioned and the difference between being an individual man and being part of team/unit. Being part of a team and thinking as a team, rather than independently, can produce different behaviour. I think some of the more unfortunate actions we see from service men (or any men) occurs against a backdrop of a group mentality where there is a diffusion of personal responsibility and ones own own moral code fades to the background. Many of us would know of folks who are kind and decent, but have done horrible things with their mates. No one is innately bad, but many will do bad things when that’s the dominate cultural norm.

    Incidentally, for example of very fine soldiers, the IAVA is a wonderful organisation that supports and campaigns for Iraq and Afghan veterans. http://iava.org

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  8. Skully, here, we have had our own scandals/traumas etc. involving service personnel. And we’re currently dealing with a horrendous case of serial sexual murder involving a very senior Air Force officer. I should note here, that the case has not yet come to trial, just that the charges have been pressed and the officer incarcerated for the interim.

    I was a navy brat myself, with an outstanding father – as supportive and encouraging of his daughters as of his son. And the uniform of the Canadian Navy was the best! (giggle).

    That does not mean that one views the services through rose-coloured lenses, necessarily. As with police forces, perhaps they are (or should be) held to a very high standard. This does not always happen, and the risks for dereliction are higher in war time or in war zones.

    There is also the possibility that psychopaths can exist in any walk of life, and it appears that psycopathy is not always detected before it is too late. Does the military attract more than its share? I doubt it.

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  9. I should have left that last sentence out, and just ended with the question, because I really don’t know the answer. But as the soldier is trained to kill in order to protect, the dichotomy is inevitable, especially for those who have served in war zones.

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  10. Dear Servetus, this is a moving and almost deliciously elegant post — thank you. So forgive me when I mention “The Hurt Locker” as a counter-argument — a film about a man who can really only function in wartime and simply fails in real life, with his real wife and child. I mention it because I too come from a family of veterans, and am still slightly baffled by the fact that my father was once a Marine; yet my own generation is marked by men who never had to enlist and didn’t. I found the Bigelow film oddly moving for that fact above all else — that the men who survive so ferociously in Iraq or Afghanistan have a hard time back in a world of American supermarkets and lack of adrenaline.

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    • Hey, didion, I see you have landed safely. Was thinking of you this afternoon. I don’t disagree with you. Indeed, that’s part of the issue with “Strike Back”; that the dishonored Porter can’t stand up straight with his own family. But the figure appeals to me because of the myth I’ve described.

      I didn’t see “Hurt Locker,” unfortunately.

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  11. […] of simple meals. I too have an abiding respect for my family and its roots in local beliefs and customs, though I live and work outside of these by my own choice. My work, which I also experience as a […]

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  12. […] “You’re the man my dad wanted me to marry,” I say, into his shoulder. […]

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  13. […] whole question of the family drama and the problem of vindication and community, and it enabled me to write candidly about my past, something that I really struggled to do at that time. (That may be hard to believe […]

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