Oh, Captain, My Captain
My earliest discovery of masculinity
When I was a kid, I didn’t think much about the kind of dad I would someday become. I was too busy daydreaming and doing the stuff that young boys do in their prepubescent years to think about such distant things. My own father was an unknown, faceless stranger whom I had met only one afternoon when I was sixteen, but never really got to know until I turned thirty and was about to be a father for the first time, myself.
I was the middle child of three, a so-called “latch-key kid” whose young, attractive, single mom worked hard as a waitress for meager pay and a few lousy tips. She would head to her job at a small dive of a pub every day before I got home from school, leaving instructions to throw frozen pot pies into the oven for supper and for me and my siblings to be in bed by 9:00pm. She had a few boyfriend relationships in and out of the home during those years, but none of them ever became a permanent fixture. Consequently, I created in my own mind, a masculine patriarch composed of the figures of fatherhood and masculinity that television of the late 1960s and early 1970s had to offer. I soaked them up like a sponge.
During my childhood afternoons I precariously balanced my time in the sunshine or out playing in the yard, with the dimly lit basement of my mother’s home, watching television. Every day, for several hours-a-day, I absorbed the varied heroes of television, the sheriffs, outlaws, adventurers and secret agents in such shows as Robin Hood, The Wild, Wild West, Lost in Space and Gunsmoke. They were the manly icons that constructed my view of masculinity, the varied fictional elementals that comprised the amalgamated-yet-imaginary surrogate father of my youth.
But out of them all, there was one hero who stood head and shoulders above the rest. No other televised character could compare with the fictional leader who, to me in my childhood, represented an image of what I wanted to become as a man. He was an escape from the emotional turmoil of my youth, designed by his creator to be the Horatio Hornblower of outer space. The adventurer’s adventurer. The hero’s hero. The leader, the visionary, the intellectual man’s man, were all embodied in Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, who singlehandedly established for me the image of what I began to believe a man was really supposed to be.
There was something very different about the good captain that struck a chord of harmony with that little boy back in the late 1960s, and it wasn’t until recent years that I was able to uncover the buried emotions of my past to discover why, as a young boy, I found a “kindred spirit,” if you will, with this fictitious space-age adventurer.
Now, for the record, I must state that while I adhere to the tenants of good psychology, I have a sincere loathing of much of the psycho-babbly, gobbelty-gook associated with the more non-scientific facet of the craft. And, quite frankly, as a ‘Guy,’ I am not always comfortable revealing the deeper, darker side of my emotional make up. I can talk a good talk about emotions, but feelings are elusively difficult to articulate. So if, in this little exercise, I delve into either of those areas too deeply for your comfort zone, extend some gracious latitude by accepting what you can, and leaving for another time that which you cannot.
As I was growing up, I buried myself in the lore of Star Trek, idolizing its main character, mimicking his mannerisms and persona. You were on very shaky ground with me if you ever criticized the Captain or his show to my face. There was a need for escape during those formative years of my life, and I have since learned that I used my affinity with Kirk as a means of burying the things that were too painful for me to deal with in the open. In a figurative sense, I took my childhood pains and buried them in a metaphoric tin can somewhere out there in my backyard. And now as an adult man, searching for the source of buried anger, hidden pain and modes of operation, I have stepped out into that old backyard in the misty dark of midnight with nothing but a flashlight, shovel and the tattered pieces of an old, hand-drawn map sketched out so many years ago. “‘X’ marks the spot! This way to the buried treasure,” is barely legible in the folds of age.
Captain Kirk, to me, was a lonely man. Sure he had friends, advisors and a great many lovers, but at his core, when you stripped away all the facades of his position, he was a man alone. The pains and mistakes of his past molded him into the person he was. His inner pain drove him to singularity, and he conquered his demons by cheating them and scrapping his way into the light. [ I sometimes wonder what it was that William Shatner drew upon in molding that character, how much of him was Kirk? ] I had a great many demons in need of eradication, and though I had no understanding or knowledge of the language or techniques of psychology, I found an ally in the starship captain when I effectively buried in him the things with which I was unable to cope.
At the tender age of six, my older brother and I were repeatedly sexually abused by a male babysitter, the older brother of a childhood friend. His name was Clement, and he was supposed to keep watch over us while our single mother was away, working as a waitress. Knowledge of these goings-on were kept very secret. My brother and I, under threat, never said anything of the incidents to our mother. The sexual abuse, along with years of physical abuse became the stuff of hidden baggage much later in my life. The subconscious anger and rage at being controlled, and the fear of being abandoned that manifested in me as a child, found a deep, secure burial when I discovered in Captain Kirk, a “father” who would take away the pain. These weren’t conscious, cognitive actions on my part, but rather the natural subconscious survival techniques of a mind too young to know how to deal with what went wrong.
The memories of the abuse never left me, but because I buried the feelings, those memories faded from full, vibrant color to back-and-white with a few shades of grey. When I reached the age of adulthood, I could recount the memories of the abuse, but could never get in touch with how it actually affected me inside – and, quite frankly, I was oblivious to the damage that had been done.
In a very real sense, Kirk was the key to the unraveling of the mystery of my buried past. As I grew older, I grew less and less enchanted with the fantasy of Star Trek and its characters, and more into the mechanics of how a program like that was created and developed. I found that as I matured and in all earnestness sought to reconcile my past and dig for the missing pieces, Kirk became less and less of a necessity. I realize this now, but back then I had no clue of what was happening. The understanding has come with the retrospect.
As I began to learn more about myself and how to cope with the abuses of the past, the Captain simultaneously became less of a hero figure and more of what he actually was – a fictional television character. As I learned to deal with my past, he became less important. In a sense, he held my pain until I was able to handle it myself. Funny, how the mind works.
As I became a young man, I had no clue as to the nature of my buried issues, and it wasn’t until I hit early thirties that a lot of this stuff even started to surface. By that time, Kirk had long since passed into the realm of childhood hero, replaced with a fondness that attached itself to the memory of how much I had idolized him as a kid, and respected the actor who created him. And I am convinced it is because he carried my pains.
But there is even more.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I started seeing a therapist as a result of a marriage that was falling apart. I wanted to find out what was really making me tick, because it seemed as if not all the puzzle pieces were on the table. In one particular session, the therapist offered up a new technique she was using that involved a sort of mild, waking hypnosis. She held a pencil in the air between us and moved it from side to side. As she did this, she asked me to focus on any picture that came into my mind. She said to not re-live and experience, but to observe the memory as if it were being projected on a movie screen, or passing by my eyes, outside the window of an imaginary train on which I was a passenger. She made no suggestion, but merely asked me to concentrate on the first image that entered my mind. I do not know why, but the first image that popped into my mind’s eye was a rather disturbing experience that took place when I was about eight or nine years old. In this “movie” playing back in my head, I saw a memory in which my brother and I were cowering on the kitchen floor where we were being severely beaten with a belt. This beating was more than a mere disciplinary spanking, it was an outright anger-driven lashing. At the core of the beating was the goal to get one of us to confess whose belt it was that had been found lying on the kitchen table. We both insisted it was the other’s, and the whipping commenced until one of us would ‘fess up. I remember we were shrieking in pain and crying wildly at each lash of the belt. By the time the angry lashing subsided, my brother and I were covered from neck to calves with purple, black and blue welts. The beatings were so severe, that during our park board swimming lessons the next afternoon, the instructors made us wear our tee-shirts into the pool so no one would see the markings left by the punishment.
I looked at my therapist and mumbled something like, “Shit. I don’t know where that image came from.” She very calmly told me to simply go with that incident and continued to move the pencil back and forth, asking me to concentrate on that image and tell me anything else that came to my mind. What I saw next made me chuckle in discomfort and wonder if I was simply conjuring up images out of my head that had no bearing on what she was attempting to accomplish. “What do you see now, she asked, “Don’t worry if it seems funny or weird, just go with what you see.”
What I saw next was an image of Captain Kirk, dressed in his green/gold Starfleet tunic, black trouser and booted uniform, kneeling on the floor next to me while I was being beaten. His arm was up in the air, blocking the blows being administered with the belt, while his other arm was wrapped around my shoulders, holding me close in protection.
I looked at the therapist and shook my head, and again laughed out of the discomfort of not knowing why this particular image was coming into my head. She again assured me it was fine and to continue going with the imagery and to continue relating whatever I saw next. The scene in my head morphed from the kitchen floor to the concrete stoop outside the back door of our house, where Captain Kirk sat next to me, his arm around my shoulder, comforting me as I cried. Then the image of a religiously stereotypical Jesus Christ, clad in long white tunic and a red robe faded into the picture. Jesus was sitting on my other side, while both he and Kirk enveloped me in the middle, wrapped in their arms.
Then it was all gone.
I sat back in my chair, uncomfortably weeping in front of the therapist, not understanding what the hell all that imagery was all about, and what exactly it had to do with anything I was going through. It was then that she told me I would not believe how many men my age had similar sorts of images of Captain Kirk during this sort of therapy. She went on to explain how Kirk was for me – and apparently many other young boys of my age group – the hero that was more than a hero. Kirk was a sort of psychological savior who boys looked to for strength and a way to cope.
So what does all this have to do with being a dad? Easy. In a very real sense, the fictional character of James T. Kirk became what I believe to be a receptacle for the issues that my young mind was just not able to handle. And as I grew stronger and more able to cope with these issues, those facts began releasing in slow bursts. While I am still learning that each day is a step farther away from the difficulties of my childhood, they are all steps in the right direction toward healing and overcoming my past. I do not camp my life at the foot of my past, I simply now know where to look as a starting point.
We wrestle with our demons in the nighttimes of our lives, yet at daybreak, they are gone, sunk back into the recesses of our subconscious and we are left only with ourselves and our acquired strengths and skills to scramble out of the pit.
As a Father and a Dad, I want to instill in my children a trust in me, as well as a clear path to who they will someday choose to be. I want them to grow up knowing who their father is, and that their dad is always available. I want them to grow up knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can dump on me and have full confidence that I am there to receive them as they are, teach them the skills they need to survive in life. I want them to know that I will always lift them up and be there for them. And as they learn to trust and have faith in me, they will inevitably learn to trust and have faith in themselves.
A valuable lesson I learned out of my past is this…. Dads (or Moms, as the case may be) are the best portrait children will ever have of what they are going to become. Don’t let them find that picture in someone else or something else. Give kids what they are by nature craving. Be there for them, and show them a clear path to who and what they can truly become.