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Years ago, when I was living in Central Europe, I got to know a group of men who were the kind a girl would notice. Young and charismatic, they came complete with the fascinating and swoon-worthy job of war photographer.
These men were fun, courageous, and wild. They lived hard – drinking, drugging and bird-dogging every pretty female who would have them. On any given night, you could find them “shrooming” in the great outdoors, or at an underground club watching a live sex show. Maybe just hanging out and telling stories. About war zones, scars and executions.
One of these men – let’s call him Eddie – told me about getting shrapnel imbedded in his scrotum when he was photographing an intense battle in the former Yugoslavia. This was during the civil war there, and it was an ugly, bloody time full of weaponized rape and genocide.
After getting hit, Eddie was taken to a field hospital, where they removed one of his testicles without the benefit of anesthesia. Being smack in the middle of a hot war zone, there simply wasn’t any left. Wounded and dying soldiers lay all around Eddie as the doctor leaned over him, brandishing something that looked like a piece of wood.
“Bite down on this,” he said. “This is really going to hurt.”
Eddie passed out during the operation, as you can imagine any man would. When Eddie woke up, at least according to him, he propositioned a very sultry nurse, having sex with her right there in his hospital bed. Slavic boned, with wide sensual lips, and an ass to die for, she was just what the doctor ordered.
There, fresh out of surgery, Eddie proved to himself that he was still functional, still a man.
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Another one of these men – we’ll call him Andy – told me all about a photographer friend of his who had been killed by firing squad somewhere in the Middle East. I was aghast listening to his story. Being only about twenty-four at the time, I’d never met anyone outside of my own war-torn family, who had actually known someone who’d been executed.
This was a person young enough to be my peer, and now, they were dead. No, not just dead, but put up against a wall and shot point-blank by a group of strange men. I wondered if he got a last request – a prayer or cigarette.
“Why did they do it?” I asked Andy.
Andy shrugged, his face a mask of irony. “They didn’t like him.”
Andy was a bit of an anomaly among these guys. He was hugely talented and had spent years globe-trotting from war to war just like the rest of them. And he had a wry and irreverent sense of humor that lurked behind his every word – also like his cohorts. Andy was different from his friends in one crucial way, however: he was married and had two small children.
He’d left the battlefield behind, and was making a nice living snapping portraits of prominent individuals and the like.
This did not go over well with his war photographer friends, let me tell you.
Andy was taunted pretty mercilessly for no longer going off at a moment’s notice and raising hell. For staying home and raising his kids instead, trying to be a faithful husband to his wife. It was hard for Andy, too. I could see it in his eyes and in the way he talked about his past adventures. He missed the excitement, the danger, the freedom – even if he did love his family.
Not long ago, a mutual friend told me she’d heard Andy had left his wife and was now sailing around the world. I guess I wasn’t surprised, but I was sad for him. Andy had a good soul, he just seemed to struggle when it came to claiming it.
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Only a few months after I left both my ex-pat life and this motley crew of war photographers behind, I got to know another group of men. I had fallen in love with my husband, and one of his best friends was in the United States Marine Corps. At the time, my husband’s friend – who we’ll call Dave, because it’s his real name – was a colonel and lawyer. In the wake of 9/11, he left his growing law practice in the dust and went back to full-time soldiering. A born leader with the temperment of a philospher, Dave would go on to be commissioned a full-fledged general.
Dave and his Marine buddies were fun, courageous and wild. They told stories about training and camaraderie, with the occassional tale about combat.
I remember Dave confiding to me and my husband about two young men who’d been under his command. They’d been killed during an ambush and Dave was remembering them on one, gloomy Memorial Day a few years ago. He went into some detail about their lives and interests, who they’d loved. And he asked my husband to tell those young men’s stories to our children, so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. Dave told us all of this on the phone, but I could imagine his fierce blue eyes the whole time. Powerful, lived-in eyes that were full of humor, but took everything seriously. The eyes of a man with grave responsibilities.
For his men, for whom he had sacrificed so much, and for his family, who had sacrificed so much for him.
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Not long before leaving on one of his tours, Dave and I found ourselves alone in my kitchen. We were drinking beer, casually, after my husband had washed his hands of us and gone to bed.
We talked about how his wife had put her own concerns aside and taken on the full burden of family life, all the while not knowing whether he would return. The way Dave had to leave the people he loved most and enter a world of danger and few comforts. These weren’t voiced as complaints, but observations. He felt a reverence for the faith his loved ones had in him – the fact that they shared his values despite what they had to endure when he was gone.
Dave, with those same blue eyes boring into mine – in person this time, alive with tenderness and emotion, unflinching – revealed to me how much he loved his wife.
“She’s all that matters,” he told me, going so far as to describe the way she looked when she was sleeping.
The way her hair lay against the pillow. The look of soft determination that marked her face, even at rest.
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As I’ve been endeavoring to write a truly compelling romantic male character over the past few years – I’ve been thinking back on the war photographers and marines, training my cold writer’s eye on them, a vision sharpened by years of steady surveillance. But I’ve engaged my heart, too – one warmed by half a lifetime of being a wife and mother.
Both teams of men command our attention, making us want to follow their journeys, root for them. I’ve tried to understand what sets them apart and anticipate which man a woman would choose to be her lover and why. How a woman would assess these two groups of alpha males if she found herself having to choose between them.
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Manhood, for Dave and his friends, was defined by meaning, and meaning was attained through the exercise of duty and honor. Being husbands, fathers, friends, and in their case, soldiers was a thing of the highest order. They held within them a deeply personal form of power. A competence that stretched far beyond what they were capable of on a battlefield, or any other professional arena. You didn’t dare underestimated them.
Andy and Eddie were charming, intelligent, funny and untamed. They were curious and had an unquenchable appetite for life. The sort of dangerous but captivating men you could find in any number of movies and novels. Full of bravado, fighting wars within themselves while they sought the wars outside. All of this hinted at an inner depth that might make a girl get out her shovel and dig until she found it…or didn’t. Yes, they were riveting in their own right.
I believe they truly cared about the people and events they were capturing with their cameras, despite their sardonic posturing. And I often wondered if they felt a bit lost in the theater of war – like people once removed. Intermediaries who were putting their lives on the line to bring images of conflict to the rest of us sitting at home. Denied the fight, all the while being exposed to the same perils. Dressed in the blood and grime of war, but not the uniform.
“Sometimes I can’t figure out what the hell we’re doing out there,” one of them once remarked.
Maybe that’s why those war photographers lived so hard, playing up their bad boy romanticism. Occupying that middle ground is complex and befuddling. You might have the courage of a soldier, but not the motive. You’re both up close to and at an arms length from humanity at its most base and most noble. And unlike a soldier, you have no articulated directives that bind your heart and mind – Semper Fidelis, First to Fight, Uncommon Valor, The Few, The Proud.
A man like that might be a bundle of ingredients that can’t seem to come together if he wasn’t careful.
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It occurred to me, as I thought back on how Dave had described his feelings – employing no irony and embracing, boldly, a deep sentimentality worthy of a Carpenters song – that clarity is an aphrodisiac few women can resist. It’s a Holy Grail for men all over, too, and some spend their entire lives in search of it.
Clarity of purpose. That law dictated from the bowels of the conscience, and adhered to. That’s the difficult part. Most can hear the call, but not every one can figure out how to follow it without getting lost.
But it is that very fidelity to intention that distinguishes men and boys. A husband from a boyfriend. The protagonist in any story from the rest. It is what makes a man whole, and a character transcend the story that’s been written for him.