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Lessons Learned from Dad: The Rite Time

cherokeeropRemember that birthday as a kid when you wanted to ask for some really cool toys, but you felt foolish because you were getting too old? You knew you should ask for clothes, a watch, or maybe an Old Spice shaving kit. But Stretch Armstrong looked so amazing! It can be difficult for a young boy to know whether or not he is more child or man. Maybe it’s easier for a young girl. I just remember wondering if I would know when I had made the transition from boy to man.

There is a Cherokee legend about a boy’s rite of passage that I love. It goes like this:

When the time comes for a Cherokee Indian to go through his rite of passage, his father takes him into the forest, blindfolds him and leaves him alone.
He is required to sit on a stump the whole night and not remove the blindfold until the rays of the morning sun shine through it.

He cannot cry out for help to anyone.

Once he survives the night, he is a MAN.

He cannot tell the other boys of this experience, because each lad must come into manhood on his own.

The boy is naturally terrified. He can hear all kinds of noises. Wild beasts must surely be all around him. Maybe even some human might do him harm. The wind blew the grass and earth, and shook his stump, but he sat stoically, never removing the blindfold. It would be the only way he could become a man!

Finally, after a horrific night, the sun appeared and he removed his blindfold. It was then that he discovered his father sitting on the stump next to him. He had been at watch the entire night, protecting his son from harm.

Although I am part Cherokee, my father didn’t take me out into the woods and blindfold me for the night. Honestly, I’m glad he didn’t. I wouldn’t have lasted more than an hour before a coyote yelling would have sent me running home. What my dad did was just as powerful for me.

I had cut wood with Dad for years and heard many safety rules, but I had never actually used the chainsaw. I’m not sure why he thought I was ready. But on a crisp, perfect autumn day weeks before my 11th birthday, Dad handed me the small chainsaw.

Do you remember your first kiss? Your first car? Those are great, but I promise you, nothing before or after that day has made me feel more like a man than cutting through a dead tree limb with a powerful chainsaw. Sawdust flying at my face. The saw vibrating my entire body and rattling my teeth. The smell of gas/oil mix penetrating my clothes and skin. I loved it all. Sounds silly doesn’t it? But in one simple gesture, without ceremony or lecture, my dad told me what I needed to know – he trusted me. As a man. And just like the Cherokee legend, he stood over me that day. Watching. Protecting.

There were other things that Dad did to convey that message to me: letting me drive the stick shift truck somewhere other than the hayfield; giving me a shotgun and letting me go by myself to shoot at ducks (I say “at” ducks, because I never actually got one); taking the horse out alone to ride the fence for holes; and his constant words of encouragement. Nothing was more powerful than that chainsaw.

As a parent, I want my children to become adults with strong convictions, morals, and work ethics. I want them to make their own decisions with confidence. If they make a bad decision, I want them to experience the natural consequences and learn from their mistakes so they don’t continue to repeat them. In many ways, it is more difficult to have a rite of passage in today’s society. But I want to be intentional in sending the message to my kids that I trust them. As an adult. For my oldest daughter, that meant that she got to drive my car in the country one quiet day last summer. She really didn’t want to. It took encouragement on my part to get her to drive. But she got the message. And I was there. Watching. Protecting.

These were my rites of passage. What were yours? How will you pass it on?

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  1. Herb,
    I have enjoyed your reminiscences of your great father. He was well known and beloved in the Chelsea area, smart, kind, giving, and very humorous (I always thought he had our cousin Will Rogers’ gene). He took the time to tell me a wonderful funny anecdote about my father after after his funeral. I named my son after him. I had the honor of knowing him, his brothers, and your wonderful grandparents Herb and Miss California, a legendary family. I’m glad to see the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Keep up the good work, your fond memories will last for the ages.
    David Hester

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