This is the latest installment in the Body Issue, our weeklong examination of the male form, where men get real about what they look like, how they feel about it, and everything in between.
“Any of you could end up a wimp,” my hulking lummox of a father used to tell me and my brothers. “You just need to be small on the inside.”
None of the Bateman boys were small. My oldest brother hit the 200-pound mark several months before his ninth birthday. I got there by age 11. My other two siblings followed suit not long after. None of us were fat, though — at least not based on the taxonomic system by which kids end up stereotyped as one thing (nerd, fatty, tubbo) or another (jock, big man on campus, swole bro). We won field days, aced the pull-up portions of fitness challenges and generally wreaked havoc on peers and classmates. In a world of the bullied and their bullies, we were most definitely the latter.
Except at home. There, within the four walls that enclosed our domestic gulag, we existed entirely at the mercy of the “old man,” a bully nonpareil. There was no other thing to call our father but “old man,” because he was always old — 42 when I came along — and always obsessed with standing out as the man among men.
The old man had played college football at West Virginia University and then bounced around in semi-pro leagues for a decade after that, growing wider and slower (at one point playing alongside deceased Ohio Congressman James Traficant, another foul-mouthed coal country man among men). The old man boxed, flew his own airplanes, ran a nightclub and was always armed to the teeth — a late-1950s tough-guy stereotype if there ever was one.
Which makes sense, because his own life had been tough, the same way so many 1950s lives in Southwestern Pennsylvania were tough. His own father, a diesel mechanic on a submarine in World War II, had been drafted into the armed forces in his early 30s as an alternative to prison. That miserable man, the original “old man,” was so inexplicably heroic that naval researchers still email me to this day, asking questions about his feats of strength and his wartime diaries. Already an alcoholic, that older “old man” was someone whose ass my father could never kick, no matter how big my father got.
And my father got big, just like his boys got big. He was a big deal, too — a top-50 national high school football recruit with scholarship offers to 1950s powerhouse programs such as Maryland, Iowa and UCLA. But still, he was never big enough, because his own old man had lived larger: killed men, “seen things” and couldn’t be bested in arm-wrestling or a footrace. Even when that older man, who was just an old drunk, was giving my father’s sister and brother the beatings of a lifetime, my father couldn’t do much. He was everybody’s All-American, a genuine somebody that nobody besides his own old man would dream of screwing with, yet he was still small inside.
In that way, he never got bigger. For example, he “busted our balls,” in his parlance, because he wanted to keep his big boys (i.e., his sons) in their place — beneath him. I remember both my older brother and younger brother occasionally getting the best of him in fistfights — the sort of scraps that broke out in a household from which our mothers or any other civilizing influences were absent — and he would smack them across the temple with a brick or bite through their nipple to regain the upper hand. “It’s you or me,” he told us, “and I damn sure hope you want it to be you, because I sure as hell want it to be me.”
In other words, we had no choice but to armor our bodies against this crazy bastard’s slings and arrows. I aspired to become a truly gigantic human being, someone whose thighs bulged out of his Zubaz and whose arms couldn’t be contained in any shirt that had sleeves. Not because I was trying to captain a sports team or win the heart of some unapproachable girl who wouldn’t give me the time of day. No, I merely wanted to survive at home.
But even though by whatever the normal standards of human musculature are, I was a well-built person, whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw this pathetic shred of a man who couldn’t hold his father’s jock on my best day and the old man’s worst. Why wasn’t I raw-benching 705 pounds? Why couldn’t I insulate my body-bag of bones with 300 pounds of hypertrophied muscle?
I succumbed to a strange kind of pressure, much like anyone else who becomes obsessed with some pointless activity and pursues it joylessly. I had serious body issues, though these had nothing to do with the actual functioning of my body. You see, my body could do almost anything I needed it to do except save me from my old man. This big body was both temple and tomb for the small, frightened soul hidden inside.
When my brothers talk about my father nowadays, it’s with a tremendous sense of relief that he died back in 2014. In the years leading up to that, the old man was dealing with heart problems, and aside from his small arsenal of weapons, he was about as threatening as a kitten. “I have looked out for you and if I gave you the worst beatings you ever got that is called toughening up,” he wrote to me in an email sent shortly before his demise. “Not that I was anything like my old man.”
As the years pass and I make my own long day’s journey into the twilight of middle age, I find myself both loving and hating the old man, the same way I have loved and hated my body. This meat-suit let me do everything except the one thing I always dreamed of — kicking the old man’s ass and putting him in his place. (I have gotten at least some small measure of revenge: I put his ashes in an urn that’s now kept inside my mother’s garage, the wife he hated most out of all five of them.)
I think my father eventually came to love and hate his own old man as well, an old bastard too unhappy to travel through life sober and too tough to die without a fight. That old man had physically abused my father and his sister in ways that defy comprehension, murdering my father’s own pets before his very eyes. But that old man also pulled drowning POWs out of the water and let his submarine’s medic cut into the enormous abscess on his thigh without any anesthetic. The passage of time is neutral, but as his own time ebbed away, my father preferred to remember the best parts of his dad. As the old man shrunk before our eyes, he recalled his rotten father as larger than life.
I suppose it’s like that for me, too. I stare in the mirror at my big, lumpy body, a body in which I’ve never felt comfortable in for even a split-fucking-second, and I no longer see myself. I see my father — or a shadow of my father — as I begin to ponder the possibility of becoming a father to my own big family of big children. In this reflection on both past and future, the historical bigness of our conjoined big bodies calls to mind the sharpened blade of a guillotine — so heavy, yet so light.