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My son and I mark transitions in life

No matter how old you are, how tough you are, how brave you are, the woods can be scary at night. A fear of the unknown is a basic instinct that’s served us well for thousands of years.

I don’t mean a cluster of trees in the park, I mean the “woods” — acres and acres of inky blackness as soon as the sun goes down. Beautiful trees in daylight can turn into disfigured monsters at night. Chirping birds can turn into screaming demons. At least for some people.

Humans have a universal fear of the dark, not because the dark itself is scary but because the dark may hide something dangerous. We feel vulnerable in the dark, unable to see a threat that may be nearby. Early humans certainly had more to fear in the dark than we do, but that fear lives on in some degree in just about all of us. 

As a child, I remember a camping trip deep in the woods of Newton County. The adult with us, my friend’s father, challenged us to walk about 500 yards through the dark woods with no flashlight to retrieve a rock from a particular pile he had created.

Even though the desire to prove our manliness was strong, it was not stronger than our fear of the woods at night. None of us were brave enough to go. At 10 years old, we were not ready to be men.

With those sometimes-irrational fears of the dark woods in mind, my oldest son this year decided he was ready to take to the forest alone in search of a deer. I have a couple basic thresholds my children must cross when it comes to deer hunting alone: prove that you are responsible with a gun, and prove that you can overcome a fear of the woods at night.

Gun responsibility came easy. My son shoots with 4-H competitively, passed his hunter’s education class with ease and knows how to handle a rifle. Being old enough to handle the dark woods with only a flashlight and two feet is a different story.

When he asked if he could hunt alone this year, I knew he was ready. And in my mind, it marked a transition from boy to young man. This would be his informal initiation ritual.

Modern America has few rituals that mark the passage from boyhood to manhood. But other cultures do. On a small island in the South Pacific, boys jump from a 100-foot-tall rickety wooden platform with a vine tied to their feet. It’s sort of like primitive bungee jumping. The higher up you jump from, the more manly you are.

Some have theorized that modern-day male insecurity is due to the lack of initiation rituals. Without an event that clearly marks boyhood from manhood, adolescence can continue into adulthood, they say.

It makes sense to me. When I was crossing the threshold from boy to young man, the ritual was camping without a parent. That first trip deep in the woods without my father was scary but it also built confidence.

Now that my oldest son has crossed that marker, it’s clear that I too am crossing a threshold, with a different type of initiation ritual. I am moving from young adult (which I haven’t been for some time) to middle aged.

I noticed not long ago that my church offered a Sunday school class for young adults, and those people look much younger than me. I am no longer one of them.

The real kicker came just this week, when a young man with a young wife and two young children greeted me as “Mr. Luke.” I was caught off guard. Mr. Luke? Are we not peers? We both have young children, are we not the same? The answer was a resounding “no, old man, we are not.”

I have now reached the Middle Age, and it’s no longer the dark that I fear. It’s gray hair, college tuition and paying for weddings (I have three daughters). Early humans may have feared lions hiding in the dark, but old age lurking around the corner is just as terrifying.

The woods no longer scare me, but the future sure does.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.