Years ago I read a Cary Grant interview in which he was asked how he managed to live up to his larger-than-life-image. Never lacking for the right thing to say, the inimitable Mr. Grant replied, "We all wish we were Cary Grant. Sometimes I wish I was Cary Grant."
Notwithstanding the fact that this American icon was from England and that his real name was Archibald Leach, which he discarded as easily as he did a great number of wives and on-screen leading ladies, this comment cuts to the very crux of manhood: we men want to be cool.
Sure, there are other driving forces at work behind much of what men have accomplished since we started walking erect, but most of the really big things can be traced back to the simple and innate guy urge to think, talk, act -- and most importantly -- be cool.
But alas it's tough to remember in today's Modem Millennium that there was a time before .com was the touchstone of our culture. Back in the halcyon days, when the world wasn't connected by a web, boys grew up with vivid ideas of things that'd be cool to do as men. The choices were simple and clear-cut.
Boys admired men who played baseball, who were cowboys, soldiers, writers, singers, politicians, astronauts, fighters, doctors, lawyers and even actors. Why? Because these professionals were cool. They knew what they were about and where their place was in the world. They spent time on the world's stage playing fulfilling leading roles. They got to say cool things - having the right language is an intrinsic part of being cool. They wore the right clothes and had the right equipment. They got to be cool while they did what they did.
"Today I consider myself the luckiest man in the world."
Before walkouts, multi-million dollar salaries and convicted criminals running around on Astroturf, men the likes of Lou Gehrig played the game the way it was meant to be played. Staring death in the face, Gehrig's dignity echoed throughout Yankee Stadium and the rest of the country. Men like The Babe, Mickey Mantle, Cy Young, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio were heroes to entire generations of boys (and men). Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, indeed. A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
"Rye. Gimme' the bottle. Fresh water for the horses. Tonight we ride."
You could tell who was good and who was bad by the color of his hat. The unexplored dusty trail, his horse, his six-gun and only himself. Cattle drives, saloons and whorehouses. It's surprising every boy didn't grow up to be a cowboy.
"Cover me, Sergeant, I'm going in."
In the days before the U.S. was involved in Korean "Police Actions," Vietnam "Conflicts," Caribbean Island invasions and guarding oil-interests in Desert Storm, there were real wars. Studs Terkel was right when he called WWII the last real, good war. Men volunteered in droves to fight evil. From GI grunts to five-star generals retreating hip-deep in the water, defeated but not destroyed, armed combat against the bad guys was maybe as cool as it got for a good guy. We all know war's heinous, but that didn't stop us from dreaming about it.
"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then that experience stays with you forever because Paris is a moveable feast."
The road to hell is indeed paved with unbought stuffed dogs, Papa. Drinking, writing the Great American Novel (more than once), hanging out with F. Scott, hunting, fishing, boxing, fighting and proving real men could write, too. The coolest man ever in American letters. Period.
"I Did it My Way."
The Chairman of the Board. The Voice. Leader of the Rat Pack, the coolest and heppest cats around. A dame on one arm, a broad on the other. Cool enough to call the lady a tramp...and to make her like it. Every boy wished he could do it his way.
"We have nothing to fear but fear itself."
Proof-positive that you could be old, aristocratic, confined to a wheelchair and yet still be cool enough to stand up to the bad guys, care about the common man and mix a mean martini.
"The Buck stops here."
From a simple haberdasher to second fiddle to the most powerful man in the world. Harry gave 'em hell, and that was cool. Very cool.
"Ask not what your country can do for you..."
Wealthy, good-looking, Hahvahd-educated and still cool. Daddy's bootlegging bucks made almost anything possible for the Golden Boy from Hyannis Port. But he still was valiant on his PT boat in the Pacific. And between playing touch football with his brood of bros on the Atlantic and penning Profiles in Courage, he managed to marry a beautiful debutante and get elected President. He took the blame for the Bay of Pigs, made no apologies, called an embargo and continued puffing away at his personal stash of Cubans. He was kind enough to give his little brother a chance to practice law, as attorney general. Had dalliances with the world's most desired woman and didn't discuss it with the press. As cool as politicos will ever get.
"I have a dream..."
Dreaming is noble and it's a dignified, cool and often dangerous vocation in the wrong culture. But when the culture is wrong, it needs dreamers more than ever.
"One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Being first anywhere is cool. Remembering to bring your nine-iron... that's Astral-cool.
"I'm a baad man."
The Greatest was cocky, confident and pretty. And tough enough to back it up. He was faster than anyone who was stronger, and stronger than anyone who was faster. And smarter than all of them. Take a look at your globe. He was champion of all that -- in a way so cool that no one will ever come close again. No one. Ever.
"I need 30 CCs of O-Positive, Stat!"
There was a time, before malpractice and cosmetic surgeries were the most common medical endeavors, when doctors saved lives, made housecalls, invented vaccines and didn't ask that insurance forms be filled out in triplicate before fixing you up. A time before ER and HMOs. Playing doctor was cool.
"Your Honor, may I approach the bench?"
Long before "If the glove doesn't fit you must acquit," there was an era when lawyers were so cool that bona fide leading men like Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper played them in the movies. They were cool enough to stand up for the little guy. We have a nation that's purported to be governed by laws rather than by men. But the laws are only as good as the men that make them.
"Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand."
Paul Newman was cool enough to be the most popular guy on the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke. Proof-positive that you can't lock up cool.
"Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse."
Cool incarnate James Dean lived out his own self-fulfilling prophecy. The Rebel didn't need a cause to be cool.
"Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine."
Even Bogie suffered when the right girl showed up at the wrong time with the wrong man. But he still did the right thing. In a trench coat or a dinner jacket, whether he was at Rick's American Café, piloting the African Queen, searching for the Maltese Falcon or the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or just listening to Bacall whistle, Bogie was the epitome of cool.
Yes, America's clearly the coolest country that ever graced the earth. And it's not just because we have way more nuclear warheads than everyone else does (though that helps). From the very beginning, when our proud Founding Fathers got tired of taking orders from the nancypants on the throne and decided it would be cool to start their own damned country, it was our Manifest Destiny to be cool. The good old U.S. of A. was built by a group of men who truly believed anything was possible no matter how tough the odds were against them. This idea was the very lifeblood of being an American; more a state of mind than a nationality.
Even though the beloved Statue of Liberty welcomes the tired, the hungry, the weary and the poor, what we most often get is the cream of the crop from the rest of the world. The people who want to be on a winning team. But you can only coast on your cool beginnings and more perfect union for so many centuries. The future should always be cooler than the past.
If the Bard of Avon was right, then our cool past is prologue. But a cursory glance at contemporary society reveals a distinct lack of coolness. Today there are boys who actually look up to and admire nerd poster-boy Bill Gates. Women swoon over...Leonardo DiCaprio, who's a certifiable superstar. John Rocker throws a baseball very fast and very hard but happens to be a narrow-minded idiot. When Iron Mike isn't in prison he's nibbling on ears. When most NBA, NFL and MLB superstars aren't re-negotiating their contracts or staging a strike, it seems they're plea-bargaining with their attorneys. Even the First Dog, Buddy - maybe Bill's best, last and only friend - is more than a little disillusioned by the presidency. You can see the shame in his dark puppy dog eyes. Motivational-guru Tony Robbins is revered as a god but talks so much about unlimited power that is seems, well, unseemly. Our powerful role models of yesteryear were all the more respected because they acted cool and just went about their business. They were too busy accomplishing things to run their mouths off about them. They did what they thought had to be done. And then went on to do something else.
American heroes just might be going the way of the dinosaur, and what's worse the sad truth may be that they brought about their own extinction. The real heroes may just have made life a little to easy for us youngish-men today. Maybe, like the country we live in, everything has come to easy to us young men of today.
When modern men and boys aspire to MBAs, Venture Capital and Internet IPOs more than they dream of saying, "Take her down to periscope level," or "Charge!" or "The Eagle has landed," maybe being cool just isn't so important anymore. When being in touch via pager, laptop and cell phone is more important than being in control, well, perhaps we're just out of control. If you look around the lunch table and don't know who the loser is, there's a good chance it may be you, my friend.
There will be those among you who think that aspiring to be cool is shallow and superficial. Those among you who never wished they were Cary Grant. Those who think this is actually a very cool time we live in today. But who cares what you think, anyway?
Part of being cool, whether like Ali, Brando, Bogie, McQueen or even JFK, or Blood-and-Guts Patton, was just not caring what anyone thought at all.
In a time long before being cool was gone with the wind, debonair Clark Gable as cool Confederate Rhett Butler said it best just before walking off alone: "Frankly, my dear, I just don't give a damn." I just wonder if anyone could say that today.