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My Story – From Fatherless to Manliness

  mike yarbrough wolf and iron fatherless

“Defend the poor and the fatherless. Vindicate the afflicted and the poor.” – Psalm 82:3

There is a common thread which runs through the frayed cord of men, not only in our time and the last many generations, but in time immemorial: our fathers. Whether good or bad or all-together absent, fathers impact the lives of their sons. My story is, perhaps, a bit unique as I grew up both fatherless and fathered. Where my story is not unique is that, even though I had a good example of living life as a man, growing up, I did not have a complete example. I’m not sure any boy really does, as there are some lessons we only come to know when our minds have matured to a point that they are able to receive them. This is one of the reasons I started Wolf & Iron, to help men of all ages, like myself, to continue on that journey towards the High Call of Manliness. Even for those who had excellent father figures and mentors, there is still room to grow as we father others and, in the process, father ourselves. Here is a bit of my story.

Meeting My Dad

There is an event which has been on my mind as of late so I thought I would start here. I was about 2 or 3 years old and was at my grandparents house in Memphis; we lived about an hour away in Jackson, TN. I was told that my “daddy” was going to come by and see me. I had this vague notion of what a daddy was but I couldn’t picture him, and that made me both nervous and excited at the same time. I was playing on the floor in the living room when he walked in with one of his brothers. I had a brief moment of trepidation, not knowing which one was him, until all of the adults began talking and hugging and I heard my dad’s voice. I knew him.

My parents divorced when I was still an infant and I am not sure on the details after that, though I was being raised by a young single mom with a good deal of help from her parents — my grandparents which will play a larger role in this story. Unbeknownst to me, my mom was dealing with a number of issues related to her own childhood. She was both trying to raise me, be young and free, and find a man to settle down with, most of which were drinkers and smokers, though there was that certain rebel appeal to me and apparently to her as well. I bounced around from homes and schools for a number of years, Jackson being a big part of my memories, but the country town of Mercer being my home.

Over the years, as I grew older, I came to realize that my dad was an alcoholic. He was never physically, or even verbally abusive, just distant and unreliable. As I write this there is a part of me that is wanting to take it easy on him. I suppose it is from my days of being a boy, seeing my dad only occasionally, and looking past the bad to squeeze what life and goodness I could from our time together. But the truth is, he failed as a father and in many ways, as a man. At the same time, my family in Memphis, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, had a certain closeness and sense of humor that I loved. My dad, as well, had qualities that I legitimately got from him. His openness, kindness, and sense of humor. There is something else, as well, which is harder for me to put a name to, but it is the deeper evaluation of life; the belief that there is something more going on than what we see, both spiritually and practically. Usually it is something simple, we just need to get to the heart of it, which is the hard part.

As I bounced around, unsettled at home and school, I began to long for stability and peace in my life. At the age of 9 I went to live with my maternal grandparents in Mercer.

me and my dad

Me and my dad. I was probably about 9 or 10 here.

The Staffords

If you head out to Mercer, TN, towards the old Hatchie River, just before you come to that old water, you will see a sign post for Stafford Drive, named after my grandparents and my grandfather’s parents. I spent my formative years, ages 9-13, at the river’s edge and it is an experience few boys can repeat in our day and age. Though it was the 1980’s, it might as well have been the 1950’s. Yes, I had TV — three or four stations — and I even had a Nintendo, but aside from those conveniences we lived country. My grandmamma, Peggy, had a job in town, but she cooked and cleaned, picked vegetables and canned said vegetables, and drove me everywhere. My granddaddy, Dovey, had a construction business but had previously been a teacher and pastor. He hunted, plowed and planted, and brought me along for whatever work needed-a-doin’.

While my granddaddy was without a doubt the greatest influence in my life, I don’t want to go too far without underscoring my grandmamma and mom. The greatest quality of my grandmamma has always been her unquestionable belief in me. I can’t express enough how much that kind of tenderness was needed for my young heart. And, though it took some time, my mom came back around and set an example of do-it-yourself-itude and hard work that few have matched. She planted a seed of self-reliance that has grown up with such fullness in me that I often have to trim the branches.

mike yarbrough 1988

Me at age 10. I’ll be honest, this whole manliness thing was touch and go at times. I mean really, who thought this was a good picture? And why am I smiling? I am dressed like an 80’s Barbie doll.

mike yarbrough chris and kevin country

The country was pretty barren of other kids to hang out with, but on occasion I would spend time roaming around with my friends Chris (middle) and Kevin (right). Notice I am undoubtedly the leader as I am all “Ramboed” up with my bandana!

Granddaddy

“My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it” – Clarence B. Kelland, American Writer, 1881-1964

I love Mr. Kelland’s quote above, because I believe actions stay with us far more than words, but being that my granddaddy was a teacher at heart, he both showed and told me how to live. As a young tike I was always on his heels, going where he went, getting a little manlier every day. And, for a while after moving in with him things stayed that way. He taught me to hunt, about the different types of trees, hard work, respect and responsibility, really, volumes about being a man. As I became a teenager, however, I became something of an idiot. Personally, I blame MTV and public school. I started to become resistant to his teachings and wanted to have the good life, not the country life, and I wanted it to come easily. Character mattered less to me than living the life that I thought would make me happy. I moved back in with my mom, to the city, and started down that path.

dovey stafford grandaddy

My granddaddy, Dovey Stafford, looking handsome and probably going to kill or fix something.

mike yarbrough squirrel hunting

Me, age 8, with my granddaddy and my first squirrel!

Rockin’ the Free World

As I approached the age of 16 I had become fanatical about music. I loved rock, but a budding interest in orchestration and classical music was taking root. Despite my granddaddy’s years of instruction and discipline, I found myself connecting more with my dad and his life. There was this easy-going, music loving, no concern for tomorrow, lifestyle that I was attracted to. I’ll be honest, by the age of 16 I was done with Christianity and organized religion, could care less about school, and was sold on the idea of being a rocker for the rest of my life. That is, until I met my future wife, Summer in first period.

mike and summer yarbrough 1995

Me and the future Mrs. Yarbrough at 16 leaning against my first car, a 1979 Volkswagen Dasher.

Marriage, Military, and the Hard Road to Manhood

dean winchester“I may not have much, but what I do have is a G.E.D. and a ‘Give em’ Hell’ attitude!” – Dean Winchester, Supernatural

Summer and I were married at the tender age of 18. She was, and is, a solid Christian and an excellent influence in my life. I was, and remain, a stable, bearded influence in hers. After a period of various trials on my soul, essentially me deciding what kind of person I wanted to be, I recommitted myself as a Christian. I went into the Navy in 1996 and was out by 1998, just shy of two years. Boot camp was misery. Remember, I was spending a good bit of my days hanging in my bedroom and playing guitar. Actually, not even that, as I had begun orchestral composition, so I was writing and plinking away on a piano. In fact, I didn’t even finish high school. I wrote a minor symphony and sent it to a college. They recommended I should immediately pursue music at a higher level; at least that is what I wanted to think they said. So, I dropped out of high school and got my G.E.D. However, rather than going to college, having no money and being a loser and whatnot, I decided to go into the military. They pay for college, right? So, back on track, now, I hated boot camp. In fact, I hated the military.

I’ll leave out the pertinent details, but I served on the USS Enterprise — aircraft carrier — and not too long after being aboard found myself without a job. The work I had been trained for had been outsourced to contractors and I was just bored and useless in a stiff, red-taped, hurry up and wait, environment 24/7. Lucky for me Clinton was in office and they were downsizing. I put in the necessary paperwork talking about how my marriage was being affected and within a few months I was out with an Honorable Hardship discharge. I can’t tell you how glad I was to get off that ship, and how much regret I have for not manning-up and serving my country more honorably. I still have guilt-mares about it. I dream I have left my job and family to willingly enlist. But like I said, I still wanted the easy life. I didn’t want to serve or be burdened with the weight of governmental bureaucracy, of which there was plenty.

Fatherhood and Manhood

At this point in my story I am in my early twenties. As soon as I get out of the military Summer and I start having kids. I am going to school for computer related stuff and working a mad number of hours every week. It is pure insanity. And, though I had been toughened up a bit in the Navy I was still something of a pudgy moron in most ways. I didn’t have a firm set of convictions, about Christianity or being a man, but they were starting to form. Those lessons my granddaddy taught me in my youth were becoming more important now that I had a family of my own.

Over the years we had Harvey, now 16, and Liam, now 13. All the while our marriage is an absolute wreck. Summer and I are coming to the realization that neither of us had clear examples of what a marriage or parenting ought to look like and a lot of baggage and wrong ways of thinking from our own families. At the ten-year mark we were done. We had talked about divorce before, but this was the real deal. Thankfully, God arrested my heart and rather than bailing out, I dug in. I didn’t want my boys to grow up without a father, or half a father. I didn’t want my marriage to fail and continue the legacy of brokenness I had seen in my own parent’s lives. “ If God is real, then this is something he can fix,” I said. With the help of Godly counselors and mentors, things began to change. And, as I began to grow in my own masculinity I could more clearly see my wife’s femininity and my children’s youth, naiveté, and need for a father who lived as a man ought to live.

mike yarbrough barn

My present self.

Final Thoughts

After a good deal of personal growth I began to pour back in to the lives of other men. I began to develop a burden to help other men on their journey find bits of inspiration along the way. Not every man had a granddaddy or mentors in their youth, nor do they have current friends they can trust to build them up. Yet, they hear the call towards a life of manful living, the High Call of Manliness, and have set out on the journey. I hope to cut a wide enough swath for a few men to follow along, and they too will widen the trail and bring other men along.

Thanks for sharing in my story.

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