Despite being the head of a family dominated by brunettes and blondes, my maternal grandfather grows a bright, fiery red beard. Unfortunately, I’ve only heard about it. He hated it – which is really a shame, because he’s the only other man in my family, on either side, to have ever worn a beard for any period of time.
“So why did he ever even have a beard if he hated it?”, you might ask. Well, there’s a story behind that, which, consequentially, is the only reason I even know about it.
My grandfather was drafted into the military at the time of the Vietnam War, and though when he was drafted, the war was nearly over. Still, having not been able to know that, obviously, he was trained for combat. He was trained to live in jungle-like environments, cut off from the luxuries of modern life – one of which was a razor. He and the other members of his platoon grew facial hair together as they sat stranded on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere.
Shortly after this portion of his training had ended, just as he was preparing to ship out to Vietnam, the war ended, and he was off the hook. Had he gone to those humid jungles of Vietnam, who knows what might have happened. He might have been killed and I wouldn’t be here today to write this article. But on the other hand, he might have grown that ginger beard once again, and been forced to wear it for weeks, maybe even months on end – maybe long enough for him to grow accustomed to it. Maybe even like it.
Instead, we live in this reality, and my grandfather promptly shaved upon coming off that mountain and vowed never to grow a beard ever again. He complained about how itchy it was, and let’s be honest, beards weren’t too common among young men in the 1950s. A shame, for sure, but it gave him that story, which he told to me when I was a young boy. Since that moment, I wondered if I, too, would grow a fiery red beard. I might even argue that his story provided me with the formative moment I needed, that would one day lead me to let my beard show its true colors.
I, unfortunately, do not grow a proper fire-red, ginger beard. Instead, it grows in a sort of auburn, like my mother’s hair. It has its own reddish tint, which is more pronounced in direct sunlight, and I always think about my grandpa every time someone tells me my beard looks a little red. Since most of my other physical features I inherited from my father, it’s one of the few things that allows me to visually express that side of my heritage. I’m proud of it, especially since its essentially the one feature I’ve only been able to express as an adult.
My grandfather, while being just as flawed a human as anyone else, was always one of my biggest heroes as a kid. He was a high school biology teacher (he even taught my mom), and his head was spilling with knowledge. Most of it was impractical, fun-fact kind of stuff – the kind of thing you use to beat your friends at trivia or to yell at the TV when you’re watching Jeopardy! alone in your apartment. But he also knew these fun little experiments we could do in our kitchen – making silly putty from scratch, using two coke bottles to make a typhoon, or using a playing card to form a suctioned seal on a cup of water so it wouldn’t spill when you turned it upside-down. (Our kitchen was pretty much consistently a huge mess when I was a child).
He also embodied everything I knew to be brute masculinity. He was a prolific story teller, and mountaintop ginger beards not-withstanding, every single one of his stories were about the struggles he overcame in his life to get to where he was. He grew up a poor farm boy, and his dad worked him to the bone. He used to joke with me that he was going to wake me up the next morning at the crack of dawn to “feed the pigs, milk the cows and slop the hogs”. Even though it was all a big joke, I knew in my little seven-year-old brain that it came from a place of truth. He really had tended to all those animals as a child, day-in and day-out. Whether he actually walked to school in the blinding snow uphill both ways is another discussion, but the point is – he knew the value of hard work, and he had earned everything he had in his life. He was a man, and I wanted to be just like him.
I’m not a farm hand and I don’t have callused hands like my grandpa did at my age. I’m not gearing up for war and I wear my beard by choice, not because I’m stranded without access to a razor. But that choice to wear a beard isn’t simply borne out of my ability to grow one, or the fact that I’m too lazy to shave. It’s at least partly because it’s an outward display of my heritage. It’s a badge of honor that pays tribute to where – and who – I came from.
It’s a fairly common misconception that a man’s beard is inherited directly from his father. The truth is that beards are just like most other genetically derived features: they can come from either side of the family. The unique feature of beards, obviously, is that they don’t appear until maturity. That means we don’t get the same benefit of having everyone who looks at us attribute it to a specific family member from a young age, unlike just about everything else (you have your mother’s eyes, your dad’s nose, etc). By the time you’ve reached the age where you can grow a beard, no one is that interested in analyzing your features and pointing out to you where they came from. It’s up to us to summate where we got our face locks.
For me, it was pretty easy to figure out. Even despite my grandfather’s story, when I’m beardless I’m pretty much a dead ringer for my dad, who does not grow a beard that could even be remotely mistaken for red. It was fairly easy to connect those dots and figure out that I inherited my beard genes from my mother’s side. For other beardsmen it might not be so easy. If your beard comes in the exact same color as your head hair, or if none of the other men in your family have ever grown a beard, it might not be immediately obvious where your genetics were derived. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter exactly who you got your beard genes from. What matters is that beards aren’t all alike, and that you got yours from those who came before you. It’s an outward display of your unique genetic heritage, and it should be worn like a badge of honor.