Learning from Charlton Heston

The first half of 2017 has seen the publication of books about growing up.  They include:

Mark Batterson, Play the Man:  Becoming the Man God Created You to Be; William H. McRaven, Make Your Bed:  Little Things that Can Change Your Life and Maybe the World; Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult:  Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.  The authors are, respectively, a Protestant minister, a retired Admiral of the United States Navy, and a United States Senator.

As their titles and subtitles suggest, these books focus on self-discipline and self-respect.  As a genre, the theme goes back at least as far as Cicero’s De Officiis, “On Duties,” addressed to his son and discussing the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.  In the long line of such books from Cicero to Sasse, a slim volume from twenty years ago is worth re-reading, especially if one agrees with C. S. Lewis that Cicero “is the greatest bore . . . of all authors whether ancient or modern.”

In 1997 Charlton Heston (1923-2008) published To Be a Man:  Letters to My Grandson.

Heston’s grandson, John Alexander Clarke Heston, known simply as Jack Heston, was born and baptized in 1992, and like his father, Fraser Heston, he is now a film producer and director.  Jack Heston’s grandfather was an Oscar-winning actor, starring in now classic films such as The Agony and the Ecstasy, Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes, and The Ten Commandments.  He was also politically active, having marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., campaigned for Ronald Reagan, and served as president of the National Rifle Association.

In 1995, Charlton Heston published his memoirs, In the Arena, and in it he mentioned the birth and baptism of Jack Heston.  Nevertheless, that book contains primarily the story of Charlton, not Jack, Heston.  In all, Charlton Heston wrote four books, all autobiographical, revealing much about his life and opinions, but so far, Jack Heston remains a comparatively private man.

As a boy, though, he gave indications of a fine man in the making.  In To Be a Man, his grandfather recounted an earthquake that struck southern California during the night of 17 January, 1994.  Searching around his damaged house, Heston found his grandson sitting on a chair, his hands folded in his lap.  When Heston asked the boy what he was doing, Jack replied, “I’m behaving.”

In the foreword to To Be a Man, Charlton Heston wrote that the book is about “learning how to do your best and keep your promises, be fair, but never give up, . . . and above all, how to read, and some day grow into a good man.”  A tall order for a book of 127 pages, but Heston, having played Moses, included the Ten Commandments and quoted in full Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”  Generations of schoolchildren memorized that inspiring poem, and any two year-old who can keep his head in the rubble of an earthquake is ready for Kipling’s message.

As one would expect from an autobiographical book of advice from a man in his seventies, To Be a Man has numerous reflections on history.  When he wrote In the Arena, Heston said that although in school he liked learning history, as an actor he came to love it, researching the various historical characters he was hired to portray.  That preparation for those roles, wrote Heston, made him begin “to realize what I’m now convinced is true:  history is not only the most important subject; in the end it may be the only subject.”

Heston’s book of five letters to his grandson contains family history and its intersection with world history.  Heston’s maternal ancestors came from England to colonial Massachusetts in 1633, and 312 years later, Heston was serving as a staff sergeant in the United States Army Air Corps, anxiously perched in Alaska awaiting the imminent invasion of Japan, almost certain death averted only by the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For Heston, history and politics go together, and so in To Be a Man he offered pithy assessments of corrosive trends still with us twenty years after he wrote:  political correctness and waning masculinity.  A professional heavyweight boxer (charitably unnamed) who joined the United States Marines but then quit after three days because basic training was too hard received Heston’s astonished scorn.  Along those lines, Heston’s mind boggled at Williams College requiring straight male students to stand on street corners and declare that they are gay “so they’ll know what it feels like.”

Meanwhile, Heston wrote approvingly of his grandson’s karate lessons and the instructor insisting upon repetitive discipline, good manners, and good sportsmanship.  Very likely Jack Heston eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, learning proper use of firearms from his marksman grandfather.  The boy’s innate sense of justice came forth succinctly one day when his grandfather told him, “A couple of bad men tried to rob a bank near your school, but the police came and killed them.”  Jack Heston replied, “Good!”

Amidst the comments on history and politics, what emerges from To Be a Man is the importance of a God-fearing family.  As adults, Charlton and Fraser Heston were neighbors, and Jack Heston grew up with the increasingly rare blessing of three generations visiting each other on a regular basis.  Quite rightly, Charlton Heston observed, “Beyond any other measure, the best thing you can give your child is your time,” adding, “It doesn’t matter what you do,” such as “wash the car, hit tennis balls, shop for Mother’s Day, as long as you do it together.”

Near the end of the book, musing on Patrick Henry’s definition of honor as “a gift a man gives to himself,” Heston considered a man’s honor and self-respect in relation to his grandson.  “In another twenty years,” Heston wrote, “his generation will be running the whole shebang.”  Heston wondered what part his grandson would have in that future.

No pushy stage grandfather, Heston concluded it would be fine if Jack Heston found happiness living simply on the Heston family homestead in Michigan, “with a good and loving woman and a couple of kids he can teach the wilderness to, as I learned it from my dad, a long time ago, and explored with Jack’s dad.”  Wealth and fame don’t make a man, Heston is saying, a faithful family does.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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