The Boys in the Boathouse
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
I’d seen this place before. I’d seen the massive gold W on the concrete by the docks. The hand painted “Husky Hilton” sign on the shed over the water. The giant balcony where big unruly jocks dumped water on unsuspecting recruits and laughed their asses off about it.
“Don’t worry about those goddamn ratfuckers” said Coach Erickson when I came by to talk about crew the previous spring. “I’ve seen ‘em chuck dirty dishwater on guys. They pissed on somebody once. I think they like you. Just show up ready to go to work on the day before school starts.”
But I’d never been inside. For ten minutes I wandered the hallway, darkened this Sunday morning but shaking with thumps and shouts as a hundred guys moved their stuff in. Nobody acknowledged me until a little dude, shaggy and greasy with a blue bandana, approached. He must be a coxswain. He’ll be friendly.
“Hi, can you help me find my room? I’m-”
“Fuck off, gruntie. What are you doing on this floor? Get the fuck down to Grunt Row with your own kind.”
I was twice his size. I drew in a breath to argue. He had backup. Shit. Heads popped out of rooms up and down the hall. Next to me, a door opened and a huge fucker looked down on me, I mean I was a big dude but this guy could squash me.
“Hey gruntie.” I had to crack up at his voice. He sounded like a cartoon. “You want to see how the world was made?”
This sounded ominous. I was pretty sure he was not a geology tutor.
“All right, leave him alone, guys. Lucky, go fuck yourself. Big Bird, back in your cage.”
I turned in relief to see a ruddy faced Irish looking guy with an unrelenting smirk. He had the thickest moustache I’d ever seen. He stuck his hand out.
“Smitty. I’m the Commodore. You’re Frank, right? Come on. You’re in 109 downstairs. Let’s leave these assholes with something better to do.”
I slung my duffle back on my shoulder, shaking my head and laughing. I’d been hazed before. These guys were nothing new.
“We’ll get you, gruntie. It’s movie night tonight. ‘How the World Was Made’ is on screen. Why don’t you come out with us?”
What the hell does that mean?
Sunday dinner. We all stood in line along the window by the balcony. So that’s where those assholes dumped water on me last spring. Didn’t care at this point. All I wanted was a full belly and a chance to go over my class schedule one more time before I got some sleep. I’d spent all day getting my stuff moved in and talking to the rest of the freshmen. We were grunties. Lowlifes. Like, below worms. Might as well get used to the bottom rung on the crewhouse social structure.
The dinner counter got closer. I reached for a tray and started to tell the cook what I wanted, but “Get him!” erupted from the tables behind me. I was set upon by a band of massive oarsmen who had me on their shoulders in a heartbeat, carrying me to the stairs leading to the water.
I struggled, even got in a couple good shots. They all just laughed. Down the hall, past the coaches’ office – empty on a Sunday night, of course – and down to the docks. Along the way, someone mentioned “Hey gruntie, we all wear collared shirts to dinner. This place is formal. Fuck it up and you’re in the lake.”
Pausing at the water’s edge, they handed me more free wisdom. “Best to go in naked, gruntie. That way you don’t have to dry off and change.” I saw an out. They set me down, surrounding me as I stood to take off my clothes. With my stuff in a pile, I took a step to run but these guys had seen it all before. They cackled and picked me up again.
“Try any funny shit and you’ll get baggage-checked, get it?” Somebody grabbed my nuts. Ahh fuck. Yeah, fine. Just get it over with.
“One! Two!” they swung me over the water, iron sets of hands gripping my wrists and ankles.
I clamped down a grip of my own as I grabbed the hand holding my right arm. Everyone else let go, I flew through the air and twisted as the guy knew he was fucked, trying to pull away. As the rest of my body hit the water, I looked up to see him drop to the edge of the dock to save himself.
My momentum was too much though. I went under and pulled him in with me.
“Mother Fucker!” he shouted, floating in the water fully clothed next to me.
I jumped out of the water and gave chase, the rest of my nemeses dashing away rather than risking any contact with a dripping wet naked guy. I picked up my clothes as the last guy, dripping in his jeans and collared shirt, dragged himself onto the dock. I was defiant. Chest out, I waited for him to walk past. I thought you varsity fuckers were supposed to be the smart ones. Don’t fuck with me again. That’s when I noticed my classmates, dozens of fellow grunties, standing on the deck above me, cheering their guts out for me.
I smiled and pumped a fist.
“Hey gruntie. Nice move. I didn’t think you’d be the smart one.”
I turned back to the dock. Soaked, my victim grinned and stuck his hand out.
“Crawford. Call me Crawdad.”
“OK man. I guess that’s a compliment. I’m Frank. I gotta go eat. See you up there.”
Clothes back on and wearing a collared shirt I snagged from my closet, by the time I got back to dinner most guys had eaten. But another cheer went up from the far side of the room. Grunties sat over there, on the grey tiles. Sit at a meal on the white tiles, and you’re in the lake. Everyone had learned it already without being tossed.
“Goddamn uppity gruntie. You’re fucking dead now.” I looked over the counter at the guy with my plate in his hand, scooping up my spaghetti.
The same guy who’d greeted me that morning in the hallway. Same blue bandana, same asshole attitude. What the fuck? The guy was everywhere.
I knew he had to be joking. So I smiled and laughed.
“Yeah, that’s me, Lucky. Just a troublemaker. Maybe I should go hide in my room, right?”
“Do NOT call me Lucky! Call me Sir! Fuck off, gruntie. You know I can bring down all kinds of righteous shit all over your life, right? Don’t ever fuck with me!”
Jesus. This guy was going to serve my meals.
At the table on the grey tiles, two guys laughed when I sat down next to them. “Nice work, Emfbo. You’re going to piss all those guys off. We’ll need to stay out of your way.”
“Fuck ‘em. We gotta all stick together and we’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, but you pissed off that Lucky guy too. I got no idea what his problem is, but man he scares the shit out of me.”
I turned in wonder to stare at the guy who said this. He was called Hubbard. 6’5”, maybe taller, and all wiry muscle. But he must have had a soft side to him if that little fucker in the kitchen could scare him.
“He’s right, Emfbo," said the guy on my right. "That guy is a manager. He works on all kinds of mechanical shit, fixes boats, drives coaches around during practice. He’s everywhere. Knows everything. You’ve really fucked yourself, getting on his bad side early.”
“What’s your name? Pederson? You’ve been here like six hours. You’ve been listening to too many stories already. How bout we talk about this another time? I’m really fucking hungry. This naked lake shot thing really drains me.”
I was wrapped up in blankets on the thin foam mattress. Three-quarter inch plywood in a steel frame with a slab of foam on top. Good enough for me. My head was filled with dreams of all the women I’d meet on the first day of classes.
The door opened silently. Eight shadows crept in past the closet. These crewhouse rooms were tight quarters.
“Bed bung!” Holy shit, I woke up, not in the warm bed of a hot little freshman honey, but under as many huge bodies as they could fit on top of me and beneath the top bunk where my roommate shivered in fear.
I learned that night, in any bung pile, First Man Down is always the worst position. The guy you’re bunging has a chance to fight it and lie on his side to take the impact. So there you are, your chest in his shoulder, getting crushed by your fellow bungers. After about fifteen seconds, you manage to squeak out with your dying breath, “get the fuck off me…”
So my first attacker, his face next to my ear as I woke up from sleeping on my side, croaked those words in the pitch darkness of my room. As his buddies unwedged themselves from the pile, they grabbed my legs and arms – déjà vu, another lake shot in the middle of the night? – and hauled me out into the dim hallway.
“Back in your rooms, grunties!” shouted their leader to anyone who dared peek out at the commotion.
We weren’t going anywhere. All those bodies held my limbs to the slick hard floor. Only my bare chest was exposed.
“Now hear me, all of you. Some call me Moses!” Bullshit. I knew that voice. It was Bowlin.
He’d already blustered down Grunt Row that afternoon, threatening our safety. But he’d donned a ratty robe and fake beard for this special show.
“Ahhhh, yes, Moses. Tell us how the world was made!”
“On the first day, the Lord said, let there be light!”
Somebody turned a spotlight in my face. I had to crush my eyes together. I wouldn’t be seeing any faces.
“What happened on the second day, Moses?”
“On the second day, there was thunder!”
Every free hand in the mob pounded on my chest. Mostly massive slaps, but there were a few closed fists. My torso twisted as I tried vainly to shove the ton of flesh off my limbs. No way. “Thunder” went on for a minute or so.
“The Lord said to the thunder, cease!” I relaxed but wondered what was next.
“Then what, Moses?” It was Crawdad. The guy who’d been so nice after I dragged him in the water.
“On the third day, the Lord said, let the mountains rise up… and there was a massive earthquake!”
Bodies piled on top of me again. Except this time I wasn’t lying on my side. I had concrete and linoleum beneath me, and eight big dudes crushing the air from me. They didn’t stay long. They had to get on to Day Four.
Arms and legs pinned again, I felt pinches all over me. The spotlight flickered on and off. Pinching, grabbing, twisting. Someone grabbed my nose and cranked. My ears too. My nipples were everyone’s favorite target. Lightning? No, I was just pissed.
“Weigh enough, lightning!” shouted Moses.
“What, Tuller?” Oh shit. Tuller was from Boston. Everyone from Boston just carried that extra mean chromosome.
“Moses, I heah they had moa earthquakes on the next day. I read it somewheah in my bible. Revised Standad Version.”
“Heeeeeyyyyy Tulla, that’s right! On the fifth day, the Lord said, ‘let there be another earthquake!”
This shit was pretty old. Three bung piles in fifteen minutes. The guys needed some creativity.
“On the sixth day… the Lord said…”
Everyone jumped up and suddenly I was free, lying alone on the floor with the spotlight still in my face.
“…let there be a flood!”
Buckets of ice water hit me from all directions, freezing me and shocking me into jumping to my feet. The spotlight clicked off and I stood in the blackened hallway, heavy hidden footsteps dashing away to anonymity.
“Hey gruntie!” I heard Moses call from the doorway. “Get some rest. It’s the seventh day!” Gales of laughter followed him away into the night.
I was the first and last guy in my class to get the geology lesson. By breakfast before class the next morning, all thirty grunties had agreed, we holler for each other and everyone comes running to assist. It would just be a matter of telling those guys to fuck off when they yelled at us to stay in our rooms.
That night, it worked. There was a wrestling match in the hallway, just a few dozen huge dudes shoving each other around and to the ground between plaster walls, metal door frames and unpadded floor. Nobody got hurt. But they learned not to fuck with our class.
We learned later, that was the point. For us to show some unity and to have each other’s backs. We passed the test. Not bad for us.
The upperclassmen got a little smarter too. They upped the ante.
A guy named Monte dug chicks. We all dug chicks, but this horndog dug all chicks, all the time. He’s smile and sweet talk anything with two legs and tits. Even small tits. Even when she was someone else’s girlfriend.
Unlike Monte, the rest of us – all crew guys, not just grunties – respected that relationship. Nobody flirted with another guy’s woman. Even Monte might have been innocent. But grunties never get the benefit of the doubt.
The varsity guy and his girl’s name have faded. But Monte chatted with her when she came to visit at the boathouse, and she was foolish enough to tell her boyfriend what a nice guy that Monte was. This was, maybe, Monte’s second day on campus. He was from Buffalo NY, three thousand miles from home, either trying to pick up another guy’s chick or just being naturally nice, but it didn’t matter.
That night, ten guys crept silently into Monte’s room, stole him from his bed, hauled him down to the docks in his underwear, hands bound behind his back. He was gagged and couldn’t holler for help. This all got related to us the next morning. They held a little kangaroo court on the dock.
Someone, not Moses, called the gathering to order. Monte was blindfolded so he didn’t see anyone.
“Let this session of the Connie Kangaroo Court be in session!”
“Yes, your honor.”
“What matter is before us tonight, and don’t waste my fucking time. I have an 8:30 class.”
“Your honor, the matter of the people versus Monte.”
“Well actually it’s this guy here. Monte was talking to his girlfriend.”
“Ah yes. First witness.”
“Your honor, I was minding my own business, waiting for my girlfriend to come visit, and I heard a commotion in the hallway. I went outside and Monte was talking to her, smiling and groping her butt. I couldn’t see his other hand, but I swear he was caressing her, like right up by her boobs.”
“MMMmmmmm – Uhhh!” groaned Monte in protest. “Mm… mid… mot!”
“Well. Did she like it?”
“Um, she didn’t say. She just told me what a nice guy Monte was.”
“She thinks a gruntie is nice? What the fuck is the matter with her... or with you? You’re dating the wrong girl!”
The assembled gallery cracked up. The judge raised a hand.
“Silence! Any other evidence from the witness? Anything else your girlfriend said or did?”
“Ummm, your honor, she was red faced and so horny afterward, she locked the door and ripped my clothes off, and pulled me into bed – ”
“Christ, man. Stop right there. You’re going to give every guy in the jury a woody, blood will rush from their brains, and they won’t make a rational verdict. But after that I only have one more question.”
“Yes, your honor?”
“You got laid. What the fuck are we doing here?”
No answer. But the gallery agreed, chanting to get it over with.
“Jury, please deliberate. You have thirty seconds.”
It was all staged. A clutch of guys in bathrobes and sweat pants whispered to each other.
“Your honor, we have a problem. One person believes he is innocent.”
“Who is it?”
“Well, it’s his mother.”
“Good enough. Get him over by the edge of the dock.”
Escorted by the jury, Monte stood, hands still bound, with his toes over the water.
“I, judge of the Connie Court, find you guilty. Don’t fuck with the varsity. And even though this guy got a fine piece of afternoon delight, I sentence you to the depths of the lake. Do it.”
With a shove to the back, Monte went into the black water. After five seconds of panic, he realized his wrists had been freed on the push, and he was able to rip off the blindfold and gag and swim back to the dock. But by that time, judge, jury, and gallery were long gone.
Monte went on to stroke the varsity lightweights to a couple of championships. Did the kangaroo court make him stronger? Who knows.