The Boys in the Boathouse
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
“Emfbo! What side do you row?”
I froze, mouth working but nothing coming out. Holy shit, not only does Dik know my name, he’s actually speaking to me. He noticed me. I’d heard about this. The man actually converses with his athletes. The man cares about them. The man can laugh, tell jokes, even drink a beer standing on his head with his pipe in his mouth.
But this was different. He was shouting to a sophomore walking past his office on the first day of fall practice. He was working on the lineup, sitting at his desk and ready to step out to the tongue blade board where the varsity guys waited.
“Wa… wa… uhhh… hello Mister Erickson…”
“For Christ sake, Frank, it’s either one side or the other. Can you answer the question or do I just stick you wherever I want?”
That didn’t calm my nerves. It just raised the pressure to give an intelligent answer.
“Jesus. That took some effort. You answer your professors like that in class?”
“No, Coach. Sorry. I’m OK. Just excited for the first practice.”
Aw crap, that was the wrong thing to say. Sure enough, I turned to see the rest of the team – last year’s varsity fuckers who now would be my teammates at every practice – snickering and rubbing their fists on their noses. The universal symbol for brownnosing.
“Tho exthited for the firtht practith”, said Barnecut, plugging his nostrils with his thumb as he twisted and gripped. The whole room busted up. Day One and they had my number.
No longer grunties, I couldn’t expect the backup I might have gotten last year when varsity fuckers gave anyone crap. Even my classmates were laughing. I flipped them all off and sat to start warmups.
Barnecut was still on my shit list. He had been voted Most Hated Varsity Fucker (an honor soon to be usurped by our classmate Hendel who was a proud three-time champion) on the one night when Smitty had stood up and let us toss one varsity fucker of our choosing in the lake, like a Barabbas in reverse.
But Barnecut was also the victim of one of the better pranks our class pulled.
US Mail and pay phone calls were our only contact with the outside world. So when guys got letters, everyone got jealous. We had a rule that anyone receiving five letters in the mail on the same day would get tossed in the lake. So as Barnecut continued to fuck with us grunties, even after his award cemented his status, we planned another move. Two guys sat in their rooms and wrote letters to him. There were way more than five, just in case the mailman fucked up. A plan like this could be dashed and look pretty stupid if he got four letters one day that all said “Take a swim motherfucker!” but the fifth didn’t show up til the next day.
The letters got mailed. Classmates were told. We were ready to jump Barnecut as soon as the whip stood up to make the announcement at dinner. If he got the head start on us, we’d have to chase him down.
Some quisling, and to this day Doctor Frank has no idea who it was, leaked the plan to the varsity fuckers. To this day, Doctor Frank will fuck him right up if he’s ever revealed.
The letters arrived. We knew. Barnecut knew. We were ready.
At dinner, a mailman showed up. This is no shit, a guy in a postal uniform. He was introduced to the team as Postal Inspector Heller. We’d never seen him before, but it turned out he was a former rower who’d quit the team and gone to work as a mailman. We didn’t know that at the time. There was a shiver of fear in the room. Maybe we’d broken the law. But this was the same guy Dik was heard to describe later this way… “Every village needs an idiot. This village lets him carry the mail.”
So the guy stands on a chair and describes a serious violation in security of the United States postal code. Demands and investigation. At which point Coon, yes there was a coxswain named Coon, jumps up and says “we’ve already done it, sir!” pulling an easel and flip chart from under the dinner table. Damn, they had this choreographed.
“But before we reveal our suspects, you need to hear the recorded evidence.” Coon punches a button on a cassette recorder, turns up the volume, and the tinny voices of a short script fill the room. A half dozen members of our class are portrayed in the scene, which would have been funny if it was someone else but they were making us look like vindictive pussies who couldn’t take a little razzing and just wanted to get the letters mailed and hurry back to our rooms so we could beat off before practice. The truth is a bitch sometimes.
Coon stands on the chair and pulls up page one of the flip chart.
“We’ve developed composite drawings of the suspects, sir.” The first page shows a circle with ears. Next page, a mouth and moustache. Next, hair and eyes. Finally the picture is complete.
“See anyone in this room that looks like that?” says Inspector Heller, glaring around the gathered masses.
“Dago!” shout the varsity fuckers in unison. They point him out, sitting and smiling proudly with his fellow grunties.
The next series of drawings concludes with a shaggy head, glasses and a goofy denim cap.
“Walker!” they all shout. Sure enough, Walker is sitting next to Dago.
Heller appears to be in consultation with himself for five seconds.
“You people need to get back to your meals. Let’s get this over with. Fuck it. Guilty. Mister Commodore, please rule on the sentence.”
Smitty is laughing so hard he can barely speak but he stands and tries to be serious.
“Grunties. Lake ‘em.”
We look at Dago and Walker, our classmates. Guilty as they may be of this setup, they are not to be fucked with.
“Fuck you!” I shout. I look for backup. “Yeah, fuck you!” echoes from my fellow grunties.
They were ready for this. Varsity fuckers’ chairs slide out in unison, we grunties gather round the convicts, and suddenly there’s a brawl as they try to reach their victims. Chairs tip over, plates hit the floor. Francis looks pissed behind the kitchen counter. It’s one thing to talk about pussies and chuck guys in the lake. Something totally different to bust up her dinnerware.
“Weigh enough!” Smitty shouts, banging on a plate. He restores order, directs the grunties to stand down, and tells Walker and Dago to calmly lake themselves under varsity fucker escort. Warily, everyone moves to obey. It looks like things are OK when I spot Barnecut slipping from the room. I take off in pursuit.
“Get him!” I lead the chase out the dining room door, down the hall. He doesn’t get far. By this time my classmates have caught us. Barnecut is bunged and hauled to the dock where he isn’t even offered the traditional courtesy of disrobing. We pour onto the dock carrying him, just as the varsity fuckers are trying to get back to shore after tossing Walker and Dago in the lake. A melee ensues. Lakers become lakees, victims become perps, Barnecut almost gets away again but is baggage-checked and dragged into the water by a self sacrificing naked gruntie, Big Bird barely avoids a brutal snakepunch, but soon all is well.
I’m still dry and fully clothed. I head back to the dining room and see Smitty coming back in from the balcony after watching the riot. He sees me coming, grins and shakes my hand.
“Emfbo,” says Smitty. “That isn’t exactly how we had this planned out. But it was awesome. Your class is awesome. I love you guys.”
This was from the guy who stroked the first varsity boat. I’ll take that compliment any day.
So Barnecut – remember Barnecut, first day of practice – and the guys are still laughing and giving me the brownnose treatment when Dik comes in from his office. He looks us over. He speaks.
“Shit, guys.” That’s all he has to say to start the first practice of the new season. Then he turns to the tongue blade board and starts sticking guys in slots, moving people around. While he works, guys are stretching on their own. Legs, abs, shoulders. We had a routine as grunties but we were micromanaged at it. Now we’re men, no longer followed around by a babysitter coach. Better be ready.
I look around the room at the animals I’ll be rowing with. The varsity boat has only lost a couple guys to graduation, and they’re being replaced by two Olympians who had missed last season to represent our country in Montreal. Grunties are in awe. We’ve never even seen Zoomer and Mort. Zoomer is as huge as Big Bird but two years older and sleek as a seal. He moves like a cat. Mort looks normal until you see his eyes. Zen master. He could snap you in two by just thinking about it. But he never would. All that intention goes straight into his oar handle and the boat… just… goes.
Until March when we achieve full membership in the Varsity Boat Club, Sophomores are called “rookies.” It will be our job to fuck with this year’s grunties but for now, staring around at our new batch of teammates, we’re all ticking off the mental page computing where we’ll sit by spring racing season. I can beat that guy on the erg, that one’s an animal on the stairs, that guy over there can run faster and lift more than I can. Better work harder, pull harder.
Damn. JV boat. Maybe.
When we hit the water, rookies mixed randomly and carelessly, or so it seemed, with varsity guys, we realize where we stand. It’s not a tough workout, a handful of two minute pieces and lots of skill and drill. For today anyway, Dik cared enough about every guy that he had Raoul pull the launch up next to every shell for a closer look during power pieces. Standing in the boat on this hot September day in his tee shirt, W ball cap and mirror shades, he was no longer that silent statue coasting past our workout. He was running this practice, and we hung on every word.
“You Southmores gotta learn something. The catch is not effective if you hit it with your arms locked out. I’m watching every one of you do it. Now, goddammit, watch me” – ignoring the teenage lifeguard crew cleaning up the Laurelhurst beach club for the season just a few yards away, he reached forward and jerked his fist in the air, keeping his arm slightly bent at the elbow – “like this!” Pause. Again. “Like this! You get me?”
Dik never actually told us we were victims of bad coaching. That would have pointed back to just one guy. But he harped on this relentlessly at every practice in the first weeks of fall.
“It’s acquirable! You can do this, it’s not fucking magic. Just make it happen! That’s the beauty of this situation, guys, you can all do this.
“Except you, Thorsness. You lack basic athletic coordination.” We could not believe he said that. We all loved JBT. Third boat, fourth boat, wherever he sat, JBT was a model of positivity and an inspiration. It was a crackup coming from Dik, though. Even JBT laughed.
Fall progressed, ergs were done, stairs were run. Windy days brought what swimmers call dry-land training, which was a joke. Run to Green Lake and back in the rain. Run ten times up Cardiac Hill in the rain. The only real dry-land work was indoors. The weight room. Pavilion stairs. More ergs.
Ham n Egger day. First part of November, on a gorgeous Friday afternoon. One of those hazy fall days where it’s cooling off but the weather’s amazing, and the lake gets misty as the sun closes in on the horizon. Jumble up the tongue blades. Random draw, watch the coach stick one at a time in the rack.
A long warmup brought all the boats to the far end of the 520 bridge. Dik had marked the pontoons (with or without the DOT’s permission, we never knew or cared) with a green and white stripe and a tall white pole at every 500 meter mark. For years, Doctor Frank could drive that bridge, count those four 500-meter poles, and relive every stroke of those ass busting workouts.
But on this Ham n Egger day, if a guy is lucky he’ll be in a boat with some good sticks. Or he’ll be part of a once-in-a-career coming together of eight inspired zookers and a crazed swain that somehow catch the other boats napping and make it happen. The only bad news is, if Dik doesn’t like what he sees, he turns the whole armada around and makes ‘em do it again. Or he’ll jack up the pace and race everyone another two miles from the west end of the bridge back to the boathouse.
That fading fall light puts an orange glow in the sky, our backs to the sunset as we let our coxs bring us back to the docks. In the cool mist of late fall, every good amazing thing is possible. And the next summer the Dogs would make that come true in Henley.
Doctor Frank wasn’t part of that Henley crew. But he feels pretty good about being part of that something bigger, that essence that just may have pushed and inspired those guys over the top. Doctor Frank remembers in particular the workout when he spent at least five miles running right behind Franklin, who would pull the seven oar in that championship crew, laughing at his soaking wet “I’m so happy here I could just shit” tee shirt. Up the first block of Cardiac Hill in the driving rain, fifty pushups and fifty situps in the grassy median of the street, south a quarter mile and around the block, up the first block of the hill again, repeat. Repeat ten fucking times. Dik drove over there in his car and watched, smoking his pipe and telling us to hurry the fuck up. We ran the mile to and from the Hill, plus the five mile workout. Doctor Frank and everyone else could barely walk after that, but maybe just knowing there was a fourth boater keeping up with him helped Franklin push himself a little bit. Maybe Doctor Frank is just grasping at straws.
Who knows. But it’s pretty cool to see that picture of the guys on the medal stand at Henley and think, hey, I knew those studs.
By March, all the boats were set. The V boat that would go undefeated except for a photo finish loss to Penn at San Diego that would be their only blemish. The JV boat that Doctor Frank sniffed but never touched, never even a cup of coffee in practice. The lightweights who would continue their tradition of flying past opponents and head straight to Henley along with the V boat. Busting ass every day on the water, with stairs and weights on our own, and crashing the books whenever we had a chance as finals approached, we rookies nearly forgot the joy of VBC initiation night that was approaching.
Some time just before finals week, all the grunties are told to vacate the boathouse between 7 and 10PM. Go to the library, Baskin Robbins, hang out in a fucking dumpster behind the stadium. We don’t care. If you’re caught here at the Conny you’ll be stripped naked and hauled to the middle of the 520 bridge, where you’ll be tossed in the water in the dark. Take your pick, swim back to the Conny or climb up the ladder, stop traffic and hitchhike home. Best to just stay the fuck away, grunties.
As grunties we had followed orders and wondered what the hell was so special and secret. Now, as rookies, we were thrilled to be so important that grunties would be sent away for our initiation. Must be pretty cool.
It started out like head shaving night. A little inspirational lecture from Commodore Franklin. Easy enough. Then we were herded to the boat bays for the Hit Parade, and the real fun began.
The details of the event are still a secret after forty years. Or maybe Doctor Frank’s memory is hazy. But the Hit Parade was a no-hands relay race that involved naked dudes, Three in One oil, and the latest pop hits on 45 rpm singles. Honor Your Brother might have been something about jock tape and a generous coating of whatever edible or inedible substance the varsity fuckers could think of, which sent one guy in our class to the health center two weeks later with an ear infection. On inspection the doc found rotten peanut butter still imbedded in the ear canal, festering and mouldering into a pus-filled boil.
We missed the frostbitten balls our predecessors had suffered. But some guys had all their pubes fall off in the shower, courtesy of a bottle of Nair dumped in their shorts. Others wondered what that burning sensation was… Ben Gay Dick. Yow. But in the midst of battle you don’t notice, especially when all those stairs you’ve run come into play with the Jock Tape Bunny Hop. Legs are fried by the end but you’ll feel better in the Tunnel of Love. Not sure what was in that Tunnel in our year, but Doctor Frank knows the Goog perfected it in following years. The Goog owned a slaughterhouse.
Whatever shit was on us, we washed some of it off with a swim. A shower and dry clothes and a solemn presentation of our VBC jackets, and we were members. No longer fucking rookies, long since past being dumb grunties, we were a part of the tradition of Husky Rowing. Something way bigger than ourselves. Something way bigger than even the biggest baddest guy in the Number One boat.
And all that shit they’d done to us a few minutes earlier? That was all because they loved us.