The Boys in the Boathouse
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
Except for this one chapter. Which is sadly, disgracefully, all true.
Much as we wish otherwise.
Except for this one chapter. Which is sadly, disgracefully, all true.
Much as we wish otherwise.
Doctor Frank needs to take a chapter to vent. Doctor Frank is still a little pissed about this, and some say it’s all in the past and best forgotten and it’s wrong to bring it all up, but if you think that, then fuck you. Or stop reading.
Granted, it was a different day. The norms were different. We just did what everyone else did. Yeah, and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, was a great man in his day. But with the hindsight of history, he still owned slaves, and that sucks. He just didn’t know it was wrong.
There were great men among us. Guys who would win Henley and be honored with the Purple Jackets of the Husky Hall of Fame. Guys who would serve their country loyally and honorably. Guys who would be lawyers, fighting for the rights of the oppressed.
Guys who would go on to be gynecologists, for God’s sake. But we were still assholes, damn near every one of us.
We had national champions sharing the facility with us. They just, by chance, didn’t have penises. We sneered at them. Bags. Hoggosauruses. Kraks. That last one, rhyming with quack, was hollered across the water when they rowed past. Krak, krak krak krak. Spewed at them when they hauled their boats off the docks.
I mean, shit, we showered, slept and ate like kings at the Connie, but all a woman had to do was finish practice and stop by the kitchen for a goddamn cup of hot water for her tea before her long walk back to her dorm for a shower. Krak, krak, krak. Doctor Frank was a goddamn part of it and Doctor Frank thought it was funny.
Misogyny was a word we’d never heard. If someone had accused Doctor Frank of misogyny at the time, he’d have said sure, I’d love a massage. Just make sure she’s naked and has big tits.
But Title Nine pushed us out of the Stone Age, directly in the middle of Doctor Frank’s era. We pushed back. We said hey, Title Nine says you have to smile and be nice to me. Right after calling them kraks. Real nice.
Funny what happens when you look a person in the eyes, though. Say a kind word. Listen to another human being, hear their opinions, dreams, and hurts. Maybe you weigh enough on the verbal abuse.
That goes double when you ask someone for a date. Suddenly, around Doctor Frank’s sophomore year, our guys were going out with kraks. But you better not say that to them. You better not holler krak on the water, not with that guy sitting behind you who’s dating one of those women. If you want to be an asshole at that time, you can tell him you heard she outpulled him on the erg.
Or it’s relegated to passive aggressive moves like the list of “official” krak terms that showed up on the bulletin board: Women’s crew workout was kraktice, their coach was the krakmaster, their team was the krakkru. And so on. Doctor Frank laughed at that too. To Doctor Frank and most of the guys, the kraks were still faceless, meaningless forms that took up space in our boathouse, on our docks, and on our water. And now they were creeping into our teammates’ love lives, which was even more aggravating.
The day after Doctor Frank got initiated into the VBC, the first class of women was initiated. This decree had come down from the Athletic Department. We insisted that, due to Title Nine, they all had to get naked and do the Hit Parade just like we did. Uh, no. They carried a boat about a mile in the dark. Did the swim. Got the lecture. At the time we thought it was fucked. Equal but not equal. We were assholes.
Social change is uncanny. Only a happy few enlightened people can see it coming and know it’s right. They’ll even fight for it, winning one heart and one mind at a time. Others fight against it, never giving up, never letting go of the roots of a dying age, even after the tree is long filled with termites and dropping its dead branches around their heads.
Some people deny any change is needed, and decide for themselves when it must be over and adequate. Title Nine in the 1970s was like the Obama election. Like hey, we got us a black president, so can’t you see there’s no more racism, what do you people want? Just like that, Title Nine gave us equality. What more do they want?
How about an attitude adjustment? There’s still crew – and women’s crew. Like crew means men’s crew and women’s crew isn’t really crew. Like men’s crew was the only crew for all those years, so it must still be the only real crew, and we’re just patting our little girls on the head by giving them some pretty boats to play with. Like it’s still 1918, when for a few brief years there was a women’s crew program at the UW, and they were scored on their outfits and their ability to carry the boat properly and put it on the water all pretty.
Doctor Frank believes with the benefit of hindsight that Title Nine may have been the best damn thing that ever happened to our world. Enforcement and interpretations have been clunky and ugly, but forty years later, parents can raise kids who play sports on equal footing regardless of gender, and get to reap the joy, fulfillment, and confidence that they bring, whether it’s a couple seasons of tee ball or an NCAA scholarship.
Think about that for a minute. Think of a world where an accident of birth, a goddamn sexual appendage, determined whether you could earn acceptance and find your dreams on a ball field or in a boat. No penis, you don’t play. That was the world Doctor Frank and his classmates were born into, and we were dragged kicking and screaming into a far better world all these years later.
If you’d called our attitude a phobia, we’d have laughed at you. We’re not scared, they’re just kraks. But count on it. We were damn scared that a woman might actually be a better athlete. That her crew might come home with a medal. It frightened the hell out of us, and the only moment we were able to let go was when we actually slowed down and treated them like equals.
Homophobia, we’d never heard of either. That would have been ridiculous, being afraid of a gay man. Gay men were all weak. Pussies. We had a weightlifting chart in the locker room showing how much each guy could leg press, lat pull, squat, dead lift, clean and jerk. Guys who missed a session went on the “Queers, fags, sliders” board.
Once again, we’d never met a gay man. Or so we claimed… as far as any of us knew, we’d never looked a gay man in the eyes and seen his nature, his strength. If a guy had bench pressed 250 for ten reps, pulled a top erg and run a hundred flights of stairs, then told us he was gay, we might have grown up. But we never got that evidence handed to us, probably because any gay guys in our midst heard all the bullshit and never said anything. Regardless of where they stood with muscles and tenacity.
Then came Vic. We never knew if Vic was gay, but we all wanted him to be, because he was small, effeminate, and a little flamboyant, an easy target of shit flippers. Doctor Frank, then a junior, first met Vic, a brand new gruntie, in the hallway at the crewhouse and assumed he was a coxswain. A little black dude maybe five-eight, one forty. Good to meet you, just lose about twenty and you’ll be awesome. What, you’re a rower? OK, gain ten and pull hard and you’re a lightweight.
In his ongoing wall of denial, to this day Doctor Frank will insist that the crap we gave Vic was not due to his race. His alleged yet unproven sexual orientation. Or his effeminate manner. That there was no homophobia involved. Doctor Frank will insist that Vic’s place in Husky lore was due only to the size of his cock. And Vic’s happy willingness to let us gawk at it.
Doctor Frank may well be full of shit. He may well be just covering, embarrassed about how he felt back then, about how hard he laughed when all the crap went down. Because it was all fucking wrong. But Doctor Frank will tell you that on that final day, it was all about the little guy with the massive erection. That day when Vic’s classmates corralled him for a lake shot, that day when they carried him naked to the front lawn of the crewhouse, right out there in public on that sunny spring afternoon, and swung him by arms and legs, face down, above the grass. The day when they kept swinging him so his unit dragged along the grass. And got bigger. And he was smiling. And it kept getting bigger. I mean, he was a foot off the ground and the head was rubbing in the long grass.
Doctor Frank will tell you that it wasn’t about the little black kid we all thought was a fag. It was simply about the guy with the huge cock. And that’s why we laughed so hard. That’s why we cheered so loud when Vic and his classmates came around the corner to the boat docks, Vic with a twelve-inch woody and a massive electric smile on his face and his classmates afraid to touch him to carry him down for the lake shot. He could have run and they’d never have tried to catch him.
Doctor Frank’s crew buddies were in on the joke and laughed at it then but they know otherwise now. They know it was a travesty. That nobody should be treated that way just because he’s a little different, whether that difference is his love life, his skin color, his dick size. Or her choice of a sport.
Doctor Frank has wondered over the years. What became of Vic? What was going on behind that goofy painted-on smile? What kind of pain was he in, to tolerate all the shit and pretend it never bothered him?
But that’s the way we were, and we can’t deny it or forget about it. We can be grateful that we live in a better world now, all these years removed, still far from perfect, but better thanks to the brave souls who have insisted that it be so.