The Boys in the Boathouse
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
The Day We All Died.
You won’t see Doctor Frank getting all weepy over this. It’s not his way. He won’t recreate “Bye Bye, It’s Dik Erickson’s Pie,” filling new lyrics with old jokes that only Dog Rowers would understand. Someone else can do that shit. Doctor Frank is not a poet.
But Doctor Frank is not alone when he says that something crushed me deep inside, the day Dik died.
The phone call came on a summer morning. One of those summer mornings when nothing can possibly go wrong.
“Frank. Dik Erickson died.”
The gouge to the gut. The hand reaching straight into my chest, grabbing my heart and yanking it out. The searing pain of unexpected loss. It’s been almost fifteen years and I can still feel it, fresh the way it felt that day the call came. Emptiness. A huge gaping hole, and the only thing that could fill it even a little bit was to talk to old teammates. Talk about all those memories that kept spilling out of my brain and my heart.
Doctor Frank spent all day on the phone. The Dikmobile. The pipe. The smoky air in the erg room. The launch windshield. The peckerhead, the damn little fucking peckerhead Wells, who died working at a shipyard when he was only twenty-six. But he got Dik in his life. We all got Dik in our lives. That’s what we talked about way more than the goddamn childish stories that get retold and embellished while our wives sit around rolling their eyes. We talked about the men he had molded from the boys we had been. Even our wives get it when it comes to Dik. Our wives look at us and know the men we’ve become, the men they love, the men who adore them back like real men should. Even our wives know we all have a little Dik in us. Wait. Fuck. That came out all wrong.
The word spread. It was in the news. Letters were written to the papers. Testimonials. Profiles on TV and in the Everett Herald.
The memorial would be a nice little get together at the Connie. On the same concrete apron where Dik told me not to worry about those ratfuckers almost thirty years earlier. In front of the same boat bays where generations of piece of shit fucking crew guys, Ulbrickson’s fucking crew guys, Dik’s fucking crew guys, had come and gone. Those boat bays where we’d listened to Dik’s postworkout talkups, looking past him at that big goddamn clock ticking away, wondering if we’d have enough time to shower and get some breakfast before climbing those long stairs to class.
A nice intimate memorial, just for those handful of us who knew what he’d done for us.
You couldn’t get a seat. You couldn’t even find a place to stand. The apron, where we immortal Gods of Rowing had strode, socks hanging out of our trou like so many big swinging dicks, was crammed with those lucky few, lucky enough to get there early. The doors to the boat bays, the boat bays where we had slung those eights on our shoulders day after day under the watchful eye of the hallowed Husky Clipper, were stopped up with more tall old fucks than a 1950s NBA reunion. The balcony above was jammed with the overflow crowd, the balcony where those ratfuckers had stood and tossed buckets of water, the balcony where Kevin shot Sammy, the balcony where we held our dates tight and watched the destruction of mud island.
It started off like any other memorial. A contemporary of Dik’s, telling old war stories. Babs, fucking smarmy creepy evil USC spy Babs, claiming that Dik was a treasure, and smiling her wicked smile. An old whore coxswain from 1970 who wouldn’t let the microphone go. Goddamn little peckerheads, always gotta have that mic.
Still we stood lost. Lost and wandering in the fucking wilderness. Our captain was fallen, cold and dead. We had no compass. What would we do now, where would we go?
Then God strode to the microphone. The world hushed, a silent peace falling across the crowd. We knew now. We knew it would be OK. We saw the light now as He gazed upon us. Those eyes had never changed, the eyes that could snap you in two but you knew they never would, those eyes that still burned young, piercing and true with the glory of the sport, but held the soft worldliness of a gentleman. He stood calmly in front of us, drew in a deep breath and spoke the cleanest, sharpest words of the afternoon. Words that cut right through the bullshit adoration, pierced our shroud of desolation and got straight to the heart of the matter.
“If Dik were here today,” proclaimed God, “he’d say, ‘Shit guys, this is just another bullshit dog and pony show.’”
The tight-wound atmosphere exploded with the simple truth of the moment. In just sixteen short words, Mort had captured Dik’s humility, Dik’s hunger to see Husky Crew’s legacy shining beyond any individual glory, Dik’s enduring gratitude for his own good fortune as a Husky Legend.
As the thundering applause waned and shouts of “Right on!” faded from the air, Mort drew another breath. His sixteen words had said it all; no more needed saying. But the seconds ticked by as he felt obliged to keep on. He spoke falteringly. He described Dik as an opportunitist. Not an opportunist who wanted anything for himself, but an opportunitist, a provider of opportunity for others. A man whose only success was in the success of others, whose purest joy was in laying out the road and watching other men tread it, reaching far beyond their own grasp to find that slice of heaven.
“Husky Crew”, said Mort, “is so much bigger than any one of us. That’s what Dik taught us, that’s what he provided, the opportunity to be a part of something that’s more important than ourselves. He reached out… he gave us… a chance…” Mort’s tears got in his way. He paused to catch his breath.
“We love you Mort!” a voice called from the back. He nodded, finished his sentence, and thanked the crowd. Then he thanked Dik and stepped down. Unseen in the hubbub up front, a final speaker moved unannounced to the podium.
Dik appeared before us. Purple Crew jacket, towel under the collar around the neck. Big W hat, shades and a pipe. He just stood there. Staring at something, nobody knew what, behind those sunglasses. Same guy who ignored us as grunties decades ago when Raoul drove him past us.
“You all loved my father,” the speaker said. He took off the jacket. “And I appreciate that. So do my brothers, John and Jeff, and my mother Irma.” The towel went next. “We thank you for coming and for so many kind and amazing compliments.” Now the pipe and the ball cap. “It’s humbling to hear so much love for Dik. But there’s something I want you to know.”
The shades came off and Al Erickson stood at the mic. He had to wait for the applause to die down.
“What you need to know,” Al Erickson said calmly, “is that as much as you loved him, you didn’t live with my father.”
Nervous laughter. Where was this going? Al waited for us to process. Expressionless, he paused maybe an extra uncomfortable five seconds, staring at the crowd.
“What you saw of Dik in those few moments you spent with him,” Al Erickson said, “John, Jeff, Mom, and I got every day. Every single day. Can you imagine how lucky we were?”
Funny, thought Doctor Frank. That’s how I’ve always felt, seeing news interviews with him. That’s Dik. You got him for sixty seconds of erudition on TV. I got him a couple hours every day. I’m the luckiest SOB in the history of this fucking earth.
Al took his time, telling stories that only a family member would know. Things only Dik’s sons and his wife could have seen. Doctor Frank does not believe he is alone in saying that I learned more about the real Dik Erickson in those ten minutes than in all the years I’d known him.
The memorial ended with every soul feeling lucky. Lucky to be there that day, lucky to know Dik, lucky to have all that tradition behind them. And we were thirsty. There was beer. There were smiles. There were nothing but smiles. There were flowers to toss on the finish line, and Lucky had the refurbished Connie ready for the trip. A police boat tried to move us along, blocking traffic in the Montlake Cut, but the cop backed down reverently when we mentioned Dik’s name. Dik was everywhere, and he had pull in high places, even after he died.
There was a trip to the Duchess. We discussed the Knarr, but… the Knarr is still a fifty cent can of generic chili, while the Duchess has moved up the food chain. It’s maybe thick cut peppered bacon. But those with long memories can still smell the Dinty Moore in the walls.
Six months later, Raoul – remember Raoul? – had the last laugh.
Raoul sees an email from the UW Athletic Department proposing that a bobblehead will be made, and distributed free to the first two thousand fans at an upcoming Husky basketball game. The email provides a link where voters can pick the face on the bobblehead. Hurry up and vote, deadline next week, only four choices offered. Football coach Rick Neuheisel. Women’s hoops coach June Daugherty. Men’s coach Lorenzo Romar. Or mascot Harry the Husky.
The gears immediately start spinning in Raoul’s head. But before he can even make his call to the AD, Daugherty’s husband essentially takes her out of the running with this quote on local TV, and I am not shitting you, this really happened – “God, that would be amazing, having a wife with a bobble head.”
The AD is running scared now. A coach’s rogue spouse, making a mockery of an official Department Activity? Everything else has to go according to plan, or all hell’s gong to break loose. So when they answer the call from Raoul, they don’t know what to say.
“Husky Athletic Department, may I help you?”
“Si, I am Raoul Garcia. I have a question about voting on El Bobblehead. I was not allowed to press numero dos for Espanol.”
“Well thank you Senor Garcia, I’m so happy you habla English, because oh my god, I’d, like, really struggle with the Mexican, y’know? How may I help you?”
“May I write in a candidate for El Bobblehead?”
“Um… um… Senor Garcia, whom did you propose to write in?”
“Why do you answer a question with a question?”
“Um… please hold.”
“Barbara Hedges, how may I assist you today?”
“Ah, Senora Hedges, I am Raoul Garcia, famous Mexican cliff diver! You are from Los Angeles, no? Lovely Spanish name, the City of Angels, in fact you are practically Mexican. We share a rich heritage. And your loveliness exceeds that of the blue sun-dappled pools of Acapulco, into which I have thrust my swarthy brown body so many times. I call you today inquiring if I may write in my mentor and good friend, Senor Earl Ellis, as candidate for El Bobblehead.
“…Hello? Ola? Senora Hedges?”
“Excuse me, Senor Garcia. I had to catch my breath. Nobody has ever spoken to me that way before. Of course you may write in anyone you want for the Bobblehead. As soon as we hang up, I will instruct my assistant to create that space on our web site. I do wish we could meet, Senor. If you visit, you might like a tour of Conibear Shellhouse. They have this underground room –“
“That will not be possible, Senora. But I highly doubt that none before me have shown their appreciation for your enduring beauty. And I personally most appreciate your gracious accommodation of my desires. Good day.”
“Oh Raoul, may I call you Raoul, I’m just getting starte- hello?”
Raoul hangs up the phone and runs outside to puke. Then he hits the email.
“Two Thousand Dikheads,” reads the subject line. Who wouldn’t click that?
Within twenty-four hours Raoul has recruited the entire database of Husky crew alumni to vote for Dik. The AD web site provides daily updates, still showing Neuheisel and Harry in a dead heat, with “Write-in” trailing. Everyone knows it’s rigged, so Raoul and his minions continue to find ways to hack it and rig it themselves. It’s all-out cyber warfare. A fucking-crew-guy-turned-college professor in another state may possibly have used publicly-owned computers to write and run a program that hacked in and voted continuously, bypassing the once-a-day restriction. Possibly. Might have happened.
On the local sports at 6PM, they announce the winner. The reporter is already laughing when he comes on the air, purple and gold W on the apron behind him. Doctor Frank is watching, wondering where those ratfuckers are with the bucket.
“Well Bruce… The Boys in the Boathouse have done it again. This time they did it for Dik. Wish he could see this. God, he would have loved it.”
Raoul sits proudly at the basketball game, those two thousand Dikheads nodding in unison around Hec Ed Pavilion. He holds up his doll, shakes it and channels Dik one final time. He looks down the row of seats, spotting an all-too-familiar face.
“Teasdale, goddammit, it’s been thirty-five years! Why are you still here?”