During my childhood, I sensed I was not the boy my father expected or wanted. Everyone is familiar with the many stereotypes of the distant father: the resourceful father with the inept son; the athletic father and the bookish child; the extrovert father siring an introvert male; and on and on. These conflicting roles are overshadowed by the enduring struggle between father and son for the love of the mother. Or so Freud says.
Dad loved Boy Scouts, baseball, sailboats and model trains, and hunting. I joined the Boy Scouts but earned few badges. Uncoordinated at sports, I was consigned to the outfield remaining there for the rest of my recess career. Sailing with the family, I was bored, even with a breeze. When I took my turn at the tiller, a dead calm reigned over the world.
In addition to sailboats and model railroads, my father constructed bookcases, wooden stairs and a back deck with a railing. Building anything beyond a pre-cut birdhouse was beyond my comprehension and interest. Even as an adult, attempting to make a minor repair, I often aggravated the problem requiring an emergency call to a plumber, electrician, or other well-paid tradesmen. And hunting? I disliked killing a bug with Kleenex and flushing it down the toilet. On the positive side, I loved reading, writing, and classical music. Sigh. And later opera. God help me!
Dad never talked to me about sex. We never engaged in any emotional or personal discussion. I don’t think being a different type of son would have made any difference. I don’t remember him ever holding me in his lap or giving me a hug unless I initiated it. He wasn’t cruel, but rather indifferent, preoccupied. He was happiest working alone: building his model railroad in the cellar or his sailboat in the garage. I never thought of Dad as a passionate man. Loyal – yes, responsible – definitely, intelligent – absolutely. Never a hint about another woman. He was not a strict disciplinarian preferring to leave that to Mom.
Sometimes Dad and I skated too close to sex for comfort. For example, the ‘Human Sexuality’ lecture. Or when I joined Scouts. The summer before eighth grade, I went to Scout camp. The week before leaving, I found a bag on my bed when I returned from delivering papers. Inside I found a jock strap! I put it on and studied myself in front of the bathroom mirror. I looked sexy. Dad never mentioned he’d bought it for me, and I never indicated I’d found it. Everything was left unsaid.
Dad gave me one piece of advice before I left for camp. “As a new scout, some older boys may try to do something to you. My advice is: take it like a man and don’t be a tattle-tale.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, being a smart ass. “Like short-sheeting my sleeping bag?”
He snorted as if I’d missed the point. “Something like that.” He walked away, shaking his head.
But I wasn’t totally naive. I knew my father’s words referred to sex. His tone hinted at something male and exciting. Homoeroticism hangs over a Scout campsite like smoke from a smoldering fire of damp wood. That summer, I saw a scout put a stick between his legs and start rubbing it. “Hmm,” I thought. “I’ll have to try that when I get home.” If there had been a jerk off badge, I would have earned it hands down.
By the time leaves fell off the trees, I’d sprouted hair on my chin. One Saturday I decided to shave. I told my father. “You can use my shaver. It’s in the medicine cabinet.” Case closed. Did I expect him to jump up with enthusiasm, escort me to the bathroom, and show me how to insert the razor and hold it at the correct angle against my skin? The razor reminded me of a fish fin and looked dangerous. What if I cut an artery?
“Dad, I need help.”
He came into the bathroom, acting impatient. I managed to shave without slicing myself, but that was the only satisfaction I got from the experience.
I’ve come to love my father, but at the time, I internalized the belief he didn’t think of me as a sexual male. I now understand why, but I grew up suspecting I’d done something wrong and I was flawed in some profound way.
Around this time, my father and I bonded in a strange and indirect way. He was never aware of it. With the family away for the afternoon and the house empty, I went to the bathroom to masturbate. This was during my ‘at every opportunity’ period of my teenage years. When finished, I had to pee. My urine smelled different from normal. I couldn’t describe the smell, but the odor was distinct and pungent.
Then I remembered a morning six years earlier while taking a bath and Dad came into the bathroom, raised the toilet seat, and peed. The smell! Somewhere my olfactory repository had stored this scent. Now that morning came back as if it had happened only the day before. Why did my mind retain this nasal memory from childhood? I suppose at seven years old, anything to do with the size and shape of a penis or the color, volume, and odor of urine was a scrap of information that I instinctively knew was important to remember.
With the memory of that smell, I concluded my father jerked off in bed after Mom got up and before he shaved. Does a grown man blow his load alone after he’s married? In a nonverbal way, my father had told me something about sex and I only ‘heard’ him six years later. Every day during recess, I listened and learned every boy beat his meat, choked his chicken, cranked his shank, fisted his mister, flogged the log, frosted his pastries, humped his hose, pulled his weasel, spanked his monkey, wanked his crank…
Learning about my father was a revelation. For the first time, I belonged in the tribe.
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