The Fishing Trip
I’ve never discussed this trip with anyone, yet it’s been scarred into my brain since June 1999. Let me set the stage. I was just wrapping up 7th grade and to celebrate the end of the school year, the men on my mom’s side of the family were planning a father-son weekend at my cousin’s cabin in Minocqua, Wisconsin. My dad had passed away two years earlier, and my mom and sister thought it would be a good idea for me to attend with my brother-in-law, an opportunity to be around other guys and have that masculine influence in my life.
I dreaded the trip from the first mention of it. Since my dad died, I felt uncomfortable around other guys. The bullies at school made sure of that! I preferred to be around women because they felt more comforting, more organized, and brought that sense of order my OCD mind so desperately sought.
My brother-in-law is one of those guys who walks with an arrogant sense of pride. I never felt good enough or man enough around him. The thought of spending an entire weekend with him filled me with dread and anger. How dare this guy try to step into my dad’s shoes.
There were at least 10 other “father/son” duos. Once the beer started flowing for the adults, the profane womanizing and trash talk began, including from my brother-in-law. I couldn’t believe the things I heard them say about the women in their lives. How could they say these things? I love these women, they are my aunts, cousins, my own sister! Don’t they realize there is so much more to a female than her boobs and ass? My dad never spoke like that around me.
“Come on Jason, man up, just let loose,” my cousins would say. They were busy trying to out-stupid each other with random flips off the porch or punches to each other's nuts. Oh, and I remember that horrible smell of sweaty socks and armpits that filled the cabin for three full days. Cleanliness was clearly on their agenda.
I didn’t want to interact with any of these guys because I knew they’d just make fun of me. I was devastated inside and I just wanted my dad, but it was clear this was no trip to be sharing those types of emotions. Could you imagine the ridicule if you say you’re scared, nervous, or want to go home?
So I “manned up” and suppressed my emotions and opinions. I laughed when my cousins would do something stupid like light something on fire. I smiled when they’d say something inappropriate about their wives, girlfriends, or just women in general. I went along with the flow to prevent looking too girly, which is how I viewed myself.
I laid on the floor in the basement trying to fall asleep between the constant farting and burping noises from my cousins. In the dark, I cried. The silent kind of cry when your throat contracts and it feels like it will rupture through your mouth. I realized I was not like these other guys, so I assumed that there must be something wrong with me. Maybe I am just a fat loser after all.
The next day, two of my cousins and I decided to take the paddle boat out. The boat was set up to hold three “average” kids. They climbed into the boat and then I followed. As my butt hit the seat, the entire boat flipped over on its side. My cousins and I spilled into the lake as a roar of laughter erupted from the cabin at the top of the hill. I felt humiliated and traumatized. I should note that I don’t know how to swim and have general anxiety around water. But could I let these guys know that? Oh, hell no!
Rather than come to help us or see if we were okay, all of the men started laughing. Something similar happened a few years earlier with my dad and me, but that time he immediately came to my rescue as did mom. They checked to make sure I was okay and then we shared a giggle after the fact.
“Look at Wood! His fat ass tipped the boat over!” one cousin pointed and laughed. I still see that evil grin radiating from his blue eyes and braces. Not one single adult there said anything to stop the humiliation, they just joined in the fun at my expense.
Physically I was unharmed, but emotionally the damage was done. At that moment, I had never felt more alone in my entire life. I realized I needed to build a wall to protect myself. I learned that men just poke fun at other guys, they don’t comfort and console. For a boy already struggling with his masculinity, this was the pivotal moment in which I told myself I am not man enough.
My boat tipping incident remained a hot topic amongst my younger cousins for the remainder of the trip. To appear strong, I laughed along with them but would often retreat to the bathroom to cry.
“Were you jerking off in there? Must be nice soap?” my cousin said after one twenty-minute shower that was actually the first time I thought about just wanting to die. In the running water, I stood there trembling. Wanting to be any place but in that cabin, even if that meant I had to die. I figured then at least I could be with dad again. However, I suppressed those thoughts and put on the mask of toxic masculinity.
When I finally got home later Sunday night, I couldn’t even tell Mom the full truth. I let her know that I didn’t have a good time but I stopped at that. I feared looking weak. Those three days in northern Wisconsin changed me. I thought that maybe if I started acting all macho and strong like the guys in that cabin then maybe I could be happy because I’d feel accepted. So I stopped sharing my emotions.
I also started making fun of other guys at school. The bullied became the bully. Putting them down made me feel better about myself for a few minutes before the guilt of my actions would settle in. I knew better, my dad raised me better but he was gone now. I hated the person I was becoming but I figured this was the only way I’d ever be accepted as a man.