Liberty, Once Lost

When I was three I would run around naked in our front yard. A day came when my dad decided that this was no longer appropriate. He pulled me aside and said, “Tom, you need to stop running around like that.” I was of course confused and asked him why. He responded with what must have been the first thing that came to his mind, “Because a dog might run up to you and bite off your penis.”

When I was nine my family moved with our dogs to a town in the Pacific Northwest. Our property there had sections with forests so I would occasionally go for long walks in the woods. One of the pleasures of being out in nature alone is being able to experience the freedom of peeing into the open air. However, I would hold it in for the entire walk as at that age I still feared without question that if I tried to pee outside a dog just might jump from behind a tree and run off with my penis.

That’s the power of a dad’s words to his son.

It seems improbable that I would believe that story for so long, but consider all of the impossible things you were told as a kid that were actually true. For example, you were once a baby inside your mother; the earth is round; ice is solid water — I believed those things too. And it most likely only got stranger as you got older. You were once both a sperm and an egg; the dots in the sky are mostly suns that are very very far away; observation changes events on the subatomic level. Then there were all the other truths that did in fact keep us from harm, for example I was told to stay away from berries or mushrooms that we didn’t buy at the store and also not to play with snakes. Compared with all of the other ridiculous things I believed because adults told me they were true I can forgive myself for believing one little white lie about the dietary preferences of dogs. However, the lies from people I admired didn’t end there.

When I was a freshman I joined the high school wrestling team. At ninety-nine pounds I was by far the lightest guy on the team. Since there was no one else in my weight class I had to wrestle varsity against guys who weighed about seven pounds heavier than me, some of whom were seniors. I don’t mean to make excuses, but before I even wrestled my first opponent the odds seemed pretty well stacked against me.

However, my real problem was that I could never bring myself to be serious at the start of a match. The world became distant as I was being squeezed violently and thrown to the mat. I wasn’t motivated by a desire to win or the fear of being pinned or having my face squished into the old sock-musty smell of the mat. In those moments I would become reflective and strangely empathetic. I had no fight with those guys. They seemed nice. So I never won a match and was clearly a disappointment to the team.

There was huge pressure on the other wrestlers to lose weight just before a match so that they could compete in the lowest weight class possible. We would all get our weight checked an hour before a competition and this led to many strange rituals for the others such as not drinking water for twenty-four hours, spitting constantly and running around in circles wearing trash bags over their bodies so they could sweat off the pounds.

Because I was so underweight for my class I was trying to gain weight while the others were trying to lose it. I was drinking and eating before being weighed; they were spitting and starving themselves before being weighed. So when they were dehydrated and hungry I was bloated and needed to pee. It was an awful feeling, when an hour or so later I was being publicly twisted and compressed while my bladder was ready to burst.

I decided to seek advice from one of the older wrestlers, Dwayne, on this bladder issue. Dwayne was a much-feared senior in the upper weights. He had giant shoulders and a massive neck that bulged out from his letterman’s jacket. Dwayne was the opposite of me. He was the kind of guy who daydreamed about hurting people. I overheard him once during school lunch talking with the other wrestlers about how he wanted to break the rules and just power drive a guy headfirst into the mat to see if he could break his neck.

After I explained my bladder issue to Dwayne he looked at me thoughtfully and said, “Tom, all experienced wrestlers tie a rubber band around their penis before a match.” He explained that he never wrestled without one. I looked at him thinking, “This sport keeps getting tougher and tougher,” but I appreciated the guidance. I never had the nerve to try this particular technique but it made me admire the other wrestlers more as it was further evidence of how much they were willing to sacrifice for the team.

My parents came to every match and clearly hated watching their son getting clobbered. After a particularly brutal defeat my dad looked me in the eye and he said, “Tom, I’m proud of you. I don’t think I could get beaten like that time and time again and keep going back out there.” Although it might seem like a backhanded compliment it meant a lot to me. I knew I couldn’t be a bad-ass wrestler like Dwayne. But I also knew I wouldn’t piss myself when times got tough and that goes a long way in life.

I quit wrestling about halfway through the season. Or more precisely, I got pneumonia and had to quit. I’ve always thought getting sick had something to do with me sitting for hours in a cold gym. Although looking back on it now I have to admit that everyone else seemed to get through the season without contracting a life-threatening disease.

That summer, after the school year ended, I was out walking on our property when nature called. In that moment out in the wild with a full bladder and far from home it suddenly occurred to me that Dwayne had lied to me about the rubber bands. There’s no way you could do that without also cutting off the blood flow, I thought. That could result in serious damage. I remembered the look on his face that I had at the time assumed was an expression of sympathetic camaraderie but now recognized as a self-congratulatory smirk for having duped Armstrong, the worst wrestler in the team’s history.

But Dwayne had in fact done me a favor. For in that moment I also realized that our dogs wouldn’t bite off my penis any more than they would bite off any other part of my body. I laughed out loud wondering how I could have believed that story unquestionably for so many years.

That day I regained a liberty, long-lost. It was a deeply satisfying feeling, standing alone on my family’s land, peeing into the cool breeze of the afternoon knowing that I was safe from harm. I still believe the stuff about babies and suns and such, but I try not to believe them entirely. I like to think that I’m a more skeptical person now.

Born in LA on a ranch. Raised in the PNW. Currently in NYC. A wanderer among wonders.