Dimes v. Biceps

Dimes v. Biceps

Back in my river guide days, I was the different one. I was five five, female, and one hundred and twenty-five pounds soaking wet, which was pretty common while I was training. Learning how to pilot rafts involved a lot of falling into the water, hiking boots, work pants and jacket included.

My boss, The Boss, we'll call him, was a big man. In his sixties, a mind-bogglingly old age to my nineteen years, The Boss was the definition of a brick shithouse. In my memory he had hands the size of dinner plates, and a literal, actual sentient mustache that, much like a bison's tail, bristled prior to him erupting in anger. He was tall, broad, and not sold on having a small teenaged girl on his crew.

But I had been given a recommendation by a former guide whom The Boss must have liked because I was allowed to train. He kept me in training for weeks beyond my male peers but eventually allowed me to row the first year guide boats, even if he found my entire gender suspect.

At the end of my first year, I went to say goodbye to The Boss prior to making the ten-hour drive back to my parent's house. He told me that I could come back the next year, but he would assign me to drive vans until I quit because he found me too... small to do the elevated job of a second year guide--piloting the oar rafts.

In response, I gave him a hug and told him I couldn't wait to see him next year. He had clearly not expected this. His body turned to stone when I threw my arms around his torso and gave him perhaps the first hug he'd had in a decade.

And the next year when I came back, he was true to his word. He let me row the boats typical of a first year guide, promoted all my male co-workers into the coveted oar rafts, and kept me driving vans when convenient to him.

But, I wasn't going to be put off by his blatant disregard to the future being female. I spent hours and hours of unpaid time, rowing my male co-workers' oar raft trips, them getting paid for guiding while they sat and gave the interpretive talk that I could also do.

I learned that river inside and out, and with no disrespect to my six-foot-four, football playing co-workers, my ability to read water was much, much better than theirs.

One day, The Boss decided to take me and some of the second year guides on an oar raft training run. The Boss, distracted by telling us something, let the boat drift into an area that I knew, had I been rowing, would have been an issue. By the time The Boss realized his error, he began to haul on the oars with all the strength he had gathered from a lifetime of manual labor.

As we crashed through a channel we didn't want to go into, The Boss looked at me, pulling as hard as he could, and said, "That's the problem with putting you on the oars. Sometimes you just need the strength to break an oar to get out of a jam."

What followed was a tense few minutes of The Boss wailing on the oars, at one point chipping one on a rock, while he desperately tried to get us out of the messy channel alive. Which, to his credit, he did.

Later, one of the more experienced guides heard what had happened. He took me aside.

"That's total bullshit," the elder guide told me. "The reason you can do the job is because you don't put yourself in the places where all you have left is strength."

And, I had seen, even the strongest guides could end up in places where they couldn't pull off, so the idea that being the biggest, baddest man would always save you wasn't universally true.

So I stayed the course. I rowed, and rowed, and rowed that river until I knew it backwards and forwards, and I didn't let The Boss's issues get under my skin.

The guiding agency I worked for was part of a hotel, and my Boss's office was in a disused elevator shaft which he shared with two other people. One day, I saw The Boss step out of his office. He looked down at the ground and let out a delighted squeal.

"A DIME!" He bent over and picked up the lost change.

He saw me looking at him, and I told him dimes were worth nothing. He told me I didn't understand the value of money and walked away.

The Boss always parked his truck in the same spot, and I decided, while I couldn't break oars by pulling on them, my MO wasn't a direct attack.

I got some super glue and a dime and glued it to the pavement in the area where, when he parked his truck, his driver's side door would be. I went and hid behind one of the rafts we parked in the parking lot. I watched The Boss park his truck, get out, see the dime, bend his ancient back over, and claw at the dime with his sausage fingers. Then I heard the cursing. I lapsed into a fit of giggles.

That summer I did get assigned to row the oar rafts. I don't know how much of that can be attributed to my male peers telling The Boss I could do it, and they had seen me do it time and time again, but eventually, The Boss, against all the fibers of his massive being, started scheduling me the coveted oar raft trips.

I wasn't a bad guide. Once I went into a small channel and went take a stroke, putting the right oar where I always did. The oar hit an underwater stump and got stuck, ripping out of my hand and flying straight into the air before lodging itself vertically in the river. By that point the raft was downstream of my oar, in a very technical area, and I now was only capable of spinning in a circle. I ripped the spare from its straps, snapped it together and had it in the oar lock before most of the paying passengers realized anything had happened. Except for one guy. He stared at me with wide eyes and finally managed, "I bet you can change a tire."

When I look back at The Boss, I can lapse into moments of anger had how he treated me, but I also look back in wonder at the person I was. I never let his actions bother me, and instead I responded with indefatigable optimism and impishness. I learned, I would never out arm wrestle the guys, but I never needed to. I could pull the metaphorical chair out from them before the competition even started, and prevent the issue from even occurring. I also learned, the biggest guy was only temporarily the biggest, until someone or something unseated him. The idea that strength would always save you was a myth big men told themselves.

So while my so-called river guide "career" was hampered by antiquated gender standards, I left my second year having proved The Boss wrong. And instead of a hug goodbye, I lifted up an old pile of papers on The Boss's desk and superglued a dime below them.

Remember, the most dangerous animal isn't the polar bear or tiger shark or lion. It's the mosquito.