By Shawn Perich
We were having coffee with our friend Ray, who owns a lodge in Ontario, when my business partner Amber had an idea.
“Ray, you should work with a church and set up weekends for young men where they can learn manly skills,” she said.
Amber explained that many young men feel out of touch with their masculinity, in part because they haven’t experienced the outdoors or done the sort of things that, as they used to say, “put hair on your chest.” She thought Ray could host outdoor-oriented retreats where participating men could discover their masculinity.
“You mean like the Boy Scouts?” Ray asked.
“Yes, in a way,” she said. “But this would be with men, not boys. I think you’ll find some churches have men’s groups that are very interested in this topic.”
Listening to their conversation, I was reminded of a yellowed envelope I’d recently discovered while cleaning out a forgotten corner of my home. It was addressed to me, with a handwritten return address from the National Deerslayers Association, Deep Woods, Wisconsin. Inside was the following letter.
January 25, 1977
Dear Mr. Perich,
We are pleased to send you this trophy patch for your hunting jacket in recognition of your hunting skills this past season. One of our hunting experts who happens to be in the party you hunted with recommended you for this award. This award is being presented to you for your ability to shoot at and miss from near and far with equal skill. According to our records, your ability to shoot across lakes and through woods at deer has no equal. Of course, aside from the deer having a good laugh there is no damage, either.
We are giving you this patch with full confidence that you will accidentally hit one of our horned friends eventually (Law of Averages). There is one way to increase your chances of shooting a buck. We understand you know a Mr. Bob Dodge. We would suggest you go to him for help. We believe the older fellow you have been listening to is over the hill.
Included with the letter was a shoulder patch that reads, Buck Fever. For those of you too young to know better, Mark Trail was a cartoon character. He did not send me the letter. Mr. Bob Dodge did.
Reading the letter, which I received while a senior in high schooI, I was flooded with memories of Bobby Dodge, a friend of my Dad’s who attended our annual masculinity retreat—simply known as Deer Camp. Bobby was a school counselor in Green Bay who religiously made the long trek to Minnesota every November to hunt deer with friends from his hometown of Duluth. As my letter suggests, he was quick with a laugh and fond of good-natured ribbing. The letter was intended as much as a swipe at my Dad as it was at me. (And, yes, in those dim and distant years I may have missed a deer or two. Actually, I still do so today.)
Bobby was close to my Uncle Frank Huffman, another member of our crew, who was like a second father to him. One story we heard every hunting season was how Frank ran down the sidelines as Bobby made a legendary touchdown run while playing high school football for the Morgan Park Wildcats. Frank was the unquestioned camp elder, sometimes irreverently called Grandpa Grunt, who ruled an unruly, rough-and-tumble crew with an iron hand and a sense of humor.
What I especially remember about Frank and Bobby is that they were good to me and the other kids–boys who were welcomed into hunting camp populated by guys (their fathers) who had no misgivings about their masculinity. While it wasn’t overt, both men always took time with us and let us know we belonged with the hunting party. But I also remember that I was still a young man when both were taken away—Bobby by cancer and Frank from heart disease. I learned something from losing them, too.
Sometimes, you only realize your good fortune in life later on, when you have lived long enough to develop some perspective. I grew up surrounded by strong male role models, such as my father and his hunting crew, as well as grandfathers, uncles and family friends. From all, I learned by examples, both good and bad.
Fishing and hunting were pathways for this learning process. When, as a kid, you are taken along on numerous fishing and hunting trips with your father and his friends, you are expected to hold your own. This means pitching in to help out when needed, being aware of your safety and that of others, knowing there is no room for a complainer in the boat and, maybe most importantly, having the demeanor and presence of mind to take things as they come. I guess all of the above can reinforce your masculinity.
Men who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up in an outdoor family or, in some similar way, in the company of men, may have missed the sort of formative experiences someone like me takes for granted. And perhaps that leads them to question their masculinity. If so, they may seek to find an essential something they feel is missing from their lives. This is the root of Amber’s suggestion that Ray consider hosting a men’s retreat.
Afterward, she showed me a couple of videos about church-sponsored masculinity retreats. As best I could tell, participants spend a lot of time listening to a counselor talk about discovering their “inner warrior.” I have a funny feeling that for the knowledge these men seek, action speaks louder than words. That’s the way I learned from Bobby, Uncle Frank and so many others. Although I’ve never really thought about, I guess through their actions they helped make a man out of me.