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11/13/2013 05:31 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Spilled Milk : When Dads Cheat

Adulterers relax. This isn't about you. It's uglier than that.

A couple of months ago, just before he turned 8, my boy and I attended something called a Father/Son Getaway. Any sane parent will tell you this is an oxymoron, that "weekend getaway" and offspring are conceits that automatically cancel each other out.

But I was more than happy to go. With two dads to choose between, James had picked me to join him. Me. How could I not say yes? Especially after his other dad said no. Pragmatic Kelly was quick to point out that as a former Eagle Scout I might be a better fit for a weekend in the woods, singing weird songs with random strangers, staining my hands with tie-dye and pretzeling myself into a metal bunk bed designed for children.

So off we went.

In all, 34 campers showed up -- 14 fathers, 14 sons, plus six male counselors. So just under a million cubic gallons of testosterone. What to do with all that rogue male energy? What men have been doing since the dawn of time: dividing the penises into opposing camps, pitting them against each other and calling it a war. Well close: "Battle of the Cabins."

The sudden ringing in my ears was familiar. Alarm bells.

I have a tragic history with competitive events. I've never been athletic. Though it's true that since kindergarten I've been able to drop any challenger with a snappy comeback, it's also true that I've dropped every ball ever thrown to me, lost every race I managed to finish and throw like an armless mermaid.

Battle of the Cabins was suddenly starting to look less like a fun father/son getaway than two days of bonding and humiliation. The Hunger Games minus the sweet assurance of defeat bringing instant death. I was pretty sure that unless they planned on including a challenge for Best Witty Retort the odds of shaming myself in front of James were looking to be ever in my favor.

Cabin assignments only made our prospects look worse. A quick glance at the residents of Cabin 1 made it hard not to suspect camper tampering. Our sons were the youngest and smallest, our dads the oldest and fattest. In terms of speed alone, it was clear we'd been victims of glacial profiling. Especially after we got a look at Cabin 4: the oldest, most agile boys all housed together with their dads, a pack of genetic alpha-mutants I'm pretty sure were ex-Navy Seals and current members of the Olympic decathlon team.

Winning, losing, cheating, s'mores -- things can get brutal when men gather in the woods. The Battle of the Cabins had many lessons to teach. Highlights:

  • When all seven members of your cabin fail to make it to the top of the rock-climbing wall... it's kind of freeing. The defeat is neutralized. Fathers, sons, you're all in the same boat. A boatload of losers. Starting out in fourth place.
  • As the only Eagle Scout ever to score a merit badge in Quoting Blanche Dubois, let me just say: "Sometimes -- there's a fly -- so quickly!" Our cabin didn't win the archery challenge, but we didn't come in last either. Partly because I scored a bullseye. Yes. From 40 feet I actually managed to pop the red balloon at the center of my target. My son was thrilled. Only two other dads in the entire camp managed this. It's true that in my case it only happened because, just as I was about release my arrow, I got distracted by a fly. But it did happen. I've always depended on the kindness of insects.
  • All it takes is two packets of sugar to turn your world around. Who could have guessed that the heftiest dad in Cabin 1 -- Danny, the 300-pounder who took one look at the rock-climbing wall and said "That's not happening" -- would become our hero? All it took was pulling out the ace chili recipe he'd been hiding up his sleeve. In the Great Chili Cook-Off, no amount of Navy Seal training can compete against a certain secret ingredient. Once our boys were done scamming a couple of packets of white magic from the dining hall, the chili cook-off turned into a triumph for Cabin 1, snagging our only first place victory.
  • Never open your mouth during the Flour Wars. What it sounds like: getting rid of 200 pounds of baking flour by throwing it all over each other. What I learned: if you feel a battle cry is called for, let the moment pass. Saliva plus self-rising flour equals biscuit dough. In your mouth. For the rest of the day. No matter how many times you brush your teeth.
  • Kelly was right about the bunk beds. There's no rest for the weary at father/son camp. At least not for weary adults. Because adults can't fall asleep on tiny iron bunk beds donated by a children's prison.

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There were lowlights as well.

On the final day of camp, after breakfast the counselors led all the fathers and sons on a one-mile hike to an open field rimmed with trees for one last event, a balls-out round of Capture the Flag. Officially "Battle of the Cabins" was over, with final points being tallied back in the dining hall, the winner to be announced upon our return. Capture the Flag was just for fun, Cabins 1 and 3 against Cabins 2 and 4.

We began after a slight hitch. A boy named Brody asked if he could switch teams so he could be on the same side as his buddy from Cabin 3. The boys had bonded during the weekend over their shared obsession with Magic, an elaborate, mythology-based game played with collectible cards and wildly popular among preteen boys. Making Brody and his dad the only father and son playing on opposite sides.

For a guy who since the invention of the recumbent bike has never seen the point of exercising while standing up, I'd come a long way over the course of the weekend. Still, I wasn't up to running yet so I assigned myself to one of the least demanding positions, guarding our flag. Which didn't require a lot of effort since the main thing protecting our flag -- thanks to my son's brilliant suggestion that we hide it under some wood chips next to the outdoor toilet -- was the stench.

Your mind can drift guarding the flag. I thought back over the last couple of days and what a great time I'd had with my son in the woods, ziplining, turning him into a mummy for the Monster Makeup Challenge, showing him how to make dough in his mouth.

And that's when I heard his voice, calling from a distance.

"Dad! They got me!"

Something happens when a parent realizes his child's been captured behind enemy lines and thrown into jail. It's not a game anymore. It's personal.

Without thinking I found myself racing past our border and deep into enemy territory, my sluggish heart and lungs now clanging against each other like startled cans of baked beans. With college-age counselors lunging at me and decathlete dads nipping at my heels, I was no longer running. I was galloping, dodging every attempt to slow me down, flying on the wings of my son's voice as he yelled, "That's my dad! He's gonna break us out of jail!"

And I did.

We lost. It came as no surprise when one of the alpha dads ended up capturing our flag, waving it triumphantly over his head to cheers from his teammates.

Good for them. We may not have captured any flags. I'm pretty sure I ruptured a lung and shaved a year off my life. But the look of rapture on my son's face as I touched his hand and set him free was all the victory I needed. Turns out fathers and sons can learn a lot about each other playing Capture the Flag.

Sometimes too much. After we were done and everyone was chugging water and catching their breath, an argument broke out.

Son against father.

"Is it true?"

It was Brody. He had a weird look in his eye and was staring at his father, standing a few feet away, talking with another dad.

"Did you really do what he said?"

"Do what?" said the dad, caught off guard.

"You cheated?"

"Whoa, whoa..." said the dad, laughing nervously and looking around to see if anyone was paying attention.

We were. There was no sound now but the electricity in his son's voice.

"Is it true what Austin said? You bribed him to tell you where we hid our flag?"

"Calm down," said the pentathlete.

"Did you?"

Too long a pause, then: "Fine. Okay. Yeah, I did. So what?"

My son was grabbing my shirt now and looking up at me, his eyes wide in a shared sense of betrayal. Someone's dad had cheated? At Capture the Flag?

It got worse.

"He said you told him you'd give him my card." The son's face was flushed now, his words beginning to splinter. "Is it true?"

No answer.

"Did you tell him you'd give him my best Magic card if he told you where we hid our flag?"

Anyone could see the dad was being spoken to in a way he never had been before, by a 12-year-old son who'd stopped being 12. Would never be 12 again. Still he said nothing.

"I'm talking to you! Is is true?"

Everyone but his son knew the answer before he spoke.

"Yeah. So what. Let it go. I'll get you another one."

"It's true? But that was--"

"Let it go," his dad pressed.

We'd become invisible to the boy. There were no other fathers, no other sons.

"You gave away my Magic card? Why would you do that? That was my rarest card. Why would you--"

And then came the answer, blurted like thunder. All the uglier because to him it seemed so obvious:

"Why do you think I did it? I wanted to WIN!"

It's an awful thing to watch a father lose his son. When we got back to camp, winners to be announced, awards and ribbons handed out. My fly-assisted bullseye earned an Archery Certificate of Excellence I plan on framing. I've forgotten who won Battle of the Cabins, but I'll always remember the look on Brody's face as his dad stood up next to him and began to apologize publicly for a moment he could never take back. To do the right thing. To assure the other campers that cheating is bad.

As he spoke, the expression on his son's face reminded me of those mute political wives you see at hastily staged press conferences, standing in for their own humiliation as husbands scramble to snatch a future from the jaws of their own betrayal.

Never speaking. Because their collapsed smile says it all.

The magic is gone.

* * * * *

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