Saturday, May 13, 2006

May 13, 2006--Saturday Story Concluded: "The Pickle Boat"

The Pickle Boat

I was the Number Seven oar in the freshman Pickle Boat. Though none of the eight of us had ever rowed before, except perhaps in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Lake, Coach Al Lawrence, a frog-voiced decorated ex-Marine, declared, “Four years from now, men, we’re going to the Olympics in Rome. I can see you in your Shell on the Tiber River. That’s in Italy. So practice your rowing technique, work hard, eat the right food, and above all, men, no smoking. And then we’ll be off to sunny Italy.”

He always ended this speech with a flourish, “Arrivadecci Roma!”

His Italian was as flawed as his coaching, and thus arrivadecci, “goodbye,” it turned out to be for us since his dream and ours sank one day on the Harlem River, 7,000 miles from the Tiber.

My father, however, refused to concede defeat, still nurturing his fantasies for me and the seven other members of the crew.

You may require some background since Crew as a sport hasn’t as yet attracted that many fans. Just fanatics, of which I at the time was certainly one. You also probably need some background about how a Jewish Pre-Med English major with a tweed jacket, pipe, and beret wound up each afternoon at practice dressed in Columbia blue shorts, sweatshirt, and rubber rowing booties, rather than brooding over a beer at the West End Bar, the Beat poets’ favorite hangout on Broadway.

Crew is the quintessential prep-school sport since, among other things, to participate one needs—a very expensive boat or shell that seats eight plus a coxman, equally costly ten-foot-long oars (eight of those), a fieldstone boathouse in which to store the shell, and above all access to a river or lake that isn’t polluted.

Before I go any further, think about how a high school in, say, Brooklyn would attempt to participate in crew. Even assuming, which is a lot, that a public school could get its hands on a shell, oars, and a place to keep them, where would the rowing take place? The lakes in Prospect Park are no more than a hundred yards in length at their broadest and crews need at least two thousand meters (not the way things are measured in non-metric Brooklyn). If a crew somehow managed to drag itself and its gear from Tilden High School to the Gowanus Canal or the East River by the Navy Yard, the toxic chemicals found there, in less than half an hour, would eat their way through the quarter-inch thickness of laminated wood of which shells are constructed and then immediately move in to attack and dissolve the oarsmen.

Then you have to have someone to compete against. It is totally unimaginable that a Tilden would find competition in a league consisting of Madison, Lincoln, Erasmus, and Aviation Trades High Schools. Thus one find crews at Exeter, Andover, and the Lawrenceville prep schools. What we also find there are six-foot four-inch gentiles—as essential to a winning crew as the shell itself.

Columbia, without a quota, at thus at the time the “safe” Ivy League college for over-achieving Jewish Brooklyn public school graduates, had a crew, which was an Ivy requirement. But without any prep school freshmen, no one who tried out for the Columbia crew knew their starboard from their port much less that as a crew member you had responsibility for just one oar, on the left (port) or right (starboard) side (forget any rowboat experience), or that you were probably guaranteed to finish last, considering the prep-school-prepared nature of the competition.

So it is a good and legitimate question why anyone at Columbia would try to join the crew. What could possibly be behind this case of mass masochism?

In my case, which I subsequently learned was representative, I was told to do so by my father. When he dropped me off for Freshman Orientation on a hot day right after Labor Day, when I asked him for any last minute advice he might offer as I was about to embark (word here chosen intentionally), we had not spoken one word to each other except about the Dodgers on the long drive from East Flatbush to Morningside Heights, an intercontinental trip in cultural terms, he said, “Make sure to go out for the crew.”

Though I had almost no sense of what that meant much less what a crew did, after I learned about the inner world of crew, I was reminded again that my father was a master of the hidden and occult pathways to assimilation. If I was to make it in the second half of the 20th century, he knew, I had better learn their ways and if necessary how to “pass.”

So not only did I find my lonely way to the Baker Field boathouse at the very northernmost tip of Manhattan Island, I also took the precaution to cover other bets by outfitting myself in proper collegiate attire, which featured a tweed jacket, pipe, and beret because, if all else failed, I could become a poet.

* * *

All twenty-four of us who tried out made the crew. We were equally inexperienced and without anything resembling muscle tone. There was room for all of us since there were three separate and very distinct freshmen crews, each group of eight assigned to its own boat—the Varsity, Junior Varsity, and Third or Pickle Boat. Though I was seated in that latter boat it wasn’t until many years later that I realized that by naming it after a pickle, Coach Lawrence might have been expressing his latent feelings about us. He didn’t call it the Gherkin Boat, which might have been appropriate if we had been the worst of the pre school boys.

How, you might be wondering, did he make his distinctions since we were in crew-terms indistinguishable to the untutored eye? Though it would have been quite easy to divide us between pre laws, pre meds, and math geniuses. Retrospectively, I have to assume it was by the subtle differences he was able to discern in subtle aspects of our bodies.

Crew is about technique, coordination, power, and endurance. The power derives from legs and backs. But all of our legs were bandied and grossly underdeveloped and our backs displayed the poor posture that was characteristic of young scholars from the ghettos of Brooklyn. Therefore, neither our legs nor our backs were of any use in either the shell or as a help to Coach Lawrence who needed to find a metric that he could employ to place us in one boat or another. Endurance, on the other hand, could be measured in a clearly physiognomic way—by a comparison of our chests which by their sizes and configurations would reveal our lung capacities and thus our ability to endure. Coach Lawrence, who was also an expert eugenicist, by just a glance at our shirtless shivering bodies, was able to assign us to our proper shell and separate us into port and starboard oarsmen.

Our chests revealed all he needed to know—those not distorted by allergies were candidates for the Varsity boat; those who caught frequent Croups or had post-nasal drips found themselves in the Junior Varsity boat; while the Pickle Boat was reserved for those of us who suffered from chronic Strep Throat and or Bronchitis.

Try as he did, poor Dr. Holsager, the extended family’s devoted pediatrician, who was still my doctor even though I was a college freshman, could not seem to protect me from a continuous onslaught of diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, throat, or lungs. At least once a month since I was three I would be plagued with fits of wheezing, blowing, dripping, coughing, chocking, and spitting. All of which, by the time I was seventeen, assured that I would have what my father called a “sunken chest,” just the sort of upper body that would relegate me to the Pickle Boats of the world. Or make certain that I would lead a sedentary life. Thus the beret that I purchased at the Stag Shop on the first day of Orientation.

True, I had played basketball because I was prematurely tall, and this gave my father hope that I also had the potential to become what he thought of as a man. But my greatest basketball skill was standing flatfooted, towering over everyone else on the court, waiting for rebounds to come my way. The coach, Mr. Ludwig, taught me just where to stand and to be sure to always keep my arms extended above my head, easily well above everyone else’s. This was hardly preparation for the very different, much more athletic requirements of crew. Nonetheless, I was determined to persevere since I knew what was at stake—


* * *

The coach arranged for his own version of orientation—just for the men of the Pickle Boat. He told us to meet at 10:00 pm the night before the first practice in the Lion’s Den, the college’s version of a rathskeller, set in the dingy basement of John Jay Hall. There, with all light supplied by candle stubs, with the walls sheathed with smoke-stained Teutonic stucco, the eight of us seated at a heavily carved beer hall table with Coach Lawrence at the head, we received his charge:

“Men, and I call you that in spite of the way you may have been thinking about yourselves up until this time.” He then muttered, chuckling to himself, “After all, look at you.” And none of us, sneaking looks to our left and right, could not have disagreed with him, “But you are the right sort of recruits I will mold into men. You know about the Marines, don’t you? Well, I was a Marine after leaving college. I didn’t graduate, though I was on the varsity crew. I wasn’t ready for college. I was still a boy. No need here to go into why I left with a year to go. Let’s just say it was because thanks to crew I was turned into a man and it was as a man that I was asked to leave college.” More chuckling for reasons it was also easy for us to imagine.

“It was hell there. We were up by the Yalu River one winter. It was so cold, the proverbial Witch’s Tit, that I lost three of my toes to frost bite. Couldn’t have rowed after that.” He grunted. “One guy in my company, he, well, I’ll tell you about him another time. Forget his name to tell you the truth.” We sat there careful to keep our eyes averted. “Where was I? Ah, yeah, right. About the Marines. Like I was saying, in the Marines I learned one thing—it’s not enough to be just a man. It’s what you do as a man. You will learn that from crew. You will not need to join the Marines for that.” Now his amusement was no longer suppressed—he burst into overt laughter, even pounding the table. It was obvious to all of us that the prospect of any of us even thinking about becoming Marines was to him an appropriately hilarious idea.

“I know you have to go to class and do your studying. After all, what would we do if you people, you men I mean, didn’t become our doctors and lawyers,” he winked at us. “I’m sure you get my meaning here.” Another wink. “But I bet you’re wondering why I arranged this meeting for just the members of the Pickle Boat.” Indeed, we had been wondering. “Well, let me relieve you of that one. I know where you come from and I know as a result that none of you are natural athletes.” And he added as another aside, “Not that the other two crews are much better.”

He had a huge stein of beer and, as if contemplating his sorry situation, assigned by fate to be the coach of such a hopeless bunch, he took a moment to empty it. “But I am just the man to turn you into a winning crew because I know who you really are and what you really think about yourselves and how desperate you are to leave your old ways behind and make something different of yourselves and therefore how hard you will work at this and do everything I tell you without asking questions. Because you know who I am and how you really want to be like me and not like the members of your families, who tomorrow morning will drag themselves back to their desks and spend the whole day squinting through their glasses at their ledger books.”

He looked around the table at each of us slumped and squirming in our tooled-leather chairs, pausing at each of us until we with trepidation looked up to return his gaze and nod in silent compact.

“And so men, tomorrow will be the beginning of this new life. Through the exercise routine I will teach you and our workouts on the river and the food I will tell you to eat (forget about the stuff your mothers made you eat at home). If you do all of that, within six months when you look in the mirror you will no longer recognize yourselves.”

If he had taken a vote, all of us would have agreed to give up even our grandmothers’ beloved noodle kuggel and brisket of beef if after six months, or for that matter six years, we would be unrecognizable to ourselves.

“And finally men, I forgot one thing—medications. We’ve got to get you breathing. So our trainer will get everyone all the antihistamines you need.” And with that, as a man, we leapt from our seats and spontaneously began to sing Roar, Lion, Roar.

* * *

Every afternoon at 3:30 a bus would pick us up outside our dorms, on Amsterdam Avenue, right by Saint Luke’s Hospital. That you will see was fortuitous—to be picked up and dropped off right there at the entrance to the Emergency Room, which over time was to become an important destination for me.

We would pile onto the Campus Coach, schlepping math and chemistry books along with us so we could cram in some homework on the long ride up the granite spine of Manhattan. Every one of us was leading at least a dual life.

At that legendary 1926 Boathouse, after changing, each crew would lift its shell from its rack in the shed and carry it, supported on our shoulders, down the steep and slippery hill to the launching dock where we would, in a single coordinated movement, drop it to our waists and then lean over to place it in the murky waters of the Spuyten Duyvil. The fact that it took us a full two months to master this technique while building the endurance so as to not pass out from the effort, and the fact that we also hadn’t mastered the coordination required to put the shell in the water in such a way as not to half fill it with river water, this should have alerted us to the fact that we weren’t to the crew born and we would never attain the even subtler forms of coordination required to become an effective crew.

And we should have looked up the meaning of the Dutch spuyten duyvil. That would have alerted to another fact--that the 17th century Dykman family who owned the land and named the waterway were prescient—for a spitting devil it indeed was to be!

Coach Lawrence rode in a power launch, positioning himself in the midst of his three crews, shouting instructions to us through a megaphone—

“Goldberg,” he roared, “You need to feather your oar. You’re dragging it in the water and slowing the boat.” (Goldberg was bent like a pretzel over his oar since his spine was rigid from some rare childhood disease of the spine.)

“Gottlieb,” the coach boomed so powerfully through the megaphone that he could be heard all the way to Riverdale, “How many times have I told you to keep your eyes straight ahead? By moving your head from side to side you’re rocking the boat.” (Gottlieb wore glasses so thick that their lens could be used to start fires and were thus so hot that on the water they were always completely misted up and he couldn’t see anything unless he turned his head to look out of the corner of his eye.)

“Goodman,” in a voice filled with so much frustration we thought he was addressing all of us, “Use your legs, that’s where you get your power.” (Goodman, even if he used his legs, which he didn’t since they were always a mass of cramps, would never be able to supply much power from his Number Five position, which was supposed to be the shell’s “engine room,” since his feet were so flat that he was required to wear stainless steel arches even in his rowing booties, and as a result his feet kept slipping out of the boot stretchers that were secured to the bottom of the shell in order to anchor our feet in place.)

“Goldfarb,” the coach barked, “How many times do I have to tell you to breathe in when reaching forward and out when you pull on your oar?” (Goldfarb, the coach should have known, was so afflicted by fall allergies that he was lucky to be able to breathe either in or out when either reaching or pulling even supplied with a double-dose of the trainer’s antihistamines. As Number Six he was situated right behind me and wheezed so loudly that at times he drowned out even the amplified instructions and commands coming from the launch.)

“And Gutterman,” Sergeant Lawrence bellowed, almost snapping us to attention though we were slouched over our oars, “If you keep catching crabs whenever you try to lift your oar from the water, there will be no Olympics, no Roma for any of us.” (The coach did not know that Gutterman was the only member of any of the three crews who ate strictly Kosher food; and so to keep picking on him for catching crabs, though it was an appropriate technical crew term, to Gutterman it was still treyf, forbidden, and only got him so agitated that it assured he would catch enough crabs during every practice to keep even the busiest restaurant in Chinatown fully supplied.)

I did not escape. As the coach seemed to do things alphabetically, after all the Gs, he finally got to the Z: “You, Number Seven,” he hurled at me in what sounded like mockery, “I was talking on the phone with your father last night and he told me that you skipped your workout last weekend. No wonder you’re rowing like a girl.” (My who? On the phone? Rowing like what? Though we were nearly done for the day, having already turned toward the boathouse, and everyone was so exhausted that our collective panting was more coordinated than our rowing, all those crunched behind me still managed to gather enough oxygen to be able to choke out sputtered bursts of laughter at either the fact that the coach was talking about me with my father or that he said I was rowing like a girl. Even I knew that both were equally humiliating and hilarious.)

* * *

Perhaps it was psychosomatic, the result of knowing how Coach Lawrence and my father were conspiring, but at the end of the next day’s practice I needed to be lifted from the shell by my crewmates and carried up to the trainer’s room in the boathouse because I found that I couldn’t get out of the shell on my own—my body seemed rigidly locked in rowing position.

The trainer, Ray Fullerton, who was a Columbia fixture (campus legend had it that he been with the college since it was named King’s College, after King George III), was waiting for me and was very reassuring, telling me that my condition was so common that he had seen dozens of crew members over the years bent just as I was, like a right angle bracket, and that he had a liniment that he himself concocted many years ago that would fix me right up, “You’ll see,” he said with a slap on my back that sent a flame of pain down my left leg, “You’ll be back in the boat tomorrow afternoon.” And I had been worrying that it would take until at least the end of the year before I would be able to lie flat.

He rolled me onto my side and managed to pull down my sweatpants and rowing shorts to get to my injured hip even though he was afflicted by shakes so severe that the liquid he had compounded was splashing out of the bottle and onto the training table. I realized how potent it was since the leather where it dripped was already becoming bleached.

And from that, I assumed it would burn right through me when he applied it to my left hip. I knew, however, that I could endure it if it would straighten me out and get me back into that boat. And so I was relieved that it felt cool rather than hot when he rubbed it in with those knurled hands of his that had kneaded the muscles and joints of so many illustrious alums--some who had been on the Columbia football team that achieved the greatest upset in sports history back in 1934 by beating Stanford 7-0 in the Rose Bowl; others who had gone on to pro careers with the New York Knicks; and maybe even he had ministered to Lou Gehrig who had played first base for Columbia in 1921 before becoming the Yankees’ Iron Horse. I was indeed in good hands—Lionel Trilling for Literature and Ray Fullerton for crippled backs. I was thereby reminded that this was after all the Ivy League!

He told me that he would be applying a stick-on patch to cover the affected area and that later that night I might feel some heat beneath it. I would know from that that it was working its magic. He cut a huge circle from what looked like a rubber sheet, about the size of a basketball, peeled off one layer to expose the gummed surface and then plastered it on to me.

I already was experiencing some relief and thus feeling optimistic as I was able to hobble to the bus on my own, still bent over to be sure but ambulatory. I did though need help getting into bed and once settled there immediately fell asleep on my side, still pretty much in the shape of an right triangle.

* * *

At 3:00 am, emerging from a dream inexplicably set in a restaurant, I thought I smelled steak sizzling on a grill. Just as I was marveling at the vividness of my dream, I realized in panic that the meat I smelled burning was me! The flesh below the patch was broiling. I was on fire!

I tore at the patch and ripped it off, horrified to see a circle of skin adhering to it. My skin. And saw as well that my hip was now a throbbing mass of raw flesh. My screams roused my room- and crewmate, Gottlieb, who after groping for his bottle-thick eyeglasses was able to see the carnage. He remained calm--he was after all a pre-med—and dragged me from my cot to the Emergency Room at St. Lukes where, because I was triaged to the front of the line ahead of someone from Harlem who had been shot on the leg, I realized that my condition was either serious or that Columbia students were given automatic priority over anyone who lived down the slope and east of Morningside Park.

Sad to say, it turned out to be the latter because though my situation was nasty it was not as life-threatening by any means as a gunshot wound. They patched me up and sent me back to the dorm, wrapped in gauze, telling me I needed to get x-rayed the next day to see what was really wrong with my hip. It was suspected that what they would find would be beyond the experience of even a trainer who in the 1930s had treated the great quarterback Cliff (“Monty”) Montgomery. I needed a doctor, not a trainer, and a Jewish one at that.

* * *

It turned out that I needed more than a doctor—I needed a specialist, an orthopedist, the “biggest” in this case a Doctor Phillips, decidedly not Jewish, who after a raft of x-rays determined that my hip muscle, the body’s largest and most powerful he informed me, that the gluteus maximus, from the strain of rowing and, he hinted, because of my faulty technique—one of the diplomas on the wall of his office was from Andover Academy; another from Princeton—that most powerful of muscles, even powerful in me he said, was in the process of tearing apart two of the fused pelvic bones that were supposed to remain fused, if one was to avoid becoming a cripple.

He told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to refrain from crew practice for a few months and not do anything more strenuous than walk in a straight line. “But what if I have to turn the corner from 116th Street onto Broadway?” I asked. “I have my lab there.”

“You make a big circle,” he responded, sweeping his arms in a wide arc and then demonstrated by pacing off such a grand left turn in his huge waiting room that he had to ask someone to get up out of her chair and move it so he could complete the circle and his instructions. To drive them home, as he opened the door for me, indicating that that too might put too much strain on my pelvis, he said, “If you do what I say, when you come back to see me in a week maybe, just maybe you’ll still be able to walk. Otherwise, it will be a wheelchair you’ll be needing.”

I had not told my father about having to see a doctor much less a specialist. When I initially injured myself I did tell him about it and he dismissively said, matter-of-factly, “Rub some Bengay into it and you’ll be fine.” Since I had been careful not to tell him about what the trainer had done, I certainly wasn’t going to bring up x-rays much less orthopedists. So I did not mention my new technique for turning right and left or the specter of the wheelchair.

When I returned to Dr, Phillip’s office on Park Avenue, Columbia had an arrangement with him to treat their athletes as part of the student health plan, I waited for another patient to arrive who was better able than I to open his door; and once he had me called into his examining room I reported to him that during the previous week I had been so diligent in following his instructions that I made only six left and four right turns.

This did not seem to impress him nor did the fact that I arrived without the assistance of a wheelchair. He sat at his desk, half turned away from me, swinging in his chair, not looking up but with his eyes riveted to the x-rays in my file. After a few minutes of awkward silence, I managed to ask, “So, what’s next?” He didn’t look up, “I am feeling much better.”

Still without looking at me, and in a voice quite different than the commanding one of the first visit, he spoke now in a subdued monotone, “I talked with Coach Lawrence yesterday and told him you could go back to practice next week.” Stunned equally by his change in demeanor and the news I felt myself stiffening. “That is, as long as you go to St. Luke’s every afternoon before practice to get a Diathermy treatment. That’s a deep heat treatment.”

“But,” I interrupted, “I thought you told me last week that it would be at least a month before I could maybe resume practice. You said, that is, if I hadn’t turned into a cripple.” In confusion and desperation, I peered at him.

Then almost in a whisper, he said“I also spoke with your father . . . “

Who?” I exploded, not able to contain myself.

“. . . who told me,” he continued, looking down, “How important it was for you to get back to practice. That the coach was getting the crew ready for the Olympics and it would soon be rowing season. That without you . . . . “

* * *

And so I found myself the following Monday in the Physical Therapy unit of St. Luke’s, where for a half hour I lay under the beam of the Diathermy machine, induced by it into a form of delirium that was perfect preparation for the trek to the boathouse and our practice, which I sensed the coach shortened that afternoon in deference to my condition.

This routine went on for two weeks. As if I had been transformed into an automaton, before getting on the bus, I would go up to the fourth floor of the hospital where I would lay on an electrical plate inserted beneath my hip, what the technician called an “indifferent electrode,” which would serve as the “receptor” for the electrical current they shot through my body to produce the desired inner heat. Though the contraption within which I was placed looked like a cross between Rube Goldberg and Dr. Frankenstein machines, it seemed to work because I in fact was feeling better and was able to participate in the workouts that were gathering in intensity as the coach sensed I was strengthening. And because the rowing season was just two months away and he needed to get us ready for the first race which was against Yale and Harvard.

* * *

It was freezing on the river that February, so much so that when the ice pack began to break up in the Hudson River, some of it flowed through the Spuyten Duyvil and down into the Harlem where we practiced. There was so much of it in the river that our coxman was hard pressed to avoid them.

Just as I was about to be fully restored, and began thinking that maybe I could taper off the treatments so I could get back to the chemistry lab I had been cutting, very late one Thursday afternoon at the end of the month, as we were sliding up to the dock, shivering against the stiffening last afternoon wind, Coach Lawrence pulled his launch right up alongside out shell.

Leaning toward us, without needing his megaphone he was so close, he spoke in weary voice, one we had never before heard, “Boys,” he said, “Remember that night in the Lion’s Den when I told you that I knew you better than you knew yourselves?” We nodded our heads in such unison that the shell did not rock, “And how I said to you that if you did everything I told you to do you could have a life about which you were only just imagining and were even afraid to acknowledge?” More nodding, still no rocking, but now with our eyes, as then, averted. “Well, I am worried about you now. I am concerned that that dream will elude you. As mine did. Remember I told you about that too?”

We sensed he was now talking even more to himself than to us. “You may think my life was very different than yours. Well, you’re wrong. You know nothing about me. My real name isn’t even ‘Lawrence.’ My father changed it when I was two years old. He wanted a different life for me that his own. And look what I did with it. I threw it away.” Though he then turned away from us, we still could hear him, “Here I am, what, coaching a Pickle Boat.”

He then wheeled back toward us, his face suddenly aflame with rage, “Goldberg,” he spat, pointing at him with such ferocity that to Goldberg and the rest of us it felt as if his finger was piercing our chests, “You of all people, I have learned that you were smoking. I told you that was absolutely forbidden. You’re pissing away all the hard work.” He had never used that kind of language before, “You, with that spine of yours. You don’t even belong in this pathetic boat.”

With a look of disgust, he turned to the rest of us, “And what’s the matter with you—Goldfarb, Goodman, Gutterman?” His string of G’s stung like bullets. “And you, you with your Diathermy treatments? You knew what he was up to and what did you do? Nothing. That’s what you did. Nothing. You and that father of yours.” He couldn’t even look at me.

He was using the megaphone again even though he was just a few feet from us. I felt as if my head would shatter.

“And for that, so all of you will follow my orders, today we’re doing extra practice. We’re going back down the river to Yankee Stadium. That will help you remember.” And with that he jolted his launch to starboard and roared off while we wearily turned in the Duyvil toward the rush of the Harlem.

But just as we managed to come about and get ourselves oriented to the south, as full darkness settled over us and the water, before we could even respond to the coxman’s, “Ready all, row,” we slammed into a huge chunk of ice that likely had formed a month earlier ninety miles north up the Hudson near Albany.

And with that the shell began to fill with icy river water since the razor sharp ice had cut through the fragile shell as if it were a huge scalpel. In what felt like seconds, the entire shell was full and it and we slowly sank into the river. To the depth of our equally fragile chests. Where we came to rest.

Somehow Coach Lawrence had sensed disaster and had looped back to us; and again through his megaphone, his voice now calm, instructed us to remain in the shell and to keep our oars extended. That if we did that we would not sink any further and he could then come alongside and transfer us one by one, alternating starboard and port, to keep us on even keel, until all of us were in the launch with him and he would get us back safely to the dock.

He promised that, and we believed him as we had, in truth, believed him about everything else.

* * *

The college paper, the Spectator, the next day had all the details—the smoking incident; the extra practice; the sinking; the rescue; the fact that all of us where kept overnight in St. Luke’s “for observation”; that we were OK by the next day; that since the freshmen crew now had only two shells the third boat would be disbanded (they happily did not refer to it as we knew it); and that the coach, Coach “Luckman” they misnamed him, had been “granted leave for the rest of the year.”

But as with so many newspapers, they got the facts right but missed the real story—that though it appeared that he was attempting to motivate us by continually talking about the Rome Olympics, he was up to something very different; they failed to report that he knew what we really wanted to attain was equally foreign yet sensed in us the capacity to get there if we made the right kind of effort; that he knew what that effort entailed and that it was about techniques and endurance and powers that were not learned nor played out on rivers or in shells; the Spectator as well did not write that he also knew that this could never be discussed, that it needed to be kept within our covert circle; and that “crew” was a metaphoric world in which the symbols of these aspirations could emerge; they did not report that Coach Lawrence understood that he had sought those very same things and, though he had failed, he had chosen to devote his life to boys such as us who he knew could learn more of what we really needed from his example than from anyone else on campus.

Also not reported was what we knew--about this, too, he was right.

* * *

Two years later, on an April Saturday, having borrowed my father’s battered car, I drove down to Princeton, to watch the races between the Yale, Harvard, and Princeton crews (being sure to park it out of sight), historic races that were held annually on Carnegie Lake, a man-made marvel devoted just to racing.

It was a day so glorious that it appeared it too had been created by God or man to accommodate these ancient rivalries.

Sitting on the grass embankment, which also had been shaped into a perfect perch from which to see the entire two thousand meters of the course, I was reminded of what my father was thinking when he dropped me off for my first day at college with the admonition to go out for the crew—his sense that crew served as a form of social alchemy, a hermetic process through which the base-metal boys of places such as Brooklyn were transmuted into gilded men such as those one finds in late April on Carnegie Lake.

But by then I knew that alchemy was a failed science of dreaming and that even the great man for whom this lake was named never even went to college


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