Saturday, May 06, 2006

May 6, 2006--Saturday Story: "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 Lawn, 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 probably need 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 Lawn might have been expressing his latent feelings about us. He didn’t call it the Banana or 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 the non-muscular 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, none of these were of any use in either the shell or as a help to Coach Lawn 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 endurance. Coach Lawn, who was also an expert eugenicist, by just a glance at our shirtless shivering bodies, was able at a glance 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 assure that I would at least consider 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 waiting and 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 give it my all since I knew what was at stake--


To be continued . . .


Anonymous bill Pellegrini said...

this could not possibly be the same al lawn that coached me in Hicksville high school in 67 vicious Aloysius I believe he was ex navy not marine he taught me science in 7th grade and whipped us through 20 miles of rowing a day and 6 miles of running starting as soon as the ice on oyster bay was thin enough to break with the speedboat I would love to know if he is still alive

July 19, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe this is same Al Lawn...
My father and Al were rowing buddies way back in the late 1960s, early 70s.

Aloysius T Lawn
Phone number
62 Elmtree Ln
Jericho, NY 11753-2647

January 12, 2014  
Blogger William Flick said...

I rowed for Al at Columbia '57/'58.
He was the BEST and still is, thanks to "The Pickle Boat" story I was able to get his phone number. Since it has been many years, I prefaced our conversation with my name and "you probably don't remember me". Al repeated my name and said, "certainly I remember you and Jim Connors, Bob Federspiel and Charley Blessing."
We talked for about an hour and a half, it was great.
Thanks for the phone number.

October 08, 2014  
Blogger Jack Davidson said...

I am three quarters through "Boys in the Boat" when I decided to see if Al Lawn was still alive. Would it be possible? Al used to say that rowers did not live past 50 (at the time, living past 50 was not one of my objectives). I rowed for Al at Wheatley High School in 1961. Thanks to this posting, I called and sure enough, two hours later, I went back in time with a wonderful person ....he is the BEST

Jack Davidson

November 09, 2014  

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