Thursday, October 01, 2015

October 1, 2105--Boy In the Pickle Boat

I finally got around to reading The Boys In the Boat. It's only been a NY Times bestseller for two years. One would have thought, considering I rowed for Columbia, that I would have turned to it sooner. 
In any case, regarding my experiences at Columbia (mostly complicated), I thought to post in two parts a fictionalized piece I wrote about that time. The first part is below. The second will appear Friday.
Pickle Boat--Part 1
I was the Number Seven oar in the freshman Pickle Boat.  Though none of the eight of us had ever rowed before, except perhaps with a girl we were trying to impress in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Lake, crew coach Al Boone, 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, in case you forgot your geography.  So practice your rowing technique, work hard, eat the right food, and above all, men, no smoking or fornicating.  And then we’ll be off to sunny Italy.”  
He always ended this speech with a flourish,  “Arrivadecci Roma!
His Italian was better than his coaching--his arrivadecci turned out indeed to be goodbye, but his dreams of glory sank one day on the Harlem River, 4,300 miles from the Tiber. 
To begin, you may require some background since crew as a sport hasn’t as yet attracted many followers.  Just fanatics, of which I at the time was 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 crew practice dressed in Columbia blue shorts, sweatshirt, and rubber rowing booties, rather than brooding over a beer at the West End Bar on Broadway, the Beat poets’ favorite hangout, or in chem lab learning the techniques of titration.
Crew is the quintessential prep-school sport since, among other things, to participate one requires—a very expensive boat or shell that seats eight plus a coxswain, equally costly twelve-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 totally polluted. 
Before I proceed, think about how a high school in my native Brooklyn would have attempted to participate in crew.  Even assuming that a public school could have gotten its hands on a shell, oars, and a place to keep them, where would the rowing take place?  The lake in Prospect Park is no more than a few hundred yards in length or breadth and crews need at least two thousand meters (not the way things were measured in non-metric Brooklyn) for practice and races.  
If a crew somehow managed to drag itself and its gear from my Brooklyn Technical High School to the Gowanus Canal or the East River by the Navy Yard, in less than half an hour, the toxic chemicals in these waters would eat their way through the quarter-inch thickness of laminated wood of which shells are constructed and then immediately move on to attack and infect the oarsmen.
Then you would have to have someone to compete against.  It is totally unimaginable that Tech could have found competition in a league consisting of proletarian Tilden, Madison, Lincoln, Erasmus, and Aviation Trades High Schools.  Thus one finds crews at bucolic riverside schools such as Exeter, Andover, Lawrenceville, and St. Paul’s.  What are also found there are six-foot four-inch gentiles—as essential to a winning crew as the sleek shell itself.
Columbia, my college, without a quota, 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.
Therefore 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.  As 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 on a college education, 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, especially who participated, I was reminded again that my father was a master of the 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 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 that tweed jacket, pipe, and beret because, if all else failed, if I couldn’t get into medical school, I could always 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 the Pickle Boat.  Though I was relegated to that latter boat, it wasn’t until many years later that I realized that by naming it after a pickle, Marine-tempered Coach Boone might have been expressing latent feelings about our ethnicity.
How, you might wonder, did he make his distinctions since we were in crew-terms indistinguishable to the untutored eye?  Though it would have been quite different and easy to divide us between pre-laws, pre-meds, and math geniuses.   Retrospectively, I have to assume, it was by the subtle differences he wasCrew 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 Boone 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 the stress of rowing thousands of meters.  Coach Boone, who also appeared to be 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 merely by comparatively measuring our chests. 
Our chests revealed all he needed to know—those not distorted by allergies or covered with pimples 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 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 doom me to the Pickle Boats of the world.  Or make certain that I would lead a sedentary life.  Thus the Plan B poetic beret that I purchased at the Stag Shop on Broadway 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 under the basket, 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 and arduous requirements of crew.  Nonetheless, I was determined to persevere since I knew what was at stake for me—everything.
*    *    *
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 p.m. 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 Boone at the head, we received his charge: 

“Men, and I call you that in spite of the way you may have up to now been thinking about yourselves.”   
He then muttered, chuckling to himself, “After all, look at you.”  And none of us, even without sneaking looks to our left and right, could not have disagreed with him. “But you are the 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 college 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.  In Korea. 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 a Marine 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 about that. “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 will do everything I tell you to do 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 mothers’ 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 Columbia’s fight song, 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, considering the condition of my chest, lungs, and other fragile body parts was to become an important destination for me.
We would pile onto the Campus Coach bus, 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—crew member and academic grind.
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 muscle and long capacity 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 nearby and and named the waterway were prescient—for a spitting devil it indeed was to be.
Coach Boone 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 with lenses so thick that if held up to the sun could be used to start fires and were thus so hot that on the water they were always completely misted and he couldn’t see anything unless he looked out of the corners of his eyes by swiveling his head from side to side.) 
“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 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 reaching with or pulling on his oar, even when supplied with a double-dose of the trainer’s antihistamines.)
“And Gutterman,” Sergeant Boone 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 for not extracting one’s oar smoothly from the water, to Gutterman it was still treyf, forbidden, unkosher, and 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, Zaslow,” 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 with . . . ?  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 my father or that he said I was rowing like a girl.  Even I knew that both were equally humiliating and perversely hilarious.

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