Friday, October 02, 2015

October 2, 2015--Boy In the Pickle Boat: Part 2

Pickle Boat--Part 2

Perhaps it was psychosomatic, the result of knowing how Coach Boone 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 wits claimed he had been with the college since it was named King’s College, after King George II), 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 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.”   This was indeed reassuring since I had been worrying that it would take until at least the end of the year before I would be able to lie flat. 
After two of my crewmates dropped me onto the training table, Ray Fullerton rolled me onto my side and managed to pull down my sweatpants and rowing shorts to get to my throbbing 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 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 if I could endure it, as did so many athletes before me, 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 the great 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 modern literature and Ray Fullerton for crippled backs. 
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 about the size of a basketball from what looked like a rubber sheet and peeled off one layer to expose the gummed surface, which he then plastered to my hip joint. 
I already was experiencing some relief and thus feeling optimistic, as I was able to hobble to the bus without any assistance, 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 twisted in the shape of a right triangle.
*    *    *
At 3:00 a.m., 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 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 enflamed mass of raw flesh.  My screams roused my room- and crewmate, Arty 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. Luke’s where, because I was triaged to the front of the line ahead of a teenager 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 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, I felt, a Jewish one at that.
*    *    *
It turned out that I needed more than a doctor— I needed a specialist, an orthopedist, and one that my family would consider the “biggest.”   In this case, he was 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 someone as weak as me, was in the process of pulling apart two of the fused pelvic bones that were supposed to remain fused, he said, if one was to avoid becoming a cripple for life.
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.”

“Be sure to 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 circuit 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, “All it needs is some Bengay.  Rub some in 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 a week later 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 the door so I could slip in behind him.  When it was my turn to see the doctor, I reported 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, swiveling from side to side, 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 Boone 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 is 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 already 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 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 dreaded Yale and terrifying 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 were so many miniature icebergs in the river that our coxman was hard pressed to keep our fragile shell clear of 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 wind, Coach Boone pulled his launch right up alongside our shell.
Leaning toward us, without needing his megaphone he was so close, he spoke in a 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 ‘Boone.’  My father changed it when I was two years old.  He wanted a different life for me than 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, “So as a result 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—GoldfarbGoodmanGutterman?”  His string of G’s stung like bullets.  “And you, you, Zaslow, 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 your father.”  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 as far as 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 River. 
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.  The razor sharp ice had cut through the vulnerable shell as if it were a huge scalpel.  In what felt like seconds, the entire boat was full and it and we slowly sank into the river.  To the depth of our equally vulnerable chests.  Where we came to rest. 
Somehow Coach Boone had sensed disaster and looped back to us; and through his megaphone, his voice now calm, instructed us to remain in the shell and to keep our oars extended.  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 next day, the college paper, the Spectator, had all the details and proclaimed them in lurid headlines that compared the Pickle Boat to the Titanic—the smoking incident; the extra practice; the sinking; the rescue; the fact that all of us were 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 Pickle Boat would be disbanded (they happily did not refer to it as we knew it); and that the coach, Coach “Bloom” 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 Boone understood that he had sought those very same assimilist dreams 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 crew races between the Yale, Harvard, and Princeton crews (being sure to park it well out of sight), historic races that was 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 and man to accommodate these ancient rivals.
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 from 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 and paid for, Carnegie, had never gone to college.

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