The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part III. The Parts That Really Matter 1935
Joe and Joyce in Seattle
One of the first admonitions of a good rowing coach, after the fundamentals are over, is “pull your own weight,” and the young oarsman does just that when he finds out that the boat goes better when he does. There is certainly a social implication here.
—George Yeoman Pocock
The boys sat on hard benches, shivering in their mismatched shorts and cotton jerseys. The sun had already set, and the vast interior space of the shell house was drafty and uncomfortable. Outside, it was a bitterly cold night. The panes of glass on the great sliding doors were frosted at the corners. It was the evening of January 14, 1935, the first crew turnout of the new year. The boys and a handful of reporters were waiting for Al Ulbrickson to lay out his plan for the upcoming racing season. After a long, uncomfortable wait, Ulbrickson emerged from his office and began to talk. By the time he finished, nobody in the room was cold any longer.
He had started off simply, announcing a change of basic strategy. Instead of taking it relatively slow for the first few weeks of winter quarter, as they generally did, working on details of form and technique while waiting for the weather to improve, they were going to row all out every day, right from the outset this year, weather be damned. They were going to work themselves into top physical condition first and then worry about refining technique later. More than that, though, all of them—not just the sophomores—were going to start out by racing one another in set crews rather than in constantly changing mixtures of men. And the races would be for the highest of stakes. This was not going to be an ordinary season. “At one time or another,” he declared, “Washington crews have won the highest honors in America. They have not, however, participated in the Olympic Games. That’s our objective.” The push to go to Berlin in 1936, and to win gold there, was to begin that night.
Casting aside his usual reticence, and despite the presence of reporters in the room, Ulbrickson then began to grow animated, almost emotional. There was more potential in this room, he said, than he had ever seen in a shell house in all his years of rowing and coaching, more than he ever expected to see again in his lifetime. Somewhere among them, he told the boys, was the greatest crew that Washington had ever seen. Better than the great 1926 crew that he had himself stroked to victory at Poughkeepsie. Better than the great Cal crews that had won Olympic gold in 1928 and 1932. Maybe the best Washington would ever see. Nine of them, he wound up declaring, as if it was a certainty, were going to be on the medal podium in Berlin in 1936. It was up to each of them whether he would be there or not. When he finished, the boys leapt to their feet and cheered, applauding with their hands held over their heads.
The performance was so uncharacteristic of Al Ulbrickson that everyone in Seattle with any interest in rowing took note. The next morning the Seattle Post-Intelligencer exulted, “A New Era in Washington Rowing. Possible Entry in the Olympic Games in Berlin!” The Washington Daily reported that “despite the intense cold, the shell house radiated more fire and spirit last night than has been the case for many a year.”
All-out war promptly broke out in the shell house. The sullen rivalries that had arisen during the fall season now turned into outright battles. Eyes that had been coolly averted from one another before now locked in icy stares. Accidental bumping of shoulders turned into open pushing matches. Locker doors were slammed. Curses were exchanged. Grudges were nursed. Brothers Sid and George Lund—one in the all-sophomore boat, one in a JV boat—now barely greeted each other with grunts each afternoon.
The nine boys in the all-sophomore boat were sure that Ulbrickson had been talking directly to and about them. They changed their “M-I-B” rowing chant to “L-G-B.” When asked what it meant, they smiled and said, “Let’s get better.” It didn’t. It meant, “Let’s go to Berlin.” It became a kind of secret code embodying their ambitions. But they were still listed on the chalkboard as boat number four out of five, no matter what they chanted out on the water. And Ulbrickson, publicly at least, seemed to have other boys at the front of his mind these days. In particular, over the next few weeks he seemed to make a point of talking to any reporter he could find about the golden prospects of a potential stroke oar for the varsity, a boy named Broussais C. Beck Jr. Beck’s father had been the manager of Seattle’s iconic Bon Marché department store and a fierce opponent of organized labor, famous for hiring spies who infiltrated the unions and reported back to him. He had also been an outstanding stroke on the Washington crew of his day and later chairman of the Board of Rowing Stewards at Washington. His own father had been one of Seattle’s most prominent pioneers, establishing a large homestead in the city’s Ravenna Park area, just north of the university. The business community and a good number of alumni very much wanted to see the young Beck stroking the Washington varsity now. He may or may not have had the kind of potential Ulbrickson talked about, but there was no doubt that he was the kind of boy coaches liked to keep around to make the alums happy. Joe, for one, took note of it. Beck was pretty clearly one of the boys who didn’t have to worry about money, or about a clean shirt to wear. Joe wondered if he had to worry about much of anything.
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Ulbrickson’s plan to have the boys row themselves quickly into fighting form ran into trouble starting the day after his fiery speech. The Daily’s next headline told the tale, or at least the beginning of it: “Sweepsters Turn Out with Icicles on Their Oars.” The weather, which had been wet and blustery since late October, now turned arctic. On the night of Ulbrickson’s talk, cold north winds blew enormous breakers in off Puget Sound, pushing salt water two blocks inland at Alki Beach and along the waterfront in West Seattle. Over the next several days, temperatures dropped into the teens, snow flurries turned into light snowstorms, which in turn became full-scale blizzards. The siege went on almost continually, well into the third week of January. As he had in the fall, Ulbrickson had to keep his crews in the shell house day after day, or at best turn them out for quick sprints up and down the Cut, rowing in the snow until their hands grew so numb they could no longer hold the oars. He never said so, but he must have begun to wish he had some of those indoor rowing tanks they had back east. The eastern boys at least were at their oars, while his sat cooped up in a shell house, staring out the windows at some of the best rowing water in the world.
As the weather worsened, Tom Bolles watched his freshman squad rapidly shrink from the 210 who had turned out in the fall to 53 on January 14. By the third week of January, the Daily noted, “Three more days of blizzard and Tom Bolles won’t have a frosh crew.” Bolles, though, seemed unperturbed. “Crew is one sport where a cut is not necessary,” he observed. And though Bolles wasn’t talking much about it yet, he was well aware that among those few boys who were showing up there was some outstanding talent. He was starting to think, in fact, that he might just put together a freshman crew that could beat even last year’s bunch.
By the time the snow finally turned to rain, in late January, the campus was mired in 532 acres of slush, and the infirmary was so overrun with students suffering from colds, flu, and pneumonia that all the beds were full and sick students were left lying on cots in the hallways. Ulbrickson hustled all five boatloads of varsity contenders back out onto the water in the wind and the rain.
The war that had been simmering in the shell house became a full-on naval engagement. On January 24 another item in the Daily got things started. Under a large photograph of Joe and the sophomores rowing the City of Seattle, a bold caption read “They Dream of Poughkeepsie and Olympics.” The accompanying headline read “Frosh Crew Champs of Last Year Look Good to Coach Ulbrickson.” Last year’s varsity boys were outraged. It had seemed for months as if Ulbrickson had been quietly favoring the younger boys, but it had been subtle. Now it was all out in the open, down in black and white, for them and their friends and, worse, their girlfriends to read. By all appearances they were going to be shunted aside, humiliated for the sake of Ulbrickson’s all too precious sophomores.
One of the boys in the all-sophomore boat, Bob Green, had the habit of getting excited and shouting encouragement to his crewmates during races. It was something of a breach of protocol, as ordinarily it is only the coxswain who is at all verbal in a shell, and it had the potential to confuse the stroke, especially during a race. But it had seemed to work for the sophomores the year before, and George Morry, the usual sophomore coxswain, had put up with it good-naturedly.
It irritated the hell out of some of the older boys in the other boats, though, particularly Bobby Moch, the savvy little coxswain of what seemed to be shaping up to be the best of the JV boats. As the boats began to compete head-to-head for varsity status in February, Moch, a junior, grew more and more outraged by Green’s behavior. But he soon found that he could turn it to his own advantage. Whenever his boat came up alongside Joe and the sophomores, Moch quietly leaned toward his stroke oar and whispered, “Give me twenty really big ones, after five more.” Green meanwhile would be hooting and hollering at his own crew, urging them on. Five strokes later, Moch would direct his megaphone over to the sophomore boat and say, “Well, Green just opened his big mouth again. Let’s pass them!” By the time he said this, his own boat would already be starting to surge, as if by magic. In the sophomore boat, Green, angry at the name-calling, would start yelling even more loudly. In the coxswain’s seat, Morry would chime in, “Give me ten big ones!” but all the while Moch’s boat would be silently accelerating away from them. Each time Moch tried it, the sophomores did the same thing—all at once, collectively, and in unison, they lost their cool. They flailed at their oars, digging them too deep in the water or too shallow, out of time with one another, angry and desperate to catch up, losing all semblance of form. Time after time, they got, as Moch called it, “all bloody nosed.” And none more so than Joe, to whom the whole thing seemed like another joke at his expense, designed to show him up. But it always worked. Moch wound up each time sitting in the stern of his boat, looking back over his shoulder, chuckling at the suddenly hapless-looking sophomores as they fell out of contention, and giving them a casual farewell wave. Bobby Moch—as everyone concerned would eventually learn—was nobody’s fool.
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Neither was Al Ulbrickson, though he was starting to have some serious doubts about the sophomores. He had frankly expected that by now they would emerge decisively as the new varsity lineup. But watching them suddenly struggle against even the JV boys, they just didn’t look like the crew that had won with such astonishing ease at Poughkeepsie. They seemed to be going all to hell. He studied them for a few days, trying to figure it out, looking for individual faults. Then he called those who seemed to be struggling the most—George Lund, Chuck Hartman, Roger Morris, Shorty Hunt, and Joe Rantz—into his office for a talk. It wasn’t quite the whole boat but pretty nearly so.
It was an intimidating thing to be summoned into Al Ulbrickson’s office. It didn’t happen often, and it left an impression when it did. On this occasion, as on most, he didn’t shout or pound on the table, but he sat the boys down, leveled his gray eyes at them, and told them flat out that they were all in danger of falling out of contention for the boat if they didn’t shape up. They were messing up his plan to keep their crew intact, and wasn’t that what they wanted? If so, then why weren’t they rowing as they did at the championship? It looked to him like a case of laziness. They weren’t pulling hard enough. They had no pepper. And they were sloppy. They were knifing their oars into the water rather than digging into it. They weren’t putting their backs into it. Their spacing was all off. Worst of all, they were letting their emotions climb into the boat with them, losing their cool over little things, and that had to stop. By way of closing, he reminded them that there were at least four boys vying for each seat in the first varsity boat. Then he stopped talking and simply pointed at the door.
The boys came out of the shell house shaken, trying to ignore a cluster of seniors and juniors smirking at them from the doorway. Joe, Roger, and Shorty started up the hill in the rain, talking over what had just happened, beginning to get agitated.
Shorty and Roger had been buddies from day one. Shorty was so naturally garrulous and Roger so naturally reticent and gruff that it seemed an odd combination. But somehow it worked for them. And Joe was grateful that the two of them had never given him a hard time. In fact, more and more Joe could count on the pair of them to come to his side when the older boys teased him. Shorty rowed in the number two seat, right behind Joe, and he’d taken lately to looping an arm over Joe’s shoulder whenever he seemed down and saying, “Don’t worry, Joe. I’ve got your back.”
Hunt was an extraordinary young man by anybody’s reckoning. Just how extraordinary, nobody yet quite knew. But just a few years down the line, Royal Brougham would name him, along with Al Ulbrickson, as one of the two greatest oarsmen ever to sit in a shell for Washington. Like Joe, he had grown up in a small town, Puyallup, between Tacoma and the foothills of Mount Rainier. Unlike Joe’s, his family life had been stable, and as a result he’d grown comfortable with himself and highly accomplished. At Puyallup High School, he had been a superstar. He had played football, basketball, and tennis. He was class treasurer, an assistant librarian, a member of the radio club, and he appeared on the honor roll every year that he attended the school. He was active in the honor society and the school’s Hi-Y chapter. And he graduated two years early. He was also quite good-looking, with wavy dark hair. People liked to compare him to Cesar Romero. He was six foot three as a freshman, and his fellow students promptly dubbed him Shorty. He’d use the name for the rest of his life. He was something of a fashion plate, always well dressed and forever drawing the eyes of the young women around him, though he did not seem to have a steady girl.
Despite his accomplishments, he was also something of a contradiction. He was garrulous and sociable and loved to be at the center of attention, but at the same time he was extraordinarily guarded about his private life. He liked to keep the many people who swirled around him swirling, but always at a distance. He tended to believe that his opinion was inevitably the right opinion, and he did not have a lot of patience for people who thought otherwise. As with Joe, there was an invisible boundary around him that he would not let others cross. And like Joe, he was sensitive. You could never quite be sure what might set him off, shut him down, or make him lose his focus. Taunts from another boat seemed to be one of the things that did.
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Walking up the hill from the shell house together that night, after the meeting with Ulbrickson, Joe and Shorty and Roger talked excitedly but in hushed voices. Al Ulbrickson had a long-established policy that a single training infraction would drop a man two shells; a second infraction would lead to his expulsion from the squad. They weren’t sure whether what had just happened represented a training infraction or not, but they feared it might. Either way, they were angry at having been chewed out. Shorty, in particular, was agitated, getting hot under the collar. Roger moped along, looking even more morose than usual. As they rounded Frosh Pond, they muttered to one another: Ulbrickson was unfair, a cold taskmaster, too hard on them, too blind to see how hard they were working. He’d do better to give a fellow an occasional pat on the back than to always demand more. He wasn’t likely to change, though. They knew that much. And things were getting dangerous. They agreed that from now on they’d all better be watching one another’s backs.
As Joe peeled off from the group and made his way up University Avenue to the YMCA, with his shoulders hunched up and his eyes narrowed against the windblown rain, he passed cheap restaurants packed with giddy students, happy to be out of the cold, eating Chinese or burgers, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Joe cast them sidelong glances but kept walking, leaning against the rain. He had blustered and complained about Ulbrickson right along with Shorty and Roger, but now that he was alone the bluster faded and the old weight of anxiety and self-doubt settled on him again. After all he had been through, it was obvious that he still remained utterly disposable, even at the crew house, the one place he had started to feel more or less at home.
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The day after their little chat in his office, Al Ulbrickson happily noted in his logbook that the sophomore boat suddenly snapped back into form, handily beating all four of the other boats on its first outing. Dodging rainsqualls, rowing through whitecaps, stopping between races to bail out their shells—the five potential varsity crews went at it tooth and nail over the next several weeks, and through it all the sophomores seemed to have found themselves again. Ulbrickson decided to put them to the test. He staged a one-mile time trial. The sophomores leapt out to a one-length lead and never looked back, pulling away decisively at the halfway mark and cruising to a seemingly effortless win. But when Ulbrickson looked at his stopwatch, he was disappointed. They were about ten seconds off the pace he was looking for at this point in the season. Nevertheless, they had won, so on the blackboard in the shell house the next day he finally listed the sophomore boat as the first varsity boat for the first time.
The following day they rowed awkwardly and lost badly. Ulbrickson promptly demoted them to third boat. That night, writing in his logbook, a frustrated Ulbrickson tore them apart: “horrible,” “every man for himself,” “no semblance of teamwork,” “have gone to sleep entirely,” “too much criticism,” “need the old morale.” A few days later, he held a three-mile trial. The sophomores trailed the field for the first mile. In the second mile they pulled even with the leading JV boat. Then they simply overpowered the older boys in the last mile to pull away and win by a convincing length and a half. Ulbrickson scratched his head and moved them back to first-boat status on the blackboard. But as soon as he elevated them, they fell apart yet again. “Dead from the bottom up,” “timing messed up,” “Rantz holding slide and arms too long,” he wrote in the logbook. By now Ulbrickson was headed along the road from mild confusion to utter consternation, if not madness. He was, in his quiet way, rapidly becoming obsessed, almost Ahab-like, in his pursuit of the ultimate varsity crew, one that could beat Ky Ebright in California in April and at Poughkeepsie in June and be in a position to go to Berlin the following year.
Ebright was much on his mind. The normally vociferous Cal coach had gone uncharacteristically silent down in Berkeley. One Bay Area sports scribe took to calling him the “sphinx of Berkeley” and wondered if he even so much as said hello to his wife in the evening these days. The last time he had been so reserved was in the run-up to the 1928 and 1932 Olympic seasons. Now all that Ulbrickson could find in the Bay Area papers was the disconcerting tidbit that Dick Burnley—Cal’s sensational stroke oar, who had so spectacularly powered Ebright’s varsity to victory over Ulbrickson’s boys in Poughkeepsie—had grown another half inch in height.
Ebright was far from all that was confusing Ulbrickson, though. Nor was it just the suddenly erratic performance of the sophomores on whom he had staked so much hope. Part of what he was wrestling with was, in fact, good news—an embarrassment of riches. He had begun to see a great deal of unexpected talent in some of his other boats.
For starters, there was Tom Bolles’s new crop of freshmen. They were off-limits for now, but Ulbrickson knew he had to factor them into his plans for next year, and next year was what mattered most. Bolles was reporting that the new crop was rowing just seconds off the kinds of record paces Joe and his crew had set the year before, and they seemed to be getting better each time out. There was a curly-haired kid at stroke in the freshman boat, Don Hume, who looked particularly promising. He wasn’t polished yet, but he never seemed to tire, never showed pain, just kept going, kept driving forward no matter what, like a well-oiled locomotive. In no position except for coxswain is experience so important as it is at stroke, though, and Hume still had a lot of experience to garner. There were a couple of other kids in the freshman crew that looked real good too—a big, muscular, quiet boy named Gordy Adam in the number five seat, and Johnny White in number two. White’s father had once been a standout single sculler, and his boy just lived and breathed rowing.
One of the JV boats—the one Bobby Moch was steering, the one that now and then left the all-sophomore boat in its wake—also contained a couple of promising surprises, also sophomores. There was another curly-headed boy, a six-foot-five, slightly goofy-looking beanpole with a smile that could knock your socks off, named Jim McMillin. His crewmates called him Stub. He had not rowed particularly well in the second freshman boat the previous year. Now suddenly he seemed to be finding his niche in Moch’s boat. He was big enough to provide the leverage and power that a great crew needs in the middle of the boat, and he never seemed to believe he was beaten, even if he was. He rowed as hard in a losing cause as in a winning one. He just plain had a lot of pepper, and he’d made it clear that he thought he belonged in the first boat. There was also a bespectacled boy named Chuck Day. Ulbrickson had noticed him as a freshman. He was almost impossible to overlook, in fact, if only because he was a chatterbox and a prankster and he made himself conspicuous. Like Hume, he hadn’t yet smoothed out as an oarsman, but his natural inclination was to fight first and ask questions later, and it was starting to pay off for him. There were times when a crew needed that kind of spark plug to get it revved up and firing on all cylinders.
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As February gave way to March, Ulbrickson decided it was time to change tactics again. He abandoned the notion of set crews and started mixing and matching men in different boats, telling them, “I will change men around until I get a varsity boat that walks off and leaves the other lineups. Then I will know I have the right combination together.” He started off by moving Joe out of the all-sophomore boat. But just as it had the year before when Tom Bolles took Joe out, the boat slowed down. The next day Joe was back in the boat. Ulbrickson tried Stub McMillin in the number seven seat in the sophomore boat, but then took him out the next day. He tried taking Joe out again, with the same results. He moved Shorty Hunt into the JV boat Moch was coxing. He swapped boys in and out of each and every boat. As March wore on, he gradually began to settle on two leading contenders for varsity status: one of the previous season’s JV boats—the one with Moch, McMillin, and Day in it—and the original sophomore boat, still intact despite his various attempts at dismantling and improving it. Both boats were now logging impressive trial times, but neither seemed able to beat the other decisively. Ulbrickson needed one or the other of them to break through, if only to put him out of his misery, but it just wasn’t happening.
Ulbrickson knew what the real problem was. He littered his logbook with the myriad technical faults he was observing: Rantz and Hartman still weren’t breaking their arms at the right point in the stroke; Green and Hartman were catching the water too early; Rantz and Lund were catching it too late; and so on. But the real problem wasn’t that—wasn’t an accumulation of small faults. Back in February he had commented to the Seattle Times’ George Varnell that “there are more good individual men on this year’s squad than on any I have coached.” The fundamental problem lay in the fact that he had felt compelled to throw that word “individual” into the sentence. There were too many days when they rowed not as crews but as boatfuls of individuals. The more he scolded them for personal technical issues, even as he preached teamsmanship, the more the boys seemed to sink into their own separate and sometimes defiant little worlds.
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The nasty weather that had assaulted Seattle since the previous October finally broke, though not before spitting a late spring snowstorm at the city for good measure on March 21. On April 2 a warm sun blossomed over Lake Washington. On the campus, students emerged from the mustiness of Suzzallo Library and the dankness of their rented rooms, blinked warily, and looked about for a place to stretch out on a patch of grass. Boys appeared wearing sports shirts and white shoes for the first time since the previous summer. Girls appeared wearing flowery skirts and ankle socks. The many cherry trees on the quad burst into blossom. Robins hopped around on the grass, cocking their heads, listening for worms. The first violet-green swallows of the year swirled among the spires of the library. Sunlight streamed through windows into classrooms where professors gave halting lectures as they gazed out onto the sun-washed campus.
At the shell house, the crew boys stripped off their jerseys and stretched out on the ramp, basking like lithe, white lizards in the sun. The custodian at the canoe house noted a sudden demand for canoes, all of them rented by boy-girl combinations. The Daily ran a banner headline: “Campus Blotto with Influx of Love, Birds.”
Joe and Joyce were among the first of those to rent a canoe. Joyce was still living and working at the judge’s house, and hating the job more with each passing day. Joe figured maybe it would help to get her out on the water. He found her wearing a summer dress, sitting on the lawn in front of the library, chatting with some girlfriends. He took her by the hand and rushed her down to the canoe house. There he stripped off his shirt, helped her into a boat, and paddled briskly across the Cut. He made his way lazily among the green expanse of lily pads and beaver lodges on the south side of Union Bay until he found a spot he liked. Then he let the boat drift.
Joyce reclined in the bow, trailing a hand in the water, soaking up the sun. Joe stretched out as best he could in the stern, gazing up at the translucent blue sky. From time to time, a frog croaked and plopped into the water, alarmed by the slow approach of the drifting boat. Blue dragonflies hovered overhead, their wings rattling dryly. Redwing blackbirds clung to reeds along the shoreline, chortling. Lulled by the subtle rocking of the canoe, Joe began to drift off.
As Joe slept, Joyce sat in the bow, studying the face of the young man to whom she had committed herself. He had grown even more handsome since high school, and at moments like this, when he was fully at ease, his face and his sculpted body were so full of composure and grace that they reminded Joyce of the ancient marble statues of Greek athletes that she had recently studied in her art history class. Looking at him like this, she thought, it was hard to believe that he had ever known a troubled moment.
Sleek, mahogany motorboats roared by, on their way from Lake Washington into the Cut, coeds in bathing suits perched on the rear decks waving at them as they passed. Their wide wakes rippled through the lily pads and rolled the canoe abruptly from side to side, prodding Joe back to alertness. He smiled at Joyce, who was beaming at him from the bow. He sat up, shook his head to clear his mind, took his guitar out of its battered old case, and began to sing. He sang at first the songs he and Joyce had sung together on the school bus back in Sequim—funny, happy-go-lucky songs, songs that made them both laugh—and Joyce joined in joyfully again just as she had back then.
Then Joe slipped into soft, slow, sweet love songs and Joyce grew quiet, listening carefully, happy in a different, deeper way. When Joe stopped playing, they talked about what it would be like when they were married and had a home and maybe kids. They talked earnestly, continuously, without respite and with no sense of time passing until the sun began to sink behind Capitol Hill and Joyce grew cold in her light dress, and Joe paddled them back to the university side of the bay and helped her out of the boat. It was a day that both of them would remember well into old age.
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The next day Joe, still feeling awash with goodwill, bought a little gas, drove his old Franklin over to Fremont, and parked in front of the Golden Rule Dairy and Bakery. He rolled the window down and waited, trying to enjoy the rich smell of baking bread but too nervous to really savor it. A little after noon, men dressed in white streamed out of the building and began sitting on the lawn, opening lunch boxes. A bit later a few men in dark coveralls emerged, and Joe spotted his father immediately. At six foot two, he was easily the tallest man in the group. He did not appear to have changed at all. Even his coveralls looked to be the ones he’d always worn back on the farm in Sequim. Joe climbed out of the car and trotted across the street.
Harry looked up, saw him coming, and froze in place, clutching his lunch box. Joe stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, Pop.”
Startled, Harry said nothing but took his son’s hand. It had been five and a half years since he’d seen Joe. He was no longer the scrawny kid he had left behind in Sequim. He had to wonder. Had Joe come to confront him or forgive him?
“Hi, Joe. It’s swell to see you.”
The two of them crossed the street and climbed into the front of the Franklin. Harry unwrapped a salami sandwich and silently offered half of it to Joe. They began to eat, and then, after a long, awkward silence, to talk. At first Harry talked mostly about the equipment in the bakery—the huge ovens and dough mixers and the fleet of delivery trucks that he maintained. Joe allowed his father to go on at length, not particularly interested but reveling in the familiar sound of his big, deep voice, the voice that had told him so many stories while sitting at night on the steps of the cabin at the Gold and Ruby mine, the voice that had taught him so much as they tinkered with machinery back in Sequim or hunted for bee trees out in the woods.
When Joe finally started to talk, questions about his half siblings tumbled out: How was Harry Junior doing? Had he ever caught up with his schooling after the accident with the bacon grease? How big was Mike now? How were the girls getting on? Harry assured him they were all well. There was a long pause. Joe asked if he could come by and see them. Harry looked down at his lap and said, “I don’t reckon so, Joe.” Deep down in Joe’s gut, something surged—anger, disappointment, resentment, he wasn’t sure what, but it was old and familiar and painful.
But then, after another pause, Harry added, without looking up, “Sometimes Thula and I go off on little excursions, though. Nobody home but the kids then.” He looked out the window as if distancing himself from what he’d just said. He seemed relieved—Joe wasn’t going to ask him about that awful night in Sequim when they’d left him behind.
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There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called “swing.” It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.
A good swing does not necessarily make crews go faster, except to the extent that if no one’s actions check the run of the boat, rowers get more bang for their buck on each stroke. Mainly what it does is allow them to conserve power, to row at a lower stroke rate and still move through the water as efficiently as possible, and often more rapidly than another crew rowing less efficiently at a higher rate. It allows them to possess a reserve of energy for a gut-wrenching, muscle-screaming sprint at the end of a race. It is insanely difficult to keep a good swing as you raise your rate. As the tempo increases, each of the myriad separate actions has to happen at shorter and shorter intervals, so that at some point it becomes virtually impossible to maintain a good swing at a high rate. But the closer a crew can come to that ideal—maintaining a good swing while rowing at a high rate—the closer they are to rowing on another plane, the plane on which champions row.
Joe and his crewmates had found their swing as freshmen the day they’d won in Poughkeepsie, and Al Ulbrickson had not forgotten that. He could not, in fact, get the picture of it out of his mind. There had been something marvelous, almost magical, about how they closed out that race. He had to believe that it was still there.
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But as the Pacific Coast Regatta in California approached, in early April, the weather again deteriorated and the sophomore boys could not, for the life of them, seem to regain and hold on to their magic. One day they’d have it; the next day they’d lose it. They would beat the junior varsity on Monday, lose badly on Tuesday, win again on Wednesday, lose on Thursday. When they won, they did so handily; when they lost, they fell apart completely. Fuming, Ulbrickson went public with his dilemma, telling the Seattle Times on April 2, “I have never seen a situation like this… . Never before in my experience has a UW training campaign come up to this point without the question of the superiority of a crew being settled long ere this.” Still, he had to make a decision.
Finally he did what he had wanted to do all along. He officially proclaimed the entire sophomore boat to be the 1935 first varsity crew. The local papers announced it to the world. And the sophomores promptly lost their next head-to-head race against the JV boat. The JV clamored to be named the varsity boat for the regatta. Ulbrickson, all but throwing his hands in the air, announced that he’d reconsider. They would race one more time in California. Whoever won the first time trial after they arrived in Oakland would row as the varsity crew in the Pacific Coast Regatta.
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Elevating the sophomores to varsity status was an unusual move, but not unheard of. Ky Ebright was, in fact, in the midst of doing essentially the same thing—perhaps in reaction to all he’d been reading about the Washington sophomores. Improbably, as he had moved toward the Pacific Coast Regatta, Ebright had demoted the varsity boys who had won the national title in Poughkeepsie the year before, in favor of a mixed boat of sophomores and juniors. Only one of the previous year’s national champions now sat in his varsity boat, and Ebright remained perplexed by the poor performance of the older boys. When Royal Brougham arrived in Oakland to cover the regatta, Ebright pleaded with him, “Will you please tell me why the crew that last June was the best in the U.S. can’t row fast enough to beat a pickup boat of sophomores and J.V. oarsmen?” Brougham had no idea why, but he was happy to telegraph the intelligence to Ulbrickson, up in Seattle. And to add a warning. He had put a stopwatch to Ebright’s new pickup boat. “Don’t get the idea that the new Bear varsity is slow, Mr. Ulbrickson … this boat has plenty of get up about it.” When Ulbrickson learned the details, particularly the fact that Ebright had replaced even Dick Burnley, the enormous stroke who had powered Cal to victory over his boys in Poughkeepsie, he could only have been stunned. He knew that Ebright was looking beyond this year to ’36, looking for younger talent, just as he was. But who on earth could Ebright have found that would knock a machine like Burnley out of a national championship boat?
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By eight o’clock on the morning of April 7, all three Washington crews were in California, out on the oil-slicked waters of the Oakland Estuary, rowing in the rain with a thirty-mile-per-hour wind whipping in off San Francisco Bay, pushing salt spray in their faces for the first time. Except for the taste of salt in the water, they felt right at home. They had brought a bit of Seattle south with them. Cal was nowhere to be seen. They rowed the length of the estuary and out along the mudflats on the east shore of the bay. The silver towers of the partially completed Bay Bridge rose dramatically from the water before them, elegant spires stretching with surprising grace across the bay toward Treasure Island and San Francisco. Out in the open bay, though, the chop was even heavier, heavy enough to threaten to swamp the boats. Ulbrickson turned them around.
On the way out, it had seemed to him that the junior varsity boat was moving better than the sophomores. On the way back in, the sophomores seemed to be going better than the junior varsity. Everyone waited for Ulbrickson to stage the decisive time trial that he had promised before leaving Seattle. Nobody in either shell talked much to anybody in the other.
Meanwhile Al Ulbrickson and Ky Ebright performed their practiced dance, the dance of doom. Each tried to outdo the other in gloomy prognostications for the upcoming regatta. Ulbrickson announced that his boys were too heavy, badly out of shape as a result of all the canceled workouts in Seattle. He’d hoped but failed to “boil them down” to fighting trim by now. Rate them “for the dark horses that they are,” he said. “My boys are not ready for a race. They started out to row three miles yesterday and they were sitting on their tongues at the end of the first mile. We’ve never had less work and poorer conditions.” Reporters, though, noted that the boys had looked pretty darned fit when they’d stepped off the train. When asked why he’d showed up with a boatload of sophomores, Ulbrickson looked at the reporter balefully and said, “They’re the best we’ve got.” Ebright, trying to swing perceptions the other way, said less, but was more direct when he said anything. Talking to the New York Times, he claimed flat out, “California has a chance, but I think Washington will win.” And added, “Our chances are not so hot. Our varsity is undoubtedly slower than last year’s shell, and is inexperienced entirely in racing.” He continued to remain oddly silent about his own boys.
On April 10, Ulbrickson finally staged the formal time trial that was to determine who would race as the varsity. Joe and his sophomore crewmates came in almost a length behind the JV. They slumped in their shell in despair and disbelief. The boys in the JV boat were jubilant. Al Ulbrickson went back to the hotel and scrawled in his logbook, “In a hell of a fix now.” But he still didn’t announce a varsity boating.
On the morning of April 12, the same thing happened, but now Ulbrickson tried one more trick. The sophomores had come south with a new, still-unchristened shell. But they had taken an immediate dislike to it. They had been complaining since they arrived that it just didn’t swing for them. So Ulbrickson sent them out one more time, this time in their old shell, the one in which they had won so convincingly at Poughkeepsie, the City of Seattle. They rowed beautifully and matched the JV’s time. “The old boat made them feel right at home,” Ulbrickson noted in his logbook.
After dinner at the Hotel Oakland that night, he dropped the bomb on the JV. He was going to race the sophomores as the varsity despite their repeated defeats. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t do this, but I can’t help it.” The JV boys walked out of the room enraged, stormed out into the dark, and tried to walk off their anger on the streets of Oakland. Explaining the reversal to the Associated Press, Ulbrickson broke cover, abandoned the dance of doom, and said simply what he believed in his heart about the sophomores. They were, he declared, “potentially the best crew I have ever coached.” But in his logbook that night he wrote, miserably, “Hell of a position to be in the day before the race.”
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Race day, April 13, was again rainy, and a stiff headwind blew out of the south, up the length of the Oakland Estuary. The estuary was not what anyone might call pristine rowing water even on the best of days. A long, narrow slot of water between Oakland and Alameda Island, it was essentially a marine highway through an already aging industrial landscape. Spanned by several steel bridges, the racecourse made a slight curve at Union Point, just before the finish line at the Fruitvale Avenue Bridge. Crumbling brick warehouses, oil storage tanks, rusting cranes, and gritty factories lined both sides of the waterway. Tied up along its shores was every conceivable kind of watercraft—Chinese junks, tugboats, rickety houseboats, old schooners, and barges heaped with jumbles of industrial cargo. The water itself was turgid, gray-green even on sunny days, oil slicked, and reeking of diesel fuel and seaweed. Right next to Cal’s shell house a four-inch pipe discharged raw sewage directly into the water.
It was a challenging landscape in which to find a place to watch a crew race, but by midafternoon on April 13 nearly forty thousand spectators had assembled under umbrellas in empty lots, on scattered docks, on warehouse rooftops, and on small craft moored along the racecourse. By far the greatest concentration of fans was at the finish line, on the Fruitvale Avenue Bridge. There thousands of California fans dressed in blue and gold mingled on the span with hundreds of Washington loyalists in purple and gold, everyone jostling to get a good view of the water. Radio announcers sat huddled under a shelter near the bridge, ready to broadcast the results around the nation.
At 3:55 p.m., the regatta got started with the two-mile freshman race. Don Hume, Washington’s stroke, was just a few days out of the infirmary and still recovering from severe tonsillitis, but you wouldn’t have known it by watching the race. The Washington freshmen jumped out early to a half-length lead. At the halfway mark, they led by a full length, with both crews rowing at thirty-two. As they came around the bend and into the final stretch, the Cal freshmen tried to rally, edging their rate up to thirty-four. Washington upped its rate to match Cal’s. With both boats rowing at the same rate, Hume’s stroke made all the difference. In the last quarter mile, Hume rowed so smoothly, so powerfully, and so efficiently that, with the boys behind him falling in synch, the Washington boat powered still farther ahead and crossed the line three lengths ahead of California. Officials on the bridge dropped a white flag to signify a win for the white blades of Washington.
The junior varsity race was, for the suddenly demoted older boys from Washington, all about making a point. And about opening up the future. At 4:10 p.m., still seething over Ulbrickson’s reversal, they brought their boat up to the starting line at the foot of Webster Street, just south of Jack London Square and three miles from the finish. When the start was called, California jumped out in front and then settled in at thirty-two. With Bobby Moch calling the cadence and big Stub McMillin in the engine room, Washington slowly and methodically pulled even and then began to edge ahead. By the halfway mark, they had open water between themselves and the Cal boat.
Then they started rowing in earnest. Moch barked at them to raise the stroke, and then barked again. They dug hard. With every stroke they began to punish Cal, and Ulbrickson, and the sophomores, and anyone else who might doubt them, unleashing months’ worth of frustration, demolishing the course, hurling their backs into the oncoming wind and rain. Bobby Moch had a habit of calling for big tens by attaching someone’s name to the call—to give it more emotional impact. Sometimes it was “Give me ten for Al,” or “Give me ten for Mr. Pocock.” Now he shouted through his megaphone, “Give me ten big ones for Joe Beasley!” Nobody in the boat, including Moch apparently, had ever heard of Joe Beasley, but he was having fun now. They gave him ten big ones. Then he screamed, “And give me ten big ones for those sophomores!” The boat exploded forward. As they came around the bend and within sight of the crowd on the bridge, they were five lengths ahead. As they shot across the line and under the bridge, they were eight lengths ahead and still pulling away.
When it came time for the varsity race, the Cal fans finally got something to cheer about.
As Joe and the sophomore varsity paddled to their starting position, they figured that they pretty much had to win now, after what the JV had just done, not just to justify Ulbrickson’s faith in them, but to keep their Olympic aspirations alive. From now on, in fact, they figured they had to win every race or it would be all over for them. Over the next sixteen minutes, they did everything they could to make sure it wasn’t all over. After the race, the San Francisco Chronicle’s tough-as-nails sports editor, Bill Leiser, said simply, “It was a great battle. The best race I ever saw on the estuary.”
Cal had been practicing fast starts all week, but neither boat was quite ready at the start. Once they were away, Washington leapt out to an early lead. Cal responded, quickly and decisively, raising its rate and pulling even, then moving quickly out in front by half a length. Both boats settled in and held their positions for the next mile and a half, with Washington’s blades dipping in and out of the water almost stroke for stroke with Cal’s at a steady thirty strokes per minute. As they approached Government Island and the halfway mark, California slowly increased its rate and stretched its lead out to a full length. George Morry, in the coxswain’s seat, called for more, and the Washington rate went up to thirty-two, but Morry held it there as Cal went up to thirty-four and a half, refusing to yield to the temptation to panic or bolt. Ever so slowly, Washington began to claw its way back, inch by inch, still keeping the rate low but starting to gain on sheer power. By the time they reached the south end of the island, the Cal lead had been whittled down to a quarter of a length. Then they were bow to bow. Approaching the bend in the course, Washington slowly nosed out ahead of the California boat. Washington went up to thirty-four now, Cal to a punishing thirty-eight.
The two boats swung around the bend side by side and surged into view of the fans on the bridge. An armada of launches and pleasure craft was following them. Observers in those boats, studying the boys through binoculars, thought both crews looked tired.
California made a move, starting to sprint, going up to forty strokes per minute and charging forward again, back into the lead. The Cal fans erupted in cheers. Their boys were out in front by a quarter of a length and bearing down on the finish line. But George Morry did what he had been told to do. Ulbrickson had instructed him to keep the stroke rate as low as he could for as long as he possibly could. With his boys still rowing at thirty-four, Morry resisted the temptation to call for a higher rate, even as Cal maintained its frantic forty and the Fruitvale Avenue Bridge began to loom up ahead of them. Stroke rate is one thing and power is another. Morry knew he still had plenty of power at his disposal. He figured that by now Cal almost certainly didn’t. He leaned forward and called out, “Gimme ten big ones!” The Washington boys dug hard. The boat leapt forward. At the end of ten strokes, the bows of the boats were dead even again. With the bridge and the finish line closing on them, Morry screamed again, “Gimme ten more!” Joe and Shorty and Roger and everyone with an oar in his hands threw everything he had into the last few pulls. In the coaching launch directly behind his boys, Al Ulbrickson held his breath. The boats shot under the bridge side by side.
A blue flag and a white flag dropped from the bridge simultaneously. The fans fell suddenly silent, confused. Someone in one of the following boats shouted, “Washington by a foot!” The Husky fans roared. Then a voice on the official loudspeaker boomed out, “California by two feet.” Now the Cal fans roared. The radio broadcasters huddling under the shelter hesitated, then beamed the news out to the nation: “California Wins.” The same message rattled out over the newswires. On the bridge, the Washington fans were adamant, pointing angrily at the water, gesticulating. Their boys had surged ahead at the end—anyone could see that. California fans who had been leaning over the railing as the boats passed below insisted that the nose of the Cal boat had gone under the bridge first, by three feet at least. The pandemonium increased. Long minutes passed. And then, suddenly, the voice on the loudspeaker crackled back to life: “Judges of the finish announce officially that Washington won by six feet.” An enormous moan arose from the California fans en masse. In Seattle a news flash from Oakland interrupted regular radio programming, and people who had been sitting dejectedly by the radio stood up and slapped each other on the back and shook hands.
It turned out that neither crew, nor any of the official judges, had ever really had any doubt about the outcome. They just had trouble getting to the loudspeaker through the throng of people on the bridge. What most spectators had not realized was that the bridge ran across the estuary at a slight angle. The finish line, on the other hand, ran straight across the water, just about intersecting the bridge on the California side of the racecourse but intersecting the Washington side several yards short of the bridge. The nose of the California boat had indeed passed under the bridge first, but by then the first six feet of the Washington boat was already well over the line. When Ulbrickson got back to the hotel that night, he jotted a simple commentary in the logbook: “Quite a day.”
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The train ride home was jubilant. The hard feelings of the long fall and winter were forgotten; everyone had come out a winner. Tom Bolles was sure now he had a freshman crew at least equal to that of the previous year. The junior varsity had made their point, at least for now. The sophomores were the Pacific Coast varsity champions. Together they had swept California from its home water. Anything now seemed possible.
The day following the race it was front-page news in Seattle, a banner headline in the Seattle Times trumpeting, “Husky Crews Make Clean Sweep.” On April 18 the city held its version of a ticker-tape parade to honor the crews, as well as a girls’ swim team that had just returned from Chicago with a handful of medals and six national records and Jack Medica, a superstar swimmer who had himself just returned from victories in the East. Eighty members of the Husky marching band led the procession up Second Avenue and Pike Street as confetti and scraps of paper mixed with a steady, cold rain drifting down from clouds high above. Behind the band, in a flower-bedecked car, Mayor Smith rode with Al Ulbrickson and Tom Bolles, waving at the cheering crowd that lined the street four- and five-deep. Medica and the girls’ swim team rode in a second car. Then came the main attraction—a long logging truck draped in flowers and green foliage carrying the varsity crew and their shell. The boys wore white sweaters with big purple Ws emblazoned on them. Each held a twelve-foot-long oar upright. As it crawled through downtown, the float looked something like an enormous green reptile with a sleek cedar spine and eight wavering spruce quills. From time to time, a relative or friend of one of the boys called out a greeting from the sidewalk or ran out into the street for a quick handshake. Joyce was at work, but Joe scanned the faces in the crowd, looking for his father or his half siblings, but they were nowhere to be seen.
The procession made its way to the Washington Athletic Club on Union Street. There the boys were ushered into a smoky room packed with hundreds of Seattle’s leading citizens, each of whom had paid seventy-five cents to attend a special luncheon and get an up-close look at the returning heroes. Royal Brougham was the master of ceremonies, and the proceedings were broadcast live on radio.
The mayor, Tom Bolles, and Al Ulbrickson each gave brief talks. Ulbrickson heaped praise on all three crews and ended by saying, to cheers, “With support like this we’ll win at Poughkeepsie and then it will be on to Berlin and the Olympics.” The dean of the university spoke, as did the president of the chamber of commerce. Pretty much everyone who was anyone in town wanted in on the act. Then the boys from all three boats were called up onto the stage. They were introduced, one at a time, each to long, sustained applause.
When it was Joe’s turn, he stood for a moment looking out over the scene before him. White light poured into the room from tall windows flanked by heavy velvet curtains. Enormous crystal chandeliers hung shimmering from high, ornately plastered ceilings. The beaming faces of large-bellied men in three-piece suits and matronly-looking women bedecked with jewelry gazed up at him. They sat at tables spread with crisp white linen tablecloths and gleaming silverware and crystal stemware and platters heaped with hot food. Waiters in white coats and black bow ties scurried among the tables, carrying trays with still more food.
As Joe raised a hand to acknowledge the wave of applause rising to greet him, he found himself struggling desperately to keep back tears. He had never let himself dream of standing in a place like this, surrounded by people like these. It startled him but at the same time it also filled him with gratitude, and as he stood at the front of the room that day acknowledging the applause, he felt a sudden surge of something unfamiliar—a sense of pride that was deeper and more heartfelt than any he had ever felt before. Now it was on to Poughkeepsie again, and then maybe even Berlin. Everything finally seemed to be starting to turn golden.
Rowing into the Montlake Cut