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
Just as a skilled rider is said to become part of his horse, the skilled oarsman must become part of his boat.
—George Yeoman Pocock
As Joe Rantz, Johnny White, Chuck Day, and thousands of other young American men labored down in the hot, stony recesses of the Grand Coulee in the summer of 1935, thousands of young German men swarmed over the site of another great public works project, this one in Berlin. Since Adolf Hitler had visited it in the fall of 1933, the sprawling 325-acre site of the Reichssportfeld had been dramatically transformed. The adjoining racetrack had been torn down, and now more than five hundred companies contracted by the Nazi state were at work preparing the site for the Olympic Games. In order to put the maximum number of men to work, Hitler had decreed that virtually all the labor was to be done by hand, even that which machines could do more efficiently. All the men, however, were required to be “complying, nonunion workers of German citizenship and Aryan race.”
Everything about the project was massive. The great bowl of the Olympic Stadium, its floor forty-two feet below ground level, had been excavated and leveled, its central field sown with grass that was already lush and green. One hundred thirty-six evenly spaced square pillars had been erected around the perimeter of what would become the two-story colonnade. Forms for seventy-two tiers of seating had been built, enough to accommodate 110,000 people. Seventeen thousand tons of concrete were in the process of being poured into those forms. Seven thousand three hundred tons of sheet metal were being welded together. Over thirty-nine thousand cubic yards of natural stone had arrived on the site, and hundreds of stonemasons were at work, with hammers and chisels, covering the exterior of the stadium with blocks of fine, ivory-colored Franconian limestone. A hockey stadium, a swimming stadium, an equestrian stadium, an enormous and monolithic exhibition hall, a gymnasium, a Greek amphitheater, tennis courts, restaurants, and sprawling administrative buildings were all in various stages of completion. Like the stadium, most were being clad with natural stone, all of it German—more limestone from Franconia, basalt from the Eifel hills, granite and marble from Silesia, travertine from Thuringia, porphyry from Saxony.
West of the stadium, a vast, flat assembly area, the Maifeld, had been leveled and a great limestone bell tower was being erected. The tower would eventually stand just over 248 feet tall. The great bell it would house would bear around its bottom edge an inscription sandwiched between two swastikas, “Ich rufe die Jugend der Welt!” (“I summon the youth of the world!”). And the youth would indeed come. First for the Olympics and then for something else. A little less than ten years in the future, in the last few desperate days of the Third Reich, scores of Hitler Youth—boys as young as ten or eleven—would crouch below the bell tower among blocks of fine Franconian limestone, the rubble of the buildings now being erected, shooting at advancing Russian boys, many of them not a great deal older than they. And in those last few days, as Berlin burned all around them, some of those German boys—those who cried or refused to shoot or tried to surrender—would be lined up against these limestone slabs by their officers and shot.
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Fifteen miles to the southeast, in the leafy and pleasant lakeside community of Grünau, preparations for the Olympic rowing, canoeing, and kayaking events were also well under way. Grünau was located on the west bank of the long, narrow Langer See, one of several lakes fed by the Dahme River, just where suburbs began to give way to open meadows and tracts of dark forest southeast of Berlin. The Langer See, with its deep blue water, had long been the center of water sports in Berlin. Rowing and sailing regattas had been held there since the 1870s. Kaiser Wilhelm II had built a sprawling summer pavilion in Grünau so the imperial family could reside in splendor while watching the competitions or taking to the water themselves. By 1925 dozens of rowing clubs were headquartered in and around Grünau—among them some whose members were exclusively Jewish, some whose members were exclusively Nordic, and many whose members were congenially mixed. Since 1912 women as well as men had rowed in these clubs, though the dress code for women required outfits that were distinctly uncomfortable for rowing: high-laced boots, long skirts, and long-sleeved tops secured tightly at the neck.
For the occasion of the 1935 European Rowing Championships, engineers had recently completed a large covered grandstand with a seating capacity of seventy-five hundred. An expansive grassy area had been laid out along the water to the east of the grandstand to accommodate another ten thousand standing spectators. Now with the Olympics approaching, officials were planning to add a massive set of wooden grandstands built out over the water on the other side of the lake. Meanwhile masons and carpenters were at work building a large and stately new boathouse, Haus West, just east of the permanent grandstands, supplementing two large existing boathouses, Haus Mitte and Haus Ost. Not one of these was anything like the shell houses Joe and his crewmates had known—the old seaplane hangar in Seattle or the rickety shell houses of Poughkeepsie. These were impressive, modern, limestone buildings with red tile roofs. Among them they sported twenty separate dressing rooms, four shower rooms, twenty hot-water showers, storage on the ground level for ninety-seven racing shells, and rooms full of massage tables for bone-weary oarsmen. For the duration of the Olympics, Haus West, nearest the finish line, was to be largely devoted to administrative services, with rooms set aside for news writers, radio-transmitting equipment, Teletypes, telephones, rapid film-developing labs, and a customs office to aid the international press with immigration and customs issues. Haus West would also feature a sweeping terrace on its second story. With its unobstructed view of the racecourse, the terrace would serve as a viewing point from which the most powerful men in Germany could watch the Olympic races, and as a stage on which the world could watch them doing so.
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In mid-September, Joe returned from the Grand Coulee with enough money to make it through another year if he was thrifty. He visited Sequim briefly, to catch up with the McDonalds and Joyce’s parents, and then quickly returned to Seattle to be near Joyce herself. Joyce had abruptly left her job in Laurelhurst that summer, after the judge had chased her around the dining table one afternoon, in pursuit of services not generally required of maids. She had promptly found work with another family nearby, but things had gotten off to a rocky start. On Joyce’s first day of work, Mrs. Tellwright, the lady of the house, had casually asked her to prepare duck à l’orange for dinner. Joyce was horrified. She knew what a duck was, and she knew what an orange was, but what the two had to do with each other was beyond her. As far as cooking went, she was pretty much a country girl. Fried chicken and meat loaf were more up her alley. But she wanted to impress, so she gave it her best try. The results were apparently unpalatable, if not inedible. Mrs. Tellwright took one bite, made a slight grimace, put her fork down, and said, chirpily, “Well, dear, perhaps a cooking class would be in order.” It turned out to be the beginning of a long and happy friendship. Mrs. Tellwright did, in fact, pay for cooking classes for Joyce, and she took them herself, right alongside the younger woman. Over the next several years, they spent many enjoyable hours in the kitchen together.
Joe and Joyce were increasingly worried about something more serious than duck à l’orange, though. When Joe resumed visiting his father at the bakery, sitting in the Franklin and sharing his lunch, Harry mentioned that he and Thula had spent much of the summer making long excursions—“picnics,” they called them—to various places around the state, mostly to their old haunts in eastern Washington, and planned on making similar jaunts that autumn. At first this suited Joe just fine. It meant he could visit his half siblings without worrying about Thula throwing him out of the house. But the first time he and Joyce stopped by Bagley Avenue on one of these occasions, they found that Harry and Thula had been gone for three days. They’d left Harry Junior, Mike, Rose, and Polly alone, without supervision and largely without food. Harry Junior, the oldest, at thirteen, said his parents had packed a pressure cooker full of stewed beef, potatoes, and vegetables, taken a loaf of bread and some canned goods, and gone on a jaunt to Medical Lake, where they had first courted. He wasn’t sure when they would return. In the meantime, he and his siblings had pretty much cleaned out the cabinets trying to find enough to eat.
Joe and Joyce took the four children out for ice cream and then stopped by a grocery store and bought some basic provisions before dropping them off back at the house. By the next day, when Joe checked, Harry and Thula had returned. But Joe couldn’t fathom what his father and Thula had been thinking. Apparently this had been going on all summer long.
Thula Rantz was having quite a summer. Her star had begun to ascend at last. Since Harry had secured the job at the Golden Rule, she had finally had the leisure to pursue her violin career full-time, and now years of grimly determined practice back in the cabin in Idaho and the half-finished house in Sequim had finally begun to pay off. She had managed to land an audition in Los Angeles with no less a light than Fritz Kreisler.
Kreisler was among the greatest violinists of the twentieth century. An Austrian, the son of Sigmund Freud’s family physician, he had been, at age seven, the youngest student ever admitted to the Vienna Conservatory. At age ten, he won the conservatory’s prestigious gold medal before going on to the Paris Conservatory, where he studied under Joseph Massart and Léo Delibes. From there he had gone on to true greatness, performing to packed houses for decades in all the most hallowed concert halls in the world—in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, New York—and recording on major record labels in both Europe and the United States. Gravely wounded in World War I, he had survived and returned an even greater maestro. But when the Nazis had come to power in 1933, he refused ever to play again in Germany, became a French citizen, and moved to the United States.
Thula returned to Seattle from her audition jubilant. Kreisler had called her, by her own account, “the greatest female violinist I have heard.” It had not yet led to a seat with a major orchestra, but it raised that possibility, and it stood as the highlight of Thula’s life thus far, validation of what she and her parents had believed all along. And it did lead to a degree of celebrity, at least locally. That spring and summer KOMO Radio in Seattle aired a series of live performances by Thula, and for the first time thousands of people heard what she was capable of. Now, with that to build on for the future, and a steady income from Harry’s job, she was bent on getting out of the house and celebrating—living life, for a change, as it was meant to be lived.
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Joe was now back at that shell house every day, getting in shape for what was to come. Johnny White and Chuck Day showed up too, dusty and tanned from the Grand Coulee, wearing wide grins and drawing lots of questions from the other fellows whenever they and Joe talked about a mysterious place called B Street.
Al Ulbrickson was back as well. As Royal Brougham had predicted back in June, rumors of his demise had proved premature, much to the relief of Joe and the other boys. Whatever inclination there might have been to replace him after Poughkeepsie and Long Beach had evaporated in the off-season, or at least been suspended. The fact was that the administration didn’t believe they could do better, not for the pittance they were paying Ulbrickson. It remained unclear, though, how long they were going to pay him anything at all.
Early one morning that September his wife, Hazel, arose to find Ulbrickson already awake, sitting in his pajamas at an old typewriter, assiduously pecking at the keys. His face was grim, determined. He ripped the paper from the typewriter, wheeled around in his seat, and handed it to Hazel. It was a statement for the Seattle Times. The gist of it was a simple, bold assertion—the University of Washington’s eight-oared crew was going to win gold at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Hazel raised her eyes from the document and stared at him, flabbergasted. She thought he’d lost his mind. The Al Ulbrickson she knew never made proclamations like that, seldom said anything even remotely suggesting what his hopes and dreams were, even at home, let alone in the newspapers. But Ulbrickson rose and folded the document and put it in an envelope addressed to the Times. He had crossed some kind of Rubicon. If he was going to stay in the rowing game, he told Hazel, there wouldn’t be any second-place finishes this year. Not at Poughkeepsie or anywhere else. He was going all out. He’d likely never again have boys of the caliber he had returning in the fall, he told his wife. If he couldn’t win with them, if he couldn’t find the right combination this time, if he didn’t, in fact, go all the way and fetch gold in Berlin in 1936, he would quit coaching at the end of the season.
On September 10, Ulbrickson met with reporters at the shell house. He didn’t share the pledge he had made to Hazel, but he made clear what he felt the stakes were going into the new year. Calmly, in measured tones, with no sense of hyperbole, he said that he and his boys would face “the stiffest competition this country has ever known to win the right to wear the Stars and Stripes in Berlin… . We have ambitions, and from the very start of fall turnout the Washington oarsmen will have in mind the Olympic trials.” He said he was aware that it would be a long shot. Everyone knew Cal had the inside track. But, he concluded, “Certainly we cannot be arrested for trying.”
Ulbrickson knew that saying it was one thing; doing it was another. Pulling it off was going to mean marshaling all his resources and making some very tough decisions. He was going to have to overlook boys he liked personally and work with boys he didn’t necessarily like. He was going to have to outwit Ky Ebright—no small challenge. He was going to have to find funding in what was shaping up to be yet another lean year. And he was going to have to make better use of perhaps his greatest resource, George Pocock.
Al and Hazel Ulbrickson often shared dinner with George and Frances Pocock at one couple’s or the other’s home. After dinner, the two men reveled in talking about rowing for hours on end. They discussed boat design and rigging techniques, debated racing strategy, recounted past victories and defeats, and analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of other crews and coaches. It was a chance for the reticent Ulbrickson to relax, to open up and confide in the Englishman, to joke about shell house events, to smoke a cigarette out of sight of the boys. Most of all, it was a chance to do what Washington coaches had been doing since 1913—to learn something from Pocock, whether it was an apt quote from Shakespeare, a better way to sequence a race, or how to understand the inner workings of an oarsman’s mind. Going into the Olympic year, their talk inevitably centered on the strengths and weaknesses of the boys at Ulbrickson’s disposal.
A successful quest for Olympic gold would require finding nine young men of exceptional strength, grace, endurance, and most of all mental toughness. They would have to row almost flawlessly in long races and short, under all kinds of conditions. They would have to live well together in close quarters for weeks at a time—traveling, eating, sleeping, and racing without internal friction among them. They would have to perform under immense psychological pressure on the most prominent stage in the sport, in full view of the whole world.
At some point that fall, the subject of Joe Rantz came up. Ulbrickson had been studying Joe for a year now, ever since Tom Bolles had first warned him that the boy was touchy and uneven, that there were days when he could row like quicksilver—so smooth and fluid and powerful that he seemed a part of the boat and his oar and the water all at once—and days when he was downright lousy. Since then, Ulbrickson had tried everything—he’d scolded Joe, he’d encouraged him, he’d demoted him, he’d repromoted him. But he wasn’t any closer to understanding the mystery of him. Now Ulbrickson turned to Pocock for some help. He asked the Englishman to take a look at Rantz—to talk to him, to try to figure him out, and, if possible, to fix him.
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On a bright, crisp September morning, as Pocock started up the steps to his loft in the shell house, he noticed Joe doing sit-ups on a bench at the back of the room. He motioned Joe to come over, said he’d noticed him peering up into the shop occasionally, and asked him if he’d like to look around. Joe all but bounded up the stairs.
The loft was bright and airy, with morning light pouring in from two large windows in the back wall. The air was thick with the sweet-sharp scent of marine varnish. Drifts of sawdust and curls of wood shavings lay on the floor. A long I beam stretched nearly the full length of the loft, and on it lay the framework of an eight-oared shell under construction.
Pocock started off by explaining the various tools he used. He showed Joe wood planes, their wooden handles burnished by decades of use, their blades so sharp and precise they could shave off curls of wood as thin and transparent as tissue paper. He handed him different old rasps and augers and chisels and files and mallets he’d brought over from England. Some of them, he said, were a century old. He explained how each kind of tool had many variations, how each file, for instance, was subtly different from another, how each served a different function but all were indispensable in the making of a fine shell. He guided Joe to a lumber rack and pulled out samples of the different woods he used—soft, malleable sugar pine, hard yellow spruce, fragrant cedar, and clear white ash. He held each piece up and inspected it, turning it over and over in his hands, and talked about the unique properties of each and how it took all of them contributing their individual qualities to make a shell that would come to life in the water. He pulled a long cedar plank from a rack and pointed out the annual growth rings. Joe already knew a good deal about the qualities of cedar and about growth rings from his time splitting shakes with Charlie McDonald, but he was drawn in as Pocock began to talk about what they meant to him.
Joe crouched next to the older man and studied the wood and listened intently. Pocock said the rings told more than a tree’s age; they told the whole story of the tree’s life over as much as two thousand years. Their thickness and thinness spoke of hard years of bitter struggle intermingled with rich years of sudden growth. The different colors spoke of the various soils and minerals that the tree’s roots encountered, some harsh and stunting, some rich and nourishing. Flaws and irregularities told how the trees endured fires and lightning strikes and windstorms and infestations and yet continued to grow.
As Pocock talked, Joe grew mesmerized. It wasn’t just what the Englishman was saying, or the soft, earthy cadence of his voice, it was the calm reverence with which he talked about the wood—as if there was something holy and sacred about it—that drew Joe in. The wood, Pocock murmured, taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves. About the reasons we were all here.
“Sure, I can make a boat,” he said, and then added, quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, “‘But only God can make a tree.’”
Pocock pulled out a thin sheet of cedar, one that had been milled down to three-eighths of an inch for the skin of a shell. He flexed the wood and had Joe do the same. He talked about camber and the life it imparted to a shell when wood was put under tension. He talked about the underlying strength of the individual fibers in cedar and how, coupled with their resilience, they gave the wood its ability to bounce back and resume its shape, whole and intact, or how, under steam and pressure, they could take a new form and hold it forever. The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, to accommodate, he said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood, so long as it was helmed by inner resolve and by principle.
He took Joe to one end of the long I beam on which he was constructing the frame for a new shell. Pocock sighted along the pine keel and invited Joe to do the same. It had to be precisely straight, he said, for the whole sixty-two-foot length of the boat, not a centimeter of variance from one end to the other or the boat would never run true. And in the end that trueness could only come from its builder, from the care with which he exercised his craft, from the amount of heart he put into it.
Pocock paused and stepped back from the frame of the shell and put his hands on his hips, carefully studying the work he had so far done. He said for him the craft of building a boat was like religion. It wasn’t enough to master the technical details of it. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart. He turned to Joe. “Rowing,” he said, “is like that. And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway. Do you know what I mean, Joe?” Joe, a bit nervous, not at all certain that he did, nodded tentatively, went back downstairs, and resumed his sit-ups, trying to work it out.
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That month the Nazi Party staged its seventh annual rally at Nuremberg, themed, with staggering irony, the Rally for Freedom. Again the storm troopers and the Blackshirts came in the hundreds of thousands. Again Leni Riefenstahl—now thirty-three and firmly established as Hitler’s favorite filmmaker—was there to document the spectacle, though the only footage that would ever emerge was a short film documenting the war games Hitler staged at the rally to dramatize Germany’s defiance of the Treaty of Versailles’s ban on German rearmament. Years later, after the war, Riefenstahl would speak as little as possible about her participation in the Rally for Freedom. By then it was remembered, not primarily for the war games, but for what happened on the evening of September 15.
The rally reached its climax that night when Adolf Hitler stepped before the German parliament, the Reichstag, to introduce three new laws. The Reichstag had been assembled in Nuremberg for the first time since 1543 in order to pass—and to make a public spectacle of passing—a law making the Nazi Party emblem, the swastika, the official flag of Germany. But Hitler now introduced two more laws, and it was these second and third laws for which the 1935 rally would forever be remembered, and from which Riefenstahl would later try to distance herself.
The Reich Citizenship Law defined citizens to be any German national “of German or related blood” who “proves by his conduct that he is willing and fit to faithfully serve the German people and Reich.” By omission, any national not of “German or related blood” was thereby relegated to the status of a subject of the state. The effect was to strip German Jews of their citizenship and all associated rights beginning in January of 1936. The Blood Law—formally, the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor—forbade the marriage of Jews and non-Jews; nullified any such marriages made in defiance of the law, even if carried out in a foreign nation; forbade extramarital sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews; forbade Jews from employing female Germans under the age of forty-five in their homes; and forbade Jews from displaying the newly anointed national flag. And that, as it would turn out, was just for starters. In the next few months and years, the Reichstag would add dozens of additional laws restricting every aspect of the lives of German Jews, until, in effect, simply being Jewish was outlawed.
Even before the advent of the Nuremberg Laws, life had become all but intolerable for German Jews. Since the Nazi Party’s assumption of power in 1933, Jews had been—by law, by intimidation, and by outright violence—excluded from working in the civil service or holding public office; from practicing professions like medicine, law, and journalism; from participating in the stock exchanges; and from entering a wide variety of public and private places. In every German town and city, signs proclaiming “Juden unerwünscht” (“Jews not welcome”) had appeared over the entrances to hotels, pharmacies, restaurants, public swimming pools, and shops of all sorts. Jewish-owned businesses had been the targets of massive state-sponsored boycotts. Near the town of Ludwigshafen a road sign read “Drive carefully! Sharp curve! Jews 75 miles per hour.” By 1935 perhaps half of German Jews had lost their means of livelihood.
All this was evident everywhere one went in Germany, even in the most peaceful and pastoral of places. As the linden and birch trees fringing the Langer See at Grünau began to turn yellow and red that fall, men and women belonging to the area’s many rowing clubs continued to meet early in the mornings or on the weekends, sliding their shells out onto the clear blue lake water and rowing up and down the regatta course as they had done for decades. After a good row, they still gathered in local Gaststätten for beer and pretzels or sprawled on the lawns in front of the boathouses, keeping an eye on the progress of the new Olympic facilities under construction.
But beneath the surface, things had changed in Grünau. Much of the old conviviality of rowing was gone. The large Jewish Helvetia Rowing Club had already been banned outright in 1933. Now the many clubs with mixed Jewish and non-Jewish membership were threatened with dissolution if they did not purge their rolls. Some smaller, discreet, all-Jewish clubs continued to exist. But now that Jews were no longer citizens, these clubs and their members were subject to the whims of the local Nazi Party officials—they could be raided and closed down, their equipment confiscated, at any time.
Men who had rowed with one another for a lifetime had begun to turn their backs on their former crewmates and neighbors. Names had been scratched off lists. Forbidding signs had gone up over the doors of shell houses. Doors had been locked, keys changed. In the pretty countryside surrounding Grünau, large, comfortable houses belonging to Jewish merchants and professionals had been boarded up or rented out to German families for a fraction of their value, their owners among those who were wealthy enough and prescient enough to find a way out of Germany.
In the United States, talk of boycotting the 1936 Olympics had been simmering since the Nazis had come to power in 1933. Now, in parts of the country, it began to boil.
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In Seattle, Al Ulbrickson deferred the varsity turnout until October 21. He needed further time to study the pieces on the chessboard, to figure out a strategy for his Olympic endgame before he even began to move pieces around.
That gave Joe a few weeks in which to settle into his engineering classes and spend more time with Joyce when she could get a day or a half day off. On long, lazy weekend afternoons, afternoons when the air was translucent and still and full of the smell of burning leaves, they rented canoes again and paddled around in Portage Bay. They went to football games and the dances that always followed the games. They stopped by the house on Bagley when Harry and Thula were away, piled Joe’s half siblings into the Franklin, bought bologna and day-old bread and milk at a corner store, and had quick picnics at Green Lake. Then they rushed the kids back home before Harry and Thula could return. On crisp, black, starry nights they went downtown and window-shopped—peering into the window displays at the Bon Marché, and Frederick & Nelson, and Nordstrom’s Shoe Store—talking about their future wedding and the days to come when they would actually be able to shop at such places. On Sunday afternoons, when they could get into the theaters for fifteen cents, they went to the movies: Here Comes Cookie, with George Burns and Gracie Allen, at the Paramount; She Married Her Boss, with Claudette Colbert, at the Liberty; Top Hat, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, at the Orpheum.
When Joyce couldn’t get away, Joe spent much of his free time at the shell house. With the competition for seats still a few weeks off, the tensions of the year before had eased some, and he enjoyed hanging around with Johnny White, Chuck Day, Roger Morris, and Shorty Hunt. They did calisthenics together, tossed a football around, took shells out for impromptu rows, and did whatever they could to avoid talking about the upcoming season.
At the end of the day, after the others had drifted off to their homes or their part-time jobs, Joe often lingered at the shell house well into the evening, as he had the previous spring. On one of those evenings, he came out of the steam room wrapped in a towel and found the big, gangly number five man from last year’s jayvee boat, Stub McMillin, pushing a broom around and emptying trash cans. Joe realized that McMillin must have taken a job as the shell house janitor. With all the hard feelings between the two boats, Joe had never had much to do with McMillin, but now, watching him at work, he felt a surge of affinity for the boy. He sauntered over, stuck out his hand, struck up a conversation, and finally confided what he had long kept secret from the other fellows—that he himself worked a late-night shift as janitor at the YMCA.
Joe quickly found that he liked Stub McMillin a good deal. He’d grown up in Seattle, on Queen Anne Hill, and was nearly as poor as Joe. He was putting himself through college by working at anything and everything that came his way—mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, sweeping floors. When he wasn’t rowing, studying, or sleeping, he was working, and just barely keeping himself clothed and fed doing it. Joe found it comfortable to be around McMillin. He felt as if he could let his guard down a little when it came to talking about his own financial circumstances. Before long, Joe was staying late almost every day, pushing a broom alongside McMillin, helping him get through his work quickly so he could go home and study.
Sometimes, late in the day, instead of helping McMillin, Joe would climb the stairs at the back of the shell house and see if George Pocock had time for a chat. If the Englishman was still working, Joe would perch on a bench, his long legs bent in front of him, and just watch the Englishman, not saying much, studying the way the boatbuilder shaped the wood. If Pocock was done for the day, Joe would help him put tools and lumber away or sweep the sawdust and wood shavings from the floor for him. Pocock didn’t deliver any more long discourses on wood or rowing or life, as he had the first time they’d talked. Instead he seemed interested in learning more about Joe.
One afternoon he asked Joe how he came to be there, at the shell house. It was a big question asked in a small way, Joe realized. He answered hesitantly, cautiously, unused to unveiling himself. But Pocock persisted, gently and deftly probing him about his family, about where he’d come from and where he hoped to go. Joe talked in fits and starts, circling nervously around stories about his mother and father and Thula, about Spokane and the Gold and Ruby mine and Sequim. Pocock asked him about his likes and dislikes, the things that made him get up in the morning, the things he feared. Slowly he zeroed in on what he most wanted to know: “Why do you row?” “What do you hope to get out of it, Joe?” And the more he enticed Joe to talk, the more Pocock began to plumb the inner workings of this enigma of a boy.
It helped that Pocock’s own mother had died six months after his birth. His father’s second wife had died a few years later, before George’s remembering. He knew something about growing up in a motherless home, and about the hole it left in a boy’s heart. He knew about the ceaseless drive to make oneself whole, and about the endless yearning. Slowly he began to close in on the essence of Joe Rantz.
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When varsity turnout commenced on the afternoon of October 21, four boatloads of boys showed up, all veteran oarsmen. Right from the outset, the previous season’s rivalries and hard feelings and insecurities erupted again. A palpable tension filled the vast interior of the shell house as the oarsmen changed into their rowing togs. Ulbrickson made no effort to allay it.
There was no fiery speech this time. There was no need for it. Everyone knew exactly what the stakes were this year. He gathered all the boys on the ramp, straightened his tie, and made a series of flat pronouncements: Except for a period leading up to the Class Day Races in the spring, there wouldn’t necessarily be a sophomore or junior or senior boat this year, or any boats made up exclusively of men from any one class. He might sometimes race them in their old configurations, but for the most part he would mix and match to his heart’s content, experimenting until he found one boat that was clearly superior to the others. Until the ideal mix was found, it was going to be every man for himself. And right from the start they would row two-thousand-meter sprints as well as longer races. To win at Poughkeepsie and Berlin, he needed a boat that had both the speed for a sprint and the endurance for a four-mile slog—the improbable kind of boat that Ky Ebright had taken to Poughkeepsie and Long Beach the previous spring and would no doubt be back with next spring.
Ulbrickson had magical, almost alchemical, materials to work with—Tom Bolles’s outstanding freshman champions from last year, now sophomores; the boys in Joe’s boat, all juniors now and still undefeated; and some outstanding boys from last season’s JV boat, now a mix of juniors and seniors. And the ruminations that Ulbrickson had given the matter in September seemed to pay dividends right from the start. He had devoted a lot of thought to his initial boat assignments, and in the first few days of rowing two of the new crews seemed to show particular promise. The first was built largely around a core of last year’s freshmen: Don Hume, the big powerful stroke; Gordy Adam at number seven; William Seaman at number six; and Johnny White at number four. The only member of Joe’s old crew in that first boat was Shorty Hunt, at number two. The second boat that showed particular promise had three of Joe’s old crewmates: Bob Green at number six, Charles Hartman at number two, and Roger Morris in the bow. But Joe Rantz hadn’t made either of those boats. For the next few weeks, he bumped back and forth between two other boats, rowing hard but his spirits starting to flag again as he realized just how stiff the competition was going to be this year.
It wasn’t just the boat assignments that ate at Joe that fall, or the growing realization that getting to Berlin was going to be harder than anything he had ever done. Like most competitive rowers, he was drawn to difficult things. A good challenge had always interested him, appealed to him. That was, in many ways, why he rowed.
What was eating at him now wasn’t so much a fear of failing as a creeping sense of loss. He missed the low-key camaraderie that had grown among his sophomore classmates after two years of rowing—and winning—together. He missed Shorty Hunt sitting behind him, whispering, “Don’t worry, Joe. I’ve got your back,” whenever Ulbrickson barked at him. He missed the easy if largely wordless comradeship he’d had with gruff, sardonic old Roger Morris right from the first day of freshman turnout. He hadn’t really thought before about the fact that it mattered to him that those two fellows were in the boat with him, but it turned out that it did matter, a lot. It came now as a startling and painful realization that he’d had something and lost it without fully understanding that he’d had it in the first place. He had the same feeling every time he watched his new Grand Coulee buddy Johnny White and Shorty sweep by him in another boat, part of something else now, a crew of boys dead set on beating the boat in which Joe sat. When he was abandoned in Sequim, he promised himself he’d never depend on anyone else, not even on Joyce, for his happiness or his sense of who he was. He began to see that he’d allowed himself to do exactly that, with the usual painful results. He hadn’t expected it, hadn’t prepared for it, and now the ground seemed to be shifting under him in an unpredictable way.
Then, just a few days into the season, the ground under Joe positively lurched. On October 25, when he arrived back at the shell house after a long, cold, wet workout, his brother Fred was waiting for him, standing in the rain on the floating dock, peering grimly out from under the brim of his fedora, white faced. He’d gotten a call from Harry at the hospital, then gone by the house on Bagley to tell the kids. Thula was dead. Septicemia caused by an obstructed bowel.
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Joe was numb. He didn’t know what to think or to feel about Thula. Pathetic as it was, she had been the closest thing to a mother that he had known since he was three. There had been some good times back in Spokane when they had sat together on the swing out in the backyard in the sweet night air, when they had all gathered around the piano in the parlor to sing. Over the years he had pondered what he might have done to make things better between them later, when the trouble had started. How he might have tried harder to get along with her, to sympathize with her own cramped circumstances, maybe even to see at least some of what his father had seen in her. Now he would never have a chance to show her what he could become. But he also found that there were limits to his regret, and beyond a certain point he simply couldn’t feel much of anything for her. Mostly he worried about his father, and even more about his half siblings. If there was one thing Joe knew, it was what it was like for a child to be motherless.
The next morning Joe went by the house on Bagley. He rapped lightly on the front door. When no one answered his knock, Joe followed a brick path through some hydrangeas and around behind the house to try the back door. He found his father and the kids sitting at a picnic table on a soggy lawn. Harry was mixing up a pitcher of cherry Kool-Aid, the kids’ favorite. Without saying anything, Joe sat down at the table with them and scanned their faces. Rose and Polly were red about their eyes. So was Mike. Harry Junior had a distracted, weary look, as if he had not had much sleep. Joe’s father looked deeply hurt, and suddenly a good deal older.
Joe told his father how sorry he was. Harry thanked him, poured the Kool-Aid into Dixie cups, and sat down wearily.
They talked for a while about Thula’s life. Joe, conscious of the kids watching him over the rims of their Dixie cups, found himself elaborating on the things he remembered fondly. Harry began to talk about a trip they had recently taken to Medical Lake, but then choked up and had to stop. All in all, though, he seemed to Joe to be relatively composed for a man who had now twice lost a young wife. He showed no inclination to run away to Canada or anyplace else this time. Instead he seemed to be working on some kind of inner resolve.
Finally he turned to Joe and said, “Son, I’ve got a plan. I’m going to build a house where we can all live together. As soon as it’s done, I want you to come home.”
At this last pronouncement, Joe sat at the table staring at his father as if struck dumb. He did not know what to make of it, did not know if he could trust the man. He stammered out a noncommittal answer. He and his father talked some more about Thula. Joe told the kids that he would be coming by to keep them company from now on. But he drove back to the YMCA that night not sure what to do, confusion morphing into resentment, resentment merging into silent anger, and anger giving way again to confusion, all of it washing over him in waves.
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If Joe was emotionally numb on the inside, he was physically numb on the outside. For a third consecutive year, unusually cold and stormy weather descended on Seattle shortly after crew practice got under way. On October 29 fifty-mile-per-hour gale winds raked the outer coast of Washington; thirty-mile-per-hour winds tossed boats about on Lake Washington. That night the mercury plummeted into the twenties and a heavy snow began to fall. Nine houses in Seattle burned down as a result of chimneys clogged by snow. For the next seven days, each day was colder than the one before.
Al Ulbrickson sent his four potential varsity boats out onto Lake Washington nonetheless. This was serious cold-weather rowing. The boys rowed with white knuckles and chattering teeth, their hands so cold they could hardly feel the oars, their feet throbbing with pain. Icicles dangled from the bow, the stern, and the riggers that held the oarlocks. Layer upon layer of clear, hard ice grew on the shafts of the oars themselves as they dipped in and out of the water, weighing them down. Lumps of ice formed wherever water splashed on the boys’ sweatshirts and the stocking hats they wore pulled down over their ears.
They practiced rowing from half-slide and quarter-slide positions. They sprinted one day and rowed long, punishing ten- or twelve-mile marathons the next. Ulbrickson seemed oblivious to the cold. He followed them up and down the lake in his launch, wrapped in an overcoat and muffler, bellowing at them through his megaphone. When they finally stopped rowing in the iron-cold dark of late afternoon and returned to the dock, they had to chip ice off the oarlocks to get the oars out. Then, with their shells inverted over their heads, the icicles on the riggers standing oddly upright, their leg and arm muscles cramping in the cold air, they slid and slipped along the ice-slick dock and hobbled up the ramp to the shell house. Inside, they stretched out on benches and yelped in pain as they tried to regain the use of their limbs in the steam room.
By mid-November the weather had moderated, which is to say that it had become cold and rainy as it always is in Seattle in November. To the boys, it felt almost tropical compared with what they had just been through. Ulbrickson announced that he would wrap up fall training on November 25 with a two-thousand-meter competition under full racing conditions. The results would let everyone know where they stood going into the longer, harder push after the Christmas break.
On the twenty-fifth, another cold snap arrived. Ulbrickson told the coxswains of all four boats to go no higher than a beat of twenty-six. He wanted to see where the power lay, and a lower stroke was likely to reveal that. The results pleased Ulbrickson a good deal. He was, by his standards, buoyant when he met with reporters after the event. “We have,” he said, “a stronger lineup than in the spring of 1935, and we figure to have three good fast boats in contention in January.” The same boat that had been dominant all fall—the boat built around four of last year’s freshmen—had won by an impressive three lengths in a time of 6:43. That was well off what he would consider a fast two thousand meters, but for low-stroke work the time was good. In second place was the boat that had been second best all fall—the boat with big Stub McMillin in the middle and Roger Morris in the bow. Joe’s boat came in third.
Joe had been struggling with his rowing for weeks, especially since Thula had died. Then he got a letter from Sequim. Charlie McDonald was dead too, killed in an automobile crash on Highway 101. It was a stunning blow. Charlie had been an adviser and a teacher, the one adult who had stood by him and given him a chance when no one else had. Now he was gone, and Joe found himself unable to focus on anything other than the losses back home.
As the fall season wound down, his mind was almost never in the boat, and it showed in his rowing. He took some consolation from the fact that Ulbrickson had told the press that the third boat was still in contention. But he could not help but wonder whether Ulbrickson really meant it. As far as Joe could tell, nobody in the coaching launch was even watching him anymore.
But, in fact, someone was watching him very closely. Joe had noticed that George Pocock had been riding along in the coaching launch frequently that fall, but he hadn’t noticed where Pocock had been training his binoculars.
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On December 2, a little more than a month after Thula died, Harry Rantz put some money down on a two-thousand-dollar piece of lakefront property right next door to the house in which Fred and Thelma lived, near the north end of Lake Washington. Then he got out a pencil and paper and set about designing a new house—a house he would again build with his own hands, and in which he would finally reunite Joe with his family.
A few days later, on December 8, at the Commodore Hotel in New York, the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States voted on a resolution to send a three-man committee to Germany to investigate claims of Nazi maltreatment of Jews there. When all the votes—including fractional votes—had been tallied, the resolution had failed, 58.25 to 55.75. And with that—after several years of struggle—the last serious American effort to boycott the Berlin Olympics was effectively dead. In many ways it was a victory for the thousands of young Americans who were then competing for a chance to participate in the Olympics. It was also a victory for Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, and his allies who had fought tooth and nail to ensure that there was no boycott. Most of all it was a victory for Adolf Hitler, who was rapidly learning just how ready the world was to be deceived.
As recently as late November, the boycott movement had been very much alive. On November 21 ten thousand anti-Nazi demonstrators under police escort had marched peacefully through New York rush-hour traffic. Carrying placards and following a banner reading “The Anti-Nazi Federation Calls on All Americans to Boycott the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany,” the marchers had moved somberly down Eighth Avenue and then east on Twenty-Third Street to mass in Madison Square Park. There the crowd—mostly concerned Jews, labor leaders, university professors, and Catholics—had listened to more than twenty speakers detailing what was happening in Germany, how the Nazis were concealing it, and why it would be unconscionable for the United States to participate in the games.
Avery Brundage and his allies on the AOC had fought back vehemently. Brundage believed strongly in the Olympic spirit, and particularly in the principle that politics should play no role in sports. He argued, reasonably, that it would be unfair to American athletes to let German politics deprive them of their chance to compete on a world stage. But as the situation in Germany darkened and the fight over a possible boycott intensified, many of his arguments began to take a different turn. In September of 1934, Brundage had toured Germany. He had been given a quick and closely supervised tour of German athletic facilities and been assured by his Nazi handlers that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly. He had returned to the United States reporting confidently and loudly that the Jewish outcry was much ado about nothing.
The Nazis had not had to work very hard at deceiving Brundage, though. The fact was that Brundage’s views—like those of many Americans of his class—appear to have been tainted by his own anti-Semitic prejudices. He had written, in chilling terms in 1929, about the probable coming of a master race, “a race physically strong, mentally alert and morally sound; a race not to be imposed upon.” Now, in fighting the boycott movement, he advanced a number of disturbing arguments. He pointed out that Jews were not admitted to the clubs he belonged to either, as if one wrong justified another. Like the Nazis, he consistently lumped Jews and communists together, and frequently threw all supporters of the boycott movement into the same general category. He and his allies, even speaking publicly, regularly drew a distinction between “Americans” and Jews, as if the two could not be one and the same. Perhaps the most important of those allies, Charles H. Sherrill, formerly U.S. ambassador to Turkey, had often proclaimed himself a friend to American Jews. But like Brundage he had recently toured Germany. He had, in fact, attended the Nuremberg Rally of 1935 as Hitler’s personal guest. There, and in a private meeting with Hitler, he had been mesmerized, as many visiting Americans were, by Hitler’s force of personality and by his undeniable accomplishments in resurrecting Germany’s economy. Returning home with the same empty assurances as Brundage, Sherrill began to systematically deny the increasingly obvious evidence of what was happening to Jews in Germany. He also took to mixing threats into his “pro-Jewish” remarks: “I shall go right on being pro-Jewish, and for that reason I have a warning for American Jewry. There is a great danger in this Olympic agitation… . We are almost certain to have a wave of anti-Semitism among those who never before gave it a thought and who may consider that 5,000,000 Jews in this country are using 120,000,000 Americans to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.” It was Brundage himself, however, who came up with perhaps the most twisted bit of logic to advance the antiboycott cause: “The sportsmen of this country will not tolerate the use of clean American sport as a vehicle to transplant Old World hatreds to the United States.” The trouble—the “Old World hatreds”—in other words, came not from the Nazis but from the Jews and their allies who dared to speak out against what was happening in Germany. By late 1935, deliberately or not, Brundage had crossed the line between deceived and deceiver.
Nevertheless, the issue was settled. America was going to the Berlin Olympics. What remained was to select the athletes worthy of carrying the American flag into the heart of the Nazi state.