The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part IV. Touching the Divine 1936
The 1936 varsity crew
Left to right: Don Hume, Joe Rantz, Shorty Hunt, Stub McMillin, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Chuck Day, Roger Morris. Kneeling: Bobby Moch
When you get the rhythm in an eight, it’s pure pleasure to be in it. It’s not hard work when the rhythm comes—that “swing” as they call it. I’ve heard men shriek out with delight when that swing came in an eight; it’s a thing they’ll never forget as long as they live.
—George Yeoman Pocock
On the evening of January 9, Al Ulbrickson gathered the boys at the shell house and issued a stark warning: anyone who showed up for varsity turnout the following Monday, he said, “must be ready to take part in Washington’s greatest and most grueling crew season.” After months of talking about the Olympic year, it was finally here. Ulbrickson didn’t want anyone to underestimate the stakes or the brutal price of participation.
When Joe reported to the shell house that Monday and glanced at the chalkboard, he was surprised to find that his name was listed among those in the number one varsity boat, as were Shorty Hunt’s and Roger Morris’s. After rowing in the number three and four shells all fall, Joe couldn’t fathom why he had suddenly been promoted. As it turned out, it wasn’t really much of a promotion. Ulbrickson had partially reconstituted some of the old boat assignments from 1935, purely on a temporary basis. He wanted to spend the first few weeks working on fundamentals. “As a general rule,” he said, “men are in a more receptive mood for pointers when working with familiar teammates.” As soon as they started rowing at a racing beat, though, he would bust the boatings up, and it would once again be every man for himself. The boat assignments really didn’t amount to a hill of beans for now.
And so they all took to the water again. Through the rest of January and into February, rowing six days a week now, rowing from quarter slides and half slides, taking shorter strokes to focus on technique. They practiced racing starts. They worked on individual weaknesses. Every few days snow flurries descended on Lake Washington. When it wasn’t snowing, it was clear, bitter cold, and windy. They rowed anyway, some of them attired in ragged sweat suits, some, incongruously, in shorts and stocking caps. Universal Pictures came and shot newsreel footage of them, just in case it was needed for the Olympics. Occasionally they staged short races against one another. The nominal first boat, Joe’s, kept coming in third. The third boat kept coming in first. Ulbrickson noted that the boys in Joe’s boat would get going, then lose their swing, then regain it, then lose it again, as many as three times in a single race. Their catching was the worst of the top three boats.
One gray day in February, Ulbrickson was out in the launch, struggling to correct the problems in boat number one and growing frustrated with the effort, when he noticed George Pocock sculling by himself in the distance. He hollered, “Way enough!” at the boys and slipped the launch into idle, still watching Pocock.
The boys noticed Ulbrickson’s faraway stare and turned in their seats to see what he was looking at. Pocock was ghosting over the water as if effortlessly, his boat ethereal looking in a light mist that had settled on the water. His lean, upright body slid forward and backward in the boat fluidly, without hesitation or check. His oars entered and left the water noiselessly, broad, smooth puddles blooming in the dark water alongside his boat.
Ulbrickson grabbed his megaphone, motioned the boatbuilder over to the shell, and said, “George, tell them what I’m trying to teach them. Tell them what we try to accomplish around here.” Pocock circled the shell slowly in his own boat, talking softly to each boy in turn, leaning ever so slightly toward the long cedar shell. Then he waved at Ulbrickson and rowed away. No more than three minutes had passed.
When Ulbrickson barked, “Row!” the boys pulled their shell smartly ahead, their catching and their rowing suddenly crisp and clean. From that point on, George Pocock rode along in the coaching launch most days, bundled up in an overcoat and neck scarf, a fedora pulled down over his ears, taking notes, pointing things out to Ulbrickson.
In general Ulbrickson was pleased. Despite the difficult weather and the erratic performance of boat number one, things were progressing very well; the time trials were promising for so early in the season. With the infusion of new blood from the previous year’s exceptional freshman boat, he was again faced with the dilemma of having almost too much talent out on the water. It made it hard sometimes to separate good from great, great from greater. Nevertheless by late February he was starting to form solid ideas about what a first varsity boat—a boat for Berlin—would look like, though he wasn’t ready to talk to the press or to the boys themselves about it. As long as they were competing with one another on even terms, they were likely to keep improving. At least one thing was obvious, though. If a Washington boat did go on to ply the waters of the Langer See in Berlin later that year, Bobby Moch was going to be sitting in the stern with a megaphone strapped to his face.
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At five foot seven and 119 pounds, Moch was almost the perfect size for a coxswain. George Pocock, in fact, designed his shells to perform optimally with a 120-pound coxswain. Even less weight was generally desirable, but only provided that the man had the strength to steer the boat. Like jockeys, coxswains often went to extraordinary lengths to keep their weight down—they starved themselves, they purged, they exercised compulsively, they spent long hours in the steam room trying to sweat off an extra pound or two. Sometimes oarsmen who thought their cox was weighing them down took matters into their own hands and locked their diminutive captains in the steam room for a few hours. “Typical coxswain abuse,” one Washington cox later said, laughing. In Bobby Moch’s case, staying small had never been much of a problem. And at any rate, even if he had carried an extra pound here or there, the roughly three pounds devoted to his brain would have more than made up for it.
The first task of a coxswain is to steer the shell on a straight course for the duration of a race. In a Pocock shell in the 1930s, the cox controlled the rudder by pulling a pair of ropes in the stern, at the end of which were a pair of wooden dowels, called “knockers” because they were sometimes used to raise the stroke rate by beating them on an ironbark “knocker-board” fastened to the side of the boat. When eight very large men are in constant motion in a twenty-four-inch-wide vessel and the wind is blowing and the tide or current is relentlessly trying to push them off course, steering is no small challenge. But it’s the least of what a coxswain must worry about.
From the moment the shell is launched, the coxswain is the captain of the boat. He or she must exert control, both physical and psychological, over everything that goes on in the shell. Good coxes know their oarsmen inside and out—their individual strengths and vulnerabilities—and they know how to get the most out of each man at any given moment. They have the force of character to inspire exhausted rowers to dig deeper and try harder, even when all seems lost. They have an encyclopedic understanding of their opponents: how they like to race, when they are likely to start sprinting, when they like to lie in wait. Before a regatta, the cox receives a race plan from the coach, and he or she is responsible for carrying it out faithfully. But in a situation as fluid and dynamic as a crew race, circumstances often change abruptly and race plans must be thrown overboard. The cox is the only person in the shell who is facing forward and can see how the field is shaping up throughout a race, and he or she must be prepared to react quickly to unforeseen developments. When a race plan is failing to yield results, it is up to the cox to come up with a new one, often in a split second, and to communicate it quickly and forcefully to the crew. Often this involves a lot of shouting and a lot of emotion. In Cal’s Olympic gold medal race in Amsterdam in 1928, Don Blessing put on what the New York Times called “one of the greatest performances of demonical howling ever heard on a terrestrial planet… . But such language and what a vocabulary! One closed one’s eyes and waited for the crack of a final cruel whip across the backs of the galley slaves.” In short, a good coxswain is a quarterback, a cheerleader, and a coach all in one. He or she is a deep thinker, canny like a fox, inspirational, and in many cases the toughest person in the boat.
Little Bobby Moch was all of that and more. He had grown up in Montesano, a foggy little logging town on the Chehalis River in southwestern Washington. It was a wet, dusky world; a world dominated by big trees, big trucks, and big men. Massive Douglas firs and cedars grew in the misty hills outside town. Ponderous logging trucks rumbled through town on Highway 41 night and day on their way to the mills in Aberdeen. Beefy lumberjacks in thick flannel shirts and hobnailed boots strutted up and down the main street, shot pool at the Star Pool Hall on Saturday nights, and sat in the Montesano Cafe drinking coffee by the gallon on Sunday mornings.
Bobby’s father, Gaston—a Swiss watchmaker and jeweler—was not a large man. But he was a prominent member of the citizenry, a proud member of the all-volunteer fire department, and was celebrated for having driven the first automobile twelve miles from Aberdeen to Montesano, a journey that he had accomplished in a jaw-dropping hour and a half. When Bobby was five, a botched operation on his appendix nearly killed him. The recovery left him short, skinny, and sickly—afflicted with severe asthma—throughout his grade-school years and beyond. Determined not to let his frailty and his stature stand in his way, in high school he went out for every sport he could think of, mastering none but playing all of them tenaciously. When he couldn’t make it onto the school football team, he and other boys who weren’t large enough to make the cut gathered on a vacant lot just down Broad Street from his home, playing rough-and-tumble scrub football without benefit of helmets or pads. The smallest of the small boys on the lot, Bobby was always chosen last, and though he spent much of each game with his face planted in the dirt, he later credited the experience for much of his subsequent success in life. “It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down,” he told his daughter, Marilynn. “What matters is how many times you get up.” In his senior year in high school, by sheer force of will, he lettered in—of all things—basketball. And the three pounds of gray matter he carried around in his skull served him well in the classroom. He wound up at the top of his class, honored as Montesano High’s class valedictorian in 1932.
When he enrolled at the University of Washington, he set his sights on coxing. As with everything else he attempted, he had to fight tooth and nail to win a seat in the stern of one of Al Ulbrickson’s boats. But once he was in that seat, his tenacity quickly made a believer out of Al Ulbrickson. Like everyone else in the shell house, Ulbrickson soon discovered that the only time Moch didn’t seem entirely happy and comfortable in the coxswain’s seat was when he was in the lead. As long as he could see another boat out ahead of him, as long as he had something to overcome, someone to beat, the boy was on fire. By 1935 Moch wielded the megaphone in the JV boat that contended with Joe and the other sophomores for varsity status that season. He wasn’t a popular choice. He had displaced a well-regarded boy his new crewmates had been rowing with for two years, and they initially refused to give Moch the respect a coxswain absolutely depends on. That just made Moch push them harder. “That was a tough year. I wasn’t liked at all,” he later said. “I demanded they do better, so I made a lot of enemies.” Moch drove those boys like Simon Legree with a whip. He had a deep baritone voice that was surprising in a man so small, and he used it to good effect, bellowing out commands with absolute authority. But he was also canny enough to know when to let up on the crew, when to flatter them, when to implore them, when to joke around with them. Slowly he won his new crewmates over.
The bottom line was that Bobby Moch was smart and he knew how to use his smarts. In fact, by the end of the 1936 season he’d have a Phi Beta Kappa key of his own to twirl on his finger, just like Al Ulbrickson.
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In late February, as he sorted through the boys, Ulbrickson began attaching more significance to which boats he labeled number one, number two, and number three. Joe had dropped from the number one to the number two boat. On February 20, rowing hard in a heavy snow and a steady east wind, number two and number one came in about even. Joe’s hopes rose. But a week later Ulbrickson moved him down to the number three boat.
The weather continued to be atrocious. Mostly the boys rowed anyway. Cold, rain, sleet, hail, and snow they simply ignored. But there were days when the wind ripped up the surface of Lake Washington so badly that nobody could row on it without being swamped. Despite the weather, the time trials turned in by the top boats were still good, but they weren’t improving as rapidly as Ulbrickson had been hoping for at this point. He hadn’t yet found a boat that would walk away from the others. And with all the cold-weather rowing interspersed with days when they couldn’t row at all, the boys’ morale began to erode. “Too many gripers,” Ulbrickson scrawled in the logbook on February 29.
One exceptionally stormy afternoon in early March, when the boys were lounging morosely about the shell house, George Pocock tapped Joe on the shoulder and asked him to come up into the loft. He had a few thoughts he wanted to share with him. In the shop Pocock leaned over one side of a new shell and began to apply varnish to its upturned hull. Joe pulled a sawhorse to the other side of the shell and sat down on it, facing the older man.
Pocock began by saying he’d been watching Joe row for a while now, that he was a fine oarsman. He’d noted a few technical faults—that Joe was breaking his arms at the elbows a little too early in the stroke and not catching the water as cleanly as he would if he kept his hands moving at the same speed that the water was moving under the boat. But that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about.
He told Joe that there were times when he seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat, as if it was up to him to row the boat across the finish line all by himself. When a man rowed like that, he said, he was bound to attack the water rather than to work with it, and worse, he was bound not to let his crew help him row.
He suggested that Joe think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined. That’s the way it was with rowing. What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew. It wasn’t just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to, even if it meant getting his feelings hurt.
Pocock paused and looked up at Joe. “If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do.”
He told Joe to be careful not to miss his chance. He reminded him that he’d already learned to row past pain, past exhaustion, past the voice that told him it couldn’t be done. That meant he had an opportunity to do things most men would never have a chance to do. And he concluded with a remark that Joe would never forget. “Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.”
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The next day was a Sunday, and as he had every weekend for weeks, Joe took Joyce and drove over to the lot on Lake Washington where his father was building his new house. The basement portion was nearly complete, and with the upstairs portion under way Harry had moved into the basement with his children. It was more like a cave than a house, with one large garage-style door for an entrance and only one small window facing the lake. But Harry had lugged in a woodstove, and it was at least warm and dry inside.
Joe and his father spent the morning hauling lumber from the road down to the construction site in a driving rain, then hoisting it up to the level of what would become the main floor of the house. Joyce entertained the kids inside, playing card games and making fudge and cocoa on the woodstove. She and Joe were worried about all four of them—they were still having a hard time adjusting to the loss of their mother. With Harry working on the house full-time, they weren’t receiving much in the way of attention. They were frequently assaulted by terrifying dreams, Rose and Polly often cried when left alone, and although they had all remained in school, their grades were suffering. Joe had promised each of them a dime for every A they brought home. Now Joyce was trying to think of motherly things she could do with them.
Joe at Harry’s new house on Lake Washington
Playing mother to Thula’s children was easy and natural to Joyce in almost all regards. She saw grief-stricken children in desperate need, and every instinct within her impelled her to sweep them into her arms and nurture them. That’s what she had done from the first time she had seen them after Thula’s death. The resentment and anger she still felt toward Thula she kept locked away deep down inside, safely out of view of the children. What was harder for Joyce, though, was to know what to do and what to feel about Joe’s father. They got along well enough on the surface. Harry treated her pleasantly, even warmly, and she tried to reciprocate. But inside, Joyce still seethed. She could not forget or forgive Harry for his failure to stand behind Joe for all those years, for his weakness, for letting Thula cast Joe aside as if he were nothing more than a stray dog. And the more she brooded on it the more it made her angry.
By late that afternoon, Joe and his father had moved all the lumber into position, and with the rain falling harder than ever, Harry started to retreat into the house. Joe shouted after him, “I’ll be inside soon, Pop,” and walked out onto the dock at Fred’s house next door, looking out over the heaving gray-and-white folds of the lake, pondering the near future.
The finish line for the Pacific Coast Regatta in April was a little less than a mile up the lake from there. Would he be in the varsity boat when it passed this dock? He figured he probably wouldn’t. Gusts of wind buffeted him; rainwater poured down his face. He didn’t care. He stared at the water, pondering what Pocock had imparted the day before, running the boatbuilder’s words over in his mind.
For Joe, who had spent the last six years doggedly making his own way in the world, who had forged his identity on stoic self-reliance, nothing was more frightening than allowing himself to depend on others. People let you down. People leave you behind. Depending on people, trusting them—it’s what gets you hurt. But trust seemed to be at the heart of what Pocock was asking. Harmonize with the other fellows, Pocock said. There was a kind of absolute truth in that, something he needed to come to terms with.
He stood on the dock for a long time, gazing at the lake, oblivious to the rain, thoughts assembling themselves, connecting with other thoughts and drawing together in new ways. Harmony was something he understood as a musician. He and Harry Secor had worked together to stalk the giant chinook salmon of the Dungeness River. He had watched and marveled at Charlie McDonald’s horses, Fritz and Dick, squatting and pulling together, moving enormous cottonwood trees as if they were matchsticks, the animals heaving and pulling in unison, like one creature. Charlie had told him that they would pull until their harnesses broke or their hearts burst. On the cliff face of the Grand Coulee, Joe and the men he had worked with had looked out for each other as they dodged rocks falling from above. In the evenings and on weekends, he and Johnny White and Chuck Day prowled B Street together, seeking adventure instead of advantage over one another.
Joe turned and peered through a curtain of rain at the house his father was building. Just behind the house, a freight train lumbered past on the railroad tracks that the observation train would follow during the California race. Inside, the kids and Joyce and his father were all under one roof, sitting in front of the fire right now, waiting for him to come in out of the rain. And as he stood in the rain, Joe’s feelings began to shift—moving around like notes on a musical staff, bits and pieces of new themes starting to fall into place.
When he returned to the warm cave his father had constructed, Joe toweled his hair dry, unpacked his banjo, and pulled a chair up in front of the woodstove. He gathered the kids around him. He tuned the banjo carefully, fiddling with knobs and plucking at steel strings. Then he cleared his throat, cracked open a big white smile, and began to sing. One by one, the kids and Joyce and Harry all joined in.
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By March 19, Al Ulbrickson figured he had found his best bet for an Olympic boat. He still had it pegged as the second boat on his chalkboard, but the boys in it were beginning to edge the first boat consistently, and Ulbrickson was quietly putting his final selections into this boat.
At bow he had Roger Morris. At number two, Chuck Day. At number three was one of Tom Bolles’s freshmen from the previous year, Gordy Adam, the dairy-farm kid from up on the Nooksack River near the Canadian border. Gordy had attended a two-room country schoolhouse, then Mount Baker High in the small town of Deming. Then he’d spent five brutal months fishing for salmon on the Bering Sea, up in Alaska, to put together enough money to start at the university. He was a quiet young man. So quiet that in the previous year’s race against California he’d rowed the whole two miles with his thumb cut to the bone and never mentioned it to anyone. In honor of that, Royal Brougham had begun to refer to him now as Gordy “Courage” Adam.
At number four Ulbrickson had lithe, good-looking Johnny White. Big, rangy Stub McMillin was at number five. Shorty Hunt was at number six. At number seven was another of Tom Bolles’s former freshmen, Merton Hatch. At the stroke position was a fourth member of last year’s freshman crew: poker-faced Don Hume.
It was an unusual move to put a nineteen-year-old sophomore at the critical stroke position, but Hume had proven so sensational as a freshman that many were already saying he might turn out to be Washington’s best stroke since Ulbrickson himself had rowed at that position, maybe even better. He hailed from Anacortes, then a gritty lumber and fish-canning port fifty miles north of Seattle. In high school he’d been the consummate all-around athlete—a star in football, basketball, and track—and an honor student. He was also an accomplished pianist, a devotee of Fats Waller, and capable of pulling off anything from swing tunes to Mendelssohn. When he sat down at a piano, he always drew a crowd. After the crash, his father lost his job at a pulp mill and moved to Olympia in search of work. Don stayed behind in Anacortes, lodging with family friends and eventually finding work in a lumber mill.
Walking the cobbled beach on the channel between Anacortes and Guemes Island one day, he came across an abandoned and dilapidated thirteen-foot clinker-built rowboat. He refurbished it, took it down to the water, and discovered that he loved rowing. Loved it, in fact, more than anything he had ever done. For a year following his graduation from high school, he rowed obsessively—up and down the channel on foggy days and on long voyages out among the San Juan Islands on sunny days. When the job at the lumber mill gave out and he decided to join his parents in Olympia, he rowed all the way there—a six-day voyage that covered nearly a hundred miles of water. That fall he moved to Seattle, registered as a geology major at the university, and then made a beeline for the shell house, where Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson quickly discovered that they had an extraordinary athlete on their hands.
Hume pulled as smooth as silk, and with the precise, mechanical regularity of a metronome. He seemed to have an innate, deep-seated sense of rhythm. But more than that, his mastery of his oar, his steady reliability, and his rock-solid sureness were so apparent that every other boy in the boat could sense them immediately and thus easily fall into synch with Hume regardless of water conditions or the state of a race. He was key.
In the stern of Ulbrickson’s star boat, wearing the megaphone, was, inevitably, Bobby Moch.
Joe was in the third boat. And it looked as if he’d be staying there. So far he hadn’t even made the presumed JV boat, and so it looked as if he would not be rowing in the Cal race or beyond. But then, on March 21, he walked into the shell house and found his name on the chalkboard, sitting at seat number seven in boat number two, the boat everyone was talking about as the best bet for the varsity slot. He couldn’t believe it. He didn’t know if Pocock had talked to Ulbrickson, or if Merton Hatch had simply messed up in some spectacular way, or if Ulbrickson simply needed someone else at number seven for the day. Whatever the reason, this was his chance.
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Joe knew what he had to do, and he found doing it surprisingly easy. From the moment he stepped into the shell that afternoon, he felt at home. He liked these boys. He didn’t know Gordy Adam and Don Hume well, but both made a point of welcoming him aboard. His oldest, most reliable shell house friend, Roger Morris, sitting up front in the bow, gave him a wave and shouted the length of the boat, “Hey, Joe, I see you finally found the right boat!” His buddies from Grand Coulee, Chuck Day and Johnny White, were sitting up near the front too. As he strapped his shoes to the footboard and began to lace his feet into the shoes, Stub McMillin, his face alight, said, “OK, this boat is going to fly now, boys.” Shorty Hunt slapped him on the back and whispered, “Got your back, Joe.”
Joe rowed that day as he had never been able to row before—as Pocock had told him to row, giving himself up to the crew’s effort entirely, rowing as if he were an extension of the man in front of him and the man behind him, following Hume’s stroke flawlessly, transmitting it back to Shorty behind him in one continuous flow of muscle and wood. It felt to Joe like a transformation, as if some kind of magic had come over him. The nearest thing to it he could remember was the night as a freshman when he had found himself out on Lake Union with the lights of Seattle twinkling on the water and the breaths of his crewmates synchronized with his in white plumes in the dark, cold air. Now, as he climbed out of the boat in the twilight, he realized that the transformation wasn’t so much that he was trying to do what Pocock had said as that this was a bunch of boys with whom he could do it. He just trusted them. In the end, it was that simple. Ulbrickson wrote in the logbook, “Changed Rantz and Hatch and it helped a lot.”
That turned out to be an understatement of considerable magnitude. It was the last change Ulbrickson had to make. Over the next few days, the boat began to fly, just as Stub McMillin had said it would.
On March 22 it led all the other boats from start to finish. On March 23 it won by an astonishing seven lengths in one race and a commanding three or four in a second. On the morning of March 27, in a heavy late spring snowstorm, it came in three lengths ahead. That afternoon, rowing a two-thousand-meter sprint, Don Hume took the stroke rate up to a punishing forty, the boys fell in behind him flawlessly, and the boat flashed across the finish line well ahead of the others again. On March 28, with light snow still falling, Ulbrickson officially elevated the boat to varsity status. He wouldn’t announce it to the press for a few more days, but the man had made the decision of his career. This was the crew with which he would attempt to go to the Berlin Olympics.
That afternoon George Pocock personally christened the new shell in which the boys would row in the trials. As Joe and his crewmates held the shell aloft, Pocock poured a jarful of mysterious fluid over its bow and pronounced, “I christen this boat Husky Clipper. May it have success in all the waters it speeds over. Especially in Berlin.” As the boys began to carry the boat down the ramp to the water, some of them crinkled their noses, trying to make out the odd scent of the fluid on the bow. Pocock chuckled. “Sauerkraut juice. To get it used to Germany.” He grinned.
On April 4, Ulbrickson held one final three-mile time trial before officially announcing the boatings for the Pacific Coast Regatta. Two miles into the trial, Bobby Moch kicked the beat up to thirty-two and settled in there. The three-mile course record was then 16:33.4, set by the Washington varsity that Joe had watched from the ferry in 1934. Now Joe and his crewmates came in at 16:20, and they did it sitting upright at the end of the race, breathing easy, feeling good. Every time they climbed into the Husky Clipper together, they just seemed to get better.
There was a straightforward reason for what was happening. The boys in the Clipper had been winnowed down by punishing competition, and in the winnowing a kind of common character had issued forth: they were all skilled, they were all tough, they were all fiercely determined, but they were also all good-hearted. Every one of them had come from humble origins or been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up. Each in his own way, they had all learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life, that for all their strength and good looks and youth, forces were at work in the world that were greater than they. The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility—the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole—and humility was the common gateway through which they were able now to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before.
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But before the Olympic trials at Princeton, Al Ulbrickson faced another daunting series of challenges: First the Pacific Coast Regatta with California on Lake Washington. Win all three races there and, Ulbrickson figured, he might just convince the people of Seattle to again finance sending all three boats to Poughkeepsie for the national championships in June. Then—win or lose in Poughkeepsie—he would take the varsity to Princeton in July. Prevail there and it would mean a trip to Berlin, another qualifying race or two, and finally the gold medal race against the best crews in the world. It was a tall order, but every time Al Ulbrickson watched his new varsity crew take to the water his confidence that he could pull it off grew.
In Berkeley, Ky Ebright was, if anything, probably even more confident than Al Ulbrickson, both about the upcoming regatta in Seattle and about his Olympic prospects. He had almost certainly read about the 16:20 three-mile time trial Ulbrickson’s varsity had turned in, but the news couldn’t have fazed him. His boys had already turned in a stunning three-mile time of 15:34 on the estuary. The shell had been running with the tide, but, still, the difference was nearly a minute. On April 8 he ran another time trial in slack water. His varsity came in at 16:15, still five seconds better than Ulbrickson’s crew. Guarding against complacency, Ebright allowed himself, when his crew reached the dock, only a gruff “You looked good out there for a change.” The fact of the matter, though, was that Ebright had every reason to feel good about how things were shaping up for 1936, and he hadn’t seen anything coming out of Seattle that would change his mind.
He wasn’t taking any chances, though. In fact he was throwing everything he had into starting the Olympic year off right by beating Washington in Seattle. He’d begun the season by writing the names of each of his oarsmen on scraps of paper and throwing them into a hat—the Poughkeepsie champions right along with all the other sophomore, junior, and senior contenders. Then he’d pulled names out one at a time to determine his initial boatings. The point was that none of his boys could rely on past performance to gain a seat in the varsity boat. Each of them would have to earn it all over again.
Things had shaped up nicely since then. The endless California sun had allowed him to work his boys at his own pace, culminating in a series of three-mile pulls on the estuary that had left them well conditioned and in top form. When he’d tried them at the shorter distance, they’d done just as well. Given that, and his shellacking of Washington in both Poughkeepsie and Long Beach the previous summer, he figured he was well positioned to take the longer races at Washington and Poughkeepsie and then move on to dominate the shorter races at the Olympic trials and Berlin.
In the last few weeks, he’d reinstituted a tradition he’d employed before big races since his 1932 Olympic triumph—the varsity training table. Any boy who had worked his way into the top two varsity boats was entitled to sit down with his crewmates for a free diner at Stephens Union on the Berkeley campus. Given the hard times, it gave his boys a powerful incentive to make it into one of those top boats. It also gave Ebright the ability to control the nutritional value of what his boys were tucking into. The training-table fare was hearty—rich in protein and calcium in particular. Most nights that meant a large, juicy steak and as much milk as a boy could drink.
There was no budget for a training table in Seattle. But Al Ulbrickson was just as concerned as Ebright that his boys be well nourished going into racing season. Ulbrickson’s prescription was considerably less enjoyable than a steak. Every afternoon the Washington boys were compelled to choke down first a glass of a chalky-tasting pink calcium solution, then a glass of Knox Sparkling Gelatine. The gelatin sometimes proved tricky, depending on how and when it had been mixed. A fellow had to get it down his gullet quickly before it began to solidify, or he would gag on it. Later that year, after reading an article about Ulbrickson’s nutritional regimen, and contemplating his boys’ success, a horse trainer named Tom Smith would go in search of hay with a high calcium content for a racehorse named Seabiscuit.
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Ky Ebright and his boys arrived in Seattle late on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 14, and checked into the Edmond Meany Hotel. Earlier in the day, Ulbrickson had sent his boys out in water so rough that they had not rowed in its like since the day in 1932 when Cal had defeated Washington by eighteen lengths and Washington had barely made it across the finish line before sinking.
But when the Cal boys showed up at the Montlake Cut on Wednesday morning, the sun was out in full force and the water was glass smooth. As they carried their shells down the ramp to the water, the national champion California boys were an intimidating sight. Seattle reporters marveled at how sun-bronzed they looked when seen side by side with the pallid boys from Washington. And if any of the writers assembled on the ramp that day harbored any doubt that Ky Ebright was taking the Washington threat seriously, those doubts were put to rest directly. Ebright himself promptly strapped on a megaphone, climbed into the coxswain’s seat of his varsity boat, the California Clipper, and began barking commands as he took the boat out for an eight-mile pull far down Lake Washington, well out of sight of the Washington coaching staff.
For the next two days, neither Ulbrickson nor Ebright staged time trials, or if they did, they kept the results to themselves. Both coaches continued to issue the customary gloomy assessments of their boys’ chances. Ebright yawned that his varsity was nothing to write home about—“a good average outfit,” he called them. Ulbrickson summoned up a deeper level of despair, calling the Bears the clear favorites before lamenting, “We have been handicapped this year by inclement weather.” Then he flat out lied: “The boys are not exceptional.”
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Saturday, April 18, was a lovely day on which to watch a crew race, a hard day on which to row one. The skies were flawlessly blue. Temperatures promised to climb into the low seventies by race time. By midmorning, a steady flow of warm air from the south had ruffled the blue surface of Lake Washington. With weather like this, the regatta promised to draw throngs of people to the beaches at the north end of the lake.
Joe had come up with a scheme for profiting from the arrival of these throngs in his father’s new neighborhood. He and Harry had bought a hundred pounds of unshelled peanuts in two burlap sacks. The night before, Joyce, Harry, Rose, Mike, Polly, and Harry Junior had stayed up late, transferring the peanuts to paper sacks, planning to sell them to the race fans. Now they had hundreds of sacks ready to go, and as soon as people began to show up, in the early afternoon, Joyce and the kids fanned out along the beaches, hawking peanuts for ten cents a sack.
As in 1934, at 1:00 p.m. a ferry—this year the MV Chippewa—departed the University of Washington’s Oceanographic Dock with a full load of students and the school’s marching band. The Chippewa was elegantly appointed for a ferryboat. Many of her passengers, in fact, said that boarding her felt like boarding a North Atlantic liner, with Philippine mahogany paneling throughout the main cabin, a men’s smoking room, a ladies’ lounge, a full-service galley, red-leather padded seats, and a glassed-in observation room up front. She was often chartered for special moonlight cruises, during which an elaborate loudspeaker system piped live music from the observation room throughout the ship. The Washington marching band now took up a position in the observation room, switched on the microphones, and began to play dance music. As they had two years before, young men in slacks and shirtsleeves and young women in flouncy summer dresses danced out of the cabin and onto the decks.
As the Chippewa headed north, up the lake toward the finish line at Sheridan Beach, a navy cruiser and nearly four hundred other vessels flying purple and gold pennants joined her. By now the wind out of the south had stiffened considerably. Black smoke and white steam pouring from the larger vessels’ stacks streamed briskly northward, and whitecaps began to dance at the north end of the lake, where the wind was piling the water up against the shore.
At 2:15 p.m. an observation train left University Station and made its way to 125th Street for the start of the two-mile freshman race. By now, the largest crowd ever to witness a crew race in the Northwest had assembled along the racecourse.
Tom Bolles followed his freshman crew out to the starting line in his launch. Once again he believed he had an outstanding bunch in his shell, but as is always the case for freshman coaches, he had no reliable way to assess his boys’ true capabilities until he saw them racing against a major rival.
They did not disappoint. When the freshman race went off promptly at 3:00 p.m., it looked as if it would be a close race. Cal leapt out into the lead, but the conditions made for tough rowing. Waves were quartering across the racecourse now, constantly threatening to throw the boats off keel. It was treacherously easy to catch nothing but air between waves or to dig too deeply into a wave and catch a crab. At the quarter-mile mark the number seven man in the Cal boat did just that, and all four oars on the starboard side came almost to a halt while they reset. When they got going again, the number three man caught another crab. In the meantime Washington had quickly grabbed a substantial lead, and then settled down to build on it. When they crossed the finish line four and a half lengths ahead, their official time was recorded as 10:11.2. That would have eclipsed the 11:24.8 course record set by Joe and his freshmen crewmates in 1934 by well more than a minute. Four other, unofficial, timekeepers reported a more reasonable time of 10:42, and the figure was revised. But it was still a new course record by a wide margin, and Tom Bolles remained undefeated on Lake Washington. Before the day was out the East Coast schools, particularly Harvard, would take note of that. Bolles’s days at Washington were numbered.
The JV race began at 3:45 p.m., and for all intents and purposes it was over a hundred yards down the line. Four of the boys in the Washington boat were veterans of Joe’s all-sophomore crew of the year before: Bud Schacht, George Lund, Delos Schoch, and Chuck Hartman. These were boys who knew how to row in rough water, and how to win. They took the lead easily at the start, widened it at each quarter-mile buoy, and crossed the line almost six lengths ahead of California. Their time, 16:14.2, beat the record set by Cal by almost a full minute.
On the dock at Fred Rantz’s house, Harry and his kids and Joyce sat eating peanuts and tossing the shells into the lake. The sales that morning had been disappointing. They were going to be eating peanuts for a long while. Harry peered down the lake toward Sand Point with a pair of binoculars. The Philco radio in the house—a luxury he had bought secondhand for the occasion—was turned all the way up so they would be able to hear the NBC broadcast of the varsity race on KOMO when it began.
Joyce dangled her legs over the edge of the dock. At the north end of the lake, a silver airplane circled the area of the finish line. She peered down into the water, past the floating peanut shells. She felt unsettled.
Early that morning she had cut Joe’s hair as he sat perched on a chair in his little room at the YMCA, a towel fastened around his neck with a clothespin. It was a ritual Joyce performed once a month, and she always looked forward to it. It offered her a chance to be close to Joe, to chat with him privately, away from the eyes and ears of others, and it always seemed to please Joe, to relax him.
That morning, though, as she worked methodically, combing his blond hair up, measuring it carefully by eye, using the comb as a cutting guide and snipping the hair at just the right length to create the crew cut he favored, Joe had been fidgety in the chair. Finally she asked him what was wrong. He’d hesitated, struggling for words, but as she remembered later, the gist of it was that there was something about this race, this boat, that was different. He couldn’t really explain it; he just knew he didn’t want to let this bunch of boys down.
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At 4:15 p.m., as the two varsity crews paddled out to the starting line, the NBC Red Network went on the air with coast-to-coast prerace coverage. The tailwind had stiffened further, slicing up the length of the lake now, piling more rough water into heaps of whitecaps at the north end. So far all four boats on the course that day had come in well ahead of the previous course records, even the losing boats. The long, upright bodies of the oarsmen were catching the wind, acting essentially as sails, hurrying the shells down the course. It was clear now that, absent an unforeseen disaster, somebody was about to set a new varsity record as well.
At the start line, the Husky Clipper bobbed in the swells. Roger Morris and Gordy Adam, up front, struggled to keep the bow of the boat pointed due north under the relentless push of the quartering waves. Bobby Moch raised his hand to indicate his crew was ready to row. Over in the Cal boat, coxswain Tommy Maxwell did the same.
In the coaching launches idling in the water behind the shells, Al Ulbrickson and Ky Ebright were decidedly nervous. The fact was that neither of them knew quite what they were facing in the other boat. Both coaches had excellent crews and knew it; neither was quite sure about the other man’s crew. The boys in the California boat weighed a total of 1,557 pounds; the boys in the Washington boat weighed 1,561, just four pounds heavier. Both boats had savvy coxswains and powerful, experienced oarsmen. Both boats were state-of-the-art shells—Pocock’s latest and greatest, sleek splinters of cedar, the Husky Clipper and the California Clipper. Both boats were sixty-two feet long and, within a pound or two, weighed the same. Both featured sleek cedar skins, five-thirty-seconds of an inch thick. Both had elegant yellow cedar washboards, ash frames, Sitka-spruce gunnels, fore and after decking made of silk impregnated with varnish. Most important, both featured Pocock’s trademark camber, the slight curvature that gave them compression, spring, and liveliness in the water. It was hard to see a clear advantage. It would simply come down to watermanship, and guts.
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When the starter shouted, “Row!” both boats bolted off the line like nervous racehorses held too long in the starting gate. Both crews started off rowing hard and high, at thirty-five or thirty-six. In the Cal boat, the big stroke, Gene Berkenkamp, who had mowed Washington down in Poughkeepsie and Long Beach the year before, quickly powered his crew to a short lead. For three-quarters of a mile, the two crews rowed in lockstep, both furiously hacking at the choppy water. In the Washington boat, Don Hume was matching Berkenkamp’s stroke rate but making no progress in pulling even with him.
Then Bobby Moch began to make use of those three pounds of brains. He did what was counterintuitive but smart—what was manifestly hard to do but he knew was the right thing to do. With his opponent out in front of him, rowing in the midthirties and maintaining a lead, he told Hume to lower the stroke count. Hume dropped it to twenty-nine.
Almost immediately the boys in the Washington boat found their swing. Don Hume set the model, taking huge, smooth, deep pulls. Joe and the rest of the boys fell in behind him. Very slowly, seat by seat, the Husky Clipper began to regain water on the California Clipper. By the one-mile mark, the two boats were even and Washington was starting to edge out ahead.
In the Cal boat, Tommy Maxwell, shocked, glanced over at Washington and immediately called out, “Give me ten big ones!” Bobby Moch heard him, glanced back at him, but refused to take the bait. Gene Berkenkamp and the rest of the Cal boys leaned into their oars and took the prescribed ten extra-hard pulls. Bobby Moch hunched down in the stern, looked Don Hume in the eyes, and growled at him to keep it steady at twenty-nine. When Cal had finished their big ten, they had not appreciably narrowed Washington’s small lead.
With the wind in their faces, both crews were fairly flying down the course now, with spray breaking over the bow of their shells as they skipped from wave to wave, the blades of their oars slicing in and out of the chop. Cal had dropped its rate to thirty-two and then thirty-one after the big ten, but at twenty-nine the Washington boat continued to inch ahead. Tommy Maxwell called for another big ten. Again Moch held his fire and let the challenge go unanswered, and again Washington held her position, the Husky Clipper’s bow perhaps eight feet ahead of Cal’s bow now.
In Washington’s number seven seat, a realization flickered through Joe’s awareness—the boat was drawing abreast of his father’s house on the west side of the lake. He was tempted to sneak a peek over his shoulder, to see if he could catch a glimpse of Joyce. But he didn’t. He kept his mind in the boat.
The observation train was, at that moment, just rumbling behind Harry Rantz’s house, the smoke from its diesel engines streaming out ahead of it in the brisk wind. Next door, on Fred’s dock, Joyce and the kids were on their feet, jumping up and down and waving as they saw the nose of Joe’s boat out ahead. Harry stood beside them, his old binoculars locked on the boat, a grin on his weathered face.
Coming up to the two-mile buoy, the California shell rolled slightly off keel; a moment later it happened again. Twice a pair of boys on the starboard side failed to make clean releases from the water, and each time it happened it broke their rhythm and slowed them down. Washington moved out to a three-quarter-length lead. Tommy Maxwell, in trouble now, called on his boys to give him more. Berkenkamp took the rate back up to thirty-five, then thirty-six. Bobby Moch continued to ignore him.
Finally, with a half mile to go, Moch bellowed at Hume to pick it up. Hume took the crew up to thirty-two, as high as he dared to go in the choppy water, and as high as he needed to go. The Husky Clipper surged forward, as George Varnell reported in the Seattle Times the next day, “like a thing alive.” The boys now had open water between them and the California Clipper, and in the last half mile they accelerated in a way that no shell had ever accelerated on Lake Washington. As they flew down the last few hundred yards, their eight taut bodies rocked back and forth like pendulums, in perfect synchronicity. Their white blades flashed above the water like the wings of seabirds flying in formation. With every perfectly executed stroke, the expanse between them and the now exhausted Cal boys widened. In airplanes circling overhead, press photographers struggled to keep both boats in the frame of a single shot. Hundreds of boat whistles shrieked. The locomotive on the observation train wailed. Students on the Chippewa screamed. And a long, sustained roar went up from the tens of thousands standing along Sheridan Beach as the Husky Clipper crossed the line three lengths ahead of the California Clipper.
The California crew valiantly rowed on as hard as they could nevertheless. Once again both boats beat the previous course record, but Washington beat it by a good deal more, coming in at 15:56.4, a commanding 37 seconds ahead of the mark.
Al Ulbrickson sat quietly in the launch at the finish line, listening to the band on the Chippewa play “Bow Down to Washington.” Watching his boys paddle over to the Cal boat to collect their jerseys, he had much to take stock of. His varsity had beaten a very good California crew, the defending national champions, and they had done it in difficult circumstances. They had rowed, as he would himself remark to reporters later that afternoon, “better than they had ever rowed.” It was clear that they were, in fact, something far out of the ordinary, but it was too early to say whether the magic would hold. Two years running now, his varsity had beaten Ebright’s in the Pacific Coast Regatta only to turn around and lose in Poughkeepsie. Who was to say that this bunch wouldn’t do the same? And this year the Olympic trials loomed just beyond Poughkeepsie, not to mention what lay beyond that.
Ulbrickson remained steadfastly and resolutely dour. The Sunday papers in Seattle the next morning, though, were full of excited talk of Berlin. Many who had watched events on the lake closely thought they had seen something beyond merely a good crew race. Clarence Dirks, writing for the Seattle Times, mixing his metaphors with abandon, was the first to put his finger on it: “It would be useless to try to segregate outstanding members of Washington’s varsity shell, just as it would be impossible to try to pick a certain note in a beautifully composed song. All were merged into one smoothly working machine; they were, in fact, a poem of motion, a symphony of swinging blades.”
Poughkeepsie at night