Chapter 14 - Touching the Divine 1936 - The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown

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

Chapter 14

To be of championship caliber, a crew must have total confidence in each other, able to drive with abandon, confident that no man will get the full weight of the pull… . The 1936 crew, with Hume at stroke, rowed with abandon, beautifully timed. Having complete confidence in one another they would bound on the stroke with one powerful cut; then ghost forward to the next stroke with the boat running true and hardly a perceptible slowdown. They were a classic example of eight-oar rowing at its very best.

—George Yeoman Pocock

Two days later, on April 20, Adolf Hitler turned forty-seven. In Berlin thousands of celebrants gathered to watch and to cheer as Hitler reviewed a procession of more than fifteen hundred tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces rumbling through the city’s massive park, the Tiergarten. The crowds along Charlottenburger Chaussee were so thick that people in the back rows had to use rented periscopes to see what was happening up front. Joseph Goebbels’s little girls, wearing long white dresses and white headbands, presented Hitler with a bouquet of flowers. The Reich League of German Officials gave Hitler a copy of Mein Kampf that had been transcribed by hand onto parchment in a medieval script. With its iron bindings, the tome weighed seventy-five pounds.

But a month earlier, Hitler had already received an even greater gift, and it had been given him by those who would soon become his mortal foes. On the morning of March 7, thirty thousand German troops had rolled into the demilitarized Rhineland, in open defiance of both the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact to which Germany was a signatory. It was by far the most brazen thing Hitler had yet attempted, his biggest gamble, and a major step toward the catastrophe that was soon to envelop the world. For the next two days, Hitler, Goebbels, and the rest of the Nazi leadership waited anxiously for the world to react. They knew that Germany did not yet have sufficient military strength to survive a war with either France or Britain, let alone the two of them combined. The next forty-eight hours, Hitler later confessed, were the tensest of his life.

He needn’t have worried. In England, foreign secretary Anthony Eden said he “deeply regretted” the news, and then set about pressuring the French not to overreact. They didn’t. They did nothing at all. A relieved Joseph Goebbels sat down and wrote, “The Fuehrer is immensely happy … England remains passive. France won’t act alone. Italy is disappointed and America is uninterested.”

Hitler now understood with absolute clarity the feeble resolve of the powers to his west. However, the reoccupation of the Rhineland had not come without some cost. Though there had been no military reaction, there had been a public relations uproar in many foreign capitals. Increasing numbers of people in Europe and the United States were beginning to talk again about Germany, as they had during the First World War, when it had generally been seen as a nation of “Huns,” of lawless barbarians. Hitler knew it would be much easier for the West to mobilize against a nation of barbarians than a civilized nation. He needed a PR win—not at home, where the reoccupation of the Rhineland had been immensely popular—but in London and Paris and New York.

The Nazi leadership was now convinced that the upcoming Olympic Games, in August, would provide the perfect opportunity for a masquerade. Germany would present herself to the world as an unusually clean, efficient, modern, technologically savvy, cultured, vigorous, reasonable, and hospitable nation. From street sweepers to hoteliers to government clerks, thousands of Germans now went ardently to work to make sure that, come August, the world would see Germany’s best face.

In the Ministry of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels set about constructing an alternate reality in the German press, temporarily sanitizing it of anti-Semitic references, spinning out elaborate fictions about Germany’s peaceful intentions, promoting Germany in glowing terms as welcoming to all the peoples of the world. In plush new offices at the Geyer printing labs in southern Berlin, Leni Riefenstahl began putting to work the 2.8 million reichsmarks the Nazi government had secretly funneled to her through the Ministry of Propaganda for the purpose of producing her film about the upcoming games: Olympia. The secrecy, dating back to the previous October, was designed to conceal from the International Olympic Committee the political and ideological source of the film’s funding. Indeed for the rest of her life Riefenstahl would continue to insist that the film was merely an artistic sports documentary. But in fact, from its genesis Olympia was a political and ideological production.

By deliberately conflating wholesome images of grace and beauty and youthful vigor with the iconography and ideology of the Nazis, Riefenstahl would cunningly portray the new German state as something ideal—the perfect end product of a highly refined civilization descended directly from the ancient Greeks. The film would not just reflect but in many ways define the still nascent but increasingly twisted Nazi mythos.

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Following the sweep of California on Lake Washington, Al Ulbrickson gave the varsity boys two weeks off to attend to their coursework and get their personal affairs in order before beginning the final push for Berlin. Once they left for Poughkeepsie, Ulbrickson reminded them, they might not—if all went well—be returning to Seattle until September. There was much to do.

When they returned to the shell house on May 4, he set them to low-stroke work, still trying to smooth out the last few technical glitches. They rowed raggedly for the first few days back on the water, until they found their swing again. But find it they did, and they promptly began to power past the other shells on the lake. But on May 18, the shadow of academic disaster fell over the crew. Ulbrickson learned that despite the break, four of his varsity boys still had incompletes and were just days away from being declared ineligible. He was furious. Back in January he had warned the boys, “We can’t tarry with scholastic laggards … any who fall behind are just out, that’s all.” Now he dragged Chuck Day, Stub McMillin, Don Hume, and Shorty Hunt into his office, slammed the door shut, and gave them hell. “You can be the best individual oarsmen in the country, but you will be of no service or use to this squad unless you whip up your class efforts… . That means study!” Ulbrickson was still fuming as the boys trooped out of the office. Everything was suddenly at risk. The worst of it was that while most of them just had to turn in some overdue work, Don Hume had to flat out ace a final examination to remain eligible. If there was one boy Ulbrickson couldn’t afford to lose, it was Don Hume.

The boys, though, were having the times of their lives. On or off the water, they were almost always together now. They ate together, studied together, and played together. Most of them had joined the Varsity Boat Club and lived in the club’s rented house on Seventeenth Avenue, a block north of the campus, though Joe remained in the basement of the YMCA. On weekend evenings they gathered around the old upright piano in the club’s parlor and sang for hours as Don Hume tore through jazz tunes, show tunes, blues, and ragtime. Sometimes Roger Morris pulled out his saxophone and joined in. Sometimes Johnny White got out his violin and played along fiddle-style. And almost always Joe got out his banjo or his guitar and joined in as well. Nobody laughed at him anymore; nobody dreamed of laughing at him.

Don Hume aced his exam. The others finished their incompletes. And by the end of May, the boys were again turning in phenomenal times on the water. On June 6, Ulbrickson took the varsity and JV out for one final four-mile trial. He told Bobby Moch to hold the varsity back behind the JV for the first two miles. But as they moved down the lake, even rowing at a leisurely twenty-six, the varsity could not manage to stay behind their very good counterparts in the JV boat. They kept edging out in front simply on the power of their long, slow strokes. When Moch finally turned them loose in the final mile, they exploded into a seven-length lead, and they were still pulling away as they crossed the finish line.

That was all Al Ulbrickson needed to see. Training was essentially over until they got onto the Hudson. He told the boys to start packing their things and to pack as if they were going to Berlin.

That same evening, in Berkeley, Ky Ebright and the California boys climbed aboard an eastbound train, heading for Poughkeepsie. Ebright was radiating pessimism. Asked if he had been brushing up on his German, Ebright shot back, “I don’t expect to have to have any knowledge of the language.” When he was reminded that he had been just as sour about his prospects before both the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, he replied curtly, “This time it’s different.” But once again the doom and gloom was mostly pro forma. Ebright had made some lineup changes since his boys’ loss on Lake Washington, and the new outfit had turned in outstanding time trials on the estuary. He knew his loss in the three-mile race on Lake Washington didn’t necessarily tell him anything about the four-mile race on the Hudson, not any more than it had last year. At the very least, Ebright must have believed his boys would be in the thick of things in Poughkeepsie. Washington would likely fade at the end, as they had the year before. And even if Washington somehow prevailed, the Olympic trials to follow in Princeton would reset the stage. Washington had yet to show they could win a two-thousand-meter sprint. With any luck, Ebright would be coming home by way of Berlin with both a national title and a third consecutive gold medal. So said the Bay Area press, so said much of the national press, and, one has to believe, so thought Ky Ebright.

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Four days later, at eight o’clock on the evening of June 10, with red lights flashing and sirens wailing, a police escort led a convoy of cars carrying the Washington crews and coaches down Greek Row, past cheering students, then through downtown Seattle, en route to Union Station. The boys were flying high, and so were the coaches. As instructed, they had prepared for the trip with the assumption that they would not be returning until September. Some of them had even begun to make plans to tour Europe after the Olympics—a heady proposition for boys from Seattle—though none of them was quite sure what he was going to do for money if that happened. Johnny White had a grand total of fourteen dollars in his pocket. George Pocock had written to his father, Aaron, saying that he might be stopping by to pay him a visit in London. Bobby Moch had asked his father for the addresses of his relatives in Switzerland and Alsace-Lorraine, so he could visit them. His father, Gaston, had hesitated, looking suddenly stricken for reasons Bobby could not fathom, but finally said he would send him the addresses later, if the crew really went to Europe.

At the station, as they had in previous years, the marching band played fight songs, cheerleaders danced, the coaches made brief speeches, flashbulbs popped, and newsreel cameras whirred as the boys climbed onto the train. This year the station was packed, not just with students and newsmen, but also with parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, next-door neighbors, and utter strangers. Maybe the city was finally about to be put on the map. If so, everyone wanted to bear witness to the coronation. As Royal Brougham climbed onto the train, he noted that he had never seen a crew leave town “with as much cheerful determination and optimism. These lads feel it in their bones… . They’re practically shaking hands with Hitler right now.”

But Brougham was worried. He had seen all this before, and he had seen the sad consequences of dashed hopes in Seattle the previous year. He sat down at a typewriter in his coach and pounded out the concluding lines for his morning column. Don’t forget, he warned his readers, about “the haunting specter of that last mile.” For now, he left unstated his even deeper concern about the two-thousand-meter sprint at the Olympic trials.

As the train coughed, lurched, and began to pull away, boys hanging from the windows shouted farewells: “Good-bye, Mom!” “I’ll write from Berlin.” Joe hung out a window as well, searching. Then, in a far corner, he found her. Joyce was standing with his father and the kids, jumping up and down, holding high over her head a sign on which she had painted a large, green four-leaf clover.

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As the train rolled eastward, the boys kicked back, feeling free and easy. The weather was warm but not stifling, and they lolled in their berths for as long as they wanted, played blackjack and poker, and revived their old tradition of lobbing water balloons at random cows and sleeping dogs along the way. The first morning out, Al Ulbrickson gave them happy news. He announced that he wanted each of them to put on three or four pounds before they reached Poughkeepsie. The dining car was all theirs—no restrictions. The boys all but stampeded forward. Joe could hardly believe it. He ordered a steak, then another, this time with a side of ice cream.

As the boys ate, Al Ulbrickson, Tom Bolles, and George Pocock convened a strategy session in their coach. They were well aware of what Ky Ebright was thinking, what Royal Brougham was fretting about, and what many in the eastern press were saying: Washington would come up short again in the last few hundred feet of the four-mile varsity race. Whatever else happened, they were determined that they would not lose the race in that way this year. So they came up with a race plan. Ulbrickson had always liked to come from behind, to save something for the end of the race, but in the past he’d always tried to get a strong start, stay close to the leaders throughout, and then defeat them with a killing sprint at the end. The new plan stuck close to that basic strategy, but with a twist. They would leave the starting line with just enough of a surge to get some momentum behind the boat but then drop immediately to a low stroke rate of twenty-eight or twenty-nine. What’s more, they’d keep it low no matter what the other boats were doing, so long as they stayed within roughly two lengths of the field. Ideally, they would stay low for a full mile and a half, then take it up to thirty-one until they got to the two-mile mark. At two miles Bobby Moch would tell Don Hume to gun it and start taking down the leaders, who would by now be starting to tire. The deliberately slow start was risky. It meant they’d likely have to pass every boat on the river on their way to the finish line, but at the very least they’d still be rowing hard at the end. When they were all in agreement, Al Ulbrickson went to tell Bobby Moch the plan.

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The Washington boys arrived in Poughkeepsie early in the morning on June 14, in the midst of a summer thunderstorm. Drenched to the skin by torrential rain, they unloaded the shells from a baggage car, lifted them over their heads, and hustled down to the river to stow the boats and inspect their new quarters. They were not using the rickety old shack on the Highland side of the river this year. Al Ulbrickson had arranged for them to move into Cornell’s former house, a much more substantial structure on the east side of the river, right next door to the California house. As they shed their wet coats and tromped through the building, they marveled at the luxuries the new quarters afforded. There were hot showers, exercise facilities, electric lights, and a spacious dormitory, complete with extra-long beds. There was even a radio on which the boys would be able to listen to everything from baseball games to Fibber McGee and Molly to live broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic direct from Carnegie Hall or, if Joe got his hands on the dial, to The National Barn Dance from Chicago. There was a wide screened-in porch where they could sleep if the weather turned hot. And as the rain thundered down outside, it was no small thing that the roof didn’t leak.

By the time they had finished settling in, they could smell food cooking. Led by their noses, and by Joe Rantz’s nose in particular, they quickly discovered the best feature of the new place—a cookhouse on the beach, just twenty-five feet from their front door. In command of the cookhouse was the imposing figure of Evanda May Calimar, a lady of color and, as it would turn out, an awe-inspiring cook. Working for her were her son Oliver, her mother, and her brother-in-law, all busily preparing fried chicken for the Washington boys’ lunch. The boys quickly found that they had just landed smack-dab in the heart of hog heaven. Royal Brougham, amused, watched them go at their first meal and then wired home a story about it. The Post-Intelligencer ran it under a picture of Joe captioned “Joe Rantz, The Eating Champion.”

Over the next few days, George Pocock went from boathouse to boathouse, tending to the shells of Washington’s competitors. Seventeen of the eighteen boats on the river this year had again come out of his shop. Pocock enjoyed working on them, adjusting the riggers, revarnishing hulls, making minor repairs. He didn’t want to see shabby or derelict boats with his name on them out on the river. And this kind of service made for excellent customer relations. The first place he went was right next door to the California boathouse to tend to Ky Ebright’s boats.

The Washington boys, though, declined to speak to the California boys, and vice versa. On the float they shared, the two crews passed each other silently, with eyes averted, only taking the occasional sidelong glance, like dogs circling before a fight. And a fight was a real possibility. Not long after they arrived, a reporter sauntered up to Shorty Hunt and mentioned that the impression in the California shell house was that the Washington boys seemed to think they were awfully tough, that they seemed always to be spoiling for a fight, that if they couldn’t pick a fight with someone else they’d pick a fight with themselves, but that California would be happy to save them the trouble. Shorty replied, “If those lobs want a fight we’ll fight, but we aren’t looking for any.”

Meanwhile Ulbrickson and Bolles began to work their boys hard, rowing at a low rate but for long distances, trying to take right back off the three or four pounds they had deliberately encouraged them to put on during the train trip. The theory was that they would thus arrive at a perfect racing weight and in perfect condition by race day, on June 22, neither too light nor too heavy. Mrs. Calimar’s cooking, however, was soon countering the coaches’ best efforts.

Then news leaked out that the California varsity had turned in a blazing 19:31 over four miles. It was by far the year’s fastest time on the river. The Cornell boys had also begun to turn in impressive times. On the evening of June 17, Al Ulbrickson kicked things up a notch and staged a time trial of his own. Rowing at nine in the evening, under the cover of darkness and in rough water, Joe and his crewmates streaked down the four-mile course in what Al Ulbrickson told writers was a time just a fraction of a second over 19:39, significantly off Cal’s impressive 19:31. Johnny White recorded the true time in his journal that night: 19:25.

The next day rumors began to circulate that California had held yet another time trial. Ebright wouldn’t reveal the time, but observers reported that his varsity had come in with the phenomenal time of 18:46. The Poughkeepsie Eagle-News had it at 18:37. Royal Brougham wired a grim report back to the Post-Intelligencer: “The sun-browned oarsmen of California will again rule as the favorites… . That’s not rowing, it’s flying.”

But Ulbrickson remained unruffled. He wanted well-rested boys in the race, and he’d seen enough. He told his boys to relax. From now until race day on the twenty-second there would be only light workouts, to keep in shape. That was fine with the boys. They already knew something that nobody else knew, not even Ulbrickson.

Late on the night of the final time trial, after the wind had died down and the waters had calmed, they had begun to row back up the river, in the dark, side by side with the freshman and JV boats. Soon the red and green running lights of the coaches’ launch disappeared upriver. The shells passed under the two bridges draped with shimmering necklaces of amber lights. Along the shore and up on the palisades, warm yellow light poured from the windows of homes and shell houses. It was a moonless night. The water was ink black.

Bobby Moch set the varsity boys to rowing at a leisurely twenty-two or twenty-three. Joe and his crewmates chatted softly with the boys in the other two boats. But they soon found that they had pulled out ahead without meaning to, just pulling soft and steady. Soon, in fact, they had pulled so far ahead that they could not even hear the boys in the other boats. And then, one by one, they realized that they couldn’t hear anything at all except for the gentle murmur of their blades dipping into and out of the water. They were rowing in utter darkness now. They were alone together in a realm of silence and darkness. Years later, as old men, they all remembered the moment. Bobby Moch recalled, “You couldn’t hear anything except for the oars going in the water … it’d be a ‘zep’ and that’s all you could hear … the oarlocks didn’t even rattle on the release.” They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly. They were rowing as if on another plane, as if in a black void among the stars, just as Pocock had said they might. And it was beautiful.

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In the final days before the Poughkeepsie Regatta, another big sports story dominated the headlines on sports pages and sometimes on front pages around the country—the story of a heavyweight boxing match. Max Schmeling of Germany had been the heavyweight champion of the world from 1930 to 1932, and he was set on reclaiming the title from James Braddock. But a twenty-two-year-old African American boxer from Detroit, named Joe Louis, stood in Schmeling’s way. Louis had battled his way through twenty-seven professional matches with twenty-three knockouts and no defeats to reach his current status as the number one challenger in the world. In doing so he had gradually begun to erode the racial attitudes of many—though far from all—white Americans. He was on his way, in fact, to becoming one of the first African Americans to be widely viewed as a hero by ordinary white Americans. Louis’s rise to prominence had been so spectacular that few American sportswriters or bookies gave Schmeling much of a chance.

In Germany, though, the view was very different. Although Schmeling was not a Nazi Party member, Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi elite had enthusiastically latched onto him and promoted him as a symbol of German and Aryan supremacy. The German press, under the careful direction of the minister of propaganda, had made much of the upcoming fight.

Everyone on both sides of the Atlantic had an opinion about what would happen. Even the crew coaches in Poughkeepsie took time out to comment on the fight. “Schmeling might go four rounds,” opined Al Ulbrickson. Ky Ebright was blunter: “Louis will murder him.”

When the fight began, in a sold-out Yankee Stadium on the evening of June 19, Louis was, at eight to one, the overwhelming favorite in New York. In Germany, though interest in the fight was at a fever pitch, there was almost no betting on the fight. The odds were so low on Schmeling that few wanted to risk their cash, and no one wanted to be caught betting on a black American.

In a small square of white light in the vast, dark void of the stadium, Louis stalked Schmeling around the ring like a predator for three rounds, lacing him with hard left jabs to the face. It looked as if it would be a short evening. But in the fourth round, out of nowhere, Schmeling landed a hard right to the temple that knocked Louis to a sitting position on the floor. Louis took a count of two and then rose to his feet, covering his face and retreating until the bell sounded. Through the fifth round, Louis seemed dazed and ineffective. And then, at the end of the fifth, following the bell—which neither fighter heard over the crowd noise—Schmeling landed a particularly devastating right to the left side of Louis’s head. For the next six rounds, Louis staggered about the ring, punished by a relentless barrage of rights to the jaw, somehow staying on his feet but scoring few if any points and inflicting little damage on the German boxer. Many in the overwhelmingly white crowd had by now turned suddenly and savagely against Louis. “Delirious with joy,” by the New York Times account, they screamed for Schmeling to end it. Finally, in the twelfth, Schmeling went in for the kill. With Louis now careening almost aimlessly around the ring, the German leaned into Louis’s body and launched a rapid-fire flurry of hard rights to his head and face, followed by one final crushing blow to the jaw. Louis sank to his knees, then toppled forward on his face. Referee Arthur Donovan counted him out. In the dressing room afterward, Louis said he couldn’t remember anything about the fight beyond the fifth round.

That night in Harlem, grown men wept openly in the streets. Younger men threw rocks at cars full of white fans returning from the match. In German American sections of New York, people danced in the streets. In Berlin, Adolf Hitler wired his congratulations to Schmeling and sent his wife flowers. But no one in Germany was happier with the evening’s developments than Joseph Goebbels. He had spent the night at his posh summerhouse at Schwanenwerder, sitting with Magda and Schmeling’s wife, Anny, listening to the fight on the radio into the wee hours. He sent Schmeling a congratulatory telegram of his own: “We are proud of you. With best wishes and Heil Hitler.” Then he ordered the state-controlled Reuters News Agency to issue a statement: “Inexorably and not without justification we demand Braddock shall defend the title on German soil.” The next day, still excited, Goebbels sat down and made an entry in his journal: “We were on tenterhooks the whole evening with Schmeling’s wife. We told each other stories, laughed, and cheered. In round twelve, Schmeling knocked out the Negro. Fantastic. A dramatic, thrilling fight. Schmeling fought for Germany and won. The white man prevailed over the black, and the white man was German. I didn’t go to bed until five.”

In the end, though, Joe Louis would have the last laugh. He would indeed fight Max Schmeling again, two years later, and Schmeling would last all of two minutes and four seconds before his corner threw in the towel. Joe Louis would reign as heavyweight champion of the world from 1937 to 1949, long after Joseph Goebbels’s charred body had been pulled out of the smoldering rubble of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin and laid next to those of Magda and their children.

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On Saturday evening Ulbrickson told the varsity they could take the coaching launch out for a spin if they wanted. They were bored with the amusement park just up the hill, and Ulbrickson didn’t want them lounging around the house all evening getting restless and nervous about the race on Monday.

The boys recruited one of the crew’s student managers as pilot and navigator, and piled into the boat. Not sure where to go, they decided they’d pay a visit to the president of the United States, whom they understood to live somewhere upriver. They goosed the throttle, and the boat swung out into the river, heading north past the Navy and Columbia shell houses. They roared northwest through the bend at Krum Elbow and continued another two miles alongside forest and cliff until they came to a dock marked “Hyde Park Station.” There they asked someone how to get to the president’s house and were directed to a cove a mile back down the river.

When they found the cove, they left the manager in charge of the boat, crossed some railroad tracks, walked gingerly across a narrow trestle, and headed uphill through the woods. For the next half hour, they wandered up bridle paths and overgrown roads, hurrying across broad lawns, and trooping past an abandoned gristmill and a stable the size of a cathedral, until they finally came across some greenhouses and a gardener’s cottage that appeared to be occupied. They knocked on the door and an elderly couple appeared. When the boys asked whether they were anywhere near the president’s estate, the couple nodded enthusiastically and announced that they were standing on it, then pointed out the way to the main house. Walking through the adjoining nursery and up another path, they finally arrived on a wide gravel drive leading up to a large expanse of lawn on which stood Springwood, the Roosevelts’ stately three-story brick-and-masonry mansion, complete with a semicircular portico supported by white Grecian columns. It was by far the most magnificent house any of them had ever seen.

Nervous, but too far along to back down now, they shuffled deferentially up onto the portico and peered inside. It was coming up on nine o’clock, and growing dark. Inside they could see a young man about their age, leaning against the end of a long table and reading a book. They knocked on the door. The young man appeared to call for a servant, but then put the book down and came to the door himself. When he opened the door, the boys announced who they were, mentioned that they had met John Roosevelt the previous year, and asked if the president was in. He was not, the young man said, but he invited them in eagerly. He was, he said, Franklin Roosevelt Jr., but they should call him Frank. He grinned slightly and announced that he rowed in the number six seat in the Harvard JV boat and had just returned from New London, Connecticut, where, though the Crimson’s varsity had won their annual race against Yale, the JV had not. Just before the race, he said, Harvard’s coach, Charlie Whiteside, had been fired, and there was a great deal of talk now that the next head coach at Harvard would be a fellow named Tom Bolles, particularly if Bolles pulled off another freshman victory at Poughkeepsie. Roosevelt couldn’t wait to talk to the boys from Washington.

He ushered them into the president’s library and sat them down and began talking rapidly about rowing and about coaches. As he talked, the boys gaped at the room. Most of the walls were lined from the floor to the high ceiling with shelves of books. Any spots on the walls not taken up by books were covered with pictures of American presidents and various Roosevelts. An ornate fireplace dominated the end of the room where they were seated. In front of the fireplace was a fifteen-foot-long library table stacked with new editions of books on every conceivable topic. Nearly every other table in the room had a vase of fresh flowers or a porcelain figurine on it. Shorty Hunt, starting to relax, settled into a comfortable upholstered chair near the fireplace, and then nearly jumped out of it when Frank told him it was the president’s favorite, and that he occasionally delivered his famous fireside chats on the radio from that very chair.

They talked for an hour. Later that night, back at the shell house, Johnny White got out his diary and wrote, as if he had just stopped in at a neighbor’s house back in Seattle, “Visited the President’s home at Hyde Park tonight. They sure have a fine place.”

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By the morning of the regatta, the consensus in the eastern press, at least, was that California and Cornell were the boats to beat in the varsity race, with Washington expected to come in perhaps just a beat or two behind the leaders. Cornell, after all, had come within four-tenths of a second of beating California the year before. The Seattle papers gave the odds, narrowly, to Washington. Royal Brougham, despite his earlier gloomy assessment, had already announced his personal prognostication: Washington to win, Cornell in second, California third. Writing for the Post-Intelligencer that morning, though, he said he thought Cal would probably go off as the slight favorite among the bookmakers. Actually, the bookies in the cigar shops in Poughkeepsie had Cal and Washington at even money, with Cornell lagging just behind at eight to five. The bottom line seemed to be that any one of the three schools might win the varsity honors.

Now Brougham was poking around town. He wanted to gather as much color as he could before it was time to sit down and pound out his story after the final race. Because of tidal conditions, the race would not go off until after 8:00 p.m., just after sundown. So Brougham took his time, looking for tidbits. It was, he noted, a fine, clear day in Poughkeepsie. A few cottony white clouds drifted across a pale blue sky, moved along by just enough of a breeze to keep things pleasantly cool.

At midafternoon he hiked down the steep descent to the waterfront, where a U.S. Navy destroyer and two coast guard cutters had taken up positions among the usual flotilla of yachts, sailboats, launches, dinghies, and canoes assembling near the finish line. At the California shell house, Ky Ebright sat on the upstairs porch, wearing dark glasses, nodding and smiling at people as they streamed by below, saying nothing. Next door Al Ulbrickson, wearing an unusually colorful outfit—a white cloth cap, a yellow-striped sweater, and the lucky purple tie given to him by Loyal Shoudy back in 1926—sat on the dock in front of the Washington shell house. When pressed for a comment by a gaggle of reporters, Ulbrickson spat into the water, chewed a piece of grass, and looked at the wind-ruffled river for a long while before finally saying, “Going to be fast if she flattens out a little.” Royal Brougham moved on. He knew that was about all the press boys were going to get out of Ulbrickson.

By late afternoon the Main Street wharf was crowded with people waiting for ferries to get them across the river to the observation train. Brougham sat watching as dozens of lesser boats—everything from outboard speedboats to rowboats—also ferried more people of all sorts across: tipsy women in fashionable Fifth Avenue hats, fat men with cigar stubs in their mouths, old men wearing raccoon coats and clutching college pennants.

One by one the freshman crews boarded their shells and began to paddle upriver to the starting line near the Columbia shell house—an elegant structure that looked as if it could double as the clubhouse at any of the East’s fine country clubs. A little before 6:00 p.m., Royal Brougham climbed aboard the observation train on the west side of the river just as it was about to start backing up toward the two-mile freshman starting line, pulling a press car and twenty-three flatcars with bleachers full of fans sitting under white canvas canopies. As many as ninety thousand people now lined both sides of the Hudson—the largest crowd in years. The earlier breeze had died down, and the water was placid, smooth and glassy, tinged with bronze in the slanting late afternoon light. Ulbrickson was right. It was going to be fast.

✵ ✵ ✵

As the train began to back up, Tom Bolles, wearing his battered lucky fedora, had much to ponder. He had heard what had happened to Charlie Whiteside. Harvard had made clear to the world that they were prepared to pay handsomely to get what they wanted in the way of a new head coach. And Bolles knew he was again at the top of their list. If his boys came through for him yet again this year, he’d be getting an offer, and he figured this time he’d probably take it.

His boys did come through for him. And they made short, sweet work of it. When the race went off, exactly at 6:00 p.m., Navy and California moved out to early leads. Washington settled in at a relatively low beat of thirty-two but stayed close. Pulling gracefully and efficiently, they gradually overpowered Navy and settled in behind Cal. At the one-mile mark, going under the railroad bridge, they crept ahead of Cal. California challenged several times but Washington repeatedly moved back in front, still holding at thirty-two. Finally, a quarter of a mile from the finish, California began its sprint, charging up from behind, one more time, to nose out ahead of Bolles’s boys. Washington’s coxswain, Fred Colbert, turned his crew loose. Washington exploded forward, rowing at thirty-nine and pulling away from Cal by a full length at the line. And with that, Washington won the race but lost Tom Bolles.

An hour later the JV race began, and once again Washington made short work of their opponents, rowing a remarkably similar race. Early on, Navy and Cornell pulled out ahead of Washington by a quarter of a length, but, finding that he could hold his bow in that position with his crew rowing at a relaxed thirty or thirty-one, Washington’s cox, Winslow Brooks, was content to sit back and watch the two leaders burn themselves out. He sat there, in fact, for a mile and a half, then found that he was slowly pulling even with the boys from Annapolis and Berkeley without having asked his men to raise the beat. A mile above the finish line, he finally called on them to take up the stroke rate. The beat went to thirty-seven, and Washington simply got up and walked away from the field. The boys in the Navy and Cornell boats suddenly looked as if they were rowing in glue. Every stroke Washington took in the last mile widened the distance. They crossed the line three lengths ahead of Navy, still pulling away at the head of a long, strung-out parade of boats far to their rear.

Even as the last boats crossed the line and the cheering began to die down, an audible murmur began to ripple through the crowd along the shore as a number of realizations clicked into place. Washington, for the second time in two years, now stood again on the brink of sweeping the regatta. California, on the other hand, could become only the second school ever to win the varsity race four years in a row, as well as the first to ever go on to win three consecutive Olympic berths. But there was still hope for eastern fans. Cornell looked as if they could finally redeem their cause this year. Or maybe Navy.

As the observation train drew back upriver again for the start of the varsity race, the atmosphere grew electric, the dusky sky crackling with static. The crowd began to buzz. Boat whistles shrilled. Alumni draped arms over one another’s shoulders and sang fight songs. Somebody was about to win big; somebody was about to lose big.

✵ ✵ ✵

Four miles up the river, just below Krum Elbow, Joe Rantz, sitting in the Husky Clipper near the eastern shore, heard five bombs go off downstream and knew that the Washington JV, in the number five lane, had won their race. He lifted his fist silently in the air. So did Shorty Hunt and Roger Morris. Half the boys in the JV boat had been members of their all-sophomore crew in 1935. Every one of them had been disappointed not to be sitting where Joe and Shorty and Roger were sitting, waiting for the varsity race to begin at 8:00 p.m.

The sun had already slipped behind the palisades, on the west side of the river. The tips of church spires up in Poughkeepsie, on the east side, were just catching the last rays of sunlight. Down on the river, twilight was settling over the water like gray gauze. The river itself had turned a rich and lustrous shade of violet, reflecting the sky overhead. A line of gray stake boats stretched across the river, marking the starting line. Far downstream, twinkling lights began to appear at the portholes of some of the larger yachts anchored near the finish line. On the east side of the river, a passenger train flashed by, trailing clouds of swirling smoke. On the west side, the observation train jolted to a stop adjacent to the line of stake boats. Just above the line, a telegraph operator sat perilously on the steep river bank, his keypad in hand and a strand of copper wire running up the hill behind him to a pole where he had made a connection with the main line, ready to tell the world when the race began. Joe and his crewmates began to paddle out to the line of stake boats to take their position. In the stern, Bobby Moch began quietly talking them through the race plan one more time. Out in Seattle, Hazel Ulbrickson locked the front door to her home so as not to be disturbed during the race. Joyce got permission from Mrs. Tellwright to switch on the large cabinet radio in her parlor.

On the observation train, in a press car full of Washington coaches, alumni, and sportswriters, George Pocock and Tom Bolles paced up and down the aisle. Al Ulbrickson sat alone in silence, methodically chewing a piece of gum, looking out intently from under the brim of his white cloth cap toward the spot where Joe sat. Washington had drawn the worst lane, number seven, far out in the middle of the river, where any hint of wind or current would be strongest and where, in the failing light, it would be hard even to see the boat. As in 1935, California had drawn lane number one, the most protected lane, snug up against the railroad embankment, sitting right under Ulbrickson’s nose.

Ten years ago Ulbrickson himself had stroked Washington’s varsity to a national championship here. No Washington varsity crew had won one since. Ulbrickson remembered his oath to his wife, and his failed promise to Seattle the year before. The Olympics loomed. Nearly everything Al Ulbrickson wanted out of life was going to be determined in the next twenty minutes.

✵ ✵ ✵

At 8:00 p.m. the starter called out, “Are you ready?” Two coxswains raised their hands. The starter waited a minute or two, then called out again, “Are you all ready?” This time three coxswains raised their hands. Exasperated, the starter waited again while the different crews made a few final adjustments. He called out a third time, “Are you all ready?” This time all seven hands went up.

The starting gun popped, the boats lurched away from the line, and the telegrapher clinging to the riverbank tapped at his key to let the world know that the thirty-eighth annual varsity crew race at Poughkeepsie was finally under way.

For five full strokes, all seven boats stayed absolutely abreast of one another, their crews digging hard. Then Washington suddenly eased up. The entire field surged out in front of them. That was OK with Bobby Moch. That was just what he wanted. He settled his crew in, rowing at a steady twenty-eight and began to watch the backs of his rival coxswains disappear down the river into the dusk. To steady the boys, Moch began to chant their newest rowing mantra in time with the stroke—“Save, Save, Save”—reminding them that this was all about conserving power.

Pennsylvania, Navy, and California quickly moved out in front of the pack, rowing high at first, then gradually dropping their stroke rates into the low thirties. After half a mile, Washington was seventh in a field of seven—almost five lengths behind the leaders. Syracuse and, surprisingly, mighty Cornell—the Big Red hope of the East—continued to hang back with Washington, perhaps playing their game.

Bobby Moch began to fudge his shell over toward the Syracuse lane. He was thinking ahead. Far down the course, his assigned lane was going to carry the Husky Clipper under the railroad bridge right at the point where water swirled around behind an abutment and flowed back upriver. If they ran into the swirl, the boat would all but stop momentarily. The only way he was going to avoid it was by running right down the line between his lane and Syracuse’s. The Clipper slid over to the line until the Orange’s blades were all but clicking up against the Huskies’. Furious, the Syracuse coxswain began bellowing, cussing at Moch. As Washington pulled even, Moch leaned over toward the Syracuse boat, smiled, and said, rather softly but in his deep baritone voice, “Go to hell, Syracuse.” As the Syracuse coxswain resumed cussing, his boys’ timing began to falter and his boat began to fall back.

A mile into the race, to the astonishment of the crowd on the observation train, Columbia had crept up to third place, passing California and settling in behind Navy and Penn. As the boys from New York City stroked past the boys from Berkeley, New Yorkers on the train began to cheer. But by the mile-and-a-half mark, California had answered the move and powered back past Columbia and Penn into second again. Navy, California, and Penn now formed a cluster, far out in front, exchanging leads, cutting each other up. Washington remained four full lengths behind the leaders. Cornell seemed unable to get anything going and lingered back near Washington. Syracuse had fallen well to the rear.

In the press car, a hush had gradually fallen over the Washington contingent of writers and coaches as they had taken in just how far behind the Husky Clipper was. People began to murmur, “Come on, Bobby, take it up, take it up.” Al Ulbrickson was silent, calm, sphinxlike, slowly working the gum in his mouth. Any moment now, he figured, Bobby Moch would make his move, just as they’d planned. He stared ever more intently across the river as the growing darkness began to envelop the shell. All one could really see of Washington were the white tips of their blades appearing and disappearing rhythmically in the water, still at a nice, steady, leisurely twenty-eight.

At two miles Penn had begun to fade, falling behind Columbia. Cal and Navy were duking it out for the lead. Cornell had fallen behind Washington, which had moved into fifth place. But Bobby Moch still hadn’t altered the beat at all. He was still four lengths back. In the press car, Al Ulbrickson began to grow uneasy. Moch had been told not to let the leaders get more than two lengths ahead. He was twice that far behind. And he was supposed to have started moving by now. This was most definitely not the race plan Moch had been given. Tom Bolles and George Pocock sat down, looking morose. It was starting to look like a case of suicide. But out on the water, Bobby Moch told Don Hume, “Take your time. We can catch those boys anytime we want.”

As they passed the two-and-a-half-mile mark it was essentially the same story. California and Navy were far out in front, with Columbia trailing them; Washington had eased past a weakening Penn crew but remained a devastating four lengths back. Ulbrickson still didn’t flinch; he just continued to stare out the window at the flickering white blades on the water, chewing his gum. But he had begun to slump in his seat. He couldn’t believe what was happening. What on earth was Moch doing? Why in God’s name didn’t he turn them loose?

In the boat Bobby Moch took a look at the four lengths between his bow and California’s stern, and hollered to his crew, “OK, you lugs! We’re one length behind.”

Downriver, the thousands of fans packing the shoreline and yachts and other vessels in Poughkeepsie could not yet see the oncoming shells, but they could hear the coxswains barking like so many seals out in the river’s darkness. Slowly the barking grew closer. Then the bows of three boats began to materialize out of the gloaming, just beyond the railroad bridge. A roar went up as the crowd began to discern the state of play. Navy was neck and neck with Cal, and the two of them seemed to be running away with it, though Columbia, astonishingly, appeared to be in third place. Cornell, also astonishingly, was nowhere to be seen, but at least the East had one boat in the race after all, maybe two. Almost nobody even noticed the Washington shell apparently limping along out in the middle of the river, so far back one could barely see it in the gathering darkness.

As the Washington boat swept under the black skeleton of the railroad bridge at the three-mile mark, it was still nearly three lengths back with a mile to go. The leaders had slowed just a bit, and that had narrowed the gap, but if Moch had raised the rate at all, it was imperceptible.

The Washington boys were rowing as if in a kind of trance now, somehow detached from themselves yet keenly aware of one another’s every minute motion. There was little sound out in the middle of the river, except for Moch’s chanting, the rattle of oars in oarlocks, their own deep rhythmic breathing, and their pulses pounding in their ears. There was almost no pain. In the number five seat, Stub McMillin realized with astonishment that he was still breathing through his nose after three full miles of rowing.

On the train Al Ulbrickson had all but given up. “They’re too far behind,” he muttered. “They’re overplaying their hand. We’ll be lucky to finish third.” Ulbrickson’s face was ashen. It seemed to have turned entirely to stone. He’d even stopped chewing his gum. In the lane nearest to him, California had powered back out in front, rowing beautifully. With a tiring field behind them and less than a mile to go Cal was in a commanding position to win. Ky Ebright, it seemed, had somehow outwitted him again.

But if anybody had outwitted Al Ulbrickson, it was his own coxswain—the short kid with his own Phi Beta Kappa key. And now he would show his hand. Suddenly he leaned into Don Hume’s face and bellowed, “Give me ten hard ones for Ulbrickson!” Eight long spruce oars bowed in the water ten times. Then Moch bellowed again, “Give me ten more for Pocock!” Another ten enormous strokes. Then another lie: “Here’s California! We’re on them! Ten more big ones for Mom and Dad!” Very slowly the Husky Clipper slipped past Columbia and began to creep up on Navy in second.

Someone on the train idly remarked, “Well, Washington is picking up.” A minute later someone else called out, much more urgently, “Look at Washington! Look at Washington! Here comes Washington!” On the train and onshore, all eyes shifted from the leaders to the eight white blades barely visible out in the middle of the river. Another deep guttural roar began to rise from the crowd. It seemed impossible for Washington to close the gap. They were a half mile from the finish now, still in third place, still two lengths back. But they were moving, and the way they were moving compelled immediate and absolute attention.

In the boat Moch was incandescent. “OK! Now! Now! Now!” he barked. Don Hume took the stroke up to thirty-five, then to thirty-six, then to thirty-seven. On the starboard side, Joe Rantz fell in behind him, just as smooth as silk. The boat began to swing. The bow began to rise out of the water. Washington slid past the middies as if the Navy boat were pinned to the water.

Cal’s coxswain, Grover Clark, glanced across the river and, for the first time since he’d left it behind at the starting line, he saw the Washington boat, sweeping up on his stern. Stunned, he bellowed at his crew to pick it up, and Cal’s rate climbed quickly to thirty-eight. Moch hollered at Hume to take it up another notch, and Washington went to forty. The rhythm of the California boat seemed to waver, then grow erratic.

California and Washington careened into the last five hundred yards, storming down the corridor of open water between the spectators’ boats. People in rowboats were standing up now, risking a dunking to see what was happening. Some of the large excursion steamers began to list toward the center of the river as people crowded their rails. The roar of the crowd began to engulf the oarsmen. Boat whistles shrieked. On the float in front of Washington’s shell house, Evanda May Calimar, the crew’s cook, waved a frying pan over her head, whooping and urging the boys on. In Washington’s press car, pandemonium broke out. George Varnell of the Seattle Times shoved his press credentials into his mouth and began to devour them. Tom Bolles commenced beating a stranger on the back with his lucky old fedora. Royal Brougham was shouting, “Come on, Washington! Come on!” Only Al Ulbrickson remained motionless and silent, still riveted to his seat, his eyes cold gray stones locked on the white blades out in the river. Joe Williams of the World-Telegram stole a glance at him and thought, “This guy has ice water in his veins.”

With the finish line looming ahead of him in the gathering dark, Bobby Moch screamed something inarticulate. Johnny White, in the number three seat, suddenly had the sensation that they were flying now, not rowing. Stub McMillin desperately wanted to peek, to glance over toward lane one where he knew California would be, but he didn’t dare. In number six, over the crowd noise, Shorty Hunt could hear someone on a radio, yelling frantically. He tried to make out the words, but all he could tell was that something terribly exciting was happening. He had no idea how things stood except that he still hadn’t seen the California boat fall into his field of view. He kept his eyes locked on the back of Joe Rantz’s neck and pulled with his whole heart. Joe had boiled everything down to one action, one continuous movement, one thought: the crew’s old mantra running on through his mind like a river, hearing it over and over, not in his own voice but in George Pocock’s crisp Oxford accent, “M-I-B, M-I-B, M-I-B.”

Then, in the last two hundred yards, thinking itself fell away, and pain suddenly came shrieking back into the boat, descending on all of them at once, searing their legs, their arms, their shoulders, clawing at their backs, tearing at their hearts and lungs as they desperately gulped at the air. And in those last two hundred yards, in an extraordinary burst of speed, rowing at forty strokes per minute, pounding the water into a froth, Washington passed California. With each stroke the boys took their rivals down by the length of another seat. By the time the two boats crossed the line, in the last vestiges of twilight, a glimmer of open water showed between the stern of the Husky Clipper and the bow of the California Clipper.

In the press car, the corners of Al Ulbrickson’s mouth twitched reluctantly into something vaguely resembling a smile. He resumed chewing his gum, slowly and methodically. Standing next to him, George Pocock threw back his head and howled like a banshee. Tom Bolles continued to flog the back of the fellow in front of him with his old fedora. George Varnell removed the well-masticated remains of his press credentials from his mouth. In Seattle, Hazel Ulbrickson and her son Al pounded the glass top of their coffee table until it shattered into dozens of pieces. Up on the automobile bridge, Mike Bogo had the distinct pleasure of setting off seven bombs in rapid succession. In the boat the boys pumped their fists in the dark night air.

For a long while, Ulbrickson just sat there staring into the darkness as fans came rushing through the car congratulating him and slapping him on the back. When he finally stood up, reporters crowded around him and he said, simply, “Well, they made it close. But they won.” Then he elaborated. “I guess that little runt knew what he was doing.”

✵ ✵ ✵

Washington had become the national champions and swept the Hudson. The varsity’s astounding come-from-behind victory that day was historic in its scope and drama. In the press center at the Poughkeepsie railroad station, the nation’s sportswriters sat down to typewriters and began to pound out superlatives. Robert Kelley of the New York Times called it “a high mark in the history of Poughkeepsie.” Herbert Allan of the New York Post called it “spectacular and unprecedented.” George Timpson of the Christian Science Monitor called it “brilliant.” James Burchard of the World-Telegram found more original phrasing: “It was a story of psychology, pure nerve, and rowing intelligence. Moch’s noodle was the best oar in the Washington boat.” Royal Brougham thought long and hard about how to characterize what Bobby Moch had pulled off. Finally he settled on: “It was positively cold blooded.”

Al Ulbrickson went down to the water and followed the boys back upriver to the shell house in his launch. As they rowed upstream in the warm summer dark, Ulbrickson saw that they were pulling flawlessly, with the exceptional grace and precision that was quickly becoming their norm. He grabbed a megaphone and bellowed over the wet growling of the boat’s engine, “Now that’s it! Why didn’t you row like that in the race?” The boys glanced at one another, grinning nervously. Nobody quite knew whether he was kidding or not.

He was, but the comment had purpose. To reach his goal, Ulbrickson was going to have to beat Ebright one more time. In a little less than two weeks, they were going to have to race again, twice, in a pair of two-thousand-meter sprints, to earn the right to represent the United States in Berlin. In one of those races, California would be sitting in an adjoining lane, with one last chance to finally get even and send themselves to Germany. Ulbrickson didn’t want his boys getting all swell-headed again. And, thrilled as he was with the result, he wasn’t entirely pleased with Moch’s insubordination. At any rate, he needed to remind them who was in charge.

But, Dour Dane or not, Ulbrickson also felt the need to say something commensurate with the occasion. When they got to the shell house, they found hundreds of exuberant fans jockeying for space on the wobbly float and milling around in front of the building, hooting and hollering. The boys climbed out of the boat and threw Bobby Moch into the Hudson to the delight of the spectators. Then, after retrieving him from the water, they formed a phalanx, forced their way into the building, and slid the doors closed behind themselves, letting in only a few Seattle pressmen. Ulbrickson climbed up onto a bench and the boys, clutching jerseys they’d collected from the losing crews, sat on the floor around him. “You made history today, you freshmen, junior varsity, and varsity oarsmen and coxswains. I am proud of you. Every son and daughter of Washington is proud of you… . Never in history has a crew given a more gallant, game fight to win the most coveted rowing honor at stake in this country than the varsity did today. And I can only say to you that I am proud and very happy.” He paused and looked around the room and then concluded, “I never expect to see a better rowed race.” Then he stepped down. Nobody cheered. Nobody stood up and applauded. Everyone just sat, silently soaking in the moment. On the stormy night in January 1935, when Ulbrickson had first started talking openly about going to the Olympics, everyone had stood and cheered. But then it had seemed like a dream. Now they were on the verge of actually making it happen. Cheering somehow seemed dangerous.

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Bobby Moch