The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part I. What Seasons They Have Been Through 1899-1933
Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports. Once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions. It calls upon the limits of human endurance. The coach must therefore impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart, and body.
—George Yeoman Pocock
As the autumn of 1933 began to wane, daytime temperatures in Seattle sagged into the low forties, evening temperatures into the twenties. The perpetually somber skies began to drizzle relentlessly. Biting winds blew in from the southwest, kicking up legions of whitecaps on Lake Washington. On October 22 gale winds ripped display signs from buildings downtown, tossed houseboats around on Lake Union, and necessitated the rescue of thirty-three people from various storm-tossed pleasure craft on Puget Sound.
For the boys still competing for a spot on the freshman crew, the deteriorating weather meant new forms of misery as they labored at their oars aboard Old Nero. Rain pelted their bare heads and shoulders. Their oars slapped against wind-tossed waves, sending up plumes of icy spray that blew back into their faces and stung their eyes. Their hands grew so numb that they could never be sure they had a proper hold on their oars. They could not feel their ears or noses. The icy water of the lake beneath them seemed to suck warmth and energy out of them more quickly than they could produce it. Their aching muscles cramped up the moment they stopped moving them. And they dropped like flies.
By October 30 the original 175 had been whittled down to 80 boys competing for a seat in the first two freshman boats. There would be a third boat and a fourth boat too, but nobody sitting in them would be likely to find himself racing in the spring or having a shot at eventually making the varsity crew. Tom Bolles decided it was time to move the best of them out of Old Nero and into shell barges. Both Joe Rantz and Roger Morris were among those he chose.
The shell barges were much like the racing shells the boys aspired to sit in, but they were a few inches broader in the beam, with flatter bottoms and keels. Considerably more stable than racing shells, they were nevertheless eccentric craft, easy to capsize and difficult to maneuver. What had been true before was true all over again: they would have to master an entirely new set of skills simply to remain upright in them. For now, though, it was enough simply to be out of Old Nero and in something resembling a shell, and Joe for one was bursting with pride as he first sat down in one and laced his feet into the foot stretchers.
For both Joe and Roger, making it into the shell barges was sweet recompense for days that had been, ever since school began, brutally long and demanding. Every weekday Roger slogged on foot the two and a half miles from his parents’ house in Fremont to school, labored at his engineering classes until crew practice, and when practice was over, walked back home again to help out with family chores and do his homework. On Friday and Saturday nights, to pay his tuition and help with the home finances, he played saxophone and clarinet in a swing band, the Blue Lyres, he had started in high school. On weekends he worked for his family’s moving business, the Franklin Transfer Company, hoisting sofas and bed sets and pianos in and out of homes all over town. With almost half the mortgages in America delinquent that fall, and a thousand foreclosures occurring every day, it was often sad work as he moved families out of homes they had worked a lifetime to acquire. Too often men stood hollow-eyed and women wept in doorways as Roger loaded onto a truck the last of their possessions, destined not for another home but for an auction house. Each time it happened, Roger whispered a little prayer of gratitude that so far his own family had managed to hang on to their house. Like so many, they had slipped, in a few short years, from a comfortable, secure middle-class existence to one in which every dime seemed harder to come by than the one before. But at least they still had their home.
Roger was a funny sort of fellow—kind of gruff, apt to speak bluntly, almost rudely. He wasn’t easy to buddy up to, but sometimes Joe sat with him in the cafeteria. They talked sporadically, mostly chatting awkwardly about their engineering classes. As often as not, they ate in silence. There seemed to be a tenuous, if unspoken, strand of affection and respect growing between them, but otherwise Joe didn’t feel much kinship with most of the boys in the shell house. Even with the most nattily dressed boys now gone, he still felt that he stuck out among the survivors. He showed up every day in the same rumpled sweater, the only one he owned, and almost every day there were snide remarks about it in the locker room. “Hobo Joe,” the boys snickered. “How’s life down in Hooverville?” “You trying to catch moths with that thing, Rantz?” Joe took to arriving early to change into his rowing clothes before the others showed up.
Every afternoon he hurried from his engineering classes to crew practice. Directly afterward he rushed again, this time to his job in the student athletic store, where he worked until midnight selling everything from candy bars to what an ad for the store euphemistically termed “those guardians of the vital zone.” After work he trudged up University Avenue in the rain and the dark to the YMCA, where he worked as a janitor in exchange for a small, cell-like room just big enough for a desk and a bed. It was just one in a warren of such rooms that had been partitioned off in a converted coal storage basement. The dank, dingy rooms housed an eclectic collection of students, both male and female. Among them was a precocious and stunning young drama student named Frances Farmer, who less than two years later the rest of them would be watching on the silver screen. But there was little in the way of socializing among the denizens of the basement, and for Joe his room represented little more than a place to do his homework and stretch out his aching frame for a few hours before heading off to classes again in the morning. It was not like anything one could call a home.
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As grueling as the fall of 1933 was for Joe, it wasn’t quite all work and loneliness. Joyce was nearby, and that was a consolation.
She had come to Seattle to be with Joe, but also to pursue her own dreams. Her academic success set her on a course that was different from those of most of the farm girls with whom she had gone to high school in Sequim. She didn’t seek a career outside her home; she wanted to raise a family and to do it very well. But she had no intention of living a life like her mother’s, in which housework defined and limited the horizon of her worldview. She wanted to live a life of the mind, and the university was her ticket to that life.
Ironically, though, the only route to her goal lay through still more housework. She walked off a ferry and arrived in downtown Seattle that September desperately needing a place to live and a way to pay for her tuition, her food, and her books. She enrolled at the university and moved in briefly with her aunt Laura, but it was soon clear that, what with the hard times, another mouth to feed was an unwelcome burden on her aunt’s already crimped budget. For the next two weeks, Joyce arose every morning at dawn and hurriedly scanned the all too meager offerings of the help-wanted ads in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Many days fewer than half a dozen ads appeared, alongside long columns of work-wanted ads.
Aside from a bright mind, all Joyce could reasonably offer the world of employers was her skill at doing what she least liked to do, cleaning and cooking. So she focused on ads for domestic service. Unwilling to pay for bus fare, dressed in her Sunday best, she walked miles each time she found an ad for a maid, trekking far out into the fashionable Laurelhurst neighborhood east of the campus or climbing the steep incline up to the crest of Capitol Hill, where stately Victorian houses stood on quiet, shady side streets. Time and again, she was met at the door by the haughty wives of the city’s elite, who ushered her into stuffy front rooms, perched her on ornate sofas, and then demanded references and evidence of her employment experience, neither of which Joyce could offer.
Finally, one hot afternoon, after another disheartening interview in Laurelhurst, Joyce decided simply to start knocking on doors. The houses here were massive and elegant. Perhaps someone needed help and hadn’t gotten around to placing an ad. She walked up and down the street, her swollen and arthritic feet aching, sweat building up under her arms, her hair growing damp and disheveled as she traipsed up long walkways to formidable front doors and rapped gently.
Late that day a gaunt-looking elderly gentleman, a prominent local judge, came to his door, heard her out, cocked his head, studied her carefully, but asked no difficult questions about references or experience. There was a long, awkward silence as the judge contemplated her. Finally he croaked, “Come back in the morning, and we’ll see if you fit in the last maid’s uniform.”
The uniform fit, and with that Joyce had landed a job.
Now on weekend evenings, when she could get some time off, she and Joe could board a streetcar for a few cents and go downtown to catch a Charlie Chan or Mae West movie for forty cents more. Friday nights were college nights at Club Victor, which meant no cover charge and a chance to dance to the offerings of a local bandmaster, Vic Meyers. Saturdays often brought a football game, and every football game called for a dance afterward in the women’s gym. Joe and Joyce went to nearly all of them, Joe springing for the twenty-five-cent admission. But dancing on a basketball court to the blaring of the school band wasn’t particularly romantic, wasn’t really much better than dancing in the close, sweaty confines of the Chicken Coop back in Sequim. Joe couldn’t do what he most wanted to do, to take Joyce out to the swank places downtown that many of her friends frequented. They were the kinds of places where Joyce might have worn a chiffon gown, and Joe a suit, if either had had such a thing—places like the Trianon Ballroom at Third and Wall, with its vast polished-maple dance floor capable of holding five thousand at a time, its glittering chandeliers, its pink walls painted with tropical scenes, and its silver clamshell hood suspended over the bandstand. At places like that, you could dance all night to the likes of the Dorsey Brothers and Guy Lombardo. Joyce professed not to care, but it pained Joe that he could not take her there.
In mid-November the campus crackled with excitement and anticipation as the annual homecoming game with the University of Oregon approached. As a prelude Joe and his freshman crewmates took on the varsity crew in a football game of their own and were unceremoniously crushed by the older boys. It was a loss the freshmen wouldn’t forget, and they swore they would have their revenge on the water. In the meantime, though, tradition demanded that the losers prepare a banquet for the victors, and the student paper, the University of Washington Daily, seized on the opportunity to gibe the freshman crew: “their menu should be easy to select for they caught plenty of crabs on Sunday.”
On November 17 a pall fell over the campus when, just at the height of the festivities, tragedy struck. A freshman, Willis Thompson, attempting to start a bonfire for a rally, splashed gasoline on his clothes and set himself afire. After lingering in great pain for several days, Thompson died the following week.
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A pall of another, quite literal, sort continued to hang over the larger world as well that month. On November 11 farmers in the Dakotas awoke after a windy night to find something they had never seen before—daytime skies turned black by topsoil scoured from their fields and carried aloft by the wind. The next day the skies over Chicago grew dark as the dust cloud traveled eastward, and a few days later people in upstate New York looked up, astonished, into skies the color of rust. Nobody knew it yet, but the dust that month, that first “black blizzard,” was merely a harbinger of what would come to be called the Dust Bowl, the second great act in the long tragedy of the 1930s and early 1940s. The winds of November 1933 would soon be followed by others, even stronger, that would blow away much of the topsoil of the American plains and send hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming westward across the continent in search of jobs that did not exist—adrift, rootless, homeless, dispossessed in their own land, their confidence as well as their livelihoods carried away on the wind.
And increasingly there were distant but dark rumblings from Germany, intimations of the third and most tragic act. On October 14, Hitler had abruptly quit the League of Nations and discontinued Germany’s ongoing disarmament talks with France and her allies. It was a deeply disturbing turn of events, essentially abrogating the Treaty of Versailles and undermining the foundations on which European peace had been built since 1919. Krupp, Germany’s legendary armament and munitions manufacturer, had begun secretly working on an initial order of 135 Panzer I tanks. Observers in Panama had recently noted an enormous surge in the number of shipments of nitrates—used in the manufacturing of munitions—passing through the canal under blind sailing orders, en route from Chile to the Azores, heading in the direction of Europe, ultimate destination unknown.
On the streets of German cities that fall, Americans and other foreign nationals were assaulted by storm troopers when they refused to give Nazi salutes, prompting the United States, Britain, and Holland to issue warnings to Berlin of “most serious consequences” should the attacks continue. By late fall reports were reaching as far as Seattle. Richard Tyler, dean of engineering at the University of Washington, just back from Germany himself, reported his observations in an article in the Daily: “The people of Germany today are afraid to express opinions even on trivial matters,” he said, before going on to observe that anyone saying anything that could be interpreted as unflattering to the Nazis was liable to be arrested and incarcerated without trial. And though neither Tyler nor any of his readers yet knew it, the Nazis had in fact already imprisoned thousands of political dissidents in a camp they had opened in March near the charming little medieval village of Dachau.
Tyler’s account and scores of others even more sinister, particularly those by Jewish emigrants from Germany, fell almost entirely on deaf ears in America that fall. When the student body at Washington was polled on the question of whether the United States should ally itself with France and Britain to oppose Germany, the results were the same as they had been in similar polls nearly everywhere else in the country: 99 percent said no. On November 15, Will Rogers neatly and characteristically summed up the American attitude toward the prospect of a second French-German conflict with a simple, homespun image. The United States, he said, ought to “just let those two old tomcats whose tails are tied together over the fence alone and try to cure the scratches we got the last time we tried to untie ’em.”
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On the afternoon of November 28, the last practice day of the fall term, the freshmen took one final, frigid workout. When the last of them had returned to the shell house, Coach Bolles told the boys to stick around, that it was time to announce who had made the first and second boats. Then he ducked into Al Ulbrickson’s office.
The boys glanced at one another. Through the steamy panes of the glassed-in cubbyhole that served as the coaches’ office, they could see Ulbrickson and Bolles hunched over a desk in their flannel suits, studying a piece of paper. The shell house reeked sourly of sweat and damp socks and mildew, as it did every afternoon now that the rainy season had begun. The afternoon’s last feeble light filtered down from the windows above. Occasional gusts of wind buffeted the massive sliding door. As the two coaches lingered in the office, the boys’ usual post-practice banter and joshing faded away and was replaced by an uncomfortable silence. The only sound was a soft tapping. Up in the loft at the back of the room, Pocock was nailing together the frame for a new shell. Roger Morris drifted over and stood quietly next to Joe, toweling his hair dry.
Bolles emerged from the office and climbed up onto a bench, clutching the piece of paper. The boys shuffled into a semicircle around him.
He began by saying that this was just a preliminary selection, that all of them could continue to compete for the seats he was about to announce, that he encouraged them to do so, that nobody should get all swell headed just because he heard his name called out now. Nobody should think he was a sure thing. There wasn’t any such animal. Then he began to read off the names on the list, moving first through the assignments for the second boat, announcing the names of boys who would make up the primary challengers to the presumptive favorites in the first freshman boat.
When Bolles finished announcing the second boat, Joe glanced at Roger, who was staring morosely down at the floor. Neither of them had been called. But neither had long to wait. Bolles began calling out the first-boat assignments: “Bow seat, Roger Morris. Number two seat, Shorty Hunt. Number three seat, Joe Rantz …” As Bolles continued, Joe clenched his fist at his side and gave it a subtle little pump, unwilling to celebrate any more demonstrably than that in front of the boys who had not been selected. Next to him, Roger began to exhale softly.
As the rest of the boys headed toward the showers, those selected for the first boat took a shell barge off its rack, hoisted it over their heads, and marched it down to the darkening lake for a celebratory row. A light but cutting wind ruffled the water. As the sun set, they laced their feet into the stretchers and began to row westward through the Cut and Portage Bay and out onto Lake Union, seeking calmer water than could be found on the open expanse of Lake Washington.
The temperatures had fallen into the upper thirties, and it felt even colder out on the water. Joe hardly noticed. As the boat slipped onto the surface of Lake Union, the noise of city traffic fell away, and he entered into a world completely silent except for the rhythmic barking of the coxswain in the stern. Joe’s seat slid methodically and silently back and forth on the greased runners beneath him. His arms and legs pulled and pushed smoothly, almost easily. When the white blade of his oar entered the black water, it merely murmured.
At the north end of the lake, the coxswain called out, “Way … ’nuff!” The boys stopped rowing and the shell glided to a stop, the long oars trailing in the water alongside them. Dark clouds fringed with silver moonlight scudded by overhead, carried briskly along by the winds aloft. The boys sat without talking, breathing heavily, exhaling plumes of white breath. Even now that they had stopped rowing, their breathing was synchronized, and for a brief, fragile moment it seemed to Joe as if all of them were part of a single thing, something alive with breath and spirit of its own. To the west, silver headlights crawled slowly across the spidery steel arch of the new Aurora Bridge. To the south, the amber lights of downtown Seattle danced on the waves. Atop Queen Anne Hill, ruby-red lights on radio towers winked on and off. Joe gulped huge drafts of the frigid air and sat staring at the scene, watching it turn into a soft blur of colors as, for the first time since his family had left him, tears filled his eyes.
He turned his face to the water, fiddling with his oarlock so the others would not see. He didn’t know where the tears had come from, what they were all about. But something inside him had shifted, if only for a few moments.
The boys had caught their breaths, and they were talking softly, not joking for a change, not horsing around, just talking quietly about the lights and what lay before them. Then the coxswain called out, “Ready all!” Joe turned and faced the rear of the boat, slid his seat forward, sank the white blade of his oar into the oil-black water, tensed his muscles, and waited for the command that would propel him forward into the glimmering darkness.
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On the second day of December 1933, it began to rain in Seattle as it had never rained before and has never rained since. Over the next thirty days, there was only one day when the skies were not leaden with clouds, only four when it did not rain. By the end of the month, fourteen and a quarter inches of rain had fallen at the University of Washington. Fifteen and a third inches had fallen downtown, still the all-time record for any month of the year. Some days it drizzled; some days it poured. Either way, it just kept coming.
Rivers all across western Washington—the Chehalis, the Snoqualmie, the Duwamish, the Skykomish, the Stillaguamish, the Skokomish, the Snohomish—overflowed their banks, sweeping away farmhouses, washing millions of tons of topsoil into Puget Sound, flooding the commercial districts of riverside communities from the Canadian border all the way south to the Columbia. North of Seattle the swollen Skagit River sliced though earthen dikes near its mouth and sent tidal salt water spilling across twenty thousand acres of the richest farmland in the state.
In many of Seattle’s nicest hillside neighborhoods—places like Alki and Madrona and Magnolia—homes slid from eroding bluffs and tumbled into Lake Washington or Puget Sound. Roadways cracked and followed the homes downhill. Downtown, storm water overwhelmed the sewers, bubbled up through manholes, and flooded the streets and businesses of the low-lying International District. In the miserable shantytown spread out along the shore of Elliott Bay, unrelenting rain dissolved newspaper that had been wadded into chinks in flimsy walls, worked its way through the weather-beaten fabric of old tents, and dripped through rusty corrugated steel roofs, soaking old mattresses lying on muddy floors and chilling to the bone those who tried to sleep on them.
In the midst of this onslaught, as soon as final exams were over for the fall quarter, Joyce took some time off from her job, and she and Joe went home to Sequim for Christmas break. Joe visited with the McDonalds and checked on the house on Silberhorn, but he stayed at Joyce’s parents’ house, sleeping in a bed in the attic. When he had settled in, Joyce’s mother pulled out a clipping from the local newspaper and showed him the headline: “Joe Rantz Makes First Crew.” He was, she told him, becoming quite the talk of the town.