The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part II. Resiliency 1934
Rowing a race is an art, not a frantic scramble. It must be rowed with head power as well as hand power. From the first stroke all thoughts of the other crew must be blocked out. Your thoughts must be directed to you and your own boat, always positive, never negative.
—George Yeoman Pocock
Joe Rantz and his crewmates lined up along the ferry’s railing and gazed out over the water, using their hands to shield their eyes against the glare of the late afternoon sun. It had been two hours since they had defeated the California freshmen. Now it was the varsity’s turn to take on Ky Ebright’s boys.
What transpired over the next several minutes turned out to be one of the great varsity races in the history of the Cal-Washington rivalry. Immediately after the race, Frank G. Gorrie, writing for the Associated Press, wired an exuberant account back east for his national audience: “The famous racing eights flashed down the sun-speckled waters as if they were hooked together. First one then another forged into the lead but never by more than a few feet. California had a shade at the start, lost ground at the mile, poked its bow out again at the mile-and-a-half mark, fell behind as Washington hit ‘ten big ones’ three successive times at the two-mile mark, came back strong a moment later.”
Joe watched with fascination as the drama unfolded. Time and again the students on the ferry called out for Washington to “take it up,” to raise the stroke and put California away. Cal was pounding the water white at a vigorous rate of thirty-six strokes per minute, but for more than two and a half miles Washington’s coxswain, Harvey Love, kept the stroke steady at a relatively relaxed thirty-one, doing only as much as necessary to keep his boat in contention, sending his boys surging forward by calling for big tens when he was in danger of falling too far behind, but then settling in, holding steady, conserving his crew. It was only as they came within sight of the barge marking the finish line, after California had tried again and again to pull away and failed each time, that Love finally barked out, “Now! Turn on the heat!” The stroke rate went up to thirty-eight, then almost immediately to forty. The Washington boat leapt forward, the California boat hesitated for a moment, and Washington crossed the line a little more than a second ahead of California, with a new course record at 16:33.4.
It was a stirring race, but, more than that, it was a primer for Joe and the other freshmen on how the man who would become their primary coach in the fall, Al Ulbrickson, went about winning. In some ways the lesson was one that Tom Bolles had already illustrated when he had concealed the freshmen’s best times from Ebright and explained to his boys the value of letting Cal stick its neck out too far. But watching the varsity race drove the lesson home for Joe. To defeat an adversary who was your equal, maybe even your superior, it wasn’t necessarily enough just to give your all from start to finish. You had to master your opponent mentally. When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not—that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown, something that once revealed would make him doubt himself, make him falter just when it counted the most. Like so much in life, crew was partly about confidence, partly about knowing your own heart.
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In the days following the 1934 California-Washington race, the freshmen promptly fell into another slump. Day after day they turned in discouraging times. Since beating California, they appeared to have lost all focus. The more Tom Bolles bellowed at them through his megaphone, the sloppier they seemed to get.
One lazy day in early May, with a warm sun beating down on their bare backs, some of the boys rowed so lethargically that they failed to cross quickly in front of an oncoming tugboat pulling a barge. The tug bore down on their shell, belching black smoke, its whistle shrieking, its horn blaring. The coxswain, John Merrill, shouted, “Back! Back!” The boy in the number four seat panicked and threw himself awkwardly overboard, nearly capsizing the shell. The tug swerved hard to port, grazed the bow of the shell, and narrowly missed the boy in the water. Bolles, watching from his launch, was fit to be tied. He plucked the red-faced jumper from the water, gunned the motor on the launch, and headed for the shell house.
The boys rowed back to campus in silence. Bolles was waiting for them. He rampaged up and down the dock, shaking his finger at the boys as they sat in their shell. He was going to rebuild the crew from scratch for the Poughkeepsie Regatta in June, he growled. Nobody’s seat was safe just because he had rowed in the boat that had defeated California so impressively. Joe’s heart sank. What had seemed briefly like a sure bet was suddenly in jeopardy again. That same week he got a note from the administration announcing that he was failing PE, for which his rowing was supposed to substitute. Joe, who had just seen a Paramount movie short featuring a cartoon character new to the silver screen, Popeye the Sailor, wrote in his scrapbook that night, “I yam disgusted.”
By mid-May the weather in Seattle, as it sometimes cruelly does in late spring, reverted from sunny to foul, and the freshmen found themselves once more struggling against headwinds, their hands numb with cold, whitecaps breaking over the bow. And yet to their own and their coaches’ surprise, the worse the weather got, the better they began to row.
Rowing against a sharp north wind on one of those wet, gray days in late May, with spray flying off the oars at every release and water sloshing in the bottom of the boat, Joe and his crewmates in the first boat finished a time trial in 10:35, just four seconds off the record for that course. George Pocock watched the performance from aboard the Alumnus. When he got back ashore, he walked up to a reporter at the shell house, buttonholed him, and rendered a startling verdict: “Tom Bolles has a fine rough-water boat,” he said quietly but forcefully. “It is as good as any I have seen.” Coming from Pocock, a reserved and modest man who was not prone to exaggeration in regard to anything, and least of all in regard to the rowing ability of a boatload of freshmen, this was something akin to a divine proclamation. Tom Bolles stopped talking about rebuilding the crew from scratch. The nine freshman boys who had beaten California would go to Poughkeepsie to race for the national championship after all.
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On the evening of June 1, 1934, the University of Washington’s marching band and more than a thousand fans crammed into the ornate marble lobby of the King Street railroad station in Seattle, cheering and singing fight songs as the freshman and varsity crews boarded a Great Northern train, the Empire Builder, on their way to Poughkeepsie. The freshman boys, in particular, were in high spirits. Few of them had ever been outside of western Washington; most had never been on a train. Yet here they were, about to cross the entire continent. For boys who had been brought up milking cows and swinging axes and stacking lumber, who knew the first names of half the people in the towns they came from, whose parents could tell them about the first time they had seen an automobile or a house with electricity, this was heady stuff.
As he sat in his plush seat, looking out through the green-tinted window of the Pullman coach, Joe could not quite believe the hubbub now spilling from the lobby out onto the platform. He had never been celebrated for anything, and yet here he was, a part of something that was the focus of not just admiration but a kind of adulation. It filled him with pride but also with a strained, churning unease. It brought up things he spent a lot of time trying not to think about these days.
That evening, as the Empire Builder climbed over the Cascades at Stevens Pass and set out across the arid wheat country of eastern Washington, the boys were on a lark. They caroused late into the night, playing cards, telling off-color jokes, racing up and down the aisles of the Pullman coach, tossing a football back and forth, until they finally exhausted themselves and tumbled into their berths.
The merriment resumed the next day when someone produced a package of balloons. They filled the balloons with water in the lavatory, positioned themselves on the clattering platforms between coaches, and as they rolled across Montana and into North Dakota, began gleefully lobbing the water balloons at any available target—cows grazing in fields, dusty cars waiting at clanging railroad crossings, sleeping dogs sprawled on platforms in small-town stations—each time breaking into a chorus of “Bow Down to Washington” as they rumbled past their astonished victims.
Later Joe, emboldened by the water-balloon adventure, pulled from its case the guitar he had somewhat nervously brought along. Curious, some of the older boys gathered around him as he started twisting pegs and plucking at strings to tune the instrument. Looking at the frets, concentrating on his fingering, he began to strum chords and sing, launching into the kinds of songs that he had played in high school—camp tunes and cowboy songs he’d learned at the Gold and Ruby mine or picked up listening to the radio back in Sequim.
At first the boys just stared at him as he sang; then they began to glance at one another, then to snicker, and finally to hoot and holler. “Lookee there at Cowboy Joe!” one shouted. Another called down the aisle, “Hey, boys, come and hear Rantz, the rowing troubadour!” Joe looked up, startled, and stopped playing abruptly in the middle of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Red-faced but with his jaw set and his eyes stone cold, he quickly fumbled the guitar back into its case and retreated to another coach.
Few things could have been more hurtful for Joe. His music was what had brightened the bleakest days of his boyhood. It had drawn people to him in high school, made him friends, and even helped him eke out a living in Sequim. It was his special talent, a particular point of pride. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, it had turned on him, reminding him of how short he fell in matters of sophistication. Just when he had begun to feel that he was becoming part of something larger than himself, he was cast out again.
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When they arrived in New York, on June 6, the Washington crews moved their shells into a dilapidated old boathouse on the western, Highland, side of the Hudson River, across from Poughkeepsie. The boathouse was not much more than a shed, really. It was drafty, rickety, perched on thin stilts over the river, with showers that pumped foul-smelling water directly from the Hudson over the boys’ heads.
Tom Bolles hustled his freshmen out onto the water that same day, anxious to see how they would handle the unfamiliar racecourse. This would be the first time they rowed on a river rather than a lake, the first time, in fact, that they rowed anywhere other than Lake Washington. The weather was unlike anything the boys had experienced back home—oppressively hot and sticky. By the time they had carried their shell, the City of Seattle, down to the water, they were already drenched in sweat. There was a bit of a breeze on the water, but even the wind seemed molten to them as they climbed into the shell. They stripped off their shirts, dragged them through the Hudson’s foul water, and put them back on, but that only seemed to make the humidity more unbearable. Bolles told them to row upriver at a warm-up pace for a few minutes. He climbed into a launch and began to follow them. When he judged them ready, he lifted his megaphone and told them to take it up to a sprint. The boys leaned into their oars and took it up, but Bolles didn’t even bother to look at his stopwatch. He could see at a glance that they were rowing well off their best pace. Worse, they looked ragged, clearly knackered by the heat, and were wandering from one side of the course to the other. They could handle almost any amount of wind and wave on Lake Washington, but the waves on the Hudson were different—long, low waves that hit the boat from the side, leaving the blades of their oars flailing at air one moment, sunk too deep in the water the next. The effects of tide and current baffled them. The water itself was not supposed to move under their boat, was not supposed to take them places they did not intend to go. Bolles shouted, “Way ’nuff!” through his megaphone and waved the boys back to the shell house. He was going to need to talk to Pocock.
The boys, discouraged, stowed their shell, showered in caustic river water, and made a long trek on foot up the railroad tracks running along the western shoreline before climbing the face of the Highland bluff to Florence Palmer’s boarding house, where they were to be lodged. Mrs. Palmer’s farmhouse was small, her fare light. The meager products of her kitchen could not begin to satisfy the appetites of two dozen tall, strapping boys and a handful of coaches and coxswains. The boys ate everything in sight and then climbed wearily up to attic bedrooms where, crammed six to a room, they tried to sleep in the wet, suffocating heat on cots that seemed more like torture racks than beds.
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The Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s regatta at Poughkeepsie was a storied institution, with roots deep in the history of American rowing.
The first great rowing spectacle in America was a dual match in New York Harbor in 1824, between a crew of four New York City watermen racing in a twenty-four-foot Whitehall boat, the American Star, taking on four sailors from a visiting British warship, manning a similar boat, the Certain Death. With the War of 1812 and the burning of the White House still a reasonably fresh memory, feelings were high, particularly on the American side. The Americans won the race, and the hefty thousand-dollar purse, rowing from the Battery to Hoboken and back before a wildly enthusiastic crowd of somewhere between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand spectators, at the time the largest assemblage of Americans ever to have watched a sporting event.
In the 1830s, private rowing clubs began to appear in various American cities, and by the 1840s a few eastern colleges had assembled crews. The first collegiate crew race in America—and in fact the first American intercollegiate athletic event of any kind—took place between Harvard and Yale in 1852, on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. With a few interruptions—major wars that have taken the young men at each school off to other, more hazardous occupations—the Harvard-Yale Regatta has been raced every subsequent year since 1859. For much of that time, the regatta was one of the country’s premier sporting events. In 1869, Harvard met Britain’s most elite institution, Oxford, in a match on the Thames. Rowing before an immense crowd, Oxford defeated Harvard, but the event was so widely publicized in the United States that it produced an explosion of interest in rowing. It also imbued the sport with an aura of elitism that has lingered to this day.
Other eastern colleges soon launched rowing programs, and many of them began to compete against one another in head-to-head regattas. But Harvard and Yale did not row in any kind of intercollegiate championship regatta beyond their own annual match, and there was no semblance of a national championship event until 1895. Then, spurred on by the New York Central Railroad, Cornell, Columbia, and Pennsylvania agreed to form the Intercollegiate Rowing Association and meet annually on a straight four-mile stretch of the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, where amateur and professional oarsmen had been racing since the 1860s. Almost immediately following that first meeting—won by Cornell on June 21, 1895—other schools began to be invited to Poughkeepsie, and the regatta came to be seen as the most prestigious crew race in the country, eclipsing even the annual Harvard-Yale boat race and coming to represent the equivalent of a national championship.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, rowing clubs flourished in the enclaves of the well-heeled. Luxury hotels and ocean liners—among them the Titanic—installed batteries of rowing machines so their clients could stay in shape and emulate their rowing heroes. By the second decade of the new century, tens of thousands of fans—as many as 125,000 in 1929—came to Poughkeepsie to watch the annual regatta in person; millions more listened to the radio coverage; and the regatta came to rival the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl, and the World Series as a major national sporting event.
For most of the first quarter of the century, the eastern colleges thoroughly dominated the regatta. No western school even dared to compete until Stanford appeared in 1912, only to finish a distant sixth. The following year Hiram Conibear brought a Washington varsity crew east for the first time. Though his rural, homespun western boys did not win, they came in third, an outcome that shocked the eastern fans and press. In 1915 they were shocked again when Stanford came in second. One more or less appalled New York writer that year noted that “if Stanford had not been using a clumsily-built Western shell they might have won.” In fact, Stanford had used an Eastern-built boat, having left their sleek Pocock-built shell at home in Palo Alto.
During the next ten years, though, the western schools—California, Stanford, and Washington—only occasionally ventured back to Poughkeepsie. It was hard to justify the trip. Transporting a crew and several delicate racing shells to the East was an expensive proposition, and the western boys were met each time with an uncomfortable mixture of gawking curiosity, subtle condescension, and occasional open derision. Eastern fans, alumni, and sportswriters, and the national press as well, were accustomed to seeing the sons of senators, governors, titans of industry, and even presidents—not farmers and fishermen and lumberjacks—sitting in shells on the Hudson.
Then, on a rainy June evening in 1923, Washington’s varsity crew returned to Poughkeepsie under their new head coach, Russell “Rusty” Callow. After pulling away from the rest of the field, Washington and an elite Navy crew entered the home stretch rowing bow to bow. With the roar of the crowd drowning out his commands, Washington’s coxswain, Don Grant, suddenly raised a red flag (cut hastily from a Cornell banner just before the race) over his head to signal his boys that this was the moment to give it their all. Washington’s stroke oar, Dow Walling, one of his legs grotesquely inflamed by three enormous boils, slid forward on his seat, drove both legs sternward, and took the rate up above the furious forty at which the Washington boys were already rowing. The boat shot forward and Washington narrowly eked out the West’s first IRA victory. The exuberant Husky crew gingerly hoisted Walling out of the shell and sent him off to the hospital. Astonished fans and journalists gathered around them on the dock, peppering them with questions: Was the University of Washington in the District of Columbia? Where exactly was Seattle, anyway? Were any of them really lumberjacks? The boys, flashing wide grins, said little but began handing out miniature totem poles.
Watching the conclusion of the race from the coaches’ launch, George Pocock whooped and hollered uncharacteristically. Later the typically reserved Englishman confessed, “I must have acted like a child.” But he had good reason. He had built the Spanish cedar shell in which Washington had won. It was the first time easterners had had a chance to see his handiwork. Within a few days of returning to Seattle, orders for eight new eight-man shells had arrived at his shop. Less than a decade later, most of the shells in the Poughkeepsie Regatta would be Pocock’s. By 1943, all of them—thirty shells in total—would be his.
Dr. Loyal Shoudy, a prominent and fanatically loyal Washington alumnus, was so impressed by the boys’ achievement that he took them into New York City that night and treated them to a stage show and a gala dinner. At the dinner, each boy found a ten-dollar bill at his plate, along with a purple tie. For decades afterward, Washington crewmembers were feted at the end of each rowing year with a Loyal Shoudy banquet, where each found a purple tie waiting at his plate.
The next year, 1924, Washington returned, with a young Al Ulbrickson rowing at stroke, and won the varsity race again, decisively this time. In 1926 they did it yet again, this time with Ulbrickson rowing the final quarter of a mile with a torn muscle in one arm. In 1928, Ky Ebright’s California Bears won their first Poughkeepsie title en route to winning the Olympics that year and again in 1932. By 1934 the western schools were finally beginning to be taken seriously. Still, for most who sailed their yachts up the Hudson to watch the races each June, whether from Manhattan or from the Hamptons, it remained a natural assumption that this year the East would once again resume its proper and long-established place atop the rowing world.
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The rise of the western crews may have shocked eastern fans, but it delighted newspaper editors across the country in the 1930s. The story fit in with a larger sports narrative that had fueled newspaper and newsreel sales since the rivalry between two boxers—a poor, part-Cherokee Coloradoan named Jack Dempsey and an easterner and ex-Marine named Gene Tunney—had riveted the nation’s attention in the 1920s. The East versus West rivalry carried over to football with the annual East-West Shrine Game and added interest every January to the Rose Bowl—then the nearest thing to a national collegiate football championship. And it was about to have additional life breathed into it when an oddly put together but spirited, rough-and-tumble racehorse named Seabiscuit would appear on the western horizon to challenge and defeat the racing establishment’s darling, the king of the eastern tracks, War Admiral.
A notable element of all these East-West rivalries was that the western representatives nearly always seemed to embody certain attributes that stood in stark contrast to those of their eastern counterparts. They seemed, as a rule, self-made, rough hewn, wild, native, brawny, simple, and perhaps, in the eyes of some, a bit coarse; their eastern counterparts seemed, as a rule, well bred, sophisticated, moneyed, refined, and perhaps, in their own eyes at least, a bit superior. There was frequently some element of truth in these essential lines of differentiation. But the eastern perceptions of the rivalry often took on an element of snobbery, and this rankled western athletes and fans.
It further rankled the westerners that the prejudices of the East overwhelmingly prevailed in the national press, which often seemed to operate on the assumption that anything west of the Rockies was China. Sometimes the same attitudes prevailed even in the western press. Throughout the 1930s, even after Washington’s and California’s victories at Poughkeepsie, the Los Angeles Times, for instance, spilled far more ink covering the turnouts, boat assignments, coaching changes, and trial heats of eastern crews than the outright victories and increasingly impressive record times of western ones.
Joe and the other freshman boys from Washington who showed up for the 1934 Poughkeepsie Regatta could not have been better cast to play their parts in the ongoing regional conflict. The economic hardships of the last few years had only sharpened the distinctions between them and the boys they were about to take on. And it had only made their story more compelling for the nation at large. The 1934 regatta was once again shaping up to be a clash of eastern privilege and prestige on the one hand and western sincerity and brawn on the other. In financial terms, it was pretty starkly going to be a clash of old money versus no money at all.
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In the last few days leading up to the regatta, the coaches of most of the eighteen crews involved began to hold their final workouts late at night, both to spare their boys the cruel heat of midday and to use the cover of darkness to conceal their times and racing strategies from one another and from the legions of inquisitive sportswriters who had descended on the Poughkeepsie riverside.
Race day, Saturday, June 16, dawned clear and warm. By noon, as race fans began to arrive by train and by automobile from all over the East, men were already shedding their coats and ties, women donning broad-brimmed sun hats and sunglasses. By midafternoon, the town of Poughkeepsie was pulsating with humanity. Hotel lobbies and restaurants were jam-packed with fans sipping various icy concoctions, many of them well fortified with alcohol now that Prohibition was finally over. On the streets, vendors with pushcarts made their way through the throngs, hawking hot dogs and ice cream cones.
All afternoon trolleys rattled down the bluff on the steep Poughkeepsie side of the Hudson, transporting fans to the waterside. A gray heat haze hung over the river. White electric ferries made their way back and forth, shuttling fans over to the west side, where an observation train awaited them, its thirteen white-skirted flat cars outfitted with bleachers. By 5:00 p.m., more than seventy-five thousand people lined both banks of the river, sitting on beaches, standing on docks, perched on roofs, bluffs, and palisades along the racecourse, sipping lemonade and fanning themselves with copies of the program.
The freshman race was set to go off first, over a two-mile course, followed at hourly intervals by the junior varsity three-mile race and finally the varsity four-miler. As Joe and his crewmates paddled the City of Seattle from their boathouse out onto the river, they got their first good look at the spectacle of a Poughkeepsie Regatta. Exactly a mile upriver from the soaring, spidery 6,767-foot-long steel span of the old railroad bridge, built in 1889, a line of stake boats—seven identical rowboats at anchor—was stretched out across the river to form a starting line. In each stake boat, an official sat ready to hold the stern of the shell assigned to that lane until the starting pistol was fired. Half a mile below the railroad bridge was a new automobile bridge on which stood dozens of additional officials. Between the two bridges and down to the finish line, the river was jammed with yachts at anchor, their teak decks crowded with race fans, many of them wearing crisp nautical whites and royal-blue caps with gold braid. Canoes and wooden motorboats darted in and out among the yachts. Only the seven racing lanes in the middle of the river remained clear and open water. Just short of the finish line, a gleaming white 250-foot coast guard cutter, the Champlain, was tied up in the shadow of an imposing grim, gray U.S. Navy destroyer, the crew of the latter on hand to cheer on the midshipmen from Annapolis. Up and down the river, an assortment of tall ships with black hulls—schooners and sloops dating from the previous century—also lay at anchor. Bright arrays of nautical pennants dangled from their riggings.
As the freshman boats approached the stake boats at the starting line, the coaches’ launches fell in behind their respective crews, their inboard engines sputtering and gurgling as they idled, with white exhaust fumes burbling from the water behind them. The smell of diesel fuel hung faintly over the river. Tom Bolles, wearing his good-luck fedora, bellowed last-minute instructions to George Morry, his coxswain. Washington was in lane three, right next to the Syracuse Orange in lane two. Coached by a rowing legend, eighty-four-year-old Jim Ten Eyck—reputed to have first rowed competitively in 1863, the day after the Battle of Gettysburg—the Orange had won three of the last four freshman titles and were the defending champions and presumed favorites.
The heat had abated by just a degree or two. A hint of a north wind lightly ruffled the water, lead colored now in the late afternoon haze. The pennants on the tall ships stirred lazily. As the Washington boys backed their shell into position, the official in the stake boat for lane three reached out a hand and laid hold of their stern. Morry barked at George Lund, up front, to straighten the bow. Morry raised his hand to signal the starter that his boat was ready to row. Joe Rantz took a deep breath, settling his mind. Roger Morris adjusted his grip on his oar.
At the crack of the starting pistol, Syracuse immediately jumped in front, rowing at thirty-four, followed closely by Washington, rowing at thirty-one. Everyone else—Columbia, Rutgers, Pennsylvania, and Cornell—began to fall behind almost immediately. At a quarter of a mile down the river, it looked as if the Orange of Syracuse would, as predicted, settle into the lead. But by the half-mile mark, Washington had crept up and nosed ahead of them without raising its stroke rate. As the leaders swept under the railroad bridge at a mile, officials on the bridge set off a salvo of three bombs, signifying that the boat in lane three, Washington, was ahead with another mile still to go. Slowly the bow of the Syracuse boat came into Joe’s field of view, just beginning to fall away behind him. He ignored it, focused instead on the oar in his hands, pulling hard and pulling smoothly, rowing comfortably, almost without pain. At the mile-and-a-half mark, someone in the middle of the Syracuse boat caught a crab. The Orange faltered for a moment, then immediately recovered their rhythm. But it no longer mattered. Washington was two and a half lengths ahead. Cornell, in third, had all but disappeared, eight lengths farther back. George Morry whipped his head around, took a quick look, and was startled at the length of their lead. Nevertheless, as he had against California in April on Lake Washington, he called up the rate in the last few hundred feet, just for the show of it. Another salvo of three bombs exploded as Tom Bolles’s boys passed the finish line an astonishing five lengths ahead of Syracuse.
In Seattle and in Sequim, people huddled around radios in their kitchens and parlors stood and cheered when they heard the final salvo. Just like that, the farm boys and fishermen and shipyard workers from Washington State, boys who just nine months before had never rowed a lick, had whipped the best boats in the East and become national freshman champions.
The boys shook one another’s hands, paddled over to the Syracuse boat, collected trophy shirts off the backs of the defeated Orangemen and shook their hands, and then rowed leisurely back to their shell house. They clambered out of the City of Seattle, onto the floating dock, and reenacted a universal ritual of winning crews: the dunking of the coxswain. Four of the boys tackled Morry before he could escape up the ramp, swung him back and forth three times by his arms and legs, and launched him far out over the Hudson, where he spiraled through the air, with legs and arms flailing, before landing on his back with a satisfying splash. When Morry had swum back to the dock, the boys helped him out of the fetid water and made their way upstairs into the rickety shell house to take their showers and get their own tastes of the Hudson. Tom Bolles rushed to the Western Union office in Poughkeepsie and fired off telegrams back home. So did George Varnell of the Seattle Times: “There is not a happier bunch of lads in this entire country. Take that as the straight dope.”
But it wasn’t just folks back home who stood up and paid attention to what had just happened. There was something about the way the Washington freshmen had won that caught the attention of nearly everyone in Poughkeepsie that day, just as it caught the attention of race fans around the country who listened on radios or read about it in newspapers the following day. Despite its relative lack of drama, the New York Times—the very epitome of the eastern establishment—called the race “stunning.” It wasn’t the margin of victory or the time of 10:50 that people marveled at. It was how the boys had rowed the race. From the starting gun to the final salvo, they had rowed as if they could keep going at the same pace for another two miles or ten. They had rowed with so much composure, so “serenely” as the Times put it, so completely within themselves, that at the finish, rather than slumping in their seats and gasping for breath as oarsmen generally do at the end of a race, they had been sitting bolt upright, looking calmly around. Looking as if they were simply out for an afternoon paddle and wondering what all the fuss was about. Looking, for all the world, like wide-eyed westerners.
An hour later the Syracuse junior varsity improved their ancient coach’s day when they withstood a furious come-from-behind charge to fend off Navy—even as sirens wailed on the navy destroyer, urging the midshipmen on—to win the second race of the day.
By the time the third and premier event of the day, the varsity race, approached, the sun had begun to set and a murky, swampish darkness was settling over the river. Al Ulbrickson was quietly pacing the shoreline, waiting to board the press car on the observation train with George Pocock and Tom Bolles, when a reporter approached and asked him whether he was nervous. Ulbrickson scoffed, said he was perfectly calm, and inserted the wrong end of a cigarette into his mouth. The truth was that Ulbrickson wanted to win the varsity race at Poughkeepsie more than almost anything. He’d yet to do so as a coach, and the people back in Washington who paid his salary had begun to take note of that fact. And Ulbrickson wanted to set the larger world straight on another score. Back in April, moments after his varsity boys had beaten California on Lake Washington, the Associated Press had put out a story that was picked up all over the country the next morning. It read: “Although the Bears failed to overtake the veteran Husky varsity … in that last heart-breaking drive they proved that they were headed for the Olympic Games of 1936.” It was as if the Washington victory had been held up to the nation as some sort of fluke. It was just the kind of thing that drove Al Ulbrickson crazy.
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The 1934 Poughkeepsie varsity race did turn out to be a duel between Ulbrickson’s boys and Ebright’s. The boats got off cleanly at the start and stayed clustered together for the first hundred yards. But by the end of the first mile of the four-mile varsity course, the two western schools had pulled out well in front of all the easterners. California took the lead, then relinquished it to Washington, then reclaimed it again. By a mile and a half, Washington had moved back ahead. The two boats churned toward the railroad bridge with Washington in the lead, but by the time they passed beneath the steel expanse, California had closed the gap to a matter of inches. They entered the final mile dead even and rowed thus, stroke for stroke, for the next three-quarters of a mile. Then in the last quarter of a mile California unleashed the full power of their gigantic, gangly, but enormously strong stroke oar, six-foot-five Dick Burnley. California surged ahead. Washington wilted and finished three-quarters of a length back. Ebright had his second consecutive IRA title, revenge for his loss on Lake Washington, and validation for the conclusion that the Associated Press writer had come to back in April.
For the varsity boys, it was a long, dismal train ride back to Seattle. By all outward appearances, Al Ulbrickson took the defeat stoically. He joked with the boys on the train, trying to cheer them up. But when the boys drifted away, he sat alone and fumed. The last time Ky Ebright had won the IRA he had gone on to win Olympic gold, a fact that the New York Times promptly pointed out even as it joined the AP in predicting that California would go to the Olympics again in 1936. The comparison wasn’t quite apt, as Ulbrickson knew full well. The next Olympic Games were still two years away. But Ulbrickson was left staring at a cold, hard fact: Ebright just seemed to have an uncanny knack for winning the ones that mattered most.
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Ten days later, Joe Rantz sat again on a train, looking out through the flyspecked window of the coach, watching a fresh new American calamity begin to unfold.
After his victory in Poughkeepsie, he had journeyed alone to Pennsylvania, where he visited his uncle Sam and aunt Alma Castner, who had taken him in all those years before, when his mother died. Then he had traveled down to New Orleans. He had wandered the steaming city, marveling at the sight of huge ships making their way up the Mississippi above street level, eating huge platters full of cheap shrimp and crab, digging into steaming bowls of gumbo and jambalaya, soaking up the rhythms and the howl of the jazz and the blues that coursed through the streets of the French Quarter on warm, silky nights scented with jasmine and bourbon.
Now he was on his way home, traveling across an America that had begun to dry up and blow away.
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That summer was exceptionally hot across much of the United States, though the summer of 1936 would cruelly eclipse even this one. In the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa, summertime temperatures began early. By May 9, it was 109 in Sisseton, South Dakota. By May 30 it was 113. That same day it was 109 in Spencer, Iowa, and 108 in Pipestone, Minnesota. And as the heat rose, the rain stopped falling. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had only a tenth of an inch of rain that month, right in the middle of corn-growing season.
From the upper plains, the heat and aridity radiated across the country. By June more than half the United States was in the grip of severe heat and extreme drought conditions. In Saint Louis temperatures would rise above 100 for eight straight days that summer. At Midway Airport in Chicago, it would top 100 for six straight days and hit an all-time high of 109 on July 23. In Topeka, Kansas, the mercury would pass the 100 mark forty-seven times that summer. July would be the hottest month ever recorded in Ohio.
In the Far West it was even worse. In Orofino, Idaho, it would hit 118 on July 28. The ten states with the highest average temperatures in the country that summer were all in the West. And the worst of the heat wasn’t in the Southwest, where people expected it and crops and lifestyles were adapted to it. Instead the heat scorched enormous swaths of the Intermountain West and even portions of the normally green Northwest.
Nothing could grow under such conditions, and without corn, wheat, and hay livestock could not survive. Alarmed, the secretary of agriculture, Henry Wallace, dispatched an expedition to the Gobi Desert to see if there were any species of grass there that might be able to survive in the deserts that the American West and Midwest were quickly becoming.
But the heat and the drought were in some ways the least of it. On May 9 a colossal dust storm had swung out of eastern Montana, rolled across the Dakotas and Minnesota, dumped 12 million tons of dirt on Chicago, and then moved on to tower over Boston and New York. As they had in November 1933, people stood in Central Park and looked skyward, aghast at the blackened sky. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 million tons of American topsoil had become airborne in that single storm. The New York Times proclaimed it “the greatest dust storm in United States history.” But in fact the greater storms, and the greater suffering, were still months ahead.
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As Joe traveled north and west across Oklahoma and eastern Colorado, a sepia-toned landscape scrolled by. The whole country seemed to have withered and browned under the searing sun. Except for the motion of the train itself, everything appeared to be standing stock-still, as if waiting for the next assault. Powdery dust stood in deep windrows along fence lines. Stunted stalks of corn, just waist-high, their leaves already russet colored and curling in on themselves, stretched forlornly in broken rows across parched, brown fields. Windmills stood motionless, their galvanized steel blades shimmering in the sun. Gaunt cattle, their ribs protruding and their heads hanging low, stood listless at the bottoms of dried-up stock ponds where the mud had dried and cracked into mosaics of tiles as hard as stone. As his train passed one ranch in Colorado, Joe watched men shooting starved cattle and tipping the carcasses into huge trenches.
It was the people he passed who most arrested Joe’s attention, though. Sitting on front porches, standing barefoot in dry fields, perched on fences, wearing faded coveralls or tattered gingham dresses, they raised their hands to their brows and stared at the train as it passed, giving it hard, cold looks—looks that seemed to begrudge the train and those who rode on it their ability to get out of this godforsaken land.
And indeed some of them had decided to do just that. A small, sporadic stream of automobiles with faded paint and patched tires bounced along the rutted roads that paralleled the railroad tracks, all heading the same direction—west. The cars had old chairs and sewing machines and washtubs tied to their roofs. The backseats were packed with dusty children and dogs and toothless grandparents and rolls of bedding and boxes of canned goods. In many cases, their occupants had simply driven away from their homes, leaving their front doors standing open so their neighbors could help themselves to what they had left behind—sofas and pianos and bed frames too big to tie to the top of a car. Some of them—mostly single men—had no cars in which to load their possessions. They simply trudged on foot alongside the tracks, wearing slouch hats and dusty black coats—their Sunday coats—carrying old suitcases bound up with twine or clutching bundles they had slung over their shoulders, and glancing up at Joe as he sped past.
The train rolled on across eastern Washington and climbed into the Cascade Mountains, where fire warnings had been posted throughout the tinder-dry national forest and where in recent months desperate, out-of-work lumberjacks had set fires in order to create jobs fighting them. Then, finally, it descended into the relatively cool, green beneficence of the Puget Sound region, perhaps the only region in America that was not sweltering that summer.
But Joe arrived to find that if temperatures were not hot in Seattle, tempers had risen in their place. A long-simmering labor dispute between nearly thirty-five thousand members of the International Longshoremen’s Association and steamship companies had flared up in port cities up and down the West Coast. Before it was over, the conflict would take eight lives. In Seattle it reached its climax along the waterfront on July 18. Twelve hundred ILA members formed flying wedges and smashed through cordons of mounted police armed with tear gas and billy clubs, successfully shutting down the unloading of cargo by strike breakers, among them University of Washington fraternity boys and football players recruited by the steamship companies. All hell broke loose. A pitched battle raged for days along the docks and waterfront streets of Smith Cove, injuring scores on both sides. Strikers armed with two-by-fours charged police positions. Mounted police launched cavalry charges into the massed strikers, swinging at them with batons. The mayor, Charles Smith, ordered the chief of police to set up machine-gun emplacements at Pier 91; the chief refused and handed the mayor his badge.
As the nation baked under the unrelenting sun, and violence spread along the docks and waterfronts of the West, the national political dialogue also grew heated that summer. Franklin Roosevelt had been in office for a year and a half, the stock market had stabilized, for the moment, and employment was up slightly. Yet for millions of Americans—for most Americans—the hard times still seemed as hard as ever. The opposition pounded the new president, zeroing in on his methods rather than his results. In a national radio address on July 2, Henry Fletcher, chairman of the Republican Party, blasted the president’s New Deal, calling it “an undemocratic departure from all that is distinctively American.” He went on, gloomily and ominously predicting dire consequences from what seemed a radical experiment in socialist-style big-government spending: “The average American is thinking, ‘I am perhaps better off than last year but I ask myself, will I be better off when the tax bill comes in, and how about my children and my children’s children?’” Two days later, Republican senator William Borah of Idaho, though widely considered a progressive Republican, warned that Roosevelt’s policies were endangering the very foundations of American liberty and that their “creeping paralysis of bureaucracy threatens freedom of the press, placing the yoke of torture, colossal expense, and demoralization on the nation.”
But in one small corner of the country, something large was beginning to stir that terribly hot summer. Something more affirmative. Early on August 4, in the predawn darkness, Seattleites climbed into their automobiles and headed east, toward the crest of the Cascades. People in Spokane found their picnic hampers and filled them with sandwiches and loaded them in the backseats of their own cars and headed west. Chief George Friedlander and a delegation of Colville Indians donned buckskins and moccasins and ceremonial headdresses and headed south. By late morning, the roads of eastern Washington were black with automobiles converging from all directions on one unlikely spot: Ephrata, a forlorn little town of 516 people, out in the desolate scablands, not far from the Columbia River and a fifty-mile-long dry canyon called the Grand Coulee.
By midafternoon, twenty thousand people had gathered behind a rope line in Ephrata. Packed somewhere in among them were George Pocock and his family. When Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared on the platform before them, his cigarette holder angled jauntily upward, the crowd roared its welcome. Then Roosevelt began to speak, leaning forward on his podium, clutching it. In measured tones, but with rising emotion, he began laying out a vision of the benefits that the new Grand Coulee Dam would bring to this arid land in exchange for the 175 million public dollars it would cost: 1.2 million acres of desert land reclaimed for farming, abundant irrigation water for millions more acres of existing farmland, vast amounts of cheap electrical power that could be exported all across the West, and thousands of new jobs building the hydroelectric and irrigation infrastructure that the dam would necessitate. As he spoke, the crowd interrupted him again and again with waves of applause and choruses of hearty cheers. Speaking of the water of the Columbia running unchecked to the sea, its energy unharnessed, he underscored the commonality of the great task at hand: “It is not a problem of the State of Washington; it is not a problem of the State of Idaho; it is a problem that touches all the states in the union.” He paused, removed a handkerchief from his pocket, and dabbed it against his glistening brow. “We are going to see, I believe, with our own eyes, electricity and power made so cheap that they will become a standard article of use … for every home within the reach of an electrical transmission line.” Then he moved toward his conclusion, addressing the men and women standing before him directly: “You have great opportunities and you are doing nobly in grasping them… . So I leave here today with the feeling that this work is well undertaken; that we are going ahead with a useful project; and that we are going to see it through for the benefit of our country.” When he finished, the crowd again roared their approval.
Many of them would never forget the day. For them, it was a dawning, the first real hint of hope. If there was little they could do individually to turn the situation around, perhaps there was something they could do collectively. Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something more fundamental—the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.
George Pocock at work in his shop