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
A good shell has to have life and resiliency to get in harmony with the swing of the crew.
—George Yeoman Pocock
The game warden sneaked up on Joe from behind. Joe was standing on a long gravel bar in the Dungeness River, studying a pool, looking for salmon, and the sound of rushing water muffled the warden’s footfall. Sizing Joe up and calculating that he might not prevail in a head-to-head contest, the warden picked up a sturdy piece of driftwood, took careful aim, and brought it crashing down on the back of Joe’s head. Joe pitched forward onto the gravel bar unconscious. He came to a few moments later, just in time to see an enraged Harry Secor chasing the warden down the river, wielding a gaffing pole like a spear. The warden disappeared into the woods, but Joe and Harry knew he’d be back with reinforcements. The jig was up. They never snagged another salmon.
After his cross-country trip, Joe spent the rest of the summer of 1934 in the still half-finished house on Silberhorn Road in Sequim, desperately trying to conjure up enough money to get himself through another school year. He cut more hay, dug more ditches, dynamited more stumps, and spread more hot, black asphalt on Highway 101. Mostly, though, he worked in the woods with Charlie McDonald. Charlie had decided he needed a new roof on his farmhouse. One afternoon he harnessed his draft horses to a buckboard and took Joe upriver, hunting for cedar. The upper reaches of his property had been logged for the first time just a dozen years before. The loggers had had their pick of the virgin timber still growing along that section of the Dungeness—towering Douglas firs and massive western red cedars. Some of the cedars had been more than two thousand years old, and their stumps—seven or eight feet in diameter and just as tall—rose like ancient monuments from a dense tangle of salal, huckleberry, young cottonwoods, and purple plumes of fireweed. In the face of the extraordinary bounty of the massive cedars, and valuing them primarily for making roofing shakes and shingles, the men who had cut them down had taken only the prime middle section of each, leaving behind long sections from the tops, where the branches were, and the bottoms, where the trunks began to flare out and the grain of the wood no longer ran perfectly straight and true. Much of what they had left could still be used, but only if one knew how to read the wood, to decipher its inner structure.
Charlie led Joe among the stumps and downed trees, teaching him how to understand what lay beneath the bark of the fallen logs. He rolled them over with a peavey and pounded them with the flat face of a splitting maul, testing for the ringing tone that indicated soundness. He ran his hands over them, feeling for hidden knots and irregularities. He crouched down at the cut ends and peered at the annual growth rings, trying to get a nuanced read on how tight and regular the grain within was likely to be. Joe was fascinated, intrigued by the idea that he could learn to see what others could not see in the wood, thrilled as always at the notion that something valuable could be found in what others had passed over and left behind. When Charlie found a log he liked, and explained to Joe why he liked it, the two of them used a crosscut saw to buck the wood into twenty-four-inch bolts—sections the length of a roofing shake—and toted them back to the buckboard.
Later Charlie taught Joe how to decipher the subtle clues of shape, texture, and color that would enable him to cleave the wood into well-formed shakes, to see hidden points of weakness or resilience. He taught the younger man how to split a log neatly into quarters with a maul and iron wedges; how to use a heavy wooden mallet to pound a froe—the shake maker’s principal tool: a long, straight blade with an equally long perpendicular handle—into the wood across rather than with the grain; how to work the froe evenly down the length of the wood; how to listen to the wood as it began to “talk” back to him, the fibers crackling and snapping softly as they pulled away from one another, telling him that they were prepared to split along the plane he intended; how to twist the froe in the wood decisively at just the right moment to make the shake pop free, clean and elegant, smooth faced and gently tapered from one end to the other, ready to put on a roof.
Within a few days, Joe had mastered the froe and the mallet and could size up a log and split shakes from it nearly as quickly and decisively as Charlie could. A year of rowing had given him prodigious strength in his arms and shoulders, and he worked his way through the pile of cedar bolts like a machine. A small mountain of shakes soon surrounded him in the McDonalds’ barnyard. Proud of his new skill, he found that shaping cedar resonated with him in an elusive but elemental way—it satisfied him down in his core, and gave him peace. Partly it was the old pleasure that he always derived from mastering new tools and solving practical problems—working out the angles and planes at which the cedar would or wouldn’t cleave cleanly. And partly it was the deeply sensuous nature of the work. He liked the way that the wood murmured to him before it parted, almost as if it was alive, and when it finally gave way under his hands he liked the way it invariably revealed itself in lovely and unpredictable patterns of color—streaks of orange and burgundy and cream. At the same moment, as the wood opened up, it always perfumed the air. The spicy-sweet aroma that rose from freshly split cedar was the same scent that often filled the shell house in Seattle when Pocock was at work up in his loft. There seemed to Joe to be some kind of connection between what he was doing here among a pile of freshly split shakes, what Pocock was doing in his shop, and what he was trying to do himself in the racing shells Pocock built—something about the deliberate application of strength, the careful coordination of mind and muscle, the sudden unfolding of mystery and beauty.
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When Joe arrived at the shell house for fall turnout on October 5, 1934, it was another radiant afternoon, much like the day when he had first shown up as a freshman. The thermometer was hovering just under seventy, and the sun was glinting off the Cut just as it had that day a year before. The scenery was altered in only one regard: the long summer of drought had dramatically lowered the level of the lake, exposing brown earthen banks and leaving the floating dock high, dry, and useless. For a while, at least, the boys were going to have to launch their shells by carrying them down the bank and wading into the water.
But what was most different was the attitude of the bunch of boys Joe had rowed with last year. As they moved in and out of the shell house, in shorts and jerseys, helping Tom Bolles register the new freshmen, there was an unmistakable hint of swagger in their step. After all, they were the national freshman champions. Now, as sophomores, it was their turn to lounge in the broad doorway of the shell house, their arms crossed, grinning as they watched the freshmen lining up nervously for their first weigh-in and bumbling about trying to get oars out of racks without clobbering one another before climbing awkwardly aboard Old Nero.
Even beyond the trophy they had brought home from Poughkeepsie, Joe and his fellow sophomores had good reason to be confident and optimistic about the upcoming season. Al Ulbrickson generally made a point of discouraging anyone in the crew house from reading the sports pages during the school year. No good and much ill could come from boys worrying too much about whatever Royal Brougham at the Post-Intelligencer or George Varnell at the Seattle Times might be speculating about on any given day. But over the summer there was little he could do to police the boys’ reading, and there had been much in both papers to catch their eyes. On the morning following the Poughkeepsie Regatta in June, Varnell had come right out and written what many in Seattle were thinking after listening to the race on the radio: “Count this Washington freshman outfit as a potential Olympic lineup in 1936.” And there had also been suggestions over the summer that in order to prepare them for such an Olympic bid Al Ulbrickson would be wise to elevate them to varsity status this year, leapfrogging them ahead of the juniors and any returning seniors. It seemed profoundly unlikely, but the idea was out there, in public, and the sophomore boys already had begun to talk quietly about it among themselves.
And, in fact, the notion had indeed been lurking somewhere in the back of Al Ulbrickson’s mind for a long while now. There were a number of factors in its favor. First and foremost, there was the stunning ease with which the freshmen had won at Poughkeepsie in June. There was the fact that they were an unusually big and athletic bunch, averaging 190 pounds, beefier and stronger on average than the juniors and seniors. That meant there was a great deal of raw potential for power in the boat. He could see plenty of technical flaws in their mechanics, but those could be dealt with. What was more important was their character. They were a rough-and-tumble bunch, not very worldly, but earnest and used to hard work. And character could still, to some extent, be formed in boys as young as the freshmen. They were still malleable. As important as anything else, he could be sure that none of them would be graduating before the Olympic summer of 1936.
Not that Ulbrickson would let any of them know any of this. The last thing he needed was for a bunch of upstart sophomores to start thinking they were God’s gift to rowing. Or that because they had won the two-mile freshman race last June they could win a four-mile varsity race next June. That was a whole nother ball of wax—twice as long and in many ways more than twice as hard. Right now, he needed them to be thinking about building up their bodies, developing mental discipline, learning how to get an oar in and out of the water without splashing half of Lake Washington into their shell. They were good, but they were still green. Eventually, if they were going to become what he hoped they would, he would need to see each of them develop the rare balance of ego and humility that great oarsmen somehow always manage to have. For now, what he saw strutting around the shell house and lounging in the doorway was plenty of ego and not much humility.
Last year these boys had been primarily in Tom Bolles’s charge. Now, whether they ultimately rowed as the varsity or the JV, they belonged entirely to Ulbrickson. From what Bolles had told him, he knew already that he would have to look particularly hard at a couple of them. One was the baby of the boat, a seventeen-year-old boy in the number two seat, six-foot-three George “Shorty” Hunt. He was an ox for work and absolutely indispensable. But he was high-strung, nervous, someone you often had to treat with kid gloves to settle him down, like a racehorse.
The other was the blond kid with the crew cut in the number three seat, Rantz—the boy he’d spotted on the rings in the gym at Roosevelt two years before. He was as poor as a church mouse. Anybody could tell that just by looking at him. When he wanted to, though, Bolles had reported, Joe Rantz would row longer and harder than any man in the boat. The problem was that he didn’t always seem to want to. All last spring he had been erratic as all get-out—on one day, off the next. He marched to his own drummer. The other boys had taken to calling him Mr. Individuality. He was physically tough, independent, seemingly self-assured, friendly, and yet at the same time strangely sensitive. He seemed to have hidden vulnerabilities, tender spots that you had to watch out for if you wanted him to come through for you, though nobody, not even the other sophomores, could figure out quite what they were, where on earth they had come from, or whether putting up with them was even worth the effort. But Al Ulbrickson wasn’t one to waste a lot of time trying to figure out a touchy kid’s tender spots.
He picked up a megaphone and barked at the sophomores to assemble down on the ramp. The boys shuffled toward the water. Ulbrickson took a position slightly up the ramp from them, to gain a bit of height advantage over these very tall boys. Things like that mattered to Ulbrickson. To marshal large men who were not all that much younger than him, and in many cases just as strong willed, he needed every advantage he could get. He straightened his tie and took his Phi Beta Kappa key from his vest pocket and began to twirl it on its lanyard, as he often did on such occasions. He gazed out over them for a moment, saying nothing, letting his attitude silence them. And then, without prelude, he began to tell them how it was going to be.
“You will eat no fried meats,” he began abruptly. “You will eat no pastries, but you will eat plenty of vegetables. You will eat good, substantial, wholesome food—the kind of food your mother makes. You will go to bed at ten o’clock and arise punctually at seven o’clock. You will not smoke or drink or chew. And you will follow this regimen all year round, for as long as you row for me. A man cannot abuse his body for six months and then expect to row the other six months. He must be a total abstainer all year. You will not use profane language in the shell house, nor anywhere within my hearing. You will keep at your studies and maintain a high grade point average. You will not disappoint your parents, nor your crewmates. Now let’s row.”
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Ulbrickson’s effort to knock the sophomores down a peg or two had mixed results. Two weeks later he made a move that inevitably revealed the extent of his high regard for them, though he tried to disguise it. When he first listed the tentative “boatings,” or crew rosters, for the new year on the blackboard in the shell house, everyone could see at a glance that four of the five potential varsity boats were crewed, as usual, by a mixture of boys from different classes—some from last year’s second freshman boat, some from each of last year’s two JV boats, and some from last year’s varsity boat. Just one boat was intact from last year, Joe’s boat, the freshman first. For now at least, the sophomores were to sit together just as they had in June when bombs signifying their victory had exploded over the automobile bridge at Poughkeepsie: George Lund at bow, Shorty Hunt at two, Joe Rantz at three, Chuck Hartman at four, Delos Schoch at five, Bob Green at six, Roger Morris at seven, Bud Schacht at stroke, and George Morry in the coxswain’s seat. The boat assignment seemed tangible and undeniable evidence that what the sophomores had been speculating about was true—something was special about them, and Ulbrickson had unusual confidence in them as a unit. But lest anyone—and particularly the sophomores themselves—read too much into it, Ulbrickson put the boat far down the list that generally signified a crew’s status in the program. The sophomore boys were not in the first boat or the second. They were, in fact, in the fifth boat, the lowest rung on the ladder and the last place in which anyone would expect to see serious contenders for next spring’s first varsity rowing.
The boys did not know what to make of the mixed message. Although they were not particularly close, they were glad to be rowing together again, if only because they seemed to do it so well. But given their championship, they recognized what seemed an unwarranted demotion and felt more than a little intimidated by their new coach’s bearing. The swagger promptly disappeared from their steps. Ulbrickson was a harder man than Bolles, and this season would clearly be harder than the last.
As the fall training season got under way, Joe in particular struggled to keep up his spirits. It wasn’t just the status of his boat that worried him. It wasn’t just the brutality of the long workouts or the inevitable days of rowing in the rain and bitter cold. It was personal stuff. Despite the long summer of work, he found himself even poorer than he had been the previous year. Even the cost of a movie on a Saturday night now seemed unwisely extravagant to him. His dates with Joyce devolved into bleak meetings in the cafeteria, where they mixed catsup with hot water and called it tomato soup and rounded out the meal with soda crackers. The diamond ring on Joyce’s finger comforted both of them, but at times Joe could not help but look at it and wonder whether he would ever be able to live up to its implications.
There were family matters eating at him as well. Joe had finally gone to his brother Fred and asked him point-blank where their father was, and Fred, after some hemming and hawing, had told him. Harry and Thula and Joe’s half siblings were living in Seattle. They had been there all along, in fact, since the night in 1929 when they had driven away and left Joe behind in Sequim.
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They had moved at first into a dilapidated shed down on the waterfront, on the fringes of Hooverville. It wasn’t a tar-paper shanty, but it wasn’t much better. There were only two rooms. One, with a toilet and a sink, served as kitchen and bathroom; the other, with a woodstove in a corner, served as living room and bedroom for all six of them. At night trucks rumbled by just a few inches from their front door. Prostitutes and toughs loafed under streetlamps down the way. Rats scurried about in the corners of both rooms. Harry, unable to find the job they had come to Seattle seeking, went on the public dole.
They didn’t stay in the waterfront shed for long, but where they went next was only marginally better, an old house on Phinney Ridge, west of Green Lake. The place had been built in 1885 and had not seen a repair or improvement since. It had only one electrical outlet and only a single woodstove for heat. The stove did them little good anyway because they could not afford firewood to fuel it. Perched on the ridge, the house caught every wintry blast that blew down from the Arctic and into the city. Desperate to heat the house and put a little food on the table, Thula began to frequent local soup kitchens and a neighborhood commissary set up by the Unemployed Citizens League, an organization founded by local socialists. Dedicated to distributing food and firewood to the destitute, members of the league gleaned what they could in the way of partially spoiled crops in the fields of eastern Washington and foraged for firewood in the Cascade Mountains, bringing whatever they could find back to Seattle. The pickings at the commissary were always slim, however. Most of the meals Thula managed to put before her children consisted of thin stews made from parsnips, rutabagas, potatoes, and chipped beef. Lacking wood for the stove most of the time, she took to turning her electric iron upside down, plugging it into the one outlet, and cooking their stew on it.
Thula’s father had died in 1926, but her mother lived in a large house just a few blocks down the hill, across Aurora Avenue, near Green Lake. Mary LaFollette had never been happy about Thula’s marriage in the first place, and she was decidedly unhappy now with Harry and the way things had unfolded. The single concession she made to recognizing his family’s plight was that every Sunday morning Thula was allowed to send her children to the house for bowls of Cream of Wheat. But that was it. One bowl of Cream of Wheat each week and nothing more in the way of support. The ritual seemed designed to send a message. Eighty years later Harry Junior’s voice still trembled when he remembered it: “One bowl. Once a week. I never could figure that out.” Thula got the message, though. She told Harry to get out of the house, and not to come back until he had a job. Harry headed for Los Angeles. Six months later, he returned with a motorcycle but no job.
Thula gave him another ultimatum, and finally Harry did find a job, as head mechanic with the Golden Rule Dairy and Bakery in Fremont. The Golden Rule was a fiercely nonunion shop—which would, over the next few years, find itself at the center of a citywide boycott and labor battle—and as a result wages were low. But they were wages nonetheless, and Harry couldn’t afford to be particular. He moved his family to a small but respectable house at Thirty-Ninth and Bagley, not far from the bakery and not far from the north end of Lake Union where Joe rowed nearly every afternoon. That’s where Joe found them in the fall of 1934, at an address that Fred finally provided.
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There wasn’t much of a reunion. Joe and Joyce climbed into the Franklin and drove over to the house one afternoon. They parked on Bagley, took deep breaths, and climbed a flight of concrete steps to the front porch, holding hands. They could hear someone playing violin inside. Joe knocked on a yellow Dutch door, and the violin fell silent. A shadow moved behind lace curtains on the upper half of the door. There was a moment’s hesitation, and then Thula opened the door halfway.
She did not seem particularly surprised to see them. Joe had the sense that she’d been expecting this for a long time. She glanced at Joyce and nodded at her pleasantly enough, but she made no move to invite them in. There was a long moment of silence. Nobody knew quite what to say. Joe thought Thula looked careworn and exhausted, much older than her thirty-six years. Her face was pale and drawn, her eyes a bit sunken. Joe focused for a moment on her fingers, red and chafed.
Finally Joe broke the silence. “Hello, Thula. We just came by to see how you are doing.”
Thula peered at him silently for a moment, her expression veiled, then dropped her eyes as she began to speak.
“We’re fine, Joe. We’re doing fine now. How is school going?”
Joe said it was going well, that he was on the crew now.
Thula responded that she had heard that, and that his father was proud of him. She asked Joyce how her parents were doing, and expressed her regret when Joyce replied that her father was quite ill.
Thula continued to hold the door just half open, her body blocking the entrance. Even as she addressed them, Joe noticed, she continued to look down at the porch, as if studying something at her feet, trying to find the answer to something there.
Finally Joe asked if they could come in to say hello to his father and the kids. Thula said that Harry was at work and the kids were visiting friends.
Joe asked if he and Joyce could come back and visit them another time.
Thula seemed suddenly to find what she had been looking for. She raised her eyes abruptly and leveled them at Joe. “No,” she said, her voice colder now. “Make your own life, Joe. Stay out of ours.” And with that she closed the door gently and slid the deadbolt into position with a soft, metallic click.
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As they drove away from the house on Bagley that afternoon, Joyce simmered. Over the years she had been slowly learning more about Joe’s parents and what exactly had happened back in Sequim and before that, at the Gold and Ruby mine. She’d learned about his mother’s death and the long, lonely train ride to Pennsylvania. And stitching it all together, she could not understand how Thula could have been so cold to a motherless child, nor how Joe’s father could have been so impassive in the face of it all. She could not understand, either, why Joe seemed to show so little anger about it all, why he continued to try to ingratiate himself with the two of them, as if none of it had ever happened. Finally, as Joe pulled over to the curb to drop her off at the judge’s home, Joyce erupted.
She demanded to know why Joe let his parents treat him as they did. Why did he go on pretending that they hadn’t done him any harm? What kind of woman would leave a boy alone in the world? What kind of father would let her do that? Why didn’t he ever get angry at them? Why didn’t he just demand that they let him see his half siblings? She was nearly sobbing by the time she finished.
She glanced across the seat at Joe, and saw at once, through a blur of tears, that his eyes were full of hurt too. But his jaw was set, and he stared ahead over the steering wheel rather than turning to look at her.
“You don’t understand,” he murmured. “They didn’t have any choice. There were just too many mouths to feed.”
Joyce pondered that for a moment, then said, “I just don’t understand why you don’t get angry.”
Joe continued to stare ahead through the windshield.
“It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can’t waste my energy like that and expect to get ahead. When they left, it took everything I had in me just to survive. Now I have to stay focused. I’ve just gotta take care of it myself.”
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Joe retreated into the life of the shell house. The boys still might razz him about his low taste in clothes and music, and he really was only comfortable around Roger and Shorty, but at least he felt he had purpose at the shell house. The rituals of rowing, the specialized language of the sport, the details of technique that he was struggling to master, the wisdom of the coaches, even their litany of rules and the various taboos they proscribed—all seemed to Joe to give the world of the shell house a measure of stability and order that for a long time now the outside world had seemed to him to lack. The brutal afternoon workouts left him exhausted and sore but feeling cleansed, as if someone had scrubbed out his soul with a stiff wire brush.
The shell house had become more of a home than the grim confines of his cubicle in the basement of the YMCA or the half-built house out in Sequim. He liked the way the light poured in through the windows of the enormous sliding doors, the stacks of burnished shells on their racks, the hiss of steam in the radiators, the banging of locker doors, the intermingled scents of cedar and varnish and sweat. He often lingered in the building long after practice was over, and more and more he found himself drawn to the back of the room and the stairs that led to Pocock’s workshop. Joe would not think of going up the stairs uninvited, for fear of interrupting Pocock. There was a kind of reverence that attached to Mr. Pocock, as the boys invariably called him at all times. Not that Pocock cultivated the attitude. If anything, the opposite was true. He often stood on the floating dock as the boys got ready for a workout, fiddling with the riggers on this boat or that, chatting with the boys, occasionally offering up a nugget of wisdom or two, a suggestion that they try this or that adjustment to their stroke. In point of fact, Pocock, with only a lower-school education, tended to believe that it was he rather than these college men who should be deferential.
But Pocock was learned far beyond his formal education, as was immediately obvious to everyone who met him. He was well read in a wide variety of subjects—religion, literature, history, and philosophy. He could quote Browning or Tennyson or Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, and the quote was always apt and telling, never pretentious or affected. The net effect was that for all his quiet humility the man’s wide-ranging knowledge and quiet eloquence commanded absolute respect, and never more than when he was at work in his shop, plying his craft. No one interrupted Pocock at work. Ever.
So Joe remained at the bottom of the stairs, looking up and wondering, but keeping his curiosity to himself. He noticed, though, that Pocock was at work in the shop a great deal these days. Partly because rowing programs everywhere had gone so long, following the crash of 1929, without ordering new equipment, and partly because of the recent successes of Washington crews rowing in Pocock shells at Poughkeepsie, orders had suddenly begun coming into the shop again over the summer. Pocock now had a backlog of eight orders for eight-man shells, including requests from some of the most elite rowing programs in the country: Navy, Syracuse, Princeton, and Pennsylvania. By the beginning of September, he was able to write to Ky Ebright, down in Berkeley, in a tone markedly different from that of just a year before. He was too much the gentleman to be vindictive, but he was now entirely confident: “If you are going to buy anything, old boy, I sure would advise not leaving it too late. We have taken terrific punishment the last two years and the boys back East are waking up to the fact they have got to get some equipment. That means we will be busy.” When Ebright responded by questioning his prices, it was Pocock who now pushed back, firmly reiterating the amount: “The price on an eight is $1,150… . One thing is sure, Ky, I refuse to go into competition for the cheapest eight in the country. I cannot build all of them, but I can still have a good shot at building the best.”
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In fact, George Pocock was already building the best, and doing so by a wide margin. He didn’t just build racing shells. He sculpted them.
Looked at one way, a racing shell is a machine with a narrowly defined purpose: to enable a number of large men or women, and one small one, to propel themselves over an expanse of water as quickly and efficiently as possible. Looked at another way, it is a work of art, an expression of the human spirit, with its unbounded hunger for the ideal, for beauty, for purity, for grace. A large part of Pocock’s genius as a boatbuilder was that he managed to excel both as a maker of machines and as an artist.
Growing up and learning his trade from his father at Eton, he had used simple hand tools—saws, hammers, chisels, wood planes, and sanding blocks. For the most part, he continued to use those same tools even as more modern, laborsaving power tools came to market in the 1930s. Partly, this was because he tended strongly toward the traditional in all things. Partly, it was because he believed that the hand tools gave him more precise control over the fine details of the work. Partly, it was because he could not abide the noise that power tools made. Craftsmanship required thought, and thought required a quiet environment. Mostly, though, it was because he wanted more intimacy with the wood—he wanted to feel the life in the wood with his hands, and in turn to impart some of himself, his own life, his pride and his caring, into the shell.
Up until 1927, he made his shells precisely as his father had taught him to make them in England. Working on a perfectly straight I beam more than sixty feet long, he constructed a delicate framework of spruce and northern ash. Then he carefully joined and nailed strips of Spanish cedar to the ribs of the frame to form the hull. This required thousands of brass nails and screws, the heads of which had to be patiently and laboriously filed down by hand before he could apply coats of marine varnish to the exterior. The fitting and nailing on of the planks was labor intensive and nerve-racking. At any moment the slip of a chisel or a careless blow from a hammer could ruin days’ worth of work.
In 1927 he made an improvement that revolutionized the building of racing shells in America. For a number of years, Ed Leader, who succeeded Hiram Conibear as the Washington crew coach, had suggested that Pocock try making a shell out of the native western red cedar that grew so abundantly, and so large, in Washington and British Columbia. After all, Spanish cedar was expensive, having to be imported from its native South America. (Spanish cedar, Cedrela odorata, is in fact neither Spanish nor cedar, being a member of the mahogany family.) It was also notoriously brittle, necessitating the almost continual repair of the school’s fleet of shells. Pocock was attracted to the idea of trying the native cedar. He had, for years, taken notice of the lightness and the durability of the old cedar Indian canoes that still occasionally plied the waters of the Puget Sound. But he had been dissuaded from experimenting with it by head coach Rusty Callow. Callow had been a logger in his younger years, and like most lumbermen he believed that cedar was only good for making shakes and shingles. But when Pocock finally followed his own heart and began to experiment with the wood in 1927, he was astonished by the possibilities it opened up.
Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) is a kind of wonder wood. Its low density makes it easy to shape, whether with a chisel, a plane, or a handsaw. Its open cell structure makes it light and buoyant, and in rowing lightness means speed. Its tight, even grain makes it strong but flexible, easy to bend yet disinclined to twist, warp, or cup. It is free of pitch or sap, but its fibers contain chemicals called thujaplicins that act as natural preservatives, making it highly resistant to rot while at the same time lending it its lovely scent. It is beautiful to look at, it takes a finish well, and it can be polished to a high degree of luster, essential for providing the smooth, friction-free racing bottom a good shell requires.
Pocock quickly became a convert. Soon he was scouring the Northwest for the highest quality cedar he could find, making long journeys to smoky sawmills out on the Olympic Peninsula and far to the north in the still-virgin forests of British Columbia. He found just what he wanted in the misty woods surrounding Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island. From the cedar stock he found there—long, tight-grained, straight sections cut from massive, ancient trees—he could mill elegant planks of wood twenty inches or more wide and sixty feet long. And from these planks he could shave identical pairs of much thinner planks, delicate sheets of cedar just five-thirty-seconds of an inch thick, each a mirror image of the other, with the same pattern of grain. By placing these book-matched pairs on either side of the keel, he could ensure perfect symmetry in the boat’s appearance and performance.
These flexible sheets of cedar also allowed Pocock to do away with the endless nailing of planks to the boat’s ribs. Instead he could simply strap the sheets of wood over the frame of the boat, forcing them to conform to its shape, then cover the whole assembly with heavy blankets and divert steam from the shell house’s heating system under the blankets. The steam caused the cedar to relax and bend to fit itself to the shape of the frame. When he turned off the steam and removed the blankets three days later, the cedar sheets held their new shape perfectly. All he had to do was dry them and glue them to the frame. It was the same technique that the Coast Salish peoples of the Northwest had used for centuries to fashion bentwood boxes out of single planks of cedar. The sleek shells that resulted from the process were not only more beautiful than the Spanish cedar shells but also demonstrably faster. Harvard ordered, as an experiment, one of the first to come out of Pocock’s shop and promptly reported back that the boat had taken several full seconds off its crew’s best times.
With the cedar skin attached to the shell, Pocock installed the runners and the seats, the riggers, the rudder assembly, and the trim. He took pride in using a variety of Northwest woods in his products—sugar pine for keels, ash for the frames, Sitka spruce for the gunnels and the hand-carved seats, Alaska yellow cedar for the washboards. The last of these he favored mostly because as it aged its color evolved from that of old ivory to a golden honey hue that harmonized with the burnished red of the cedar hulls. He stretched sheer silk fabric over the stern and bow sections and painted the silk with varnish. As the varnish dried and hardened on the fabric, it created a fragile and lovely translucent yellow decking fore and aft. Finally, he worked on the finish, hand-rubbing the cedar hull with powdered pumice and rottenstone for hours, applying thin coats of marine varnish, then rubbing the finish again and again until it gleamed like still water. All told, it took four gallons of varnish to get the finish he was looking for. Only when it fairly shimmered, when it seemed in its sleekness to be alive with the potential for speed, did Pocock pronounce the boat ready for use.
There was one more thing about cedar—a sort of secret that Pocock had discovered accidentally after his first shells made of the wood had been in the water for a while. People had taken to calling them “banana boats,” because once they were exposed to water both their bows and sterns tended to curve ever so slightly upward. Pocock pondered this effect and its consequences and gradually came to a startling realization. Although cedar does not expand or swell across the grain of the wood when wet, and thus tends not to warp, it does expand slightly along the grain. This can amount to as much as an inch of swelling in the length of a sixty-foot shell. Because the cedar was dry when attached to the frame but then became wet after being used regularly, the wood wanted to expand slightly in length. However, the interior frame of the boat, being made of ash that remained perpetually dry and rigid, would not allow it to expand. The cedar skin thus became compressed, forcing the ends of the boat up slightly and lending it what boatbuilders call “camber.” The result was that the boat as a whole was under subtle but continual tension caused by the unreleased compression in the skin, something like a drawn bow waiting to be released. This gave it a kind of liveliness, a tendency to spring forward on the catch of the oars in a way that no other design or material could duplicate.
To Pocock, this unflagging resilience—this readiness to bounce back, to keep coming, to persist in the face of resistance—was the magic in cedar, the unseen force that imparted life to the shell. And as far as he was concerned, a shell that did not have life in it was a shell that was unworthy of the young men who gave their hearts to the effort of moving it through the water.
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At the end of October, Ebright wrote back to Pocock. If he was going to order a new shell, he wanted it custom designed. He wanted one with less camber. Pocock was horrified. After alleging that Pocock had sent him inferior equipment, Ebright was now demanding a boat that simply would not go as fast as Pocock’s best, a boat that would not reflect well on him as a craftsman. Pocock wrote back with a long, detailed technical explanation of his design and proposed a few minor modifications that he thought might mollify Ebright without compromising the integrity of the shell. Ebright replied testily with technical arguments of his own and then continued, “I think you know as much about boatbuilding as anyone in the world, but perhaps new ideas might be advantageous to all of us… . I doubt if you will like the tone of this letter, George.” Pocock did not like the tone of the letter at all, but he let it slide. He had orders from virtually every major rowing program in the country. Ebright could order a shell or not, as he chose.
And in time Ebright did finally order one. When it was finished, Pocock paid eight of the boys a dollar each to deliver it to the docks in Seattle, so it could be shipped south.
The boys rowed it through the Cut and to the south end of Lake Union. There they removed it gingerly from the water, inverted it over their heads, and began a mile-and-a-half portage across Seattle. A sixteen-legged cedar turtle, more than sixty feet long, they crossed Mercer Street and headed south on Westlake, plunging into downtown traffic. With their heads under the shell, they could see little except for their own feet and the back of the man ahead of them, so a coxswain ran ahead of them, waving his hands to warn oncoming vehicles to steer clear and simultaneously shouting out instructions in rowing terms: “Way enough, boys! Hard to port. Pick ’er up!” They dodged streetcars and buses, swung wide around each corner, peered out from under the shell from time to time to get their bearings. As they jogged to their right and entered the shopping district on Fourth Avenue, people stopped on the sidewalk or rushed out of storefronts to watch them pass—staring, snickering, and applauding. Finally they turned right on Columbia, followed the steep descent to the waterfront, scurried hastily across railroad tracks, and made it safely to the docks. There they sent the shell on its way to California, where they would soon race against it on the Oakland Estuary.
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Tensions began to mount in the Washington shell house that October. The continuing rumors that the sophomores might be pegged for the first varsity boat in the spring had everyone on edge. Al Ulbrickson remained characteristically silent on the topic, but the older boys fretted that that in itself seemed an ominous sign. Why didn’t he just put the rumors to rest and say the sophomores would have their crack at the varsity boat the following year, as usual? As boys suited up and hoisted oars in and out of the racks, there was little of the usual banter and joshing. Icy stares began to replace good-natured grins. On the water, occasional catcalls flew from boat to boat when the coaches weren’t in earshot.
As the mood in the shell house deteriorated, so too did the weather. At first it was just the usual fall drizzle, but then on the morning of October 21 all hell broke loose as the next in a series of extreme weather events that characterized the mid-1930s unfolded. An enormous cyclonic windstorm—a storm that made the previous fall’s windstorm look almost like a spring breeze—slammed into Washington State.
It seemed to come out of nowhere. At nine in the morning, there was nothing more than a light chop on Lake Washington, a typical gray, late fall day with light winds out of the southeast at perhaps five miles per hour. An hour later, sustained winds were blowing out of the southwest at fifty miles per hour. By noon, gusts up to seventy-five miles per hour were screaming over Lake Washington. At Aberdeen, on the coast, winds hit ninety miles per hour. It was the greatest windstorm the Seattle area had ever seen.
At Pier 41 the transpacific ocean liner President Madison snapped her hawsers and careened into the steamboat Harvester, sinking her. Off Port Townsend, the purse seiner Agnes also sank, drowning five Seattle fishermen. Thirty passengers had to be rescued from the Virginia V, one of the last of the city’s historic Mosquito Fleet, when she smashed into a wharf and her superstructure was crushed. Out in the countryside, barn roofs and entire outhouses flew away. An airplane hangar at Boeing Field—then Seattle’s principal airport—collapsed, destroying several aircraft inside. At the Alki Hotel, a brick wall collapsed, killing a Chinese boarder in his bed. In Hooverville tin roofs cartwheeled across the sky and shanties were simply shredded, leaving their denizens standing dazed among the wreckage. At a nearby bakery, hungry men gathered in front of the plate-glass window separating them from racks of freshly baked bread, hoping the window would implode. On the University of Washington campus, the glass skylights at the basketball pavilion caved in, giant Douglas firs toppled over, and five sections of temporary seating in the football stadium blew away. The winds blew for six and a half hours, almost without respite, and when they finally died down millions of board feet of standing timber had fallen, millions of dollars of property damage had been done, eighteen people were dead, and Seattle was largely cut off from communication with the outside world.
Then the rains came again, as they always do. It was not quite the deluge of the previous year, but it rained more days than not for the rest of October and into November. An unusual number of lesser windstorms continued to blow in from the Pacific as well. One of the few advantages West Coast crews were supposed to have over East Coast crews was that the easterners could not train out of doors during the winter when their home rivers were frozen. Instead they were usually relegated to indoor rowing tanks, poor substitutes for the real thing. “Like sitting on the edge of a bathtub with a shovel,” one western coach scoffed. As a result of all their outdoor exposure, Washington’s boys were, year after year, particularly hardy and particularly adept at rowing in rough water. But you could not row at all if your shell sank, and as November of 1934 wore on, the water was so rough that it continually threatened to swamp the boats. Day after day Ulbrickson had to keep them ashore. He drove his boys hard, but he wasn’t about to let a boatload of them drown in the middle of Lake Washington. By mid-November he figured he was two weeks behind schedule.
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Throughout that month, a world away at the lavish Geyer-Werke film studios on Harzer Strasse in Berlin, Leni Riefenstahl was peering, day and night, with weary but zealous eyes, through the double magnifying lenses of her small Lytax film-editing machine. Dressed in a white smock, she sat at her editing table for up to sixteen hours a day, often until three or four in the morning, seldom eating, surrounded by thousands of filmstrips dangling from hooks in front of backlit glass walls. The immediate task at hand was to carefully review, cut, and splice selections from the four hundred thousand feet of raw film she had shot at the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg.
The film that would eventually emerge from her labors, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens), would come to define the iconography of Nazi Germany. To this day it stands as a monument to the ability of propaganda to foster absolute power and to justify unfettered hatred. And Riefenstahl would be celebrated for it for the rest of her life.
The Nuremberg Rally of 1934 was itself an anthem to power and a carefully designed tool for further concentrating and advancing it. From the moment Adolf Hitler’s airplane descended from the clouds into Nuremberg on September 4 of that year, every movement he made, every detail of the imagery that unfolded, every word he and his minions spoke, was carefully calculated to reinforce the notion that the Nazi Party was invincible. And more: that it was the only legitimate object of not just political but religious fervor. And still more: that this new German religion was embodied and made incarnate in the person of its leader.
The rally’s principal choreographers were Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, who designed the massive movie set Nuremberg became; Joseph Goebbels, who controlled the overall propaganda value of the event, its “messaging” in modern parlance; and Leni Riefenstahl, whose job it was to capture on film not just the rally itself but, more important, its underlying spirit—to amplify its message and convey it to an audience far wider than the three-quarters of a million party members who were actually in Nuremberg that week.
It was a tense, strained alliance, particularly between Riefenstahl and Goebbels. As Riefenstahl’s influence continued to grow, Goebbels increasingly struggled to comprehend how a woman could occupy such a situation, much as he struggled to understand why his wife objected so strenuously to his many affairs.
After the war, Riefenstahl said she initially hesitated to make the film, fearing interference from Goebbels and his powerful Ministry of Propaganda. In her enormously self-serving and revisionist autobiography, she asserted that she agreed to make the film only after Hitler promised to keep Goebbels at bay. She also claimed that she had already had to keep Goebbels at bay on a more personal level—that he had become so smitten with her charms, so determined to have her for his mistress, that he had come to her apartment one night and flung himself on his knees at her feet, begging her to have him, only to be unceremoniously shown the door. Goebbels, she said, never forgave her for the humiliation of the rejection.
Despite all this, and regardless of the veracity of Riefenstahl’s account of her relationship with Goebbels, the 1934 rally and Riefenstahl’s film in particular were enormous successes. Triumph of the Will was everything Riefenstahl hoped it would be, and it is still considered by many to be the most successful propaganda film of all time. With a staff of 172, including 18 cameramen dressed as SA men so they would blend into the crowd, Riefenstahl shot the week’s events from every conceivable angle, using techniques that had never been tried in a documentary before—cameras on dollies moving along tracks, cameras mounted on elevator platforms for dynamic aerial views, cameras in pits dug at ground level for shots upward at the looming Nazi figures. And the cameras caught it all: a half million uniformed party members marching in thunderous lock step, standing in massed rectangular formations, perfect in their uniformity and conformity; the speeches by Rudolf Hess, Goebbels, and Hitler himself, pounding on the podium, eyes ablaze, spittle flying from his mouth; Speer’s monumental architecture, the ponderous stone buildings lending their weight and solidity to the impression of overwhelming might, the vast open spaces suggesting unlimited ambition; the eerie torchlight parade of the SA men on the second night, with flickering torches and magnesium flares and bonfires illuminating their gleaming faces against the black night; the ranks of black-shirted SS men goose-stepping past bespectacled, crab-faced Heinrich Himmler; enormous banners emblazoned with swastikas, fluttering in the background of nearly every shot. If you have in your mind any image of Nazi pageantry and power, it likely comes, directly or indirectly, from Triumph of the Will.
But perhaps the most horrifying images from Riefenstahl’s film were seemingly the most innocent. They were shot on the third day of the rally, as Hitler addressed tens of thousands of boys from the Hitler-Jugend, the Hitler Youth, and its junior branch, the Deutsches Jungvolk. Service in the Hitler Youth was not yet compulsory, as it would later be; these were boys who were already true believers and they had been indoctrinated with a fierce anti-Semitism. Dressed in short pants and khaki shirts and neckerchiefs, looking for all the world like Boy Scouts with swastikas on their armbands, they ranged in age from eighteen down to ten. Many of them were destined to become members of the SS or SA.
On the podium, Hitler addressed them directly, jabbing at the air with one arm, his fist clenched. “We want our people to be obedient,” he ranted, “and you must practice obedience! Before us Germany lies. In us Germany burns. And behind us Germany follows!” On the field, Riefenstahl’s cameras moved slowly up and down the ranks of the boys, lenses angled slightly upward toward their faces. A gentle autumn breeze tousled their mostly fair hair. Their eyes shone with zeal, illuminated by trust. Their faces were so full of grace, so free of blemish, so perfect, that even today, even in the old black-and-white film, you can almost see the pink blush of their cheeks. And yet many of these were the faces of young men who would someday pull sobbing children from their mothers’ arms and herd them into gas chambers; who would order Polish women to strip naked, line them up at the edge of trenches, and shoot them in the back; who would lock all the women and children of the French town of Oradour-sur-Glane in a barn and set it on fire.
Leni Riefenstahl did her work well, and Hitler was pleased. A little less than two years later, in 1936, she had an opportunity to make another propaganda film, one that would again revel in images of youth and beauty and grace, and that would again perpetrate a great and sinister fraud upon the world.
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As the fall quarter at the university wound down, Joe headed home to Sequim to spend Christmas with Joyce and her family. All fall he had been looking forward to winter break, and to spending time with Joyce somewhere other than in the dreary student cafeteria.
As he got ready to leave town, though, a headline in the Daily caught his attention: “Senior Men Face Life with Debts, Few Jobs.” The article made his heart sink. The average debt among graduates was two hundred dollars, it said, and the average four-year tab was more than two thousand. Both were staggering amounts of money for someone like Joe in 1934. But what surprised him most, as he read on, what he remembered years later, was the revelation that “more than half the men interviewed are receiving their university education at no expense to themselves, their expenses being paid by parents or relatives who expect no reimbursement.” The whole premise of Joe’s struggle to stay in school was the prospect of a more promising future afterward. It had not occurred to him that doors wouldn’t just open for a man with a college degree. And once again it was pounded home to him how many of his classmates apparently did not even have to think about money, how many had people watching out for them, shelling out thousands of dollars they never expected to see again. It stirred up the old anxiety and self-doubt that always threatened to bubble to the surface. And it added something new to the mix—a toxic dash of jealousy.