A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
The Day We All Died.
You won’t see Doctor Frank getting all weepy over this. It’s not his way.
He won’t recreate “Bye Bye, It’s Dik Erickson’s Pie,” filling new lyrics with old
jokes that only Dog Rowers would understand. Someone else can do that shit.
Doctor Frank is not a poet.
But Doctor Frank is not alone when he says that something crushed me deep
inside, the day Dik died.
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
Chapter Seventeen Knarr or Duchess?
Beef or chicken? Pork or fish? On a scale of food from drinking your own
piss to filet mignon, the Knarr was a can of generic chili. The Duchess was
Dinty Moore beef stew.
The rest of the college crowd favored O’Banion’s. Dante’s. Rapunzel’s.
The intellectual elite hung at the Blue Moon. But we wanted our own place,
where nobody would know us. Where we could just be ourselves.
The Knarr would let anyone in, at least when Marcia was working. Tulla
had his Dibby back home, the one he’d marry a month after graduation. But for
now he’d flirt with Marcia just enough to get her to let us all in. What could
possibly go wrong? It was just a couple dozen underage crew guys plus their
dates hanging out in a dive bar where the other customers just kept to
themselves and let us go nuts.
It was a shit hole. Still, it was a club, but not a nightclub like you’d
imagine. The club president wasn’t a slimy mafia boss in a porkpie hat at a
dark corner booth. The president sat on an elevated chair like a baby in a
booster seat. He was Coon, feisty little fucking peckerhead coxswain. I,
president Coon, call this meeting of the Knarr Club to order. Do we have any
new inductees? You? Have you retrieved the urinal cake? Ah, good. Under the
powers vested in me I hereby command you to bite that fucker in half!
And the sucker would bite the cake. The tough guys would just pick the
damn thing up barehanded straight out of the urinal, bring it to the table and
make it happen. The weenies – I was going to say the smart guys, but is any of
this shit smart? – grabbed it with a paper towel and washed it off first.
Either way, if the bite was not effective or pleasing to the eye of the
little fucking peckerhead president, back the sucker would go to get another
one. It was not unheard of to bite three cakes before the club membership was
Other than a bunch of rowdy underage crew guys who may well have kept the
place in business, it was pretty quiet in the Knarr. The shuffleboard table
kept us entertained while we waited for the pool table. And it was a rare thing
to have a stranger step up and drop a quarter for the next game. And, other
than shuffleboard, pool, beer, urinal cakes, and Marcia, we eventually ran out
of reasons to say “Aaaarrrgh! To the Knarr!”
The Duchess actually carded people. Usually everyone. And it was just a
step up, chili to stew. It was also more for serious drinking and carrying on
with a select few members of the rest of the public. But the dive bar ambience
remained. Doctor Frank had picked up the habit of chewing snoose and spitting
in one cup while drinking beer from the other, which is awesome as long as you
remember which is which. The owner of the bar actually walked by and told me to
spit on the rug instead. “tobacco bits fuck up my dishwasher,” he said. So I
gave him the glass and spit on the floor. It was easier for both of us.
The Duchess had an edge to it, an attitude that was
lacking at the Knarr. If the Knarr was ‘ludes, the Duchess was speed. Even a
big crew motherfucker didn’t want to mess with anyone there. We were lovers,
not fighters, anyway. Take Tulla for instance. He comes out of the Duchess all
pissed off and yelling about something, a guy takes exception and tells him to
shut up, Tulla goes to fight him, the guy pops him two quick ones and it’s over
in like two seconds. Kind of a bummer to be Tulla with that big bandage on his
schnozz the next morning.
Now and then our lady friends would come looking
for us at the bar. Now and then they’d find us with our arm around someone
else. Now and then they wouldn’t find us at all, and they’d end up with someone
else’s arm around them, or they’d make their way to the Connie looking for us.
Doctor Frank recalls this one particular time, lying in his top rack in the
boathouse, nearly asleep, when his roommate’s honey pounds on the door
wondering why he wasn’t at the Knarr like he said he’d be. He gets up to open
the door and nearly falls over from the beer stench.
Roomie’s girlfriend sways in the open doorway, arm
around her wing woman. As Doctor Frank recalls, wingwoman’s name was Jill. She
was a stubby little one with soft eyes, curly hair and big lips that were
always wet. Chitchat ensues, another door opens in the hallway, and our
neighbor who shall remain nameless steps into the hall. He spies Jill, having
seen her before on another visit, tells her how beautiful she is and how much
he needs her company. She smiles lustfully and pulls him into his room. Before
the door closes, roomie’s girlfriend hollers after her to make it quick. They
gotta get home, plus these stud athletic specimens have practice in the
Not even ten minutes later, we hear our neighbor’s
door open and shut. Jill walks in, licking her lips. “Mmmm, that was tasty. And
quick,” she says. “Let’s go.”
Jill is wearing a beautiful blue silk top. Roomie’s
girlfriend takes a closer look, still weaving, trying to focus. She points just
below Jill’s chin, and slurs, “What’s that? Jill? Is that…”
Jill looks down. “Dammit! I thought I swallowed it
all! How am I gonna get that stain out?” Now she’s pissed. “This top cost a bunch of
Girlfriend puts her arm around Jill, comforting
her. “Honey, honey. Just tell the drycleaner you spilled pop on it. Or ice
cream. Whatever, they’re miracle workers. And one more thing…
“If you’re going to do that, always take your top
Who knew? A lesson learned after a trip to the
Knarr would go all the way to the Other Washington and the Oval Office, three
thousand miles and twenty years later.
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
“Watch your fucking head.”
That’s all the card said, postmarked in Luxor, Egypt, the day before Christmas.
Of course it arrived in the middle of January. The fucking donkeys must take
forever to get to the airport. Meanwhile Doctor Frank was taking the month in
New Mexico doing field work in Geology. Funny I was still studying how the
world was made when I’d already learned the whole story as a gruntie.
The card was just another of the regular updates I’d gotten.
On the front of this card was a short twenty-passenger tour bus sitting
in front of the Great Sphinx, giant pyramids behind. White tourists were piling
out to take a look. An Egyptian teenager, brown skinned and dressed in a
traditional Arab robe and head covering, reached out a hand to assist them. It
was contrived, staged. I could almost hear the coins falling into the kid’s tip
Maybe the next card would fill in the rest of the story.
Two months earlier, Dik had made an announcement at practice. It was well
into November and we were focused on getting the last month of fall workouts
and low-key head races out of the way. It was also the Monday after the Mad Dog
game and a few guys were still shuffling through their day trying to adjust.
“Got a letter here from NAAO. There’s this regatta in Egypt…”
Guffaws, snorts and whatthefucks.
“This is serious shit here, guys. We can say no, but I’m not gonna say
no. We take ten guys including spares, plus a cox, and two coaches. We start
picking today. I’m not gonna fuck around with you. I’m gonna pick this team and
I’m gonna pick it as soon as I can. I want the ten biggest, strongest
ratfuckers in the best shape, with the best erg scores, who can give the next
month and a half of everything they’ve got to this program, who can show me the
best character and the best effort and be the best ambassadors for our sport
and our university. Guys who can row both sides if they have to. Today’s
Monday. Ergs will be Wednesday. I’m posting this list on my office door. Sign
up for your time after practice, if you want a shot at this boat.”
Now we just sat there in silence.
“Oh, and by the way, we’ll be in Luxor, Egypt, on Christmas Day.”
We looked around the room at each other. There we were, calculating
again. That guy has to work over the break. That guy’s got a hardon for his
woman back home and won’t go. That guy’s erg is gonna be hard to beat.
We were big tough jocks, indestructible, with hearts of steel. But none
of us had ever been anywhere other than in front of our own home fires at Christmas.
The whole idea was overwhelming. Heads spinning, we needed a leader. An
inspiration. We got one.
Fisk leaped up from where he’d been stretching out his massive Husky
pins. The chiseled, handsome man, who had gone from Mercer Islander football
jock who’d never heard of crew to a Henley Grand Challenge champ, snatched the
list from Dik’s hand.
“Who’s got a fuckin’ pen? I don’t need to call my goddamn mother about
this. I don’t need to wait til after practice. I’ll take this first slot right
here. Who else is in?”
Anyone else would have gotten the brownnose accusation. But since it was
Fisk, forty guys jumped up to follow his lead. Forty guys, and only ten would
go. But forty guys were willing to rip their guts out, just for the chance to
be one of those fortunate ten.
Dik smiled. Others might be elected Commodore, Captain, VBC officer. But
Dik knew he could count on Fisk.
Dik wasn’t lying. Ergs were Wednesday, and the fastest eight guys with
the top ergs were in a boat together at practice the next day. He didn’t
officially name the squad yet but it was pretty obvious where this was going.
Doctor Frank was in the next eight. We were fighting for those last two spots
on the squad, the spare spots, the ultimate twelfth men, the guys that had to
be OK with two weeks of cheerleading but better be ready at any second for a
seat on the starting line.
We beat Dik’s first boat.
It’s times like that when Dik was known to rip windshields off coaching
launches and throw megaphones in the lake. This time, though, he loved it. He
loved it that eight guys were fighting so hard for two seats that they’d beat
the eight other guys who supposedly had it made. He shook his head, lit his
pipe, and told us to turn around and race it again.
“Emfbo, get in here!”
“Yes, coach?”I stopped walking and
stuck my head in Dik’s office. It had been over a year since the first time he
said that. I’d gotten a lot more used to the banter.
“No, all the way in. Close the door.”My asshole clenched. God I hated that feeling. As the latch clicked
behind me, Dik looked down at his list of erg results. “Your erg score sucks.
You won’t make this team.”
I’d made it this far. I still wanted a shot. My erg score didn’t suck, I
pulled the piece of my life, my best score ever. Goddammit, I can’t get cut and
ignored after just three days of tryouts. I drew in a breath to let all this
shit come flying out. Every minute I’d sat in second and third boats or worse
for two plus seasons, every stroke I’d taken with every last bit of juice I
had, all those weights I’d lifted and stairs I’d run just wanting the boat to
go faster, it was all about to come spewing back at Dik.
“Coach…” was all I got out as he raised a hand to stop me.
“Got no time for a discussion. Look at all these people I gotta call for
press interviews, set up flights, hotels, meals, all that shit.” He waved a
hand at his desk. I had no idea how he kept his shit together in that mess.
“I’m being straight with you, Frank. I want the same goddamn thing in
return, so just be straight with me. That’s all I’m asking. I want to know if I
can count on you to keep pushing these ratfuckers who’re going on this fucking
gift of a trip, keep cranking anonymously with everything you’ve got, up to the
last day of practice before we leave. If so, fine. You’re still in the second
boat and I can still make a valid selection of our spares. If not, if you’re
just going to be a pissed off member of the fucker factor, then say so now.”
God, I loved being manipulated. I mean, when you’re being jerked by a guy
who’s being straight up dead honest with you about jerking you, there’s a
perverted kind of honor in it. Dik didn’t say it exactly this way, but once
again here he was offering a shot at being part of something more important
than myself. Giving me an opportunity to bust my ass for the next month with an
absolute guarantee of getting nothing in return. Nothing tangible.
“Of course I will, Coach. Thanks for being honest with me.” I stepped
forward and put my hand out. “Thanks for the opportunity. Really.”
He took my hand and started to say something but was distracted as the
phone rang. I turned and opened the door to leave.
“Erickson. Yeah, Mike. Hold on. Hey! Emfbo!”
Already in the hallway, I turned around.
“Thanks, Frank. Now get the hell to class.”
Mid December, finals week. It was the last workout before the team left, and
Dik had cut the second eight loose. Too many guys had finals, too many
distractions. He had his top eight, and that was it. Even his two spares had to
get to campus early that day. So it was eight guys rowing, a coxswain freezing
his ass on a fucking cold winter morning, and me in the launch with Dik. Plus
Raoul at the wheel.
I’d been there if they needed me, all the way up to this last minute. Now
I felt just a little useless. They went through their warmup, with the plan to
run a few two minute pieces, starts, sprints, and a final two grand in the Cut
to take with them as an inspiration on the trip.
My hands ached to grip an oar handle. I was already planning my winter
break training. I’d bust my ass on my own, head out for my January project in
the field, and find a way to run and lift while I was there. I’d be back in
February and I’d be a powerful ripped package of muscle and guts.
I was drifting and dreaming about it, visualizing my place in the first
boat by spring, when Tommy’s hand went up on the starting line of that final
piece in the Cut.
“Coach, it’s eight o’clock!”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Well, Coach, Lickity has an 8:30 final he can’t miss!”
“What the fuck? Goddammit, Tommy, turn it toward the crewhouse. Let’s get
there now, on the power, ready all, row!”
Dik looked at me. “Stretch out, Emfbo. As soon as those fuckers hit the
dock, you’re getting in his spot and we’re going back out. They just don’t know
it yet. Look at ‘em, rowing their balls off like this is the last piece in
practice.” He snickered and sucked on his pipe. I could see Raoul’s shoulders
shaking as he laughed at Dik. Yeah, big joke.
If you fuck with Dik, you’ll get fucked back.
Fifteen minutes later we sat on the starting line, pointing straight down
the two thousand meter Montlake Cut home course, seven guys well beyond warmup
and knowing they faced a true gut check in the next six minutes. And one guy
not even warmed up yet, still trying to stretch and get that blood and wind
The big launch idled next to us, exhaust wafting past us. “You guys think
that’s bad? Wait’ll you smell Cairo,” Dik teased us. We got a little pipe
smoke, could even smell the steam from his coffee cup.
“You guys are going to be on a plane tomorrow morning, missing an entire
day of workouts. Let’s make this a good one. Two thousand meters, full race
pace, take it up for a sprint at the end, you better leave it all out here. All
you guys pissed off at me, tough shit. You know, adversity builds character. It
also reveals character. Ask yourself, really ask yourself… what do you want
revealed this morning? Right now? What about you, Bird? You pissed at me? Put
it into that fucking oar!
“Êtes-vous prêts? Partez!” Dik dug the French shit when the chips were
down. “Get ‘em outta here, Tommy!”
Tommy, ah Tommy, the only coxswain in the post-Wells era to not be called
a little fucking peckerhead. Tommy was a kind and gentle man on land, and just
a little more intense on the water. Let’s say he went from George Bush to
Ronald Reagan when he got into that back seat and grabbed the knockers. But we
could hear him that day like the team would hear his voice ringing across the
“Half! Half! Threequarter! Full! Five! Six!” The boat shot from the line,
all eight on point and wanting to prove to themselves, to Dik, to each other,
that this was what they deserved, being in this place at this time on a cold
winter morning. While the guys who didn’t make it, the unlucky ones, were
heading for finals or grabbing a last omelette from Vera and Pat before the
kitchen closed. Extra Velveeta, fried in a ladle of those good drippings from
the warm can of lard on the griddle.
The great thing about the Cut course is the variety of stuff going by on
the shore. After rowing it a hundred times you can tell where you are by the
little flickers of what you know is going by out the corner of your eye. Even
with your head focused and eyes riveted in the boat, you can see the green of
Fox Point, five hundred meters, power ten. The little dock at a thousand, power
twenty. Hope the fucking coxswain doesn’t hit those can buoys just before the Cut,
then everything starts closing in around you, whether it’s the entrance to the
cut and the high banks boxing you in or the gray tightening circle of tunnel
vision as your mind starts to fuck with you around seven fifty to go.
Then you know five hundred is coming. Like soon. And anyone can hold on
and row their ass off for the last five hundred. Except when you’ve had no
warmup, just went out to the start and fucking raced your thighs, back and arms
into a fiery frenzy after freezing up in the coach’s launch for an hour.
Every muscle in my upper back and neck was ablaze. My legs were cramping.
My lungs were the only things working normally. They’d gone to hyper mode at
about seven fifty in, and were finally settling on that second wind. But
everything else was freezing up on me. I kept time with Fisk, but was losing
length and could barely reach to the gunwale at the catch. Dik could see it all
That’s about when Raoul pulled the launch up so close I thought the bow
was going to hit Fisk’s oar. Dik had put me at Six, so when he stood up with
that power megaphone in hand it sounded like he was right in my ear hole.
“Goddammit Emfbo, you’ll thank me for this! Let’s go Frank!”
Between strokes I glanced at him, then back at the mental bullseye I’d
painted on Stormin’s head in front of me. “Aaaaaaarrrrgh!” was all I could get
out. Then we were at the bridge, a minute to go, taking the rate up, and it
felt so goddamn good to be out there with those guys that morning, knowing what
we were doing there, knowing they were heading on the trip of a lifetime, the
length was back, the rate was there, the cramps were gone. Thirty strokes later
and it was over. That’s when the shit hit the fan.
“Huh!” I jerked and spasmed and leaned over the side. One more heave, and
all that good healthy water I drank in Dik’s launch came right back up and got
donated to the Cut finish line. I had no illusions about being the first guy to
do that. It was a long Husky tradition. A few more pukes, and someone asked me
if I was all right. I glanced at Dik’s launch, circling nearby.
“Fuck yeah! Let’s do it again!” I shouted, pumping my fist.
“Right, Frank. Nice work guys, let’s turn it around and take it in. On
Fisk turned around to me, still steaming like a fresh pile of fajitas,
hot plate senor, and glared. “Hey Emfbo, thanks. I mean, if you hadn’t been
waiting for this chance in Dik’s launch, if you’d only stayed in bed,
motherfucker, we’d be showered and sitting at breakfast right now. Fuck you.”
Fisk had a way of making you believe he was about to eat your whole
fucking head in one bite. But still, I’d been there for these guys for the last
month, even today when I didn’t have to. Still gasping in recovery mode, I sat
up and pointed at him, ready to tell him to go fuck himself and if he didn’t
fucking like it then maybe he should give me his fucking seat for this trip because
he was a pussy…
“Jesus Christ man, I’m kidding. Lighten up. We all – and I better be
speaking for all of us, goddammit – we all appreciate you being out here.
Thanks. We’ll get you a statue of Ramses or something.”
The guy called Hubbard sat behind me, pounding me on the back. “Great
piece this morning. We’re gonna miss you, man.”
“All right you assholes, let’s get outta here before you make me cry.” I
was laughing at them now, but I was going to miss them too. Nice to know every
stroke I took was for something good. Something bigger than me.
The letters from England started coming pretty quick.
December 17, Oxford England
Enclosed wax paper was pulled
directly from the dispenser in a toilet stall where we’re staying. They wipe
their asses with this stuff. No wonder they’re all stiff and uptight over here.
They don’t have sticks up their asses. They just have remnants this stuff
couldn’t smear away. Sheesh. I’ll be taking a shower after every dump.
Won’t bore you with tales of the
sweet English girl I sat next to on the plane. Eight hours of soft perfume,
that sexy voice and dreamy eyes. When Fisk stood up to get something from the
overhead, those giant wings uplifted, she coos, “ohhhhhh, he must be your
stroke,” her tender hand running up my thigh. I told her I was more interested
in her stroke. She giggled again, that sweet Brit laugh. Yeah, the flight
Lewis joined the mile high club. By
himself, in the restroom. Bet you wanted to know that.
So, you’ve heard Jerry Jeff say the
English sense of humor is dryer than Texas sand. Customs guy sees ten long
boxes going by on a cart, all marked “fragile – racing oar.” He stops us,
gathers us around, points sternly and asks which one’s winning.
Met a real leprechaun. We’re
staying a few days in a dorm on the Oxford campus, rowing on the Thames and
getting over the jet lag. While Dik got us checked in we wandered the
neighborhood. This drunk Irish guy just found us somehow. We fascinated him. He
entertained us. He got a little too insulting. American pigs and what not. We
all turn down an alleyway, Bowlin shouts “Hey, what do you guys want to do with
him now?...” and poof. He’s magically gone. With his Lucky Charms and all.
Walker got lost already. Dumbass
falls asleep when we’re all leaving for a meal, we forget to do a body count
and he wakes up and goes off to find us. Tells a hotel doorman he’s from the
States and he’s lost. Guy tells him to ‘ed west and tyke a lef’ at Greenland.
Lovely people. Just lovely.
Postcard pic: High Street, Oxford.
This place has the best bars.
Pretty much done with the Knarr.
December 19, Oxford
Workouts are a bitch. Dik is
baffled. We’re sucking ass. Wish Lucky was here to rig this shell. Not like I’m
blaming the equipment or anything like that. But we spent the whole hour and a
half down to starboard. So many guys were yelling to set it up and get it off
starboard, we thought JBT was in the boat. We all just pulled up to our nipples
but the damn thing still wouldn’t ride level.
December 19, 11:30 pm
All is well. Did you know you can
get Foster’s beer in a can that holds a full liter? Fuck, look at me talking all
British and shit.
Postcard pic: Thames River, Oxford
December 20, Oxford
We leave for Egypt tomorrow.
Finally had a practice today that felt good. Dik moved some guys around. Fisk,
Stormin’, Bird, Bowlin, all solid in their seats. Everyone else, it’s a goddamn
free for all and nobody knows who’ll be racing and who’ll be cheerleading. Erratickson
December 20, Oxford, 10 pm
Dik told us to go out and have a
drink. The Turf Tavern is this amazing place, underground, cellars from the 13th
century. Food is bland British who knows what the fuck shepherds pie plate
shit, with a big wiener. Beer is warm. But what the hell, it’s cultural
outreach. And we’re just doing our job. Drank one for you.
Afternoon practice was our best yet
and we wrapped it up feeling good. Main workout was a thirty-minute power
piece, Tommy swerving all over the river and trying to avoid floating shit in
the current as it got dark. You know England is higher latitude so it gets dark
even earlier here? Geography lesson, you’re welcome.
For thirty minutes Dik counted up
and down the boat giving a minute to each guy. He’d shout a name, the guy would
yell let’s go or yeah or in Big Bird’s case eeeeee, and we’d get another
inspiration. We were baked when it was done, but feeling good.
The mist was hanging over the
heather, the full moon was hanging over the ridge, and a honking flock of geese
flew in front of it, bidding us a fond goodbye from England. You don’t believe
that mystical shit, do you?
December 21, Heathrow Airport
Yeah we’re excited. But doing our
best not to piss our pants about it. Hanging out in the airport waiting for a
flight to Cairo that’s delayed three hours. We have a connection to Luxor that
we’ve already missed. By the time we get to Cairo it’ll be night. They say the
airport has a place where you can hit the rack for a few hours. Wonder if they
have any female companionship with the hourly rate.
Dik’s on his knees teaching the
gate attendants how to pitch pennies. Boredom is never an option with him
So we’re just sitting here killing
time and Tommy shouts “Oh shit you guys, I almost forgot. You gotta gather
round.” He gets all ten of us, plus Dik, in a tight little circle with him in
the middle. He was staring up at all of us, whispering so low we could barely
“You guys gotta promise me. Please.
Promise. Promise me you won’t tell anyone I’m Jewish.”
We stare at each other,
dumbfounded. I mean, Begin and Sadat, and peace, and a Nobel Prize, so nobody
cares about all that shit anymore, right? Plus, like Dik said,
“What the hell are you talking
about, Tommy? None of us even knew you’re Jewish, or cared. So now you’ve told
eleven motherfuckers who didn’t know in the first place. Look around at these
guys. Which one of us do you think is going to fuck it up?”
“Seriously, Coach. Please, I’m
serious. I could get hurt or killed. I know what I’m talking about.”
This was the first time any of us
had considered this shit. A Jew in a Muslim country. Why would this be bad?
People are people, right? Maybe not so much.
So now we have to keep quiet about
a life or death thing we didn’t even know about before. That’s fucking
The first letter from Egypt got to me two weeks later. The guys were
already home but I hadn’t talked to anyone. I’d left for my field work before
they got back, and I hadn’t even heard race results from Luxor and Cairo.
Phones were crappy and results were tough to get out. So the local press had
either not heard anything or they’d decided not to try. There was a day when
rowing, Husky Rowing, was the biggest thing in Seattle, trains packed to
bursting with fans following the races along Lake Washington. Even in Dik’s
rowing days, Keith Jackson himself went with the team around the world to
fucking Moscow Russia to cover the race live on the radio.
Now, just twenty years later, nobody gave a shit. The Sonics were
playing. Husky football was headed for the Rose Bowl. The new Mariners and
Seahawks were in offseason talks. For God’s sake, we had high school sports
featured on the evening news, so what hack reporter would try to dig up stuff
on a bunch of local kids rowing in a regatta with traditions dating back
thousands of years? Nothing hit the papers, so I waited for letters and cards. My
parents promised to forward everything. Of course they’d read the postcards before
sending them on.
Postcard pic: River Nile at sunset
December 22, Luxor
It took us twenty two hours to get
here. Flight delays, searches, customs bullshit, and no females in that airport
dorm. Unless you count the rats. Tired. More later.
December 22, Luxor
Amazing place here. Plane landed at
8am and the first local guy we saw was in a shabby uniform and a WWI era
helmet. We paid him plenty of respect. He was carrying a machine gun.
Drivers don’t use their brakes
here. Just their horns. The bus driver swerved all over the damn road, dodging
camels, dogs, people, trash just lying in the road, burros pulling carts, kids
playing in the street. This is no shit. There are burros everywhere. Nobody
worries about just walking down the middle of the fucking road until someone
honks, then they shout and get the hell out of the way. More culture shock.
There was a construction project
going on at the airport. We stood and watched for a while. Someone speculated
that’s why the pyramids and tombs took so long to build. Three thousand years
later and they still send guys into a pit digging with spoons.
We’re driving along, swerving,
honking, going through downtown Luxor along the Nile, wondering if anyone in
this city gives a shit about the race, and suddenly the bus stops in the middle
of the goddamn street. The driver waves, points, tells us to get out, smiling,
pointing above our heads. We step out to see a huge banner across the street:
“HEROES OF ROWING, WELCOME TO OUR
Shiny and new, it looks out of
place above a filthy street, dust rising as hordes of grubby kids run everywhere,
a glistening banner hanging between a couple rotting, crooked power poles. But
we have no time to think about the incongruity. Someone saw us get off the bus.
“Hey! American! Number One!” We
turn to see a crowd approaching us. We’d been coached on this. The people love
candy and chewing gum. We were armed with tons of the stuff. Wrigley’s
Spearmint and Juicy Fruit. Lewis crouches to greet a kid and hand him a single
stick of gum. Immediately he’s surrounded. He expected them to line up. Like
little kids do back home. Here it’s every man and child for himself. There were
adults pushing kids out of the way to get at a piece of goddamn Juicy Fruit.
Lewis tells them he’s all out,
shows his empty hands. They’re pissed now, the same people who wanted us to be
Number One a few seconds ago. Big Bird wants in on the action. Big Bird does
not kneel down. Big Bird is taller than anyone these people have ever seen,
except maybe now the guy called Hubbard and Bowlin. Big Bird steps farther from
the bus, holds a few dozen sticks of gum in his hand like the Statue of
Liberty, and laughs while a handful of kids tries to jump to get some. He stops
laughing when he’s surrounded by a hundred shouting kids and adults, pushing
each other to get closer to him. We’re picturing Big Bird tipping over and
ending up like Gulliver tied down in the middle of a street in Luxor, thankful
we brought a couple spares for situations just like this one.
Big Bird panics, which as you know,
Frank, is not a good thing. He heaves his pile of gum as far as he can throw
it. The crowd deserts him and devolves into a massive pigpile punching and
scratching for a couple lousy sticks of gum. Bird turns and screams at us, “Get
back on the goddamn bus! Go! Now!” It’s a phone bung except with more room. Big
Bird is the last man in, thankfully the strongest man, just lifting the rest of
us and shoving us through the door in front of him. It takes a few deep breaths
by the Bird before anyone says anything.
“Holy shit, a week of this?”
Nothing for a couple days, then I got a phone call from my dad. He said he
was going to start checking the mailbox himself now, and he didn’t want Mom
doing it until these damn cards quit coming from Egypt. I asked what’s the
matter and he said my mom was having a fit over the language. “But I’ll tell
you something,” he lowered his voice on the other end, “I think it’s goddamn
The next day, sealed from Mom’s eyes in their own special envelope, I got
two postcards. The one that said simply “Watch your fucking head”, plus this
Postcard picture, mouth of Tut’s Tomb
December 24, Luxor
Great race. But the fucking French
beat us by a cunt hair. More later.
I could see Mom’s face at that one. Dad must have laughed his ass off.
I cannot believe someone had a
Polaroid camera here. Just amazing. The guy’s name is Jerry Tyler, American
freelance writer. What the fuck he’s doing in Luxor Egypt I have no idea. Must
have pissed someone off real bad to get sent here. Anyway he took this picture.
Hope you like it. Our race boat didn’t have a name. We just wanted some
inspiration, and this was our way of saying thanks for spilling your blood and
guts to make us go faster. We wanted to make you proud. Tommy wasn’t sure about
putting all that jock tape on a borrowed boat, but we told him fuck these
Arabs, we’re never going to see them again. Blessed are the peacemakers.
This Tyler guy met us at our hotel the
day we got here, said he just wanted to hang around with us. He was taking
notes all the time. Claimed he could show us around, introduce us. Turns out
the only word he knows is “imshi” which means get the fuck out of here. Works in
a lot of situations.
You would not believe the number of
dogs here. The only thing outnumbering the dogs are the street vendors.
Everywhere we go, someone’s trying to sell us something. Same bullshit
everywhere. You know if they start at ten Egyptian pounds they’ll sell it for
one or two. So you just say no a couple times, walk away, then they’ve cut
their price in half by the time you turn around and look at them again.
“Monsieur! Look! Eez Ramses! Pure
Even in the Valley of the Kings,
right around Tut’s tomb, they’re out there. Statues, jewelry, postcards. It’s
About that card I sent earlier. We
spent a couple hours getting driven around with the British team looking at the
tombs and temples across the river. Three thousand plus years old, Frank. You
would not believe it. So this kid on our tour bus, he’s like fourteen years
old. Maybe the driver’s son. He has one job. We get on and off the bus, and he
stands in the doorway saying “watch your head. Watch your head.” That’s it. And
when the bus is rolling, it’s too full with big rowing fuckers to squeeze him
in, so he climbs in the baggage compartment under the bus, the driver shuts him
in, and we’re off. What a shitty job, shitty life. We might have made it worse.
Bowlin decided to teach the kid one
more word, just one more word of English. Fucking. We’re heading for the bus
after Queen Hathepsut’s Temple, and Bowlin’s standing there by the door rehearsing
with the kid. He stays there next to him, saying it along with the kid as we
get on board, one at a time.
“Watch your fucking head. Watch
your fucking head.” We crack up not just because it’s funny, but more so at the
image of the next round of English tourists, all proper in their clean white
tourist outfits, greeted with “Watch your fucking head.”
“You know, Bowlin, that poor kid’s
gonna get his ass kicked for saying that.” The guy called Hubbard was always
the compassionate one. But he didn’t say anything to the kid. None of us did.
We tipped him for the entertainment, though.
We only had time for a few
practices with all the pomp and ceremony and formal tours they gave us. We
never saw the fucking French until race day. They were probably drinking wine
and smoking in some Egyptian whorehouse. We hated those fuckers. Arrogant
little bastards. Cigarette smokers, every one of them. Assholes.
Something was wrong with Bowlin’s
oarlock, and he kept crabbing. Dik couldn’t figure it out. We wished again for
Lucky. Bowlin crabbed, I mean like a boat stopper, right in front of the dock
on our last power piece the morning of race day. The Fucking French and the
Brits were all on the beach watching us. Not exactly a confidence builder. Tommy,
thank God for Tommy, figured it out and taped a tiny little shim in the oarlock
to keep the oar straight.
On race day we were told to be at
the Karnak Temple at two o’clock. Oars in hand. So we get there, and under
these massive pillars and sculptures thousands of years old, the Opening
Ceremony starts. What a trip. All the dignitaries from the town were inside,
and the whole damn town must have shut down so everyone could come watch from
outside. After speeches, brass bands, martial arts demonstrations, and dancing
girls, we marched out of the temple. All the way to the river, the crowd lined
the street cheering. Little girls threw flowers at us.
So formal, so fancy. Then we got to
the launch site amid trash, dogs and scrambling children and got into the
Emfbo. Goddamn proud, Frank, I gotta say, to sit in a boat with your name on
We were jacked. So excited, we had
to take a few minutes on the water just to calm the breathing. Dik had tried to
estimate what he thought was the race course that morning, and told us he
thought it was short. Maybe even a minute short, so we might finish in under
five minutes. We were ready for a fly and die, give it all, don’t save anything
in the tank, and pray you can hold it together if the race is normal length.
Men as fit as you, when your everyday strength is gone, can draw on a
mysterious reserve of power far greater. We’d heard Pocock’s words so many
times, it was ingrained. We believed it about ourselves without a doubt.
The fucking French jumped the
start. We went with them, but the officials stopped the race. We backed in
again and the Egyptians jumped the start. Shit, we wondered if we’d ever get
Then we got the command, the start
was clean, and suddenly we were five hundred meters in and leading by a half a
length over the Brits and French.
Unlike the Montlake Cut course, we
had no clue where we were. We were just out there to go as hard as we could go
until Tommy said way ‘nuff. No course markers, no buoys, no familiar landmarks,
just the back of the guy’s head in front of us and Fisk’s oar blade to keep us
None of us know now if it was
surprise at our lead or some other factor, but that half length was all we got.
We held it for probably a thousand meters, then somehow we lost concentration
for just a few strokes. But that’s all it took and they both blew past us and
sat on us with a couple seats lead. The Egyptians and Belgians were curvature
behind, but we were locked in a battle. We took a ten to get the focus back and
we crept back to take command. We’d gone close to two thousand, Tommy told us
later, and we were in the lead, when someone told everyone to stop rowing. No
marked finish for the coxswains to see, no flag in a boat or on the beach. Just
a guy following us in a launch deciding we should quit because the race was
over. Nobody knew who won. But Tommy knew we were fucking ahead, and this may
be the first time I ever heard Tommy say fucking, but we were fucking ahead
when they told us to stop.
On the beach, Jerry Tyler met the
boat and told us we won. He’d heard it from the officials. We went nuts. Got out
of the boat, standing in that filthy Nile water with handshakes and hugs. We
even planned on throwing Tommy in, but he reminded us about the dead camel we’d
seen floating out there the day before. Then Dik cut through the crowd with the
final decision. Fucking French first, Brits second. USA third. USA with the white
shirts, red and blue stripes, and a big gold W on our chests.
Frank, we were pissed, for a lot of
reasons. Mostly because we wanted it for guys like you, StoneMan, Pride of
Conibear, everyone who challenged us and made us fast. Partly because we had it
and in less than ten strokes we let it off the hook. Partly because we came
back through those fuckers and we were leading when we stopped rowing. Partly
at the shitty luck of random finish line placement.
Every guy in that boat felt a
little bit like he’d let the team down. Like maybe it was his fault we fell
apart for a few strokes. Like maybe he could have given just another piece of
his guts for the win.
Dik pulled us together in a tight
circle, staring at us under his Big W hat, while Tyler ran around yelling “Imshi!
Imshi!” and waving a stick at the swarm of kids massing around us. For a minute
nobody said anything. Then Dik lit his pipe, sucked in a big draw, and stared a
“What did you learn today?”
Fisk didn’t hesitate. “We can beat
these fuckers,” he spat out.
“You’re goddamn right you can.
Listen, guys, Cairo is a golden opportunity. None of you got here by fucking
around. You all got here by working your asses off and taking this seriously.
You were ready last month when this opportunity showed up in front of you, and
you reached out and took it. You’re still ready now. The opportunity, the
chance, is right there for you. Just reach out there and grab it. Now stop
looking like someone shot your fucking dog and get the fuck outta here, we have
a dinner to attend tonight. More formal speeches and awards and shit. I know
how you guys love that dog and pony show.”
That’s all it took to get us
focused on the next race. As I sit here now, Frank, I promise you we can beat
these fuckers next time.
Oh and hey, from the ten big
motherfuckers and Tommy, all sitting here at the Luxor airport in eighty-five
degree weather with our shirts off, like summer in Wenatchee waiting for our
Postcard picture: Cairo and the Nile at night
Did you know you can stand on a
street in Cairo and yell “Hey Abdul!” and every damn guy on the street will
We race these fuckers again
tomorrow. There is no doubt in our minds, in spite of what the Egyptian beer
attempted to do to our bodies last night, that we’re going to stick Luxor right
up their asses. Fuck those guys.
Speaking of the beer though. Oh
boy. We arrived on Christmas afternoon, telling all the Muslims Merry Christmas
and handing out candy. Funny, nobody got offended. Everyone smiled and waved
back and said Merry Christmas. It’s a beautiful world. Sadat deserves that
Dik asked the guy at the check-in
about a room in the hotel for a party. He didn’t want us running around town pushing
our cultural bank accounts too far. Sure, the guys says, you can have the room
on the top floor, catered, nice meal, beer available, the whole thing. Dik gets
it all arranged and goes off to tell the British coach.
“Just the Brits? Come on guys, it’s
Christmas. We should invite the French too.” Big Bird had a point. What about
the holiday spirit? We looked around at each other. How were we supposed to
tell them about it? None of those guys speak English, at least they pretend
they don’t. Fuck it. Give it up.
“Wait a second guys, I know French.”
We all look at Dern. Who knew he was a man of the world? “What time and where
is the party? I can post a note right here, and when they check in they’ll see
Dern gets a felt pen and a big
piece of paper from the clerk and sits down at a table. The rest of us go to dump
our stuff in our rooms and suit up for a quick run. Twenty minutes later we
return to the lobby to see this hanging on a post, right where anyone walking
in would see it…
Zee Franch teem eez eenvited to zee
pairtee for zee Noel celebrashon’.
Eet eez happeneeng on zee tense
fleur at seex thirtee tonette.
Deek Ereeckson’ and zee entire Huskee
Zee French did not come to the Noel
celebration. But the Brits showed up, which was plenty for a party. Someone
produced a Santa outfit, which scared the shit out of the staff. Santa pounded
a couple beers and tipped ‘em good. Highlight of the evening was two unnamed
guys who might have been Husky rowers, big surprise there, pissing off the roof
into the street. Even from ten stories, you could see the puddles below, big
and round. There’s a physics experiment in there somewhere dealing with
dissipation, wind resistance, and density of urine.
We had a couple guys with low beer
resistance this morning. Fuck ‘em, Dik said, and we practiced anyway. Feeling
good. We are ready. A trip to the pyramids tomorrow morning, then we race. It’s
that golden opportunity and we won’t miss it.
The pyramids are still there after
three thousand years. We saw them, couldn’t get near them. We got to sit on a
camel right in front of the sphinx. The Egyptian wrangler was Sam today. I bet
he’s Pyotr for Russian tourists and Miguel for Spaniards. Good thing the
fucking French team was back at the hotel smoking cigarettes. Not sure what he’d
call himself for them.
So Sam pulls out a whip and hollers
for us to get on the camel one at a time. Pictures are taken, he waves the whip
and hits the camel who just stands there, Sam yells Merry Christmas and Happy
New Year, hits the camel again and it kneels so one guy can get off and the next
gets on. Very much a production line.
We line up and stand in a row for a
formal team picture in front of the sphinx and pyramids. Tommy and ten big
motherfuckers. Heroes of rowing. All wearing our racing shirts, with no little
fucking peckerhead needed to dress us.
Next up, revenge on the Brits and
the fucking French. I’m mailing this on the way to the race course.
Can’t believe it. We lost again.
Between us and the Brits, we lost
it in the first ten strokes. Our start sucked worse than anything since Dik put
the boat together the day after ergs in November. We rocked and rolled and
pounded through it and trailed everyone. Felt like eight pistons going in
When we finally got our shit together
after we settled the rate, we nipped off the Egyptians, who had two boats in it
this time, then the Belgians, then the fucking French who ended up in third
place by open water behind us. But it was a good day for the Brits. We felt
damn powerful the rest of the race, confidence growing with every stroke as we
left those other guys behind, but we never caught them. Tommy said they might
have had some open water on us, but we could hear their coxswain all the way
down the course and kept on believing we could catch them. Never happened.
Hey Frank, in case you’re wondering
if I think it was worth it to train out of season, peak for a race ten thousand
miles away, and come here and lose… let me put it this way. We had another huge
ceremonial dinner with speeches and bullshit gifts and what not last night at
Osman Ahmed Osman Construction, who sponsors one of the teams and let us use
their boats for the race. So after it’s over, we end up sitting around waiting
for our bus and talking to the Egyptian team. We know no Arabic. They know one
And we all know how to smile.
Frank, goddammit, can you imagine how many of the world’s problems could be
solved by looking in another man’s eyes, smiling and calling him friend? So,
yeah Frank, much as we wanted to win this one for you and for Husky tradition
and for all the ass busting we did to get here, yeah. Some things are more
important than rowing. Not many, but some.