Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Chapter 16 - Sphinxters

The Boys in the Boathouse
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo

Chapter Sixteen

“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 jar.

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 moving.

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 Nile.

“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 falling apart.

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 the paddle.”

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
Dear Frank,
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 sucked.

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.
December 18
Dear Frank,
This place has the best bars. Pretty much done with the Knarr.

December 19, Oxford
Dear Frank,
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 lives.

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 around.

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 hear him.

“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 wonderful.

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:


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. Unbelievable.

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 hilarious.”

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 one…

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.

December 25
Luxor Airport
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 Alabaster!”

Even in the Valley of the Kings, right around Tut’s tomb, they’re out there. Statues, jewelry, postcards. It’s fucking insane.

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 it.

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 going.

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 together.

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 little longer.

“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 flight…

Merry Christmas.

Postcard picture: Cairo and the Nile at night
December 25
Did you know you can stand on a street in Cairo and yell “Hey Abdul!” and every damn guy on the street will turn around?

December 26
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 Nobel Prize.

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 it.”

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…

Joyeux Noel!
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 teem.

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.

December 27
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.  

December 28
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 different directions.

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 word. Friend.

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.

Fuck it, I’m gonna stop now. Too sappy. We’re coming home.

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