The Boys in the Boathouse
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
No story of Husky Crew can be told without reverent references to our mentor, our hero, our legend.
Our coach. Dik.
Born in Arlington, WA, and named Richard D. Erickson by loving and nurturing parents, even Dik’s childhood is the stuff of legend. Was he really out tipping cows at age ten? Did he really lose his left nut saving his cousin Dennis Erickson’s life in a cow pasture, allowing the little guy to grow up and coach NCAA football? Was rowing really just a distraction for a college freshman in the 1950s who wanted to build things, invent things, and shake the Northwest dust off his shoes?
Dik let the legends grow. He grimaced and let his proteges believe whatever they wanted to believe. Someone would tease him about his skinny legs, his face would darken and he’d grunt out his famous line…
“Hey. These legs have been there.”
Been where? God knows Dik beat the Russians. His 1958 varsity crossed the Iron Curtain to Moscow and crushed the Soviet national team on their home water. It was the first sporting event broadcast from behind the evil shroud of the communist bloc. The man behind the mic for the local Seattle broadcast that day was a young future Broadcast Hall of Famer Keith Jackson, Wazzu grad and KOMO sports announcer still in his twenties. The pictures were all over the crewhouse. Guys posing in line with their oars. Guys in the boat, ready to race. Guys smiling, except for the skinny badass kid in the two seat. Not a glimmer of friendly or happy. All business.
Some guy came by the crewhouse one day to visit Dik. Dik introduced him to the team and he said they’d worked together one summer in an Alaska fishing camp. They busted their asses all day, and Dik still had to get a workout when the whistle blew at the end of the shift. We asked if he had any stories. Well yeah. This guy was out for a leisurely hike on a day off, slowly working his way up the switchback trail to the top of the ridge, when he heard a strange noise as he rounded a bend near a creek bed. On the alert for bears, he was ready to run or hide when Dik came up the creek. He was running. No shoes. No shirt. Going straight up an icy Alaska creek in nothing but a ratty pair of shorts.
Evidently crew and a good workout were just as important as science and engineering by this point.
Balls and brains. Dik personified it and he expected it from everyone around him, his teammates in the 50s and all his young athletes decades later. There were grey faded tales of what would happen in Dik’s rowing days to anyone Dik thought was dogging it. Or anyone who accused Dik of anything other than excellence. Fights on the dock after practice, long-held grudges, old wounds that wouldn’t heal.
But damn, his boys loved him. He was Dick to the public, but we dropped the c. Someone brought a copy of Frank Zappa’s “Bwana Dik” around one day (my dik is a monster/give me your heart/my dik is a Harley/you kick it to start), and suddenly Dik was born.
We’d walk by his office, and he’d be hunched over lineups or talking intently on the phone. No acknowledgement. The varsity would row by during our practice, and he’d be there behind the windshield of the coaching launch. That redheaded manager Raoul, the guy who was almost as mean as Lucky, driving Dik’s boat. Raoul’d glare at us like we didn’t deserve to be floating there waiting for them to pass. But Dik, face hidden behind the bill of his Big W cap and mirror shades, didn’t turn his head.
What was worse? Being treated like scum by Raoul the launch driver or being ignored by Dik? It was all a ploy. Motivation.
We wanted that recognition. Even if we could get to the point where Dik cared enough that we could piss him off. Those were awesome legends too. Dik ripping the windshield right off the coaching launch when his guys didn’t go fast enough. Tossing stopwatches, megaphones, boat parts in the lake. Screaming fuck shit you assholes suck ass at his crews as they struggled along the shoreline at 6:30 AM while Seattle’s elite waterfront residents spilled their coffee at his antics and called the Athletic Director to complain.
We wanted to be that kind of marginal oarsman who would motivate Dik to have Raoul pull up alongside a shell so he could scream “Get out!” and jump in the boat himself for a practice piece. It was said that Dik didn’t really think his victims were doing anything wrong. He just wanted to prove that those legs, the ones that had been there, could still go there.
Legends beget legends, and Dik was no exception. Anyone who stood up to him, maybe even embarrassed him in public, automatically gained that status. Get hammered and high center your car trying to drive it down the stairs from campus, and tell the cop your name is Dik Erickson. Whoa, you’ve got balls.
Or, on a crystal clear spring morning, when the first varsity is set to head to San Diego for its first big test, get Dik to scream at you as the crews sit resting in front of the zillion dollar homes of Windermere. That’s what the late Husky Legend Chris Wells managed to do.
Seattle Times photographer Josef Scaylea, Pulitzer prize winner and originator of the favorite Husky phrase “OK guys, head ‘em for Mount Rainier” which, loosely translated, meant “You’re about to be famous,” was on board with Dik and Raoul that morning. Raoul tells it best:
“Dik had told all the varsity guys to wear their racing shirts for the photo op. Scaylea was going to use the gorgeous morning for some excellent shots promoting their upcoming campaign. The shirts were brand new and had just been issued the day before. The season was about to start and the lineup for the traveling squad was set.
“So we get out to the north end of Windemere, like three miles from the crewhouse, where there’s plenty of low sun and the light’s just right whether Scaylea wants to shoot with shoreline and luxury houses in the background or just do the Mount Rainier thing again. It’s still just a little nippy so guys are wearing all kinds of stuff like old sweatshirts, wool caps, that kind of stuff. We’re sitting there and Dik says ‘OK guys, strip down to those racing shirts.’
“The guys all go for it, and pretty quick everyone looks sharp. Except for Ross Parker in the two seat. Ross was a badass but the dude had a mind of his own. Dik’s tapping his foot, wants to get the photo thing over with and the workout going again.
“’Come on, Ross, let’s get that racing shirt on.’ Ross sits there and stares at Dik, like, ‘what?’
“So instead of having a problem with Parker, Dik is now steamed and he turns to Wells, who’s sitting in the coxswain’s seat just enjoying the scenery. He can’t see around Smitty in the stroke seat, much less the other guys between him and Parker. He has no idea what’s happening.
“’Wells, what the hell is going on? Why doesn’t Parker have his shirt?’
“Wells stands up in the coxswain’s seat, which by the way is no easy task. He sees Parker sitting there with this blank look on his face. Then he thrusts out his little chest and screams at the launch, with little rich kids eating their cereal and listening behind their lakeview windows, four boatloads of big dudes tensed up because somebody fucked up, and a world famous Pulitzer winner sitting beside our coaching legend behind that windshield…
“‘Why is this my fault? What the fuck to you want me to do? Get up early and dress them all my fucking self?’
“There’s deadly silence for a second. Nobody, and I mean nobody there that day, had heard anyone speak to Dik that way. Then you can hear shocked snickers coming from the boats. We’ll never know if Dik reacted to Well’s defiance directly or to the guys laughing at him, embarrassing him. Doesn’t matter. His reply has etched itself in Husky legend, and it earned a nickname for every coxswain ever to hold a tiller rope for the Dogs.
“Dik stands up in the launch, throws his Big W ballcap on the floorboards, and screams, ‘Listen to me, you fucking little peckerhead! Don’t you ever talk to me that way. I’ll have your ass out of that boat so fast you won’t know what happened. This is bullshit! Fuck this! Let’s go, all the way back to the crewhouse! Ready all! Row!’”
Dik wasn’t known for using the “If you fuck up I’ll make your teammates pay for it” routine, but maybe that day he just couldn’t help himself. How could he have known that forty years later, the guys who were there would still be talking about it? Like Woodstock. Way more people claim they were there now than were actually there then.
Dik, we love you. And goddammit, we miss you.