The Boys in the Boathouse
A Novel -- really, none of this ever happened -- by Dr. Frank Emfbo
After all that’s why we came here.
Every gruntie comes to his first practice with a story. How’d I get here? Heard about it from a UW coach who knew I was just bad enough at hoops that I could never hope for a scholarship…. Got recruited from my prep school in Massachusetts… Rowed in high school right here in Seattle…
Doctor Frank recently talked with a friend who came to UW from Alabama in 1968, “the most segregated state in the Union,” he said. He walked on looking for a spot on the basketball team, and got cut. He didn’t want to go home but was lost without sports so he was fighting that spiral… then he was rescued. Heading for the gym looking for a pickup game in the Intramural sports building, he was a 6’6” black dude who still turned heads on campus. He was accosted by freshman rowing coach Lou Gellerman, who changed his life. Nearly fifty years later, he still lives in Seattle. Crew may well have saved his life. All because Gellerman was wandering around the IMA looking for recruits.
None of that crap about roots mattered on the first day. Everyone was equal. The guy called Hubbard was a high school basketball and cross country star. Pederson played football and ran track. Fisk came from upper crust Mercer Island, Giuliani from a slaughterhouse in Fall City. Curren from an ass-busting small business owning family in the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula. Every guy had a story. Little had changed since nine young men with lumberjack roots had shocked the world and Adolf Hitler thirty years earlier.
Egos and backstories got shoved aside as we stood by the dock waiting for instruction in Old Nero, the training barge. The damn thing weighed five tons, even before twenty of us piled in. Stick oars, a coach walking the gangway between the rows of sliding seats, the boat going nearly nowhere really. At the time we had no appreciation for what was happening. We just got in and did as we were told.
But our coaches were taking mental notes as they walked. Good focus. Good form. Learns fast. Strong but needs some work. Makes a show of pulling hard. All sizzle, no steak. Engine room candidate. This guy should stroke. Too small. Too big. Lacks basic athletic coordination. He’ll quit by November.
By mid October we were ready. We got eight sets of hands on an ancient wood shell. Detail move by move instructions had been wormed into our brains on how to do this without fucking anything up. Lucky stood watch over us. If we put a scratch on “his boat” he would have to fix it. Nobody wanted that on his record.
Leave your shoes in a pile in the boathouse. Take your socks off, hang em in your waistband so the girls will think you’ve got a huge swingin’ dick.
Hands on. Slide it out. Over your heads. Down to shoulders. Walk it to the dock. Over your heads. Grab the handles. Slowly, down to the water.
And there she sat. Tender, beautiful, a work of art before us. Ready to carry eight new rowers and a novice coxswain. We were just praying we could get out and back without putting a hole in the clear cedar skin or ripping off a rigger on a buoy. We’d heard the legends of coxswains running into docks. Rowers getting ejected.
Starboards, get the oars. Ports, do the oarlocks. Step in carefully, assholes, in front of that sliding seat so you can sit down without – no, fucker, you’ll put a hole in the boat. I already told you not to step in the bottom. Do I have to paint it on, don’t fucking step there…
Sit in the boat. Check your seat action. Tie those leather boot stretcher flaps together. Check your oarlock. You guys ready? Walk it down the dock.
Seattle in the fall is a hazy glorious time. The rain and wind take a hiatus. A coxswain can see where he’s going, no problem. A sixty-foot eight-oared shell doesn’t slide all over the lake in the breeze. It goes right where you steer it. Just don’t fuck it up.
Rowers have no appreciation of the pressure a coxswain feels. On land, he’s got eight guys staring down at him. He’s under 120 pounds or they call him fat. They’re over 200 or they’re too skinny. They eat like hell and can’t gain weight, and that pisses them off. He sits with them at meals but eats nothing and can’t lose weight, and that pisses them off too. Rowers have been known to tie coxswains to car bumpers and make them run while they heckle from the windows.
It’s worse on the water. Husky freshman classes have been known to start with ten coxswains in the fall and end up with none returning when they check in twelve months later for their second year on the team.
He’s a tiny little dude, just eighteen years old, driving a boat that’s worth more money than he’s ever seen, powered by eight guys so big he can’t see around them. He has to swerve a little so he can see what’s ahead. If he even tilts his head to look around the stroke oar, he’ll get all kinds of hell for tipping the boat. In practice, he’s in the midst of five other boats with drivers just as stressed as he is, boats swinging along oar tip to oar tip. Coaches tell him to squeeze that shell at full speed alongside four other boats into a gap that looks like only three can fit.
But the little guy has stones, and brains, and just enough bluster to make the guys believe in him. There’s a confidence in a coxswain that’s often called “Little Man Disease” in real life, but in crew life it’s exactly what a good swain needs.
So our little guy gets us backed off the dock the first time. He manages to turn us around, alternating sides backing and rowing. Weigh ‘nuff.
Or is it way enough? Christ, Doctor Frank just looked that up. The google can confuse a man and take up half his day searching down rabbit holes.
Ready all. We slide out to the catch and wait. Row. Eight oars dig in the water for the first time. Eight guys smile at the power, the glide, even pulling along nice and easy heading for open water. One coxswain scared shitless and pretending to take control.
Weeks progress. So many grunties are rowing, there’s only enough boats for half of us. So guys with morning classes have a 2:30 practice. The rest of us hit the water at 4. Pretty soon it’s like a tee ball game. Nobody’s posting an official score but everyone knows who’s winning. Guys who are sitting stroke pair in their boat are the ones the coach is looking at for top boats in the spring. Guys in bow pair are expected to quit by January. Everyone else is on the bubble. A big dude in a 5 seat might just end up in the engine room in the first boat.
While the weather’s still warm, we do warmups in the grass next to the boathouse. We pick this spot because the cheerleaders are practicing across the street on the ball field. They never really dance for us, but we can dream. Dream of the glory while we toil in the anonymity of being part of a gift. A gift, a privilege of being part of something that’s way bigger than we are. None of us would want to play football and get all that individual admiration. We want to grip that crew tradition.
But meanwhile, dancing girls are pretty hot.
There’s this dungeon under the crewhouse. It has one tiny greasy window that faces north and lets in a cloudy gray whisper of light even on the sunniest day. It’s never sunny in the erg room.
There have been references to the ergometer over the first weeks of practice. Nobody’s ever been in there. Finally, fifty of us pack into the room that’s built for about ten. Immediately it’s stifling hot. One at a time, we watch our teammates sit on the machine of torture and work on technique. But the erg is not a technique instrument.
These are the “gruntie ergs” because the varsity guys get to use the machines that take up half the space and can actually be moved with some effort. The gruntie machines are built into the underground room. They’ll never be moved until the day they blow up this building. One for each side, a port and a starboard. The sliding seat and the oar handle look perfectly natural, but the giant spinning millstone takes up twice the space. Thankfully it’s hidden behind a steel shroud to protect innocent grunties from getting tangled in it and ripping off a body part. And the shroud provides a perfect seat for a coach to sit and shout in a guy’s ear.
Like kinky sex, there’s a huge mirror. Sliding and thrusting, sliding and thrusting. Holding the shaft. Watching ourselves.
Word is given. Calendars are marked. Times are assigned. First week of November, our first six minute test on the erg. Six minutes because the hot crews can cover two thousand meters in six or less. We’re told we better get warmed up good, without supervision, and show up at our assigned time. Some guys are nervous. Doctor Frank was confident. Confidence gets tested about two minutes in.
Doctor Frank took a boat ride to watch a crew race in the Montlake Cut about twenty years later. With 750 to go, the old rower next to him starts twitching. Ohhhh, this is bad, he says. Ooohhh, this sucks.
Doctor Frank knew exactly what he meant. The same thing the God of Rowing meant when he told the Seattle Times, “at that point in the race, you’re not thinking style, you’re thinking survival.”
On the race course, the adrenaline of competition makes that survival possible. The guy that wrote so well about those Northwest kids from ’36 nailed it. When a rower faces trouble, pain, danger… he just pulls harder.
But there’s a breeze on the race course, even on a hot day. In the erg room, that ugly moment first comes around that two minute mark. That big round clock with the second hand that moves too slow just makes every stroke another challenge. Power ten. Holy shit, that was only twenty seconds. What the fuck do I do now? Another power ten? It’s just the coach and me, and the guy pulling his guts out on the other machine, but he rows starboard so I’m not competing with him. No adrenaline, just pounding heart and gasping breath.
It’s decision time, motherfucker. What are you doing here? Are you a Husky? Go harder. Go harder. Close those eyes. Count strokes. Three minutes to go, halfway. Think about… think about… who’s going to sit in that first boat? You want to be part of something bigger than yourself? Let’s go. Do it because you know you can. Don’t do it to impress that asshole sitting in a folding chair yelling at you. Do it to prove him wrong. Do it now. Another ten. No second chances on erg pieces. This is your shot. A minute to go. They say that’s when you go under the Montlake Bridge. Your cox can see the finish line. Take that rate up. And lengthen out. Reach out. Reach out. Twenty to go. Harder. Forget that fire in your legs, that groaning pain in the lungs. Go harder. Last ten… five.. weigh ‘nuff.
“aaaaaaghhhh!” I yell at the mirror. I try to get off the seat, act cool. Rubber legs betray me. I stagger out looking for some fresh air, ignoring the “good work, Emfbo” from the coach. A smile and a handshake for the guy next to me. And a good luck to the two wide-eyed teammates waiting in the doorway for their turn in the dungeon.
“Giuliani, if you ever row an erg without warming up again, I’m gonna break botha you legs.”
The next day’s practice opened with that line. The Goog had rolled out of bed from a midday nap, stumbled down to the erg room and pulled the highest score on either side. By a lot. He just laughed. Right. You need the Goog in that first boat, whether he warms up or not. The coach knew it, and so did everyone else sitting out there watching the cheerleaders kick their delicious long legs.
Earlier, I’d stolen a look at the bulletin board, scores all listed top to bottom. Somewhere mid-pack, Emfbo. Well fuck. It felt better than that. Actually no, it felt pretty bad. Like I was going to die. But I expected after that gargantuan effort, a better score…
I sensed a presence next to me. Without looking at him, I pointed at the top score on starboard. “Who’s this Erdly guy?”
“Haha, that’s me.”
I looked him over. I’d never seen someone so square. Big head, blond hair, no neck. Massive arms, zero fat, and thighs that looked like tree trunks.
“Emfbo. Nice to meet you.” I walked away thinking holy shit, that’s another seat in the first boat, gone. I just hope he and Goog don’t snap the riggers off the boat.
The end of fall quarter sent us on our way home with a couple ominous admonitions. “Run. You’re gonna run your asses off when you get back so you better be ready. And you’ll be working on your abs. So do some situps every day.”
A few guys actually did this shit. Even Doctor Frank busted his ass. I was pissed about ending up so far down the line on the erg results. I wanted that top section. I stared at the Goog as we wrapped up our final practice. He may be unattainable but I don’t care. I’m gonna get that fucker.
Back home in Eastern Washington it was killing cold every day. I didn’t just freeze outside running. I burned my lungs. I had one goal. I didn’t need a picture of Goog by my bed. He was burned into my brain. For our three weeks of freedom I made myself a prisoner of my own ambition.
We got back on a dreary black winter day. Half the team had cut themselves, which was a relief to the coaches who didn’t want to do the deed themselves. Nobody moved out of the crewhouse, though. With all the hazing and hateful crap from the varsity assholes, we were together. We had each other’s backs and nobody wanted to drop that obligation. Even guys like Donny, short enough to be a cox’n but stocky as a fucking Russian weightlifter, hung in. Dude had the reach of a squirrel but man he could put some crank on that oar.
We followed the coach, trudging up the hill to Edmundson Pavilion where we’d spent stormy fall days running stairs when it was too windy to row. Another day of busting ass running 48 steps 100 times? Guess again, gruntie.
On the wide concrete concourse under the seats, we were told to lie down. And give ourselves plenty of room. Half situps. Go, and shout that count.
The first twenty were easy. Most guys had never done these. Crunches, we call them these days. In 1976 nobody had heard of them. Useless. Not even working the abs. Why not do real situps?
Then about number thirty a few guys started screaming.
“Keep going, assholes! I warned you, do situps! I can tell who did em and who sat around eating Christmas cookies… you’re gonna be in the hurt locker tomorrow!”
We got to 100. Guys were squirming all over the floor. We looked like a box of nightcrawlers spread out on the concrete. I ached for the relief of being speared onto some fisherman’s hook.
After some stretches, quads, hamstrings, lats and calves were loose. Which didn’t help us on the next set of 100. Or the one after that. We did run stairs. I never thought I’d be relieved to see those 48 steps staring at me.
Shower time that night was full of the usual joking around, plus amazed talk that we’d made it through that workout. Laughs all around. Dinner was awesome, with no football fuckers taking up space. Sleep was sweet.
Then morning came. Up and down Grunt Row, through the walls, in the halls, screams and groans sang out in a cacophony of screeching pain. We were bent over, holding bellies in agony as we headed for breakfast. Even guys like me who had done some ab work over break had no idea this was coming.
We stood in line for eggs, all pain and suffering while everyone who wasn’t a gruntie – varsity fuckers and our friendly cooks – laughed and joked about Christmas and winter and Santa Claus and the weather and classes and all kinds of normal shit. We grimaced. Bowlin walked by smiling. He’d been through it the year before. What a kind and understanding guy. In a flash he punched Silver and Kevin and me in the gut and took off running as we writhed on the floor.
Even our fellow grunties laughed. That was a mistake. If you want to fuck with someone who’s overdone the situps, tell him a joke. Then when he recovers, tell him another one ten minutes later.
When we boated up for our first winter quarter practice, it was obvious. Ergs determined boatings. Goog. Fisk. Silver. Pederson. Doctor Frank was on the outside looking in, staring at the port side lineups and wondering what the fuck.
That night before bed, after my dinner digested and my reading was done for Psych, I stripped down and headed for the Room of Pain. I was all alone. Oar handle in hand, I got going. Six fucking minutes. Just six minutes out of my day. By the end I was gasping and staggered up the stairs to my room. The guy who lived right above the erg saw me going by and said he’d wondered who the hell was making all that noise downstairs.
“That’s too fucking loud and I can’t sleep when you do that, Emfbo.”
“Get another room.” I was cranked. I headed for my room. I was too wound up for bed. Even after a shower I laid there wide eyed for an hour, staring at that sheet of plywood holding my roommate’s bunk in place. This is not why the fuck I came here. Toiling in anonymity in the third boat. I’m going to pull another erg tomorrow. And another and another and another. Next scored piece with the coach in my face, he’ll have no choice.
I stood on the bank of Montlake Cut on a drippy March morning. Class Day. I could hear five cox’ns yelling, the crunch of oarlocks and the whoosh of the puddles getting closer. The handful of fans – mostly guys’ parents braving the shit to cheer for their boys – joined together in clapping and watching the last minute of the race.
Crew is not a spectator sport. In a 2,000-meter, 6-minute race, the viewer gets a realistic shot at what’s happening on the race course for… exactly… about one second. Because of changing sight angles and horizontal perspectives, the lead boat may look like it’s behind or your son’s boat looks like it’s leading until the boats pull even with wherever you’re standing next to the course and you can see he’s losing by a length, which looks even worse and his boat continues down the course. He might even sprint and win but you still think he lost if you’re 300 meters from the finish.
Which is why race spectators – whether there’s a dozen or ten thousand – congregate as close to the finish line as they can get.
I didn’t care about any of that shit. I was fried that I was standing there instead of pulling an oar. They’d given me something to do though.
“Emfbo, hold this,” said Bomar as I sulked. I was standing on top of that gold stripe edged in purple on the wall of the Cut. He handed me a giant pole with a three-foot square white flag.
From where I stood it looked like the grunties were winning. Lane four, taking the rate up with twenty strokes to go. I actually got into it. I wanted in that boat but those guys were my classmates, my friends, better athletes and more deserving to be there, today anyway. Fuck it.
“Let’s go guys! Woo grunties!”
As they squared up to the finish line, the seniors were ahead in lane one. Juniors next. Grunties third, well ahead of the sophomores and the UFO boat.
Waving the finish flag, I was actually basking in the glory of beating the sophomores. I screamed for my buddies. Sophomores were perpetually the worst to grunties. They’d gone through the experience just a year before and they had some angst to work out. Shit rolls downhill. Beating them on the water, even if I was just watching, was awesome.
Then I heard it, shouted from the senior boat across the water as the crews recovered.
“Amazing race, freshmen! You guys are gonna kick ass next week in San Diego!”
San Diego. Warm weather, hot girls and national level competition. The first real race of the season. The goal, the focus, since Day One last fall.
And I would still be staying home. On the sideline.
Forty years after those Boys took that Boat to Berlin, and forty years before Daniel Brown wrote about it, I felt it. Bad shit happens, and a rower just pulls harder. Puts his head down and cranks it up a notch.
And he takes his pleasure, years later, in knowing he was part of something huge. Something way bigger than his own petty self. An essence whose power he couldn’t even name when he was in the midst of it.