Thursday, July 28, 2016

How Rowing Hosed my Life

"You know I'd take a bullet for you, Emfbo. You know that, right?"

That was LoBear, the Big Man, a few months ago. I'd never thought about it that way, but of course it was true. Of course I knew it. And of course it was mutual.

Who wouldn’t take a bullet for this Big Man?

Doctor Frank has put some time into thinking about that ever since. The same question keeps wrapping itself around Doc's brain and it won't let go. Where did this guy come from?
Where did all these guys come from, guys like LoBear, like Dago, like Baker, JBT, and the dozens of old wrinkly crew boys who showed up for the funeral of a teammate's wife, nearly forty years after we pulled our last strokes together? What made us so tight we'd do anything for each other?

Finally, Doc wove the pieces together. It had nothing to do with crazed antics in Doc's timeless classic The Boys in the Boathouse, which is of course fictional and never happened at Conibear Shellhouse.

Yesterday, Doc pulled out his copy of Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat® and paged backwards all the way into the prologue. To the part you can't understand if you've never been there. To the words that reach right into your heart and hold you close if you've felt it yourself.

Brown wrote of Joe Rantz weeping when he spoke of The Boat. But he wasn't shedding tears for the Husky Clipper. Or for his fellow oarsmen. Not even for an excitable little loudmouth with a strap-on megaphone.

No, it was "...something mysterious and almost beyond definition... In a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men ... gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love."

Brown left it to the reader to decide whether Joe was crying "for the loss of that vanished moment" or "the sheer beauty of it."

It was gripping prose, and it compelled readers to strive on and keep turning the pages, talk about it at book clubs, and make it a bestseller. With the book, Daniel James Brown made the world think they know what rowing is. But with just those few sentences, Daniel James Brown, not Doctor Frank Emfbo, captured the sport's essence.

Rowers could have stopped reading right there on page two. Rowers knew this already. Rowers have felt it, in a perfect practice on a lake in Seattle, an after-dark power scramble on a river in England, or a 2,000-meter sprint down an Olympic course in Germany. They've all felt it if they've been in the sport long enough, and they don't have to win a gold medal to know it's there.

It's there in that moment of exhaustion when you realize you'd rather die than give up on your team, and you end up pulling harder. That moment when you find George Pocock's "mysterious reserve of power far greater."

It's there in everything else Pocock ever wrote about touching the divine. It's there in Browning's line, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

And it's there in the awe that fills your teammate's eyes when he gets off the water with a handshake, an understated "nice job," and a quick embrace for every guy in the boat. What he means is, "I gave every bit of everything I had for every one of you today. Not just because that's the kind of man I am. Today it was because I knew every one of you was doing the same for me. I could feel it. And there was no way I was going to let you down."

What he means is, "You know I'd take a bullet for you, right?"

If you've been there, you know it. If all you've done is read about it, well...

That's The Boat. God forgive us taking it for granted, assuming it would go on without end. And whether it was the loss of the long ago moment, or the sheer beauty of it, rowers know why Joe was crying.

Kinda what The Boat feels like. But you can’t really get it in a picture.

Do that enough times, count on your teammates enough times, give everything you have for your friends enough times, and you leave the program after four years with high expectations about human behavior. Wait, more like naive assumptions. Everyone I’ll meet is just like the hundred men I spent the last four years with. Whatever job I take, wherever I go, I'll be surrounded by them. Strong-willed. Focused. Courageous. Determined to do right. Loyal. Humble. Devoted to the team's success.

You keep looking for The Boat. But The Boat is gone.

Doctor Frank got a job as a "management trainee" right out of college. The confusion was mind-boggling. People who craved nothing but the five o'clock whistle. People who used their own jealousy to find fault. People who lied, cheated, stole from the company. Top to bottom.

Doctor Frank sucked as a manager. And he sucked at being managed. Over and over, one job to the next. All because he continued to assume everyone was in The Boat with him. And he kept getting his heart broken every time.

Maybe Dik Erickson was onto something about the Agony of Victory. It's the heartbreak of high expectations. You count on it repeating. Live with excellence long enough, and suddenly life is empty when it's gone.

In "Field of Dreams," we heard Burt Lancaster as Moonlight Graham saying, "Back then I thought, 'there'll be other days.' I didn't realize... That was the only day."

Thanks, Husky Crew. You spoiled me. And thanks Daniel James Brown for explaining it.

But if a bullet ever comes at LoBear, Doctor Frank will be right there to stop it.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings Dr. Frank EMFBO,
    Well written. All TRUE! It was all handed to everyone
    on a Silver Platter, "to make happen". It was all there at Conibear. Dik once said,"You row all year in the rain and muck (you put in the actual word) for just a few minutes of actual racing. There has Got to be more to it than that". It was an experience we all had. We wouldn't give up even a minute of it. It changed everyone.