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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 20 June 2012

21 May 2011

In my newsletter a couple of weeks ago, I told you a story about an "out-of-boat experience" in 1965 that went bad for me and my coxswain friend Saul Berman. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that all we did was screw up. The following story from the 1966 Canadian Henley should balance things out a bit . . .

We arrive in St. Catharines, Ontario, and things start well for us from the beginning. We find Mack Sennett comedies on the television at the hotel and a slot car track just down the street. Plenty to keep our minds off our stomachs, and we all make weight.
Life is good.

In our very first race I stroke our Undine Barge Club 145-pound coxless-four to a surprising and unexpected victory. We can’t seem to get off the start line with anybody, but what the heck, we move from last to first like a knife through butter. During the last 500 meters it’s close, but we still have time for an in-boat discussion about our steering.
Coxless-fours are a common sight in Canada and Europe, but they are rare in America. We had to borrow one back in Philadelphia for the summer. On this day, I decide I like coxless-fours a great deal. Yessirree!

Our second day is to be a much sterner test. The start of our 145-pound coxed-fours race is scheduled exactly forty minutes after the start of the 145-pound eights race. Now let’s see. I got 800 in math on my College Boards. It takes more than six minutes just to row the eights race. If we win, and we plan to, after all, we haven’t lost yet, if we win we will have to catch our collective breath and then paddle over to the grandstand for the medal presentation. That will take maybe ten minutes. Then we cross the course to the docks where our other shell will be waiting for us. Climb out of the eight and into the coxed-four. Tie in. Another ten minutes. What’s that leave? Maybe thirteen minutes to row 2,000 meters back to the start and maneuver into the stake boats before the official begins to poll the lanes for our next race.
Hell, we’ll have to row back up the course at near race pace just to make it!

I thought our eight was an okay group. Not that much had been expected of us when we left Philadelphia. The stern-four holds the same four guys who won yesterday and who will be racing twice in forty minutes today, but before this weekend, I hardly knew all the names of the bow-four.
After this weekend, I will still hardly know all their names.
I was stroke of the Penn Lightweight Varsity this past spring. I stroked yesterday, and I will be stroking again today.
Immediately behind me in the boat is Tom Cassel, a sophomore from the Penn Lightweight Jayvee and just coming into his own as a rower. He wears glasses and is still a bit shy, but he is a superb athlete, already deceptively strong, and an excellent slot car driver.
Next comes Geoff Holmes, from last spring’s Penn Lightweight Freshmen, blond hair, not very powerful, it seems to me. Don’t remember ever having had a conversation with him, before or since.
John Hanson, a high school kid from Haverford School on the Philadelphia Main Line, completes the set. He has gotten a lot of teasing for being so young. We have given him a somewhat bawdy version of his last name and used it with such regularity that I have nearly forgotten that he came into the world with a “real” name.
Yesterday he was our toe, and I hadn’t completely agreed with the way he steered our race, but he hadn’t backed down either, and he got us over the line in first place.
No chance of a steering problem today, though, because the now sadder and wiser 1965 buoy-challenged Saul Berman, also from the Penn Lightweights, will be handling the tiller ropes for us. As is usual when he’s dieting, Saul shows up crabby. He’s almost as tall as any of us, and this year he’s lost even more weight than any of the rest of us have.
Saul is an odd guy, very serious, curiously distant. We’re now roommates back home, but I’m an art history major and he’s studying accounting. He’s chief justice of the university judiciary. I minor in philosophy and fraternities.
Oil and water.
While the rest of us are having a serious discussion about whether enough time has gone by for a full re-evaluation of the historically underrated contribution of Shemp Howard to the Three Stooges, Saul’s probably debating within himself the economic impact of the investment tax credit.
Oil and water, but still fine friends. The first time I ever tasted horseradish was at seder at Saul’s house.

Saul Berman, an Ichabod Crane of a coxswain, all bony and angular, backs our eight into the start area, and all the best American and Canadian crews line up beside us. Just like yesterday, we come off the line in last place, but Saul deftly moves us through to take the lead in the final 500 meters. Saul wants to cruise it in and conserve energy for the next race, but I insist on a thirty-stroke final burst. I am in no mood to take chances. After all we are about to win our second Canadian Henley trophy in less than twenty-four hours!
We cross the line open water ahead.
Over to the stands, collect our medals, and haul butt back to the dock. Just like that.

Then things start going South on us.
I’m antsy to get going again, afraid we won’t make it back to the start line in time, and I’m hungry to make it three wins in a row. In fact, after a summer of dieting I’m just plain hungry.
It’s a hot, sunny day, and in this era before Gatorade, out teammates hand us cups of steaming bouillon out of a thermos so that we can replace the fluids and minerals we’ve sweated out during the previous race. All very scientific. Tom is standing next to me, animatedly describing in epic fashion and form our stirring sprint in the eight, yadda, yadda, yadda . . . when he burns his lip on his bouillon and drops the cup. A dollop of the hot liquid hits the dock and rebounds all the way up into my eye.

Now I’m not just impatient. I am Polyphemus, and Tom Cassel is Nobody.

On that note we shove off and begin to make our way back to the start line. Our opponents are already there. Saul and I sit in the stern facing one another while he orchestrates the bitching. Everybody’s got an opinion. We all argue about everything and nothing, we even argue about arguing, all the way back to the stake boats.

The gun goes off, and five of the six boats leap forward. Everybody . . . but us!
Holy cow, we’re last! Dead last! DFLWTFB!!!
(as in “way back.” You figure the rest out. Sorry. We were kids back then.)
That’s okay. At least the infernal complaining has ended. Even Saul quiets down after our racing start is complete . . .

Wait a minute . . .

You know, we may be tired as Hell and all alone behind everybody else, but the boat actually feels pretty good. Smooth and swinging and light. Who cares about the other boats? Who cares about the race? Not me. I am rationalizing. I’ve already won my fair share today.
But, what the Hell. I suggest to Saul that he tell everybody how good it feels. As usual, he’s looking past me and not listening. Probably considering Keynesian economics or something.

Four hundred meters gone. You know, I think I can start to sense a couple of boats coming back to us. And our boat feels really good. The stroke is climbing. Effortlessly. I feel like a million bucks.
“Saul! Tell them!”

Five hundred meters, and Saul wakes up. We have moved from sixth to fourth, and all fatigue, all weight, all the cares of the world have fallen far behind us.
At 600 meters we are pressing for second. Saul is in full song. His hoarse, raspy voice sounds farther and farther away as he tries to put into words what we already know.

We are Gods this day!

The four of us manning the oars propel Saul into the lead at 800 meters. By the 1,000 our opponents have disappeared behind us. The race has lost its relevance. We are flying with angel’s wings to the Pearly Gates of Heaven. The sky is an impossible blue. Have trees ever been so green?

“Saul, is that a smile on your face?
“Saul, is this great or what?
“Listen, I have time now. Explain this ‘debits on the left, credits on the right’ stuff to me again.
“And this is supposed to be interesting, right?
“Are there accountants in Heaven, Saul?”

If anyone cares to look, the other boats are now water bugs on the horizon. How they scramble. Why do they hurry so? I observe from a cloud far above. I am a putto, a little angel on a painted ceiling in a Baroque church in Rome . . .

The ultimate out-of-boat experience!

The noise of the grandstand is growing close. I hardly notice.
I wonder if I will want to stop at the finish . . .
. . . or keep on rowing forever.

We cross the line, and something turns me around to make sure everyone has sensed the same magic I have felt. Their faces glow.
Eventually the other crews creak and crash over the line, collapse briefly, then slink away. Waves of indescribable joy wash over our entire boat.

It was the best I ever felt. In my life. Before or since. That memory will stay with me until I die.

Incidentally, I can report today that I, Mr. Art Historian, Joe Jock, have spent 25 of the last 45 years as a certified public accountant, just like my good friend Saul Berman.
Isn’t life grand?