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Notes on the Boys in the Boat

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Arts, Culture & Media

Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat is one of the most popular non-fiction books in recent years relating to the Northwest.  It tells the triumphant story of the University of Washington 8-man crew which emerged from the Puget Sound region in the early 1930s to stun the big eastern schools, Nazi Germany, and maybe the boys in the crew themselves.  Along the way, the book touches on the Great Depression, the Olympics, and themes like discipline, sacrifice, teamwork, family, and athletic competition.

Pierce County Library chose The Boys in the Boat as its “one book, community reads” program (“Pierce County Reads”) in spring, 2015.*  It was a hit.  I wrote a series of minor commentaries for the library staff as the program and its events unfolded, culminating with an author visit and book signing April 24. What follows is, slightly edited, a list of those commentaries about both the book and a few related topics.

*The book was also central to this year’s Whatcom Reads in Whatcom County in February, 2015.

1. THE ROLES OF THE CREW. How many people are on an eight-man rowing crew?  Answer: Nine!  Only eight have oars, though.  All nine people on an “eight” have roles to play. The first three seats in the bow must be technically proficient to make the boat stable and cut through the water with ease.  The next three muscle seats, known as the “engine room,” give the boat its power. The number seven seat is a little of everything: technique, power, and awareness. The 8th seat, or “stroke,” provides the rhythm — the steady pace everyone else follows. The coxswain is in the stern.  He has no oars and is the only man facing forward. He steers, watches the race develop, plays out the race plan, and calls the tempo. The Boys in the Boat author Daniel James Brown said the coxswain is a quarterback, a cheerleader, and a coach all in one.

2. THE DEPRESSION AND THE DUST BOWL. The Boys in the Boat is a story set primarily between 1933 and 1936, a time when America was living through the Great Depression. Economic hardship is not the principal focus of the book, but it is persistently nearby; a minor character throughout the pages.  The Depression began with the Stock Market Crash in October, 1929, and continued for a decade. Many people struggled to simply survive.  Unemployment rose above 10% in 1930, above 20% in 1934, and didn’t return to single digits until 1941.  Seattle in the 1930s, like many cities, had its own “Hooverville” — a clustering of scrap tin and wood shacks sprawling south of downtown — today’s SoDo District.  (Run an Internet image search for Seattle Hooverville to see it for yourself.) If the economic depression wasn’t enough, a series of agricultural disasters struck the Midwest and West during this era, including several giant dust storms that ripped tremendous volumes of topsoil from farmlands and sent them aloft into blackened skies. The effects of “Black Sunday” (Apr 14, 1935) and other storms lasted longer than a single windy day. Crops were lost, farms were destroyed, jobs were blown away, and millions of displaced workers migrated in desperate searches for work.  While Joe Rantz and the Husky crew worked to keep their minds “in the boat”, this was the world just outside.

3. GREAT FROM GREATER. Husky crew coach Al Ulbrickson struggled to settle on a varsity crew. It was both a blessing and a curse that he could draw from a deep pool of talent. His task, as Daniel James Brown described it in The Boys in the Boat, was to “separate good from great, and great from greater.” But his choices went beyond individuals. Throughout the 1935-1936 school year, Ulbrickson moved boys from boat to boat, hoping to find the elusive perfect combination. He knew it was there, hiding, waiting to be discovered. He couldn’t simply stock a shell with the best rowers. He had to discover the best team — a team that, as George Yeoman Pocock would describe, operated as a single unit from bow to stern. Only then could the sum become greater than the parts.

4. B STREET. Washington rower Joe Rantz encountered many hard-working people the summer he worked at Grand Coulee Dam. Rantz and the others were attracted to the massive public construction project in the middle of nowhere in a decade of scarce job opportunities. In the Grand Coulee chapter of The Boys in the Boat, author Daniel James Brown mentioned B Street, a noisy entertainment and adult business district near the dam where many laborers spent their paychecks. He also mentioned Harry Wong at the Woo Dip Restaurant on B Street. It was a passing reference you might easily miss.  A local writer of Filipino & Native American descent grew up in that restaurant and wrote a memoir of those days. B Street: The Notorious Playground of Coulee Dam by Lawney L. Reyes (University of Washington Press, 2008) is his look back at the vibrant days in his boyhood. He describes his parents’ attempts at running the Chinese restaurant. Neither of them knew much about cooking or Chinese food beyond tasting it once in Spokane! Harry Wong, a Chinese immigrant who actually knew how to cook, arrived in town and made the place hum. Reyes also tells about life on B Street and about the region’s Native American peoples whose lives were disrupted and homes destroyed by the dam and its floodwaters. The simple local history memoir is tangential to the brief summer episode in The Boys in the Boat, but it’s an interesting 150 page read if you want to explore that time and place from a minority community’s (and a child’s) perspective.

5. TEAMWORK. If you boiled the essence of The Boys in the Boat down to one word, it would surely be “teamwork.” A good team is greater than the sum of individuals. In building the Olympic crew, Coach Al Ulbrickson sought certain qualities in its members. Author Daniel James Brown named five of them: the potential for raw power, nearly superhuman stamina, indomitable willpower, intellectual capacity to master details of technique, and the most important one: “the ability to disregard his own ambitions, to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.”  The author said each boy individually came to believe that he wasn’t up to par with his teammates, that he was the least among them, that he alone didn’t deserve to be among the others on the crew. With each boy harboring such humbling thoughts, each became determined not to let the others down.

6. HOW’S THAT AGAIN?. The Boys in the Boat book is remarkably well-researched. What about the audio recording?  On the whole, it’s an excellent performance. The late Edward Herrmann did a wonderful job reading both the action scenes and the quiet passages. But — some gentle chiding here — he may jar Northwest ears from time to time. You might find yourself shaking your head and saying: “you’re not from around here, are you?”  A little regional coaching may have prevented the actor from mispronouncing Alki Point, Anacortes, Ephrata, Hamma Hamma, Juan de Fuca, Montesano, Puyallup, the Skagit River, and a few other locales. Even the Suzzallo Library and the old Bon Marche department store get the tongue-twisted treatment. Ever the professional, Herrmann plowed through the place names without hesitation.  Give him credit. Herrmann was a terrific actor, had a great voice … and he pronounced Sequim right!

7. AN AFTERNOON ADRIFT. If you have memories of lazy afternoons spent drifting on water, you may have enjoyed one particular passage in The Boys in the Boat as much as I did. Five paragraphs in Chapter Nine (pp.159-160 in the hardback & trade paperback editions) described a joyous spring day that Joe and Joyce spent together rowing and floating in a rented canoe through Seattle’s Montlake Cut and the lake waters beyond. There were no race officials, no stroke counts; just two young people, a guitar, a few dragonflies, and the magic of gentle lake waves. “It was a day that both of them would remember well into old age.”  You can still take that same ride eighty years later. The University of Washington rents rowboats and canoes to the public on a first come basis out of its Waterfront Activities Center on Montlake Boulevard (on the opposite side of Husky Stadium from the Conibear Shellhouse). Rentals are $11 per hour or less — with discounts for weekday use and student and alumni status. By the way, I’m not advertising to benefit UW’s cashbox here; I’m merely tossing you the invitation to indulge in a future memory yourself.

8. PROPAGANDA. Parallel to The Boys in the Boat‘s gentler story unfolding on Lake Washington was the growing Nazi propaganda machine in Berlin. Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, set out to design the 1936 Olympics as a stage for the Third Reich. The city became a movie set, of sorts. Goebbels’ scaffolding supported a peaceful façade for visitors.  It also hid the evils that had already begun in Nazi Germany — evils that would resume with a vengeance shortly after the games ended. Many elements of the pomp and pageantry of the modern Olympics (the torch relay, for instance) began with Goebbels’ intent to impress the world at the Berlin games. If Goebbels was Hitler’s set designer, then filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was his cinematographer. She produced several films to showcase, magnify, and exaggerate an image of German culture, power, and greatness by using dramatic action, creative camera placement, and skillful editing. It was cutting edge stuff by 1936 movie standards even if the content is disturbing by cultural standards in 2015 — or 1936 in most places.

9. THREE FRIDAYS. History and Washington State are among my interests so it was naturally nerdy of me, therefore, to glance through a few of my past scribbles to get a sense of what else was happening in the Puget Sound area during the month the Husky crew rowed to gold in Berlin. I found three events of varying emotion and importance on three consecutive Fridays in August, 1936. You’ll read about only the second of these events in The Boys in the Boat. The first was front page news at the time, but it’s unlikely many people in 2015 have ever heard the story. The third was insignificant to all but a few in 1936, but it left a lasting legacy. Together they make a disconnected yet interesting trio of news.  Friday, Aug. 7, 1936: Tragedy. Washington’s 34-year-old U.S. Congressman Marion Zioncheck committed suicide. He wrote a brief note in pencil on congressional stationery before jumping from his 5th floor campaign office window in Seattle’s Arctic Building. His wife, sitting in a parked car outside, witnessed the tragic event unfold in front of her. Warren Magnuson filled Zioncheck’s congressional seat and served Washington in the House and Senate for the next 44 years.  Friday, Aug. 14, 1936: Victory. The Washington crew — the boys in the boat –won the gold medal at the Berlin Olympics. Friday, Aug. 21, 1936: Birth. Tacoma’s Evelyn Booth and Bryson Gardner welcomed a son into the world. The parents divorced 4 years later, but Evelyn’s re-marriage to Norton Clapp — a wealthy Weyerhaeuser investor, later company president, and builder of several Lakewood landmarks — enabled young Booth Gardner to gain an education at the prestigious Lakeside School, UW, and Harvard. Gardner became Pierce County’s first county executive and Washington’s 19th governor (1985-93).

10. GEORGE YEOMAN POCOCK, BOAT-BUILDER. George Yeoman Pocock was the son of a boat builder at Eton College in England and became an apprentice himself for a time. He gave up the trade when Eton let his father go. He and a brother started new lives in Canada, taking jobs in logging camps and factories. Someone in the Vancouver Rowing Club heard about Pocock’s past connection to boatbuilding and ordered two single sculls. Then Hiram Conibear, Washington’s crew coach, hired him to build shells for the university in 1912. It was the beginning of a long relationship between Pocock and UW. Other schools gradually discovered that his boats were far and away the best of the era. By the mid to late 1930s, nearly all the boats in national crew races were Pococks. His shells won at least one gold medal in each of the next five Olympics. George Pocock was a craftsman. “He didn’t just build racing shells,” The Boys in the Boat author Daniel James Brown wrote. “He sculpted them.” In his workshop at the UW boathouse, Pocock would use steam to bend and assemble spruce, ash, and cedar into lively boats that sliced the water. His boats are things of beauty — and I’m not only referring to the Husky Clipper which hangs from the ceiling in the Conibear Shellhouse at UW. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing five Pococks. Their smooth varnished texture, beautiful grains, and rich color stand out from most other racing shells which are nowadays mostly fiberglass. The expert craftsmanship is obvious. They have the ability to take your breath away even if you know nothing about rowing. To people who row, each is a Stradivarius.

11. DROPPING NAMES. If you read The Boys in the Boat too quickly you might miss a few people from Seattle history. Gil Dobie is mentioned during a quick summary of Seattle sports history. Dobie, or “Gloomy Gil” as he was known, was among the most successful coaches in early collegiate football. He led UW to nine (!) consecutive undefeated seasons and held the national unbeaten record (58 wins, 0 losses, 3 ties) for decades. UW never lost a game under Dobie.  Actress Frances Farmer is mentioned briefly, too. She was born in Seattle, attended West Seattle High School, and found success in Hollywood. But after a string of incidents and erratic behavior, she was diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis. Her family and the authorities committed her as a paranoid schizophrenic to Western State Hospital in Lakewood. She was said to have suffered horribly abusive experiences there. It was a long, sad story. Decades later, the abuse at Western State is more famous than her film career. You’ve probably heard that Safeco Field is “on the corner of Edgar and Dave” — a tribute to Edgar Martinez and Dave Niehaus, two familiar baseball names in these parts. You might not know that the street between Safeco and CenturyLink is Royal Brougham Way. Royal Brougham was a sports writer and appears throughout The Boys in the Boat as the ever-present reporter from the Seattle P-I. Brougham was on the newspaper’s staff for 68 years! He also started the regional Sports Star of the Year award and banquet that has been going strong since 1935. Husky crew coach Al Ulbrickson won in the award’s second year. He’s not from Seattle, but even actor Hugh Laurie appears in the book! Why? Discover that for yourself.

12. CHANT. Rowing is as much a challenge of the mind as it is a sport of the body. You must match whatever rhythm the coxswain calls for and concentrate on your movements to deliver power and produce that rhythm.  One of the chants the boys in the boat used to keep focus and rhythm was “M.I.B. M.I.B. M.I.B..” (No, they weren’t foreshadowing the Men in Black movies.) M.I.B. stood for “mind in boat.” That phrase reminded them to rid all distractions and to concentrate on their primary task from the moment they stepped into the boat to the finish line. They trained themselves to cast away thoughts about who was watching them from the shore or how the competing boats were faring.  “M.I.B.” reduced the world of the oarsmen to their next stroke, their rhythm, their power, the movement of their arms, the shoulder of the man in front of them, and the catch of their paddle in the water. Nothing beyond the oar existed during a race. Concentration. Focus. Mind in the boat. It was all about the boat.

13. SWING. There is musical beauty when several voices sing in perfect harmony. A similar effect happens in rowing “when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of sync with those of the others.” It is called swing. The rowers cease being a boatload of individuals and become a single unit. Daniel James Brown wrote that it’s not just a matter of getting oar strokes together; it’s harmonizing every minute muscle action “from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is part of each of them, moving as if on its own.  Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.”  The boys in the boat first found their swing rowing back to the shell house after a trial run at nationals one evening. Everyone was relaxed, everything was in sync, and the boat slid effortlessly in the quiet night.

14. HOW THE US TEAM FARED. We all know who won gold in the 8-man rowing event, but how did the rest of the US Olympic team do in 1936? Overall, Germany dominated the games with 101 medals (38 gold, 31 silver, 32 bronze). The United States was a distant second with 57 (24 gold, 20 silver, 12 bronze), and Italy was third with 27 (9 gold, 13 silver, 5 bronze). That medal count was a big reversal from 1932 when the US won 110 medals in Los Angeles to Germany’s 24.  But there was much for Americans to cheer. For starters, Northwesterners celebrated Jack Medica of Silverdale. The UW alumnus took home a gold, two silvers, and an Olympic record in swimming. Then, of course, there was Ohio State’s Jesse Owens. He won more gold medals than any athlete from any country: 4 golds in track & field.  He set three Olympic records and two world records in the process. His feats were dramatic counter-arguments to Hitler’s talk about a superior race. On consecutive days Owens won the 100 meters, the long jump, and the 200 meters. (In the 200 meters, by the way, the silver went to fellow American Mack Robinson, the older brother of Jackie Robinson who would break baseball’s color barrier 11 years later.) To cap his performance, Owens led the American team to the 4×100 meter relay gold. The only other American to win more than one gold medal was an 18-year-old woman from Missouri named Helen Stephens. Just like Owens, Stephens won the 100 meters and the 4×100 meter relay. And on August 8, Americans swept the decathlon: gold, silver, and bronze. It would be dozen years (and an intervening world war) before another Olympics was held.

15. STARTING OUT. The Boys in the Boat is primarily a book about rowing. Rowing and athleticism, teamwork, discipline, and dedication to a goal. There is also a love story in the book. Joe and Joyce fell in love in the early 1930s, married, and stayed together the rest of their lives. Within the couple of years central to the book, Joe and Joyce coped with work, money, time away, time with each other, and an assortment of thorny family issues. In other words: life happened.  There is a photograph of Joe and Joyce standing together in front of Joe’s car. It’s a wonderful image. They’re young and just starting out in life together. It is a scene that is very “1930s”, and yet it’s a theme that gets repeated again and again. I have a nearly-as-old black & white photo of my grandparents starting out together with their rented house in the background. I have a similar one a generation later with my parents, suitcases in hand, walking off toward their lives’ adventures. The photo is only the beginning. Life is what happens next.

16. THE BOYS IN THE BOAT. We’d be remiss if we didn’t list the boys in the boat by name. The gold medal crew aboard the Husky Clipper in 1936 were, in seat order* from the bow to the stern:  Roger Morris from Bainbridge Island. He was the only one in his freshman crew to have ever rowed before. Charles “Chuck” Day, a bespectacled young man who grew up just north of UW’s frat row. Big Gordon “Gordy” Adam, “a dairy farm kid from the Nooksack Valley who earned tuition money salmon fishing in the Bering Sea. Johnny White Jr from South Seattle, whose father had been a star rower a generation earlier. Junior was one of three crew members that worked a summer at Grand Coulee Dam. (Day and Rantz were the others), Jim “Stub” McMillin was “a six-foot-five, slightly goofy-looking beanpole with a smile that could knock your socks off.” He grew up on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill and took work as the shell house janitor to get by. George “Shorty” Hunt was a star athlete from Puyallup High School, where he played basketball, football, tennis, and worked in the library. Joe Rantz, the main focus of the book, was born in Spokane, grew up in Sequim, and played a little banjo, Another star athlete in high school was Don Hume from Anacortes. He played basketball, football and track. He also played piano — from classical music to Fats Waller. Calling the races from the coxswain’s seat was Bobby Moch from Anacortes. He had been a sickly child, but even asthma would not stop him from trying out for every sport his school offered.

17. FAVORITE LINES. We’ll finish this series of commentaries by asking: What was YOUR favorite line, favorite scene, or favorite storyline in The Boys in the Boat?  I enjoyed too many stories to pick just one scene, but I did have a favorite sentence.  It was delivered by Seattle P-I sportswriter Royal Brougham. Reporting on Bob Moch’s race strategy at Poughkeepsie where the Husky crew toyed with and then ultimately dominated a strong field of rivals, Brougham wrote: “It was positively cold-blooded.” Do you have a different favorite line, scene, or storyline from the book? Please share it.

IMAGES: The Dust Bowl photo is a public domain image from the Library of Congress. All other photos (that are not book covers) are © Steve Campion.

NOTE: These commentaries appear here unaffiliated with the book’s author, the publisher, or the library.


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