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Books, Documentaries, Reviews: THE BOYS IN THE BOAT

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Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  April 15, 2014

The Boys in the Boat

Daniel James Brown

 

Daniel James Brown’s book about the eight-man crew team that won the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany has been a pleasure to read.

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Like Laura Hildenbrand’s Seabiscuit, Brown’s book uses the story of the University of Washington’s crew teams to tell the wider story of that “dust bowl” era so filled with poverty.  And like Seabiscuit, who won against a big, glossy, stallion from the east, this crew team is not comprised of elite, East Coast young men, but the sons of loggers, fishermen, farmers, and blue-collar workers.  Most of these young men grew up poor and struggled to get purchase in a world filled with poverty and struggle.

This story is also about George Yeoman Pocock, who built, by hand, the 62-foot rowing shells used by most competitive teams in America.  Pocock emigrated from England, was the son of a boat builder, was a self-taught award-winning rower, and struggled to get purchase in American.  Nothing was handed to Pocock for free.

And, there is Al Ulbrickson, the University of Washington’s crew coach, who had been an award-winning rower at the University of Washington.

These men all have bottomless character, bottomless heart, and iron wills.  It is a pleasure to read about them–and about how they could not begin to win until they learned to work together, to work as a cohesive unit, to respect each other, to protect each other, to like each other’s differences.

Here’s a quote from George Pocock:

Every good rowing coach, in his own way, imparts to his men the kind of self-discipline required to achieve the ultimate from mind, heart, and body.  Which is why most ex-oarsmen will tell you they learned more fundamentally important lessons in the racing shell than in the classroom.

Here’s how Brown starts the book:

Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment.  Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body….And rowing makes these muscular demands not at odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite.

Rowing competitively, at some point in the race, I learned, becomes really painful.

Here’s a description of “the boys”–as seen by their freshman coach who goes on to coach at Harvard–Tom Bolles:

And it wasn’t just their physical prowess  He liked the character of these particular freshmen.  The boys who had made it this far were rugged and optimistic in a way that seemed emblematic of their western roots.  They were the genuine article, mostly the products of lumber towns, dairy farms, mining camps, fishing boats, and shipyards.  They looked, they walked, and they talked as if they had spent most of their lives out of doors.  Despite the hard times and their pinched circumstances, they smiled easily and openly.  They extended calloused hands eagerly to strangers.  They looked you in the eye, not as a challenge, but as an invitation.  They joshed you at the drop of a hat.  They looked at impediments and saw opportunities (94).

Brown chooses crew member Joe Rantz as the emotional heart of this book.  And it’s a good choice.  Joe’s mother dies when he’s about five, his father remarries, his stepmother rejects him, and he’s thrown on his own resources from about the age of ten.  Basically, he’s abandoned–and part of the drama of the story is that Joe has to learn to trust his crew mates.  How many five-year olds today would be put on a train in Washington state and make the journey to the East Coast on his own?

And, then there is the story of Henry Penn Burke, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Rowing Committee–and the chairman of and a major fundraiser for the Pennsylvania Athletic Club in Philadelphia–who, when the Penn team comes in second to the Washington team, announces that there is no money to send the Washington team to the Olympics, but that the Penn team has money and will be happy to take the place of the Washington team.

Heroically, the folks back in Washington–many of whom are dirt poor–manage to raise the $5000 needed to send the team to Germany.  And they do it in two days.  Small contributions come in until there is enough.

No wonder westerners were skeptical of the eastern elites…

It’s a good, interesting read.

 

 

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