Stories / College /
My best foot race was on a horse track, eight furlongs, coxswains’ race, 1957, Syracuse NY, the fairgrounds. I had the lead the whole way: except for the final step, Princeton guy sprinted me down, I was slowing, he was tearing.
My father showed me a picture of him holding an oar, standing next to a singles skull, said he had tried crew at Columbia. Was any of that true? My father was not known for telling the truth, about anything: he was a story teller, assumed, incorrectly, a little bit of sophistication on the part of the listener, a little bit of interpretive skill. I was a kid, what does a kid know?
The Saturday Evening Post, September 25, 1926
So, I arrive at Columbia, all skinny freckles, and right away the new freshman crew coach, Al, newly graduated from UPa, is recruiting me for the crew team. Oh, goody: I’ll build myself up a little, get some shoulders, chest, arms at age 18. I sure had the legs, running, biking, but no upper body, pathetic. No, no: Al didn’t want me to row! He wanted me for heavy weight coxswain! He promised me I could also row, but never once, 1956, ’57, did he show me a skull I could borrow at the boat house.
I had no business trying a sport until I proved that I could read at least 10% of the assignments, not flunk out the first semester. But Columbia is funny like that: the big state meat factories take in 50,000 freshman, planning to let 2,000 of them become sophomores; Columbia resists taking you: but once they take you, they don’t want to let go. Squeak in somehow, they’ll do anything to keep you there: scholarships, behavior-tolerance … Hilary’s Bryn Mawr was the same way. Anyway, I tried it. And I never came anywhere close to 10% of the reading: but I learned that if you understood 5%, they thought you were a genius: and maybe they were right.
Crew is an interesting experience: There are eight oarsmen in a shell, working their ass off, building great upper body strength (while their football legs shrivel, all except for the muscles used to slide the seat forward for the next stroke). Then there was Al, riding in a launch, looking over our “shoulder”: micromanaging our every move. Except me. See? I was idle cargo, sitting in the back. In theory I was in charge, I was the “captain,” they were supposed to obey my commands. Bull, All was the captain, I was dead weight. I did steer. And I did try to take some command, and even to be a role model! That’s what this story is about.
They, the oarsmen, lived clean. I smoked like a chimney: appetite suppression: keep that dead weight as low as possible, take one for the team.
The oarsmen were all building themselves, their appearance at least, into alphas, but Alfred E. Newman me attracted the girls at the socials. I posted a cartoon of girls swimming after the cox as the oarsmen sweated, the coach destroyed it.
Yep, them’s my ears.
I didn’t have to smoke conspicuously, I didn’t have to starve myself, no one asked me to. It was my idea, I was trying to contribute something, sacrifice something. Before a race I’d put on sweats, go into the furnace room, do sit-ups. When I went in the scale read 132 LBs; when I came out: 122! Water loss, I know. I’d drink a pound or two of it back on the next day. In a day and a half I’d be almost normal again.
And don’t think this exercise of mine wasn’t dangerous, harmful to me. I don’t doubt it was. But whatever the cost was, I paid it.
Further, after crew practice I made sure the crew could see me headed for the Baker Field track, to run laps: a few miles. The track team was on the field: I just ran on my own. Then I’d shower back at the boat house, then light up, walk to the subway, or take the team bus if there was one still there. Hammer at that weight.
Our final event for the season was the IC4A regatta, Lake Onondaga, Syracuse. We camped at the fair grounds. Ah, and that’s where Syracuse had a flat track! I heard they had a tradition of racing the coxswains the day before the crew race. OK, I ought to be able to do something there. Except all I was eating was one soft boiled egg in the morning and an equivalent nothing in the evening. Ironic, cause one argument Al had hooked me with was that I’d get training table, my food would be subsidized: my food would be better, much better, than the crap they fed the ordinary paying students!
Alright, there are all the elements for the story, but I’ve already told it in the first sentence. We raced. I was instantly in the lead, the lead increasing enormously. I see the finish line, I’ve got all day to get there, I’m a hundred yards ahead, maybe two hundred. But there’s a scream from the crowd. I look behind me. A big guy, way big for a cox, in Princeton colors has broken free of the pack. Just as I lean for the finish I hear his hoofbeats. Boom, got me.
Why hadn’t somebody screamed Go, Paul? I’d have found the energy.
The next day after the race I looked for my mother on the shore by the finish line. I walked up to her. She didn’t recognize me! When she saw it had to be me she was horrified. She took me to a restaurant, tried to feed me. But it was no good, I’d shrunken my stomach so.
The day of the race it was windy. It took forever to place the shells at the starting line. We were getting pointed wrong, I’d ask the bow oar, #1, Darcy, to re-aim us. He told me later, not at all happy, that I’d exhausted him: he was finished before the race started.
Hierarchical communication, one way only: I could yell to him, he couldn’t yell back to me. I was oblivious, the coach hadn’t prepared us for correcting aim at the start. For every hundred hours he spent with the stroke oar, he should have spent thirty seconds with me.
The coaches said the cox race was a “mile, a little over a mile.” We ran on the flat track, measured in furlongs. A furlong is supposed to be an eighth of a mile. Horse races are sometimes six furlongs, are they not? I was at the track every day in 1961, this was 1957. I didn’t set up the course, I didn’t measure it. Maybe it was six furlongs, a mile and three quarters. Maybe it was eight furlongs and a fraction: to accomodate the officials, the audience. Regardless, I ran it in four minutes something: only time in my life I’ve broken five minutes for a mile.
Racing in high school the varsity guy ahead of me would run five : twenty-someting: good for a small high school, very good. Me, I toddle along, well behind him, five : something: 5:18 maybe.
Well, those furlongs were far and away the best I’d ever competed. If I had actually tried to run well, worked at training, maybe I could have gotten down into the middle fours. Certainly by college age I should have been able to.
I’ll never know, crew was too much: I got out: and studied even less.
But face it: it was as much as I could! I listened to my jazz: all the time. And I still had to talk, and drink. I read, constantly, as I still do.
If only I could have found a university, found a professor, or another student, who understood something I said.
Giving the Store Away
pk the Painter
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