"…Every one of them believed he was simply lucky to be rowing in the boat, that he didn’t really measure up to the obvious greatness of the other boys, and that he might fail the others at any moment. Every one of them was fiercely determined not to let that happen…"from the Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.
For some reason, with my latest sojourn into the world of competitive rowing, I find myself needing to be immersed in this culture. This is in part due to my lateness in arriving at this desire to be a part of propelling long narrow boats across varying surfaces of water- hopefully mostly in conditions smooth and mirror-like. While I have gazed upon the rowers of slender shells with curiosity and envy for a while, it is only now that I’m doing it that a bit of research into its history and nuances feels more than necessary. In all my years of swimming, the only book about the competitive end of the sport that I’ve ever read was Olympian Don Schollander’s account of his life at the top of the game of elite swimming- Deep Water. The same has been true of cycling. I came close to reading Lance Armstrong’s personal tomes, but given his dramatic fall from cycling and other graces, that task seems far less urgent now.
But on my first day in the boat house I heard tell of a relatively new book about rowing that piqued my interest, and I just finished it the other day. It is where the above quote came from. And it has been the source from which a weird synchronicity has spun forth. This is because it tells a story that goes beyond rowing- of a simpler time and a local group of rowers. It also verges on revealing something zen-like about the sport, while at the same time keeping it more down to earth in terms of basic altruism and egalitarianism, two qualities that seem to have mostly vanished from the world as we know it. This book, the Boys in the Boat, tells of magic and serendipity, without getting all mystical and unicorny. It is about how nine students at the University of Washington left the wheat fields and logging camps and dam building projects of the 1930’s and climbed into an elegant craft made from northwest cedar and went on to shock the world at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany. It was George Pocock who built that boat and many others which set a standard around the world. It was also he who said, in reference to the world of rowing: "Harmony, balance, rhythm- there you have it. That’s what life is all about."
This is not at all why I decided to give rowing a try in my pursuit of somehow clawing my way back into shape. In some ways, however, I have already seen at least one indication that this choice was a wise one. Just this past Monday, having missed the 5:30am call to exercise at the boat house, I decided to go for my 21 mile bike ride, later in the day at a more reasonable hour. I am used to seeing my road speed times go down in these darker, cooler days, so when I was part way up the highway on the climb from Shawnee to the Inspiration Point lookout, I found myself squinting and rubbing my eyes to get a better look at the readout on my bike computer, because what I thought I was reading did not make any sense. Usually, with more clothes and less winter energy, I will settle in at a somewhat pathetic six to seven miles an hour on this particular climb. What my computer was telling me was that I was, at the top of the hill, cruising at 9mph- a speed I didn’t even achieve here this past summer. It seems that the core strength work we are doing for rowing is paying off in other ways and places.
And then there is the synchronicity thing. While reading this book we paid a visit to Hoover Dam, a trip we recounted here a short while back. While the dam discussed in Mr. Brown’s book is the Grand Coulee dam, the historic film footage of Hoover Dam’s construction which was playing in the corner of a brew pub in Boulder City, gave historic and archival visuals to the book’s vivid descriptions of these depression era works projects. And then there was the article about Henry Wallace, FDR’s controversial vice president, which recently appeared in the New Yorker. And there was the mild panic I felt when walking past Ober Park the other day only to find the sidewalk broken up and gone. The panic part had to do with my concern over where the piece containing a bit of the actual WPA sidewalk that had been there had gone to. As it turns out, it was spared and is stored safely on a pallet somewhere else.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t spared the brow beating and semi-universal disdain that three fifths of the current Vashon Park District (VPD) board has for rules, reason and the general public, when I once again chose to attend last night’s meeting. Things started off badly, as the exercise class that was mysteriously scheduled to overlap what has been the traditional commissioner’s meeting start time and space caused the meeting to be moved back to 7:45 instead of 7pm. And we were forced to wait another forty five minutes beyond that for the commissioners to appear out of closed door "executive" session and bless us with their presence and wisdom. Indeed, we had to wait almost another hour past that, through mostly mundane reporting of VPD this and that, until Mr. Ameling took it upon himself to put on an auspicious display of verbal self-pleasuring by informing himself of what a grand and glorious job they, as commissioners, have done in balancing the budget and pulling the district out of the mess it was in. As I have mentioned before, the only way one is to sanely get through these outbursts is to imagine it as being a comedy of epic proportions. What I then began to see and hear before me was Misters Hackett, Ameling and Wald in gingham and calico dresses, and their officers clothes underneath, doing a sketch comedy song and dance in a lifeboat as the Titanic went down in the background. As Mr. Ameling continued with his auto-adulation, all about how future generations would marvel at the VES field that this board has left behind, I was thinking of the tons of fertilizer and wasted millions of gallons of water that this field will consume through those years, not to mention the now two million dollar black hole that park employees and park programs disappeared into. I recalled the glow of three diesel powered work lights that illuminated a night sky to my northeast that had once been relatively dark, you know, like the rural, country thing we sort of value around here. And why were these lights running? So five kids could kick a ball around at 7:15 at night on the emerald wonderland that is VES field. And I thought of the lies that made this all possible- namely, that there was a need for this kind of thing, and that there was the required matching funds from the park district to validate a grant and get it all started, to mention only two.
But most of all, I thought of the coming elections, and the recent candidates forum, where there seemed to be four viable alternatives to the one vacancy and the two incumbents running. While I have supported those incumbents in the past, it seems to me that fresh faces that are actually willing to vote against the two remaining powers that have driven the VES debacle are the necessary antidote to the current VPD malady. Check out the candidate forum on the Voice of Vashon website: www.voiceofvashon.org/