author of 'Laughing Boy,' Pulitzer Prize novel of 1930, famed for his work with
American Indians and for his struggle with the Federal Government in their
behalf left his adopted New Mexico this spring to return to his native East. He
was on a curious errand. Forty years ago he was a member of the Harvard
lightweight crew. Now he was, in effect, revisiting the world of rowing,
remembering what it was like then, comparing yesterday with today. What follows
is his unique appreciation of a vigorous, demanding but often misunderstood
The point of the
incident with which I begin is that the joke was not really funny. There were
34 Harvard men on a bus last month, en route to Philadelphia to row against
Pennsylvania and Princeton. They were the freshman, junior varsity and varsity
lightweight crews, several substitutes, a manager, the coach and one elderly
observer who had some acceptance because 40 years earlier he had rowed on
Harvard's first lightweight crew.
The manager asked
how many men wanted fish for lunch, since today was Friday. Several men raised
their hands. Then another said, "We're traveling, and when we're traveling
you Catholics can eat meat."
called out, "Candidate for the next Pope."
through the bus, sudden, loud, brief. The exaggerated response betrayed the
tension in everyone there, a tension that had been building up all week and
would continue to build up until, the following afternoon, each crew in turn
released it all in the disciplined violence of an eight-oared race.
Not long before,
an acquaintance, expressing surprise that a thorough individualist and a
fiction writer should once have rowed on crews and loved it, had said, "I
would think that rowing men would be the placid, bovine type." A part of
the answer was in that crash of laughter.
When I was a
young man it never occurred to me to ask myself or any of my fellow oarsmen why
I or they rowed. It was perfectly clear to me and, like most who race in the
eight-oared shells, I early learned that it was as useless to talk to outsiders
about rowing as about anthropology, the career study that I found vastly
Compared to the
number that engage in other major sports, in school or in college, only a
handful row. The watcher on the bank sees what looks to him like eight
automatons rowing with their backs to their goal, energetically docile to the
commands of the coach or of the little guy in the stern who steers the boat and
makes such a lot of noise. What he sees leaves a false impression, which in
turn leads to the false catch phrases the oarsmen so often hear and know not
how to answer.
There is that old
remark about strong backs and weak minds, which has been applied to so many
activities. There is the concept of a bunch of oxen contained in my friend's
remark. You will hear a statement or often a question, asked with something
like uneasiness, about the obliteration of the eight men's individualities.
Teamwork we know, in many sports, in work, in warfare, but this reduction of
men to machines, is this not unnatural?
Then, in this day
when it is the thing to mouth psychology, you will hear it said that crew men,
obviously, are masochists, with which word the speaker feels triumphantly that
he has ticketed and disposed of a troublesome phenomenon. This particular
statement, of course, is made by steamy pseudo-intellectuals about anything
that entails a degree of effort or of discomfort that they would not care to
endure, from playing football to taking a cold shower. It is a defense against
the memory, however vague, that the far-from-unintellectual Greeks considered
the ability to use one's trained body to the limit of its capabilities as an
essential element, along with two other unlike elements, wisdom and knowledge,
in the making of a complete man. It is also absurd.