But first there
were the winter days and the rowing machines set up in the gymnasium, three
parallel sets of eight, with sliding seats and mechanical tension to the oars.
There on dry land we learned the theories of keeping our slides under us,
getting our backs into it and, at the finish of the stroke, snapping the
wrist—which one hoped in practice would whip the blade cleanly out of the
water. My ears still retain the "squeak-chunk, squeak-chunk,
squeak-chunk" of all 24 machines in rhythmic action. Of course, when we
went out onto the Hudson and for the first time sat in a barge with a 12-foot
oar it was all so different, and we had to learn over again. And then once
more, when we graduated to the paper-thin shell.
Jim Rice was a
Canadian, a powerful, barrel-shaped man who was in his 60s, I believe,
sardonic, ribald and engagingly foul-mouthed. My ears somehow seem to remember
as much of those days as my eyes, and I can still hear the long-drawn-out cry
of Jim from the coaching launch, through his megaphone, between toots of tugs,
ferryboats and Central Railroad of New Jersey barges, "Gal-eee-ko! You're
feathering under. Sit up in the boat! You look like a greyhound riding a
wheelbarrow!" His descriptions of my efforts, pouring from his trumpet as
our needle shells glided past the Jersey piers, were accepted as sheer
entertainment by grinning longshoremen.
boathouse there knew no amenities. There was only an icy shower into which to
dash, hot and sweating from the pull. But one wonderful custom Rice introduced
from his native Canada. He kept a cask of ale on tap, and at the end of
practice we lined up and each oarsman received a glass—"to take the edge
off," as Rice put it. No drink has ever tasted better to me than that
draught of dark brown liquid at the finish of an exhausting eight- or 10-mile
My place in the
boat ordinarily was port on No. 6 (at a pinch I could also handle starboard No.
7), known to the downtown papers as "the engine room of the boat." For
we were all 180- and 190-pounders back there in the stern.
papers in those days seemed to take an extraordinary interest in rowing and
gave me an embarrassing time with one sports page headline when, in a scuffle
with a classmate on the library steps, I injured my right wrist. It read:
GALLICO, TOWER OF POWER, OUT OF VARSITY WITH INJURY. It took me more than a
year to live down that "Tower of Power." It used to boom out through
Rice's megaphone, "Come on. Tower, let's see some of your god-dam
I recall the
slurping rustle of the water against the polished skin of our shell as, after
the drive and the feather, eight of us sneaked forward on our slides to keep
her running so that the stroke oar would dip again well behind the puddle left
by bow; the hoarse "catch-drive!" of the coxswain and the clatter of
his tiller handles on the side of the boat when he called for us to raise the
stroke for a sprint. Then the " 'way-all!" from the coaching launch,
the momentary silence as we rested on oars and then the expected trumpet from
Jim Rice, "Gal-eee-ko! You're shooting your tail! Keep your arse under
you!" This meant that I wasn't pivoting properly, swinging against the firm
anchorage of the blade in water, my bottom kept under the center of gravity to
give full leverage for the stroke. There was more to rowing than just pulling,
even though one of Jim's aphorisms was that his preference for an oarsman was a
weak mind and a strong body. He had others, too, such as his final command as
we would draw away from the boathouse to head for the starting line of a race.
It was, "Don't get tired."
I did learn
eventually, and happily I never suffered that greatest of all oarsman's
humiliations—catching a crab in a race; that is to say, losing control of my
oar and breaking up the rhythm of the boat.
We were a spotty
crew, fatigue prone in the Intercollegiates but occasionally winning one like
the Childs Cup, or a dual match. Once we lured an aristocratic Princeton team
up into the sewage of our course on the Harlem River in New York and managed to
pick our way through the vulgar and often mortifying flotsam and jetsam
slightly more hurriedly than they.
But they got
even. They invited us back to Lake Carnegie, where they gave us a good
trouncing. Nobody had warned us that this artificial bit of water, created
through the munificence of Andrew Carnegie, was shallow and hence, believe it
or not, slushy. We were accustomed to anchoring our blades in honest river
fluid on which you could heave back with all your strength. Lake Carnegie's
surface was like mush, and we couldn't bite into it firmly with our oars. We
felt as though we were rowing in soapsuds.
Why do I remember
no more than 10 or so of my crew mates and not others? Or in what boat they
were, or when and what has become of them?