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Paul Gallico
September 25, 1967
Fifty years after, a famous sportswriter looks back to his days as a collegiate oarsman in an era when rowing was the big sport on campus and sometimes even front-page news
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September 25, 1967

Tale Of An Ancient Mariner

Fifty years after, a famous sportswriter looks back to his days as a collegiate oarsman in an era when rowing was the big sport on campus and sometimes even front-page news

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I would not be likely to forget Dune Leys, the varsity stroke and my boyhood hero when I was a freshman. He was a lanky, lantern-jawed, self-possessed athlete. I was also afraid of him, though he never gave me cause to be. But the relationship between freshmen and upperclassmen was then one of juvenile terrorism. Perhaps it still is today. I rowed No. 7 as a sophomore, behind his stroking beat, bursting with pride, until, as noted, the war broke up our schedule. When I returned to college in 1920 to complete my education he was, of course, gone, and there seemed to be a whole new crowd, with one or two exceptions.

There was Kess Scovil, a doctor's son, my particular pal; we were inseparable. Our stroke in the postwar years was a tough and irreverent athlete by the name of Frank Brodil. He was not built like an oarsman, but rather like a football tackle, with a sense of humor that was wanting in some of the more refined attitudes toward intercollegiate competition. I remember one time when we were pulling away from Yale on the Housatonic, much to our surprise. Our stern drew level with Yale's bowman, who happened to be a scion of one of the reigning socialite families. Brodil baited him by calling across, "Hey, Whitney, what time is it?"

This was not entirely class warfare on Brodil's part. We sidewalk-of-New Yorkers were all inclined to sniff at this Yale crew, because it was experimenting with a British coach by the name of Guy Nickalls, who had equipped his boys with Oxford-style rowing shirts, which brought out rampant chauvinism in our shell. We bet our American skivvies against the Limey ones and carried off the British-made goods triumphantly.

Two of our bowmen stick in my mind, one by the name of Horace Dow, who was notable in that he had once been a Broadway chorus boy but with none of the implications inherent in that kind of work. The theater was just entering its glamour period then, and some of it must have surrounded him. The other bowman, a chap named Ruffalo, was one of those tough paisanos with a beak like an octopus and rather the same kind of eyes. He was nicknamed Tito because of an opera singer then current by the name of Titta Ruffo. He seemed to come in for a good deal of kidding. Lansing Van Houten was our captain in 1921, a big, blond boy who looked like the Arrow Collar man. Advertisements for Arrow Collars in those days were drawn by an artist named Leyendecker, and that was just about as handsome as you could, get. Van Houten had the misfortune to come down with pneumonia before the Intercollegiates, which moved me into the position of acting captain.

Another blond oarsman comes to mind; his name was Barry Brown, rowing No. 7 in front of me, for when I came out of the Navy I returned to my No. 6 oar. I suppose he lingers as one who, during a practice spin at Poughkeepsie, caught the crab of all crabs. We were moving right along with a good punch when he failed to feather. The blade went straight down, and he couldn't get rid of the handle. It took him in the stomach, lifted him cleanly out of his shoelaces and deposited him over the side of the boat. I yelled to the cox to way-all. Frank Brodil turned around with the most surprised look I have ever seen on any man's face, and inquired, "Where the hell is Brownie?" Brownie was just surfacing some 30 yards astern, looking pretty well astonished himself.

That was essentially the same crew that contributed to what must have been one of the silliest sights in all rowing history. We were at Annapolis for a race with Navy and had gone out in the morning to try to get used to the choppy waters of the Severn. We had splashboards on our shell, but the wind kicked up rougher and rougher until we gradually filled and quietly sank. But since our eight oars—four on a side—were kept out at right angles, we didn't tip over but merely descended, so that eight nude torsos were sitting there in the water, in a row, one behind the other. Of the cox, only his head was visible. His name was Don Brush. He had reddish hair, crew-cut, of course, an impertinent face and a highly irritating voice.

Well, and then there are two others who particularly stick: Rene Normser, who played the guitar 50 years before the other jeunesse thought of it, and Wally Waldecker. Both of them became highly successful lawyers.

I don't know how it is today—probably football has supplanted crew in importance—but then we were the aristocrats of the campus. For we were lettermen plus and wore the block C with crossed oars, the highest athletic award. To walk the campus wearing a dark blue crew hat sporting this emblem in white embroidery made one feel lordly.

There was much sacrifice, discipline and physical torture connected with rowing, but it was worth every bit of it to be able to sport that hat, or to peacock in a big white sweater with the insignia in light blue. Of all that happened to me at Columbia, including my degree, I suspect that winning my letter was the most important and gave me the most satisfaction. My vanity must have been overwhelming.

But the races were sheer nightmares. I remember that several times during the worst of them, when my chest was on fire and I could not get any air into my lungs, when my arms and legs felt ready to drop off, I would despair of pulling another 10 strokes when I knew there were yet several hundred ahead of me. I would wonder then how I ever had come to let myself in for such a painful sport. I can only remember it now as anguish from start to finish. The moment the gun went off and one heaved into the starting sprint, one began to gasp for breath and never really caught it again, never felt easy or in control or out of misery the full length of the course.

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