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There are a lot of reasons not to stay out. For one thing, crew takes more time than anyone except a time tycoon is willing to spend. Practice begins the day before classes open in the fall and never ends. You row outdoors through mid-November, then indoors—except for an occasional supermasculine snow row—until March, then out until the season ends in mid-May. When all is said and done you've spent around 470 hours of your life serving the sport, which is more time than you spend in classrooms all year, or enough to earn one full semester's tuition at $2.25 an hour or read maybe 90 books. If rowing is going to be your prime endeavor in college, you don't want to be no good at it. But the Columbia lightweights didn't win a race this season.
"It's a sickening feeling when you hear the starting gun and just want it to be over," explained an ex-oarsman. "And then after you've lost, the coach looking at you as though you were a little kid who just went in his pants.... Another good reason to quit," he added, "you've been telling yourself you're an athlete—who's kidding whom?"
Of course, one might want to quit because, whereas the human body is 70% water, the Harlem River cannot make that claim. A staggering quantity and variety of raw sewage flows into the river, joining with dead dogs, artichokes, box springs and last year—under the crew dock—a Mafia casualty. One never knows what's going to come up on his oar. Too, the bridges one rows under have a very active bird population and kids along the shore throw rocks and shoot arrows and whatnot. Surviving that, one is always in danger of being run over and killed, or if lucky, merely swamped, by the tugs, barges and " America's Favorite Boat-ride"—the Circle Line. The latter makes the average practice something between a steeplechase and group surfing. It takes a 30-minute subway ride to get to all this at the boathouse at Baker Field, which is one of the largest tracts of private property in Manhattan, another being the Columbia campus itself.
Still, these are equally good reasons not to quit—adversity proves immensely amusing in retrospect and one of the principal purposes of rowing is the compilation of good old days to reminisce over. Besides, the adverse conditions lead to a certain esprit de corps and contempt for the "pussies" at, say, Princeton, who practice on the always calm and clear magic waters of an enchanted artificial boat lake. When they row on the nitty gritty big city river at Columbia they are in such terror of splashing each other that the thick-skinned home crews never lose as badly as they should. This year, it must be confessed, the Columbia lightweight crew has been losing just about as badly as it could, let alone should, perhaps because the oarsmen are increasingly distracted by the intermittent turmoil on campus and are increasingly aware that crew is, after all, rowboating—a game.
Games are fine for training children. Games simulate life situations. Games absorb energy that might otherwise cause trouble. But when the Columbia men row past the Consolidated Edison power plant on the river, they know that the same men run their school who run Con Ed and they see the air being polluted (clean fuel would cut profits) and they know that is not a game. When they walk past emptied buildings they know it was their school, their baby blue and white alma mater that threw the people out and they know that is not a game. And they don't feel like children, and they don't want to be trained and they think perhaps they could use some trouble-making energy.
It begins to seem that crew may be a waste of time when there is so much to be done, so much trouble to be made. And it's a waste of more than time. An eight-oared shell with oars costs about $3,500. Columbia has 12 such shells. The captain of the lightweight crew agrees that it's absurd and probably obscene to be paddling around in something that's worth two years' rent to families down the hill from the campus. The names on Columbia's shells read like a list of people not to be with should the revolution come. If black-lunged coal miners in Appalachia have sweated to make a man rich and the man has given a shell to Columbia, who wants to row in it?
The lightweight captain doesn't know what to do (any more than anybody else knows what to do). There's no way to convert crew shells into food or to redirect the funds of the people who give them. "It's like 'eat your potatoes, Johnny, there are people starving in China,' " the crew captain says. "You talk about waste—this whole country's that way." But he does feel continued commitment to crew entails "pretending that there is no real world," and he—concerned with helping a friend escape from the draft into Canada—finds such a commitment increasingly difficult.
"If there were no past and no present," he says, "crew wouldn't be a bad way to live."
He didn't mention the future.