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.
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
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?
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
He didn't mention