What are you reading?

by chuckofish

It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul. (George Yeoman Pocock)

I am reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.


It is the story of the hard-working varsity crew at the University of Washington who beat out their American college rivals for a chance to show the world how great they were at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Most of these guys were already working their way through college (because it was the depression) and then working on top of that and their school work to perfect their “swing” on the crew team. What a work ethic!


It is a wonderful story of those fine young men from “the greatest generation” who later would trounce Hitler in the war.

This book is particularly appealing to me because I rowed in college.

The boathouse on Paradise Pond at Smith College

The boathouse on Paradise Pond at Smith College

I took a class and then I rowed on an intramural team. I admit, I was pretty terrible. (My excuse is that my hands were too small to really get a good grip on the oar and my 110 lb. frame was pretty wimpy.) But I loved it. Eventually I moved to the coxswain’s seat, but I had a tendency to veer. I am no athlete, okay? But I did love being on the water and I rowed enough to understand what it’s all about.

There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called “swing.” It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others.

I wanted to row because when I was a freshman at Smith, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall was the President of the College. It was his final year, and I actually had him in a freshman history course. He was the kind of professor who invited each student individually over to his house to discuss their final paper. We had tea in his messy study. It was the greatest.


Anyway, he rowed. A graduate of both Yale and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, he captained the Balliol College crew while at Oxford. Later he coached the Berkeley College crew while teaching at Yale, served as an informal coach for college rowers at Smith and wrote three books on the subject, including A Short History of American Rowing.

I went to the Head of the Charles regatta my freshman year and Mr. Mendenhall was there talking to the coach of the Olympic crew team. He knew everyone.

TCM (in red jacket) with U.S. Olympic crew coach at the Newell Boathouse, Head of the Charles 1975

TCM (in red jacket) with U.S. Olympic crew coach at the Newell Boathouse, Head of the Charles 1975

I kept in touch with Mr. Mendenhall after he retired. If I wrote him, he always wrote me back. On the day I graduated I ran into him by chance on the sidewalk outside the President’s house. He asked me what I was doing after graduation and I told him I didn’t know, because I had been turned down for the Master’s Program at William and Mary. Back in St. Louis a week later, I got a phone call from the head of the History Dept. at W&M and he said they had a spot for me after all and some money too. Well. I always thought that perhaps Mr. Mendenhall had given them a call. I’ll never know for sure, but he was that kind of guy.

Anyway, The Boys in the Boat is a good book and a rousing story. Word is that a movie is in development and that Kenneth Branagh has signed on to direct it. This story would make a great movie, although we do know how it works out.


The Nazis lose.