Before we go any further with this heroic rowing tale, I should probably confess that back in grade school I had a certain knack for getting beaten up. I only bring up this embarrassing biographical material to suggest an unschooled theory about the dark psychological roots of rowing, not often discussed, that physical abuse and the ability to endure pain are often useful.
Now whether or not these two are necessary pre-requisites for rowing is a debatable point. Peter Haining, a former Scottish lightweight sculler, once admitted to me in a glib sort of way that his father used to take him out on Loch Lomond in a coxed four, and punch him repeatedly in the face when he wasn't rowing hard enough. Often by the end of the sculling session his nose would be completely bloodied. Now I'm not advocating this technique for anyone out there, but I can tell you that Haining went on to be a three-time lightweight world champion.
My own upbringing was less dramatic than this, but it was still one in which abuse definitely had some relevance. My small size, coupled with a snarky attitude, seemed to invite hostile situations. My presence was like blood in the water for the playground sharks.
"I'm going to get you, Boyne," became an all too familiar refrain, generally uttered right after the pledge of allegiance at the start of each day.
In a perverse sort of way, I felt quite popular. Certainly, I would have preferred to remain a little more anonymous, but sarcasm seemed to fly off my tongue with the ease of a second language. It was almost as if I had mastered it in the womb.
My second grade teacher, Mrs. O'Halloran, frequently kept me after school for blurting out inappropriate things, and eventually she theorized that I wasn't entirely human, but more of a changeling - exchanged at birth by the fairies. I almost believed her, for the shape and pitch of my ears did indeed lend me the aspect of an elf.
Sadly, I was not even immune from the bellicose behavior of certain females, which may or may not have been a form of misplaced affection. During my first week of 3rd grade in a brand new school system, I was set upon by Tina Botigliere, a Russian girl who I made the mistake of sitting next to on the school bus. Apparently, this wasn't done - for no one sat next to "Big Tina."
The reason became obvious to me only after I sat down beside her and realized that Tina seldom bothered to shower. It seemed rude to switch seats, however, so I held my breath as long as I could and tried not to wince - a technique that I often employed when served with sauerkraut by my mother. Tina took one look at me, squirming uncomfortably in my seat, then leaned over and whispered: "I gonna' have to beat you up, kid. But don't worry, then we'll be best friends."
True to her word, during afternoon recess, Tina threw me down and sat on me in the playground. I'm pretty sure she wanted to kiss me, but she settled for pulling my hair and tugging my elf ears - perhaps to make sure they were real. Then, for the rest of the semester, she insisted that I sit next to her on the way to school.
I'm not sure which torture was worse.
Later on, I progressed to more garden-variety beatings. After making fun of Eddie Casner's sister in 5th grade, he and his buddies ambushed me after school, throwing me up against the brick wall before I could make it to the bike rack, and breaking the first watch I ever owned - a gift from my grandfather. To be fair, Eddie had warned me to take off the watch, which was rather gentlemanly of him despite his thuggish nature.
When I reached high school, I foolishly thought I'd be in the clear. After all, most of the career roughnecks had been dispensed with - sent off to reform schools or outward bound programs - and any bullies that remained had at least sublimated their craft into verbal abuse. I could certainly handle that, and give it back in turn. Of course, there were still occasional bare-knuckle brawls in the school hallways, which the student body syndicated, locking arms so that the teachers couldn't break them up.
But mostly the hate that passed between rival groups and individuals evidenced itself in a more genteel manner - the all too familiar, juvenile put downs which often make their way into the pages of young adult novels - pitting one clique against another: jocks against nerds, drama kids against jocks. The term "bullying," of course, had not yet come into vogue in the 1970's. Boys were just boys, and girls were girls, and you learned to take abuse because it built character.
It was particularly odd, then, that I was targeted by a football jock who longed be a nerd - a "crossover clique" bully named Michael Caluso. During our senior year, when everyone turned their sights toward higher education, Caluso tried to play the scholar-athlete card on his college applications in order to get into his dream school - Trinity College. But when the class rankings came out and I was listed as the salutatorian, several places above him, he was furious.
To make matters worse, I'd already been awarded a varsity letter for running during my sophomore year, which he hadn't received until the year after. Without even trying, I already was a scholar athlete - not that I cared much about those things. I employed my running mostly to get away from malicious people, and my brain to outwit them when the occasional allowed.
Caluso, of course dismissed cross-country running as a sissy sport, but when the class rankings came out he actually stood up before the teacher arrived in Calculus and delivered a lengthy soliloquy about how I didn't deserve to be second in the class. Naturally, I had to sit there and take it, for I had no doubt that even with the recent judo lessons I'd taken, Caluso could have taken me apart with the same ease by which I took apart math problems.
Fortunately, all things pass. High school, and the endless punishment of my senior year, finally ended. At last I was rid of my nemesis - or was I? So complete was Caluso's jealousy of me that after we all graduated that spring, he even began to date a girl during the summer that I'd gone out with during the year - Mary Simmons.
Mary and I continued to remained friends, and during reunion week the following fall, it was she that told me that Caluso had also decided to go out for lightweight crew at the Coast Guard Academy.
Weird, I thought. Actually, double weird. For not many football players switched over to rowing, and fewer still lost the mass to row lightweight. Yet Caluso's fate was somehow entwined with my own.
After learning this information, I casually asked Coach Poole about the Coast Guard Academy, to discover whether or not they were in even in our league.
He nodded enthusiastically and said:
"Oh yes, they are our arch rivals."