row2k Features
Book Excerpt: Chapter 5, Winkie Boots-- from Four Years at Four, by John Escher
January 14, 2022
John Escher and Philip Makanna

Small one-piece neoprene slippers solved the splinter dilemma. They were thin enough to fit inside rowing shoes or on top of the rowing shoe laces if you were good. Nobody should ever lace oneself tightly into rowing shoes.

We called these streamlined silvery grey things 'winkie boots' since the winkie crew, or Brown lightweights, were first to discover and order them.

The winkie crew, an endangered Brown culture, made other unexpected contribution to our good fortune as well.

Still influenced by Coach Bobble, they were stroked by sophomore Hugh Carmichael, class president his senior year. That same year, 1960, he coached the Brown freshmen to a Dad Vail championship.

The winkies accompanied us to Spring Break in the Potomac Boat Club tucked under Francis Scott Key Bridge in Washington, D.C. where Charlie Butt had made perhaps surreptitious arrangements for us to sleep on the upper floors.

We certainly got to know and like some of the winkieguys, which proved crucial.

But they were having the same tough time that all Brown crews, starting with the six-oared variety, had experienced for more than a hundred years.

Every college administrator, nice person or not, turned into a penny-pinching miser upon hearing the word "crew." They knew about Red Top and The Ferry at Gales Ferry village in Ledyard, Connecticut, the Harvard and Yale compounds built for one week of use per year. Separate building in which to dine, a special dorm just for freshmen--all that certainly was enough to intimidate any Brown administrator before even contemplating Harvard's large home boathouses on either shore of the Charles, or Yale's old boathouse museum on New Haven harbor, a working place until the many crews moved to a spiffy new structure on the Housatonic just above the dam that stopped that Connecticut river from being tidal like the others.

Two famous pronouncements immediately before our time came from the humanist president of Brown, Dr. Henry M. Wriston.

"Rowing will become a University-sanctioned sport over my dead body," he said, and, "We have a full program of sports, and while crew is an excellent sport, it is expensive and it is not worthwhile doing halfway."

In any viable rowing program there are apt to be some movers and shakers, and I have mentioned Cushing and Covert before. It was they who discovered Gordon Whitey Helander at a party on Benefit Street Providence and recruited him to help us. Whitey was a Marine aviator and engineering student at Rhode Island School of Design where he was also taking a photography course.

Gordon Whitey Helander, Marine Aviator, 29 years old
Gordon Whitey Helander, Marine Aviator, 29 years old

He was somebody who rose up on his toes when he walked. He believed in Marine training and had rowed for a few months at Syracuse University.

His strong personality so dominated my sophomore year that I can't remember much of what we did before he came aboard. Did everything but hold a bake sale I guess. Our big publicity stunt, supported by The Providence Journal, was an all-person walk through East Providence about ten miles in both directions before and after the old shell we were carrying got fiberglassed for free.

I never have understood the math involved in this feat. Was a different merchant supposed to contribute a dollar for each ten feet we walked? As JV captain George Baum recently recalled, when the cameras arrived we started to run the shell forward like a torpedo to look impressive.

Bill Engeman in black struggles with the added weight of new fiberglass. Peter Amram in white, later to be first coach of the Brown women, is two persons behind Bill.
Bill Engeman in black struggles with the added weight of new fiberglass. Peter Amram in white, later to be first coach of the Brown women, is two persons behind Bill.

The fiberglass made the boat heavy enough to cut into our shoulders on the way back to the NBC. It had also become too heavy for racing any more.

On very short notice our new coach Whitey agreed to go with us on Spring Break to Washington. To wake us each morning and get us quickly out on the Potomac, he would take an old shoe and thump the inside of a metal wastebasket to turn it into a gong.

Throughout this period we rowed in the very good Washington-Lee boats maintained by Charlie Butt himself. And had a race with the best high school crew in the land-- a scrimmage or "tie" you could say-- scheduled for the end of our two weeks there.

Babcock didn't row after freshman year. That left four experienced oarsmen in the boat, Bill Engeman, Peter Amram, Phil Cushing and Lew Covert (both with Military training and Amram later to get some of his own). The rest of us were accumulating experience fast but still were novices. The guy in front of me, Doug Dysart, was from Maine. One leg was overdeveloped and the other withered. I can't remember if Doug's developed leg was on the outside opposite the five oar where I would have put it were I the coach.

About twenty years later Charlie Butt drove all the way out at 55 mph from the Potomac to the Monongahela to help me with the West Virginia University crews, and I remember him saying, "Those Brown crews of yours had idiosyncrasies but were unbelievably fast."

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