row2k Features
Book Excerpt: Chapter 18, Slower Every Day—from Four Years at Four, by John Escher
April 15, 2022
John Escher and Philip Makanna

In the Navy tank – Annapolis-- 1960

Flash back several days to when we were still undefeated, having just won America's largest collegiate regatta by curvature of the earth-- a time when we felt a bit immortal and were vastly encouraged by Mouse's performance in the Wednesday coxswain foot-race.

Each year, all the huge crews at the IRA would turn up early in Syracuse for a week of intense preparation for the culminating three-mile race. (It is not the same today when there are heats and the race course is only a smidge longer than a mile and one quarter.)

Walking through Syracuse as an intact eight-oared crew, we encountered other crews that looked like us, each group a schooner towering above the ordinary folk of Syracuse.

The competing oarsmen would stay together in old Army barracks at the State fairground with busses shuttling us back and forth to the lake.

Lurking behind fat trees, the most famous crew coaches of the land, surreptitious, were capable with a single glance to identify a fast crew a mile away. Different from lay observers, they formed their judgment with that single dermatologist's look.

"Somebody ought to get out in Brown's lane," one even said, prophetically, at the annual IRA banquet as reported in the Syracuse newspapers.

The IRA back in those days simulated somewhat the extra-rowing games and croquet of Yale-Harvard at Ledyard the same week, everybody wishing to uphold the venerable campfire traditions of America's oldest intercollegiate sport.

The foot-race was around the Fairground mile-long track with every tall crew urging on their particular coxswain.

Mouse in the tank at Annapolis – no steering
Mouse in the tank at Annapolis – no steering

All coxswains from all events were eligible. Mouse, a great athlete in cross-country as well as hockey, led hugely for three-quarters of the way but hadn't yet kicked his smoking habit and spewed a residue of blue fumes as he gave up the grail at the end to a single Navy coxswain in better shape.

Mouse, acting as the surrogate for Whitey and Charlie Butt exactly as a good coxswain should do, conducted our Onondaga practices.

If I could re-write the events from that time, no Brown alumnus from the shore would see us at practice and become intrigued and then mortified at the thought we were rowing too hard and wearing ourselves out.

This is what the alumnus without knowing much about us thought as reported in the Syracuse papers. A nice man who gave a great party honoring us and our parents before the Olympic Trials, which were also held on Lake Onondaga three weeks later. He was Bill Margeson, and he used his connections to obtain volunteer services of the Navy lightweight coach for us, himself a very nice man capable of giving us a good pep-talk just before the big race.

We were about to learn what being called "The Orphans of the Seekonk" really meant, that some Daddy Warbucks would underestimate the force of our independence and choose a third coach-- which was one too many-- to babysit and manipulate and overtrain us.

Nope, I would prefer that none of that happened, that the USNA did not invite us to Annapolis for three weeks whether Admiral Durgin from Brown wielded his influence in that decision or not.

The three weeks at Navy were fascinating, and I would return there twenty years later with Charlie Butt as my roommate to obtain my certification as a crew coach.

So am I a conspiracist? Possibly. At least Navy Lightweight Coach Dave Pratt did not have us play musical chairs before the IRA-- he did that afterward, before the Olympic Trials.

Better I say if we had stayed in Syracuse for the three weeks and let Mouse be our coach-- we could possibly have wangled that. What after all is the purpose of coaching in any sport if not to create independent athletes who can coach themselves?

In any case we did not win the 1960 IRA. Nor did we win the 1960 Olympic Trials. Navy did. The Navy Plebes were second. The Kiel-Ratzeburg crew of Germany rowing a new way then clobbered the Navy varsity and everybody else at Rome. Navy did not even finish in the medals. Yale coached by Genial Jim Rathschmidt had won gold at the previous Olympics in Melbourne but Navy's Rome performance marked the end of the era where American college crews dominated the world. The best American crews, all-star now, came from training camps apt to be held at post graduate rowing clubs such as Vesper in Philadelphia.

ANNAPOLIS: We stayed in the spacious but empty Navy field house where there was a pool table but no air conditioning. We dined with the midshipmen but not at the Navy training table. Outside of the huge dining hall entrance and above it was a ledge where our whole crew would sometime sit while we were waiting for the designated time for us to go in.

Hubbard Hall, Annapolis-- 1960
Hubbard Hall, Annapolis-- 1960

For some reason, I don't know why-- my dad was a World War II Naval officer after all-- I decided to impersonate a vulture.

The other crew members have ever since said I was impersonating Snoopy impersonating a vulture as in the Charles Schultz comics, but I think I was just a vulture reviewing the midshipmen as they passed by and went in to eat.

Out on the Severn River we did occasional practice pieces with the Navy Plebes whose coxswain Dick Omohundro we knew from Potomac Boat Club since he was the Washington-Lee varsity coxswain the year before.

Those Plebes befriended us and took us sailing in Knockabouts out on Chesapeake Bay. The Navy varsity on the other hand always stayed at least a half-mile distant.

I remember my shock when in one of those pieces the Plebes pulled ahead. But a Potomac Boat Club oarsman working in Annapolis made a point of coming frequently to the shore of the Severn River and reported to Bill Engeman his opinion that we went slower every day.

Annapolis-- 1960
Annapolis-- 1960

Annapolis-- 1960
Annapolis-- 1960

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