row2k Features
Life is a Metaphor for Rowing, Ch. 18: Harvard's Secret Weapon
July 15, 2022
Peter Mallory

1967 Penn LW JV8, 2nd Place, Eastern Sprints Stroke Pat Cairo, 7 Bob Fountain, 6 Pete Mallory, 5 Bob Harrison, 4 Paul Garner, 3 Dennis Custage, 2 Pete Deekle, Bow Tom Cassel, Coxswain Saul Berman

That 1967 Jayvee of ours enters the Eastern Sprint Championships on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Massachusetts, seeded third behind still undefeated Cornell . . . and an undefeated Harvard Jayvee that has yet to meet either one of us. Before the morning qualifying heats, as the various jayvee lightweight boats mill around in the starting area, our eyes are searching for Harvard, the only crew we haven't yet raced. Our good friends from Cornell will line up beside us in Heat 2, and we know we will beat them this morning.

But Harvard . . . Look! There they are, sitting 50 meters away, waiting for their own Heat 1. Bob Harrison, the other half of "Lightweight Rowing's Strongest, etc., etc." is right behind me, and he has always been enthralled, even obsessed, with all things Harvard. In 1967, Harvard is the fashion capital of American rowing. If the world made any sense at all, their "Harvard Crimson," shirts would be a real red like Cornell's "Cornellian". Isn't that what "crimson" means to you? But their traditional color is actually an indescribable, dark, maroon . . . something. And if you give them a chance, Harvard shirts run. They fade . . . that is, if you can hold onto them long enough.

And that's the point! Most Saturdays during our entire careers Penn crews have sported brand-spanking-new shirts, the creases still in the sleeves, issued to us in separate plastic bags that very day . . . because we've lost our previous shirts just the Saturday before!

Old shirts mean you haven't lost in a while. And these Harvard guys across Lake Quinsigamond have really faded shirts. Ergo undefeated at the end of a long season. Do you think a couple of guys might even have helped the effect along with a drop or two of bleach along the way? Perhaps. And the pants. They start out a spotless creamy off-white, but with the shirts bleeding and fading, and rigger grease ever present . . . Well, you can just imagine. Harvard has already made faded and grubby a fashion statement in rowing. Our preppy sport has anticipated "grunge" by thirty years!

Meanwhile, the outside world is beginning to impinge upon the insular world of rowing. By 1968, the year of the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Harvard oarsmen will begin to sport beards and openly protest racism and the Vietnam War. Even now, a year earlier, hair is getting longer on the Charles River well before the phenomenon will spread to Boathouse Row. Now long hair can be a hassle in rowing. Flops down over the eyes. Drips with sweat. Harvard guys have adopted a solution: bandannas freshly ripped from motel towels on away trips. And of course they get dirty, so they match the faded shirts and stained shorts, and the fashion statement is complete!

As we await our Eastern Sprints qualifying heat, Bob Harrison, undefeated for four consecutive weeks now, sporting the oldest, the dirtiest racing shirt he has ever worn in his entire collegiate career, and smelling the part, in conscious or unconscious homage to the Harvard culture, has wrapped a Harvard-style motel towel bandanna around his head . . . and he is squinting toward the Crimson shell. "How can they be so good?" he asks. All season long they have beaten our mutual opponents by about a length more than we have. They must have a secret weapon, an unfair advantage. After all, no one could have trained any harder than we have. (And I'm sure, like me, he's thinking that no jayvee could be as good as us! What with all the "varsity-caliber" oarsmen in our boat . . . you know . . . Right?)

"What the Hell are they doing? Hey, it looks like they are passing something up and down the boat . . . Are they eating it? Something hidden in a napkin? Maybe it's drugs!" Bob is incensed. The unfairness of it all! We all strain our eyes to identify this "substance" that must be the nefarious secret of Harvard's extraordinary speed. The first heat is called to the line. Harvard moves off. "Look!" says Bob, "There's something floating in the water!"


We paddle over. Bob fishes a paper napkin from the lake. He opens it. We . . . all . . . hold . . . our . . . breaths . . . "It's a lemon peel!" says Paul Garner derisively, looking over Bob's shoulder from the 4-seat. "It's just a lemon peel, for Heaven's sake. Harvard's unfair advantage is lemons!" Bob Harrison says no more that morning. Harvard wins their heat. We win ours.

That afternoon, we return to the staging area for the final. As we sit and wait, Bob has something in his hand. He's hiding it. "What's going on, Bob?" Silence. I can't resist. I reach back and grab for it. It's a lemon. My best friend, in his Harvard bandanna, is sucking on a lemon.

Perhaps thanks to that lemon, we row a magnificent race, pass three boats in the last ten strokes, a final sprint for the ages. We beat everybody! . . . that is, everybody but Harvard. Maybe they have better lemons.

And our Varsity? Second to Cornell. How 'bout that? Bravo, Joe Lehman and Henry Ingersoll!

Meanwhile, the Penn Freshman Lightweights have beaten everybody, and with that and with the Varsity and Jayvee both coming in second, Penn wins the Eastern Sprints Lightweight team trophy! The Jope Cup! Bravo, Fred Leonard!

Celebrating our Jope Cup win, members of the Jayvee shirtless, the Freshman shirtful, and the Varsity still on the water
Celebrating our Jope Cup win, members of the Jayvee shirtless, the Freshman shirtful, and the Varsity still on the water

Years later, Bob Harrison will finally make it to graduate school at his beloved Harvard University. Bravo, Bob!

Your author and Chris in 2000
Your author and Chris in 2000

And as the 1967 Eastern Sprints Lightweight Varsity Eights Champion, my friend Chris Williams and his Cornell teammates are headed for Henley Royal Regatta after a year's delay. Bravo, Cornell!

Chris: "We had won every collegiate race by open water, including the Sprints. Henley was a tremendous experience. The racing is two boats, head to head, single elimination. In our march to the Thames Challenge Cup final, we won every race by open water. We had rhythm!"

To be continued . . .

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