Book excerpt: Chapter 1, The Porcupine – from Four Years at Four, by John Escher: – Rowing stories, reports and interviews


Brown’s crew didn’t look like Yale, Harvard, or the University of Washington. We were not an official sport but an informal organization with the privilege of rowing the Seekonk River at the top of Narragansett Bay from the Narragansett Boat Club, which is the oldest rowing club in the United States, in unless the Detroit Boat Club is.

Maybe the two clubs can organize a race to decide once and for all which one is older.

The NBC, a two-story cigar box with an open balcony perfect for watching crew races, is now sporting a fresh coat of blue paint and is full of young, thriving professionals relaxed enough from their daily endorphins to speak with n ‘anyone.

The small building is so filled with shells, oars and sculls that they spill out into the yard and onto stretchers onto a new state-of-the-art floating dock.

This was not the case in the late 1950s when the color of the building was dull and off-white. Aside from one or two independent rowers, only the small Brown Rowing Association used the internal racks and large oar racks.

It was an even warmer, clearer day in August than in September as thirty of us, candidates for Brown’s 1957-1978 freshman crew, huddled around the open barn door. from the yacht club, looking down a steep ramp at a piece of black driftwood that looked more like the broken hull of a hundred-year-old wreck emerging from the sand than a sort of dock.

Nothing in that piece of pickled oak resting on uneven mud as black as itself was straight, all bulbous.

“Spring tide, division of low water due to syzygy, moon, earth and sun in a straight line,” muttered a little boy named Albert (a cousin of Buckminster Fuller?) In two days he would be gone without have taken the crew or the crew did not take it.

No trainer or other person in authority was available to speak to us, but among the three of us who had rowed before, one suggested that we go down the ramp and gather on the dock.

It was Bill Engeman, six feet five inches, one hundred and eighty-five pounds, whose curved back made him look like Ichabod Crane.

All right, go down the ramp … maybe … without slipping and falling?

It wasn’t like we were newbie skiers in New Hampshire atop the Mt Washington Head Wall, realizing that what lay ahead was too steep for anything other than double pole vaults. Steep here yes but not impossible. And someone had nailed slats to the ramp, offering a bit of a buy to a human foot sliding sideways. And we didn’t need Albert to tell us that in six hours the ramp would be a nearly level freeway connecting NBC to the rough, dark wood of this singular dock.

Assuming of course that it still has the ability to float on the surface of the water rather than five feet below. It was a reusable artillery target built on two different levels. The Navy towed him into Narragansett Bay or the Atlantic Ocean and shot him. And looking down that very first day, you could see on the opposite side of the step that was blocking the thing together a nine foot long furrow caused by a burrowing shell.

The shell, foaming at high speed, could not have been more than three inches above the water for a long time before sinking into the wood.

The jokes about other types of shells hitting the wharf would come later.

One by one, we went down. With the whole group assembled, Engeman said, “I suggest you take your shoes off.”

It made perfect sense. No one wears their shoes in a rowing shell since everyone’s shoes are already attached to the bottom. And we were going to row – it seemed clear. There were enough old shells in the racks for three boat loads and enough small people in the crowd to supply three coxswains.

Engeman didn’t really want to understand all of this, but there was no one else to do it.

How there were so many people standing there was a wonderful thing. My only thought is that Brown’s eight-oar “college”, which was coached by red-faced Bobbo Read, and Brown’s lightweights who coached student volunteer Hugh Carmichael had done a great job of identifying tall people at Faunce House in the center of Brown and coaxed them to walk a mile and a half to the Seekonk.

Everything would change on the second day when the university, bemused by the news of thirty people attending, was able to send college hockey coach Jim Fullerton, an excellent coach who knew little about the crew to the river. was unusually curious about it and ready to help with freshmen a sophomore.

It was still day one, however, and Bill Engeman may have been in shock and therefore didn’t say much.

The resulting confusion caused six of us to make small, restless movements with our feet (and I was one of them). Suddenly, from our socks came long splinters as black as feathers as little voices cried “ow!” ”

Shards this long were easy to remove, but their pain could linger for decades.

Meanwhile, the three experienced rowers along with the people they arbitrarily chose to accompany them climbed the ramp and then came back down with twelve-foot sweeps that they laid flat.

The experienced three included Peter Amram, who had just rowed 7 for Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania as he won the National Schoolchildren Championship and Bruce Babcock, who had rowed in prep school somewhere and therefore wore boots in leather that prevented him from becoming a dissident victim.


Comments are closed.