Brown’s staff was not like Yale, Harvard, or the University of Washington. We were not a formal sport but an unofficial organization with the privilege of paddling the Seekonk River at the top of Narragansett Bay outside of Narragansett Boat Club, which is the oldest rowing club in the United States unless it is a Detroit Boat Club.
Perhaps the two clubs could hold a race to decide once and for all which is the oldest.
The NBC, a two-tiered cigar box with an open terrace is perfect for watching the crew races in a coat of fresh blue paint today and is filled with thriving young professionals who are rested enough from daily endorphins to talk to anyone.
The small building is littered with shells, oars, and boats falling into the yard and onto stretchers in a new floating dock.
This was not the case in the late 1950s when the building was a dull, off-white hue. Aside from just a stand-alone paddle or two, the Little Brown Rowing Association benefited from interior racks and taller paddle holders.
It was a hot, clear day still more August than September as thirty of us, candidates for Brown’s 1957-198 freshman crew, stood crammed around the open barn door of the boating club staring down a steep cliff at a hunk of black driftwood that closely resembled the hull A hundred-year-old shipwreck jutting out from the sand is more than some kind of pier.
Nothing to do with this mass of pickled oak resting on uneven clay as black as it was straight, all bulbous.
“Spring tide, low water split due to harmony and the moon, earth and sun in a straight line,” mumbled a short boy named Albert (Buckminster’s cousin Fuller?) in a couple of days he hadn’t been escorted to a crew or they hadn’t taken the crew mechanism.
No coach or other person of authority was available to talk to us, but of the three who had previously rowed, one suggested going down the slope and regrouping on the sidewalk.
Bill Engman, six feet five inches, was one hundred and eighty-five pounds, his stooped back making him look like an Ichabod Crane.
Well, get off the slope…maybe…without slipping and falling?
It wasn’t as if we were novice New Hampshire skiers at the top of the front wall in Mount Washington, realizing that what was ahead was too steep for anything but double-posted tanks. Downhill yes but not impossible. And someone has installed slides across the ramp, providing a human foot that slides sideways a bit of a buy. And we didn’t need Albert to tell us that in six hours the ramp would be a Level One highway connecting NBC to the dark, raw wood of this unique pavement.
Assuming it still has the ability to float on the surface of the water instead of five feet below it. It was a reusable artillery target built on two different levels. The Navy would tow her into Narragansett Bay or the Atlantic Ocean and shoot her. Looking down that first day one could see on the other side of the step that locked the thing together a nine-foot furrow caused by a penetrating shell.
The husk, which skims very quickly, can’t be more than three inches above the water for a long time before it plows through the wood.
Jokes about other types of shells hitting the pavement will come later.
We went one by one. “I would suggest you take your shoes off,” Engman said as the entire group was reassembled.
This was completely logical. Nobody wears their shoes in a paddle shell because everyone’s shoes are already attached to the bottom. And we were arguing – it seemed obvious. There were enough old shells in the racks for three loaded boats and enough small people in the crowd to supply three Cox’s.
Engman didn’t really want to know all this but there was no one else to do so.
How there were so many people standing there was something strange. My only thought is that the eight-paddle “squash” Brown, who had the red-faced red-faced coach of Bobbo Reed, and the lightweight whose coach was student volunteer Hugh Carmichael, did an excellent job of getting to know the tall people at the Faunce House at the Brown Center and cajoling them into walking For a mile and a half to Sikonk.
Everything changed on the second day when the league was baffled by news of a thirty-something who was able to send varsity hockey coach Jim Fullerton to the river, a great coach who knew little about the crew but was unusually interested in it. Willing to help new students in the second year.
However, this was the first day and perhaps Bill Engman was in shock and thus didn’t say much.
The resulting confusion caused the six of us to make small fidgeting motions with our feet (and I was one of them). Suddenly, long black slivers of our socks came out like feathers as little voices shouted “Ah!”
The lingering splinters were easy to pull off, but her pain could last for decades.
Meanwhile, the three experienced rowers climbed up with the people they had arbitrarily chosen to accompany, and then came back down with combing the twelve feet they were lying down.
The three experienced were Peter Amram, who had just rowed a 7 at Merrion High School in Pennsylvania where he captured the National Schoolboy championship and Bruce Babcock, who rowed in middle school somewhere and thus wore leather socks that prevented him from splitting victim .