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to the River
can go home againbut train first! By Peter W. Schmehl
am standing on the dock at the boathouse. The wood planks slope
gently to the waters edge.
has been 36 years since I last stood here. Here is Penns boathouse.
The date is March 18, 2000. Not much has changed. The dock is crowded
now with 40-some heavyweight alumni and, oh yes, their young girlfriends
and brides. In between standing on my tiptoes to peer around these giants
and taking care not to trip over a baby carriage with Bobby or Jane, Class
of 2020, staring up at me, I muse.
happened? Has there been a growth warp? Is the six-foot-tall oarsman an
anachronism, a relic of a shorter time? Dont tell me all those multivitamins
dont help! These guys are big. Maybe Ill play coxswain today.
wife is in the crowd somewhere. She is working the video camera, sound
and all. Nothing like a video camera to give a nice historical perspective
to such a grand event! Now, if she can only find a break in this Sequoia
forest to get me on tape. There is an easy way to find me, babe: Im
the one with the white hair!
refuse to be intimidated. I am not height-challenged!
a break, I tell myself. Wander through the old boathouse. Pick out a nice
Pocock cedar-hulled shell
Where are they, anyway? Gone. Replaced with
sleek Empachers and a novel boat name: Millennium.
stroll over to the blade rack. Here I shall find the wooden tulip-shaped
oar of my past (read, youth)
No. Instead, I am looking
at asymmetrical hatchet-shaped blades made of
can do this.
some fresh air, I tell myself. I work my way through the assembled athletes
(dare I include myself in that term?) desperately hoping for eye contactgreeting
shoulder blades insteadand make it back to the dock, where Coach Bergman
is telling the coxes to organize the crews.
then, he catches my eye, and asks, Pete, are you sure you want to do
have, I remind myself, kept in shape. I have worked the concept two
for the last three weekssince the fateful day the invitation to Class
Day arrived. I lift weights. I runwell, OK, jog occasionally. Surely,
there will be a short refresher instructional period to reacquaint me
with the new equipment.
CAN DO THIS!
his question, therefore, the firm and confident reply: I came to row.
youll row six, I hear someone say.
we are the oldest crew, coach has given us choice of shells. We walk to
the yellow Empacher on the top rack.
hands are stretched above my head, ready to grasp the shell. They sway
in the breeze while my taller boatmates smoothly slide her off the rack.
The boat is lowered to where I can help, and then I only have to scurry
to remember where it is that I place myself to carry the boat to the water.
And what do I grab inside the hull to safely lower the shell to the water?
grabs shell at wrong place
Seat rips out
Shell sinks at dock, reads
the headline in The Daily Pennsylvanian.
take hold of something and, happily, the boat remains intact and floating.
I snatch an oar and am placing it in the lock when coxie says, Push away.
I finish with the oar and am trying to get arranged with the triple-strap
Velcro for my feet when the next command rings out. Bow six
are you with us? shouts the cox.
NO, but I hope to be, real soonbefore total humiliation sets in.
then, I am rowing again, and it is nothing short of exhilaration. The
stern pair has joined up with the rest of us and we are ROWING. One underclass
coxswain, seven relatively young oarsmen, and me. We are rowing. The memories
flood back: The Adams Cup. The EARCs. The IRAs. Im hummin. I am feeling
good. I have been given the opportunity to do something I loved, once
again. It is a blast!
complete the first 500 meters, and Im ready for the race. Instead, we
row another 500 meters, and I detect a slight problem with my breathing.
I am now trying to find additional air sacs in my lungs, last used 36
years ago, when I gave up serious aerobic exercise.
plans have changed. Now we are going to race up the river. The shells
are lining up for the start. Coach Bergman yells, Ready, Go, and we
are off! Three quarters, one half, three quarters, all right, guys, you
have two seats on em
Come on, come on, come on!
Now! One, two, three
believe that I am hearing my breathingcorrection, my gasping.
If I straighten up more, Ill have more space for oxygen. Where did all
the oxygen go, anyway? Am I still feathering my blade? Is it still going
in and out of the water? Why am I gasping? I need a tube inserted into
my lungs, a direct feed of pure oxygen, and NOW!
can do this
I can do this
I can do this. The Little Engine That Could
mantra seems to help.
enough! I am sucking air now, sort of a wheeze/suck combination. But
in my waning level of consciousness, did I really hear the coxswain say,
You may rest now? The blades are resting on the water, gently slapped
with wavelets, so we are indeed in the rest mode.
am concentrating on my wheeze/suck routine. What I want to hear is that
we will all rest here until sometime tomorrowWe will all stretch out
in this elongated canoe and sleep the night.
reverie is interrupted by the now most rude coxswain drawing our attention
to the fact that we have to turn around: Starboard, back it down. Port,
take it up.
didnt I tell my cardiologist about this venture? He would have said no.
Then I could have gracefully bowed out of this delightful madness.
am sending mental messages to my wife on shore: Make sure you give Penns
heavies a new shell with the money you are about to receive from my estate.
am still in the wheeze/suck phase. What more intense level of survival
breathing is there?
all. Ready, row.
is, I say to myself, largely a mechanical routine: blade in the water
up the slide.
can do this. Ive done 1500 meters. Gut out the next 600 or so to the
boathouse. Wheeze/suck, ad nauseam (almost).
then, from the launch: You guys did so well, there will be another heat.
know its going to be a long day, but it has already been one of the most
glorious in a long time.
Schmehl C64 was a heavyweight oarsman at Penn and is now a judge in Reading,
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2000 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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