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Return to the River
You can go home again—but train first! By Peter W. Schmehl

I am standing on the dock at the boathouse. The wood planks slope gently to the water’s edge.
   It has been 36 years since I last stood here. Here is Penn’s 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.illustration by Regan Dunnick
   What happened? Has there been a growth warp? Is the six-foot-tall oarsman an anachronism, a relic of a shorter time? Don’t tell me all those multivitamins don’t help! These guys are big. Maybe I’ll play coxswain today.
   My 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: I’m the one with the white hair!
   I refuse to be intimidated. I am not height-challenged!
   Take 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.
   I 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 … what? Graphite?
   I can do this.
   Get 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 contact—greeting shoulder blades instead—and make it back to the dock, where Coach Bergman is telling the coxes to organize the crews.
   And then, he catches my eye, and asks, “Pete, are you sure you want to do this?”
   I have, I remind myself, kept in shape. I have worked the “concept two” for the last three weeks—since the fateful day the invitation to “Class Day” arrived. I lift weights. I run—well, OK, jog occasionally. Surely, there will be a short refresher instructional period to reacquaint me with the new equipment.
   To his question, therefore, the firm and confident reply: “I came to row.”
   “Schmehl, you’ll row six,” I hear someone say.
   Since we are the oldest crew, coach has given us choice of shells. We walk to the yellow Empacher on the top rack.
   My 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?
   “Alum grabs shell at wrong place … Seat rips out … Shell sinks at dock,” reads the headline in The Daily Pennsylvanian.
   I 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 … Ready, row,”
   “Six, are you with us?” shouts the cox.
   No, NO, but I hope to be, real soon—before total humiliation sets in.
   And 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. I’m hummin’. I am feeling good. I have been given the opportunity to do something I loved, once again. It is a blast!
   We complete the first 500 meters, and I’m 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.
   The 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 …
   I believe that I am hearing my breathing—correction, my gasping. If I straighten up more, I’ll 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!
   I can do this … I can do this … I can do this. The “Little Engine That Could” mantra seems to help.
   “Weigh 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.
   I am concentrating on my wheeze/suck routine. What I want to hear is that we will all rest here until sometime tomorrow—We will all stretch out in this elongated canoe and sleep the night.
   This 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.”
   Why didn’t I tell my cardiologist about this venture? He would have said no. Then I could have gracefully bowed out of this delightful madness.
   I am sending mental messages to my wife on shore: Make sure you give Penn’s heavies a new shell with the money you are about to receive from my estate.
   I am still in the wheeze/suck phase. What more intense level of survival breathing is there?
   “Ready, all. Ready, row.”
   This is, I say to myself, largely a mechanical routine: blade in the water … power through … blade out … feather … up the slide.
   I can do this. I’ve done 1500 meters. Gut out the next 600 or so to the boathouse. Wheeze/suck, ad nauseam (almost).
   And then, from the launch: “You guys did so well, there will be another heat.”
   I know it’s going to be a long day, but it has already been one of the most glorious in a long time.

Peter W. Schmehl C’64 was a heavyweight oarsman at Penn and is now a judge in Reading, Pa.

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