Web Exclusives: Poets Place

To submit a poem, email us at paw@princeton.edu

By Robert David Bolgard ’57
Posted Nov. 21, 2007

The 50th Reunion Row

There is a mystical bond that unites eight oarsmen
As they propel their sleek shell
Through waters calm or troubled
On days clear or clouded.
Teamwork required – greater than that by any other sport –
Total subordination to the needs of the group.
But wait – let’s gather for the rest of the story.
It was the fall of ’53
When one hundred twenty ’57ers gathered
At the storied old boathouse by Carnegie Lake.
The old Scot who made the gift as partial atonement
For greed-inspired industrial hegemony
Would have been pleased to see his lake so well used.
Motivations of the raw-recruit rowers were diverse:
There were skilled prep-schoolers,
Who were veterans of many a race on waters around the East,
Now joined with young men who had found no athletic outlet
In schools near and far, but hoping for success in a new endeavor.
And transferees from other sports: footballers tired of hitting,
Basketballers tired of feeding balls to glory-seeking shooters,
And a Midwestern track runner who had reached a high plateau
But would never attain the summit.

They all had Hope. There would be lightweight and heavyweight boats.
There would be forty rowers required for spring competitions –
A one-third chance for success.
That hope kept them going
Through days on Cleopatra's barge,
With coaches shouting directions, critiques, and obscenities
Was ever a trireme oarsman subject to more abuse?
The rows on blistering hot New Jersey days were succeeded
By rows in crisp autumn air, but also through rain and wind, and finally snow. Graduation to eight-oared gigs was welcome,
For here was progress and accomplishment.
But setting up a boat is not so easy, and hands smashed
Against gunwhales still bear scars after 54 more autumns.

Before starting, and once finished, with daily rowing
There was the long walk from campus to the lake.

That walk was a good warm-up before the row
But – all uphill – some small challenge afterward.
And a rush to get back to Commons for dinnertime.
Energy expended required more fuel – we needed
Six meals a day to satisfy our body’s demands.
Only a few pounds were added.
The fall regatta was exhilarating for the victors.
But now the original group was winnowed to forty.
The rest retired to other pursuits, some athletic and some not.
All had gained from the friendships begun, the challenges met,
And that special camaraderie of oarsmen rowing together.
Winter and ice on the lake stopped the crewmen.
There was no rowing tank,
Or even enough rowing machines
To allow forty frosh oarsmen and forty more varsity
To gather indoors.
As freshmen without a sport
We had to participate in gym classes,
But those provided the means to stay in condition
And perhaps to learn still another new sport.
Come February we began to run with the crewmen.
To Princeton Junction and back, said Coach Schoch.
While some ran, others worked out on the rowing machines,
But all had to run up tree-lined Washington Road
On to Hightstown Road – a country lane at the time
And, like the Dinky, to P.J. and B.
Finally we got back into gigs on the lake
And soon we transferred to the shells.
There began the mystical bond.
Rowing six miles per day and twelve on vacation days,
And goaded by coaches and coxswains,
We perfected our strokes until we became like one oarsman.

Hands and arms in ever-repeating strokes
Catch … pull ... release … feather.
Legs coiling up as we rolled seats up on slides
And pushing off like loosened springs to give power to our strokes.
In the water as one, pulling the oars with all of our strength as one,
Raising the oars as one, bringing them back to ready position as one.
Feeling the sleek shell leap ahead with each repetition,

Watching the yard and meter markers on shore pass by,
Dimly hearing the cheers of the crowds as we raised our beat
To seemingly inhuman speeds until we inched ahead of other shells
To reach the finish and slump exhausted in our seats.
Then gathering strength obtained in those long days of practice,
We rowed back three miles to the boat house.
So it was a natural thing to heed the call of one of our own
To row again at our 50th Reunion.
But there was trepidation. Most had not rowed
A shell since graduation. Could we still handle the oar,
Push off with aging legs to help power our strokes?
Would we “catch a crab,” as oarsmen say who keep oar in water
Too long and have the power of the shell snap their oars up and back
And break a jaw or throw them from the boat?
Would we break the bond and fail the other oarsmen?
It all began to come back as we came down to the boathouse
And gathered again. Some came by car, but some walked
Down that long path through the woods, surprising a deer
Who did not run, but looked and silently asked us what
We were doing in his woods a week after other oarsmen
Had left for the summer. The walk brought back memories
Of that fall of ’53. We were young again.
Then came the renewal of old friendships. There was Williams
And Traband, Thomas, Swain and Read, Newcomer,
McMillan, Liebert, Fletcher and Bolgard who came to row,
And Martin, Flagg, and Elliott to lend support – and many wives, too.
Coach Rose came from far-away Wisconsin
To see some of his Henley champions once again.
Eight lifted the shell off the rack and were a little thankful
That it was light plastic and not cedar. Eight grabbed oars
And were again glad that they were light aluminum rather than heavy hardwood.
Arthritis made for some ungraceful moments as the eight
Got into the shell. And all needed a little refresher course in
How to secure the oars in the new-fangled locks.
Once on the water Coach Rose acted as coxswain and
Let pairs row the shell to limber up
And regain the feel of the water –
Still brown because Carnegie’s lake
Is shallow and has a muddy bottom.

Then Revelation: It all came back.
We could ROW.
Catch … pull … release … feather.
Catch ... pull … release … feather.
Catch .. pull .. release .. feather.
Catch . pull . release . feather.
We could row ever-faster.
Further Revelation: We could row as one.
The shell leaped under us.
A little rough in the water -- oars splashing too much,
Pulling with less strength in arms and pushing off
With less strength in legs, but still the boat leaped ahead.
There were cheers from the shore, and photos, too.
Some rowed twice, so all got a chance.
We were freshmen again. The bond was renewed. P

June 2007



To submit a poem, email us at paw@princeton.edu