Cole Parker’s

First Year

Chapter 6
Crew - 1

It was at the end of my first month at Banyard that began what would be a great adventure.  I’d settled into Culver House well.  Dr. Rettington had been right: the boys in my house were smart, friendly and didn’t seem a bit judgmental.  I’d fit in fine, although it took a while to come out of my protective shell.  I watched and listened and found there were many boys in that house who had not fit in well in other circumstance in their lives.  We were a mixed bunch but perhaps more sensitive to others and more empathetic.  I was best friends with Mike, my roommate, and great friends as well with our neighbors, Tyler and Derek.  We hung out together most nights after prep and before lights out.

I reveled in the experience, being together with other boys who liked me.  I hadn’t had that before and had more or less resigned myself to being a loner all my life.  I’d come to terms with that.  Now, however, I saw how the other half lived, and I was astounded to find how much fuller my life had become now that I was not having to live solely in my head with my own thoughts and misgivings.  I had friends!

Tyler came into our room, joining Derek who had already appeared.  Mike was on his bed, leaning up against the wall, and Derek was sitting next to him in the same posture.  Tyler looked excited.

“They’ve just spelled out the rules and events for the house competitions this year.  Posted them on the bulletin board.”

Derek and Mike looked at him expectantly, waiting for more information.  I felt my stomach tense.  I didn’t like competitions and didn’t want anything to do with the other houses, especially Kennilworth.

Tyler came and sprawled on my bed as was his wont.  I always sat up near the pillow, leaving the lion’s share of the bed for Tyler.  He tended to take all the room available for him.  I didn’t mind.  I rather liked having a friend other boys gave way to because of his size.

Tyler went on explaining.  “It says that, as usual, all houses will select ten boys to be on the academic-challenge teams, two from each academic year.  But all boys in every house will also be involved in an athletic competition, even the ones involved in the academic event.  The house with the greatest number of points gets a trophy, but something even better: bragging rights for a year.”

The tension in my gut got worse.  I moved, squirming, hoping that would relieve it.  It didn’t.

“Does someone choose for us what we’ll be doing?” Derek asked.   “I’m not very good at most of those games.”

“There’s a sheet to sign up for what you want to do.  So we choose for ourselves.  There are all sorts of activities.  But that’s what got me excited.  I saw something on the list that the four of us could do together.  Well, we’d need another guy, but we could coerce someone.”

I think I was going pale.  At least it felt that way.  Pale and sweaty.  Mike glanced at me and frowned.  “What is it?” he asked Tyler while still looking at me.  I wondered: if I got sick, could I reach the wastebasket in time?  I really, really hated competing against other boys, and being part of a team with friends…if they wanted to win and saw how bad I was…would they be disgusted with me…would I lose these friendships…this closeness?  I looked toward the waste basket again and sort of wriggled on the bed to make getting up in a hurry easier.

“That’s what’s so great,” Tyler enthused.  “One of the events is crew.  Four-man shells with cox.  See, I thought…uh…well, Luke…”  I really tensed up then, but I think Tyler saw that because he rushed to finish: “Luke could be the cox.”

He was embarrassed, but I was thankful.  I smiled and didn’t even have to force it.  “Yes!”  I said.  “And thanks.  If it’s what I think it is.  The cox is the guy who just sits in the boat and yells at everyone to row harder, isn’t he?”

Tyler laughed, and Derek rolled his eyes.  Derek said, “There’s a bit more to it than that.  I’m sure Mr. O’Higgins will be able to fill you in.  Us, too, because none of us have done competitive rowing, either, I’d guess.”  He glanced around and got a full set of nods.  “But I’d also guess the same will be true with whoever the other houses put up as our competition, too.”

“Maybe no one else will choose this event, and we can win just by rowing to the finish line unopposed,” suggested Mike.

Tyler shook his head.  “No chance of that.  All the competitions count toward the school trophy, and no house will allow us to walk away with easy points like that.  But no one who’s on a school team can participate in that activity for this competition.  Everyone will be amateurs at whatever event they’re in.”

I spoke up, feeling so relieved at where this had gone.  I spoke to the room at large.  “I’ve never done anything like this, but I’ve seen it on TV.  If you want me to participate by sitting in a boat and just shouting at people rowing, I’ll be OK with that.  That’s about the only thing I could do and not wreck it for the rest of you.”

“We’ll all have to work at this, and I’m sure there’s more to it than it looks like, but we’re a good team.  I think with the practice time we’ll have, we’ll put on a good show.  And Luke, you’ll be as much a part of this as any of us will,” Tyler said, smiling at me.  I could see he was relieved I hadn’t been offended at his unvoiced inference that I’d be a disaster at anything approaching the athletic.  I jumped off the bed, not to barf but to high-five him.  As I didn’t high-five anyone as a general rule, he gave me a curious look.  I said, “Thanks, Tyler, for thinking how you could include me while recognizing my limitations.”

“We’re a group,” he said.  “We stick together.  Now, who do we want for the fourth rower?”

Mike sat up straight, and I saw a flash of mischief race across his face.  “I know someone who also sucks at sports.  But he’s fit enough.  I’ll go ask Sutton if he wants in.”

▪▪▪▪

It was bad enough Mike wanted Sutton on the team.  What was worse was that he wanted me to go with him when he asked Sutton to join us.

I still had these horrible feelings when I saw Sutton.  You’d think familiarity would have bred contempt, or at least softened the effect he had on me.  It hadn’t, but then, my familiarity with him ran shallow rather than deep.  I saw him briefly every day at meals.  It was briefly because he didn’t sit at the table I now sat at.  The four of us were at one table with a couple of other guys, friends of Tyler’s, and Sutton was still at the table the Fannons sat at.  The first few days of my craning my neck to keep track of him had been enough.  I decided to change to a seat at our table where my back was to him.  Then I only saw him in passing.  Every time, there was a jolt.

I was of course in several classes with him.  We were both in 8th grade, and as much as possible kids had classes with other members of their houses.  But being in a class with someone didn’t mean you got to know them at all well.

He was in my dreams at night, however.  I had no control over that.  And, if I’m being truthful here, the dreams weren’t all that bad.  OK, they were wonderful, and they made me muse on whether his lips in the flesh would feel like they did when they made my sleep a festival of arousal.

There was the one time, too, that strengthened my fantasies of him.

Each of our two-man rooms had a small bathroom with a shower, and that’s where most of us did our bathing.  However, each floor also had a communal shower, probably because the en suite showers were so tiny.  Big boys like Tyler hardly fit.  The communal ones were much more comfortable for them.  They had eight shower heads and room to move around.

Sutton lived on the same floor we did, the top floor.  We lived on one end; he lived close to the other and so there was little contact.  There were stairs on both ends, perhaps mandated by fire regulations.  He used one flight; I used the other.

There was one day, however, when Mike was showering and for some reason had locked the bathroom door.  That wasn’t what we did, and I guess maybe he just had something on his mind and locked it without thinking, or he had set his sights on doing something private in the shower and had planned ahead.  But, either way, lock it he had, and I needed to go badly.  I could have gone next door and used Tyler’s and Derek’s bathroom, but that seemed rude to me.  I walked down the hall to the middle, doing the little boy’s potty walk due to the urgency of my need and rushed in to stand by one of the urinals there.

I was happily draining myself when I heard the shower go off, and then, through the mirror that was hung over the urinals, I saw a naked boy carrying a towel step out into the main room and begin drying.  Sutton!

If he was gorgeous clothed, he was just as sensational or more so nude.  Thin, lithe, lightly muscled as fit boys of thirteen can be, his red hair darkened by the shower, his back toward me showing a cute butt, he toweled himself off, then, slowly, he began drying his hair, his entire head swathed in the towel.  As he rubbed his hair, he began a slow, probably unconscious pirouette.  I was entranced.  I stood, staring into the mirror, long done with the draining but focused on the image in front of me, anticipating what was to come.  The real boy whose image was appearing in the mirror, standing only a few feet behind me, kept inching around, and the closer he came to revealing the front side of himself, the more rapid and shallow my breathing became.

He finally brought his goodies into view after a ten-second tease as he was slowly turning. I must have been holding my breath, because when I finally could see the important parts of him, I let it out in a soft whoosh.

Sutton heard me and lowered the towel from his face.  He met my eyes in the mirror.  I couldn’t look away.  I was frozen.  At least my eyes were meeting his and not looking lower.  He met my eyes for what seemed forever but had to be no more than a couple of seconds, then slowly, taking his time doing so, he grinned.  Then, he raised the towel again to tend to his hair again, covering his face, and no longer turning.

When he was done with his hair, he finally lowered his towel.  That part was conjecture.  I was long gone by then.  But I saw him again and again that way in my mind.  Showing off.  No modesty.  Fully exposed, and enjoying my looking.  Not only during the days at odd moments, but every night in my sleep.

▪▪▪▪

We walked down the hall, Mike eagerly and me diffidently, reluctant as a calf at a branding party, but I followed Mike meekly.  Sutton’s door was open as was usual on our floor.  Some boys would do prep work with their doors shut to assure a quiet time with no interruptions, but most everyone opened them when they were done, an open invitation for anyone who wanted to drop by for a chat.  We were social creatures, we thirteen-year-old, first-year students.  Well, other than I.  But I was getting better.

Mike knocked on the doorjamb, and Sutton looked up from the video game he was playing.  My heart bumped a little.  The guy did that to me.  He was alone in the room, his roommate apparently off visiting.  Sutton was sitting on his bed, his legs open and splayed out, his jeans skinny enough and the fit so superb that the memories of what he looked like coming out of the shower were brought back strongly.

“Hey, Sutton,” Mike said, grinning.  “Can we interrupt you for a second?”

Sutton smiled back.  Damn!  I think I’d have had a heart attack or a stroke or something if I’d have had to room with him.

“Sure,” he said and paused the game.

Mike walked in, me right behind him.  Sutton was sitting on his bed, leaving the other bed and two desk chairs open.  Mike flopped down on one of the beds, so I chose one of the desk chairs.

“We were wondering,” Mike said, getting right to it.  I was glad he was taking the lead.  I don’t know what my voice would have sounded like if I’d had to speak.  “You probably know there are signup sheets now available for athletic events for the house competitions.  I don’t know what you’re interested in, but we were thinking…”

“Who’s we?” Sutton asked.  His voice was like mine, still unchanged, sort of soft and breathy and higher pitched than that of older teens.  To me, he sounded so sexy I wondered whether—if I listened to him for any length of time—would just his voice get me stiff?  Then I told myself to stop it.  I couldn’t think about that!

“Luke here and I and our friends Tyler and Derek.”

When Mike mentioned my name, Sutton shifted his eyes toward me.  I met them, then dropped mine.

Mike continued.  “We’re looking for a fifth guy to join us for what we’re signing up for.  Luke here thought of you.  Have you given this any thought…what you’re going to do?”

I raised my eyes, tentatively, and Sutton’s focus on me had sharpened.  I forced myself not to drop my eyes again; I didn’t want to look like a dufus!  Instead, I grinned.  I hoped it was a grin; it was meant to be.  I was so frazzled being this close to him, it could have been a grimace or a freaky horror-show smirk.

Sutton looked back at Mike.  “What are you signing up for?”

The rat!  The goddam rat!  Mike!  He turned to me and said, “You tell him, Luke.  Including Sutton was your idea.”

I was in it now.  I had to come up with some reason why I’d suggested him.  I could tell the truth, that it was actually Mike’s idea, but what if Mike then also told the truth and said he’d thought about bringing Sutton aboard because I had a crush on him and Mike was just trying to help me out?  No, I couldn’t burn him—he might burn me back.

We were great friends, but we were also thirteen, and kids our age did things like that.

Well, I was generally good at spur-of-the-moment explanations, and luckily my head didn’t fail me this time, either.  Sutton was looking at me, and I said, “I’ve noticed.  I mean, I wasn’t staring at you or anything, but you notice things, everyone does, and I notice boys who are like me and don’t get involved in any of the rougher sports.  There are a few here like that.  You’re one of them.  You don’t play football or lacrosse or basketball or rugby or soccer or…”

I was going to go on, having fallen into semiconscious motor-mouth mode, but Mike cleared his throat, and so I stopped and cleared mine before starting again.

I took a deep breath.  “Anyway, I noticed, and that gave me the idea, when we’d come up with something that didn’t involve getting bumped and bruised by some of the behemoths here, and as we were short one man, that maybe you’d be interested in signing up with us.  You’d make the missing fifth man we need.  And you were close by, and Mike wanted to get this done, and…” I tapered off to nothing.  I was running out of air and my heart was beating fast enough to make me light-headed anyway…

Whew!  At least I’d done it, and it had to have sounded almost plausible.  It had been a little hairy at first when I realized I said I’d been watching him, but I felt I’d been pretty slick in covering that up.  He probably hadn’t noticed.

He was still watching me when I finished, and I hoped I wouldn't blush.  I didn’t want to blush.

He blinked, then said, “You were watching me?” And then, then the SOB grinned.

On the defensive, immediately.  That’s what I was.  “Well, as I said, I watch everyone.  Don’t you?”

He nodded.  “I guess so.  Some more than others, of course.  Some I watch a lot.”  He was still staring at me, and with the last bit his eyelids seemed to drop microscopically and his grin got bigger.

I knew what to call that, what he was doing.  He was flirting with me.  I had no idea how to respond to it.

Mike jumped in.  Maybe he wasn’t a goddam rat after all.  “So, are you available?  You want to join us?”

Sutton shifted his gaze back at Mike.  For some odd reason, inexplicable really, Sutton’s gaze didn’t seem to faze Mike at all.  “Perhaps,” Sutton said, laughing, “if you’d tell me what it is I’d be doing…?”

Mike grinned.  “Rowing.  We signed up for crew.  We’re going to row as a four-man team with cox.  Luke’s the cox.”

Somehow, I wished Mike hadn’t said it quite like that.

▪▪▪▪

By then I was taking sailing lessons with Mr. O and we’d already begun a friendship that would deepen with time.  I had no problem at all asking him if he’d help us with crew.  None of us knew much about it.  He told me he’d be glad to help.

We gathered together on a warm afternoon on the shore of the lake.  Mr. O had brought a 4+ shell out of the boathouse and tied it up alongside the dock so we could see what it looked like.  It looked like a deathtrap.  It was long and narrow, so narrow and so low-sided that I thought if anyone leaned slightly to the side, or even sneezed, we’d all be in the water.

I mentioned this.  I wasn’t shy to speak up with Mr. O.  Sutton being there kept me a bit twittery, but I was forcing myself to ignore it.  “Mr. O, it appears to be terribly unstable.”

He smiled.  He never embarrassed me by laughing at me or my fears.  “It has a skeg which functions like a keel.  It’s a blade attached to the bottom of the shell to help keep it from tipping.  You guys will get used to the feel of the shell when you’re practicing.  I doubt you’ll tip over.  You can all swim, can’t you?” He laughed then.  We were all looking at each other, and when Mr. O stopped laughing and looked at us expectantly, we all affirmed that we could indeed swim.

“These boats are called shells; they’re narrow for a reason.  They’re built for racing, and so anything to make them faster has been built in.  If they were wider, they’d have more drag in the water; less width, less drag.”

Derek spoke up.  As time passed, he was becoming a little less quiet than he’d been at first.  I was, too.  “I’ve heard of boats called sculls.  Are sculls and shells the same thing?”

“Excellent question.  You’re, uh, no don’t tell me…you’re Derek!  Right?” Derek smiled and said he was.  “OK, Derek, excellent question.  Sculls are also small rowing boats used for racing.  The difference is, sculls have rowers who use two oars.  As you can see, the oarlocks on this shell are only on one side of each seat.  Sculls are manned by rowers who have two oars.  You guys are going to be sweep rowers, meaning you’ll only one oar.  You’ll grip that one oar with both hands.”

We looked at the boat and saw what he was talking about.  There weren’t oarlocks like on a typical rowboat.  These were outside the boat, attached to the sides of it and consisted of thin metal rods forming triangles that stuck out several inches from the sides of the shell itself.  The oars obviously rested in the cups attached to the rods.

Mr. O waited while we examined the boat, then said, “I told you these boats are built for racing, but some people just use them for exercise.  Rowing is excellent exercise.  You don’t just work a few muscle groups when you’re rowing.  You’ll use most muscle groups in your bodies: the quads, biceps, lats, triceps, abdominal muscles and glutes.  You’re going to be sore when you start out.”

I couldn’t help it.  I was listening attentively, but I also kept glancing at Sutton.  It was like an ant and a sugar cube.  I was the ant.  He was frowning right then.  I guess working his muscles, firming them up, wasn’t something he thought much about.

Mr. O gave us time to digest this, then said, “You’ll notice something else about these shells.  Look at the seats you’ll be in.”

I looked.  The seats were merely small pieces of hard plastic.  They’d been molded to accommodate our butts, but only that.  No back supports, no cushioning.  The plastic seats had undercarriages on which were mounted wheels.  On the inside bottom of the shell, runners were located that provided tracks for the seat wheels to run on.  Each seat had its own separate set of runners.

“As you see, when you’re on your seat, you’ll be able to slide back and forth.  This is so you can get your entire body into the act of rowing.  You’ll use your legs, your torso, your shoulders, and your arms and wrists.  After training, you’ll be stronger throughout your entire bodies than before you began.”

Tyler looked very pleased at this.  Derek just looked pensive.  Mike had his usual smile on his face.  Sutton’s frown had deepened.  Evidently he hadn’t expected crew to be such a physically demanding event.

I continued to look at the seating arrangements of the shell and then saw that one seat wasn’t the same as the others; it didn’t have runners.  That, I could see, was my seat, the seat in the stern.  I quite obviously wouldn’t have to endure anywhere near the taxing ordeal that my comrades would when we were out on the water.

“OK, boys.  Are you ready to give this a try?  I can talk for quite a bit longer, but you’ll be more interested in what I have to say after being in the shell and seeing what it’s like.  And trying a touch of rowing.”

“Sure,” said Tyler.  Derek nodded.  Mike smiled.  I said, “OK,” probably sounding as tentative as I felt.  Sutton remained silent.

“The thing is, for the first few times until I know you’re capable in the shell, I want you guys to wear life jackets.  When you’re more experienced, we’ll stop using them.  You’ll get quite hot rowing, and wearing the vests will be too much.  But at first, we’ll just wear them as a precaution.  Now, the way this should work: our strongest rowers should be in the middle two seats, numbers two and three.  The most experienced, most knowledgeable rower is called the stroke, and he goes in seat four, the farthest-back rowing seat.  Have any of you guys ever rowed before?”

Tyler, Mike and Sutton all shook their heads.  Derek said, “Well, to be honest, I have been in a shell a few times.  My brother rowed.  He took me out a few times to show me how it works.  I never really did much, though.”

“Aha!” Mr. O was happy.  “You’ll be the stroke oar then, as you are our most experienced rower.  I think it best if Mike and Tyler sit in the middle seats.  Traditionally, the strongest rowers are in those positions.”

I saw he’d already discerned that Sutton would be our weakest man.  Choosing Mike as one of our strongest rowers when he was a bit shorter and thinner than Sutton said a lot—about Mr. O!  But Mr. O was careful not to say anything to directly diminish Sutton.  I noticed that, too.

Mr. O hurried on.  “Sutton, you’ll be the bowman.  You take seat number one.  Luke, you’re the cox and sit in the very back seat.  This is a stern-coxed shell.  There are several reasons for having you back there instead of up front, among them is that you can communicate better with the stroke.  The other rowers watch the stroke as well as listen to you so as to all keep in sync.  The stroke listens to you, and you can learn from the stroke how the boat feels, how much energy is being used, how much the crew have left, that sort of thing.”

Sutton was shaking his head.  It was apparent that to him, the novelty of this adventure was quickly wearing off.

The shell was broadside to the dock.  We all put on the lifejackets Mr. O had brought and then gingerly stepped into the shell in our assigned places, Mr. O holding the boat as well as he could against the soft fenders between the shell and the dock.  The shell rocked nevertheless, and Sutton had to wave his arms and be caught by Mike or he’d probably have gone overboard.

Once we were all seated, Mr. O had the rowers slide their seats back and forth.  Then he spoke about what the oar stroke consisted of.  “This will be over your heads, but let me tell you now how the rowing is done, and then when you begin actually doing it, I can refresh you.  OK, it’s like this.  Rowing starts with the catch, which is the term for placing the oar blade in the water.  This is followed by the stroke, which I’ll explain in a minute. Following the stroke comes the release, which is the term for removing the blade from the water.  Both the catch and the release are done with the blade in a vertical position.  You achieve that by rotating the oars with your hands.  So, do you have those terms, the catch, the stroke and the release?  Great.”

I wasn’t sure why he said great, as no one had said they’d got them.  I guessed Mr. O knew this was going to take some time, and this was just an introduction.

“All right, now the fun part.” He grinned.  None of us did.  “I’m going to explain the stroke, which comes after the catch and before the release.  The stroke moves the shell forward by pushing the oar blade against the resistance of the water.  During this phase, first, you press the movable seat toward the bow of the shell by extending your legs toward the stern.  This puts pressure on the blade in the water and moves the boat forward.

“As the legs are reaching full extension, you will twist your upper body toward the bow of the boat and then pull your arms toward your chest.  You’ll end up with your hands touching your chest right near your mid-tummy.

“Then, with the blade still in the water, you lower your hands to around your belly button.  As your hands move lower, the oar rises, and the blade will leave the water.  You want to do this with minimal splashing.  You waste your strength when you lift water with the blade.”

He stopped and looked at us.  I’m sure he saw a bunch of vapid faces.  That was what I could see, looking at them.

“OK.  Next, you’ll rapidly raise the blade and twist the oar so the face of the blade is out of and parallel to the water; this is called feathering.  As you’re feathering the blade, you push the oar away from the chest.  With your hands in front of you, you raise your knees, which pulls your seat back towards the stern.  While this is happening the boat is gliding forward through the water.  This running through the water is called, surprisingly enough, the run.”

He grinned.  We looked shell-shocked.

“Too much?” He shook his head, still grinning.  “Of course it is.  But I wanted you to know, we’re not just going out for an easy summer’s day on the lake.  There’s a lot to be learned, and I’ll teach you.  I’ll show you a video of the stroke and discuss it in more detail then.  For now, and during your early training, I’m going to be in a scull, the two-oared boat I mentioned, rowing alongside you, encouraging and teaching, and I’ll be taking videos of what you’re doing.  After we get back, we’ll review.  You have a lot to learn, and you will.  There’s plenty of time to do that.  The race won’t be till late spring.  You need that time not only to learn the basics, but to practice together so you row like one unit, and to get in shape, too.  I guarantee you, you’ll be in the best shape of your lives when it comes time to compete.”

At that point, he handed each of the guys an oar, but told them to keep it in the boat for a moment.  When they each had one, he untied and gently pushed the shell out into the water.  Then he told them to put the oars into the oarlocks.

I watched all this happening, feeling a bit useless.  They had things to do and were going to learn how to row as a team.  I had nothing to do but sit there.  Talk about being as useless as a bump on a log!

“OK,” he called to us.  “The way to row is for everyone to stroke together.  As you see, seats one and three have their oars on the starboard side, two and four on the port side.  If you all stroke together, the boat will move straight ahead.  If your strokes are staggered at all, or one pair pulls more strongly than the other pair, the boat will wiggle through the water accordingly, and you’ll lose speed, direction and strength.  And if you make Luke use the rudder, that’ll slow you down, too.”

He looked us all over to make sure we were listening.  We were.  Even Sutton.  “Luke, you call out the stroke which actually is set by the stroke oar.  Crew, you watch the stroke and listen to Luke and pull when he tells you to.  This means all your blades go into the water together, and you pull only when he tells you to, which will also be when you see the stroke man pulling.  You do the catch, stroke and finish in exact unison with the stroke.” He stopped to smile at Derek, who blushed.  “Just to be sure you got that, the time when you put your blades in the water to perform the catch is when the stroke oar does.  You watch him and do as he does.  That’s why he’s so important.  The stroke oar is supposed to be the most technically advanced rower in the group.”

He paused a few moments to allow us to assimilate this.  Then he continued.

“Now, Derek.  With your seat as far toward the bow as possible, slowly turn your oar so its blade is vertical to the water and lower the blade to perform the catch.  You others, keep your eyes on the stroke and duplicate what he’s doing, when he’s doing it.”

Derek did as asked.  The others tried, but none of them were entirely in sync with Derek.  When all the blades were in the water, Mr. O nodded to me, and I yelled out, “Pull!” and they all pulled their hands back to their chests.  The boat sliced through the water very encouragingly.

Mr. O was in a much smaller boat, his scull, and was rowing to keep up with us.  He called out, “Derek, perform the release.”

I noticed both Sutton and Mike had already removed their blades from the water.  Derek and Tyler hadn’t.  Derek rotated his blade so it came out of the water with no splashing at all.  Tyler did almost as well.

We stayed out on the lake for the better part of an hour.  Moving through the water was fun.  But there was frustration, too.  Mr. O did more talking than we did rowing.  Getting back to the dock was an adventure in itself as we had to arrive with the oars already stowed and come alongside and nudge against the fenders gently.

Mr. O was already out of his scull, and he tied us up, then held the shell steady as we climbed out.  He told us we’d done a fantastic job for the first time out.  Then he collected the lifejackets and told us to let him know when we wanted our second practice.  He told me he wanted to talk to me alone, and then waved the rest of them off.

“Luke, you did great for having no idea of what your job would be.  The cox is as important as the rowers, and I could see you doubting that today.  But you’re the one who has to be sure the boat is going where it’s supposed to go—steering with the rudder if necessary—but if you’re coxing the way it should be done, communicating with the rowers, keeping them in sync and all pulling together, you won’t need to steer.  With practice, they’ll get a feel for it, all working together.  But, you do have a rudder to use when you’re docking and moving off.”

He clasped my shoulder.  I looked up at him, taking my eyes away from the lake.  “You also have to motivate the crew as they tire, you have to communicate where they are in relation to the other boats and to the finish line, and decide on tactics—like do you follow another boat if it’s sprinting, or do you lay back.  You determine the pace based on your knowledge of the strength of your team and how far from the end you are.

“By the time you guys are ready for the race, you’ll know each of your teammates better than you’ve ever known anyone.  You’ll know how competitive they are, how to motivate them, what makes them tick.  You’ll be their leader, and they’ll all look to you for that.”

“I’ve never been a leader,” I complained.  “No one’s going to listen to me.”

He shook his head.  “That just isn’t so.  The important thing is for you to know and believe and accept your role as their leader.  If you believe it, they will, too.  That’s why I wanted to talk to you separately.  Because, you need to start filling that role right now.

“They’ll take their cue from you.  So how you act in the boat, your body language, the tone of voice you use, all that will be important, but it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t work if you’re only their leader when you’re in the boat with them.  You have to start acting like a leader right now and from this time on whenever you five guys are together.  They have to start thinking of you that way, trusting you to do what’s right by them.  I think you’re capable of this, even if you have doubts.  You’ll grow into this role as you train over the next few months.  But I want you to get it in your head right now that they’ll be watching and evaluating you, and you need to be aware of that.”

“But how?” I had no idea how to lead people.  I’d always been a loner.  I still was, inside me, even though I’d found how great it was to have friends.

“One way to start this process might be to get them together to do calisthenics and maybe to stretch before we practice.  If you start taking a gentle lead like that, they’ll start to follow just naturally.  One thing to remember: if you do what you’re asking them to do, even though they know it isn’t as important for you to become as physically fit as they’re becoming, it’ll go a long way toward showing your dedication to them.  People follow a leader much more willingly when they see he asks the same of himself as he asks of them.”

He clapped me on the back and told me it was getting close to dinnertime so I’d better be off.  I left him with my head full of new information but also full of doubts.  That was me being me.