Our group of five had practiced together for months. As we approached May, when our race would be held, we were starting to feel more than ready; we were actually starting to feel cocky. We were quite an efficient rowing machine now.
Most of the house competitions had already been held. We, The Culver House, had done much better than we’d thought we’d do, as there was a historic reason that we were known as the academic house on campus and not the jock house. Between them, The Mason and The Kennilworth had the most athletes. We had the brains. Calling us a bunch of eggheads wasn’t stretching reality very thin.
As such, not much had been expected of us athletically by either the boys in the other houses or ourselves. But as our house had slogged its way toward the final matches, we found ourselves solidly placed in the middle of the pack, actually closer to the front runners than the laggards. Circumstances and luck had certainly worked in our favor throughout, much to everyone’s dismay and the delight of Mr. and Mrs. Fannon, our house’s master and mistress. They’d never seen such success in their house’s try for the school trophy as the house had had already; they actually were enthusing about our chances to win it.
The academic competition, which we thought we had a good chance of nailing, and our rowing competition were the only skirmishes remaining to be fought. If somehow we could win both, we’d in all likelihood move up into second place. Culver House had never finished that high in the entire history of the school, and there was lots of chatter, lots of enthusiasm in all the bedrooms and common areas of our house. Even though we were mostly academic boys, we still had the spirit of competition within us.
With winter just starting to lose its gelid grip on us, we were finally able to put our shell back in the water after three months of inaction. I’d organized and browbeaten and coerced and cajoled the group into jogging, calisthenics and light weightlifting three to four times a week since we’d returned from Christmas break to begin our second term. It had been easy to persuade Tyler and Derek, much harder with Mike and Sutton. Mike enjoyed the actual rowing and being with his teammates, but being serious about training just wasn’t his style. He was a happy-go-lucky, hail-fellow-well-met sort of kid whom everyone instinctively liked. Working hard at anything when he could be out and about glad-handing and making new friends just wasn’t in his nature.
Sutton was Sutton, a horse of a different color. I’d come to terms with Sutton long before. He’d been part of my first sexual experience that involved another person. At the time I’d had a serious crush on him, something I hadn’t quite known how to handle. The emotions it evoked in me were overwhelming.
But perhaps because of their heat, they burned themselves out. Part of that was because I got to know the boy, not just his looks but his nature and character. The best way to describe him was to compare him to a bee.
Bees gather pollen, visiting many buds in the process. How like Sutton that indefatigable, single-minded bee was. I think he had set his sights on pollinating every boy in Culver House. He would fail at that adventure, as many of the boys, certainly many of the upperclassmen, simply weren’t interested. That didn’t stop Sutton from flirting with them. He flirted with everyone, no matter the response. The boys not taken with his looks became accustomed to the flirting and would roll their eyes, but he wasn’t condemned for it. It was really true that the men of Culver House were a nonjudgmental, tolerant group. I was proud of my house and had learned early on that Dr. Rettington had made the right choice of houses for me. It was the right choice for Sutton as well; he may not have survived in any of the others. To us, he was simply Sutton being Sutton. And very pretty to look at.
He was able to seduce many or most of the younger kids in the house, but as with me, it was almost always a one-time experience. He liked the challenge, he liked the seduction, but once accomplished, I guess his ego was satisfied, and the next conquest was what then occupied him. Some boys were quite hurt by this; I had been, too, for a short period of time. But then, we were all young, we were all busy, and we got over it.
Me? I got over Sutton very quickly and without much pain at all. That was because even while under his spell, I could see that how Sutton was wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be one part of two people who were close to each other. I wanted someone who had the same feelings for me that I had for him, a mutual relationship where our initial infatuation could grow into love if that was to be. Sutton would never be that person. It would always be the conquest that he wanted. I wanted something that would last.
What surprised me was that Sutton had remained with our crew group. When I saw what he was, a boy with sex perpetually on his mind and little character to go with it, I thought the grind of preparing for rowing, the technical aspects, the work involved— all would be too much for him. For some reason I never did quite understand, he stayed with it. He did grumble a bit, he did balk and not put in the effort the rest of us did, but he showed up, he listened, he trained with us, and he was one of the Culver Crew, as we called ourselves.
I think it was good for him. I think the experience, the being part of a group, helped him mature.
I’d turned fourteen recently. Derek would the following week. As the time neared for our turn to represent the house, Mike, already fourteen, became more animated and enthused about rowing as well. Tyler always had been so and typically had been very vocal about it. Derek, being Derek, had soldiered along, doing more than his share and being the glue holding the group tightly together, but mostly keeping silent about it.
Me? I’d been trying to be a leader, just as Mr. O had wanted me to be. I’d discovered leading was not a matter of having been made the boss and then sitting back and watching the others, making stinging remarks when they fell short of my expectations, honing my sarcastic wit to a fine edge, and altogether motivating them into a finely trained fighting troop with my cutting-edge leadership techniques. No, when I’d tried even the slightest hint of that, I’d gotten eye-rolling, evil glares, turned backs, and disgusted silence. I figured perhaps that wasn’t the best way to lead.
So I’d pitched in and done all the training they did, even though it wasn’t necessary to propel the boat. It was necessary for my own spirit and for their respect. The other lesson I’d learned was: I was at my very best when I was just me. Putting on an act, any kind of act, lacked sincerity, and they were all over that immediately. But when I was myself, when I allowed my own personality to come to the fore, then I was OK. Then they listened and responded.
I also found that the me they were dealing with was a somewhat different me from the boy who’d shown up at Dr. Rettington’s door almost ten months earlier. That boy had been scared of his own shadow. I no longer was. That me had suffered from debilitating self-doubts. Many of those doubts were gone now. I knew where I stood with my peers academically and physically and wasn’t at the bottom of the barrel by any means. I was still incompetent physically but knew what I could do and what I couldn’t, and I wasn’t that much different in my capabilities than the other kids my age at the school. All of them had strengths and weaknesses. Me, too.
I wasn’t as weak physically now as then, either. We’d been doing weight training, mostly reps of light weights rather than going for heavy ones because what rowers needed was stamina as well as strength. We’d gain both by increasing reps better than we would by adding weight. We jogged and did aerobic exercises. And then, I ended up doing even more than I thought I could.
I’d been running with them, lifting and stretching and all the rest, along with making the same grunts and groans that they did, and then, one dismal afternoon on the lake when a frigid wind was sneaking inside our outerwear and the crew’s fingers on the oars were turning blue with cold, when I was still beseeching them to keep up the pace, suddenly Mike stopped rowing altogether. He clapped his hands under his armpits, looked at me with disgust on his face, and said, “It’s too cold to be doing this. My fingers are about to fall off. You’re sitting back there without a care in the world, and your hands are between your thighs, keeping warm. Why don’t you come back here? We’ll swap places. You can get a taste of how the other half—the better half—lives.”
He was challenging me! Well, I’d always wondered what it would feel like to row. So I said, “Sure thing. Although I’m not sure you’re up to the demands of coxing.”
I grinned at him. He was too cold to grin back. Fortunately, we were near the dock, and they rowed back there so he and I could change places in the shell.
That was the first time I ever rowed. I found it enlightening, and as I wanted to do it more than just the once, I talked each member into taking a turn in his place and letting him cox the boat. Sutton, of course, soon was telling everyone in the house that he was the best coxman among us.
I was glad I had a chance to row. I wasn’t very good at it, but I saw how difficult it was and saw how good they’d become at it. I respected them more, knowing what I learned from that experience.
We weren’t the only crew out on the lake when we were out there. It seemed every house was going to have a crew competing. The only rowing competition would be freshman 4+ shells; older students had all been involved in other events. The reason behind this, we were told, was to have the freshmen in each house form closer bonds.
We got to see how the other crews looked while we were out on the lake practicing. It was pretty clear we were looking good compared to most of them—thus, our growing cockiness. The Mason House crew looked very good, however. So did the one from Kennilworth House. Both had bigger and stronger boys rowing than we did. Tyler was our only comparable mate. If we were going to beat them, it would be through technique and fitness.
I had the idea early on of where we might get some pointers. I’d screwed up my courage, what there was of it to screw, and approached the cox of the varsity 4+ crew. I’d lost some of my fear of older boys in the past few months. It still took some fortitude, though, for me to talk to him.
He and the rest of the guys in their boat were seniors, and as such much bigger and tougher than I was. But they were a good crew, and I had a responsibility to mine. It seemed part of my function as a coxswain. So I approached him and told him about us, and asked if he’d be willing to watch us, give us any practice and racing tips he thought might benefit us, and help us out in any other way he could think of.
I was surprised how agreeable he’d been. Not only him, but two others from his boat had come and worked with us. They’d been invaluable, teaching us things we’d otherwise have had to learn ourselves or else never know.
The guy I’d spoken with sat alone with me several times talking about racing techniques, what the stages of the race would be, how to evaluate the other boats during the race, how to know when and for how long to sprint, how to pace my guys, what to work extra hard on in practice, just a whole lot of information that he’d gained from five years of coxing experience. It was invaluable. Mr. O could tell me techniques, but racing strategies, what actually went on in the shell while we were competing—that wasn’t his forte. My new friend knew this part of rowing like a fox knows a way into a henhouse.
He’d be out on the lake with his crew while we were practicing, and our two groups would often row together, and he’d show me how to pace a race. They were stronger and more skilled than we were and could always beat us easily, but at least I knew how to control a race now, and with their help, we as a crew kept getting better.
Would it be enough against the stronger rowers we’d be facing? We were about to find out.
The day was brisk when we set off to race. There was a breeze making the lake choppy. The coolness was fine, but the choppiness made rowing a much more taxing chore. It would benefit the stronger crews.
We were all wearing racing clothes: shorts, tees, sneakers. I’d bought us tees for the race. They were dark blue, with Culver House Racing Crew emblazoned on the front in bright white letters. Our shorts were white, our socks dark blue. We might not prove to be the best crew, but we looked good.
There was quite a crowd lining the shore. Every house had a shell in the race, and every crew had a strong backing. The race would be important. Our house had won the academic challenge easily, and with enough of a margin that the points we’d gained had given us a chance to actually win the trophy if we could beat Mason House, now in first place but not by enough to remain there if we were to beat them in this race.
That didn’t put any pressure on us. Ha! Of course, it did! I think we were all feeling it. Everyone in our house had been talking to us, encouraging us. Mr. and Mrs. Fannon had had us all into their quarters for tea, meant to calm us, but they were excited themselves, and we could hardly miss that. I doubt any of us had slept all that well the night before. We were all fourteen-year–olds with the cockeyed emotions kids have at that age.
But we were as prepared as we could be. We got in our shell and rowed slowly toward the start line. We’d start from a standing position, all the boats lined up with their prows in a line. We were the third boat out from the shoreline. Each shell had its own lane marked with floats.
Our nerves were playing games with us as we waited for the starting gun. I told the guys, “Breathe. Take a couple of deep breaths, then breathe normally. We’re ready for this. We’re ready.”
It was another thirty seconds. Boats had to move forward and back slightly to get lined up perfectly, and then there was a lull to be sure everyone was completely still.
“Marks!” was shouted over the loudspeaker, and we moved our oars into position, out of the water but ready for the catch.
The gun went off! All the boats shot forward, ours among them. We’d talked and come to agreement on how we wanted the race to progress. We’d decided we’d start with a sprint for the first hundred yards, then back off to our regular racing stroke, the one we’d practiced for hours. At that point, I’d survey the field and decide what we needed to do. We wanted to be in touch with all the front runners. We didn’t want to have a great distance to make up at the end, but we didn’t want to use up our energy at the beginning, either. We knew if anyone was strong enough to sprint the entire race, we couldn’t stay with them. We had to hope that wouldn't be the case.
At the 100-yard mark, I slowed our pace to where we wanted it to be. Other boats had sprinted, too. Some still were. That worried me. I figured The Mason House would be our most formidable opponent. But if any boat but ours won, we’d be knocked out of the trophy. We had to get the points that came with winning to come out ahead in the trophy competition. All Mason House had to do was finish ahead of us.
Looking around, I saw Mason House, the next boat to us on my right, still sprinting. Their plan obviously was to stay ahead of us at any cost. I guessed they figured us to be their main competition just as we figured them to be ours. If so, by staying always ahead of us, they’d win. Not a bad plan, if they could pull it off.
I watched them rapidly pulling ahead with their sprint versus our more regular stroke. I was in a bind. I didn’t want us expending all our energy this early, yet I didn’t want them to get too far ahead. I didn’t see that I had a choice.
“Pick it up a little, guys,” I shouted. Derek looked up at me briefly and increased his stroke pace. The others stayed with him, just as we’d trained. I called out the new rhythm, just to encourage and keep us together.
Even with this new pace, we were still falling behind, just not as quickly. I had to rationalize. At some point, they’d slow down, and then we’d pick up on them. That had to be our strategy. If they could continue the sprint, they’d win no matter what we did. But not chasing them took a whole lot of grit from me. I had to believe we were doing the right thing.
I saw their cox looking back at us, and then saw him communicate to his boat. They dropped back to their normal stroke rate. They were about six lengths ahead. I could see their strategy. If we sped up, they would, too. They’d try to maintain the lead they’d already gained.
Our only hope was that our rowing technique was better than theirs, more efficient, more synchronized, and so as the race progressed, with both boats rowing at the same speed, they’d use more energy and become more tired than we would, and we’d have more left at the end than they would.
Of course, we still had six boat-lengths to make up, somehow. I let my mates know what I was thinking. We were OK for now, but at some point we had to begin cutting into their lead. Would we be able to do that?
We continued to row. Watching them out in front of us, I could see a difference in their rowing and ours. Ours simply looked smoother. We were more together than they were. Our boat glided through the water straighter as a result of this. There seemed no question that they were working harder to maintain their lead than we were simply keeping up with them.
“Let’s pick it up a little,” I suggested. “That’ll make them work even harder to stay in front of us. It has to tire them more. We need them exhausted at the end.”
Derek did as asked, and I increased my pace-calling to match his stroke. The others kept with him as they’d trained. I watched, and apparently unnoticed by the Mason House boat, we closed from six lengths behind to five.
The halfway point was coming up. I looked around and saw the Kennilworth boat was with us, too. They were only a half boat behind us on the far left. I noticed the crowd starting to shout. Maybe they saw Kennilworth moving up and their excitement was from that. All the other boats were quite a distance behind.
It was going to be a three-boat race, just as I’d anticipated.
The Mason House cox finally noticed we’d moved up and were continuing to very slowly creep up on them. He raised their rate, not to a sprint but to be fast enough to keep us at the four-and-a-half-boat spacing we now had. I countered, speeding us up to their rowing pace. Our rowing efficiency would allow us to continue catching them, even if it was very slowly.
The three-quarter mark was approaching. Mason House was now four boats in front. I figured they’d begin sprinting when they reached that mark. I decided we should be closer to them when they did that. I asked Derek if they had enough in them to sprint the rest of the way. He grimaced and nodded.
“Sprint,” I called out, and we took off, Derek setting the stroke and the rest following. This was asking a lot, maybe too much. We’d only practiced sprinting from the three-quarter mark, and the guys were always spent before we reached the end. Sure, they’d have more adrenaline this time, but would that be enough? The Mason House cox was busy encouraging his boat to maintain what they were doing and didn’t notice till we were up nearly abreast of them, only a half boat behind. Then he saw us, and his boat immediately began their sprint.
Their sprint was as fast as ours. The only factor that would help was they had to work much harder to maintain theirs than we did ours, and there was still a long way to go. As we moved past the three quarter mark, we were hanging right with them, even though their crew was bigger and stronger than ours.
I was calling the stroke, my voice excited and high. All my guys were sweating. Sutton looked frazzled, and I called to him to stay with it, telling him he was doing fine and we needed him. He didn’t acknowledge me, but kept the pace.
We stayed our half boat behind as we were nearing the finish. Only a hundred yards to go now. Their crew looked like they were flagging, but they somehow maintained their stroke, ragged as it was getting.
I didn’t want to lose by a half boat! I didn’t want to lose the school trophy at all, and certainly not by so little. We were down to fifty yards now. I called out to my guys, beseeching them. “Faster,” I yelled. “We need just a little more. We can do this! Derek!”
Derek sped up. I’m not sure where he got the strength to do it. I think it was all heart. He was forcing his body, his legs straining as they moved his seat back and forth, his arms shaking, but he kept going, rowing just a bit faster now. The others were as beat as he was, but they were not going to let Derek, the smallest of all of us, go it alone. They stayed with him. And we were catching up.
With twenty yards to go, we were neck and neck. Mason House looked exhausted to me, and their oars weren’t all catching the water at the same time. Their release was just as sloppy. We’d caught up because of that, because of better technique. Their rowing wasn’t as synchronized as ours, and it was costing them.
“Keep going,” I yelled. “We’re almost home. Stay together. Stay together. We’ve got ‘em. Keep it up! Keep it up! A little more if you can. Just a little. But stay together.”
I sped up my call just a smidgeon. Derek complied. So did the others. We were bow to bow. I couldn’t see any difference at all. Bow to bow, we came to the line. And as we were crossing it, we glided ahead. Only by a foot or so, but ahead.
There was a huge cry from the crowd. I hadn’t even heard them since the halfway point. Now I could. They were all shouting and clapping and jumping up and down.
My four heroes were all slumping down, totally wiped. I glanced over at the Mason boat and saw the same thing. Exhaustion. Their cox looked at me, then shrugged his shoulders, and grinned. I smiled at him, too, and mouthed, “Great race!”
There’s a tradition in crew. The winning cox gets thrown into the lake. I figured that was one tradition I didn’t have to worry about. My crew was too exhausted to even think about anything like that. They’d never even have the strength left to pick me up.
Lucky for me, they’d brought a towel with them, and that I was a decent swimmer by then.
There was a trophy banquet in the school’s rarely used main dining room. Mr. Fannon proudly accepted the school trophy. Other trophies were given for individual achievements. Several came to boys in our house.
But each and every one of our boys, the Culver House boys, received a smaller replica of the school trophy. I still have mine.