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  • Bill Chastain

A Bestseller Comes to Life

Boys in the Boat captured me from cover to cover. So the idea of adding perspective to Daniel James Brown’s narrative put a bounce into my step when I visited the setting where much of the book took place.

On a pristine Seattle day, I arrived at the University of Washington and strolled to the south end zone of Husky Stadium. From there I followed a path along Lake Washington until I found the Conibear Shellhouse, which is the primary home for the school’s storied men’s and women’s rowing teams.

Boys 2Retractable doors opened to the lake from the back side of the building. That’s where I ran into a man piddling around one of the five bays. The way he went about his business reminded me of a man holding a Budweiser while hosing off his boat after a Sunday afternoon fishing expedition.

The man introduced himself as Bob Ernst, though he didn’t tell me he was the head women’s coach. After explaining my intentions, he graciously took me for a tour of the state-of-the-art facility.

An impressive inventory of shells were located on the bottom floor of the building. Today’s finely-tuned vessels are constructed of a light-weight composite, unlike the “Husky Clipper” that had been hand-crafted from wood.

Boys in the Boat the Husky The Husky Clipper hanging from the ceiling of the dining hall

A Washington crew manning the Clipper won the Olympic eight-oar gold medal on Lake Grunau, outside Berlin, in the 1936 Olympics. Overcoming many obstacles along the way, that crew passed Germany then overtook Italy in the final 10 strokes to win. Adolph Hitler watched the race from above and had not been happy with the result.

Hanging in a glass case on one wall were the letter sweaters worn by Joe Rantz and Don Hume, two of the main characters in the book. Just when the thought hit me that the the sweaters looked really small, Ernst chimed in, “They’re made of wool, so they shrank.”

That prompted me to ask the average size of the male athletes that row these shells today.

“Six-five, 210,” Ernst said.

The dining hall on the second floor featured a striking view of the lake, lending a resort vibe to the place. Suspended from the ceiling hung the Husky Clipper. Underneath that magnificent relic from another era, athletes ate nutritious meals. An ironic snapshot given that Depression athletes had manned the Clipper and most had scrounged for food on a daily basis.

Boys in the Boat The Old Boat House The original boathouse

Finishing my tour alone, I walked to the northeast entrance to the Montlake Cut to find the old Naval hangar that had been converted into the boathouse from which the “Boys” had rowed.

Seeing that building and knowing the story of the “Boys” — and all the struggles they endured — chilled me. Through squinted eyes I could almost see the group of young men hoisting the shell above their heads en route to another day on the water. Unlike the weather of my visit, it is dark and wet outside. The spark of youth is in their eyes, the pursuit of excellence is in their hearts. Those “Boys” would find a glory made all the better by the sacrifices made.

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography