Book Excerpt: Chapter 10, Understroking the Opposition — from Four Years at Four, by John Escher – Rowing Stories, Features & Interviews
Bob Olson (R. Nuss) and Ma
Bob Olson wrote a fitting account of how he came to row with us:
“Our team consisted of, I believe, engineers, lawyers and lost souls. I was a lost soul. You need a little background:
“After high school, I worked in the summer digging phone holes for Con Ed.
“The next summer I worked on the Tappan Zee Bridge. The next summer I had several jobs, but ended up as a deckhand on the Pittsburgh Dredge, outside of Bridgeport. Most of the time I didn’t mind work and I liked People were fun – mostly smart and generally good company.
“I had assumed I was a very strong card player until I played gin rummy from ten o’clock at night until two o’clock the next morning with the drag payer. We probably played a hundred hands, I didn’t win any. I asked my opponent if he replied that with me, cheating would have been absurd, I lost several months of salary but he settled for a box of camels.
“I felt the same way about chess until I played with an old Italian who had probably never seen the inside of a high school. He slaughtered me, then I learned that he had spent much of World War II in an American POW camp where there was nothing to do but play chess.
“I didn’t like Brown. It seemed like a cold, lonely place. Mostly, I didn’t like it because I wasn’t ready for college, and when September 1956 came around, I just couldn’t On the 10th I took the train to 42nd street and Broadway to join the Marines Four men were waiting at this office so I joined the army, volunteered for jump school and then for special forces training.
“In the spring of 1958, I was sent to a very small and quite illegal special forces group in Berlin. The Cold War was on, and if you consider anyone who sells military information for money a spy, then the most Berliners were spies.
“Berlin was a very dreamy place for me. I remember the wonderful young women, the food at the Foreign Legion officers’ club, the Russian music, the vodka and caviar, the rain and cold in Bavaria which we reached by parachute, and the occasional very real danger. I also remember honest Germans who had clearly been Nazis. I thought they had been Nazis but in Berlin in 1958 no one had ever heard of Nazis There’s a website (Det A 10th SFG) that will tell you about it, and the most evocative image for me is the guard tower and accordion wire.
“When I came back to Brown and took on the life of an undergrad in 1959, I felt like I had fallen from the moon. I tried to make things better by drinking bourbon and smoking heavily.I sought out the younger brother of Drusilla Escher, a dear old friend, and he brought me to crew training with him.I remember clearly that we had to race two miles to get there and that I had to stop twice.
R. Nussbaum Olson 5
“I was placed in the barge, then in seat 5 of a hull. Seat 5 requires a willingness to pull hard and not much else – and I was fully qualified. Until this day , however, my athletic credentials drew raucous laughter from everyone familiar with them.
“You probably know the rest of the story. We beat almost everyone almost all the time.
“Somehow I saw a good thing and didn’t leave. A later generation would have called it good vibes.
As for how to replicate what happened – I have no clue, maybe this: If you need a trainer, try to find a former Navy pilot at a cocktail party RISD who is brilliant, dedicated and who will work for nothing. For a stroke, find the best high school rower in the country and have him row for Brown.
“What we’ve done has come a long way. I know modern crews are faster and train more efficiently. But they haven’t come that far partly because they can’t – we’ve started further – our crew was an impoverished club and we beat almost every university in the country Having made this modest statement, in my heart I know that like people in the 21st century, I just want to see them on the river .
“As for what this experience did for me, a question in its own right, I gave up my career as an alcoholic and started a real estate company. Maybe I should have stuck with bourbon – the reader can decide (longviewlp.com).
“Anyway, I learned how much fun it is to win. The fierce, primal joy I felt when we beat Dartmouth is everything skydiving has to offer.
“I got decent grades. I made friends that lasted my whole life. Phil Makanna once told me that Brown’s team gave him the courage to live (a life). I don’t can’t do better than that.”
But this is not the version that I told my girlfriends, that I all wanted to impress. Bob Olson was at a bar with my sister. He held her above his head with one hand and said, “I won’t let you down until you promise to marry me.”
“Okay, okay,” my sister said, “I’m going to marry you.” So he dropped her. But she had no intention of marrying him and did not.
But she sent him some of her poems. He passes them off as his own because he wants to convince a few friends of his literary prowess. (I always told you, sister, that you should do more with your poetry.)
Bob told my sister that he was part of the construction team that built the first Tappan Zee Bridge. His employers considered him too big to be sent to the superstructure.
His job was to wear sunglasses and lie on his back in a rowboat and look up all day. If someone fell off the bridge, he had to row over to him and pull him into the boat. While eight people fell into the Hudson, none fell while Bob was in the boat.
Every night, two different hierarchies of bridgemen met in the same place. First, some workers were better at poker than others. Second, some jobs are more dangerous than others and the people who do them are worth more.
Bob couldn’t stand this. He shouted, “I want to work on the bridge!”
The first day it was very high and a bunch of beams came swinging at the end of a cable down and then up.
He jumped onto a beam fifteen feet below. The other workers had to untie his arms and legs. He woke up in a hospital to a nurse telling him if he was thinking of a woman, not babies.
Bob Olson thought about what the nurse had told him. And he thought of her.
So the doctor and everyone told him (in more medical language) no, no kids.
There must be some compensation for this, he thought, and while in Berlin he met many Mädchens and found out that what the medical establishment had so clearly stated was wrong.
This is the person my sister told me about. He was big and strong and came back to Brown. I did some research and located the room he lived in – at Wriston Quadrangle (a quad is different; it’s four people with two oars each and what Bill Engeman rowed on the Potomac).
I hit. The door opened. A huge cloud of cigarette smoke wafted through the hall. I went anyway.
“I’m going to try rowing for a week,” Bob Olson said, “if you agree to drive with me to Orange, Massachusetts and jump out of a plane.”
“Well, did you hold it back?” a Philadelphia reporter later asked. “No, I knew his sister and his mother and I knew he was going to ruin everything.”