It’s difficult to resist sculling on the Charles River if you live only minutes from the Cambridge Boat Club. So effortless. So tranquil. So centered. And oh, to become one with the reliably adorable ducks, the loose-bowelled geese, the edgy cormorants, the uxorious swans, the basking turtles, and, of course, your own unstable boat. I succumbed in the mid-’90s.
Most of my contemporaries who are still racing have been going at it with undiminished — how to say it — single-mindedness since their teens. They’ve collected more than their weight in medals, plaques, trophies, and decaying t-shirts. I, on the other hand, have garnered a single second-place medal, which I am obliged to admit was earned in a two-person boat in a three-boat race. I’m holding my order for the velvet-lined trophy case.
Some years ago, I reached a new developmental stage. I shuffled into the Senior Veterans (70 and over) division. Splashing around with this distracted bunch is like a disorderly scramble to beat the early-bird cutoff time at Denny’s in Boca Raton.
My maiden, so to speak, race as a Senior Veteran nearly ended prematurely. There I was, moseying through the rosy-fingered dawn (not surprisingly, they want the geezers off the river early) from the warm-up zone, to the queuing zone, and thence to the starting chute. It was all just peachy in the faintly wooly world of the septuagenarian, where, by definition, every moment is a senior moment.
Suddenly a commotion. The starter roared at the rower directly behind me, “Stop! Halt! Hold Water!” This over-zealous fellow had brought his craft up to flank speed and seemed intent on mounting my shell, Psyche. There’s supposed to be a 15-second interval between each boat.
Psyche was aghast as the would-be ravisher bore down upon her slender, vulnerable stern. Fight or flight? The latter. We fled, but not before the brute had obtained a momentary overlap. His unseemly behavior got him disqualified. His ardent craft should have been gelded.
Never to be forgotten was an episode at the Weeks footbridge, the Bermuda Triangle of the Regatta. Being overtaken, I did the correct, sportsmanlike thing. I moved aside, ceding the preferred route to the next bridge.
Then, in a perhaps shrill but still respectful voice, I implored my pursuer to turn. He neither turned nor replied. I moved over some more until there was nowhere to go but into the bridge, one of the few I had, theretofore, never hit.
Next came a horrid clashing of oars and perhaps a more serious touching. Alerted to my presence by the kerfuffle, my assailant corrected course and sped off.
Some hours later, I was accosted by his representative. She said her client had been assessed a 60-second penalty for striking Psyche’s hull with an oar. Would I, she demanded, tell the judge it hadn’t happened? Suddenly a whiff of courtroom drama coupled with a dash of jury tampering and a suggestion of perjury. Quite understandable — the stakes were enormous.
The defendant and I sought out the judge. He was displeased to have the matter reopened. I told him that, with all the sturm und whatever, I couldn’t say for sure whether Psyche’s hull, as opposed to her oars and metal extremities, had been inappropriately touched. Not nearly good enough. The battery had been observed by young-eyed umpires. Judgment affirmed.
I apologized to my adversary for being unhelpful, reminding him that we Senior Veterans can be somewhat vague about the distant past. He was simpatico. Soon we were bonding. Nothing works like comparing cholesterol levels and discussing shared syndromes. No, he hadn’t taken offense at my shouting. Being a bit deaf, he’d heard nothing. Nor had he seen me.
So, what’s the take-away? Since we’ve all experienced a slight drop-off in what the military calls “situational awareness,” should the Regatta’s officials hoover us up like oil spills? Require annual relicensing? Insist we execute “do not rescue or resuscitate” directives?
Let’s hope not. All of us wish to linger a while longer in our matey “from here to eternity” division. While we’re at it, how about an anthem for Senior Veterans? I suggest “Rule Dementia,” set to the music of “Britannia.”
But when should we decommission our boats, use our oars to train pole beans, and quietly observe from the riverbank? Before we become obstacles to navigation? I suppose so, but some dogs can’t stop chasing cars.
Frank Porter is a freelance writer.