Book Excerpt: Chapter 5, Winkie Boots– from Four Years at Four, by John Escher – Rowing Stories, Features & Interviews

Small, one-piece neoprene slippers solved the splinter dilemma. They were thin enough to fit inside rowing shoes or on rowing shoe laces if you were good. No one should ever tie themselves tightly into rowing shoes.

We called these streamlined silver-gray things “winkie boots” since the winkie crew, or brown lightweights, were the first to discover and order them.

Winkie’s team, a dying brown culture, also made another unexpected contribution to our good fortune.

Still influenced by Coach Bobble, they were stroked by second student Hugh Carmichael, class president his senior year. That same year, 1960, he coached Brown’s freshmen to a Dad Vail Championship.

The winkies accompanied us to Spring Break at the Potomac Boat Club tucked away under the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Washington, DC, where Charlie Butt may have surreptitiously arranged for us to sleep on the upper floors.

We certainly got to know and love some of the winkieguys, which turned out to be crucial.

But they were going through the same hard times that all Brown crews, beginning with the six-oar variety, had experienced for over a hundred years.

Every college administrator, nice or not, has turned into a miserly miser when he hears the word “crew.” They knew Red Top and The Ferry at the village of Gales Ferry in Ledyard, Connecticut, the Harvard and Yale complexes built for one week of use per year. Separate building in which to dine, a special dormitory reserved for freshmen – all this was certainly enough to intimidate any Brown administrator before even considering the large Harvard boathouses on either side of the Charles, or the old museum Yale Boathouses on New Haven Harbor, a place to work until the many crews moved to a sleek new structure on the Housatonic just above the dam that kept this Connecticut river from tidal like the others.

Two famous statements just before our era came from Brown’s humanist president, Dr. Henry M. Wriston.

“Rowing will become a college-sanctioned sport on my dead body,” he said, and “we have a full sports program, and while crewing is a great sport, it’s expensive and that not worth doing halfway.”

In any viable rowing program, chances are there will be movers and shakers, and I’ve already mentioned Cushing and Covert. They are the ones who discovered Gordon Whitey Helander at a party on Benefit Street Providence and recruited him to help us. Whitey was a Navy aviator and an engineering student at the Rhode Island School of Design where he was also taking a photography class.

Gordon Whitey Helander, marine aviator, 29 years old

He was someone who stood on tiptoe when he walked. He believed in marine training and had rowed for a few months at Syracuse University.

Her strong personality dominated my sophomore year so much that I can’t remember what we did before she came on board. I did everything except throw a bake sale, I guess. Our big publicity stunt, backed by The Providence Journal, was an all-around walk through East Providence about ten miles each way before and after the old shell we were carrying was covered in fiberglass for free.

I never understood the math involved in this feat. Was a different merchant supposed to pay a dollar for every ten feet we walked? As JV Captain George Baum recently recalled, when the cameras came in, we started rolling the shell forward like a torpedo to look impressive.

Bill Engeman in black struggles with the added weight of the new fiberglass.  Peter Amram in white, who would later become the first brown women's coach, is two people behind Bill.

Bill Engeman in black struggles with the added weight of the new fiberglass. Peter Amram in white, who would later become the first brown women’s coach, is two people behind Bill.

The fiberglass made the boat heavy enough to cut our shoulders on the way back to NBC. He had also become too heavy for the race.

On very short notice, our new coach Whitey agreed to accompany us on spring break in Washington. To wake us up each morning and get us out quickly on the Potomac, he would take an old shoe and bang the inside of a metal basket to turn it into a gong.

Throughout this period we rowed in the very fine Washington-Lee boats maintained by Charlie Butt himself. And had a race with the best high school team in the country – a scrimmage or “tie” you might say – scheduled for the end of our two weeks there.

Babcock did not row after his freshman year. That left four experienced rowers in the boat, Bill Engeman, Peter Amram, Phil Cushing and Lew Covert (both with military training and Amram later to get his). The rest of us were gaining experience quickly, but we were still novices. The guy in front of me, Doug Dysart, was from Maine. One leg was overdeveloped and the other withered. I can’t remember if Doug’s grown leg was on the outside in front of the five oars where I would have put it if I was the coach.

About twenty years later, Charlie Butt drove 55 mph from the Potomac to the Monongahela to help me out with the West Virginia University crews, and I remember him saying, “These Brown crews had idiosyncrasies but were incredibly fast.”

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