The Wonder Crew
The Untold Story Of a Coach, Navy Rowing, and Olympic Immortality
By Susan Saint Sing
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Susan Saint Sing
All rights reserved.
THE OLD MAN
Weakness? One's inability to succumb to passion. No one is willing to live or to die for a life of mediocrity.
— Patrick O'Dunne, 2007 Pan American Games rowing gold medalist
The sea. Always the sea. Dick Glendon headed toward the smell of it, on this, his first night in Annapolis. As he walked along the harbor's pier at the end of Compromise Street, the cold damp January sleet coming off of it was no stranger to a Cape Codder like himself. It greeted him here on the west bank of the Chesapeake as it would welcome him home again when he returned to South Chatham, Massachusetts, when this — his first season as head coach of the U.S. Naval Academy crew — finished in June. The water, like cellophane folding in on itself, mirrored grays, violets, and blues in the fading light. He liked its mood. He felt he would come here often and think at the shore of the deep-water roots he learned his rowing craft from when just a boy. These would be his home waters now.
The wind sweeping in from the Atlantic — across the bay, past Thompson Point Shoal Light, up the Severn River and Spa Creek toward the boat sheds, across Franklin Street, to the Annapolitan Club, his home away from home — bit at his forehead, urging him to pull his round canvas cap down farther over his light brown hair. Secure in his thirty-four-year-old, five-foot-eleven-inch lithe frame, a light scrub of neatly trimmed beard and piercing blue eyes, he walked forward in anticipation, to think, to plan, to analyze — rowing.
"Evening, coach. How does the crew look?" a total stranger asked, recognizing him from his picture in the January 1904, Annapolitan Chronicle article that ran that morning. It was a question Glendon would hear a thousand times more in his seventeen years at Navy.
It was a question he would never tire of, one that would mingle with the cheers of 1920 Olympic crowds, letters of congratulations from Fleet Admirals, the voices of presidents, ambassadors, and movie stars in this, the cresting of his young adulthood. It was a question that would later echo with the cries of a grandson lost at sea, a son shot and killed in a hunting accident, memories — heroic, mythic, and tragic — that would mingle with the trophies in the rooms of his old age, where he sat legless in a wheelchair until his death in 1956.
How does the crew look?
It was the fundamental question.
"Not sure yet," was his response this night in a tenor voice. "Haven't even seen the boys yet," he quipped as the footsteps of the two men separated one from another in the darkness.
No, he wasn't sure of the crew yet, but on this night he was certain of himself and his abilities. He held a great passion for all things water. It had him. Little did he know that on it and through its currents, the adventure of a lifetime — the longest Olympic winning streak — had already begun....
* * *
Born 14 April 1870, near the ocean on Cape Cod, in Harwich, Massachusetts, Richard "Dick" Glendon was the son of a fisherman. His family, the Richard Alfred Glendons, were from the west coast of Ireland. Leaving Ireland in the mid-1800s, the family settled in Nova Scotia. Richard A. Glendon, married to Alice McNulty, came to the United States from Nova Scotia in the 1860s. They had five children: Thomas, Mary, Richard, Alice, and John. The middle child, Richard "Dick" Glendon, was destined to be an Olympic coach.
There is some family lore relating the Glendon ancestry to Scottish and English roots, which shows up in print in several newspaper clippings. But family genealogy records place the family in Ireland, emigrating over the North Atlantic to the United States at a time when Irish immigrants were considered lowlier than a good slave. It is as if the family lore was altered in order to make a better life for the new American Glendons settling near Boston.
After attending Brook Academy in Harwich Center, young Dick went to sea at age thirteen, following in the footsteps of his father and family. Working in the waters of the North Atlantic fishing grounds, he acquired hands-on watermanship skills that would shape the basis of his scientific oarsmanship in years to come. Here among a plethora of practical, commonsense, yet intricate things, he learned to gently rock compasses back and forth while filling them with oil to keep the air bubbles out, learned to adjust a boat's course to magnetic variance, learned how to hold a heading in the tide and wind, and how to feel the touch of the rudder in correction so as not to oversteer the wheel.
The decks of mackerel schooners, fishing piers stinking of herring and cod, harbor seals breaking surface with curious wet eyes, mooring balls steered up to with an effortless elegance by seasoned sailors, quahogs, and all types of ships, dories, and gigs — these were the images that filled his childhood days. On the Cape, where the family's white wooden homestead sat surrounded by sea grass and wind, the horizon of Dick's formative years was dotted with white sails, hulls, and seabirds. He learned the names of the types of ships by watching and counting masts and sail configurations further explained by his father.
His father was a man he honored for his courage and for the knowledge that the sea had given. The sea had taken him beyond Monomoy Point, beyond Great Point Light at Nantucket, to the deep and back. Dick's father introduced him to sea captains and fellow fishermen, and was proud of the young boy whose blue eyes watched intently and whose manner and innate sense of perception and depth led him to listen before replying to a question. This quality of reticence, perhaps learned from the hours at sea, perhaps learned from a father trying to teach him and give him both the knowledge and the joy of the sea, shaped the boy's character. His brow carried a line of tiny hair bleached white on the ruddy suntanned skin, and his flash of blue eyes twinkled as if part of and from the sea itself. So impressed would others be of the young Glendon, that a sea captain would one day give the boy a rough-cut pendant of green jade that he would keep as a watch fob forever. His father's world was mysterious, manly, ancient, and dangerous. Courage and character followed Glendon from the decks of the schooner, to the wharfs of Boston, to the boat sheds of his destiny.
* * *
He took pride in what he learned from his father: A sloop had only one mast, one triangular mainsail, a jib, and perhaps a genoa. A boat with two masts, with the front mast higher than the one more sternward, and the position of the rear mast more aft than the helm, would differentiate it still as being a yawl. The aft mast being before the helm made it a ketch. Schooners had two masts also, but their graceful lines pleased the eye with the aft mast being taller than the bow-ward one. They were set with lines that held the entire ship's rigging aloft from stern to bow and starboard to port some 60 to 90 feet in the air; the skyward spiderweb of halyards, blocks and tackle, booms, masts, gollywoblers, spinnakers, and all manner of sail configurations were learned by young men on the Cape as easily as the rules of stickball were learned by young boys growing up on city streets. The sands and rolling grassy knolls of Nantucket, the Vineyard's cliffs, lightships, and lighthouses marking safe passage, the caws of terns and gulls, dirt roads, fog, sun, and weather of the windswept "elbow" of Cape Cod were his environs. They made the landscapes and seascapes of his soul.
From playing with small wooden homemade boats in puddles and tidal pools when he was a young child, to the first deck he walked upon, Richard "Dick" Glendon was learning the skills that would so deeply capture his imagination, his creativity, his musings, his dreams. Fish and boats and the men, the sounds, the sights of the fleets became so much a part of his nature that as he grew — there was no longer a beginning or an end to them. He no longer differentiated between what was the thrill of his first time in a boat pushing off the beach, rolling up over the waves, or being pushed back in by them in a following sea. The rocks, shoals, and ledges were slowly but surely etching their lines into the layers and fabric of his consciousness. Like Melville, his Harvard and his Yale were the decks of sailing ships — specifically the decks of a mackerel schooner — where following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, and in the heritage of young boys who begged to go to sea, Dick Glendon sailed beyond the horizon line of sight in pursuit of elusive red schools of Atlantic mackerel.
He fished the Grand Banks and the Georges. He fished off of Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada, another country, another time zone — Atlantic Time. There is no other time there, no other name for the time there. There couldn't be — nor should there be. The place is of and one with the North Atlantic.
The North Atlantic. An entirely different ocean altogether from the southern latitude seas. As he left the Cape and his tiny Cape-side town of Harwich, heading north toward 44.7 degrees north latitude — nearly halfway to the North Pole — the moving tides, some reaching an extraordinary world-record 28 feet, would growl up the shingles, churning steadily toward the footpaths in front of cottage and cabin doors on the islands they'd pass. He'd watch securely from his midnight perch at the helm as a puffin flew by, or a whale breaking surface in the distance exhaled with a slight stench of fish that the discerning nose could recognize on a wafting breeze as they made an inside passage through Seal Cove to offload mackerel for salting and drying.
The black-green North Atlantic, whose slimy broad-leafed black kelp and temperatures of 55 degrees in summer do not invite even the bravest foot to frolic, he could distinguish easily from the diaphanous blue water of the beaches on southern Cape Cod. Glendon experienced seas of starry black liquid marble, calm enough to let moonlight skitter off it for a hundred miles — or at least as far as Nova Scotia, which could be seen in the rarified atmosphere. The breeze, a "Canadian high" ratified the air, making room in the sky for the moon and stars, pushing the weeklong fog bank away, back to sea, to the North Atlantic somewhere eastward, to the Georges Bank or perhaps farther still to the Grand Banks — those watery, infamous, fluidly defined regions of the planet reserved for currents, fishermen, whales, swordfish, cod, and folklore abundant.
Glendon sailed briefly on a whaling ship off Newfoundland where he studied nautical charts and learned the fathoms and meters of the bottom-world below. A young man who loved nature, he undoubtedly sat and stared into the moonlight at sea, for at Cape Cod, or 1,500 miles away on the Grand Banks, the moonlight would have been commensurately mesmerizing and dreamlike.
At the turn of the twentieth century, fishing reports on the North Atlantic fishing grounds were read by New Englanders the way other parts of America might follow batting averages. Its economy was based on barrels sold (sized by number one, two, three, four, with one being the biggest and four the smallest). A mackerel schooner that could bring back thousands of pounds of fish — sorted, barreled, and ready for the East Docks of Boston — was the preoccupation of the families, the crew, and the owners of the boats that risked their lives at sea in order for the well-to-do to dine in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Where the fish schools were last seen by the masthead lookout, and which direction they were headed were daily set in newsprint. The price of the fish, which captains were sailing what ships, the weather "out there" — gales, squalls, seas, injuries, disasters, successes — flooded columns of the Harwich Independent, roiling or calming the shoreside anxieties of those who waited for the fishermen's return.
On land, some waited for money; some waited for loved ones. On board, some waited to reach the fishing grounds because it was only there among the walls and floorboards of air and water that they felt at home. Others waited only to hear the words, "Launch the boat!" so they could scramble into the seine boats, set their nets as generations had done for centuries before them, to set out, drop, pull in, and catch — fish.
Waiting was as integral to fishing as catching was. Dick Glendon spent hours, days, and weeks waiting. It was within those parameters of time spent, of watching and learning the skills of seamanship, that his greatest gift, his biggest prize of "fish," was being indelibly written in the sinews of his young body pulling on oars against tides, current, and net — filling the gray matter of his brain with possibilities, curiosities, and lessons hard learned of how to move a boat quickly through water. The schools of mackerel that shone red beneath the surface were his prey — for now.
Fast, sleek, elegant fish and the boats that sought them amalgamated to form a dynamic in Glendon's soul. As one of the eight boys rowing the dory — a 30-ish-foot-long wooden boat with a puller in the bow to retrieve the net, a helmsmen to steer, a setter to let the net out, and eight oarsmen seated two abreast on four seats — Glendon, with every set of the blade, every stroke and strain of his shoulders against saltwater, was gaining the empirical knowledge of how to maneuver a rowing boat.
Mackerel fishing involved dragging the top line of the seine laden with cork, its 400 feet of net coiled loosely yet precisely in the waist of the seine boat ready to drop into the sea, only to be pulled tight by weights on the bottom of the "purse" and by hands at the top. Only then did the diving mackerel get stilled, caught in the maelstrom of a school of living, breathing creatures thrown to the deck of a schooner to be butchered and sold. Glendon learned the inevitable — survival depended on the strength and the gentleness of his being. It depended on his ability to concentrate yet to not close his vision to the subtleties around him, and perhaps most important of all, to bury nothing in the depths of the sea to become like the carcasses and entrails thrown from the decks for chum and toll bait. His life, his world, would be the surface world. With an artist's soul, he loved the beauty of the seascape more than what was dragged from its bowels.
At age sixteen, Glendon, already a weathered seaman, left the decks of the schooner where he had gained an arsenal of practical nautical information and skill, and walked through Boston's East Docks to his uncle's boatworks on the Charles River, wanting to work near the wharfs and water he loved. Intrigued with the sport of rowing seen all around him and from his years of plying his oars in the dory, he took to a shell and discovered he was a natural sculler. Soon he was mingling with coaches, rowers, and boatmen at the nearby Boston Athletic Association's floating boathouse. Adept at anything to do with a rowing shell, he had found a niche. He knew this blend of water and boats was meant for him. Quick to acknowledge his practical roots, Glendon, when positioning himself for a coaching job, spoke of himself as "different from other rowing teachers in one thing: He came to his profession by way of deep water."
He had indeed.
Starting at the bottom and working his way through various jobs, the tough young Irishman even took a few rounds as the sparring partner for John L. Sullivan, resulting in the blinding of Glendon's right eye, a condition he kept to himself and few others. But being a natural at rowing and all things water, he found his niche in the rowing world and continued up the ropes of crew ranks rapidly, gaining success and respect in Boston's blizzard of rowing opportunities. He made a name for himself and his crews coaching a consortium of schools in the Boston Athletic Association schoolboy's program. The Boston Athletic Association was one of the oldest athletic clubs in the nation. Its objective was to "promote manly sports and encourage physical culture" among the finest prep schools, colleges, and well-heeled politicians and professionals of the area, and Glendon's being a part of it was no small miracle. Well liked and with all the highly specific "hands-on" tools necessary, both figuratively and literally, to coach, row, and repair any boat or shell, Dick Glendon by age eighteen was considered one of the best and youngest professional rowing coaches in the nation. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Wonder Crew by Susan Saint Sing. Copyright © 2008 Susan Saint Sing. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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