Fate has seldom been kind to nautical enterprise on the Ohio River, particularly that part of it that flows past Marietta, Ohio. There in 1806 Aaron Burr attempted to launch his ill-starred armada from Blennerhassett Island and somehow failed to set up a new empire to rival the U.S. A century and a half later, in 1950, some equally ambitious naval powers succeeded at last in persuading the Intercollegiate Rowing Association to leave its tradition-crusted stronghold in Poughkeepsie and to stage its annual regatta on the Ohio. The river responded by staging its annual floods weeks later than ever before and thus put drifting houses, floating barns, waterborne trees and an occasional drowned cow in direct competition with the racing shells of the finest crews in the U.S. When the same thing happened again the following year, the IRA fled east and set up its race on a lake near Syracuse, N.Y.
Despite such setbacks, the oarsmen of the Midwest, largely sparked by those of Marietta College itself, have remained determined to give their sport a prestige equal to that which it enjoys on the East and West coasts. Last week, after months of careful preparation, they staged the Third Annual Mid-America Regatta, hoping as usual that the waters would recede from the face of the earth and all nature would smile. Some 25 crews from 10 midwestern colleges turned up, including boatloads from Kansas State, Purdue, Michigan State, Alabama (Huntsville branch) and, of course, Marietta. More than 5,000 spectators were expected to picnic on the grassy banks and cheer them on. So what happened? If you cry easily, you'd better stop reading right now.
Rain is what happened. Cold, slow and sullen, it started falling Friday afternoon, just about the time arriving crews began to go out for practice. It never stopped. It just got harder and colder.
Mud—sticky, glucky, oozing Ohio River mud—began swallowing up the gravel that had been laboriously shoveled onto the campground by Mariettans. It sucked at the tents, the newly mown grass, the new docks, the boats. One rather expected a glob to rise up and ingest some unwary child.
Cars got stuck. Traffic snarled. Powerboats conked out. Buoys drifted. Races ran late. For the crestfallen Pioneers of Marietta, there was only one ray of sunshine in the whole business, but it was a bright one: their crews won every race.
In the 2,000-meter varsity race Marietta had started at 42 for 25 strokes, settled to an easy 36, upped the count to 39-40, went back to 36, stroked 10 at 38 and finished at 39. It was, as Stroke Charlie Edwards explained, the Pioneers' usual race plan, "our best groove."
Big Purdue, behind in the running start, had begun dramatically, opening a two-length lead above 42. Characteristically pausing at the end of each stroke, it then understroked the field through the body of the race, with one midcourse power 15. Sprinting all the way from 1,500 meters on, it came close to catching up, but the Pioneers won, as they always seem to in recent years.
Marietta's first race was held way back in 1878, complete with lawn parties and a ball, but the most recent and massive escalation of crew fortunes at Marietta followed the arrival of Coach Ralph Lindamood in 1959. Lindamood himself rowed only one year for Marietta, but in the last three years his varsity has lost only one race. Without denigrating men like Kansas State's Don Rose, who coached three years at Columbia and who, as much as any single man, was responsible for the revival of the Mid-America, it is fair to say that Lindamood and Marietta are the main motivating force in Midwest collegiate crew.
Defeat is now rare at Marietta, but trouble remains a permanent bystander in all midwestern rowing. Kansas State treks across mud flats to set its shells into Tuttle Creek and rows in 20-mph winds. Minnesota and St. Thomas often row through snow wearing mittens. Wayne State of Detroit has raced through whitecaps on Wolverine Lake, and Notre Dame lives in terror that the sheriff's men will come and reclaim its only good shell, because the installment payments are always late.
Last week the St. Thomas crew slept at the home of their coach's brother at Chanute Air Force Base—15 men on the living-room floor—en route to Marietta, but that is only routine. Some 200 other visiting crew men camped out in Marietta College's field house, and they were touchingly appreciative of what they considered luxury accommodations. Since rowing, of all sports, seems least favored by college athletic associations in the Bible Belt, almost all of the crews have to pay club dues and spend their own money for travel, food and incidentals. The Alabama crew has to practice between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. because its coach has a full-time job.
For all their inurement to such tribulation, Mariettans can still get a little bitter about their rowing-weather misfortunes. "Have you ever seen grown men cry?" former Coach Bill Wiant asked after the fiascos of 1950-51. "Dozens of us had worked weeks, solid weeks, for the IRAs. Friday night before the race, at the very height of the banquet, during the very speech in which an IRA official was commending us and our course, there was the most terrifying clap of thunder. We all rushed out and watched the rain come down. Pigs and cows, barns and outhouses started coming downriver, and people kept asking, "Bill, what'll we do, what'll we do, what'll we do?' I don't mind admitting that I stood out on the end of that dock and cried."
Even with the clean sweep of victories on the river, it was like that again last week. After one race, one of the veterans of '50 and '51 squilped through the mud to return a starter's gun to Athletic Director William O. Whetsell. "Got any cartridges left in it?" Whetsell asked. "No," said the disheartened man. "I used the last one on myself."