My father rolled us up in Army blankets in the sand at Point Vicente, like so many small, giggly seals, and took up a lonely vigil on the wet rocks, looking out to sea with a pair of high-powered binoculars. It was a bright, moonlit night, with low fog out over the water and moderate surf, not at all miserable for January. The year was 1927. We were there, along with maybe a couple hundred other watchers, all huddled around little driftwood fires to do proper homage to the winner of the Wrigley Ocean Marathon, the first and only mass trans-San Pedro Channel swim from Santa Catalina Island to the Southern California mainland.
Not many people thought such a swim could be accomplished. Experts declared that no one could stand the awful midwinter temperatures for the requisite 12 to 25 hours. Betting ran 10 to 1 against anyone surviving the paralyzing cold and the wild and unpredictable tidal currents. But Father had a sixth sense about these things. Not only did he believe that a merman would rise out of the kelp beds in the small hours of the morning, right here across the shortest span, he wanted all his flock to see and be inspired when the merman rose.
One of my father's cherished theories of child-raising—he had eight of us on which to practice—was that the viewing of magnificent, lone feats of valor somehow would imbue us all with lion hearts. Thus we were lifted practically out of the cradle to view a remarkable series of events, sporting and otherwise, in which man pitted himself against great forces of nature.
The Wrigley Marathon, "World's Greatest Sporting Contest for One of the Greatest Prizes Ever Hung Up," was after Father's hero heart. Considered the most spectacular aquatic event of all times, it promised to pay the first man to touch shore an incredible $25,000 and the first woman $15,000. If the woman beat the man—thought most unlikely—she would get the 25 grand. Most of the great names of swimming in the '20s (103 in all) were entered, and they got reams of space on the sports pages for months in advance as each arrived to fatten up and harden to the chill waters. There were Henry Sullivan and Charles Toth, veteran distance swimmers and the first Americans to swim the English Channel; 240-pound Norman Ross, giant Chicago star of the interallied games at Paris in 1919. There were the French champion Bert Rovere; Schoolteacher Clarabelle Barrett of Pelham, New York, holder of women's endurance records; Millie Gade Corson, English Channel conqueror; Leo Purcell of the San Francisco Olympic Club, winner of the Golden Gate endurance swim; Charles (Zimmy) Zibelman, the legless distance swimmer from Oakland who trained against the San Francisco Bay tides; various motion-picture starlets entered for no better reason than to have their pictures taken posing prettily in button-shouldered knit bathing suits; and an Eskimo who claimed to have swum the Bering Strait and who kept making everybody mad by complaining of the "high temperature" of channel waters and distressing lack of ice floes.
March 31, 1969
The race was preceded by a month-long rhubarb stirred to fever heat by the Women's Christian Temperance Union when New York Lifeguard Lottie Schoemmel, who trained by swimming around Manhattan Island in 14 hours and 11 minutes, arrived on Santa Catalina Island with no bathing suit in her wardrobe but with 15 pounds of bear grease for insulation against the cold. Said authorities of Long Beach and neighboring seaside hamlets: "Mrs. Schoemmel or any other unclothed swimmer landing on this part of the coast will be promptly arrested."
William Wrigley Jr., multimillionaire island-owner and sponsor of the marathon, immediately ordered 200 pounds of the best axle grease and 100 pounds of prime hog lard delivered to the isthmus so that Lottie would have no unfair advantage over other contestants. To bare or not to bare became the question of the day, and while all this was going on an inconspicuous Canadian kid in a seedy cap—an amateur long-distance swimmer—hitchhiked into town to almost total neglect by the hordes of newsmen swarming around far more glamorous company.
If Father personally could have picked a winner to meet his exacting specifications he couldn't have done better than choose George Young, a 17-year-old Toronto, Ont. boy, who made a penniless and miserable trip across the continent on a wheezing, third-hand motorcycle that broke down in Arizona. Young himself never doubted that he would win, and he planned to spend the $25,000 on a Southern California pink-stucco bungalow for his ailing, widowed mother.
The Wrigley Marathon was a natural product of an era when the uses of publicity were being plumbed to the fullest. William Wrigley Jr., who made a fortune out of the rhythmically moving jaws of the U.S. public, could well afford the elaborate preparations and safety precautions of the mass swim. He leaped at the suggestion when it was made to him. At one time no fewer than 1,000 entrants were registered, but they dropped out like Raid-sprayed mosquitoes when the grim facts of the channel became known. Fred Cady, swim coach of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, was one of the many experts who doubted that the swim could be accomplished. Clarabelle Barrett, who later changed her mind and entered the race, announced that "it is not humanly possible for any swimmer, male or female, to remain in the water for more than ten hours, and the distance cannot be covered in that time."
As odds dipped to 10 to 1 that no one could complete the swim, contestants set about various plans to outwit the cold. A common solution usually was to fatten up with a high-caloric diet. The Eskimo sent north for a barrel of seal grease—to drink, not wear. Fickle-hearted Clarabelle Barrett ate sponge cake with her tea. The finest baby beef in the cooling rooms of the Hauser Packing Company was reduced in half-ton batches to beef juice, supplied in gallon lots to selected serious swimmers.
Meanwhile experts testing the San Pedro Channel waters came up with fearsome statistics: in midchannel, January temperatures were dropping to 52°, while near the California mainland waters were found to vary from 54° to 58°. Average temperatures of the English Channel, in contrast, is 60° in the swimming season. Currents were found to vary in their courses, running in all directions, different from day to day. Starters would swim into trouble right off the bat, encountering not half a mile from the isthmus a wide current running like a mill-race toward the northeastern end of the island. Farther out in the channel, there was a six-mile-wide current flowing southward directly across the course at a speed of one knot, rendering tides useless as a help to swimmers. Sharks, rumored out there waiting to chunk down meaty channel swimmers, turned out to be mythical. Still, as the dread day approached, another 50 swimmers dropped out, along with the last of the film cuties. The Eskimo went home.
The steamer Avalon was rigged out as hospital ship and floating grandstand. A fleet of 300 boats stood off to convoy the swimmers, each contestant accompanied by a rowboat with an impartial observer, his trainer and an oarsman aboard. The observer was changed at frequent intervals to prevent hanky-panky, such as swimmers climbing aboard in the dark of night. Powerboats with doctors aboard accompanied many of the swimmers. Escort boats were loaded with emergency equipment, hot-water bags, red flags, flares and elaborate devices to feed swimmers in midswim. Red Cross, newspaper and wire-service speedboats formed a considerable armada of their own, and President Calvin Coolidge ordered the Coast Guard to be there, as well. When the whole fleet got under way it rivaled that of the future Normandy invasion.
At the crack of Fred Cady's gun swimmers in all hues, from lampblack through yellow, green and lard-white, took off—14 women and 88 men (one was only 14 years old). Seven minutes later the first casualty was fished out more drowned than alive. Philip Moore had set out in an unbeatable combination against the chill: six long-john undershirts, each heavily greased, and three pairs of heavy winter-woolen underdrawers tied at the ankles with rope, the whole finished off with an inch-thick frosting of rendered beef suet. He sank like a wounded walrus. By nightfall less than half the starters were still in there kicking.
Clarabelle Barrett succumbed to the bitter cold and left the water at 1:11 a.m., well behind dark horses Margaret Hauser of Long Beach, Calif. and Martha Stager of Portland, Ore. Flamboyant Lottie Schoemmel, attractively larded out in her bear fat, surrendered to leg cramps by sunset. By midnight no more than a dozen of the field of 102 were in the sea. The race settled down to a three-way contest between George Young, well out in the lead and swimming with machinelike precision at 46 crawl strokes to the minute, Peter Meyer of Cincinnati and favorite Norman Ross.
Meyer gave up off Point Fimmin at 4:15 a.m., beaten by the fog and crosscurrents against which he had battled vainly for two heartbreaking hours, always drifting back. He came within a mile or so of shore, swimming an estimated 34 to 38 miles with a trudgen crawl.
Ross had made a poor decision early in the race, swimming toward the northern end of Santa Catalina to get the better of the wide, southerly flow. Thus he had much distance to regain before turning sharply toward the San Pedro Lighthouse. When he reached the fast offshore tide within a few miles of Point Vicente he had nothing more to give.
But those of us who were huddled on the beach at the mainland end of the course knew nothing of all this, particularly we children. My own memory of the long night vigil is hazy: a wave-lulled sleep broken now and again by people running around with flashlights and chunks of driftwood set ablaze in the beach fires. Suddenly along toward 3 in the morning. Father, in a great state of excitement, ran from child to child, shaking us awake. Just off the kelp beds, out beyond the rocky point in the midst, the bobbing light of an escort boat had appeared. In a little while, rising out of the black water in the light of the many cars parked facing the sea, appeared a dark head and the flash of white arms.
At exactly 3:08 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 16. 1927, by Father's fat, gold pocket watch, there staggered up out of the sweeping current an exhausted boy, with a heavy, prognathous jaw, his thick neck widening into blocky torso, his skin puckered from long immersion. The whites of his eyes gleamed blood-red from the burn of salt water. His mouth hung open, and he wore an oddly puzzled look, as if he didn't know where he was or how he got there. We had one good, clear look at him. Then little kids were pushed out of the way by men racing out waist-deep into the sea to lift George Young, now in the final few yards, stumbling and flopping through the surf.
Naked, he was wrapped in blankets and borne off to a waiting official car, I suppose to a hospital. Though the distance from the isthmus at Catalina to Point Vicente is only a little more than 22 miles, he had swum more than 30 miles before he touched land. I don't recall whether he had any vestiges of grease clinging to his heavy-muscled body, but I remember the shocked hush of the crowd, as if all of us were interlopers in the personal highlight of a man's life. The mood changed from awe to excitement when George issued a brief statement. He owed it all, he said, to a fit body spurred on by the faith of his ailing mother, a onetime cook in tourist camps who had donated the last of her savings, $135, to the purchase of his beat-up motorcycle.
Father was beside himself with joy. Strong body and clean heart. Who could ask for more than that a poor boy triumph over nature and the world's greatest distance swimmers? George became a family hero right alongside Teddy Roosevelt, Richard E. Byrd, Robert Peary and Charles Augustus Lindbergh, who joined this distinctive company a few months later. We children were enjoined to make up a scrapbook of clippings with headlines such as: CHANNEL CONQUEROR HOLDS SPOTLIGHT OF ENTIRE WORLD, SOLE MERMAN WINS OVER FRIGID WATERS, WORLD'S PREMIER NATATORS BESTED BY BOY and LAD RECEIVES FORTUNE FROM CHICLE MONARCH.
After the race, panting newsmen rushed to fill in gaps in George's youthful chronicle. He was a very good boy, a credit to his mother and holder of a slew of Canadian amateur swim records. Entrepreneurs of various kinds dangled vaudeville contracts and such under George's outthrust chin, but I don't know if he accepted any. Our family scrapbook ends with news that Mrs. Jenny Young, mother of the champ, wired him to put his $25,000 prize in a California bank and return to her at once. Apparently this was before anyone had heard of the generation gap, because that's the last clip in the saga of the teenage wonder boy.