The moment I saw Artie Ranberg, I knew there was something special about him. Fresh off the bus for my first day at Traverse City High, he stood at the front of a queue of upperclassmen, shaking hands and welcoming all of us freshmen to our new lives.
“I’m Artie. Glad to have you with us,” he said, squeezing my hand with a surprisingly firm grip. “Welcome to the Trojans.”
“Thanks,” I said, as he ushered me to the back of a long line of students awaiting entry to a large gymnasium.
He was smallish, but there was an unmistakable energy in him that showed in his movement, a tautness under the surface that belied his undersized frame. His eyes were gray-green, and he looked at me with a confidence and directness that I envied immediately.
“Class schedules are in there, laid out in alphabetical order on the tables. Coach Keene can help you find yours if you have trouble.”
“Thanks,” I said again.
I was nervous, of course, new to town and on my first day of school, but something about Artie put me at ease. It could have been the way he was dressed. I had been so upset with my mother that morning, sending me out into the world in a pair of slacks and a dress shirt. I thought I’d be instantly labeled a nerd and cast into purgatory, but Artie was sporting a tie, the school’s black and gold coming together at the neck in a tight, perfect single Windsor.
“Hey,” Artie said, turning back toward me like Columbo, holding up a finger instead of a cigar. “You play any sports?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Lacrosse, but I didn’t play last year.” I didn’t do anything last year, but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
He looked disappointed. “Oh, that won’t do.”
“You’re big for a freshman,” he said. “You ever pull an oar?”
The look on my face must have let him know that I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Rowing,” he said. “You know, boats? On the water?”
“I’m from Kansas,” I said. “We don’t see a lot of water.”
He laughed. “We just might have to change that.” He slapped me on the back, then turned to leave again. “We’re getting together at the pond after school for an early tryout. You should come.”
“I might,” I said, but I knew better.
Artie left, jogging over to a new student, shaking her hand and welcoming her to Traverse City Central. He smiled as he talked, and within seconds, he had her laughing. I found myself smiling as well, and as I went into the gymnasium I decided there could have been no one better suited to putting new students at ease than Artie Ranberg.
After that, my first day was a blur, as first days often are. Six periods of classes, six new buildings, six new teachers, and about a hundred new faces. I learned nothing, wrote nothing, and remembered nothing, but as I got on the bus for home, I felt it had been a good start.
It wasn’t until my mother asked me if I had met anyone or made any new friends that I remembered Artie. For a moment, I felt bad for not stopping by his rowing practice after school. I had no interest in pulling an oar, as he had put it, but the least I could do was let him know in person.
In a moment of rare curiosity, I looked into rowing on the Internet. The terminology meant nothing to me, but it basically came down to two, four, or eight person teams racing a boat across a stretch of water. I watched a few videos, then saw the school’s less-than-impressive record in the sport, and decided I would never, for any reason, take up rowing.
“Come on you dogs, pull,” Reese Atkins called from his spot in the stern. “Pull, you’ve got five minutes, for your school, for Coach Worthy, for your country. You can give me five minutes, now, pull!”
Reese spoke his insults and encouragements in rhythm, occasionally resorting to numbers as he kept our strokes timed and even. With the eight of us in the boat pulling for our lives and him just sitting there yelling at us, it was hard to imagine why everyone wasn’t a coxswain. It was by far the better of the two jobs.
“Bow pair fall out,” he called. “Stern pair fall in, in two.”
Artie had told me Reese was the best, and that I would want to kill him. He was right on both counts, and at the three-minute mark I started to wonder, and not for the first time, how I had been dragged into this.
We were against the wind and the last two minutes seemed to never end. When Reese finally ordered “ease up,” the signal for us to stop rowing hard, I thought I was going to pass out. My legs shook and I could barely stand when I stumbled onto the dock.
“You were great out there today,” Artie said as he walked by. Aside from a fine sheen of sweat and slightly tousled hair, he looked as if he had not exerted himself at all. “You’re a natural. Coach Worthy says with you on board, we’ve got a great shot at winning State this year.”
“Really?” I said. “I feel like I’ve been bringing you down.”
“Don’t worry, we’ve got a few months left to get you in shape. With those long arms and that stroke of yours, you’ll be fine.”
We walked off the dock and away from Lake Leelanau to find Lynette Hart, Artie’s girlfriend and the prettiest girl I had ever seen, waiting for us. “Hi guys,” she said, and threw her arms around Artie.
Lynette was perfect: smart, beautiful, and sweet, and totally devoted to Artie. They had been dating since their sophomore year and the two of them seemed made for each other. Artie’s quiet confidence and Lynnette’s freely given affection and loyalty made me believe true love was out there, even if my parents never found it.
“Let’s all go grab some food,” Artie said. “I’m starving.”
After I had showered and changed, we were debating where to go when the sound of an engine drew our attention. It was a white Mustang convertible, its exhaust modified to sound throaty and deep. The engine revved twice, then the driver cut it and got out.
He was tall, lean and wide-shouldered, wearing a tank top and jeans, with curly hair that was a little too long to be fashionable. The wind coming off of the lake played with it as he walked, making a curl across his forehead dance, making me immediately think of Superman.
“You Artie?” the stranger said, facing me.
“No, I am,” Artie said.
The stranger shook his hand. “I’m John. John Buckhalter, but everyone calls me Buck.” He shook my hand as well, but he was looking directly at Lynette.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“I just came from Coach Worthy’s,” Buck said. “He told me I might find you here.”
“And find us you did,” Artie said. “What can I do for you?”
“I was hoping I could do something for you,” he said. “I was sixth seat on T.C. Williams team the last two years, and I just transferred to Traverse City.”
“What brings you out here from California?” Artie asked, and I wondered how the heck he knew where T.C. Williams was.
“Dad got a new job,” he said, “and I get to start a whole new life.”
“You couldn’t have picked a better place to do it,” Artie said, turning Buck’s negative into a positive. “But if you want to sit sixth seat, you’re going to have to compete with this guy here.” He pointed to me. “Now, we’re all going to grab a bite. Why don’t you join us?”
Buck thought a moment, then nodded. “Okay.”
“And I’m sorry,” Artie said. “I forgot to introduce you to Lynette. She’s my girlfriend.”
By the time spring came, I had forgotten all about lacrosse. I was in better shape than I had ever been, speaking the strange argot of rowing like a seasoned crewman, and stepping to the rhythms Reese Atkins called out from his seat at the stern. My whole life was crew, and with the addition of Buck to our team, we were a legitimate contender for sections, if not state.
Coach Worthy had prepared us well, doing conditioning all year. “Rowing doesn’t have a season,” was his motto. Still, when the first competition was on the horizon, he became maniacal in his drive to get all he could out of us.
He was old—how old I wasn’t sure, but his eyes were set in a nest of folds and wrinkles, and his sun-spotted scalp proved to be mostly bare when he would throw down his cap and start shouting. Still, he moved like a much younger man, wringing his hands and going into histrionics when he was particularly displeased.
“You’d better talk to that team of yours, Ranberg. We go into Bay City looking like this and we’re gonna get creamed.” He always singled Artie out, never choosing to dress the team down as a whole. Although this couldn’t have been fun for Artie, it sent a clear message to the rest of us who the team captain was, and that we were only going to go as far as he could take us. “Now, you guys hit the showers, change up, then get yourselves back here. I’ve got something I want to show you.”
We were all assembled outside the boathouse, watching Coach Worthy struggle with an ancient lock. The doors on the old house were tough to open, groaning and creaking as he pulled them apart. We had no idea what was in there, since we stored our shells outside, upside-down in a fenced in equipment yard. Everyone crowded in for a closer look.
His eyes were wild, and I saw him smile for the first time. At least, I think it was his smile. His mouth turned up on one side and his milky blue, cataract-covered eye stayed open while the good one shrunk to a slit.
“This,” Coach Worthy said, sweeping his hand toward the entrance with a flourish and stepping back so we could see, “is the Leelanau Lady. Isn’t she lovely?”
She was old. That was the first thing I noticed. I had never seen a crew boat made of wood, and I imagined they had gone out of fashion years ago. The lapstrake design, the boards overlapping made the body much wider than the new carbon-fiber models, though the oarlocks looked a little closer together. Her finish had faded, but the name Leelanau Lady could still be seen in a looping white flourish on the starboard side just above the waterline.
Everything in the boathouse was covered in a layer of dust. There were two boats under tarps on the floor, both about twenty feet in length. Old kayaks hung from a wall alongside ancient white circular flotation devices that reminded me of old movies. Oars were piled in a corner and a couple ancient skiffs hung suspended from hooks to keep the floor clear. The whole place had the air of disuse and obsoleteness, a forgotten space that had been lost to progress. Only the Lady seemed immune, without a speck of dust, the floor clear under and around her, as if a protective circle had been placed on her.
Time paused in the boathouse for a moment, until Artie stepped forward to touch her. The spell was broken then, everyone following suit and inspecting the Lady. We all spoke in hushed murmurs as we circled, sensing the need for reverence, although I had no idea why.
“She’s beautiful,” Artie said. “How old is she?”
“She looks ancient,” Buck said, running a hand over the letters of her name.
“Hold your tongue, Mr. Buckhalter,” Coach Worthy said, feigning offense. “She’s not even fifty years old. It’s bad manners to insult a woman of a certain age.”
“She was yours, wasn’t she?” Artie said after some quick mental calculations.
“Not mine,” Worthy said. “Not then, at least. She belonged to the school, back when there was only one high school in Traverse City. When they split in two, Traverse High West dropped rowing altogether, and she was forgotten.”
“How did you find her?” I asked.
“It took a little doing,” he said. “That it did. Three years I searched, and when I found her, she was right here, under my nose all along. The dockyard papers all said the storage belonged to Traverse High, so I didn’t even have to pay to get her back. So now, I suppose she is mine, more or less.”
“Traverse hasn’t won State in forty-eight years,” Artie said, once again surprising me with his knowledge. “Did you do it in the Leelanau Lady?”
“Aye,” Coach Worthy said. “We did. Now what do you say we see if she’s got any magic left in her?”
It took surprisingly little work to get the Lady ready for the water. Coach Worthy must have taken meticulous care of her once he’d reclaimed her. After a good scraping, a coat of finish, and Lynette’s touching up of the lettering on her name, the Lady was seaworthy once again.
“Pull, you bleeding pansies,” Coach shouted at us from the coxswain’s seat. “Your first time in a real boat and you forget how to do your job. You should be ashamed.” Reese had been disappointed when Worthy had insisted on accompanying the boys on their initial practice, but I could hear him shouting encouragement and insults of his own from the dock.
Everything about rowing in the Lady was harder than our usual shell. The oars were heavier, the space was more cramped, and although she sat a little higher in the water once they got up to speed, it took a mighty effort to get her moving. In our first 2,000-meter run, we were forty-three seconds off our average time.
“Unacceptable, gentlemen,” Coach Worthy said, stepping out of the boat onto wobbly legs. “You know Bay City is out there working their hardest to make you look like fools. Ranberg, you think they’re turning in six and a half minute runs?”
“No coach,” Artie said. “I’m sure they’re not.”
I doubted they were dragging a thousand-pound toboggan through the water, but I wasn’t about to say that.
“Get your boys out of here,” Coach Worthy said. “And come back tomorrow ready to work.”
Artie, Buck and I ended up at the Grand Traverse Pavilions that night for a movie in the park. In the summer, the city held concerts on the large grass lawn, but in the spring, if the weather permitted, a huge inflatable screen would be propped up and an old movie played for public viewing. With the exception of a popcorn and soda from a local vendor, it was free entertainment and too good to pass up.
We were meeting Lynette there, so I held a spot for us on the grass while Artie and Buck went off in search. I got a popcorn and a Coke and was settled in for the start of The Goonies when I heard shouting from behind the projector.
“Get your hands off her, McCabe.” I couldn’t see anything but the bright light from the projector, but I recognized Artie’s voice. I jumped to my feet and ran in the direction of the sound.
When I got past the projector and the dazzling explosions of light faded from my eyes, the first thing to come into view was the white of Lynette’s dress. Everything else looked muted in contrast, only the bright, flowing fabric seemed real.
“Hey, she was talking to me,” a new voice said. As my night vision improved, I saw it was another boy about Artie’s age, only bigger, with dark hair and big, caterpillar eyebrows. “You got a problem with that, Ranberg?”
“Yeah, I do,” Artie said. “You stay away from my girlfriend, you hear me?”
“Or what?” McCabe stepped forward and towered over Artie. “What do you think you can do about it?”
Artie’s hands were clenched tight, the knuckles white, his body tensed and ready to strike. He said nothing, but I knew he wasn’t going to back down.
“Come on,” McCabe said, “Let’s go, Ranberg.”
“Artie no,” Lynette said, but her voice was weak, and neither seemed to register it.
Artie started forward, arm coming up, when a flash of white appeared, and suddenly he was grabbed from behind, wrapped up in a bear hug and picked up off his feet. He kicked out and thrashed, but he couldn’t break the grip. It was only when he saw that it was Buck that held him that he stopped struggling.
“Don’t waste your time with this guy,” Buck said. “He’s not worth it.”
“Look who it is,” McCabe said. “Artie’s new prodigy. You might be able to sit in my seat, but you’ll never be able to fill my shoes.”
“We’ll see about that,” Buck said. Then, to Artie, “Come on, man. Let’s get out of here.”
“Yeah, Ranberg,” McCabe said. “You hide behind your new buddy. But you can’t hide forever. We’ll be seeing each other real soon.”
It wasn’t until we were on the way home that I learned that it had been Russell McCabe that had approached Lynette.
“He used to sit sixth seat for Traverse City,” Buck explained, yelling over the wind ripping through the convertible. “Now he’s with Bay City.”
Once again I was thrown by how much other people knew about what went on in the rowing community. Buck had been with us less time than I had, but he still seemed to be a part of the information pipeline. I couldn’t name a single player on any other squad in the state of Michigan. I only knew that Bay City was the reigning champ because Coach Worthy wouldn’t let us forget it.
It wasn’t the thought of Russell McCabe that stuck with me that night after I had been dropped off at home, or how ready to fight Artie had gotten. The image I couldn’t get out of my head was the look on Lynette’s face when she had hugged Buck.
“Thank you,” she had said, then brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes. “I don’t want to see Artie hurt.”
“None of us do,” Buck said, and when they came together, his bright white t-shirt and her almost luminescent white dress, once again everything else seemed muted by comparison.
“How long have you two been together,” I asked.
“All through high school,” Lynette said. “He’s the only boyfriend I’ve ever really had.”
We were walking through the dockyard, making our way from the big parking lot to the long slip where the Lady was to be put into the water. Artie had called an impromptu practice, and he had asked Lynette to drive me.
It was a little strange, being alone with Artie’s girlfriend, but it was nice too. She was lovely, and although I had no interest in her, it felt good to be seen walking alongside her.
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” she asked me. “You’ve been here over half a year, you can’t tell me no one’s caught your eye.”
“Well, I mean sure, there are girls out there.”
“Anyone in particular?”
I felt stupid. Of course there were girls I noticed, and was attracted to, but I had not talked to any of them. “No, not really.”
“We’ve got to get you a date for the prom,” she said.
“I’m not much of a dancer,” I admitted. “And besides, I’m still a freshman.”
“So what? You’ll take a junior or senior.” She said it like it was a foregone conclusion. “And I’m no good on the floor either, but I still go to all of the dances. It’s the only time I get to be with Artie and it’s not about crew.”
“It does take up a lot of time,” I said.
“It’s his true love,” she said. “This team, keeping it together and making it something special. It means everything to him.”
“Well,” I said, coming to Artie’s defense, “not everything.”
She sighed, and said nothing.
“He’s a natural leader,” I said, just to break the silence. “I would have never joined up if it wasn’t for him.”
“I know he is. He was born for this.” She turned to me, her brow crinkled in thought. “How nice it must be, to know exactly why you’re put here, exactly what you’re supposed to do.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Sounds like an awful lot of pressure.”
“Yeah,” she said wistfully. Then, “you ever wonder what happens after high school?”
“College, I guess.”
She laughed, but it wasn’t her usual light, musical laugh. “How about after that?”
I thought about it. “Life, I guess.”
She was lost to her own thoughts after that, because she remained silent the rest of the way down the long slip. When we got there, Artie, Buck, and the rest of the team were already stretching for their workout, so I fell in with them.
We worked out hard, an hour of intense calisthenics followed by a run around the dockyard that left me exhausted and gasping for air. When we finished, Artie high-fived us and congratulated us on a great workout, and we all stood bare chested, enjoying the wind coming in off of the lake.
I fought a wave of nausea by gulping in one lungful after another of fresh air, my hands on top of my head. It was then that I saw Lynette, sitting perched on a stool with her knees tucked to her chest, her hair blowing freely behind her, her pose deliberate, like she was waiting for her picture to be taken. I followed her gaze down the dock to where Buck stood, hands on his hips, watching her, his face unreadable.
The next few weeks went by in a rush. For Artie, Buck, and Lynette, there was only one quarter of high school left before graduation, and our competition season was in full swing. Coach Worthy and Artie would spend hours scouting our opponents and breaking down their strengths and weaknesses. By the time our first race against Portage Central came, I felt there was nothing we could have done to be more ready.
Artie had insisted that we never practice in our racing shell. In the months leading up to our first regatta, it had only been the Lady that we had crewed. When we actually stepped into the lighter, faster boat, it felt foreign to us. We had grown used to the cramped spaces, the tighter oarlocks, and the deeper hull, so stepping into the carbon-fiber body of our racing craft, we all felt a little uneasy.
It didn’t take long to get into rhythm, and to accustom ourselves to the lighter design. We warmed up fast, cutting through the water with ease.
When the race was just about to begin, Lynette came running down the dock with a can in her hand. We toweled the side of the shell dry, giving her a surface to work with. In a looping, elegant hand, she recreated the Leelanau Lady in white, just as it was on the original, only about half the size.
“There,” she said. “You’re ready.” She threw her arms around Artie. “Kiss for luck.” They kissed, and she stood in turn, kissing the rest of us on the cheek as we took our seats. When it was Buck’s turn, she lowered her arms and he walked right past. “Good luck,” she told us all as we pushed out to our start.
The race was no contest. I know the lighter weight had everything to do with our easy victory, but there seemed to be something else at work as well. Coach Worthy didn’t give a rousing speech before the race. He just looked at every one of us and told us to do our job. Afterward, he just nodded, told us “Good show, lads. See you on Monday,” and walked out.
We were flying as we left the lake, the crew talking about making a serious run for the state title, or even a shot at attending the National School Championship Regatta in Philadelphia.
“Slow down, there guys,” Artie warned. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”
There was no bringing us down to Earth that night though. Our run against Portage Central wasn’t just good—we found out that night on the local news. We had set the Lake Leelanau eight-man record.
“You never talk about your family,” Buck said as we ran down the lake’s shore.
“Not much to tell, I guess,” I said.
“Everyone’s got a story.”
“Well, what’s yours?”
We were already running faster than I was used to, but Buck picked up the pace then. He stretched his stride longer, legs pumping, breath timed with the falling of his feet. It was all I could do to stay with him, lungs burning as I ran, but I kept up.
“Okay,” he said, as if accepting my challenge. “I grew up in San Diego, folks had a big place by Dana Point. My sister tried running away with a biker named Dutch her freshman year. My mom called the police, and they eventually turned up at a trailer park down by the harbor. She’d been sticking needles in her arm, and she was so messed up that she didn’t even recognize them when they first saw her in the hospital.”
I was impressed at Buck’s ability to talk so easily while he ran. It didn’t affect his stride in the slightest, and only the faintest pauses for inhalation signified any change in his normal spoken voice.
“That’s heavy,” was all I could get out without having to take in air. “Is that why you guys moved out here?”
“That’s not the way they put it,” he said. “But yeah, I’m sure it is. My dad all of the sudden got a transfer to the middle of nowhere to redesign engines, and they say it’s the perfect opportunity for them, but I know they loved that house in California, and who wants to move somewhere where you have to shovel snow in the winter? Sure, they wanted to get Trina somewhere new, away from Dutch and her old friends, but that’s not all there is to it, either.”
“What else is there?”
“They wanted to get out for themselves, too.” He turned to look at me, but didn’t slow. “We were the perfect family. My mom threw nice parties, Dad was on the board at work, we did good in school, you name it. We weren’t keeping up with the Joneses. We were the Joneses. Then this happens. I think they needed a new start even more than Trina did.”
We ran in silence for a bit, Buck gathering air while I gathered my courage. We turned left toward the lake, and I watched the surface sparkle as it reflected the late afternoon sun.
“My father committed suicide,” I said, looking straight forward, lest I catch Buck’s eye and lose my nerve. “He was never a very happy person. He said he was born to be a songwriter. He was always writing a line or two down on scrap paper when he would think of them. There were little scraps of yellow paper all over the house, but I don’t remember him ever putting a whole song together.”
I laughed, and finally glanced over at Buck. He was looking at me, but not with shock, or pity as I had expected. “How old were you?”
“Fourteen,” I said. “I was just about to start high school. My mother was a mess, and I wasn’t much better. He had blamed me and my mother for ruining his life, cutting it short.” I sneered as I imitated his condescending tone. “Said we were stifling his creativity, interrupting the process. My mother blamed herself, and I blamed her. I went a little out of control, ended up missing most of my freshman year. That’s why I’m here, and doing it all over again.”
Buck nodded, said, “Looks like we both know something about running away to somewhere new.”
I laughed again, and suddenly felt like I could breathe easier. This was the first time I had ever spoken about what had happened to my father. “It’s a good thing we both ended up here,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “If we hadn’t, we would have missed out on a championship season.”
“He’s really got us firing on all cylinders,” Buck said. “I think we have a real shot against Bay City.”
“I sure hope so. I’d like to wipe that smile off McCabe’s face.”
“I just want to see him holding that trophy at the end of it all.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It would be cool to get that crazy old coot one before he retires. How old is he, anyway?”
Buck stopped running, even though we were only a few hundred yards from where he parked his car. I turned back and fell in beside him.
“I wasn’t talking about Coach Worthy,” he said. “I was talking about Artie.”
I nodded my understanding. This was important to all of us, but it was different with Artie.
“This season means everything to him,” Buck said. “What’s going to change for you if we don’t win the cup this year? Nothing, really, right?”
I nodded again.
“Me neither. I love crew, and I’m more competitive than most guys, but if we don’t win it all, life will go on. I’ll go to college, I’ll row there, and everything will work out.”
“You make it sound like Artie’s life is on the line.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he slapped me across the shoulder, hard. I rubbed at it, and he kept on. “It just means so much more to him. Last Friday, we actually slept on the roof of the old boathouse. I thought the whole thing was going to collapse. We laid up there, looking up at the stars, and he asked me if I knew what I was put on Earth for.”
“What did you say?”
“I said no, of course,” Buck said. “Who knows something like that at seventeen?”
“Artie,” I said.
He nodded. “He told me the very first time he rowed with a crew, he was sitting seventh seat, pulling for all he was worth, the whole time thinking he never wanted to try it again. You know how it feels. He thought he was dying. Then, the call comes out, ‘let her run,’ and that moment when all the oars are out of the water, and she’s still flying along, he said that was when he knew. Said he knew he was born to be in a boat, and then he came here, and putting the best crew possible together became his obsession.”
We made it to Buck’s car, and he leaned against the trunk. I was conflicted, feeling proud that Artie had been confident enough in my potential to choose me for his crew, but at the same time jealous that he would have shared that night with Buck, and not with me.
“That’s crazy,” I said. “I don’t know what I want to do with my weekend, let alone my life. Have you ever felt that way about anything?”
Buck looked at me, and the long pause grew heavy. I thought he wanted to share something with me, but instead, he just shook his head. “No. Never.”
“Whoa,” I said, hoisting my end of the carbon-fiber version of the Leelanau Lady onto my shoulder. “Why don’t the fans turn out for us like this?”
“Yeah,” Reese Atkins agreed. “Looks like the whole town is out here.”
“They are,” Artie said, smiling. “They’re here to help us celebrate our victory.”
We all made noises of agreement, laughing as we made our way to the bank. The butterflies were upon me, fluttering inside my belly and making me mildly nauseous. Reese hadn’t been kidding. Bay City only had a population of around forty thousand, and it seemed most of them were lined up there on the western fork of the Saginaw River, waving little maroon and gold flags, wearing t-shirts of the same colors, anxious for the show to begin. There was a small cheering section for each of the other four crews, but they were dwarfed by the Bay City faithful.
I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else was getting as nervous as I was. Looking at their faces told me nothing. They had to be feeling the weight of the moment, this last hurdle to an undefeated season and a championship, but they each held their head high in stony stoicism. I did my best to imitate them.
“It’s going to be fine, man,” Buck said. “Relax.” He slapped me in the gut as he walked by. I flinched, hunched over, but managed not to drop my end of the Lady. A few laughs sounded, lightening the mood.
“I don’t know what in God’s name you think is so bleeding funny,” Coach Worthy appeared out of nowhere alongside me, staring at me with that milky cataract. I thought he might hit me, but he shook his head and moved forward in the ranks. “You’re about to run the most important race of your life, and you’re acting like a bunch of clowns. Ranberg, get them to the warm-up area and get the Lady in the water.”
“Yes, sir,” Artie said, and we double-timed it to the river.
“Close your eyes,” Coach Worthy said as he paced back and forth beside us. He had made us sit on the ground, feet tucked up tight, knees close, the same order and spacing in which we sat in the boat. He had Reese quietly calling out orders as he spoke, and we worked imaginary oars as we listened. “I want you to visualize, gentlemen. Think of every race you’ve ever run. For some of you, like Ranberg and Buckhalter, that’s a lot. For others,” he kicked my foot for emphasis, causing me to open one eye to peek at him. When I saw he was staring down at me, I quickly closed it.
“Power ten,” Reese said, and we all picked up the pace.
“For others,” he went on, “that’s not so many. But every race provides you with moments, chances to look back on what happened, and what you could have done differently. How many times have you pulled too hard, only to find out you have nothing left at the end? How many times have you held back, saving yourself, only to cross the line knowing you didn’t give it your all? These are the lessons you’ve learned on your way to this moment, and they’ve made you the young men you are today.”
“Settle,” Reese said, and we slowed again.
“If you want to leave here as champions, you are going to have to draw on that knowledge, you are going to have to put every bit of yourself into this. Bay City is a good squad, make no mistake.”
“In two,” Reese warned, “hard on starboard.”
“They are the defending champions, and we’re in their waters.”
“Set it up.”
“There are a hundred things that can go wrong out there, gentlemen, and you need to be ready for them. If you keep your head about you, and you take what you’ve learned and apply it, there’s nothing that can stop you.”
“On the square.”
There was a slight hitch in Coach Worthy’s voice as he finished his speech. “I have never had the pleasure of working with a finer crew, gentlemen. Go out there and give it your all today. Do your job, and trust in each other, and you’ll be champions. That I can promise you. Now open your eyes and get your butts in that boat.”
“Draw, there,” Reese said. “Draw, there. Wind one. Wind two. Wind three. Lengthen it out, steady, steady.”
We started fast. Too fast, we knew, but the excitement got the better of us. We wanted to get an early lead, to get ahead of the Bay City team right out of the gate, but it soon became clear we couldn’t keep the pace.
“Easy,” Reese yelled for the second time, and we let up a little. We were less than a quarter of the way through, over three minutes of hard rowing left, but we had the lead. Portage was so far back I knew we could count them out, but Bay City, Petoskey, and Brother Rice, were all about even.
We kept the distance between us for a minute, and I figured we were almost to the halfway point. Then, when I heard the Bay City coxswain give the call for a power twenty, I knew they were making their move.
“Power ten in two,” Reese responded, but still Bay City managed to halve the distance. I saw the top mark straight ahead, and knew we would have to pull a hard turn.
“Take the run off,” Reese called. Then, when we were still seemed to be going too quickly, “hard to port.”
We banked hard, and almost rolled the Lady, but Artie felt her going and yelled out, “Down on starboard,” to let us know to lower our hands and even the Lady out. When we were through the turn and evened out, I saw that we had held our lead over Petoskey and Brother Rice, but Bay City had executed a perfect turn and almost pulled even with us.
“Power ten,” their coxswain roared, and I could feel the spray from their oars as they closed.
I chanced a look to my left, and saw Russell McCabe pulling for all he was worth, eyes locked on the Leelanau Lady.
They were dead even with us, pulling harder on the port side to bring them closer to our boat. “Blades in starboard,” Reese called out when they were within striking distance. The move pulled us away and possibly saved us from tipping, but it cost precious strokes, letting the Bay City crew past. By the time we were straightened out, they had us by a length.
“Settle,” Reese said, and my heart sank.
As we slowed, I watched the Bay City team pull even farther ahead, McCabe shouting something that got drowned out in the wind. We had been pulling for all we were worth, and with a third of the race to go, we were exhausted. The tempo of Reese’s call let up a little, in order to give a break before the final push.
The other three teams were all out of it, leaving the river wide open. We had calm water, riding the Bay City wake until the finish was in sight.
“Be ready, men,” Artie shouted. “It’s time to make our push.”
“It’s too far yet,” Reese warned.
“If not now, when?” Artie asked, and seven voices yelled their ascent.
“Everything you have, then,” Reese yelled. “In two, power twenty. Pull, you dogs!”
We gained quickly, closing the distance to within two lengths, but Bay City had been conserving their strength. “Power ten,” their coxswain called, and they slowed our progress.
“Sprint,” Reese called, and we bore down.
This call was usually saved for the last five hundred meters, but I knew we were farther out. Again, we closed rapidly, and Reese told us to pull harder to port to keep us away from the Bay City oars.
“No,” Artie called, his voice thin with his gasping breath. “Keep her close.”
“Check that,” Reese said. “Full go, boys.”
We were dead even with Bay City, both squads straining with every pull. The finish just ahead, I heard McCabe let out an animal grunt and redouble his efforts. They started to pull away, and I knew all was lost.
“In two, flutter,” Artie screamed, and we all switched to the six-stroke shunt method. My arms felt like they were going to rip out at the shoulders, and I couldn’t breathe, but I closed my eyes and kept moving. When I opened them, Reese was screaming, standing in his seat.
“Let her run,” he yelled, laughing maniacally. We all stared at him, refusing to stop pulling, and he laughed even more. “We won! Look!”
The finish was so close that the Bay City team needed to be informed, as well. McCabe cursed from his seat, crying foul.
“Give it up, McCabe,” Artie called. “We won, fair and square.” He waved to the rest of the Bay City squad. “Good show, guys.”
There were nods from the rest, but McCabe remained indignant. “Screw you, Ranberg.”
We started rowing, slowly, back to the shore, and as we inched by, McCabe shot a hand out toward Artie. The move must have been anticipated, because Buck’s oar intercepted it, knocking his arm so hard it caused McCabe to topple forward and out of the boat. The other eight in the Bay City shell managed to keep the craft from tipping, but just barely.
As we made it to the shore, our foes vanquished and Artie’s victory complete, Lynette stood in water up to her knees, hugging us all as we left the river. Artie kissed her, then continued on to where Coach Worthy stood waiting. Buck trailed behind us, and as I looked back for him, I saw that this time he didn’t refuse Lynette’s embrace.
The trophy went into the school’s case the day of the prom. Coach Worthy looked uninterested as he shook Principal Geary’s hand, and he had no comment for the faculty other than, “I’m proud of these boys. They did their job admirably.”
The real presentation was held at the boathouse, when we stowed the Leelanau Lady away, to wait for the next group of young men deserving of the honor. We cleaned and polished her, everyone bidding her farewell before Coach Worthy closed the door and locked the old padlock.
The oars were left on the ground outside the boathouse, and I was about to step forward and tell Coach when he bent to pick one up.
“These old things may not be much,” he said. “But they’re all I’ve got to give you. Never forget what you did this year, boys. Never forget what you can accomplish when you work together, and when you want something bad enough to go take it from someone.”
He called us up, handed them to us one by one, and shook our hands. Last was Artie, on whom he imparted one last point of wisdom. “The measure of a man is not what he has, but what he does. You did something special, Ranberg, never forget that.” He seemed sad as he put a hand on Artie’s shoulder and squeezed. “Now go, and keep doing.”
As I looked around the dance floor, I had the feeling I was the only freshman at the prom. There was no one I recognized from class, and aside from Lynette, the only upperclassmen I knew were the other members of the rowing team.
When Lynette had told me she was going to fix me up with a date, I wasn’t expecting much. The best I could hope for was a nerdy girl, or one of the anti-social outcasts that sat in the corner table of the cafeteria and only looked at us out of the corners of their eyes. When she brought Carly Fuentes to meet me, I was amazed.
She was lovely, and funny, and thanks to a recent breakup, single. I wasted no time asking her to prom, and we rode in a limo together with Artie and Lynette, and Buck and his date, Stacey. First, we did dinner at Trattoria Stella, a classy restaurant overlooking Boardman Lake, then it was back to the school for the dance.
The place was decked out in our school’s black and gold, but it looked less tacky than I had expected. There were plastic champagne glasses by the punch bowls and real cloth napkins on the tables. The one I escorted Carly to had a fishbowl with a black and gold beta doing laps around its circumference.
We danced a while, but after a few songs Carly wanted to talk to her friends. Abandoned among a few hundred strangers, I stuck to the perimeter of the gymnasium. The floor vibrated with the bass from the large speakers, but I could still hear the telltale squeaking of rubber-soled shoes on the parquet floor of the basketball court.
The music was lowered and Principal Geary’s voice came on from the stage. He waited until the talking died down before announcing the prom king and queen. “Artie Ranberg and the lovely Lynette Hart.” No one was surprised.
The two danced to two songs, Artie looking quite dapper as he twirled Lynette to a swing number. I smiled as I watched him, his girl on his arm, his plastic crown catching the light from the disco ball and flashing like silver. He had accomplished everything he had set out to do.
Lynette passed Artie off to Susan Mayfield, then went to the punchbowl for a napkin to dab the sweat from her forehead. “Great night,” she said to me as she passed, but she didn’t pause long enough to hear my response. My eyes followed her, her white gown glowing slightly purple in the black lights suspended from the ceiling. She ducked out of the side doors that led to the mens’ locker rooms.
There was no reason for me to follow her. I don’t know what made me do it. If she had chosen any of the other doors, I’m sure I would have left it alone. But the mens’ locker room? It made no sense, at least until I turned the corner and spotted them.
He held her in his arms, wrapping her in his embrace and lifting her to him so only the very tips of her toes were on the ground when their lips met. The white of her dress contrasted with the black of his tuxedo to make her look tiny in front of him, much smaller than she looked in Artie’s arms.
Buck and Lynette kissed a long while, and when they parted, I saw the way he looked into her eyes.
“I’ve got to go back in a minute,” Lynette said. “Everyone will be looking for me.”
“I know,” Buck’s voice cracked as he croaked the words out.
She pulled away, and his arm reached out for her, pulling her in for another kiss. I knew then that Buck was madly in love with Lynette, and when I heard footsteps behind me, I knew that they could only belong to one person.
“What?” The one word carried so much pain, so much confusion, that perhaps the one syllable was all Artie felt necessary to say. When Buck and Lynette looked up from their kiss to find him, and me, there, Buck looked just as stricken as Artie did.
“Artie,” Buck said. “I’m so sorry.”
“How could you?” Artie roared, but his eyes were focused on Lynette.
She remained calm, standing between her two lovers, waiting to see what they might do. “We didn’t mean for this to happen,” she said after a moment.
“Didn’t mean for this?” Artie swayed, and for a moment, I thought he might fall over. “What is this? How long have you…?”
“Not long,” Buck said.
“We were supposed to get married,” Artie said feebly.
“I’m so sorry,” Lynette said, and her head fell.
Artie went wild, pushing Lynette aside and lunging at Buck. A couple of punches landed before Buck could wrap him up in a bear hug with his arms pinned at his sides. I watched my best friend, and most influential person I ever met squirm and kick and spit, only to realize there was nothing he could do.
My heart broke for Artie as he went slack and stopped struggling. When Buck let him go, he started to slide to the floor, but Buck caught him and stood him upright. His crown had been bumped into a skewed angle, and his tuxedo jacket was bunched up around his waist. He tried to straighten himself out, and he walked out of the locker room on wobbly legs. No one went after him.
The last time I saw Artie was later that night. I had to get a ride from Reese because Buck had broken his hand punching a locker when Artie walked out. The dent his fist made was enormous, and the scream he let out spoke of much more than the pain he felt in his fractured knuckles.
Lynette made Buck go to the hospital, but he had to drive because she was crying too hysterically to see through her tears. His good hand on the wheel, their hair flowing behind them in the convertible, it looked like a movie exit as they drove off in tuxedo and white gown, a happy couple starting their life together.
I had to go back into the dance to find Reese, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what had happened.
“I’m leaving soon,” he assured me. “I’ll give you a ride in a bit. Go find that date of yours and dance with her.”
In the wake of all that had happened, I had forgotten all about Carly. I looked for her, but couldn’t find her. In the end, I waited by the exit for forty-five minutes before Reese was ready to leave.
When we pulled up to the boathouse, I saw Artie’s pickup, but it was dark. Reese laughed. “I know you love the team, but it’s a little early to start practicing for next season.”
I put on my best smile. “Hey, you seniors don’t know what it’s like. It’s going to be a lot of pressure trying to match what we did this year.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that.” We shook hands and I waited until I couldn’t see his taillights before walking down the ramp to the boathouse. Artie was sitting on the roof, feet dangling over the edge.
“I must be predictable,” Artie said. He sat with his oar across his lap, his crown still on his head, still askew.
“Where else would you go?” I said.
He nodded. “I used to always come here to think.”
“Good place to do it,” I said, and we sat in silence watching the scattered lights reflect across the surface of the dark water.
Artie was tense, sitting rigid and gripping the oar tight. The sound of his breathing, slow and steady, belied the storm inside him.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked.
“College, I guess.”
“What about Buck and Lynette?”
“What about them?” he said, turning to look at me for the first time.
“They love you,” I said, and meant it.
He laughed. “And I love them. So, where does that leave us?”
“Maybe you should talk to them.”
Artie laughed again, and it turned into a croak. He wept quietly while we sat, and I said nothing.
“You know,” he said, wiping the tears from his eyes. “This was all I ever wanted.” He lifted the oar from his lap. “This season, this championship, all of you. This oar. This was it for me, and I got it all.”
“It doesn’t have to end here,” I said. “There are more races to run.” It sounded hollow to my own ears.
“Not for me,” Artie said, and started to his feet. He used the oar like a walking stick, pulling himself up. “I was right about you,” he pointed the oar at me. “I could tell the first time I saw you. You’re a heck of a friend.”
“I’m not half the guy you are, Artie.”
“Well, you’re going to have to be.” He stepped backward, and hoisted his oar on his shoulder. He took three great strides to the edge of the roof and launched his oar into Lake Leelanau. “It’s all yours now.” He patted me on the shoulder, then climbed the ladder down to the ground and walked back toward his pickup. “Let her run,” he shouted as he walked out of my life. “Let her run.”
I knew then that there would be no state championships, no National School Championship Regatta in Philadelphia. Artie’s dream, and our magical year, was over. I sighed, stripped down to my underwear and went into the water to fetch my captain’s oar.