There are only a few things left at Harvard which can touch off the slippery streams of nostalgia for the reunioning Class of 1924. This Friday's boat race with Yale is one of them.
Twenty-five years after the era of the Stutz Bearcat and the racoon coat the undergraduate is passing by the classics to jump up end down on the atom. The social isolation of Harvard's first 300 years has been washed away in the revitalizing democratization process of its last 15. Harvard's horizons have broadened and Harvard's "A" has narrowed. But Harvard's crew still rows four miles against Yale at the end of June and all the accompanying hoopla is still there.
From a spectator point of view this Friday will be a whirling day of almost strident gayety. There will be long-limbed, sun-tanned girls with young men in straw hats. There will be mountains of cans of the amber pinnacle of the brewmasters' art and the ice cooled mixture of gin and olive--with just a touch of vermouth. There will be yachts and pennants and drunken old reads and drunken old blues and sports writers will duly notate the proceedings and dutifully record the color of New London on race day.
But for the eight guys with the strong backs who make up the varsity shell New London is something else again. They have already been at Rep Top, Harvard rowing headquarters on the Thames just outside of New London, for two weeks.
There, in a cluster of white buildings, they have been leading a life of almost monastic asceticism. They row, they eat, and they sleep. The practices at Red Top are a culmination of a year's work that has molded eight strong guys into a powerful crew. It may not be apparent to the layman, but that is a lot of molding.
Tom Bolles, the Harvard coach, has today what is probably his best varsity crew since he came to Harvard. Since there aren't many crews in the country that beat Harvard any year, that is saying a good deal. This year neither the varsity, junior varsity, nor the freshman crews have been beaten going into this last race. A victory over Yale over the four mile route--and victories over Yale have become habitual for the soft spoken Bolles who has yet to drop a varsity encounter to the Blue--will establish Harvard as the first crew in the East, if not the first in the country.
With all this depending on the outcome of Friday's race the work at Red Top has been going on in earnest. In unremitting hot weather the shell rowed up to 15 miles a day all last week. The crew is now easing up on the distance, Bolles' theory being not to drive a crew through increasingly difficult workouts which might leave it stale on race day, but to bring it along so that it is at a mental and physical peak just for the hour of the long pull.
This Yale race is a real long pull, too. It is the longest in American racing. It is almost twice as long as any of the other Harvard races of the season. For the past two years the Bolles style has given Harvard an advantage in this stamina test.
Bolles uses a variation of the Conibear-Washington style of rowing. It depends on a low stroke rate with a maximum of power. In fact, Bill Curwen, Harvard's stroke, maintains the lowest rate in the east today, varying it very little from 31 except at the racing start of the race and the sprint at the finish.
In contrast, Skip Walz, now in his third year as the Yale coach, was an advocate of a high count. Last year the Yales stroked around 40, often going as high as 46. But this year Walz has altered his strategy and pre-race rumor estimates that the Blue will stroke around 35.
Despite the change though, Harvard is still rated the favorite. Its two time trials last week were 20:13 and 20:10. While neither was a record, they were still both very satisfactory under the conditions.
Now in these last days before the race the crews are spending less time on the river and the silence over the Thames is shattered by frequent impromptu quartets. Red Top musicals are more reminiscent of the corner barber shop than of the opera house, but they do break up the pre-race tension. Then too, Burt Haines, Bolles' venerable assistant, has more time to take the boys over at croquet. Charley Morgan, the varsity manager, complains, "Burt plays like that lawn was a billiard table."
Charley has other worries besides Haines' skill at croquet. He is waiting for Milton Caniff's annual drawing. Each year, the creator of Terry and the Pirates and the present author of Steve Canyon sends the Harvard crew a drawing of one of his scantily clad lovelies for a good luck token. He informed Morgan that this year's drawing was in the works. But it hasn't arrived at Red Top yet and Morgan is looking for it in each mail. Superstitution or not, this Harvard outfit isn't overlooking a bet for Friday. After all, this one is against Yale.