In the fall of 1933, the weather got colder, making it harder for the freshman crew hopefuls to concentrate on their sport. By October 30, there were only eighty freshmen left trying out for crew, down from the original 175. Tom Bolles decided to move some of the best rowers into small shell barges—he chose both Joe Rantz and Roger Morris for this privilege. The shell barges were broader than competitive shells, making them harder to maneuver. Joe was proud to be chosen for a shell barge—he’d been working long hours playing in a swing band to pay his way through college, and every day he walked two and a half miles to make it to his engineering classes on time.
Weather is a recurring motif in the book; in Seattle, it’s often rainy and windy, making it difficult for the crew team to exercise. Here, weather acts as a chance for the freshmen to prove their mettle; only the strongest, most determined freshmen brave the water in October and November, when the temperatures are dropping. Joe is no stranger to adversity, physical or psychological—he walks five miles just to get to and from school—so he continues on with the team.
Roger Morris and Joe Rantz were quickly becoming good friends. Neither one of them was particularly talkative, but they could feel a deep “strand of affection” between them. Joe didn’t feel this connection with the other freshmen trying out for crew—in fact, many of his classmates made fun of his old clothes. Nevertheless, Joe worked very hard, studying for class, rowing for three hours a day, and working as a janitor and a musician to support himself. One “silver lining” in Joe’s life was Joyce, who enrolled at the University of Washington, too. To support herself, Joyce had to look for help-wanted ads, often traveling across the city in search of work. Eventually, she found work as a maid. On weekends, Joyce and Joe went to movies and attended school dances, which had no cover charges.
As Joe spends more time at the university, he makes some friends with his teammates. However, Joe is a shy, quiet young man, meaning that even his close friends, such as Roger Morris, don’t know all that much about his life. Joe continues to love Joyce, who enrolls at the university alongside him; they’re both ambitious, intelligent people, who recognize the importance of getting an education, and of finding part-time work to pay for that education. Yet their chief source of joy in life, it would seem, is each other.
Around the same time, in the Dakotas, strong winds tore up the topsoil and scattered it into the skies, blacking out the sun for a few days. This “black blizzard” was the first sign of the Dust Bowl, during which winds blew away much of the topsoil in the American plains, making farming impossible and forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their farms. Also in late 1933, Hitler pulled Germany out of the League of Nations treaty, signifying Germany’s bid for power. German manufacturers began producing guns and tanks, and American visitors in Germany who refused to salute Hitler were assaulted by Nazi troops. Despite reports of the brutality of the Nazi regime, American society remained largely ignorant and indifferent to news from Germany; indeed, a poll conducted at the University of Washington that fall found that ninety-nine percent of students opposed America’s involvement in an alliance with England against Germany.
The Dust Bowl was one of the defining events of the Great Depression; it devastated American agriculture when American industry was still reeling from the Crash of 1929. As Brown steps back to examine larger historical forces in America, he returns to Germany as well. In spite of the frequent reports of Hitler’s brutality as a leader, Americans were largely ignorant or indifferent to his regime. In part, this was because of the legacy of World War One; the carnage of that earlier conflict left few Americans with a strong desire to return to Europe for any military ventures. Another reason why the public remained indifferent to Hitler’s rise to power, which Brown doesn’t discuss here, is that there was a strong anti-Semitic streak in American life at the time; far too many Americans were willing to look the other way at Hitler’s rhetoric.
On November 28, the freshmen had their last practice of the year, meaning that the coaches could now announce who had made “first and second boat.” Bolles announced that Roger and Joe had made first boat. Joe forced himself not to show emotion in front of his peers, but later, he wept—“for the first time since his family had left him.”
Joe’s hard work paid off; he was so experienced with endurance and dedication (having supported himself from an early age, without the help of Harry) that he was able to “play through pain” and impress his coaches.
Early in December, it began to rain heavily in Seattle. The rain was so intense that it eroded houses and cracked roadways. In the midst of the rain, however, Joyce and Joe went home to Sequim. Joyce’s mother showed Joe a recent headline from the local newspaper, about how Joe made first crew.
As Joe became more adept at rowing, he became more popular in his community. This should remind readers that, at the time, rowing was a popular, highly acclaimed sport—meaning that the people who excelled at it were seen as heroes.