It was lost or so it seemed. The 1939 Olympic gold medal for winning the eight-oared rowing competition was placed somewhere in the house for safe keeping. The one who hid it also forgot where, and after looking all over the family gave it up for lost. Years later, while remodeling the home, workmen found it in the attic insulation. Apparently, a squirrel had taken a liking to the shimmering gold and brought it back to the nest.
The day author Daniel James Brown heard this story was the day he had a revelation. He was visiting Joe Rantz for another matter altogether. Joe invited him to discuss Angus Hay Jr. an old friend and son to the main character in Daniel’s recent book. The same book that Judy, Joe’s daughter, was reading to him aloud when Daniel appeared at the door.
Joe was dying. He laid on a recliner with his oxygen tank at arm’s length and extended a frail thin hand to Daniel. With soft 40-50s jazz in the background they had a nice conversation then it turned into Joe remembering his own life. Daniel indulged him, but then the story took hold
“His voice was reedy, fragile, and attenuated almost to the breaking point. From time to time he faded into silence. Slowly, though, with cautious prompting from his daughter, he began to spin out some of the threads of his life story. Recalling his childhood and his young adulthood during the Great Depression, he spoke haltingly but resolutely about a series of hardships he had endured and obstacles he had overcome, a tale that, as I sat taking notes, at first surprised and then astonished me.”
With joy, Joe spoke of his learning to row and the teammates that shared his daily routine. He reminisced about the cold mornings under gray skies and above the steely waters of Lake Washington. He retold Daniel the feeling when all rowed in unison for a win. But, when he mentioned “the boat” his eyes could not hold back all the water pulled by the oars of time.
Daniel recalled, “I shook Joe’s hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that I’d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, ‘But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.’”
Daniel James Brown’s new book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is worthy of your time. Like the squirrel in the attic, you will want to hoard this book and the stories within. Oh, and it is about the boat.