His word was law and rightly so.
Rowing the Cook stroke, Yale had defeated Harvard five years in succession. His dynasty, as one might call it, was to continue much longer, and when, at length, it came to an end, Yale had lost only one race to Harvard, her dearest foe, in more than a dozen years. To us youngsters the story of "Bob" Cook was like a romance. He had come to Yale from a Pennsylvania farm, rugged and seasoned at the plough and the pitchfork, and past twenty-one years of age. As a freshman in the spring of '72 he had wandered down to the river and the boat-house to gaze wistfully at the oarsmen.
Unaccustomed to an indoor life, a winter of hard study had made him feel stale and restless.
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This rowing was a novelty that appealed to him. He could see no reason why he should not be given a trial. At this time Yale boating fortunes were at a low ebb. The six-oared crews had been trounced by such smaller colleges as Bowdoin and Williams and Amherst, and nobody had any clear ideas of form or style. The crew was an exclusive organization, however, with a flavor of social caste, and lowly freshmen with hayseed in their hair were dis.
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This "Bob" Cook was the best wrestler and rough-and-tumble fighter in college, but as for admitting him to the charmed circle of the 'varsity crew, it would n't do at all. He was very curtly told to wait a year or so, and meanwhile to stay away from the boat-house. A young man with a square jaw and a solid pair of shoulders, he had determined to break into this aristocratic company.
Day after day he haunted the boat-house, and it was to be noted that none of the haughty young gentlemen appeared eager to throw him out. At length the captain lost patience and contrived a way to get rid of this nuisance of a freshman. With him went the strongest and most skillful man of the crew. Each took an oar and began to pull for all he was worth.
It was anticipated that this test would make a laughing-stock of the ignorant freshman. Without doubt the veteran would promptly pull him around in circles.
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What the stocky young farmer lacked in experience was atoned for in muscle, wind, and courage. This was no harder than chopping down trees or pitching on a load of hay. He dug his oar into the water and laid back on it.
The opponent, who set the stroke, rushed the pace to flurry him, but Cook kept time without turning a hair. The boat began to swing, but not in the direction so confidently expected by the onlookers. By main strength the freshman was winning the bout. Soon the boat was slowly describing a circle, Cook breathing easily and enjoying the exercise. It was the veteran who cried quits.
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They would, indeed. He was invited to take a seat in the waist of the boat, but not because they wished to have him there. The captain told them to shove off and the course was laid out into the harbor. The order was given to put. They would kill the hayseed and so finish the business. It was a cruel ordeal for a young man who had never sat in a racing boat, who had done no training, and whose muscles were unused to this kind of exertion.
At first he caught crabs and was banged to and fro, but soon he fell into the stride and managed to chop his blade into the water and throw his weight on the handle. Forty strokes a minute and higher they pumped at that oldfashioned "donkey-engine" stroke, and three miles of it was enough to make any man gasp like a fish. The joke was distinctly on the other fellows. Glumly they paddled back to the boathouse and young Cook stiffly hauled himself out upon the landing stage.
His wrists were already swelling and his muscles had knotted with cramps, but he addressed the group as follows: "It was a dirty trick. And we may as well understand each other.
If you refuse to give me a fair deal, I intend to whip this whole Yale crew, beginning with the captain. And you can step up right now. Thereafter he sat in the Yale boat and no man molested him. This was a crew which had a hazy conception of the principles of rowing, notwithstanding its excellent opinion of itself, and in the annual race on the Connecticut River it was most disgracefully beaten, lagging far in the rear of Amherst, Harvard, Massachusetts Agricultural College, Bowdoin, and Williams.
A worse crew had never been sent out from New Haven.
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He brooded and pondered over it. College rowing in America was mostly experimental at best, and such little method as it possessed had been acquired from professional scullers. The sliding seat was still a novelty. A few crews used slides with rollers while others greased the boards with tallow and sewed leather patches on their breeches.
In a hard race with a high stroke they were in danger of spontaneous combustion. It was martyrdom for sport's sake. Young Cook returned to college from a summer on the farm and he was still considering this vital problem. What was the best way to row and where could it be learned? During the Christmas vacation he sat in his campus room reading "Tom Brown at Oxford. He said to himself: "By Jingo, that's where they know how to row.
They have been at it since Hector was a pup. I am going to England somehow. He had no money of his own for the pilgrimage and it seemed absurd to ask for a leave of absence from college. Yale was a small place, clustered around the Old Brick Row, and its ways were very simple. The elm-shaded campus, which lived its life apart and found contentment in its own activities, regarded it as sensational when "Bob" Cook announced his intention. With trepidation he approached that benignant scholar and divine, "Prexy" Porter, and submitted his rash request.
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It was promptly granted. Perhaps the worthy president had felt chagrin that his boys should be viewed as a sorry jest on the water, and I am sure that he was wise enough to grasp the real significance of this mission. It was in accordance with the doctrine of service which had won for Yale a prestige far more honorable than pretentious buildings or large endowments could possibly achieve.
The legend is that the undergraduates pawned their overcoats and watches or sold their furniture to complete the amount. An interesting commentary this, when many a spoiled sophomore of to-day would never miss the three hundred dollars from a term's allowance.
In this frugal manner did "Bob" Cook set forth on his adventure, sailing for England in January. First he went to Cambridge and was hospitably welcomed by the 'varsity rowing men. They wined and dined him and took him out to follow the crews along the bank of the Cam. He rowed with them and learned all the coaches could show him. After a leisurely visit he journeyed to Oxford where he was as cordially received. Then he finished the six weeks' course of study by joining the famous crews of the London Rowing Club.
Satisfied that he had mastered the English style of rowing, he proceeded to adapt it, with acute intelligence, to fit the American college oarsman who is less mature and experienced, as a rule, than his cousins overseas.