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Book Bag: ‘My Life in Boats, Fast and Slow’ by Andrew Larkin; ‘The King of Fu’ by Benjamin Davis 


Thursday, November 29, 2018

by Steve Pfarrer

MY LIFE IN BOATS, FAST AND SLOW

By Andrew Larkin

Levellers Press

Retired Northampton physician Andrew Larkin has been a well-known figure for many years in the local rowing scene; he’s a recreational sculler who, among other things, has rowed solo down the Connecticut River from Northampton to Long Island Sound. Now he’s chronicled much of his aquatic life in the memoir “My Life In Boats, Fast and Slow.”

“I have always been more interested in telling stories than in writing stories, but I have succumbed to the temptation to write them down,” Larkin says in an introduction to the book, published by Levellers Press of Amherst.

Good thing he did, because Larkin has an interesting story to tell — including being part of a rowing team at Harvard University that competed in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where the all-white team courted censure by advocating for better treatment of black athletes. These were, after all, the Olympic games where U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute after winning medals and thereafter were thrown off the U.S. team.

Larkin, born in Connecticut in 1946, recounts some unusual parts of his family story, like that of his father, a scientist who wrote the first study of radiation poisoning on residents of Nagasaki, Japan following the atomic bomb attack in August 1945 (that report, Larkin writes, contradicted the official U.S. government position that there were no significant effects from radiation exposure).

Another eye-opener: Larkin contracted polio in 1952 at age 6 and, unable to walk, spent the summer lying in bed. By fall he was mobile again but physically awkward, such that at school he was always “the last one to be picked for games. I had neither the mind nor the body to follow balls rapidly through time and space and respond quickly."

But when he was older, Larkin took up cross-country running and bicycling, then switched to rowing when he enrolled at Harvard in 1964. The heart of his memoir covers his time there and his attraction to the sport, which he says at that time was regarded by many as an elitist activity but which actually “has been an integral part of our culture.” 

The Harvard crew Larkin was part of became a highly successful team that competed in a number of international races, culminating with their qualifying for the 1968 Olympics. Larkin and most of the crew members also gave their support that year to the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), an organization that called for, among other things, more black sports coaches, the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title and the exclusion of openly racist countries like South Africa from participation in the Olympics.

The Harvard crew’s stance angered Olympic officials, which only contributed to the team’s hardships in Mexico City, where Larkin and other members struggled with illness and the thin mountain air. After the team finished last in its race, the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Douglas Roby, wrote a gloating letter to Harvard coach Harry Parker.

“I feel that the miserable performance of you and your crew at Mexico City,” the letter read in part, “will stand as a permanent record against you and the athletes which you led. As a boy I had great admiration and respect for Harvard and the men it produced. Certainly serious intellectual degeneration has taken place [there] ... if you and several members of your crew are examples of the type of men that are within its walls.”

Larkin gave up rowing when he went to medical school and served an internship in a poor community in Philadelphia. But after he became a pulmonary specialist in Northampton in 1983, he worked his way back to the sport, this time on a “slow” boat on the Connecticut River, where his rowing became more meditative, a practice for putting his life in perspective.

Like the time he capsized in heavy waves on the Connecticut near New London, Conn. and at first frantically tried to retrieve his various personal items. “And then I realized I had the rest of my life to row ashore,” he writes. “I gave up my attachment to my worldly goods.” Once on the shore, soaking wet and shivering with cold, he was offered a ride home from a man who came upon him: “I was saved.”

THE KING OF FU

By Benjamin Davis

Illustrated by Nikita Klimov

benjamindaviswriter.com

Sturbridge native Benjamin Davis, a 2012 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, now lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, where, according to his website, he works variously as a freelance editor, tech-journalist, “native-speaking-content-monkey, and social media manager for English speaking markets.”

And “to cope with the sterility of corporate writing,” he adds, “my fiction sometimes gets a little out of hand.”

Thus we have “The King of Fu,” Davis’ coming-of-age story as extended free verse poem, in which he writes of growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, all through the lens of an absurdist and satirist.

For instance, there’s the account of how, when he was in the Boy Scouts (“a group of males who like to dress up and play together sometimes in the woods”), he cut down a tree with his pocketknife for firewood, horrifying The Scoutmaster.

Davis’ response: “I quit Boy Scouts / the next day / they didn’t make sense / That set a paradigm / for my relationship / With nature.”

In the end, Davis writes that his story is about navigating many things — family strife, bullies, problems with authority, sex, drugs, middle school — to answer “one of life’s greatest mysteries: What is the point of adults?”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.