Ask anyone of my era or the preceding generation what American name is attached to the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, and you’ll invariably hear the story of how Jesse Owens single-handedly foiled Hitler’s plan to showcase Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals for the United States.
Adolf Hitler viewed the Olympics as an opportunity for Nazi propaganda but another Adolf, the German shoemaker Adolf “Adi” Dassler and his brother Rudolph “Rudi” Dassler viewed it more as an opportunity to showcase their athletic shoe on the world’s largest stage. Among the athletes who donned his footwear with extra long spikes for their events was Jesse Owens. Within ten years the Dassler brothers had a major falling out, and Adi formed a company for athletic footwear in his own name, a name that is instantly recognized to this day.
Jesse Owens fell on hard times financially after the Olympics, but his name remained iconic in the United Stated and abroad. The Harlem Globetrotters made their name from trotting universally admired basketball skills and entertainment around the world, and for a brief moment in time Jesse Owens appeared with the club. The year was 1951, and as communism was spreading to East Germany the State Department contacted the team’s owner, Abe Saperstein, requesting that the Globetrotters play a game in the Allied section of Berlin. Jesse Owens was flown in by helicopter to the same stadium where he had made history 15 years before, receiving a 15 minute ovation from 75,000 fans packed into Olympic Stadium.
Search the official website of the Olympic Movement for the 1936 summer games and you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention of Joseph Rantz and his eight classmates who rowed Crew for the University of Washington varsity team. They were the National Collegiate Champions in 1935 who earned the right to represent the USA in the 1936 Olympics. They won the gold medal owing in large measure to the come-from-behind strategy perfected by their coxswain Bobby Moch. It was serendipity that as Joe Rantz entered hospice in the latter days of his life nearly 70 years later, he asked his daughter to invite a neighbor over for a chat. Daniel James Brown was an author who knew that his neighbor, Joe, had rowed in an Olympic race, but he never knew the details of the race or of Joe’s life.
Several months ago Dr. Gary Williams, a close optometric friend, urged me to read the book that was the culmination of Daniel James Brown’s interviews and research. Gary is a voracious reader and while he is given to sharing quotes from books he has read, he normally doesn’t nudge me toward particular works. He knows that I tend toward non-fiction books with multiple dimensions. While the books I read typically lean toward professional or sporting interests, and Gary’s tastes more toward books involving history, he somehow knew that this book was special and would strike a particular chord.
This is not a book review, so I will leave the details of the book itself for you to read – and I do heartily encourage you, as Gary did me, to read it. I waited several months to do it, until there was the right day and time and mental set to savor it. Yesterday proved to be that day, sitting alongside Miriam in a chair at the edge of the Gulf periodically peering into the waters and letting Daniel James Brown transport me to a very special place. At times I had difficulty reading not because the story ever lagged or the writing style bogged, but because my welling tears fogged the print. To say that DJB is a gifted writer is an understatement.
In a Powell’s Bookstore interview, Brown mentions the significance of the University of Washington Crew’s coxswain, Bobby Moch. As full as the book is of surprises, and it really reads more as a novel than a piece of history, one of its revelations touched me deeply. Granted that Hitler exhibited a grudging respect for Jesse Owens, and that Germany celebrated Jesse’s visit therein 1951, I wonder what the Fuhrer’s reaction would have been to learn of the information on page 289:
“Sudden revelation paid Bobby Moch a visit as well. His came as he sat, in the shade under a tree in a wide-open field on Travers Island, opening an envelope. The envelope contained a letter from his father, the letter Bobby had requested, listing the addresses of the relatives he hoped to visit in Europe. But the envelope also contained a second, sealed envelope labeled, ‘Read this in a private place.’ Now, alarmed, sitting under the tree, Moch opened the second envelope and read its contents. By the time he had finished reading, tears were running down his face.
The news was innocuous enough by twenty-first-century standards, but in the context of social attitudes in America in the 1930s it came as a profound shock. When he met his relatives in Europe, Gaston Moch told his son, he was going to learn for the first time that he and his family were Jewish.”
And there is so, so much more. If you have time to read only one book in 2014, make this the one.