The photo to the left shows MIT's Baker House dormitory, where I lived during my undergraduate years (1959 through 1963). Built in 1949, Baker House is a very interesting building. As you can see, its brick facade, facing Memorial Drive and the Charles River, is a flowing curve. It was designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
When I had first arrived at MIT, I had attended an activities fair, exposing all the incoming Freshmen to various organizations with which they could get involved for extra-curricular activities. Because I was relatively small and light, the coach of the crew team looked me over, and tried to get me to volunteer as a potential coxswain. But the heavy practice schedule of the crew, out on the water in the wee small hours virtually every morning, dissuaded me. The only sport I ever got involved in at MIT, either as a participant or even as a spectator, was sailing. Well, I did take one quarter of golf, but the less said about that, the better.
Nevertheless, one day, Dick Males (a classmate and fellow Baker House resident), convinced me to try wrestling, in a one-time-only event. Dick had figured out that the scoring formula for intramural athletic competition rewarded a team for having many participants, even if they all lost their events. And in competition with many small fraternities, clearly one thing that a large dormitory like Baker House could supply was warm bodies.
How Dick talked me into this, I don't remember. Since I am extremely un-athletic, he must have been very persuasive. The next thing I knew, he was giving a crash course in wrestling to me and the motley assortment of other volunteers he had shanghaied. We then trooped over to the gym for a preliminary weigh-in, where I discovered that I could wrestle in a lower weight class if I were only a couple of pounds lighter. I think I weighed 134 pounds, and would drop into a lower class if I could get my weight down below 132 (60 kg).
Well, I figured, too bad, but I couldn't do anything about that. That shows you how much I knew about athletics (that is, nothing). Dick informed me that it would be trivial to lose two pounds between then and the official weigh-in in a few hours. I just had to not eat or drink, and do some strenuous exercise in a sweat suit - I would lose a couple of pounds of water in no time. That's what I did, and as predicted, I easily dropped a couple of pounds, and weighed in at the lower weight class.
When the meet started, I hung around watching the wrestling events that preceded mine, trying to pick up some pointers. I also kept an eye on my first opponent, who had been pointed out to me. The event was somewhat marred when one of the wrestlers broke an arm during the match, which was fairly upsetting. It also upset my upcoming opponent, who upon hearing the news, threw up in a wastebasket. I wondered if he might be so rattled that I could actually have a chance of beating him.
Yeah, right. Unlike me, he was a real wrestler, who at least to some extent knew what he was doing. In any event, he certainly had had more than my one hour total instruction from Dick. He pinned me in a matter of a few minutes, and my wrestling career was over. At least my arm wasn't broken.
I was not the only person prevailed upon to enter a sporting match for Baker House. Billie G. Brown, known to everyone only as B. G. Brown, was once somehow convinced to play goalie in a Baker House intramural hockey game. B. G. was a larger-than-life character, both figuratively and literally. He was broadly built, and someone must have reasoned that dressed in a hockey mask and pads, and placed in front of the net, he would block much of the goal. Note 1
In accepting this role, B. G. was undeterred by a small problem that would have dissuaded a lesser man – he didn’t know how to skate. Word of this got around and an enthusiastic Baker House crowd gathered to watch as B. G. took his place in front of the goal. But before the game could start the other team lodged a protest – he wasn’t wearing skates. He was standing in front of the net in his street shoes.
The referees conferred, and someone went to check a rule book, while the Baker House fans waited anxiously. Once the rule book arrived and had been consulted, it turned out that all players on the ice were indeed required to wear skates. Shortly B. G. took to the ice on borrowed skates. He was given a push toward the goal by his teammates, causing him to glide toward the net like an air-suspended puck in an MIT 8.01 physics lab experiment. The sight of B. G. in full goalie regalia, sailing smoothly across the ice, elicited whoops and cheers from the Baker House fans. Responding to the crowd, B. G. turned his body slightly, and waved in acknowledgement. This was a mistake, as he promptly fell backwards to the ice with a thud. The Baker House fans cheered even more.
B. G. served admirably as goalie during the game, though I recall that after a while he wasn’t really standing on the skate blades. Rather he was walking around on his ankles, with the blades sticking out to the sides. The other team protested again, but the refs ruled that the regulations only required that the skates be on his feet. I don’t have any memory of who won the game, but I remember B. G.'s standing ovation.
In my earlier blog entry entitled "Sailing", you can find some stories about my main athletic experience at MIT. Because MIT sits right on the banks of the Charles River, it's possible to take a short sail even between classes. But my sailing at MIT was mostly just for fun, and was not competitive.
Except one year, I did take part in some afternoon open races, in which any student could participate. I did not usually do particularly well, partly because some truly excellent and experienced sailors also competed. I recall one race in which I got off to a particularly bad start, beginning the race in dead last position. The wind was moderate and from the east, an unusual direction. We sailed up to and around the first buoy of the triangular course, near the center of the river, and then began an upwind leg of the race.
Most of the boats then came about onto a starboard tack, back towards the Cambridge shore. In dead last position, with nothing to lose, I set off on a port tack, sailing toward the Boston shoreline. This was not generally a good place to be, because the wind is somewhat blocked by the tall buildings of the city. It can also be irregular, coming in bursts down the streets. But being in last position, I had nothing to lose. The boat just ahead of me, in the second to last position, continued on his starboard tack, apparently not interested in "covering" me. Note 2
On that particular day, there was a sudden, massive wind shift of about 30 or 40 degrees. With no action on my part, I was suddenly the lead boat. By pure luck, I had gone from last place to first, and I was the first boat to go around the upwind mark.
And if the wind had held, I would have won the race easily. Except as I ran before the wind towards the finish line, I sailed right into an odd area in which there was virtually no wind at all. The other boats sailed up to me into the same dead zone, and we all floated around barely moving. My large lead had been nearly erased. As we all gradually crossed the finish line on a light breath of air, I maintained enough of my advantage to finish in second place.
Easy come, easy go.
Note 1: I never actually knew B.G.'s first name until I saw his death notice in the Class of 1963's class notes section of the MIT magazine Technology Review a few years ago. Apparently his first name was actually "Billie", and not "William". At least that's how he's listed in MIT's Alumni Directory, as "Billie Gerald Brown". [return to text]
Note 2: Sailboats go "upwind" (that is, towards where the wind is coming from) by a maneuver called "tacking", in which they zigzag in paths which make an approximately 45° angle to the wind. This means that the boats don't have to follow the same path. One boat may go off to the left on a "starboard tack" (wind coming from its right side), while another boat could go off to the right on a "port tack" (wind coming from its left side). These two tacks diverge, even though both boats are ultimately heading toward the same upwind buoy.
However, if the direction of the wind shifts, one or the other of these boats may obtain an advantage. One boat can suddenly become, in effect, closer to the buoy - not as the crow flies, obviously, because neither boat has moved, but rather in distance along the zigzag tacks needed to reach the buoy. One boat now needs to go more straight into the wind to reach the buoy, and the other less so. The latter will have an advantage.
Because of the above, the best strategy for a leading boat is for it to "cover" the boat in second position, by taking the same tack. That way, the second boat will not be able to benefit from a wind shift. Similarly, the second position boat may cover the third position boat, and so on. This always seemed a bit odd to me - a race in which the leader needs to mimic the person who is behind, rather than the second position competitor following the leader. [return to text]