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The breaks of the game

July 8, 2011
By Bob Seidenstein (saranacbo@hotmail.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

How do we know what's going on in the world? How do we know the true shape of our economy, or the situation in Afghanistan, or what politicians believe versus what they say? The answer's simple: We don't.

Say we read something in the paper that's presented as straight fact. But is it? Are the reporters lying? Are the editors changing the facts? Are certain pieces of information exaggerated or under-emphasized or even eliminated, thus giving us a skewed view of the situation? Who knows? And the real point is, how do we find out the relevant information?

I wish I had an answer to this, but I don't. And this doesn't concern only world events either it's darn hard to figure out what's going on in our own backyards. This point was driven home to me last Saturday at the Saranac Lake High School Class of '61's reunion.

I was chatting with Steve Morgan and the Hanmer Guideboat Races came up, probably because they were taking place the next day.

"I raced in that a couple of times," said Steve. "Not in a guideboat, but in a canoe."

Something stirred my memory, but I didn't know what. I snapped my fingers, trying to retrieve it and suddenly it came to me.

"Yeah," I said. "Howard Riley wrote about that. Something about him beating you."

A grim look came across Steve's face and in an instant he went from looking like the guy I've known all my life to an Easter Island statue.

"What?" I asked. "You mean he didn't beat you?'

"No, he did," he said. "But it's not quite that simple."

"So you wanna explain it to me?" I said.

"Probably you should reread what he wrote and then we'll talk about it."

Of course Howard's anthology is like scripture to me and I have it with me almost all the time. But since I couldn't see taking it to the class reunion dinner, I'd left it in my car.

"OK," I said. "Be right back."

I got the book and reread the section on the Hanmer Races. Then I went back to Steve.

"All right," I said. "He said you were partnered with Dick Merkel, he was partnered with Mickey Luce, and even though you guys started a minute ahead of them, they passed you right at the finish line. Is that right?"

"Some is, some isn't," said Steve. "Go look at the second place in the index where I'm mentioned."

I did. When I came back I told Steve what I'd learned from the second section, namely Howard said Steve's partner was Bernie Kentile, not Dick Merkel, and Steve's team lost because he claimed he broke his paddle.

"So is that the truth?" I asked.

Steve shrugged.

"Again," he said. "Some is, some isn't."

"Fine," I said. "So do you want to tell me the truth?"

"With pleasure," he said, and he proceeded to recount his Hanmer highlights.

---

Current events

Steve had been in two of the races. The first was in 1963 and his partner was Dick Merkel. Dick was very skilled in a canoe; Steve provided all the muscle anyone could ask for. They trained for several weeks and by race day were on their game. They took second place in their class, first place going to a pair from Canton.

Steve raced the next year, this time with Bernie Kentile. They didn't practice, but both of them were in good shape and like Dick, Bernie was a skilled canoeist. So he'd be in the stern and Steve'd be up front.

The race wasn't a mass start - instead, each team was started a minute apart. As fate would have it in '64, the team behind Steve and Bernie was Howard and Mickey Luce.

As for these two teams' relative strengths? Well, Steve was a hardcore jock from Way Back. In high school he'd lettered in football and track, and went on football scholarships to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colo., and to University of North Colorado in Greely, from which he'd graduated that June. Bernie was a good athlete and a young buck of 20.

Mickey Luce was an excellent athlete. In high school he'd lettered in football, basketball and track, and in fact his conference record for the 440 stood for decades. He'd gone on to Plattsburgh State, where he'd lettered in track. He was the same age as Steve - 22. Howard had been a good high school athletewhich was over a decade in the past. He was then 34, which today is many athletes' primes since they've been training all their lives. Back then, however, it was a weekend warrior's dotage.

The racers in those days started on what's now Lake Flower's boat launch, then they had to portage over the Main Street bridge and put in behind the dam. The finish was at the Fish and Game Club. It was a huge town event, second only to Winter Carnival, and aside from having lots of entries, it had literally thousands of spectators - around Lake Flower, on the various bridges, and then of course at the Fish and Game Club.

According to Ecclesiastes, the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong. But according to Damon Runyon, that's the way to bet. And if any bets were placed on who'd finish first, Riley/Luce or Morgan/Kentile, all the smart money was on Morgan/Kentile. And that's exactly how it looked like it'd play out.

Steve and Bernie pulled way ahead of Howard and Mickey right from the start and then gained more time on the portage. Keep in mind, unlike today, the equipment was old school. The paddles were wood and so were most of the boats - including the ones our Fab Four were paddling - so schlepping them on a portage was definitely a young man's game.

Once they hit the river, Bernie and Steve kept widening the gap and they were still ripping it up until about 100 yards from the finish line, when disaster struck: Bernie's paddle broke!

What to do? What could they do? For all the good a broken paddle was, Bernie might as well have been paddling with a pocket comb. Steve, in the front, now had to provide both the power and the steering. Either of which might've been possible, but both, together, were a lost cause.

Not that he gave up, of course: He paddled maniacally, but to little avail, as the canoe moved barely ahead of the current.

Finally, with the finish line a couple of boat lengths away, Howard and Mickey flew by them as if they were at anchor.

And that's it - the unvarnished truth about a tale of highly-varnished canoes.

I guess, if anything, it could be summed up succinctly in one phrase: down the crick without a paddle.

 
 

 

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