Monday, March 10, 2008

Car vs. Swimmer: Oxford-Bellevue Challenge

"The impossible dream"--no one thought that Doug Hanks could turn his time in bars into a book deal. To hear the story, meet the author, and mack on his mojo, come to Latitude 38 in Oxford this Saturday, March 15, from 3 to 7 p.m.

If you ask Doug Hanks, "Barguments" began at a bar. Duh. But in the case of Hanks's new book from Simon and Shuster, it was actually sparked by a beer tap in Latitude 38. The tap was for a black-and-tan beer, and showed a lion wrestling a bear. Hanks is nothing if not a debater.

"Who do you think would win in that fight?"

I worked as a cook in Latitude at the time, and by the time I got off work was usually 6 to 12 beers behind in a discussion, but doubtless Henry Hale tending bar wasn't aware that he was witnessing the birth of a book.

During his life as a journalist, while living in Oxford Doug wrote for The Star Democrat, then the Daily Times in Salisbury, then the News Journal in Wilmington, before landing a stint with The Washington Post. For the last 7-ish years, he has been Coconut Grover, writing for The Miami Herald. All this is to say, he's got a writing pedigree. And if you find yourself in the Oxford Museum, or browsing a local's bookshelf you'll see a novel called "Muskrat," about a band of sailors from the Eastern Shore who win the America's Cup, as well as a great photo-history of "Oxford: Then & Now." These are by another Doug Hanks--Dougie's father.

So there's some background behind the Barguments phenomenon. As you can see from the book cover and the website, a "bargument" has to be simple and controversial enough to elicit discussion--perhaps heated, without a necessarily correct answer. So I want to tell you a story about a bargument that wasn't. It wasn't because we answered it.

Oxford is a town surrounded on three sides by water. If you drive through, much less live there for some time and spend time on the water, you come to realize that the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry draws some attention. It is thought to be the oldest continuously running, privately owned ferry route in the country.

"Do you think it would be faster to swim across from Oxford to Bellevue, or drive around?" the discussion began.

Immediately, people took sides. There ended up an almost equal number of "swimmers" and "cars," who would pick up the debate on at least a weekly basis, discounting after work beers in Doug's shed. The bargument evolved (and they generally always do) to, "Who would win in a race, a swimmer swimming across the Tred Avon from Oxford to Bellevue, or a driver driving around?"

Then is when the stipulations come in. The driver has to drive the speed limit--if he or she speeds, it discounts the experiment. Okay, and none of us are swimmers, so the swimmer can pick between flippers or a life jacket. Alright, well there has to be someone from the "swimmer" team who rides with the driver to make sure they don't speed. And a "car" person has to ride over on chase-boat to make sure the swimmer doesn't just get in the boat. The particulars worked themselves out. Now, all they needed was a swimmer.

At this particular time, summer 1996, I had found running. I was running and lifting weights regularly, while Hanks and most the rest of the crew, were barguing. It helped that I was working nights, away from their inebriated charms until the kitchen closed.

So by virtue of being in shape, I became the swimmer. I am not a swimmer. I always passed the swimming test at the Tred Avon Yacht Club's sailing class by treading water for 20 minutes, but the motivation for that was not to look like a dork having to wear a life jacket all summer.

Knowing that I was going to have to swim, I did what most people would do: went to swim. At the YMCA pool, since there were fewer jellyfish. You can imagine my surprise to learn that one mile in the Y pool was something like 18 laps or 36 lengths of the pool. Holy crap. In my one swimming trip to the Y, I don't think I swam a full mile. I kept running and lifting, and hoped general fitness and flippers would get the job done.

August 23, 1996

It was a breezy, warm summer evening. A Friday. The wind and tide were strong moving east (towards Easton). Board shorts and flippers vs. a Nissan Altima. If memory serves, Bo Manuel was selected as the "swimmer" to accompany Hanks as the driver. Eric Abell's Wahoo was loaded with Bud 10 oz cans and a handful of people as the chase-boat.

Funny thing, Oxford being a small town: people heard about the race. Local fixtures and bar-goers Ed and Helen Thieler were out in their boat. Henry Hale and the Oxford Fire Department brought a crew in their boat. And my parents had a boat full. We had a fleet following the swimmer across!

"You see what the tide is doing, Mike?" Ed pointed out. "It's a strong tide, what you want to do is point yourself left of the ferry dock--aim at that house and you'll wind up at the dock. If you aim for the dock, you'll have to keep swimming back towards it."

On the call, I dove in the Tred Avon and Hanks drove through Oxford. It was late August and the jellyfish were long in full effect. Counting stings would have been sheep to an insomniac. But I aimed for the house and kept going. The chase-boat checked in to make sure I was alright and stayed alongside, to make sure I didn't get run over (for any re-enactment fanciers).

In roughly 28 minutes, I touched a piling on the Bellevue Ferry Dock, roughly 0.8 miles away, signaling the end of the race. The crew in the boat yanked me out of the river, and tried to chase the river water in my lungs with Budweiser. In the time it took me to get my feet in the boat, raise a beer, and look up, Hanks pulled down to the ferry wharf--not a full minute behind.

Man had beaten machine. The swimmer had defeated the car. And the bargument that wasn't-to-be was solved, the debate over. And that was one that didn't make the book. Hanks's ode to head-scratching decisions and discussions is full of more universal themes, all sure to engage debate. Come on out in Easton at Harrison Street Books during the day to meet Doug and find out what else didn't make the cut, OR, come join the party where it all began: Latitude 38 from 3 to 7 p.m., this Saturday, March 15.

For a taste until then, you can check out and follow along on Doug's blog for the latest news and opinions.

A slow news day--an article from The Star Democrat and the sign in front of the Oxford Fire Department the day and weekend after the challenge.


Johnny Scrappleseed said...

Absolutely fantastic writeup, sir.

Doug Hanks said...

This should be printed up, framed and donated to the Oxford Museum. A great moment in history. I still remember seeing the spectator fleet in the distance as I came down that ferrydock hill in Bellevue as Valliant was a few feet from the piling. At that point, we thought we'd beat him by 20 minutes.

Johnny Scrappleseed said...

Valliant, I'm not kidding. Add some sort of quick intro about Doug's signings this weekend to make her newsworthy and get it in the paper. We could embed the graphic of the original. Word.

Johnny Scrappleseed said...

Also, I believe since your blog focuses on running, you should feature this man. Can't we drum up a fund to get him on the Shore for a tour? I mean, come on, there's plenty of cigs and drinking for him. My new hero:

Michael Valliant said...

Johnny S. - you are too kind. I am still waiting for your blog on speed eating, mass consumption, and Guiness pounding. You could have the most interesting site going. Hope you can swing Latitude on Saturday. Also, I love the 101-year-old guy. I have seen that story--running for a beer. Hard to have a better hero. Not as much of a role model, but there is a good story out there about a former crackhead who ran across the Sahara last year and this year will try to become the fastest man to run across the U.S.

Johnny Scrappleseed said...

Well, it makes sense: crack keeps you lean, and I would imagine quite accustomed to running.

Nancy Toby said...

What a great story!!!

I am SO giving your kids your blog address.

When they're old enough, that is. :-)