Monday, October 16, 2006

Not Your Average Bayer – Ernie Bayer’s Last Trip on the Water

Ernestine “Ernie” Bayer was a remarkable lady and an oarswoman extraordinaire! She died a few weeks ago at age 97, having accomplished more in a little under a century than most individuals could have accomplished in several millennia of walking this earth or rowing upon its waters! I feel privileged to have called her my friend, and to have spent many hours over the years listening to her recount the fascinating tales from her decades of activism as “The Mother of Women’s Rowing” and "The Matriarch of Recreational Rowing.”

I was deeply touched and honored when Ernie’s daughter, Tina Bayer, called to invite me to participate in Ernie’s special memorial services. The events were held yesterday, and were among the most moving and appropriate I have ever observed or participated in. Tina and many of Ernie’s friends from the world of rowing organized a floating memorial service on the waters of the picturesque Squamscot River in Exeter, New Hampshire. At 9:00, under a stunning fall sky, a flotilla of craft – singles, doubles, eights, kayaks, canoes, and launches – were put in the water from the ramp of the Philips Exeter Academy boathouse. We made our way downstream about a mile, just around the bend from the spot along Swazey Parkway where dozen of “landlubber” friends of Ernie had come to pay their respects. The boats huddled together to hear one of Ernie’s good friends offer a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was a fitting choice, since “Mama Bayer” had spent much of her lifetime reaching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and, as a woman seeking to enter a “man’s sport,” persistently asked “Why, oh why, can’t I?”

I read a poem that I had found that seemed particularly fitting. The poem was written by Verity, and is entitled “A Rowing Poem.”

“On the water the confusion stops,
The peace begins, the tension drops.
Rhythm, run, glide and catch,
Muscles work, mind does relax.
Body and boat synchronized,
The sculler’s grace exemplified.
Forever to be able to use the blade –
To traverse the water – is my heaven made.”

As Tina lovingly offered Ernie’s ashes to the river where Ernie rowed so many nautical miles over the last decades of her life, the other rowers scattered flower petals on the surface of the stream – celebrating a life that had been lived in full bloom.

I offered a prayer that was extemporaneous. When the prayer had ended, Ernie’s biographer, Lew Cuyler, shouted over to me from his double, “Can I have a copy of that prayer to publish in our newsletter, ‘The Catch’?" The prayer was not in written form, but I promised to try to re-create it as best I could. Here is the gist of the prayer I offered as Ernie took to the water and floated on the surface of her beloved Squamscot River for the last time:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth
And the earth was without form and was void
And darkness was upon the face of the waters.
And God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.

Oh, Lord, we thank You for the light that was the life of Ernie Bayer.
We thank You for the illumination that flooded in wherever she appeared.
We thank You for all the lives she touched – friends, family and the rowing community that is gathered here in her memory today.

We pray, oh Lord, that on that day a few weeks ago when she reached the end of her voyage and she crossed the River from this life into eternal life, that You greeted her with Your warm smile, Your strong embrace, and Your words of welcome,
‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’

We pray that You will keep her safely in your perpetual and loving care, just as we will continue to hold her in our minds, hearts, and memories with unabating affection and with a love that will never ebb.

We pray in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The flotilla then headed back upstream, past the crowd that had gathered on the left bank of the river near the bandstand. As we made headway against the current, two majestic blue herons offered a memorial flyover – I am certain in Ernie’s honor.

Once back on land, we continued the celebration at the famed Exeter Inn, where, over brunch, many recounted “Ernie stories.” Among those present were members of the 1984 U.S. Women’s Olympic Gold Medal Crew, with whom Ernie had rowed on numerous occasions. She had continued to row in international competitions into her 90’s!

I read another poem I have found that seemed apt for the occasion. The poem, originally penned in 1995 by Joe Cerniglia, was written from the perspective of a male rower. I explained to those who had gathered in Ernie’s honor at the Exeter Inn that I felt comfortable taking some poetic license and modifying the poem to reflect the perspective of an oarswoman. Here is the revised poem I offered yesterday:


The sound of water rushing by is music to her ears
And when she bends the carbon shaft, her total mind is clear.
Nothing in her life out there can interrupt the glide
Of glass and metal slipping by the surface which they ride.

When the sacred time has come she gladly lifts her own,
For thought that she might, by some chance, have her power shown.
Standing in a line she’s stood many times before;
Running to the wooden rack and picking out her oar;
The thought of honor and of strength is growing in her chest
Her drive for victory is ready; ready for a test.

Her hand she touches to her head, her shoulders and her chest,
For only God, she knows, will give the strength she need posses.

Her arms and legs and feet and hands are clenched with rage and power.
Only speed and stamina will yield a glorious hour.

So when the rower goes to sleep, the race is never done,
Her mind is churning thoughts of strength and how she’d once begun.
The peace you see on a row’rs face, in her quiet bed,
Deceives the mind of on-lookers, for crew is in her head.
The trials she has passed and the pain she’s suffered through
Are nothing more but calluses. To death loves only crew;
And when that death to her has come she nothing craves but this:
To feel the wooden handle and the pull against her wrist.
A rower’s only absolute, the one thing she may know,
That happiness she’ll only have . . . if only she can ROW!

I bought a copy of Lew Cuyler’s book about Ernie’s life, and am looking forward to reading it soon.

Ernie’s story and her life were an inspiration to me - and to hundreds and thousands around the world who knew her or who, because of her pioneering efforts, had an opportunity to row in her wake upon waters that she had smoothed through her courage, tenacity and vision. We are all richer because of her.

Farewell, dear friend!


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