Nearer the barrier to the pier a group of her teammates were sitting on steamer trunks and talking in high, excited voices. Some had never been out of their home state, let alone on board an ocean liner. A few veterans, like Eleanor, had competed at Los Angeles in '32, but most were doe-eyed college kids, plucked from the boondocks. All wore their USA team straw boaters, white trousers or skirts, and navy blazers embroidered with the Olympic shield.
'Hey, you guys,' she said. 'Who's up for a little first-night party on board later?'
Just then, the sound of screams was carried on a wave of applause from near the entry to the pier, where another cab was inching its way into the dense mass of people. Jesse Owens's coach jumped out, followed by the man himself in a pinstriped navy suit, and the press jostled to get a word from America's star athlete. Photographers shouted his name.
'Make way for the golden boy,' she said. Her teammates stood on their steamer trunks to wave and whistle.
Eleanor and Owens were the same age, twenty-three, and both were world-record holders. She'd never figured him out. The less winning seemed to concern him, the more effortlessly he won. The more courtesy he showed, the farther he left his rivals behind. For her, winning required a dedicated mean streak - and a desire above all else that the others should lose. She watched him ponder each reporter's question, brow furrowed, and answer as though to his father-in-law, nodding and grinning modestly.
The heat on the pier was rising, and the noise and the wafts of diesel oil and dead fish were making her feel nauseated. She decided to board and made her way up the gangway. So long, New York, she thought. When I set foot here again it'll be with shame or glory. At the entry to the deck stood a stout, middle-aged matron wearing the team uniform and hat. She was holding a clipboard.
'Welcome aboard, Mrs Emerson,' the woman said with a faint, whiskery smile. 'You're on D deck, sharing with Marjorie Gestring and Olive McNamee. Your trunk's in your cabin.'
'Thank you, Mrs Hacker. D deck sounds delightful.'
'If it's luxury and glamour you were after, you should have booked your own first-class fare.'
'You think I didn't try?'
The woman ticked her list. 'Count yourself lucky, my girl. The Negroes are sleeping below the waterline. You'll wear your uniform at dinner, please. Bed is at ten o'clock.'
Eleanor walked on before her irritation showed. She'd had enough evenings ruined by chaperones.
'Old drizzle puss,' she muttered.
'I heard that, young lady.'
SHE FOUND HER two cabinmates unpacking to shrieks of laughter and felt herself tensing slightly. At school she'd stood out from the other girls in so many ways that she'd learned to endure their frequent unkindnesses. Swimming had often been her way of escaping them.
'Hi there,' said the nearer, a broad-shouldered blonde chewing gum. 'I'm Marjorie, and this is Olive.' The second girl, who wore oyster-thick eyeglasses, grinned at her. 'It's a privilege to dorm with you.'
'Likewise.' Eleanor smiled, embracing them both in turn, and suddenly realised that she recognised them from the trials. 'Jesus, you can rely on old Hacker to put swimming rivals in the same cabin.'
'I'm a diver,' Marjorie said, a little crestfallen. She looked about fourteen.
Eleanor didn't want to be a bad sport. She'd been green, too, before her Olympic debut at age nineteen. Her gold medal at Los Angeles had made her the belle of the press corps, celebrated on the covers of magazines as an all-American beauty. 'Your body's a head turner,' Sam Goldwyn had told her, 'and you've got a lot of class.'
She wanted to say something friendly, but Olive spoke first.
'I heard your husband's band at the Harlem Opera House.'
Excerpted from Flight from Berlin by David John. Copyright © 2012 by David John. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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