There are signs scattered around Whitehall, New York, declaring it the birthplace of the United States Navy. But that deliverance was some 242 years ago, and the actual father was a guy named Benedict Arnold. Now, those signs in this town of 2,600 at the foot of Lake Champlain are dwarfed in both number and size by new proclamations: Whitehall Supports Codie Bascue, 2018 U.S. Olympic Bobsled Team.
As the sun rose over the hills on a snow-blown Sunday, hundreds of locals -- Railroader Nation, they call themselves -- gathered at Whitehall Central School to eat breakfast and watch their favorite son compete on another mountain 14 hours ahead and 6,600 miles away in Pyeongchang. The event was spearheaded by Topher Montville, the middle school guidance counselor. "Codie was in the eighth grade when I arrived here," Montville says. "Even then, I could sense this great combination of humility and determination. He means a lot to Whitehall, from the kids in this school to the senior citizens."
In the school lobby is Bascue's first real bobsled, co-sponsored by Putorti's Broadway Market, where his mother, Pam, once worked. The halls are festooned with all sorts of tributes to 23-year-old Bascue, including a poster asking, "What is your dream for the future?" (One student answered, "I want to be a chicken farmer and feed the world.") Residents chowed down in the cafeteria on "Gold Medallion Pancakes" as they watched live coverage of the Olympics. They migrated to the auditorium with its movie screen when it came time for Bascue and brakeman Sam McDuffie to bring glory back to Whitehall.
Bascue is actually from Dresden, a hamlet a few miles north of town, across the South Bay of Lake Champlain. It's the kind of place where wood is stacked to the ceiling of porches, horses and cows seem to talk about the weather, and fishing shacks look as though they're about to drop into the drink like ice cubes. It was Bascue's grandfather, Alan, who started the bobsled club in Whitehall, teaching the kids the basics and taking them to Lake Placid on weekends. Now Bascue is something of a wunderkind, a good athlete (baseball and football in high school) with a real feel for steering a bullet down a barrel of ice.
You could say Whitehall is a town down on its luck. But as Tammy Rocque, who grew up here and works at the prison in nearby Comstock, says, "Here's the thing about Whitehall. We don't have that much in our pockets. But when it comes to helping neighbors, we dig deep." And they've helped defray the expenses of travel for the Bascue family, who joined Bascue in Pyeongchang, by selling special rally towels and cowbells. That's how Codie's father, Craig, a Glens Falls firefighter, got to celebrate his Feb. 18 birthday with his family in South Korea.
"So much of history has been written by a small group willing to fight to change things," Montville says. "It was that way in the Revolutionary War. It's that way with our support for Codie."
Alas, Bascue's sled was only 25th after the first two runs. But Whitehall will be cheering for him again next week when he pilots one of Team USA's four-man sleds. He won't just have three men pushing for him. He'll have Railroader Nation. And they'll be chowing down "Bob-sliders" in the high school cafeteria.