Friday, 17 September 2021

We meet again... traffic bobby and the US rower who stole his helmet

A FORMER American rower has forged an unlikely friendship with a retired Henley policeman more than

A FORMER American rower has forged an unlikely friendship with a retired Henley policeman more than three decades after he tried to steal his helmet at the royal regatta.

John Maslowski, who lives near Boston, sparked a wild chase through the town centre after swiping Peter Smart’s headgear on finals day in 1973.

It was Mr Maslowski’s second regatta for Northeastern University’s rowing team and he had vowed to return to the States with an old-fashioned police helmet as a souvenir.

The previous evening, he visited Henley police station, which was then on the corner of Market Place and King’s Road, and asked desk sergeant Johnny Walker if he could buy a helmet.

Mr Maslowski, who was then 22, said: “I’ll never forget his reply. He said: ‘Sonny, the only way you’re going to get one is to knock it off someone’s head then run like hell’. I think he was joking but that’s not how I took it.” On the night of the finals, after Mr Maslowski’s crew had been knocked out of the Grand Challenge Cup, the men were walking to a party in the town centre when they reminded him of his promise.

He crept up behind Pc Smart, who was directing traffic on the corner of Duke Street and Hart Street, then snatched his helmet and sprinted along Duke Street towards Reading Road.

Mr Maslowski said: “I checked to make sure his chin strap wasn’t fastened then I took it and ran as fast as I could.

“I probably got about a quarter of a mile before my adrenaline ran out and I started slowing down. Meanwhile, Peter had blown his whistle and I had several people chasing me.

“I turned round to see him only a few feet behind me, then before I knew it there was this black flash from the side as a man dressed in biker’s leathers tackled me to the ground.

“As I was lying there I just looked up and said, ‘do you want your helmet back?’” Mr Smart, 87, who lives in Elizabeth Road, Henley, with his wife Jean and daughter Jane, 50, said: “It was a very hot day and I remember thinking my head had very suddenly become cool.

“I spun around and there was this lanky young crew boy sprinting off with my helmet. The traffic was snarled up anyway so people were getting out of their cars to chase him.

“Several people tried to grab him but one fell over and another one jumped at him and missed. When this guy finally brought John down, I almost piled in on top of him because I was so cross.

“I arrested him and marched him to the police station. My colleagues offered us a lift but I said, ‘no, he’s walking all the way’.”

Mr Maslowski, now a grandfather, then became nervous as he had been coached by Ernie Arlett, a former Henley man who flew out to teach in America.

He said: “I suddenly realised this was serious. Here I was being arrested in a foreign country and in my coach’s home town, which he took a lot of pride in. It meant everything for us to be competing at Henley.

“They sat me down in this room with a single bare lightbulb and I had no idea what was going to happen. The sergeant came in, recognised me and laughed and then I knew everything would be all right.

“He came back with an old unwanted helmet in a brown paper bag and said, ‘anyone who wants one that badly deserves this. Just don’t you dare put it on until you’re out of the country’.”

Mr Smart, who was Shiplake’s village bobby for 22 years and retired in the early Eighties, said: “When I brought John in, he had this big grin on his face and at first I had no idea why.

“He asked if I wanted to press charges and I said no. It just wasn’t worth the paperwork. If it had gone to Henley Magistrates’ Court, they’d have just laughed as most of the bench were involved in the regatta!”

The pair were reunited in 2007 when Mr Smart’s daughter produced a DVD about the regatta in which her father recounted the incident.

One of Mr Maslowski’s old crewmates saw it and put them in touch. They met at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley that year and have met up every year since.

Both are also in regular contact with John Ballanger, from Woodcote, who tackled Mr Maslowski on that evening.

Northeastern University still has the original helmet but some years ago it mounted an old Metropolitan Police helmet and presented it to Mr Smart.

He has promised to give it back if a Northeastern crew ever wins a regatta trophy.

Mr Smart said: “It’s great to catch up with John and swap our stories, even if we end up telling the same ones each time.

“It was definitely one of my most memorable regatta incidents. We knew the crews stole souvenirs from each other and happily ignored it as long as nobody complained, but this was a bit different.”

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