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Way of the Runner...
by ... Elias Alias
I recall my highschool days -- '61, '62, and '63.
Being much older now than I would have projected for myself back then, I find that many of the memories are lost, and what few remain seem to cluster about the more significant events. Perhaps that is as it should be; perhaps it is just a natural erosion of so many details which, in their fading away, leave room for a greater value of prominence in the more significant moments in one's life.
What, at fifty-five, would be seen differently by my same self at seventeen, competes with numerous perspectives from my twenties, thirties, and forties. At seventeen I was quite sure that life would never require of me to know what fifty-five might feel like. Somewhere along the way I would, I fancied to myself back then, find the opportune moment of life-and-death climax and make of my death an honorable thing, well before a fifty-fifth birthday could taunt me.
But also at seventeen, I found that I had much more interesting things to do than to precociously rationalize the fact that death awaits us all.
There were the girls, for one thing. Talk about living mysteries! How perfectly configured was Nature that I should be born into a world containing women. Oh my! At seventeen the mere sight of a girl across a classroom or a hallway, or across a football field, or anywhere!, caused immediate chemical reactions in my endocrinal system. My blood chemistry was effected by just "seeing" a woman, but I preferred to experience the rush of whatever chemicals were oozing into my bloodstream and causing such amazing physical reactions over any scientific query regarding "how" this was happening. The "how" and the "why" of things was of little interest to me. At that age, I was the intent of the chemistry, the purpose of that chemistry, and I knew that I was to express that vibrancy of being with all the affectations conjurable in my idealized synthesis of Sophia Loren's unspeakable grandeur . I simply felt that I should acknowledge the glory whenever a woman smiled or tossed her head in merriment, or paused privately with me in a portentous, full-bodied honeysuckle- sorghum-dripping silence of shared affections and awakening feelings.
At seventeen I was aware that not only I, but my peers alike were finding ourselves on an enviable cusp of human evolution's accelerated unfolding. We not only had girls, we also had muscle cars. Big bad mills were the order of the day in the early sixties. And we had radios and in the jungle the mighty jungle the lion sleeps tonight and unchained melody and all the rest of the rock-a-billy/folk-minstrel prelude to Elvis and the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. We had the original "rock-n-roll", on plastic 45's and in our cars, thanks to radios. We had telephones with which to visit our friends when we couldn't be out and about. We had television sets which were quickly ushering into our young lives a new perspective on what America was all about and could be all about. Ozzie and Harriet, Dobie Gillis, and "westerns".
Looking back, I realize that I never had a moment's boredom, unless perhaps in a math class at school. Society itself was changing as fast as I was charging through the awkwardness of puberty and adolescence. America, the "society", was growing up in a new way, and it's earmarks were things like pleasure, comfort, convenience, enjoyment, personal discovery, opportunity, success, mobility, adventure, communications, cultural change, and, in general, just "making it" for oneself in the most exciting times since the nation had been born. The fifties gratified finally the spillage of our founders' bloody Revolution. The fifties were celebrated by an economic growth which spread outward from Wall Street and the Pentagon's propensity for issuing "government contracts" to private business and private industry into even the rural sectors of sparsely-populated states.
I had been a part of the "baby boom" which came on the heels of our victory in World War II, and for more than thirty years American industry and business would hasten to take advantage of the most market-friendly batch of consumers our country had ever known. Foresight told the builder that by 1965 there would arise the largest demand on housing the country had known, and the auto industry knew well in advance that those babies of the late forties and early fifties would require transportation. Business-minded men with foresight knew that the baby-boomers would need refrigerators, dish-washers, laundry-appliances, telephones, electricity, running water, energy of all sorts, and a host of things from hula hoops to plastic-nippled bottles for their own new broods of future consumers.
The era was good to one whether one farmed, was "in concrete" or forest products, was a builder, was a crooked banker, was a dentist or whatever else one may have chosen for one's career or business. Everything was expanding profitably in all directions and if anyone simply wished to become financially successful, abundance was there for the taking. Few ever asked what such momentum might do to the nation's supply of clean water, clean air, or forests. When the farmer swore at insect damage to his fields, the chemists gave him a selection of chemicals to use in his war against "bugs", including DDT. They never worried about what DDT might do to the environment or to the eco-food chains which throughout Natural history had sustained an evolutionary pattern of development, change, and fertility in which our authorship into manifest reality was borne and then flung by time across the ages so that we, you and I, might stand here now and reflect upon the obscurity of our origins, sharing the need to know whether humankind indeed did precede any given State or Corporate Entity.
Old ties to Nature were largely left by the wayside in the fifties, from the Farmer's Almanac to home-remedy treatment of most "ailments". Such were replaced by the "Drugstore", which was itself an "end-sector" instrument of distribution for the pharmaceuticals empire which hoped to conceal or dress said liaison under a cloak called the FDA. It was and is a cultural manifestation. But that manifest sublimity of imperial form was a facade.
My parents' generation, having lived through the Great Depression and World War II, knew in their hearts that "the Lord wants America to prosper", and with but few exceptions all Americans joined in the parade of cultural events which led ultimately to our estrangement from natural origins.
The Occidental Mind found mobility on land, mobility in air, and mobility in and on water. This mobility could be discussed over phone lines and in air waves which could be tuned into by radio and television. Communications systems erupted, billboards arrived like mushrooms after a rain.
A neon-plastic-syntho-elastic alloy of a benevolent and thrilling "life" pulled the eye of man from the boring simplicity of sensory based perception and plopped him down kerplunk, right into the soup of a corporate-projected social analysis while a grateful public embraced the lie with the purchase of auto-gratification's curiosities, dispersing them dutifully if somewhat gleefully like a full-time pay-master on a good day.
The nation had learned that it could create amazing quantities of wealth in all fields of human endeavor when it had congealed it's will in mobilizing for the war effort. The public liked disposable bottles, disposable kleenex, disposable diapers, and they accepted, though with some slight degree of apprehension, the controlled obsolescence introduced by the automobile industry. One could purchase a new car, and when the "new smell" wore off it, simply trade it in for another. Let the under-privileged have a shot at a good used-car without paying new-car prices. Well, of course I'm exaggerating on that a little.
Most people did have to try to get all the mileage out of a car that they could, and some people had difficulty affording a car at all. But as I recall back then, it seems that most of America embraced the new lifestyle which mass-production was ushering into society, and most of us found ways in which to claim for ourselves our own little piece of the pleasure pie. When the car began to wear out, take a new one and pay the difference. One of the ways we could know if we were "making it" was the ease with which we could snap up the latest style design or drive-train features offered by Detriot.
No longer were the devices of wealth reserved for the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Hearsts, Fords, Du Ponts, Rockefellers and the likes. Now the sky was the limit for all of us, and if a man wanted to sincerely enough, and applied enough dedication, he could amass his own fortune in a single lifetime. And he could see that the finest education ever dished out to any culture in history was given carelessly to his children as local and county governments benefited from the huge tax yields on the bulging economy. Back then, most of the fruits of that tax base remained in the states in which one lived and produced one's share of that wealth.
At that time the Federal Government had only begun to look into it's ill notion of gradually easing the nation's children away from what had always previously been acceptable parental influence. It was not really the moment in which the entity-ship of socialism's totalitarianism first struck with imagery the minds of buyable politicians, but it was the decade in which socialism's ghostlike cloud of Statism was seen hovering in the language of Capitol Hill's government-sponsored legislations. To many who heard Eisenhower's farewell speech with its admonition regarding the military-industrial complex and the dangers posed thereby, a word to the wise was sufficient. But some saw it as a directive on how to capitalize on a burgeoning relationship between the military and Wall Street, and the resultant lobby was born which would bring America down in just over a half-century of corruption, greed, and financial licentiousness.
An emerging Corporate Dynasty shyly showed a profiled face of superior tactical capability in the manipulation of the public's collective consciousness, and the national government bought into it under a proclamation of material prosperity for all. To sell this illicit marriage between government and private business to the public, the government promised to cure the social ills of poverty, illiteracy, caste traps and crime, hunger and ignorance. Christian America said yes to the idea, having at that time no precedent from which to draw fear and suspicion. After all, "In God We Trust" was on the nation's money system.
American Christianity agreed that "God's country" was justified in its embrace of materialism. As corporate lobbies courted Congress for "government contracts" and sought legal avenues down which to drive the quest for perpetually recurring profitability, the unspoken Dynasty of Dollars felt compelled to assist the national government in public behavior modification. Board members and congressmen created subtle pacts, enjoying mutual recognition of each other's need while depriving the public which had created and sustained them both the truth of their collusion. The common man became the "end-user" target, and a national propaganda delivery system with crisply optimistic anchors spoke of or hinted at the genius in the Statist idea of allowing our own government to solve the problems of life for us.
For its part, the Corporate Dynasty was to receive a patriotically-oriented national workforce which public education, managed by the centralized national government, the NEA, and, largely clandestinely, by the great tax-exempt Foundations, would condition to be compatible with an unspoken miracle... the miracle of the creation of a double-tiered economic cycle in which labor produced the wealth and then, as if by magic, converted itself into a millions-strong throng of consumers to purchase whatever wealth was produced, sharing generously along the way by accepting Corporate Welfare and an ever-increasing and burdensome federal taxation.
By perverting the people's own wish to improve their lives materially, it was hoped that Americans en masse would forget their biological natures and would make of alarm clocks, traffic jams, fast-food and weekly paychecks the sacramental habits of a newly-emerging socialistic order. That social order would bind the people to jobs and careers, preventing and/or interdicting traditional notions of individual sovereignty with regular infusions of comfort, convenience, and entertainment. It was the "soma" of Brave New World. As Franklin Sanders has put it, America, as a nation of “freeholders”, would become a nation of “job-holders”.
Should any part of the public awaken, big government would simply create an agency and relieve whatever oversight had caused the disillusionment to stir. Whenever that may not work appropriately, government would simply institute laws permitting and justifying its intrusion into the community as an enforcer. And the factories carried on, manned by a relatively healthy, entertained, and distracted force of money-making Americans who carried in their heads and hands a number given them by the State, a number which would entitle them to serve in the Corporate-owned workplace and without which any non-conforming citizen of sovereignty would be denied the common avenues of material success. A number which would entitle individuals to buy and sell. A number by which the State could magnetize the significant characteristics of anyone's life from DNA signature to urine testing results, from medical history to patterns of domestic behavior. A number by which a more powerful and coercive U.S. Pentagon could, as if it were nothing more than a globalized police force for the Corporate Dynasty with a wish for domestic exercise, ensure that anyone's life-force and energy would assuredly and dutifully devote itself to "the job" or to "the career".
On its side of the arrangement, the government was to get a satiate citizenry with money in it's pockets. Money which could be taxed out of their pockets and then used to strengthen the ties which bound the workforce, one person at a time, each and each, to Corporate subserviency. Gradually, Americans were seduced into the concept of seeing their taxes ascend to the national government instead of to their respective state and local governments. Fedgov would then amass the tax of the combined fifty states and dangle that wad back in the faces of the states, after letting a bit of it fall to public floors, offering to return it to each state if only each state would comply with newly defined federal mandates, such as enforcement of a fifty-five-mph speed limit on highways or a seatbelt law. States not writing a federally discerned quota of speeding tickets, or seatbelt-law violation tickets, would lose their "rightful" share of federal highway funds. A sleepy and somewhat satiate public has allowed this trend in political thought to continue to evolve in national government.
The marriage of the Corporate Dynasty and the National Government conditioned the coming generation's mentality with seemingly innocuous or benign programming techniques known to any intelligence agency, thusly grooming a generation of consumers to not only drive themselves admirably in a national quest referred to as "bettering one's position in life", but would also then be easily shown how government, in cooperation with corporate expansionism, was the key to continued economic growth. The generation which fought fascism in Europe never saw the birth of fascism in their own country - but fascism did indeed usurp the American dream just as Mussolini had defined it to be, which in his definition of fascism was the union of the government with the corporate state.
Hardly anyone saw the above as I've just described it here, from back then, from back when I was in high school, which was where and when the following story happened for me. I've not figured out even after all these years what it might mean.
Suddenly, by the early 'sixties, an entire new generation was looking at affordable college. It was the grandest of times.
Everything was an excitement, and whatever bits of education we had managed to absorb sent us all a clear message..... "This" is "it". All anyone expected of us was that we behave in acceptable manners, and, given that, we were in return free to pursue our dreams and the opportunity that stood before all of us.
I had entered this world through parents who were practicing Seventh-day Adventists, and as that Christian sect/cult does, I was sent to it's private bible-studying school system. This was a time in the history of that church when vegetarian concerns were positively upheld. It was a time when Seventh-day Adventism denied it's members the wearing of jewelry. Also restricted were pool halls, gambling of any sort, dancing, bowling, and a number of other "questionable secular activities".
My inner eye was, as I had grown from boyhood into my teen years, conditioned to put the church's explanation of Jesus Christ at the center of my heart in all things. I was very selfless in my religious experience, and took great pleasure in seeking God's will for my every day, my every year, my life. It worked for me, and I felt insulated and secure in my faith. I believed everything the church told me, as it was reinforced both at school and at home. I understood that to question it at all was to invite temptation, and temptation was something I wanted no part of. I was secure in my beliefs, even as a young teen-ager. Jesus lived in my heart, and I "knew" that Jesus was invisibly with me every moment of each day. I took that very seriously. I enjoyed Jesus' presence in my life, and molded my actions accordingly.
Fortunately Jesus, I had been told, being part of the God-head/Holy Trinity, had a second "book", and that book was "Nature". So I could be completely and peacefully and safely comfortable when I was down in the river bottoms fishing or hunting or just running in and exploring the fields and forests. There was no sin in collecting snakes or turtles or insects, and, if I did it properly, there was not even any sin in playing "cowboys and Indians" or "War" with the other boys of the neighborhood. All I had to watch out not to do was to use the swear words my Jesus would disdain. Back then, there was a lot of "golly", "gee", "heck", "gosh", "durn", and "well-I'll-be!" Most of my peers also refrained from vulgarities, though we'd die a thousand times at the hands of the "enemy" in our bottom-lands games. It would be more than fifty years later that I would encounter, in Bozeman, Montana, a bumper-sticker which adroitly announced: "Heck is for people who don't believe in Gosh".
A part of the Seventh-day Adventist programming for it's lay constituency was an accented understanding that one's true home was in heaven with one's Creator, and much was made of the notion that we were merely souls sent here to exemplify the nature and the character of our God in all of our actions as people. To further entrench this notion into our young minds, we were given a segregation from what was called, "the world". We had our own extended family and it's own circles of friends. We had our own church to attend and serve within. We had our own schools, without all the ego stuff of sports and a thousand other popular distractions of worldliness. I was truly happy with that for so long as it held.
Through our mutual denial of the impulses of the biological body, which we were shown was merely a transitory vessel in which we awakened as human souls, we repressed un-naturally, in a way perhaps best illustrated by something unique in the historic British attitude on life, our body-chemistries and the inevitable temptations to slip downward into a more physically-orientated view of life. A view which might allow for the violation of social taboos as demonstrated by our parent generation. We did actively try to repress desires, yet we marveled in their persistence and in their attractiveness. But we knew that the demons which hide behind a veil of desire led straightforward to an inheritance of hell. And, at that time, for me, hell was a feared reality in God's world.
So when the inevitable moments of releasing passions were shared by myself and a girl, I found that I was easily and happily glad to abstain from fornicatious relations, feeling fully satisfied with the holding of hands as she and I might walk down a tree-lined lane for a rare moment's bonding away from the eyes of the church or the school. I do know that one of my earliest "loves" moved on and left me behind in her life because I would not "do it" with her. It was the first sign of a crack in my cosmic egg. I could not understand her. Her mother approved of my being her boyfriend, and my parents shared that view. We were "acknowledged" as a couple, at church, at school, and at home. I already had hopes of living my life with her, as a legally married couple, after college. We both attended the same church, and surely she knew why we couldn't make love "all the way" before we were actually "married". I prayed for her weakness, that she might find the strength to persevere in our esoteric matrix of morality. Yes, I wanted her carnally, but would not even let my mind entertain the first projection of such imagery, as such would certainly be an unfortunate dissipation of the Holy Spirit's control over my life. That would offend Jesus, who was ever with me.
I would, however, allow myself some very racy adventures within the safe circle of "forbiddens" which fell more gray than black when one considered that God had already shown a predisposition toward forgiveness in such men as Adam and David for worse than I allowed myself. And my girlfriend. Heavy petting, always stopping well short of behaviors which would cast us into the flames of carnal damnation, was something which I felt comfortable with, though such moments always brought physical frustrations to both of us. I felt that I was being "responsible", and that the best man a woman of our belief could have would be a man who would stand on his moral, spiritual, and religious principles. A man of Christian dignity, in the world, but not "of" the world.
I could be that very naturally and easily when I was seventeen.
My girlfriend was not amused, neither was she impressed. Unfortunately, I never actually gave her the chance to tell me directly why she wanted to close our relationship. I think she figured she was up against a will she could not tempt. She just quietly let it die between us, though I made such a deal of it that she finally had to say the wrong things, hoping to shock me out of my inner holiness long enough to be able to hear her saying, "Good bye!". It worked, finally. I tasted my first heartache, and in my solitary way I took that pain of loss very deeply within myself, and I politely after that went wild.
Not "wild" as people today might imagine it to be, but wild as a teenaged Seventh-day Adventist might imagine himself to be when all was painfully hurled before his innocent face to mock him and his eccentric repression of what can be beautifully expressed in a love between a woman and a man. I still would not "have sex" with any of them, but I definitely decided to date as many girls as I could. That would "teach her", I inwardly mused to myself, though I would not actually allow myself to register such thoughts. If I was not to have my chosen woman, then all the others were of no value any more, and I intended to pursue and prove that thought as vigorously as I could by dating all of them I possibly could.
Boys will be boys, after all, even boys in un-usual religious beliefs.
I mention this about my youth and my experiences with women for a reason. There was another factor in my life at that time, and it had happened in my junior year without any planning on my part whatsoever. That year, I no longer could continue my education in the Seventh-day Adventist private school system without moving out of town into a boarding- school's expensive tortures, and my parents allowed me at that time to chose between finishing highschool "away" in a dorm some hundreds of miles away, or transferring to public school for the last two years of highschool. In choosing to stay at home and attend public school, I knew that I would still, after graduation, enroll in Southern Missionary College, near Chattanooga, and ultimately my life would follow God's will, which to me at that time pointed to the missionary programs of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Any fully-convicted Christian knows the same certainty I held in my heart.
Aside from whatever secular activities were deemed necessary to getting along with others who shared this same consensus world, and the occasional "body-chemistry" rushes which sometimes nearly would overwhelm me, (causing me to forge ever more tightly the resolve to be not deceived by anything so obvious as carnal desire and lust), I was focused on ordering my life to the best of my ability as a constant, unwavering beacon of celebration of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ and God the Father.
This was not all that uncommon back then, in the innocent phase of the initial afterglow of America's having won World War II. Perspective, especially as relates to tenths of Centuries, does after all have much to do with much.
This thing about "the way of the runner" has to do with all the above. It has to do with that fateful day I showed up at Treadwell High School to register for the coming school-year, my junior year. It would be my first year in the Memphis, Tennessee public school system. I was quite shocked by the huge number of students and parents who over-flowed the school's gym and various other halls. Whereas previously, in the tiny private school, I had been one of just a few boys who were leaving for high-school, a distinguishing event looked forward to enviously by all underclassmen, suddenly at this large public school I was worth no more than another strange face in an endless crowd of faces.
I found that challenging, and felt detached at the same time. I did catch myself noting as an aside that apparently this coming school year was going to be more colorful and entertaining than I had guessed. I felt a twinge of "release" as I knowingly entered the "outside world" by registering for public school. I also noticed that there were numerous pretty girls there, and that everyone but me seemed to know just what to do and where to be, and that I didn't really mind not knowing how this was done so long as I could "not know" with so many pretty girls. I asked politely, but much too politely to be in good form, one girl after another for directions or explanations, enjoying their openness to speak with me and, upon their queries, answering questions about where I came from.
I quickly learned to leave out the part of "private school". It seemed to remind them of some sort of sentence served, and they would tell me to enjoy my new lease on life at good old Treadwell High. Presently, I had interacted with enough of the girls there to figure out that I knew nothing about their ways. I began to realize that I really was fallen off the safe limb of some sacred oak and was now fated to begin splashing about helplessly amid the throngs of lost humanity. I resorted to "shy mode", and finished registering as best I could.
It was at that point that the devil approached me. For all my study and training, and for all the devotion to my God which I could muster day by day in my life, I had no way to foresee that the grinning face of the dude who sauntered over to me as I stood confusedly looking between two tables bearing two, in my understanding, conflicting messages, was to become the embodiment of evil. Apparently I looked somewhat lost, and this new friend walked right up to me and stuck out his hand for a greeting-shake and said, "Welcome to our school. You're new, ain't you? Got all registered-up already? Is there anything I can do to help you?"
After that gush all I could do was shake my head and say thanks for the welcome. I explained as best I could what my current dilemma was, and he took me by the elbow and guided me to the right table, where he waited beside me in line and helped me answer questions by the administration person sitting behind the table.
Next he asked me if I played any musical instrument. I told him I played b-flat clarinet. He marched me right over to the band building, which was adjacent to the gym, and introduced me to the band director, one "Doc McCall", who he told, without ever so much as asking me about it, that I wanted to sign up for "band" this year. The band director thought that since he was with me, I must be legit, so he signed me up without a question and told me when our first class-meeting would be. My new friend and I walked away, back into the crowds of busy people.
His next question was more a directive than a question. As we passed under a large tree beside a concrete walk between the gym and the band-building, we had passed the sign-up table for ROTC. I had paused to look at the artwork of the patches which students in that program would wear on uniforms. It all looked very military-like, and as I had seen a few war movies on television, I was a bit curious. My friend urged with more elbow-guiding and a stern dislike for everything military. He said, "Man, you're not really seriously thinking about going into the army, are you?"
I had not made the connection. I had made the association of ROTC with ARMY, but it had not occurred to me that anything I might encounter in high school could really, in any meaningful way, be connected with THE ARMY. So in my naivety I had felt obliged to pause there and look at their "stuff". They had a brass-buttoned uniform displayed there, and a crew-cut sergeant-type was there bubbling manly pride and national "duty". My new friend quickly enough whisked me away to a quiet place where he could explain that I had come close to signing over my life to the government, to be a gun-totin' pair of boots, nameless and naught-but-a-number evermore.
"Well, thank you for telling me about how serious that class is. But don't I have to take it in order to graduate from this school?" I was honest. The instructions/requirements lists specifically said that each graduating male senior would have earned at least one year's credit for/in ROTC.
"Well, my new strange friend, it's like this....." he said back quickly. "If you letter in a sport of any kind, you are exempt from having to take ROTC."
"What's that mean? What is a letter?"
"Oh, jeez! you're really dense. Okay. I keep forgetting you've been in a social version of solitary confinement. But didn't you guys even have sports?"
"We played football and baseball at recess." I ventured.
"But you mean you didn't have a school team, and you didn't ever play other schools? Oh God what a miserable school you must have been trapped in!"
I had not thought of my previous school as being miserable at all. It was the only school experience I knew, and I was very comfortable within it's parameters. There, I was considered to be "normal". It had never occurred to me to question why the school had no athletic department like "real" schools did, as I was never concerned with the doings of mere men anyway. Sports was a topic which had been explained as a healthy-enough program for perfecting one's body, but sports contained an attitude of competition which distracted one from one's non-competitive relationship with one's Creator. Sports had simply been seen by myself as something else by which to gauge the folly of mankind without God's salvation, and I had never bothered to learn the first thing about sports. My focus had been on the sublime, the eternal, the just joys of life through God's own direction for living a life in this world. Competition was not condoned by my church, though I had at times wondered if God might not make allowance just once for the Olympics. I figured that God at least wanted America to be better 'n Russia, and that any athlete for God would at least be deserving of a little divine assistance in one crucial moment or another. Or at least a hearty "Thank you" from God when one of his Christian Americans might win the pole vault or the mile run, in international competition.
My friend told me that if we hurry we could still catch the cross-country coach before he folded up his registration table over at the gym. When I hesitated, he merely laughed aside and pulled me into a jogging run and said, "man, can you run?"
"I guess so. But do you mean, like, run in a race?"
"No, dummy! I mean like running while you're watching the movies this weekend and eating popcorn! Of course I mean running in races!"
"I've no idea about what that would involve." I volunteered, in hopes that I could say something which might dissuade him from this newest mission to "save" me from stupidity and the ROTC.
"Come on. Hurry. It doesn't matter if you know anything about it or not. The important thing is that anybody who makes the team automatically "letters" for cross-country, and that is a valid sport, so you then won't be required to take ROTC."
To my new friend, this logical reality left no choice for me but to resister for the cross-country team. I couldn't argue with him, being already confused about all the decisions I'd made thus far that day. I hoped to at least save face by acting "normal". This new friend seemed to be wanting to help me, and the good Lord knew I could use some help, so I reacted with acceptance toward his overtures of friendship and played with him in like manner as he joked his way around the high school grounds.
He was a man with a purpose. He had already added a new bandmember to the large school band, (in which he was a drummer), and he had narrowly saved me from signing my life over to the ARMY via a class in ROTC. Now he was gonna bring coach Blevins some fresh meat.
My friend was already a member of the varsity cross-country team. He promised to show me his school jacket, on which he had several letters sown already. He said we'd naturally sign up for the swimming team between cross-country season in the Fall and track-and-field season in the Spring. "You can swim, can't you?" was all he offered me by way of choice on the swimming team matter.
"I guess so."
"Good. Now, turn here, go through that door there, ah, yes! Coach! Coach Blevins! here's another 'tryout' for you!"
The coach didn't bother looking up from whatever papers he was going over. "Awright. Fill this out. Be here next Thursday for tryouts. If you make the team, I'll work your butt into the cinders on yonder track. If you're lucky, you won't make the team and that'll be all of me you'll ever have to deal with. Be gone!"
No handshake, no "welcome young aspiring student and please allow me to thank you for your excellent school-spirit which obviously prompts you to want to carry your school's banners to victory over the un-lordly hordes of rival-swine". No nothing. Not a raised eye. Not even a glance. I did, however, imagine I caught him eyeing my legs while he was telling me the drill. As my friend dragged me out of the gym, I felt like I had all of a sudden been fortunate enough to get myself installed into this new school in good style. The only problem was, what the heck was cross-country?
I hadn't worried a bit about being ushered into the marching band. I was a good musician, having played solos and duets for years before the church congregation at not only the Sabbath morning services but also at other church events and at school gatherings. I of course had not connected the term "marching band" with Friday night football games and basketball pep rallies and the likes. Such sobering realities would unfold all in their good time, which they did much like an avalanche which prepares itself for many silent centuries before springing into the burly reality for which they are known by survivors.
The big question for me had to do with this "cross-country" thing. "What do cross-country boys do?" I asked.
"They run all damn day and night, that's what!" he smiled and butted my shoulder playfully. "Can you really run? You don't smoke do you? Can you hold your breath for a long time? Haven't you ever heard anything about running cross-country?"
All I could do was guess. The name implied that one would begin a race at some point in a field or forest, and that the race would be run over a prescribed course for several miles, with the first entry to cross the "finish" line being the winner of the race. But that did not really tell me anything. Apparently, there was a league in the city among all the high schools, and each school had it's own cross-country team. My friend began to understand that he would literally have to walk me through this step by step, so he began telling me the basics. I went home that evening not knowing at all what I'd done that day, and hoping against hope that my parents approved of my new schedule and class load.
After dinner that night, when my brothers and I had been excused to play outdoors briefly before being sent to bed for the night, I imagine this conversation, or one similar, transpired while a mother's hands washed the family's dishes and a pensive and mooded father leaned back against the refrigerator with his arms folded across his chest.
"Well, at least he had enough sense to get into that band. Hon, did you know that that band is one of the best in the state? I've read very good things about it in the papers. I'm sure he's as good as any other clarinet player there, and when it comes to marching at games, he'll have to work through that for himself. I just do wish Satan wasn't always so omnipresent, so ever-ready to pop up on every turn and tempt our youth. Sometimes I wonder if life here is really fair."
"Oh, of course it's fair. This is all in God's plan for the boy. My word, we can't keep him and his brothers in a closet forever, as you well know."
"I'm just thankful that they are such good boys. And he seems to be very genuine about his dedication to Christ. It's just that there is going to be the conflict when he finds out what happens on Fall Friday nights, and I'm afraid it'll hurt him when he has to choose."
"I know, mother. I know. We will pray and look for the Lord's guidance. You know our boys are just on loan to us from God, who is their real Father. I think we've done a good job for him so far, and I'm sure he won't fail us over this thing with the band."
"O, hon, I hope you're right."
"Let's just leave it in God's hands, alright? I'm sure the boy is ready to be tested, even if I'd have liked to put that off until he was ready for college. He does show good intelligence, if he's slow in some other ways."
"Roy! How dare you say something like that?! You take that back right this minute!"
"Well, you know what I mean. It is true, ain't it, that he's a bit asleep at the wheel in some ways?"
"That's just your fatherly way of seeing him. To you, he'll never be perfect, never be the same quantity and quality of manhood with which you pride yourself . There's not a cotton-picking thing wrong with that boy. Not one thing!" She looked at him with a level earnest, and he knew he had been whipped, or at least had now been forced into acting as he'd been whipped on this topic once again. He changed the subject.
"What do you suppose this "cross-country" malarky is? Do you think it's required or something? What is cross-country? Have you ever heard of it?"
The mother continued to wash and rinse and stack dishes. Roy moved in behind her and put his arms around her so that he held her belly. He pulled her to him gently but firmly. She said without turning either side while she picked up another plate and began idly wiping the dishcloth in circles around it's form, "I've never heard of it, but I'd guess it's some kind of racing over distances, in which case he'll do very fine with it."
"Yeah, the little fellow can run on and on, can't he?" Roy smiled, recalling the countless memories of seeing his oldest son running freely and gracefully across farmlands, fields, and forests, dipping, jumping, leaping, side-stepping, cutting this way and that, ever taunting his best friend, Boots, the German Shepherd who'd grown up with him and his brothers. He looked so joyful and free when he ran. There was something uncanny, unusual about his son's liking for running, and the way he sprang to it at the slightest opportunity. Living on the outskirts of town had provided the boys with river-bottoms and marshlands in which to play their long summer days away, and it seemed that their eldest son really could run from sun-up til sun-down, and then some. Of course, that wasn't worth a hoot when it came down to earning a living in the world, so it was a relatively unimportant grace upon an otherwise very conformed young life.
The world, my world, and the world of my parents were wobbling even then, but none of us knew it. Neither of us felt the slightest of tremors as parallel orbits suffered an engaging shock which would alter forever three quite wonderful realities. I was about to learn the way of the runner. The "distance-runner". An individual's sort of "sport" which in the early sixties was relatively un-heard of by most Americans, but which was gaining acceptance in school systems in the nation's larger cities.
I was still quite in the dark as to what would be expected of me in joining the cross-country team, but my new buddy made sure I attended the opening "class" with the Coach at his drab office in the gym. Along with the other boys I was given a jocky-strap, a pair of running shorts for competition, several other pairs of running shorts for working out as a team both home and away, various sample bottles of liniments and muscle-bandages, a huge container of salt tablets, a bag of sugar packets, a brilliant red blazer top for competition-racing in public, several towels, pairs of socks, and something I had only ever dreamed about before, with never actually feeling that I wanted them, all the while being aware that once it might be nice to find them on my feet as I cleared a fallen log while parting ferns and overhanging limbs of some deep forest......real track shoes, cross-country running shoes!
When the team's locker-boys passed the goods to each of us as the coach called the roster, everything in the bundle was a grey blur as soon as my eyes saw these running shoes! Real competition shoes, designed to weigh next to nothing, with the most respectable looking spikes anyone would have ever imagined. Low cut, they almost were shoes without being shoes. They were more like a fine calf-leather glove for each foot, and I instantly knew that as I ran in them they would take on the shape of my feet, would make themselves one with my feet. I felt the most pleasing sensation from deep within myself as I held them before me and turned them every way, almost stricken with their perfections. Oh my! I could barely wait to get them on my feet and feel their long, slender cleats (spikes, if you will), insert their authority into the yielding earth, giving me all the grip any man could ever want, making running a pleasure.
I had not long to anticipate. We were each assigned a locker in the gym's small section of running-sports changing rooms. We were told to strip and rip and what the hell were we still doing in his goldangged gymnAsium? Last man outside to the starting line was automatically off the team, and would be the water-boy. I could understand that much, so I moved smartly, quickly, to join the first runners at a marked line out beside the cinder track.
The day was September warm, and was blue and green in it's dance with the world of humans. I felt a mild excitement at finally getting to "run" and was noting inside myself that I would even be getting some sort of credit for my graduation by running with these boys. I only wished all my other classes could feel so natural for me as did this "cross-country" class. As yet, I had not fully figured on the coming clashes with rival runners from other schools. I had to first learn, both in band and also in cross-country, who our "arch-rivals" were. I would learn which schools had the toughest cross-country teams, as well as which schools excelled in each of the recognized and credited athletics program sports leagues. I felt that would all come in time, but this first day on the team required that I at least act like I knew what we were about to do, which I did not. I watched and tried a few of the loosening-up exercises I saw some of the boys doing before Coach Blevins blew the whistle calling for our attention.
"Awrite, ladies, gimme three laps around the long way, and woe to the last bastard back here!" With that modest outburst he raised a pistol in the air and fired the gun. I jumped, but jumped the wrong way, which was straight up. I caught my balance amid the sudden flurry of flying elbows and kneecaps, heels and heads. I was the last one off the line, and I immediately felt as if I'd been released from a prison of restrictions. I was always at perfect peace within myself when I ran, and this moment's exciting group-run as a part of a team of peers felt as reconciled within my blood as it did within my heart and my mind. Running was, in every way conceivable to me, acceptable under God. I felt a beingness with my Creator as I got my legs into a rhythm of balance with my thrusting arms.
I was not in a hurry, not desperate to make up the lost lead-ground of my errant start. I just relaxed into my normal state of mind as I had always done since I had been old enough to run around the orchard or gardens of our rural home before my parents had moved to the outskirts of the city. I ran for myself, for my pleasure, and it felt perfectly fine for me to run all I wished. There was no possible connection with sin attached to running, so far as I knew. Running was something God gave as a gift to myself, and I had grown up running in forests and fields, running naturally like a deer or a lion or a horse.
When running, I was "safe". My mind was always clearest then. My will was unified with physical reality, and my moral code was suspended and irrelevant, but in a fully benign and acceptable way. I knew that God wanted me to run, and I was grateful that he did. It was the only thing I felt I could do without flaw, without error, without risk of sinning. I always felt a lightness settle around my feelings of self when I ran, and that feeling of lightness is what I was carefully seeking as I let my stride stretch a bit now, kept my hands relaxed and low, amused myself counting heads of the team before me, behind whom I had just started my somewhat meek identity as a cross-country runner.
I played along leisurely, figuring that we'd be running for some length of time, and understanding that I could benefit by following the forerunners during the first time around the course. We would run three long laps around that course, so I could excel after I learned the course on my first time around. The course was not marked, so the front-place runners simply had to know the course or they'd soon be missed by the race. I watched and noted each turn, each clump of campus shrubs or trees, each crossed roadway, the high places and the low places, the grades and the downhills. I noticed that, way up ahead of me, my new friend was leading the pack with a staunchly-steering head intent on mastering any and all exceptions to the ideal running posture for the successful distance runner.
I watched him for some time, noticing that he sped up when challenged by another. He ran with an authority, and I thought to myself that he certainly appeared to like this running business. His legs were muscular and hairy, long enough, as I would learn in the passing months, to carry him effortlessly to high-up roster finishes in race after race. He never actually won a cross-country event, but he was always close to the winners. He made a valuable member of the varsity team, as team totals were figured on the first five team-mates' finishing records, with the lowest totals being the winning team. A runner's score was whichever number back of the winner he was when he crossed the finish line. The winner of the race would count for one point; second-place counted for two points; third-place had to be three points; tenth-place equaled ten points, fortieth-place got forty points. The perfect cross-country team total was 1+2+3+4+5 = fifteen points for the team's having sent the first five finishers of the race across the finish line ahead of all other runners.
An individual could win any race, but how his team fared depended on the strength and depth of the team's combined talent. My friend was one of the coach's favored assets. That, I figured, could explain why he admitted me to the team without so much as even taking a look at me. If my friend said I was a runner, then coach knew I would be a runner. That was that.
Neither my coach nor my friend, nor indeed myself, had any idea what was going to happen to our cross-country team that year.
With no thought at all in my head, and after having made the huge circle around the school's properties for the first of three times, I saw no reason to follow further. If they wanted running, then let them have running. I shortly was running beside my new friend, cheerfully talking as we matched strides. At first he thought I wanted to pass him, and he spurted forth a bit only to see that I matched him each stride effortlessly. He would not turn his head aside, no matter what sort of comment I chanced to make. I kept looking over at him, watching him run, studying how the balls of his feet helped launch each spring-like bid for another few yards of distance toward that far-away finish line. I saw that he liked to keep his head level, and that he sometimes displayed a brief exaggeration of arm movement, which I thought to be un-necessary to his stride, to keep that head on an even plane. Together we ran side by side for perhaps a couple of miles, and presently we rounded the turn which would mark the beginning of our last lap around the grounds.
My friend poured it on noticeably, and I hastened to keep up with him. I noticed the determination in his mildly-clenched fists. He would not be outrun by a team-mate, and most especially by one who had not even the courtesy to have heard of this sport before meeting him. That would be unacceptable, and to my good humor I noticed that he was fixated on outrunning me. I slowed just a bit, almost imperceptibly, so as to let him have three strides ahead of me, then kept up with his pace the rest of the way home.
He led me past the coach who was watching a "chalked" line which stretched before his feet to mark the finish. He clicked a stopwatch as my friend's feet passed that line three strides ahead of mine. I followed my buddy as he wound down from his closing "kick" to the finish, and we each fell into a rhythmic jogging pattern which allowed our breathing to return to normal. For him that took a bit of time; for me it was almost instantly. My friend noticed that too.
Finally, walking with our hands on our waists, we visited calmly. He was not at all sure that he had outrun me, and he asked me if I had been telling him the truth about not knowing what cross-country was. "That was darned good, man, to push me that hard the first time you ran with the team. I was not expecting it to be you!"
I said nothing serious, but joked lightly with him about how far back the number-three runner had been. "We must have had him by over forty paces", I said.
"Yeah, but this is just the first day. You'll see that there are some here who will study what I do and devise ways to beat me. If they can! Ha! I do my own kind of study on them too, you know. Take that Martin boy. He laid back in the middle of the field all the way around, but he did that on purpose. You'll see what I mean when we have our first meet."
"What is a meet?" I had to ask, though I figured it be another word for a competition. I still needed any image a friend might produce in my mind by talking about the competitions. He looked at me incredulously and just shook his head.
"You'll find out soon enough."
But "soon enough" didn't happen soon enough, and was jeopardized seriously when, at the end of the day's workout the coach passed out our team's Fall schedule of 'meets'. I looked at the list, and was stunned. With but one exception, every meet we had scheduled for the season was on a Saturday! My heart raced! This must be some kind of joke, I gasped. My friend noticed that I was having difficulty and asked what was the matter. I hesitantly asked if this was the whole schedule for all of our team's meets. He confirmed by way of asking if I thought we should run double that number of meets, or what.
I realized that I couldn't compete in the Saturday events, which was really the entire season, excepting only the Turkey Day Run at Thanksgiving time. Everything else, the whole season of competitions, fell to Saturdays. Something was crashing inside me.
I was a Seventh-day Adventist. Saturday was the seventh day of the week, according to my conditioning on the matter, and therefore Saturday was God's Sabbath, which was a day in which no secular pursuits should rightfully be entertained. Saturday was my God's day, and I made specially focused vigilance from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, being ever alert to any temptation from my base nature which might conflict with my meditations on my God and his will for this world. Of course, running races in competitions was simply not a debatable variance in my customs for Sabbath observance.
I was dejected, disappointed. I had so hoped to fit into this team, to have this one thing in which I knew there was no danger for my soul as I enjoyed it to it's fullest measure. And I already knew that no man on that team could hold a candle to my feet. I knew that on this very first day of work-outs. None of them yet knew the truth about me, which I had already planned to reveal to them gradually. It was a thing which I had already envisioned during the second and third laps of our training that day.
What they didn't know about me was the unlikeliest thing..... I could "kick" for a couple of miles or more.
I was an oblivious if natural-born-winner at cross-country, by virtue of having grown up running all the days of my boyhood. It was not so much a thing of "strength", but was a matter of willed control of one's respiratory system, one's breath. I could exert high levels of muscular demand without letting my breath get out of my control, which translated into the runner's reality as a formidable competitor. What other distance runners refer to as their "kick", which they hope to save until the last few hundred yards of the race, was mine for the duration of any race I might find myself in. As I would learn, only at State level would I encounter runners who could give me concern. I knew after this first practice as a member of a team that I was the newest gift from life to this coach's career in cross-country coaching. That man was bound to like me, and I would get the respect of the whole team. My only concern was not to let this cat out of the bag too quickly. Better to give myself some time to form friendships with my new team-mates.
And now this: Saturdays! What could I do?
My friend, as soon as he heard my conflict, yelled for the coach to "come over here quickly!"
As Coach Blevins walked up to me, he grinned and said nothing. I did not, at that first day of practice, know what was carried in the glint I saw in his eyes. That I would figure out later. But his face fell a bit when he noticed the expression on my friend's face and it fell some more when he looked to my face and saw the same gravity. "Awright, you silly girls, what's this about?"
"Um, Coach, we got a problem."
"Is he picking on you for keeping up with him today?" the coach smiled at me as his eyes questioned mine silently.
"Uh, Sir, " I began, "Uh, well, um, I'm a Seventh-day Adventist, Sir. I'm sorry sir! I didn't know anything about all this when I joined the team."
"What the hell are you trying to say? Who the tarnation is Seventh-day Algorhythms or whatever it was you said you were? What has that got to do with anything? Don't your shoes fit ok? You need some extra salt tablets or something? Talk to me, dammit."
I was humiliated. I realized that I had teased this coach, who I was already beginning to sense was figuring me for laying back so as not to outrun my new friend, and was now about to tell him that the fastest runner on his team this year couldn't race in the meets. Coach Blevins, as he revealed with a resonance in which a bull elk might kill a dozen challengers, did not like the first effort I made to explain my predicament.
"Of all the hooten-hangin' horseshit I ever hearda, this tops the cake. Seventh-day what? By God, boy, did they send you over here from Kingsbury just to ruin my life? What the hell you mean, you can't run on Saturdays?" He ranted, blustered, gestured, and generally drew the attention of the entire team. My face was by now a brilliant crimson. I could feel every boy's eyes bearing down into my oblivious soul. I stared down at the earth, ready to weep as I saw my feet in these most perfect of all running shoes ever made, fearing that I would never be permitted to wear them again. My fears and regrets were drowned in waves of estranged, bitter, embarrassment. I so wanted to become nothing, to not be there, to not have ever met this team of distance runners, to be anywhere except here in front of the coach's uncontrollable rage at the irony of this.
Finally, Coach Blevins looked dead at me and said, "Get your ass to the showers!" Then, to the rest of the team, he said, "awright, you squirts of shit, get your butts over here for a pow-wow." That did it. The spell of humiliation was now cast. I was sent to the showers while the "team", of which I apparently now was not a member , was called to huddle. My eyes were more than moist. I fought to retain my composure. This hurt.
But Coach had a plan. He got my friend to chase the team around the fields for one final lap, which would give him time to confront me privately. He hollered over the running water for me to get my ass out of there and stand before him. I grabbed a towel and stood there with that and nothing else wrapped around my life. I had to explain to this full-blooded Indian ex-Marine geography teacher called cross-country coach just what my religious views on keeping the Sabbath as set down by our Maker entailed, and that there was no way which I could see from here which would let me change the fact of my vow to keep my God's Sabbath to the fullest of my conscience.
Coach just stood there as if thinking of a barbeque with a bunch of bams on some distant Guadalcanal or something. He let me finish my stupid efforts to explain, and when I finally fell silent, he raised himself up on the balls of his feet and stretched his frame to the fullest and said, "Boy, I'm sure you think you believe this crock of shit, but I can't buy it for you or for this team either. Now your own God has given you the ability to run circles around the best runners I got, and I ain't gonna stand by and watch you make up some lousy-assed excuse for taking that away from me and this school and these team-mates. Besides, for crissakes, you're our only chance for paying back East High. Now you and me, we're gonna sit down here and we ain't getting up until we figure some kind of loophole in your church's rules about this Saturday business. Got that?"
"Sir, it's not about the rules. It's how I love my Creator, and it's a way of honoring him by respecting his expressed will for my behavior as a man. The problem is not that I can't find a loop-hole, as you said, but that I don't want to find a way around this. I mean", (and the absurdity of this reeled me again as I said it), "Coach, is there any way we could get the city to change the meet days to Sunday or some other day?"
"Fat chance, boy."
"Well," (groping now), "Coach... I know that this is way off normal expectations, I mean, for a student to be asking his teacher for special consideration, but would it be possible for me to stay on the team and work out with the guys and be here every day just like everyone else, but to do that with the understanding that I would only compete in the Turkey Day Run? Thanksgiving is on a Thursday, and I could run in that race! Would you consider letting me work out this year just to run in that race?" I again found myself looking at embarrassed toes, wondering of all things as I stood there wet from the shower if I might not be getting a dose of athletes' foot while standing on the wet concrete floor with no flip-flops or slippers. That concern presented itself to me the way any detached, unrelated notion might emanate from cold wet tiles, emanating into a daze which held, beyond a vacuum of distantly ringing echoes of alienation, a stunned mind.
But it seemed to finally get into the Coach's head. He replied, "Son, this ain't over yet. You can work out with the team, and you can run in that race that ain't on Saturday, unless the committee has a problem with my springing a last-minute entry into it. They might not go for that, unless I let 'em know now that this is going on with you. I'll look into that. Meanwhile, I hope you ain't gonna get yourself all pissed when you find out I've called your parents and your preacher and the goddam national guard.....and anybody else who can help me find a way for you to race every goddam race this season. Got it? It ain't over yet. Keep your towels and your locker. If nothing else, I want you to run this team's asses into the dirt every day during workouts. You can help 'em practice if you want to. Now get out of here. Report back here sixth period tomorrow."
He walked out, and I dressed and walked home, suddenly, somehow, a different person in a new world. I would pray intensely that night, but not to ask for permission to make an exception in my God's plan for my life. I prayed that the team would win all their races without me, and that the coach would have his best season ever, and that I would be finally permitted to run in the Turkey Day race. And I prayed that my parents would not succumb to pressures from that Coach, and that they would always understand why I had made this decision, and that in my own way I had done it to honor them as much as to honor my conscience.
So began a weeks-long mood of detached somberness and aloofness. I couldn't be included in the team's spirited jests and playful jousts before and after work-outs. I couldn't even be present to watch them compete against rival schools each week-end. The girls looked somehow distant and unattainable. My reinforcement of my uniqueness within my common humanity was a solid and ever-present taste in my mouth. My days were no longer innocently enjoyed as they had been when I was in that private church school among people who already knew about the Sabbath.
And the whole dilemma was compounded over again when, three weeks into band practice with this wonderful marching band, the hammer of Friday night football games, and the band's featured half-time shows which the whole city knew were the best half-time shows by any band in town, came crashing down around my neck like a comedic jello soup of despondency and impotence.
It came in a celebrative afternoon practice session during which we students under Doc McCall's supervision had elected our officers for the year. For reasons which escape me now, I had been voted by this band, over a hundred members strong, to be the student president of the band, and had to keep face when the band instructor reminded the band that I would not be marching during most of the football games, and that I also would not be present at Friday night basketball games, nor Saturday events of any kind. He rightly knew that a band's president should be at every function of that band. The students all agreed to demote me to "vice-president", and I had to concur graciously.
Meanwhile, my new friend had been seriously re-appraising his friendship with me. That, I figured, could be slightly influenced by his fear that I could outrun him, but I think that he mostly felt that I was too strange and eccentric to command much of his time. I would figure out much later in life some subtle explanations which at that time never occurred to me. He was popular in the student body, and was on the staff of the school's paper. He remained polite and put on the appearances of friendship when he deemed it necessary, but the distance was established, and I already missed the trust he once had in me. Yet there remained in the background a wish to remain friends, and we both felt that.
Still, I would not question my religion or my convictions regarding that. I had been conditioned to anticipate the subtlety of temptation as I went through my days in this world. I took this well, and did not let it dampen my joys in loving my God. And every day, I worked out with the team, and paced them all as the coach watched and approved, and each afternoon after school I would run the four miles home and drop off my books and run on down to the river bottoms and run my head off. The running in the river bottoms invigorated my will to be my own person, even if it seemed "weird" to the rest of my society. I knew of a greater race, and I knew I was entered in the running of that race, and I would settle for nothing short of full victory. This, at age sixteen, going on seventeen.
Schoolwork kept me busy, and my private music lessons twice a week after school, at a place in town from which I would ride a city bus home, interspersed my runs in the river bottoms and distracted me from dwelling on what I may have missed by not being with the team last Saturday as they put their training and their personal characters on the line against what I imagined to be merciless competitors from other schools. The team had gone several weeks in a row without winning a meet. Each meet pitted three teams against each other. The season's "won-lost" records were being kept, and coaches would remind their runners of the importance "of beating their gaddam asses this time, men!"
During this period I found the weeks to be long. I looked forward to each coming Sabbath, hopeful to see all my friends at church. I was "in" with them. They understood me, and shared more or less my personal relationship with Jesus. Best of all, they knew why I wouldn't run on Sabbaths. Between study classes and the morning's sermon would be a twenty minute break, in which we young people had much visiting and catching up to share outside under the elms and oaks which surrounded the church parking lot and grounds.
It was at such a moment that a close friend named Lynn found a good moment to draw me aside and show some real interest in my stand about running in competitions on Sabbaths. Somehow she wanted to lend an ear, anticipating that just talking about it would somehow be helpful. She had figured that there might be a conflict deep within me and wanted to look for herself. While speaking with her in a relaxed and comfortable way, which characterized previous years of knowing her as a friend and classmate in the church-school I'd just left, I noticed that her bra-size had to have grown again. She was trying to be genuine with me as a friend, which I did appreciate, but which ultimately released me to feel like the male part of the equation in our discourse. I began to notice her in a new light.
Her hair was brunette, but light. A moody depth lent an intriguing mystery to her hazel eyes. Strength also shown in those eyes, and warmth, and a solid hold on a joy in being alive. As she noticed me noticing her, she must have seen something awaken in my roving eyes, for which she smiled the slightest hint of recognition. I leaned shoulder to shoulder to her and told her I was glad we were friends, and that I felt that since we were such great friends, it wouldn't really matter at all if she told me what her bra-size was. She smirked a laugh and pushed me away and walked back toward the church. I stood there and watched her go, intending to follow a distance back. I could see in her walk the certain knowledge that she knew I had seen her finally in a way she'd thought about before, and I could feel it tugging at something inside myself. Our friendship took a new turn that day, placed an invisible barb in a soft place within each of our hearts that would mark us both the rest of our lives.
We didn't know that then, of course. But we did know that something with a life of its own had begun during our chat that morning, and that nothing we'd said in words had anything to do with it.
Lynn and I began to find seats together during meetings at the church. Before long I was charged enough to call her on the telephone late afternoons most days. We would talk using silliness and contraries and make a certain kind of nonsense which made perfect sense to us. We both felt the buzzing electricity growing within our breasts. We began to look for events or occasions which would afford us a chance to be near each other. I began to think about getting on with obtaining a driver's license, fantasying about picking her up in a real car at her house for a real date.
She became a strength to me, as I trust I also became for her. We talked of "going steady", and we drew closer in each other's confidence. As I recall, I'd be thinking very intimate thoughts of her each night as I drifted off to sleep in a distant closeness of our combined imaginations. She filled me with a sense of belonging in some very special and exotic way to another person who could be trusted with my every confidence. I imagined new plots to gain more opportunity to touch her. Rapidly, she filled me, and I liked the currents her presence unleashed inside me. Our innocence was an incubator for something neither of us understood, but we welcomed it and laughed and smiled and held hands and took walks and found the moments of touching outside buildings and under trees or in parked cars. Each of us felt quite normal about it, and neither of us knew a thing about it. But it wasn't, after all, something anyone has ever understood fully anyway. Ever.
Finally came Thanksgiving. My parents, who had remained uninvolved with my struggle to adjust to being a Seventh-day Adventist in a secular school setting, for the first time showed excitement over my impending competition. My dad even went so far as to tell me that while actually running that coming race, it would be okay if I forgot about my religion just while the race was going on, and that God would possibly understand that I needed to concentrate on my physical reality while I was running that race. I appreciated his thoughtfulness, and the concern which underlay it, even though it revealed to me my own father's lesser estimation of my relationship with Jesus. My mom was a bit more diplomatic, and simply crossed fingers on both hands and said as I left the family car that fateful day and headed into the campus' gym, "good luck, son!"
To my surprise, my parents had brought Lynn. Neither she nor they had let me know that they had planned for her to be there too. I registered a flash of self-conscious adjustment and noted in amusement that I now had a damsel for whom to run, and I tried to get such mental antics out of mind right away. For the moment I must focus on the coming "meet". I was glad she was there. She twinkled a smile at me as I strode away from them and went for the gym.
Inside the changing halls were runners from every team in the city. There must have been more than a couple of hundred runners, and none of them knew me except my own team-mates. I looked from boy to boy up and down the long benches. I watched as trainers rubbed linaments into the muscles of runners. I watched as the teams congregated in groups and began to visibly allude to various other teams or individuals. I saw, for the first time, and knew with a cold slug in my guts that it was "him", before my team-mates pointed him out to me, the city's fastest distance runner, one Bill Reno. East High. My school's torment.
He was skinny, all bones and flesh with not an ounce of meat to be found on him anywhere unless it was in a sandwich in his lunch pail from home. Of all the runners there that day, Bill Reno was a man unto himself. I studied him very closely. I knew already that he was a great distance man. His name and picture had been in the papers often. He was the sportswriters' pick for the individual win in this race, and his team was only really challenged by two other schools.
But he didn't care about schools challenging his school. This man only knew one reality, and I saw it locked into the features of his face. He lived and breathed to be the first man to break the ribbon in every race he entered, no matter what. He would not consider coming in second to the winner. He would win and live, or he would lose and die. That was written all over this man's countenance. Did I say "man"? Make that, sophomore in high school. Hardly someone we could call a man. Bill Reno was even a year younger than I!
I noted his height, and found that he was a good two inches taller than me. That would mean he had an extra inch or two if I matched his legs stride for stride. Unless I managed to put a little bounce in my strides. I remember thinking to myself as I watched this guy compose his character for the pending race, "man, there is the enemy to your victory in today's race. You have worked long and hard to be here, and it's a crowning point in your year, this race for the Turkey Day trophy. But to him it's just another in a long list of races scheduled this season. He lives the life of a runner, while you only play at it on rare occasions. Who are you fooling here? You have never even ran in a competition!"
Thoughts like that were followed by questions like this: " Can he possibly know about what I've been doing, practicing for just one event this season? Whether he knows about me or not, if he does know it will only motivate him more to beat me soundly. This man is a winning machine with only one program."
I could tell that by looking at him across the gym floor. I felt fear tempt its way inside me somehow. Could I beat this guy? What if he beats me? I began to succumb to such fruitless mental meanderings, and fortunately was snapped back to business by a slap on my shoulder by Coach Blevins.
"Well, young runner, this is your big day. You see that boy over there, the skinny little dude? That's him awright. Mr. Beat-ya-at-all-costs Reno. Cross that line ahead of him, and you're a winner for sure. Keep him in your sites from the first lap, and don't try to pass him unless you damned well know what you're doing. He's got a kick that can get a calf out of a pregnant canary!"
Coach let it drop with that, and busied himself with getting the team "up" for this race. I looked at my running shoes, and felt a friendship with them as if they were actual beings of sentience. I loved those shoes more than I loved any physical thing in this world. Never mind nice cars, or television sets, or radios, or anything. These shoes were the finest things in all of creation, and I felt that I wanted to win this race for those shoes. I remember thinking that as if it were only yesterday. I wanted to see my red, soft-chamois thin-leather form-fitting fleetest-of-all-shoes-on earth win this race. And I wanted to be in them when they did.
I also remember Coach saying something about watching for unexpected team tactics, and not to fall for "pacers" which some teams would surely try to inject into the race. I even remember having wondered what someone might possibly do to disrupt a man's running truely to the best of his capability. I would learn much that day.
(Part two ... Way of The Runner... )
Fifteen minutes' notice was given 'round. The athletic building began emptying and my team moved briskly with the river of boys filing outside. The day was clear and not so cold as one might expect for Thanksgiving. It was ideal for running. A sizeable crowd of students and parents were gathered alongside the race course, forward and after the starting line. I searched the sea of faces for my parents and Lynn. I found them about fifty yards beyond the starting line, on my left. Neither of my parents had ever attended a sporting event for one of their sons, and they both stood with an aloof dignity amid a crowd well-versed in spectator excitements. They looked calm enough to me, and I was proud of them for coming to this "worldly" event. I knew they were there for me and not for entertainment. They knew it too, but had no way to anticipate what would develop that day. This would not be their last sporting event.
The runners bunched while the coaches all received last-second conferencing from the starter. It seemed that each team was to start in a file, with the next team aligned beside them and then the next. The first runner in each file toed the chalked line, so that the starting line was as broad as there were teams. It made a formidable mass of undisciplined bulk except for the first runners whose feet were on the width of the chalk line.
The theory of large-race starts fell to two views. In one view the coach would want his best runner to head the team file and have less obstruction in reaching the leaders as the race shaped up. The other view was to put the slowest runner up front to help even his odds of finishing higher. Coach Blevins felt that since the rest of the team had bothered to race each week thus far into the season, they should have a better start than I, so I was placed at the rear of our file. That placed me well to the back of the pack, but it did not bother me. I knew that I would leave the leggy mass soon enough, and my mind was fixed on Reno. I could not see him from where I stood.
Boys all about me were moving in place, stretching, jogging, jumping lightly off the balls of their feet. I found myself looking from one runner's legs to the next, assessing muscular development, noting stronger knees and skinny knees. I looked at my own legs to see if I approved, to see if they looked like a runner's legs. An undercurrent of murmur quietly hummed among the mass of runners as we all waited. Liniment wafted about us in the thin air. I felt an urge of nervousness trying to appeal to me from deep within my belly, but had the good sense to ignore it as I jogged in place waiting for the "all ready" call. Soon enough it came, and a "runners to your marks" followed.
Coach had put my friend just ahead of me, so he and I were the tail end of the team. He was leaning from the waist with his left shoulder forward, swinging his arms. I was marveling at the large gathering of track shoes which surrounded me, and could feel a tension in the crowd of eager runners. I had no idea about what to think, so I tried not to think at all. I simply registered that I was now to begin my first competition and it just happened to be in a sport which was as natural to me as breathing. Unlike Reno, I had no demands from my parents to excel, and I felt remarkably relaxed except for a clammy feeling which came with knowing that I had no idea how to perform in an official competition.
"Get set!" Then a loud sharp explosion from the starter's pistol rent the morning into two hundred shreds of subjective pandemonium before anyone had a chance to out-jump the gun. As the files of runners leapt across the chalk line the great crowd of runners broke ranks and seemed to jam toward the middle, bunching up finally toward the right side of the field. The turns of this course would place the right side of the course on the inside. There would be only six turns, and five of them would be to the right. This I happily memorized while making the first lap around the course.
By the time I and the other "last starters" were in stride and I found that the first bend in the race would be to the right, I felt like I was ready to go to work. I was the only runner who did not know this course's every turn. Seeing the bend coming upon us, I kept to the left, deliberately trading a few extra strides for the sake of passing a number of runners instead of bunching in where the elbowing was rampant as young men vied for position coming out of the sharp turn. I chose to run farther to clear the bend but in so doing managed to place myself ahead of several scores of runners. Flying heels were everywhere, and at the apex of the turn the lane was narrowed deliberately by planted shrubbery put there for that reason, I received no cleated kicks as I safely and smoothly squeezed into the spill-out which opened upon passing the shrub's bottleneck. This race would take us around a short mile course three times, so I knew I could use the first lap to learn the way. I also knew that I would not have to hurry to clear the pack in just the first lap, but could easily use the first two laps to get into position. Unless, that is, Reno was accelerating ahead of the pack too far, in which case I was ready to work harder earlier to keep within closing distance.
To the right and ahead of me stretched a bubbly stream of runners, heads bobbing, arms stroking, legs trying nobly to keep pace with the will of each runner's heart, that will to win. I could see that I still had over a hundred and fifty runners to pass before completing the second lap, so I settled my head and let my stride stretch itself out. I held to the outside part of the running lane where the passing was less contested, and mused to myself as I looked for the head of the line ahead of me.
As I passed runners I did so gradually, so as not to engender any spurts of premature defiance. Of course, nobody outside my team knew I might be a threat, so no one seemed to pay much attention to me as I worked my way toward the forward half of the lengthy pack. Though I was certainly excited to finally get to see and feel what a competition was like, I also was remarkably relaxed as I plodded along. I began to look to the left into the brush and whatever thinned woods we ran past. I noticed some robins in a clearing, standing like proud busboys in short grass. I remember thinking that they would likely not linger here much longer before moving south for the winter. The runners I passed seemed to blur into faceless mileposts, and I began to see them as non-persons, as mere obstacles to pass.
One thing I recall very clearly was the red and white painted stakes which marked the forbidden "inside area" of the course, the space around which the race would be run. A runner was free to take as far an excursion out of the way to the left, beyond the markers, as he pleased. But anyone who stepped inside the marked off "center grounds" would be instantly disqualified. Better, I thought, to leave plenty of room for error when approaching a rise over which we could not see, in case the next stake was well to the left, which could let a runner run afoul of the course for simply not knowing all the turns. Of course there were still over a hundred runners ahead of me, so I simply kept to their left side as I gained one or two passings at a time.
We came upon turn number two, and I was still in the last-half group of runners. I noticed that this turn was not nearly so tight as the first had been, nor as sharp an angle. I passed two men while shooting through that turn and let my stride pick up a little more. My legs felt good, and the blood was beginning to reach it's optimum fluidity as my muscles mechanically obeyed my eyes and will. It all felt quite effortless, though every man there was a team runner and the pace was anything but relaxing to the most of them. Already I was hearing labored breathing as I passed shoulder after shoulder. Faces were taut and fixed, jaws were stationary and either relaxed or locked in determination. The pace of the race was notably fast, even here in the mid-way part of the pack. It brought to my face a smile, and I let my stride stretch a bit more.
I loved the smell of the air as I took long deep breaths, counting as I often did six strides per one inhale, three strides for the exhale. Soon enough my legs let me know they wanted more, and I sped up my pace and lengthened my stride. By the third turn I was moving past runners more swiftly than I would have intended, but everything about me wanted to let loose and run at a pace my legs called for. I let my cupped hands relax, letting my thumbs rest alongside my curled forefingers like weak fists caught in the act of unfolding. I kept the swing of my wrists low and constant at just below my waistline. Well I knew the fallacy of tensing up for a willed command of my legs and lungs. That is for sprinters, not distance runners. I felt literally light upon my feet, and my shoes felt as if they were my skin. Occasionally I would glance down at the red leather shoes, enjoying what for me was a thrilling moment of "seeing" myself finally in a real race, and sporting the finest shoes I'd ever had. Their red leather matched the red top of my team's competition colors, and the white laces matched my running shorts.
The course took us through a field of taller weeds, which we thrashed as best we could while trampling with broken stride-rhythms our way across. I noted that on the next lap around, I'd want to be sure to run more to the right where all the weeds would have been more compactly beaten down by the bulk of the race's long formation. Suddenly, just after straightening out after the third turn, we mounted a grassy knoll which fell away sharply downward past it's apex and funneled everyone into a narrow clog caused by the stakes and a fence which seemed to have come out of nowhere. Two abreast was all we could make of this little stretch, and I fell in between two runners, one fore and one aft, having decided to suspend my passing until this narrow leg of the race opened up again. It ran for about seventy yards and then got really wicked on us, making another right-angled turn to the right at a squeeze between a painted stake and a large oak tree into which the fence was terminated. Only one man at a time could get through that turn, so the runners at the head of the pack had slowed and their slowing had rippled back to the runners behind, causing a painful slowdown which I found myself resenting. I should have already blasted my way into the lead, I mused, so I would not have to wait for so many runners to take their turns at the turn. I'd know better next time around.
When finally through it, I let go with a kick even though Coach had always taught against kicking anytime before one's final dash at the finish line. I felt I had the energy to spare, and it felt good to speed by so many runners building up their pace again after the slow-down. I did get control of myself quickly enough however, and settled back down to a pace similar to the pace I'd been enjoying before the last turn.
Next to please me was a "log-jump" which also featured a small mud-puddle just the other side of the log, causing one to reach for more "launch" than one had initially taken off with for clearing the log. I sailed over the puddle easily, but noticed a number of footprints in the soft edges of the far side of the puddle. I remember talking to my shoes just then, saying that I'd never splash them down in a mudhole.
Again I picked up the pace and went by more runners. By now I was within the first forty or so runners, and knew I had plenty of time to get up with the leaders. While running so, the reality of Coach's caution about some teams maybe having planted "pacers" in the race began to make sense. I could see that a team which had no real hopes of winning the event might have inter-rivalry motives to push Reno too hard for the first lap in hopes of depleting his energies early in the race. I checked myself inside, and found that I was fine for all day at the pace I was running. I kept on passing runners.
By now my skin was starting to show the slightest moisture as my pores breathed a fine sweat outward to the air. Still I was not breathing hard, and my pulse was relatively calm and steady, very much under control, very much still relaxed. I knew that I may be thrown into a muscle-abusing, hard-breathing, all-out kick for the last half-mile of the race, but that was still quite a ways ahead of me as I was about two thirds around the first lap.
The leaders took us through a stand of young trees in a manicured grove, and when we burst out of it, suddenly came upon us the only turn to the left. I saw by bent weeds the wiser runner's veered course, and quickly realized why some of the runners ahead of me had leaned left coming out of the grove. I followed suit and as my feet dropped down a slight embankment I was suddenly "inside" a turn for the first time. That turn to the left was not just the only left turn, it was also the only hairpin turn on the course. I used my position to out-step another runner and pass him, though I noticed that he was hesitant to grant me space between the stake and the path his feet were on. I literally jumped ahead of him, squeezing past the stake, thereby surprising him and evoking an audible sigh which quickly turned into a breathy grunt. He already knew he would not catch me. I didn't look back, but accelerated my stride once again and took off for a point closer to the leaders.
Too soon, we rounded a bend and saw the high roof-line of the gym, and presently we were running swiftly past the spectators who were still on our left as we completed the first lap. I looked to my parents and smiled, tossing them an abbreviated wave by turning my right hand palm-toward them and extending the fingers while my hand was on it's forward stroke. They appeared to be as stoic as before, but I did notice that my mother was seeming friendly with a family standing next to them. Lynn was between them, waving at me and smiling. I tried to get a grin back to her, but am not sure if my face was free to smile with the ups and downs of the fast strides I rode. I turned to the race again, anticipating the upcoming right-angled turn now approaching rapidly. I fell into the line to the right and took the turn smoothly by planting my feet just so as I navigated the turn's tilt of balance.
Now I knew there was a good stretch of running before me, and I moved left again and proceeded to pass runners as best as I could. I noticed however that the runners I was passing now were not so indifferent about being passed as were those from farther back in the pack. Each in his turn would, upon hearing my footfalls approaching, turn on some more determination in his stride and attempt to discourage me by letting himself briefly spurt forward. A couple of times, I felt playful about that and paced myself at the runner's shoulder and held to his own pace with him for a little while. Worse, I would chat with them, saying silly things off the cuff, which came from nowhere.
It was terribly unsettling to each of them to have someone catch up with him and match his stride and yet have the breath to engage in a monologue all the while. "Man, like we're at least eighty yards ahead of the next guys back there..." I'd say. Or maybe I'd say, "Hey, man, have you seen some cat named Reno going this way?" No matter what I said, I never got a good-humored reply. Actually, I got no reply at all from any of them, unless you could call a fierce re-doubling of their efforts to outpace me a reply. This amused me.
I began to think a plan. Perhaps I would talk to Reno when I caught up with him, and perhaps, since runners apparently never talk while running races, I could disorient him somewhat by asking him stupid questions. I resolved to do just that.
But I should say at this point that passing a hundred and seventy runners out of a couple of hundred is one thing. But passing the remaining thirty or so is not quite so easily done. And Mr. Reno, who I could now see ahead of me, was in the lead half-way through the second lap and had set his own blistering pace. A group of five runners were dogging his heels, but were not wanting to push him at their own expense. Literally no runner was attempting to pass him, or even pull alongside him. Apparently these were the smarter runners who were letting Reno take the drain of leading early and were holding back in hopes of out-kicking him at the last.
Of course Reno knew this. He had silently determined to, within reason, run them down while they tried to keep within closing distance of him. He was truly a beautiful runner. Light on his feet, with angular knees and elbows, head still but loose on his neck, arms pumping easily as his knees and the balls of his feet seemed to eat up the strides and call for more. He leapt forward off each step, but did not do it with any visible effort. He was very thin, so he had no fleshly cul-de-sacs on his frame to vie for the oxygen his lungs were pouring into his bloodstream. The only sign I saw which was encouraging was when I had worked my way close enough to him to actually see in his back muscles the evidence of his hard breathing. He was not gasping, but was breathing with a visible labor. That told me much.
We were nearing completion of the second lap as I got to within six runners from Reno. This time when I ran past the spectators at the gym I only nodded at my parents and did not try to mess with my rhythms enough to venture a wave. I cut my eyes for a glimpse of Lynn, but didn't turn my head. I had got into the hunt of the race, and was consumed with my rate of gain on the leader. Catching Reno would be a task, I was beginning to understand. Even as I realized this, I ran past the coaches who were grouped around the line on the inside of the course. Coach was hollering at me to "Pace it, boy, pace it back some!" I didn't even look his way, knowing that I must now focus on the back of Reno's head.
I zipped over the starter's line which would be the finish line the next time I saw it, and scooted on down the grade to the first turn for the last time. Now we were in the last lap, and it would not be too early to let my challenge be known to Reno. I was running in seventh place. Sixth back from first place was my friend. I pulled up behind him and spoke assuringly to him that I sorta hated to do this, but it was time for me to catch Reno and so I was going to have to pass him. Oddly, I noticed, he reacted just as had the other runners from the other teams I'd been talking to as I passed them. He hunkered down and drove his legs harder, fighting to keep ahead of me. It meant a lot to him not to let me beat him. I hadn't thought about that before, not since the first day of practice in which I thought I'd picked up some slight, vague fear in him of my running abilities. "Well", I remember thinking, " hate to do it to a friend, but after all, he's been in every competition this season thus far, and this is my only shot at winning a race, so I'm going to have to work on Reno no matter what." I gathered myself and blew past him quickly, saying over my shoulder that I'd see him at the finish line. Nobly, as soon as he saw the burst with which I pulled ahead of him, and as it all became clear to him at that instant, he said between huffs, "Get that goddam Reno! Go, man!", and that was the last I saw of him until my surprise a few hundred yards ahead on the course.
I sustained the burst of speed with which I had passed my friend and team-mate. Soon I was within four paces of dead even with Reno. He had heard me pass the number two man, but he had no idea who had done that. He knew very well to never break his concentration on his pace and stride by looking back over his shoulder, so he must have just focused on the fact that as the runner leading the last lap, he had about two hundred runners to worry about, and at that point it did not matter "who" was pulling up on him. Others would make their play, their "move", before this race was over. His attitude was to just speed up anytime anyone sounded like they were gaining on him. Once a runner is in first place in the race, he'll win it if he doesn't let anyone pass him. That was Reno's logic, and he apparently believed in it.
I pulled, laboring now, to within two strides behind him. I thrilled as he answered my nearness with renewed determination to not allow himself to be passed. He sped up and for the first time I saw him clench his fists. It was unconscious, but it happened. "Good", I thought. "I'll build his tenseness a little more by talking to him from behind him. If he knows I'm not breathing too hard yet, it could discourage him."
But Reno was not one to understand discouragement until the winner's ribbon had been broken at the end of any race he ran. He only knew one thing, and that was to run all out as fast as he could for as long as he could, if that was what it took to beat the field. So when I said, "Hey, Reno, you don't need to be kicking this early, man.....we're at least fifteen yards ahead of the third-place man.", well, he just let loose with a new flurry of knees and elbows in flight and tried for all he was worth to make it look like he could do it all the way to the line. I knew he couldn't kick for over a half-mile in grass and with grades and a couple of turns yet to navigate, so I turned it on myself, pulling even with him on his left shoulder.
I continued to jabber at him while matching strides with him. I won't say I was now running easily, for in truth I was pushing myself to hold his commanding pace. But I did know that I still had a heck of a kick in me, and I also figured that I'd have over two minutes to work on his head by chatting with him.
"Seriously, man! We're way out in front of the rest of them, so what-say we slack off a little so we can have an impressive kick at the finish. Man, did you see that crowd of spectators there? Wouldn't it be cool if we were just flying like crazy when we crossed that line in front of all those people?"
With such as that, I kept his ear itching and his feet flying in his determination to not let the "voice" get ahead of him. Meanwhile, I mused within myself that I could be the first cross-country runner ever to make use of idle chat to wear down the resolve of my competition. I smiled at the liberty I'd presumed in talking to the struggling runners. But presently, I realized that this Reno was possibly capable of continuing to increase our speed, and that I may be facing a more formidable adversary here than I had initially thought. I thought to try to pass him, running ahead just inches off his left shoulder. To my surprise, he advanced back up to even with me though I was pouring it on now. For a glimmering of an instant, a sickly, cold stab of fear tried to root itself in my guts. I quickly dismissed it, but found that in doing so Reno gained a couple of inches ahead of my shoulders.
We were turning this event into quite a battle for first place, but neither of us had time to register any awe about what that meant. By now we were running headlong side by side and we both were fearful and confident at the same time. At this point, it occurred to me that he may beat me simply because he was a veteran runner, a runner seasoned by many competitions. He may know just some silly little thing which could empower him past me at the last second, I imagined. Again I reached within me and added a little more speed to my now pumping strides. And now I noticed that I had to keep reminding my hands not to clench. I felt my jaw frozen with determination. I tried to remember how to relax at full speed ahead. My ears were ringing slightly, and my breathing was now beginning to be labored as was Reno's. Desperations were setting in. I could only hope that the same was tearing down his mind more damningly than it was mine. Surely this guy was just human after all. Surely if I put yet another burst of speed into our equation he'd have to start falling back.
I did. He didn't fall back.
I was beginning to find good reason to admire this runner. I was now close to giving it all I had, and I couldn't pull ahead of him. By now, every placement of our feet was awesomely important. Use of a tuft of low-rooted grass for leverage and spring was considered and opted for without conscious departure from the mental pacing of the physical pace of flying legs and feet. He and I were locked into a duel which neither of us would have expected. We were like two clouds in a frisky wind current, bending this way and that, holding parallel as the wind kept them constant. We were moving farther and farther ahead of the field, but there were still several runners within twenty-five yards of us, struggling in their fight for third place as the yards of the short-three-mile race began to run out on us.
It was just at that time that we cleared out of that grove and veered to the left to head for the hair-pin turn. Reno was side by side with me, and the only consolation I had left was that I felt that he was actually breathing with more labor than was I. But whatever his breathing was doing, his feet were keeping his shoulder exactly side by side with mine.
We both slowed somewhat in preparation for taking the hair-pin turn, and for once I was on the inside with the advantage of position as we came upon the hard turn and slanted our toes for the shifting of our leans into the turn. That is when I learned something which has never left me. That is when I got the surprise of my young life.
For all he was worth as a runner and a man, Reno did not know how to react to having been so seriously challenged by a runner he did not know. It was as though he flipped out or something. I say "flipped out", though I'm sure he didn't really lose his mind. He just reached down into his pool of past experience, or into the memory of something he may have seen in a movie somewhere. Whatever took charge of his mind, he stamped down with his right foot in front of him just as I approached the red and white painted stake marking this hair-pin turn. He, using that right foot as a passing "plant", turned slightly toward me and threw his shoulder, with all the weight he could muster for a frail-framed young runner, into me and pushed me off balance so that I ran into the wooden stake, straddling it, breaking it with my jock-strap and it's contents. That caused me to tumble head over heels, rolling over twice before I could shift enough to cease the rolling. That put Reno twenty yards ahead of me, and left me looking quite sheepish as my friend passed me through the turn without breaking his pace or saying anything other than, "Hey! You alright?".
My testicles were in pain, and it seemed that every muscle in my lower torso must have been attached to them with sinews of fire. Still, I got up as quickly as I could, over-looking the pain. I felt stunned and surprised, felt quite confused. I took after the leader again, but had now a real handicap with which to work. Less than a hundred seventy yards remained. Could I "kick" all the way in? I had no choice.
Something inside me reveled in the decision to ignore the pain and to tell the muscles to ignore it too and perform as they had always enjoyed performing before. My body did try to execute my wish. I did manage to pass my friend again, but Reno beat me by seven yards through the tape and suddenly he was the favorite of the crowd and the coaches and all the other runners. And I was once again relegated to being a nobody with no victory. But now I had been in a race, so there was no excuse for not having won a race.
The turn where Reno had shoved me into the marker stake was not visible to the crowds or coaches, but there was, as there were at every turn along the course, a "spotter" standing by at the turn. He had seen what happened, and I had known that he must have seen it. I went straight to Coach and told him what had happened. He just looked at my legs and said, "Well, I told you to watch for tricks, didn't I? That damned Reno came out here to win, boy. Let that be a lesson to you." With that he walked away to check on other team-mates.
There was a trophy presentation, and the first three finishers would receive a personal trophy. I felt that was some consolation, to at least get a second-place trophy. But to my surprise I learned as I went forward to claim my trophy that I had been disqualified! I had no place in the finish at all, for when I had straddled that post, half of my body had been out of bounds! The spotter had indeed seen it, and had felt duty-bound to reveal my infraction to the race officials, who, being sticklers for procedure, regretfully ruled me "disqualified".
My friend came up to me and said he had seen what had happened. He said he wished there was some way he could help, but the die was cast already it seemed. Then he said the one thing which would light a fire within me that would never die. He said, walking away slowly, "Well, there's always next year."
I went to my parents, who were smiling broadly that I had finished second even though they knew that I had been disqualified. Lynn stepped forward to meet me and she took my arm and said I had looked fine running the race. She thought Reno should have been disqualified instead of me. My parents agreed. They told me all the right things about how well I ran, and about how it was an evil thing that Reno had done to assure his victory. For the first time in my life, my dad exhibited a justifiable sense of indignation graced with a cold glare of intended vengence. It was for me. He wanted me to know that if I wanted to focus on beating this runner in the Turkey Day Run next year, he'd be behind me all the way. I appreciated that, but felt myself sinking into a remorse somewhere deep inside myself. I remained mostly silent as my parents drove me home. Lynn didn't know whether to hold my hand or not. I seemed to be distant to myself, and I've no idea how distant I may have seemed to Lynn and my parents.
My testicles seemed to recover alright, though they were sore for days afterward.
Even as Reno had given me a surprise, he and I, and the Coach and my team-mates, and my parents, and all my classmates at school, were yet to see another surprise that a few weeks more would usher into our lives. It came about this way....
The Rain Delay
(Part three ... Way of The Runner ... )
At the next practice for the team the following week, all my team-mates gave me their sympathies. News of how Reno had beat me had traveled around the team and the school. I felt some consolation. Coach was pissed that I had let that common ploy by Reno cost his team my very low finishing points for the team's total. We would have finished second in the team competitions had I not allowed Reno to shove me like that. While I regretted letting the team down that way, I was yet more personally involved in the fiasco. I wanted a piece of Mr. Reno just one more time, and I quickly asked Coach that day if he would feel okay with me working out with the team again next year, my senior year, so I could have a chance at reclaiming what I felt was rightfully mine. He smiled and assured me that I could work-out with his team. I felt resolved to do just that.
My friend spoke with me after school that day, in the gym's shower rooms. He confessed that he knew I could outrun him, and that I could probably, in his opinion, outrun Reno if I ever got into another race with him. I assured him that barring polio and the proverbial creek's rising I would face that runner again next Thanksgiving. "I've got a whole year to get ready for that guy!" I said. But as things would go, that turned out not to be true.
We had three week-end meets left on the team's schedule, after which would be held the city-wide Championship race. Of course, all four of these races were scheduled for Saturdays. I still worked out with the team that week, and the next weeks as well. Coach enjoyed seeing me push the runners in our afternoon work-outs. He still held resentments about my not competing for my school on Saturdays, but he kept that away from me. I've no idea how much he may have talked about it to faculty or to other students, but he spared me the grief. During those weeks I continued my friendship with Lynn, but I spent less time on the phone with her after school. I did sit with her in church meetings, and she seemed naturally to understand how to give me some space. I was not as aware of my brooding as was she.
Finally, the season was over except for the coming week-end's City Championship race. Reluctantly, and sadly, I turned in my running uniforms and sweats and my shoes. Coach, seeing me standing before his desk that Thursday afternoon after our last team practice, gave me a little twinkle in his eye, which I'd never seen there before, and asked me if I'd like to just hang on to those shoes and the competition jersey and shorts. I was thrilled. I had not minded turning in the jersey and shorts and other items, but I was already convinced that I would miss the red leather running shoes. I beamed my thanks at him, and promised to take good care of them.
"Just get to know them perfectly, my boy, so they can help you beat Reno's ass next year at the Turkey Day Run!"
I promised I would do just that, then turned and walked home. Friday came and because it was the day before a big race, the team would not work out. I went home early, as there was nothing else to do without practice. How I longed to have my revenge on that Reno guy. As I walked home, a distance of about four miles through neighborhoods to the edge of Memphis' city limits, which at that time was at the beginnings of the Wolf River bottom-lands, I noticed that the grey in the sky was getting darker. Quickly, it came up a rain, and this rain was heavy and steady. I was soaked through and through in a minute. I continued on my way, never dreaming that this rain was perhaps a huge favor in my young life.
I began my Sabbath observance at what the paper had said would be the minute of "sundown", though there was no sun to be seen as the rain front grew worse and worse that afternoon. I put aside all my concerns about running, school-work, and friends. I meditated on Nature and my God and His Son Jesus. I tried to purify my thoughts, to look closely within myself to judge my motives and my state of spiritual love for my God. I slept peacefully that night. All through the night, the heavy rains continued. It was still raining strongly when I awakened the next morning.
That morning, I attended Sabbath-school before church, as I always did, and sat calmly and quietly through the morning's sermon by the pastor. I looked often out the window, marveling that such rain could be sustained for so long.
Not once did the thought of the City Championship race enter my thoughts, until we were driving home from church. My middle brother said something about it being too bad I couldn't be running against that mean old guy who had shoved me previously. As my mother started to suggest to him that such thoughts were not acceptable for Seventh-day Adventists who were observing their holy Sabbath day, I relaxed my defenses against myself and did actually let the thought into my head that, yes, I agreed, it was too bad I was not getting to the starting line along about now for one last chance to justify myself as a cross-country runner. But then it hit me. It hit my dad at just the same time. He turned in his seat to my mother and said sort of as an aside, "Well, hon, I'm not sure I'd want to be running in all the water that's bound to be standing over that course after all this rain."
My mother turned and asked me if cross-country events were held irregardless of weather conditions. I told her I did not know, but it was dawning on me that perhaps, maybe, hopefully!, the race would be postponed. But I did not want to spoil my Sabbath with such thoughts, so I put it out of my mind and with all the detachment which any teenager can display, I sat quietly through the remainder of the ride home and went to my room for further meditating. I kept the running of races out of my mind. After family lunch, I took a nap and upon awakening that evening I found that it was almost the end of the Sabbath.
Waiting until a proper lapse of time after the moment of sundown, (again, I used the time of sundown as given by the newspaper, since it was still raining cats and dogs outside under heavy sunless skies), I mustered all the non-chalance I could and turned on the television in hopes of finding a newscast with sports results. Presently, the news came that the City Championship Cross Country meet had been postponed due to rain. My heart jumped, but my mother cautioned me that they might have rescheduled it for the following Saturday. "Let's wait and see what happens." she said. But just then the announcer told the tv audience that the race would be held on Sunday afternoon.
"Hot dog!" I yelled, jumping up and beaming. I can run in it!
However, that was not to be the case either. It also rained all Saturday night, and all Sunday morning, continuing to rain throughout the afternoon, and the officials canceled it again. They declared that the new date of the race would be announced after the infernal rain ceased. Now I was beginning to learn how people can get depressed! Darn, this was too much! Now it looked like the race would be pushed back all the way to the coming Saturday after all. Again I was intensely disappointed.
I went to school Monday morning, having been taken by my father in the family car, as it was still raining. But by second period, the clouds lifted and the sun was again visible. The whole world seemed to be soaked by the incessant rains. Still, just seeing the sunshine seemed to help me lift my spirits, which had been at a low since Saturday evening's newscast.
I focused on my classes, and began to recall my customary happy energies. I had, after all, actually got to run in a real competition, a real race, and that was more than most Seventh-day Adventists could say. It had not seemed so close to sinning, from my view of it. I still understood that there is a basic temptation by distraction involved with competitive sports, so I managed to keep myself detached from much of what was going on inside me. So I thought.
Third period went by, and I was sitting in fourth period, about ten minutes into the class, when a knock came at Ms. Musick's classroom door. It was Coach Blevins, and he whispered something hastily in her ear at the door. She turned and looked straight at me, and then smiled. Even she had known about the foul I'd been dealt at the hand of Reno. Smiling at me, she asked if I would just as soon leave class early today, since she was not going to be covering anything she couldn't catch me up on later anyway. I looked back at her with puzzlement all over my face. Then she told me to hurry up and go with Coach, that they had suddenly decided to hold the City Championship race this very afternoon. I needed no further explanation. I was out of there like light in a broken bulb, half-running half-skipping to keep up with Coach, who was asking me where were my running shoes?
It hit me! Oh no! I'd left them at home, knowing that I'd not be using them to work out this afternoon, and certainly not dreaming that the biggest race of the season would be run this afternoon. "Coach! I've got to get home to get the shoes!" I exclaimed.
"We've not got time for that. The race starts in forty-five minutes. It's at Southwestern's course, so you'll know the course this time. Let's haul-ass over to the locker-rooms and look for a pair of shoes for you. Also, I've got messengers getting the rest of the team out of classes right now. We'll go in some faculty cars. Got no time to do anything! We're likely to miss the starter's gun if we don't hurry!"
I was beside myself. The excitement of this surprise was too great for me. In the locker-room I picked up some running clothes and a heavy sweat-suit. But alas, there was not a pair of running shoes my size to be found! Soon my team-mates were showing up at the locker-rooms, and one of them offered to let me borrow his shoes. I declined. Coach then hollered at me. "Boy, you get some damned shoes and get 'em quick. The rest of you get your butts out of here and check in at the parking lot for Doc McCall at his white van. There will be two other teachers' cars next to his, and he'll be standing there. Hurry up now!" There had not been sufficient notice for Coach to have time to draw a school bus from the city lot.
To satisfy Coach, I grabbed the pair of shoes closest to my size, knowing that I'd not wear them. Still, I dutifully clutched them and followed him and the other boys out to the parking lot for the urgent ride through several neighborhoods to the college campus where I had run in the Turkey Day Run. I was glad this race would be on a course I was familiar with.
When we arrived we noticed that all the other schools were apparently as disorganized as were we, and officials were walking swiftly among the clusters of hurried harriers making sure that coaches knew the procedures which would be followed in running the race that afternoon. Before I could figure out what to do about the shoes, and while Coach was nowhere to be seen, I slipped out the gym door to the starting area where several other runners were already stretching and doing jumping exercises. I was barefoot. The starting area was a field of cold, wet, mud. It was on higher ground, and proved to be the "dryest" part of the course.
The reason Coach had disappeared was he had decided to call my mother to see if she could possibly get over there with my running shoes. She agreed to do just that, but unfortunately, she lived too far away to make it before the starter's gun sent the race into the mud and standing water which submerged nearly half of the course. He never mentioned to me as we had lined up at the starting line that he had tried to get my shoes there. He sensed that they would not get there on time anyway, and he had a silly notion about me pausing after the first lap long enough to get the shoes onto my feet and then continuing the race.
But things developed differently. As the sun had come out that morning, it had brought with it a quickly dropping cold-spell, and even now the air was really too cold for most of the runners. Many of them had brought their sweat-shirts from the gym and now wore them over their running jerseys. Two boys had even opted to wear their sweat-pants. I wanted no part of heavy clothing, no matter if it was uncomfortably cold and getting colder by the minute. I shivered, but knew that after a lap I'd not feel cold.
Standing in the mud at the starting line, my feet went numb! I got frightened by that and explained it to my friend, who was in his running gear complete with his running shoes. How I envied him the luxury of having cleated running shoes that moment! Of all days, this sloppy wet excuse of a day was exactly when spiked running shoes would be most valuable.
He and two other team-mates got each side of me and let me lift my feet off the cold mud by bracing my arms around their shoulders. As my feet dangled cold and numb, Coach stood nearby and just shook his head. I could only wonder how it had seemed to always be that I found myself in strange predicaments, while my feet continued to spread their numbness up to my ankles and threatened to creep even higher up my legs. I didn't know if I should get back down and exercise, or keep my feet out of the cold mud every second I could before the race started. I didn't have long to worry about what to do.
"Runners to your marks!" came the alert. Then, before my team-mates had time to let me down and get into their starting "leans", quickly came a loud, "Get set!", and even more quickly than possible the starter's gun bellowed forth it's freezing cough of insanity and the whole body of miserable runners took off on the most unpleasant running they would have encountered all year. Reno was among them.
My team-mates dropped me to the mud and took off. I stood there wondering if I could really expect to run this race with no shoes and numb feet. The fields of the course were visibly standing in water which was in places more than six inches deep across vast stretches of the course. I didn't know if I was going to jeopardize my feet by trying to run while they were numb. I did remember that there were two lightly-graveled roads which we would have to run across during the completion of each lap, and I wondered how I would cross those roads bare-footed. I felt confused and handicapped, but heck! The race had started and I was the last man off the line already, so I couldn't really afford to stand there looking for answers. The next thing I knew I was splashing after the horde of splattering, squishing runners, all of whom were already being covered with flecks of thrown mud.
Quickly, I resolved myself to my fate, and fought within myself to get a grip on the task at hand. Make that, the task at foot, right? The leaders of the race already had a large advantage on me, and I was the last man around the first turn. This absolutely did not seem to be a good idea. I struggled to get my muscles accustomed to the demands which I would have to make of them. My muscles responded with a chilled reluctance of their own. I really worried about breaking a foot or an ankle, as I couldn't feel a thing in either foot. It was like I was not there below my ankles, and my ankles themselves were thinking about disappearing too.
Something inside me seemed to be trying to tell me to run faster, and that if I would just run faster I could get my blood temperature up even in the lower extremities. That didn't seem likely to me, but it was the only thing I could think to do, so I narrowed my focus into trying to pass all the runners I could as quickly as I could. I'll confess this now, though I would have never said it when I was that young, but at this early stage of this particular race, with my feet numb and my ankles hurting bitterly from the cold and wetness, I actually got the thought into my head that the straightest line that could be acceptably drawn from where I was splashing about in an absurd display of angry weather to the gym's warmth and it's hot showers was to complete this race. I knew I would have to run all three laps before I could make a bee-line for the warmth of the showers. Then it dawned on me.....the sooner I got finished with the race, the sooner I could get relief, could get dry and warm and clean. I sped up, encouraged by thinking about hot showers.
At about half-way around the large property which composed the "lap" we'd run three times in this race was the first of the gravel roads we'd have to run across. As I neared it, I was running past disheartened runners who had already figured that this was a bad joke without reason or ending, and were more resigned to plodding obediently along their way to the finish line while taking every precaution not to slip down into the water or mud. Though I could completely understand their thinking, and could even share it with them, it had occurred to me to help myself out of this misery by hurrying! I came upon the road and literally closed my eyes, fearing what the gravel would do to my bare feet.
That was when a saving realization hit upon me. My feet couldn't feel a thing, so they did not know if I abused them by coming down hard on a bigger rock. I knew then that I would cross the next road with my eyes open, trying to keep off the larger or more jagged rocks as I picked my way on the run across the gravel. Amazingly, I got across the road with complete absence of pain, though I knew that when my feet came back to full feeling I was likely to find that I'd achieved various injuries, including "stone-bruise". Well, I cheerfully thought to myself, that will be then, but this is now, so I'm letting it all out and running for my quickest return to a hot shower and a pile of warm dry towels!
As the pack came round to the starter's line to complete lap one of the three-lap race, I had gained on the leaders noticeably. To my surprise, I noticed that there were perhaps thirty or forty parents who had been able to make it there on short notice. It was not the kind of crowd which had watched me get myself disqualified at the Turkey Day Run, but still it was encouraging to see some people there in support of this poor-weathered madness. Then I saw her. My mother was standing under an umbrella and held up head-high to my view my red leather running shoes. She was just at the edge of the race lane, leaning toward me and hollering my name. Dad had not been able to get off work to come. Lynn had still been in school across town. Mother had on a long coat and rubber boots, so she looked secure and fine. I did not slow down one whit when I saw the shoes, knowing already that it was too late to help my feet and also knowing that the minute it would take to put them on would just set back the moment of my relief by that much time.
What was more, after completing one lap it had occurred to me that after all, I was running just fine and was gaining on the leaders. I smiled a shrug at her as I ran past, loving her for caring for me the way she did, and I kept on running. Seeing her caused me to think of several things at once, and one of them was my father's initial reaction to my having been fouled in that race a month earlier. He had actually wanted me to avenge myself for that cheap shot by Reno, even though such notions were totally opposed to the spirituality that he and I both understood was our chosen way to view life here on earth. "Hmm", I thought, "dad's human after all!"
So the idea came into my mind about half-way around lap two that Reno's feet probably didn't feel any better than mine did, shoes or no, and that even though he had the advantage of spikes, I had a bit more flesh on my bones than he carried on his, and that meant that I might have an advantage after all by having a better blood circulation under these conditions than he did. Using such thoughts for fuel, I commanded my legs to get with the program even more, and I began to drive myself to exceed the whole mess of this race and give Reno a dose of payback. I literally began kicking before I got past half-way around that second lap. I was now passing people coming and going. In this race, I didn't use up good energy talking to them as I passed them.
When I crossed the line for the second time I was less than twenty yards behind Reno, who was alone but for two men, one of whom was my friend and team-mate. I could hear my mother's voice shrilly commanding me to run harder, to catch "that boy"! He had five and six yards respectively on a boy from Central and my friend. I kept kicking, suddenly enjoying the notion of flying past him before he could adjust to having heard my footfalls splashing behind him. I reached inside myself even more deeply and coaxed my legs to fly faster yet. I waved at my mother when I went past her and then fixed my gaze on the back of Reno's head and never took my eyes off him again until I drove past him between the second and third turns on the third lap. Well I knew that I would not want to be caught ever again running side by side with him.
As I passed him, I caught him by surprise. He didn't even try to throw a kick into his stride. It was almost like he was already beaten by the cold and wet conditions which had given every runner there misery and various degrees of pain. I glanced at the side of his face and saw amid the splash-mud flecks covering his face and the front of his jersey an eye of blue in a grimmace of determined and sustained combat with pain. He was struggling valiantly, but had felt the futility in escaping the pain. He would not quit, however, though he couldn't even hide his pain as I pulled aside him.
I fairly skipped past the guy and never let up. I don't to this day know how I managed to "kick" for a mile and a half, but that is what I did. I finished the race, ribbon across my chest, more than twenty seconds ahead of Reno. I waved my mother toward the gym and without slowing down more than necessary to keep upright as I turned left off the course, I headed as quickly as I could into the gym's saving warmth. I was in the warm shower when Coach came in to get me. He was all pissed off. "Boy, didn't you want that championship trophy, or what? Get your damned shorts back on and get back out there and let them give you the goddam thing. Hurry your ass up! They're all waiting on you!" With that he made his exit and slammed the door behind him.
I had not thought about a presentation of the trophies. I grinned. It was beginning to dawn on me that not only had I beaten Reno, I had also won the city championship! Wet, I hurriedly struggled to get the sweat-pants over my burning feet and calves, which were feigning fire as the blood crept back into them. I slipped my feet into my regular school shoes and grabbed a sweatshirt to pull over my head as I headed out the door to a moment which only victors know. I was shy about being the center of attention, but kept a straight face and spoke only a brief "thank you very much" as they passed the winner's trophy to me. As quickly as good graces would permit, I headed back to the luxury of that hot shower.
Just as I neared the entrance, I noticed some movement under the grandstands which stood outside the gym. I looked in that direction and saw something I'll never forget. There was Reno, under the bleachers, and his dad was with him. Reno was crying. Worse, his dad was cursing him! Chewing him out for letting some little "unknown" from Treadwell beat his ass in the rain. As I watched this pitiful scene while continuing to walk toward the entrance to the gym, I saw Reno's dad grab his upper arm and shake him mercilessly, cursing him all the while. I didn't want to embarrass Reno by letting him see me seeing him, so I hastily made my way on into the gym. Suddenly, some things made sense to me. I felt very sorry for him, and hated that it had to be him I beat to get my win.
That would not be the last of such displays by his father I would witness in the coming couple of years, and I always felt badly whenever I had to race Reno, knowing that if I beat him he would catch hell from his dad. How cruel, I thought.... I entered the gym and got back into the shower, vowing to stay there for a full half-hour.
My team-mates caught me there, and there was much bally-hooing and horseplay. One of their own had done it! They excitedly told me something I had missed. As luck would have it, I had set a new course record. They were all in awe, knowing that my feet had been numb before the race even started. To win it was one thing. To trounce Reno grandly was another. But to do those things and run that course faster than any runner ever had before, lopping more than five seconds off the old record time, well, that was cause for serious celebration. Also, though the team did not win the event's team competition, finishing second behind Overton High, Reno's East High came in a miserable sixth place in team totals, and that was yet another reason to celebrate.
As we finally calmed ourselves, I noticed Coach standing aside waiting for us to blow off our joyful steam. I walked over to him and instead of receiving his congratulations, all I got was his declaration that I could have run the race better. "Boy, some day you're gonna wake up and listen to me, dammit! You started your kick several minutes before you were supposed to! I've told you about doing that."
"You're right, Coach," I said, letting my eyes fall to his feet.
"Awright. What you did out there today could have been better. Maybe next year you'll do it right." Then he grinned just a bit. "Boy, if I could get you to drink it, which I know damned well I can't, I'd buy you a beer and try just one more time to talk you out of this nonsense about that Seventh-day Assinism or whatever it is you call your private little excuse for keeping me from having the best damned cross-country team I ever had. Damn, but you make me mad!" With that he turned and walked away. As he left the showers, I hollered after him, "Hey, Coach! What if it was my God who gave me the ability to win that race?"
I'm not sure if he heard me or not.
Exiting the showers, I found my mother, who by now had made friends with several other parents who were waiting to take their sons home. She was quite pleased, and had a warm hug for me, as well as another dose of Coach-like admonition. "Young man, if I ever catch you running barefoot in this kind of weather again I'll blister your bottom!" She smiled as she said it. I looked in my heart at the contrast between what I lived with at home and what Reno must have to live with at his home. I felt heavy in my heart, despite the events of this most memorable day.
In the car on the way home, I told my mother that I was convinced that God had helped me win that race, to repay me in kind for keeping my heart pure and focused on His love and wonderment, for honoring his divine laws for mankind. She agreed that that could be true, that perhaps the Lord had indeed blessed me in this way as a way of showing that God was pleased with my devotion. She believed that then, and she believes that to this day. Her God has never changed, and she's lived her whole life as a testament of her God's goodness. I truly believed that back then, just as she and dad did. It made sense to me, and it fit with all I'd ever been taught.
But that was forty years ago, long before I learned that there is another sort of race going on.
The following Spring I ran on the track and field team. Mile run and two-mile relay. Sometimes an 880. I picked up some medals in the season-ending championships and at the West Tennessee regionals. I ran cross-country the next year in highschool, and then for a season in college, before I dropped out of college in 1965 and joined the Marines to help my government stamp out the communist threat over in some little un-heard-of country called Viet Nam. The preacher at my church seemed convinced that America had to fight that war, but assured we young men of enlistment age that God might smile more readily upon the boy who declined as a conscientious-objector. Still, he made a case about honoring one's country, and I felt like for the first time I had opportunity to make a decision on my own. I thought I'd volunteer before they drafted me, and I also knew I would request duty in Viet Nam when the time came.
As has always been my way, I learn as I go, and Viet Nam taught me more than I wanted to learn.
I no longer can believe in the God of the Seventh-day Adventist religion. I haven't been able to swallow that since I got home from the war all in one piece.
In fact, I can't believe in a God at all. For thirty-three years now I've missed the comfort of blind faith and the needed presumption which comes to all persons who can believe above all in their God.
Oh, I believe in goodness, just as it's found in the hearts of decent folk like my parents. That's there, alright. But today it causes me to laugh in scorn when I recall how I came to be so programmed back then, back in '61, 62, and '63, as to believe that a distant God on some impeccable throne of everlasting joy and glory could care about just which kid won which long-distance race, but couldn't bother to care at all if the cutest little two-year-old Vietnamese girl you ever saw, a precious sweetness as innocent as morning's gold in a sunrise, had to be cognizant with every nerve in her screaming body as the White Phosphorous with which we bombed her got all over her skin and burned its way unstoppably into her flesh in unbelievable pain, burned all the way to the bones of her body.
Today there is no God to whom I can turn. For you, maybe there is. But I've known throughout all my grown life that I'm making do without the man upstairs. I miss that comfort and dearly wish there were once again a higher power which dwelt inside the temple of my heart, sustaining me and celebrating his creation through my heart. Instead there is this fierce and cold course ahead of me and a foe who started before the starter's gun. There is only the running to catch and pass my own defeat as that embodiment of insanity now wears my own colors, posing like a team-mate on my side while taking from me the very wing-heeled shoes of personal liberty.
Today I think that there is a race being run by all good people of conscience, and the course is staked out in the structure of our daily lives. We can win that race by living truthfully and responsibly, by admitting that the tax dollars we send up to the national government these days are buying murder, coercion, and abuse all around the world. We can win that race by reminding Caesar just what is and what is not Caesar's, and by taking the power of we the people back from the hands of Statist darkness and socialistic evil, and re-establishing our original Constitution and demanding criminal trials for all the guilty cheaters from the high board members of the Federal Reserve, Inc., to the Justice Department, the CIA, the CFR, the NSA, FEMA, and all their tiresome, guilty, evil ilk, and, of course, the Globalistic King Klinton himself. Criminal trials for criminal deeds against the American people and against more than a hundred nations world-wide in which his CIA has spread the trap of Corporate Imperialism clandestinely and with much evil, much misery, much destruction, much death.
Nowadays I'm totally committed to running that race with as much dedication as I used to run for my Lord's pleasure in happier, simpler times. Having lost my ability to believe in the God of my parents, I next had to lose the ability to believe in the government their God supposedly had a hand in establishing. It's the race to preserve Liberty in America while there's still a little time left in which to save it. I don't know how other Liberty-minded sovereigns would approach their work for Liberty, but as for me, I'm tackling it the only way I know how, looking inside myself, within myself, knowing what is there and what is not there. Tasting freedom. Honoring Liberty. Breathing deeply and setting a pace which will hopefully serve to outrun the goons my government has sent to punish me for refusing to pay their taxes, using the way of the runner for all I'm worth. My eyes are fixed on a length of ribbon, but it's not the sort of ribbon one sees at finish lines. I see the turning, weaving, winding length of ribbon which we used to, back some forty years ago in America, call Liberty. That noble ribbon which all Americans back then felt across their breast like a wrapping about their hearts when they reflected on the being of an American citizen. That ribbon which made winners of us all. That ribbon. That race.
Want to run with me?
copyright 2000, 2008 Elias Alias
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