Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 17

Valentines weekend. Alice invited three of her girlfriends to our house for a sleep-over, Liz helping with preparations for the big Friday night event. My little sister was so excited about hosting such a momentous event that she talked nonstop at supper the night before. She had never been able to have one, dad’s presence a constant hindrance. Mr. Johnson agreed to act as the chaperone, phoning each of the mothers saying the girls should come over at 6pm, explaining the overnight itinerary and when they would be back home. Despite any reluctance they might have possessed, they all knew him and put trust in his word.

Our house was a beehive of activity before the girls arrived, Mr. Johnson compulsively cleaning the kitchen, vacuuming all the rooms, making sure there were clean towels in the bathroom and sheets on the beds. He bought pizza and pop for the girls, delighted in his role as official chaperone, sitting with me in the living room watching “All in the Family” while Liz served the girls in the kitchen. Periodically he peered towards the kitchen and smiled, seeming as though he was having the time of his life.

The girls must have finished eating when the front doorbell rang, a sound I couldn’t remember hearing in years. Alice rushed to the door as Liz stuck her head out of the kitchen and smiled at us, a blast of cold air rushing into the living room as my sister pulled it open. Alice stepped out on the stoop in stocking feet and returned seconds later with a paper A&P bag. Liz covered a smile with her hand as we turned to see my sister scooting towards the kitchen holding the mysterious delivery, the girl’s voices so loud I could have heard them from next door.

“Who was it?”

“It was some boys. I could see them running down the street. I think one was Johnny Jackson.”

“Well open it up.” I could hear the smile in Liz’s voice. “See what it is.” We could hear the sack rustle as they reached in.

“Oh my God, its Valentines.” Another voice which - Kathy?

“We each got one.” It must have been Barbara. She sounded like she was Liz’s age.

Liz must have had a hand in the plot, high-pitched voices filling the kitchen and tumbling into the living room as they read their own to the others. After the raucous patter lessened, Liz cleaned up and then showed the girls how to put on make-up, the four coming in later so they could watch the ABC Movie of the Week sitting hip to hip on the couch under a blanket. I walked Liz home while Mr. Johnson waited in the kitchen, puffs of steam shooting from our mouths as we talked.

We kissed by our garage in the alley and then continued towards her house, the frigid air much too biting to stand around – even in the face of our raging hormones. I gave her one last long kiss for my appreciation, hustling home before I froze to death. At 10pm I sent Mr. Johnson on his way with my thanks, whispers still coming from the girl’s bedroom when I fell asleep on the couch at midnight.

Mr. Johnson came over early and made fresh cinnamon rolls in our oven while I went out for a run with Steve, the girls eating quietly at the kitchen table when I returned, their lack of sleep and the heavy eyeliner making them look like zombies.

The girls thanked us and said goodbye to Alice after breakfast, trudging out the back door for frigid walks home. Alice let out a contented sigh and kissed Mr. Johnson on the check, turning to walk towards her bedroom for sleep. Despite the fatigue on her face, I knew the night was a success.


After the sleep-over I couldn’t rid my mind of a nagging thought. That dad would eventually do something foolish and our lives would never be the same. So far we had dodged the bullet which threatened to disrupt our current dynamic but relying on continuing the streak only tempted fate. On my run I finally came up with the resolve to check on another option, knowing I couldn’t put it off any longer. The idea seemed insane, but it appeared to be my only choice.

I sat down with Mr. Johnson on Sunday after my run.

“Mr. Johnson, I need to ask you a favor.” I played with the salt and pepper shakers on his table, suddenly afraid to express my idea. I took a deep breath. Spit it out.

“I want to ask if you would initiate guardianship proceedings for Alice, Ashley, and me.” He said nothing, his face blank, staring at me like I had asked him to rob a bank. Embarrassed at the lack of response I continued talking, rattled by his reaction.

“You’ve been such a stabilizing force in our lives since mom died. It would make me the happiest guy in the world to know we could all stay together. I know it’s asking a lot…but I worry dad will do something stupid and we’ll get split up…sent to foster homes.”

He still hadn’t said a word. Damnit. It was too much.

“I’m sorry. I apologize. I’m asking...” He cut me off with the wave of his hand.

“No, no, no. You’ve got the wrong impression.” He smiled. “I’m honored you asked me. Shocked to be honest…but honored. Watching over you two has been one of the best things that happened in my life. Since Sarah died my days have been so empty. Too quiet. But you two have given me such joy. Made me so happy. So yes, I’d be honored to be your guardian.”

I pumped my fist in the air like I had just won a race. A tear rolled down his cheek as he grabbed my hand and nodded. We talked for twenty minutes, shaking hands before I returned home to tell Alice.

But there was someone else I needed to talk with – Mr. Wilkinson. I called him Monday morning before he left for work, asking if he had free time to talk at lunch. He knew I would be missing classes at East High but understood I wouldn’t have asked if it wasn’t important. This had to be in person. He suggested we meet at Woolworth’s for an early lunch. I took the bus downtown from East High, feeling so important to be sitting in his presence, certain everyone was wondering who was with the President of 1st National Bank.

He sipped on coffee after we finished eating, waiting for me to get started.

“Mr. Wilkinson.” I couldn’t put together the next words, as nervous as my first time off the high board.

“I worry all the time dad is going to lose his job.” He was hardly around anymore, only staying overnight three or four times since after the new year, but I couldn’t tell Mr. Wilkinson the entire truth. It might put him in a bind. “That dad won’t have an income and they’ll shut off our electricity or take the house away. It worries me every day. I need to have a plan.”

He nodded and washed a hand across his mouth.

“Matt, I know your dad is…” He stopped, struggling with what to tell me. “I met with him after your mother died…we arranged to set aside money out of every paycheck for all your monthly bills. When he comes in on Saturday to cash the check all the tellers know the agreement.”

“But what if he goes to another bank?” I was so nervous. He smiled.

“I talked with the other banks. They agreed not to cash his check. The only place he can do it is at 1st National. We take an agreed amount out of each check and put it into your escrow account.” He could tell I didn’t understand. “It’s like a special savings account to pay your bills.” I nodded, a new thought replacing the previous.

“But what if he loses his job?” As much as I hated relying on him, I hated this possibility even more.

“Your mother planned for such an issue last year. I helped her set up a savings account at our bank in her name that she…well now you, can draw on.“ I nodded to myself. So that’s what she was doing at the bank all the time. “I think there is a little over $400 right now. If the washer breaks down or the furnace goes bad…or you find yourself short of cash for one reason or the other. It’s there for you. Just come to me and we’ll get what you need.”

He glanced at his watched, taking it as a sign he had to get back to work. I sighed, standing up to shake his hand and thank him for the meal. A load was lifted off my shoulders. He looked me in the eyes before I turned to catch the bus back to school.

“Just remember, if you have any issue, please talk with me first. Is that a promise?”

I nodded. All this was just more proof of how much mom did for us.


Liz joined us for dinner on my St. Patrick’s Day birthday, the wonderful aroma of lasagna filling my nose as I opened the back door after practice. Alice took my coat and told me to close my eyes, eagerly leading me by the hand towards the dining room table, in front of me someone striking a match and the sudden smell of sulfur. Mr. Johnson whispered and Alice continued.

“Okay, open them. You and Liz sit there.” A smile filled her face as she pointed at the chairs by the wall. There was a salad at each of the four settings, wine glasses I didn’t recognize, and a bottle of zinfandel at the end of the table. Six candles softly illuminated the room.

“What’s the occasion?” They all laughed. We sat as Mr. Johnson poured the wine, Alice holding up her glass, all of us doing the same, smiling as she spoke the words learned in 7th grade French class.

“A votre sante.” She paused and then continued. “And to the best big brother in the world!” We touched glasses in the center of the table.

After the meal Mr. Johnson grabbed his camera off the coffee table and captured me leaning forward to blow out the seventeen birthday candles and the chaste kiss with Liz immediately after. It was a wonderful celebration. I only wished mom could have been here to share it with us.

Where had all the time gone? It was hard to believe the end of my junior year was fast approaching. The last cold days of March were slipping away, the season just around the corner. Official practice began after spring break and we had our first meet on April 2nd, Steve and I fantasizing about big accomplishments this year, bragging to each other on cold runs in late February about capturing State Titles in Ames.

Throughout March and early April Mr. Johnson kept us abreast of his investigations into a guardianship over evening meals, explaining the practical and legal issues Alice and I would have to deal with in the months to come. His continued presence made me feel more at ease, more relaxed, relieving much of the stress from our still precarious situation, injecting stability into our lives for the first time in months.

He was always there for Alice, a friendly face when she came home from school each day, someone to talk with about her joys and sorrows, a person she could count on for a ride or some helpful advice. He gave me random tips on home maintenance – how to change filters in the furnace, the location of the fuse box, and where to shut off the water if pipes leaked. Practical things never taught to me by my father. It made me feel like a grownup.

During the early days of April the team trained on our cinder track when the weather was good, on the sidewalks and farm roads when necessary, the continued cold testing our patience as we waited for warmer weather to arrive. We were so psyched for a big meet. Steve, Mike, and I were in the best shape of our lives, joking to Coach Raffensperger before practice that our conditioning was so good we were impervious to pain. He only shook his head and laughed.

Even though we raced against no one who could beat us in the early meets, we still ran all-out, challenging each other to push our limits, mentally preparing for the big ones in May. The bliss of life and the ease of my victories made me wonder if I still had the toughness, the raw edge which drove me to excel. I worried that somehow my success was a product of adversity and not talent. That over the past few months life had been too good. A feeling I had rarely experienced.

My concerns were answered in late April.

I won the Columbus Invitational 2-mile in a meet record of 9:08.2, the mark four seconds faster than the winner of the Drake Relays that same weekend. It proved to me that I still had what it took, cementing my status as the #1 runner in the state, garnering articles in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids sports sections. The target was on my back again, but it made me happy. I was could hardly wait for state.

At the Kingston Invitational the first weekend in May, I crushed my mile PR with an impressive 4:16.2 on their cinder track, my second meet record in two weeks. Bent over after the race I knew I could have gone faster, never needing to use an extra gear in the last lap from some challenge. On the way home from Cedar Rapids I sat up front with Coach Raffensperger, talking with him about going after the mile/two mile double at the conference meet. He agreed wholeheartedly.

On May 15th at the Mississippi Valley meet in Davenport, I won both events, taking the 2-mile and mile at the Brady Street Stadium, beating everyone in the shorter race (except Steve) by fifty yards, besting a record in the 4-lap event which had stood for fourteen years. My second victory of the day made the front page of the Press Citizen and Davenport Times, runners trailing behind me like debris off the tail end of a tornado. I was confident no one in the Hawkeye state could stop me.

It set the stage for an attempt at the State Meet for the same double, a feat no athlete had accomplished since 1948. At the sectional meet in Cedar Rapids I won both the races by huge margins, lowering the school record in the longer event to 9:08.0. A double victory at state in the same two races seeming like a foregone conclusion. I couldn’t be convinced any different.

I fell asleep each night dreaming about standing on the top step at the state meet with a pair of gold medals around my neck, mom sitting in the stands and cheering. Yet it was just a dream.

Sunday morning after our long run, I caught my heel on the bottom step trying to skip the last three with a leap to the basement floor, snapping my ankle like a brittle twig. In the split second my dream was gone. The shot at an historic double disappearing like so many other dreams. I pounded the floor with a fist, rocking back and forth on the cold cement to alleviate the agony, the excruciating pain racing through my lower leg like a forest fire.

It was the second time I missed going to state because of a fractured bone.

Mr. Johnson drove me to the hospital, Alice riding up front, my leg extended across the back seat with my foot at an odd angle, sweat soaking my shirt as beads of water rolled down my temples and pooled at my waistband. She jumped from the car before he stopped, rushing through the emergency door in search of a wheelchair. I hobbled into the chair and sat with hands over my face, tears cascading down my chin in a steady stream.

The x-ray showed an inch long portion of the fibula had snapped like a dry stick, the ankle ballooning to twice its size before we got to the hospital. Liz tried to console me as I waited for them to put on the cast but it was like trying to carry water in a sieve – an impossible task. I just wanted to be alone. To wallow in my misery. This injustice of this accident crushed an already damaged soul.

That evening I stared at the shadows on the ceiling, the foot propped on a pillow, finally falling asleep despite the throbbing pain, dreaming that night mom came in to comfort me like she had when I was a small child. I woke to sunlight peeking through the curtains, waves of pain growing like a time-lapse picture of seeds, aware of the soft breaths from near the bed.

Alice was asleep on the floor beside me.

A week later, Liz drove Danny and me to Ames for the state meet to watch their brother, the three of us sitting in the stands in front of Mr. & Mrs. Wilkinson, a pair of crutches laying at my feet. A few of my opponents stopped up to say hi, but left soon after, the situation too awkward to prolong.

It was challenging to support my East High teammates when I couldn’t compete, to pretend I was happy for them when I was wallowing in misery – but somehow I did. I watched Steve Skogstad finish second in the 2-mile with a personal best of 9:11.4, and Mike Wilkinson Jr. grab third place in the mile, passing two opponents on the final homestretch with a phenomenal kick. They were exciting enough to make me forget my troubles – for a while.

On the final homestretch of his son’s race, Mr. Wilkinson shot up from his seat as Mike passed opponents the last one hundred yards, proudly shaking hands with everyone in the area, puffing out his chest moments later when Mike climbed on the awards stand to receive the 3rd place medal. Mrs. Wilkinson leaned forward, hugging me from behind as if I was her son. She kissed the top of my head with tears running down her cheeks, clapping her hands while the official photographer took the pictures.

When the milers stepped off the podium Mr. Wilkinson squeezed Liz and Danny’s shoulders, leaning forward to whisper in my far ear so they couldn’t hear.

“Matt, if you hadn’t broken your ankle I know you would have won them both.” Mr. Wilkinson looked at me and nodded his head as he shifted back to his seat. It was a wonderful thing for him to say.


I quickly adapted to riding the bike with a cast on my lower leg, too hyper to be without exercise – despite the awkward cycling action. Memorial Day Alice, Liz, and I rode bikes out to the cemetery to put flowers on mom’s grave, somber expressions on each face while we savored the moment at the site. We sat Indian style on the grass by the headstone admiring the flowers Alice picked out, talking about plans for summer as I stared at the words Mr. Wilkinson put on the stone, “38 years young.” Hard to believe it was almost a year ago.

As we chatted a Cadillac pulled up on the cemetery road behind us, Mr. Wilkinson climbing out with a bouquet of roses in hand.

“I was hoping I would run into you.” He smiled and gave the flowers to Alice. “These are for your mother.”

She inhaled the scent and smiled, looking up to thank Mr. Wilkinson for the bouquet, laying them by the wildflowers she had picked. He sat on the grass beside us.

“Red roses were Mary Ann’s favorite. The first time I bought them was for her good luck…that she would be selected as the Homecoming Queen.” He stared into the distance recalling the memory with a smile on his face. “And by God it worked. I was the happiest guy in the world. I got to hold her tight as we danced in the spotlight that night, every guy in the room wishing he could be in my shoes.”

He looked at Alice and then continued.

“Every time I see you I see your mother. The same smile. The same twinkle in your eyes. That bon vivant attitude.” Alice beamed. He continued. “You should have seen her. She was so beautiful.” He laughed. “And so impulsive. After she was named Homecoming Queen, Mary Ann led everyone in a conga line around the gym, taking us through the boy’s locker room…” Mr. Wilkinson broke out laughing and then shook his head. “The chaperones didn’t know what to do, and tried to stop her, but your mom could have cared less.” He rubbed tears from his eyes, kissing his fingertips and then placing them on the headstone.

“Well, I gotta go. Thanks for listening to this old fool.”

He stood and kissed Alice and Liz on the top of their heads. We thanked him and waved as he drove away.


Later that month the 1976 Olympic Trials in Eugene motivated me to keep biking when nothing else would have, the last day of competition June 27 for the US team selection an exciting way to end the meet. Steve and I planted ourselves in front of our TV, cheering loudly at the 21” screen, the ABC production that Sunday kicking off with the 1500.

Ohio State’s Tom Byers took the early lead with an insane pace, the Buckeye completing the first lap in fifty-three and the 800 at 1:51, holding a twelve yard advantage on the rest of the field with seven hundred meters remaining. But Byers strategy proved toxic and he faded on the last lap, runners flying by as his resistance disappeared. I knew exactly what it felt like.

Notre Dame grad Rick Wohlhuter, running for the University of Chicago Track Club, was the best that day, leading Matt Centrowitz and Mike Durkin across the line with an impressive 3:36.47. Wow. A 3:53 mile. Steve and I were amazed at their speed.

Later that afternoon we watched Dick Buerkle win the 5K and Doug Brown the steeplechase, Mike Roche capturing the third spot in that 3K race despite falling over the 35th barrier, somehow getting to his feet and catching Big Ten champion Don Timm inches before the line. Crazy but true.

We were so amped after the steeplechase we didn’t bother to watch the final event of the day – the 200, Steve out the door to run our Finkbine 8-mile loop while I jumped on the bike, claiming I would traverse the route twice and beat him back to the alley.

It didn’t stop me from trying, but I did fail, my hubris getting the best of me.

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