Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 18

Working full-time at Howard Johnson’s with a broken ankle had been a pain in the ass – but there were many things in my life that were a pain. Yet I was grateful for the little investments from others who made my life easier during this time. Mr. Johnson driving Steve and me to and from work on rainy days, Mr. Wilkinson keeping our family finances in order, Coach Raffensperger helping me to achieve my goals as a runner despite the broken ankle. I wouldn’t have survived without them.

I resumed my training on July 4th, certain I looked as awkward as a new-born colt. That first day my gait was asymmetric, the inflexibility forcing me to land high on toes of the broken ankle, the joint forty-five degrees short of the full range of motion. And I needed to strengthen my calf or I wouldn’t be able to handle the pounding.

So in the following days I made a point to finish the runs with a 15-mile ride out to the Coralville Dam to improve my conditioning, the first Friday spotting dad going the other way on Prairie du Chien Road in a car I didn’t recognize. Even though we clearly saw each other, neither bothered to acknowledge the other’s presence. It was the first time I had seen him since the end of the school year.

On mom’s birthday Alice and I rode bikes out to the cemetery to put flowers on her grave, a large bouquet of red roses already nestled on the ground when we arrived. We both knew who they were from. I filled Alice in on many of the stories I had learned after mom’s death, mentioning the brother who had died prematurely, giving her mom’s tiara and the sash from 1954, tacking one of the 8”x12” King & Queen Homecoming photos on her bulletin board. Anything to keep her spirit alive in our hearts.

Thoughts of her brought up questions about what she was like at my age, thrilled to hear brief stories from my aunt, or even from Grandma Gatens in the brief moments she was lucid. But only one person could provide the best answers to my open questions. I called Mr. Wilkinson on Tuesday night after work. I wanted to talk with him about my mother, to hear more of days they shared so long ago.

He asked me to stop by the house Saturday afternoon. We sat on the patio in lawn chairs underneath the shade of a large oak, their house quiet because the rest of the Wilkinson’s were at their cabin south of Des Moines. He planned to join them tomorrow.

“Mr. Wilkinson, first of all…I want to thank you for all you have done for my family. I’m certain there are many things done behind the scenes, ones which I may not be aware of, but I want you to know they are appreciated…have helped us survive all the craziness.” He nodded and smiled. I paused.

“But the real reason I came here was to find out more about my mother. What she was really like.” I sighed. “Tell me as much as you want…but please tell me the truth. I need to know. I’ve been so ashamed of my behavior since…since I learned more about her.” I had to take a deep breath; afraid I would start crying.

He looked up at the sky and sighed, pausing before he began.

“She was the love of my life. Everyone told me it was a teenage crush. A passing phase.” He looked at me and shook his head, his lips pursed together. “Well, it wasn’t. It was the real thing. How I let her slip through my fingers…it was a mistake.”

He took a sip of the iced tea to compose himself and then a deep breath, smiling at a memory.

“Did you know we were 1954 State Champions in football?” I nodded. “That I snuck the ball across the goal line with thirty-one seconds remaining to win the game.” He paused. “Well…being with your mother was more joyous than that victory. If you asked me to give up one, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to give up the win. Your mother meant that much to me.”

It was embarrassing to see his eyes fill with tears.

“She was such a gentle soul. A free spirit. Unlike any girl I had ever met.” He smiled and then jumped right into the story. “Your mom used to call me Wally. My pet name.” Mr. Wilkinson noticed my reaction to the story. “My middle name is Wallace, my grandmother’s maiden name, and she thought Mike was too plain so she called me Wally instead. I know it sounds so silly but I miss hearing her call me that. She used it whenever we got together over the last year.”

I gently nodded, a look of realization on my face. He paused to let me speak.

“That explains it. I remember when I was little, maybe seven or eight and mom would say ‘Wally, peel me a grape’ or ‘Wally, get me a scoop of the sun’ and we would both laugh.” Mr. Wilkinson nodded as I spoke. It suddenly occurred to me and Mr. Wilkinson and I had the same initials – MWW, and the same middle name. He obviously already knew.

He stared over my shoulder and continued.

“I’ve never told anyone this. Not even Doris.” He rubbed red eyes and smiled at the memory. ”Your mother was so fun-loving. She had the most interesting perspective on life. Her ideas seemed crazy but were the most exciting things I’d ever done.” He paused and grinned. “You’re not going to believe this next story but I swear it’s true.” He smiled softly at the memory, a faraway look in his eyes.

“We used to climb the fence at the City Park pool at midnight and swim naked in the rain. She loved it. I was so uptight, so afraid we’d get caught, but all she cared about was the sensation of floating on her back as the raindrops hit her body.” He nodded, laughing at my shock. “God, I’d give a million dollars to be back with her.” Mr. Wilkinson sighed.

“But she could also be hurt so easily.” A cloud passed over his face. “High school girls can be so petty. So jealous. Two of the queen candidates spread rumors that the only reason she got the crown was because she slept with me.” He shook his head. “Well, it wasn’t true, but you know how gossip spreads around a school.” I nodded. “She just went into a shell. I accosted the girls in the hall but they denied it. I was so angry…”

He shook his head and stared at the grass, continuing with his eyes down.

“That’s why I’m glad I don’t have daughters. I’d always feel like I couldn’t protect them.”

“I know what you mean.” He laughed when he saw me nodding.

“I bet you do. I bet you do.” He paused. “So anyway, I went to school at the University of Pennsylvania and we were separated for the first time. I don’t know how I made it through the first semester. God, I missed her so much. We spent every moment of Christmas break together.” A smile filled his face. “But we dealt with the distance with letters and phone calls. That summer when I came back I gave her a promise ring, vowing we would marry when I graduated.” That explained the ring I found in the box.

“After my junior year I got a summer internship at a bank in Philadelphia – it was a very prestigious position and I didn’t feel like I could turn it down. She begged me to come back…but I didn’t.” He wiped his eyes again. “I didn’t know it, but she couldn’t handle our separation. Those same girls were spreading rumors I had a girlfriend in Philly. That was why I wasn’t coming back.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped his eyes, and blew his nose. “It was a lie but their words sent her into a tailspin.”

“She started going to bars.” He sighed. “That’s where she met your father. She got pregnant…” I nodded.

“I saw the marriage license and my birth certificate.” He was crestfallen.

“I’m sorry.” His chin fell to his chest. He sighed and looked up at me. “I’m not proud of this but since then I’ve done everything in my power to make those girls lives miserable. To make sure they understood the hell they put Mary Ann through.”

Neither of us said anything for a minute, staring at the garden on the far edge of their lot as though it held something interesting. I sighed and then lifted the 10”x14” envelope leaning against the leg of my chair.

“I want to give you some things she kept. Things which must have meant a lot to her.”

I handed him a manila envelope with the original picture of the 1954 Homecoming King and Queen, the program from the State Football Championship, a single rose with a stickpin through it, and the promise ring he had given her twenty years ago.

He laid the envelope in his lap and pulled out individual items, holding each one like it was a precious relic, a sigh escaping the pursed lips as he recalled the happy memories. With each new item he grew sadder. When the promise ring slid into his palm he made no pretense of stopping the tears any longer, the anguish on his face uncomfortable to watch.

The tie clip was the last item he pulled out. He stared at it a long time, holding it out front in his palm, only the sound of a chortling robin filling the emptiness. Finally he looked up and turned to me.

“See this?” He held up the tie clip with our initials. “She used it to hold the top of her bikini closed after the hook broke during a swim with friends at Lake Macbride…it was finals weekend our junior year.” He laughed out loud like I had told a good joke, his eyes still red from the sadness. “I drove four of my football teammates out there after a morning final, the girls already swimming when we arrived.”

He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the tears, continuing the story.

“I can still picture Mary Ann treading water about thirty yards from shore with a big smile on her face, holding up the top for everyone to see, yelling for someone to think of a way to repair it, not bothered by the fact she was naked from the waist up.” A big grin filled Mr. Wilkinson’s face.

“An inspiration hit me. I ran to the car and swam out to her with this tie clip, managing to fashion a hook as we treaded water, captivated by her smile when she turned to thank me. It was the first time we were ever together. She rode home with me that day…and every day the rest of the summer.” He sighed. “God, I miss her smile.”

Mr. Wilkinson grew silent again, in the background a conductor sounding the horn as the train passed the old railway station, the distant tone comforting. He reached out and handed me the ring.

“Matt, I want you to keep this. To give it to the girl you want to marry. As a reminder to not make the same mistake I did.” He shook his head. “Don’t live your life regretting a decision.”

We sat quietly for a while and then I stood and shook his hand. I stared at the grass as I walked across their yard, turning to wave goodbye near their backdoor. Mr. Wilkinson was still in the lawn chair, forearms resting on his thighs and hands over his face, his shoulders shaking in small tremors, the brief snapshot breaking my heart. I wore the ring on my pinkie as I headed for home.


Although I enjoyed watching Romania’s Nadia Comaneci in gymnastics, the other events at the 1976 Montreal Olympics didn’t interest me – team handball, table tennis, dressage, wrestling, and swimming; all so boring I would rather have watched corn grow. Steve and I talked constantly about the US names we knew from reading Raff’s Track and Field News twice – debating which American would finish the highest in the 10K, whether Paul Geis or Dick Buerkle would get into the 5K final, and if Rick Wohlhuter had a realistic shot to win the 1500.

I was also anxious to watch the New Zealand trio of Walker, Dixon, and Quax; athletes we had read so much about in various issues of the track and field bible. Steve and I pestered Coach Raffensperger so much that he agreed to loan us his 1963 copy of “A Clean Pair of Heels” on Murray Halberg and Peter Snell’s “No Bugles No Drums,” Raff giving us a stink eye before he handed them out. We read the books with reverence, learning of the hilly 22-mile training athletes ran around the Waiatarua settlement of West Auckland, wondering if coach Arthur Lydiard was a sage or a sadist. These books became our bibles.

Before ABC coverage of track and field began, I pulled out the M-N volume of our Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedias, curious to learn more about New Zealand. Other than having good runners, I knew very little of the country. The island was only 103,000 square miles, twice the size of Iowa, but the population was under three million, the same as the Hawkeye state. Whoa. How did a country so small produce so many good distance runners?

The first night of Athletics – as they called track and field, it was frustrating to miss twenty-two of the twenty-five laps of the 10K, suffering through preliminary matches of volleyball and field hockey, only the last three laps of Lasse Viren’s win covered live, the bearded Finn repeating his 1972 victory with an impressive kick. We never did hear how Craig Virgin or Garry Bjorklund finished, throwing insults at the TV when they cut immediately to a commercial.

On Friday July 30th we cheered for the Kiwi pair in the 5000 because American Paul Geis was nowhere to be seen the last four laps, Dick Quax finishing second to Finland’s Viren, Germany’s Hildenbrand diving at the line to take the bronze from our Rod Dixon. Bummer. Steve and I adopted the New Zealanders after devouring the books, adopting anyone wearing the silver fern on their chests.

As a consolation prize for the poor American showing in the distance races, we hooted and hollered for Bruce Jenner when he won the decathlon, the Graceland College graduate jogging around the stadium after his victory waving a small American flag, celebrating a gold medal and the new world record. I poked Steve when Jenner pulled his attractive wife out of the stands, the blonde’s lack of a bra making her even hotter, the vision fodder for our dreams that night.

Saturday evening Steve and I waited for the 1500 final to begin was unbearable, thrilled to see the event live when runners were introduced at the line, though saddened to know it was also the last day of Olympic track and field competition – the two thoughts a bittersweet convergence. Sitting on the couch behind TV trays we ate a makeshift meal Alice put together, my teammate and I tossing suggestions at the screen from the peanut gallery after the pistol exploded.

“Get out Rick. Get out. C’mon, get your ass moving.”

“Attaway. Good. Great position. Stay with Walker.”

Although I didn’t know if the Wheaton IL native could hear our voices from one thousand miles away – I’m certain Mr. Johnson could from next door, our enthusiastic support all for naught that evening. Wohlhuter ran a good race but finished in 6th – out of the medals, our only consolation Walker’s win for the Kiwis.

Though there were other track and field events following the metric mile we chose not to watch more, the relays and high jump only anticlimactic. Instead, we hopped on bikes and rode to Dairy Queen so we could savor Walker’s victory in the 1500 meters, anxious to burn off pent up energy. My teammate and I sat hip to hip on the wooden picnic table facing the Iowa River as we licked the cones, staring at the water, contemplating this race.

Nothing was said as we bit into the last of the ice cream cones, but we both knew what the other was thinking – our future in track.

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