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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 19

The second weekend of August, Alice and I rode a Greyhound bus into Des Moines to be with Ashley. Liz was in Sturgeon Bay with her family. It felt so natural to hug Ashley this time, the miles we’d traveled since mom’s death teaching us the important things in life. To spend time with both of my sisters was a special pleasure.

Ashley took us to the Merle Hay mall Bishop’s for lunch, letting us choose whatever we wanted, Alice and I finishing the meal with pieces of chocolate crème pie. My oldest sister was so proud to have money to pay for the treat, embracing her short tenure as an adult with a huge smile.

Afterward the girls talked about fall outfits as we paused by window displays, the pair walking to Younkers while I perused the record shop, my sister’s planning to use Ashley’s employee discount and Mr. Johnson’s $20 for new school clothes.

Everyone played badminton and croquet in Michelle’s back yard that afternoon, Mr. Reid grilling hamburgers for dinner while he talked with me about my state title last fall in cross country. A former runner himself, he was a huge track fan, mentioning he had attended the Drake Relays since 1965, saying I must run at the meet next year, claiming it was an elite race for the state’s best. I was intrigued.

Sunday after breakfast we went to the Iowa State Fair – as we had two years ago; laughing at the comedy routines in Bill Reilly’s Talent Search, enjoying the amusement rides; the girls so scared they squeezed my hands until they hurt. After the adrenalin rush we walked through the contest area watching wood-chopping, pie eating, and cow chip throwing – all enough to give Alice stories for a week. We hugged Ashley and thanked the Reid’s for their hospitality at the bus depot, waving from the window as we pulled away in a cloud of diesel smoke. There were tears in every eye.

Alice talked excitedly on the bus back to Iowa City, falling asleep on my shoulder as we passed Grinnell with my arm around her.

Getting back in shape was like blowing up a party balloon the second time – much easier than the initial effort and with a speed twice as fast. By August 15 I was in good enough condition to handle a fast six miles with Steve and Danny, at the end of August my fitness nearing 90%. I did a second workout on my bike each day, oftentimes riding the fifteen hilly miles out to the Coralville Dam at breakneck speed, enjoying the rural scenery Grant Wood made famous. Each time I finished the ride with a detour through St. Joseph’s Cemetery to stop by mom’s grave, holding the bike as I stood in front of the granite stone, promising her a state title this fall.

Life was peaceful, only the brief money exchanges and sporadic sightings around town confirming dad’s continued existence. We had an unsigned armistice; he would stay out of our lives and I would leave him alone. Since mom’s passing I could tell his drinking ratcheted to a new level, the quantity of alcohol he consumed each day leaving him in a permanent haze whenever he dropped by, much like an infirmed resident of a nursing home.

My senior year of high school.

Raff held me out of the first two cross country races to give me time to fully prepare for the big meets ahead. To make sure my body and mind were ready. These meets were of little consequence anyway and even without me the squad our best to date. We won each one by large margins – Steve, Danny, and Mike a combination any All-Star squad would have a difficult time besting.

This year there were thirty-two athletes on the squad, the success and newspaper publicity driving numbers up from last year’s twenty-one. We got as many articles in the Little Hawk school paper as the football team, the stature of cross country runners growing exponentially, unlike that of the 1-3 East High football team. We took great joy in the fact.

Before our ten-team invitational at City Park, the week I resumed racing, the Press Citizen ran a feature story on the East High squad, my insistence that everyone on the varsity be in the picture carrying the day in the Friday afternoon article. The guys laughed at my quote during our warmup on Saturday, “The strength is in the fist and not the fingers,” Mike Jr. jokingly asking everyone who represented the middle one? It was hard not to laugh but I knew hubris could be fatale if we weren’t careful. Success and teenagers are a potent combination. As potent as nitro and glycerin when mixed.

While we cheered for our teammates in the frosh-soph race on Saturday morning, Steve grinned like he had just farted during our stretches, suggesting we choose the order of finish for our top four. At first Mike thought he was joking, but when Steve showed us his hat with folded numbers inside everyone laughed like lunatics, eyes lighting up as we pulled out the squares. Danny Skogstad got #1 and Mike Jr #2. I got #4.

After the initial mile the four of us surged, steadily pulling away from the field at the 1.5 mile mark by the tiny park zoo, Danny Skogstad glancing at us nervously as we neared the long straight into the finish. He finally realized we were serious about him winning the race – even if we had to push him across the line.

The last two furlongs we ran in single file with giddy smiles on three faces, Danny repeatedly glancing over his shoulder with an uncomfortable look on his face as he wove back and forth in an attempt to get us to stop following him, the East High foursome zigzagging down the last straight like a black and gold snake. I had never been so happy finishing fourth.

At the award presentation we made Danny hold the 1st place trophy in the team picture, laughing at his obvious discomfort.

I won the 1976 State XC Meet three weeks later, beating Steve Skogstad to the line by eleven seconds, the 1-2-5-11 places capturing our 3rd State Title and crushing the rest of the squads, our team score the lowest in championship history. There was a frenzy of activity after the race, coaches, parents, and opponents coming up to shake my hand as we waited for the awards ceremony, the sportswriter for the Des Moines Register interviewing me while teammates stood around.

“We came here to win the State Title and that’s what we did. It was our goal to continue the streak.” I turned and looked around at my teammates. “It wouldn’t have happened without Steve, Mike, Danny, Rich, and David. They’re the best teammates a guy could have.”

“It was clear you had the race won with a half mile to go.” The writer paused with a pen over the notebook. “What drove you to push so hard the final straight?”

“My mother passed away just over a year ago. I miss her so much…and I wanted to make her proud of the son she raised.” I took a deep breath and wiped tears from my eyes. “Today’s victory was for her.”

“You turned in the fastest time on the State Meet course. What’s your reaction?”

“I’m happy to have bested the record Mark Johnson set two years ago but frustrated to miss a sub-nine minutes by two seconds.” I pointed at Mike. “But I have a teammate who may break it next year.” He grinned.

Mr. Reid brought Ashley to Marshalltown to watch my victory, the first time she had ever seen me run, shyly introducing her boyfriend after the newspaper interview. Mr. Reid took a picture of us three, and then he gave the camera to Billy so he could take one of Mr. Reid and me. After he got the shot I whispered in Mr. Reid’s ear and placed the medal around Ashley’s neck, posing for another shot. I put my arm around her shoulders and kissed her on the check, the proud expression on her face priceless.

Moments later Mr. Wilkinson stepped in to introduce me to Coach Cretzmeyer, the Iowa Hawkeye coach saying he would like to have me on the team next year. We talked for ten minutes and then he headed off as the awards presentation got underway. It was hard not to pump my fists in the air after Coach Cretzmeyer’s words. A Hawkeye! The thought of wearing an Iowa letter jacket gave me goosebumps.

Mr. Johnson drove Alice and me to the cemetery the next day, placing a fresh bouquet in the vase by her headstone, my championship medal wrapped around its base. I stood beside Alice with my arm over her shoulders, both of us saying a tearful goodbye when we left.

The Sunday Des Moines Register called us “The Reigning Hero’s,” Monday’s edition of the Press Citizen “The Fearsome Foursome.”

Two weeks later we celebrated Thanksgiving at Mr. Johnson’s, Ashley in town for the holiday, everyone thankful to be reunited for the weekend, toasting to Alice’s “A votre sante” before we ate. Later that evening I sat with my sisters and talked until one in the morning, Ashley and I recalling memories of mom when we were young, the girls quiet as I shared stories Mr. Wilkinson told me last summer.

Dad was arrested in Iowa City for drunk driving the next night.

Sitting in the back row of the small courtroom on Monday morning I discovered the reason he was placed in jail over the weekend. He also had arrests in Solon and Lone Tree for DUI. I skipped school to be at the 11:30am proceeding, knowing the outcome could have an immediate impact on me and my sisters – none of it good.

Much of what Judge Mercer said sounded so mechanical, so boring, the public defender speaking in a monotone voice as he pled the case for my father. When the judge said dad was remanded to custody for the sentencing hearing a week from today, I realized we were in trouble. For the first time city officials would know we were without a guardian at home – that Alice, Ashley, and I would be considered Wards of the State until something was settled.

My worst fear was exposed to the world.

Dad glanced over his shoulder as they led him out of the courtroom in handcuffs, our eyes meeting for a split second before he was guided through the doorway like a lamb to slaughter. Even though he was sober, I could see all the drinking had erased any shadow of youth, his haunted eyes filled with desperation and failure. Fuck him. Fuck his life. He was no longer my father. Just an alcoholic looking at jail time.

Up at the front of the spectator seats Mr. Wilkinson rose at the same time I did, walking up to Judge Mercer before the next case was called. His presence surprised me. I paused and then sat down again, wondering what they were talking about, my eyes glued to the pair as they talked quietly for two minutes, the judge nodding, and then suddenly looking at me. Dropping my head I tried to blend into the woodwork, unnerved by his brief glance. They shook hands and Mr. Wilkinson walked towards the exit, motioning for me to join him. He didn’t seem surprised at my presence.

“Let’s go out for a late lunch.”

We didn’t talk until we sat at the table, Mr. Wilkinson deep in thought. It was disquieting. He ordered spaghetti for both of us and finally spoke to me when the waitress disappeared.

“Judge Mercer, that’s Kevin’s dad.” I nodded. Kevin was on the football team. “I explained your situation, letting him know that for now I’ll be responsible for you and Alice. If there is anything you need, its important you let me know. Money for food, clothes, or…anything. Just ask. But soon, just down the road, we’ll need to find something else.” He paused, aware I was trying to jump in.

“I talked with Mr. Johnson, Tom Johnson about six months ago…he’s our next door neighbor, and Mr. Johnson has already initiated a guardianship.” Mr. Wilkinson pursed his lips and nodded, waiting for me to finish. “He has completed all the background work, so we should be in good shape.” Mr. Wilkinson smiled.

“Good. Very good. Matt, you continue to impress me with your maturity.” I beamed at his praise. “So, what I suggest is you and Alice start sleeping at his house. Move your clothes over today and eat all your meals there.” I nodded. “Does he have space?”

“Yep. There are two small bedrooms upstairs. I’ll call him after we eat.”

“Good. I’ll speak with my lawyer and initiate proceedings immediately so I can meet with a judge and have you temporarily placed in his home. With four drunk driving convictions I don’t think we’ll have any issues.”

Mr. Wilkinson’s nonchalance made me feel so comfortable. He treated me like an adult. We ate without much conversation, briefly talking about next spring, both of us thinking about what was ahead. He made our course of action seem so clear but I suspected it wasn’t that simple. Nothing ever was.

After the meal we shook hands and I thanked him, calling Mr. Johnson from the pay phone inside the front door, watching Mr. Wilkinson walk towards the bank as I explained the situation to our neighbor. I smiled after hanging up and then shuffled towards Central Jr. High to pick up Alice, wanting to update her on the recent events, and make certain there weren’t any issues at school. The last thing she needed was dealing with gossip.

She had Government her last period so I sat outside the classroom door on the terrazzo floor, pulling up memories of my time here, happy to be able to give her some good news. Alice smiled when she came out, explaining that she had to stop by the main office and then her locker, promising to meet me at the back door. I waited by the exit on Market Street, recognizing a face walking towards me, motioning him to come over.

He approached with the trepidation of a man walking towards the guillotine. He’d grown taller. I grinned.

“Long time no see.” Jeff Jones cringed.

“I swear, I haven’t done anything. I…” I held up my hand with a smile.

“That’s not why I’m here. Don’t worry.” It didn’t make him relax one bit. “I heard from Coach Munson that you are a good runner. He told me he sees a lot of promise in you.” Jeff nodded cautiously. “So, I want to encourage you to come out for cross country next year at East. I don’t know if you follow us, but we won the State Title three years in a row.” He had the shadow of a smile. “You might be the reason we win three more. Mike Wilkinson and Danny Skogstad return but they aren’t going to be enough.” Jeff still looked nervous. ”Danny ran varsity as a freshman. Maybe you could too. I’ll talk to them, let them know you would be a great addition.” Alice was walking towards us. “I hope you think about it.” Alice smiled at Jeff as she approached.

“Hi Jeff. How did you do on the book report?”

“Not so good. I only got a B-.”

“Don’t worry. Mrs. Lowman never gives good grades on the first draft. You’ll do better.” She smiled again. “See you.” We both waved and watched his lanky frame as he walked north on Johnson Street.

She held my upper arm with both hands as we passed barren maple trees on Market Street, Alice listening quietly as I recounted the hearing and then Mr. Wilkinson’s words, excited when I said we were going to move in with Mr. Johnson today. When I asked if she had questions, there was only one.

“Can I have the pink bedroom?“

I burst into laughter, hugging her tightly as we skipped hand in hand down our alley.

Alice had grown so much since I first started high school. Her body more like a woman than a girl, all her classroom work, especially in math, far better than my “B” average. She had so many of mom’s positive traits – a smile which lit up the room and the same fun-loving perspective of life Mr. Wilkinson spoke of so often, demonstrating compassion for those less fortunate, always willing to lend a hand.

She even began calling me Wally after I told one of Mr. Wilkinson’s tales, coming up with requests that always made me laugh.

“Wally, would you please pass me some sunshine?”

I didn’t sleep well the night before the hearing. By the bags under his eyes, I don’t think Mr. Johnson did either. Alice, Ashley, and I sat beside Mr. Johnson at the long conference room table dressed in our Sunday best, nervous about the outcome. Across from us were two disheveled social workers shuffling through stacks of files while we waited for the judge and court recorder.

The door burst open and a head poked through the opening.

“Is this the hearing for the double murder?” Our eyes grew as big as saucers. He grinned. “I hope not. Because if it is I’m lost.” We all displayed nervous smiles. The social workers didn’t look up. He sat in the chair at the head of the table, waiting for the court recorder to set up, perusing our files one more time before he began.

“I’m Judge Schwengel. This is Janet Smith – the court recorder. Okay. Which one of you is Matt?” He pointed back and forth at Alice and Ashley. I raised my hand, uncertain if he was joking. “Man, this is a tough crowd. So that makes you Alice?” He smiled at her. She looked up at the ceiling with a hand on her chin, pausing before she nodded. He grinned. “Good.”

“And I’m Ashley.” She was so nervous she just jumped in. I placed my hand on hers, hoping to calm her down.

“Great.” He grinned again. “And I’ll bet you’re Tom Johnson.” Mr. Johnson smiled and nodded. “My job today is to decide if Mr. Johnson is a suitable guardian for you three. Whether he will look out for your best interests. So, Tom…how many hamburgers can Matt eat in one setting?” We all turned our heads to see if the judge was serious. Mr. Johnson didn’t miss a beat.

“Well,” He furrowed his eyebrows and looked over at me. “If it’s on the stove only three…but if I grill them he can handle four pretty easily.” Judge Schwengel nodded.

“Wow. Very impressive.” I smiled. “And how long has he been working at Howard Johnson’s?”

“This is his third year. As a bus boy.” He looked back at me and then down at his file, running a finger across the words. The judge looked at me from one eye.

“So, you expect me to believe you are a two-time State Champion in cross country, have a 3.17 GPA, and still have time for a job at Howard Johnson’s?”

“Well…if you don’t want to count my sideline as a lion tamer. Yes.” He nodded and broke into a grin.

He turned to Ashley.

“Ashley, you must have been a candidate for Miss Iowa. Did you win?”

She blushed, not possessing the joie de vie Alice did, uncertain whether he was joking or being serious.

“No.” She looked from Alice to me. I patted Ashley’s hand and smiled.

“OK.” He pursed his lips and changed tack. “My records say you are a junior at Urbandale HS and have…a 3.57.” He scrolled down with his finger. “And you write for the school newspaper. Is this correct?”

“Yes…and I’m on the yearbook staff also.” She paused. “And I work at Younkers.”

“Good, it’s looks like you are a model citizen.” She nodded. He smiled at her.

“And Alice,” He opened her file folder, smiling as he looked down at the papers. “It says you only have a 3.91 GPA, model for Seventeen magazine, and speak fluent French. Is this true?”

Certainement, mais c’est Vogue, pas Dix-sept.” Alice grinned like the Cheshire Cat, her hands folded together on top of the table. Judge Schwengel pointed at the court recorder.

“What you don’t know is Janet can speak French.” He turned to her. “How was it?” She gave a thumbs up. The judge smiled.

“Mr. Johnson, what is Alice’s favorite color?”

“Pink, definitely pink.” He smiled and closed the folders.

“Steve, Susan, do either of you have anything to add that will change my mind?” They spoke in tandem.

“No your honor.” The judge grabbed a pen and signed the papers the court recorder handed him.

“Well, Mr. Johnson, you have been officially approved as the guardian for Matt, Ashley, and Alice Wilson. Congratulations.”

We picked up two pizzas at Pagliai’s to celebrate and then watched President Carter’s inauguration ceremonies on TV that evening. Just like ordinary families.

The cross country squad continued to meet for the upcoming track season, the February northwest winds rolling down the street like a runaway train, reminding us winter was still a strong presence despite our daily wishes for warmer weather. On many frigid days we ran with icicles hanging from exposed hair, a sock stuck in our jocks to keep the family jewels warm, knee length long johns under our sweatpants for added insulation. For Steve and me this was our last shot at prep glory, the final go-round on the track, and we wanted to make sure it was memorable.

On Sundays, Mike Jr, Steve, Danny, and I hammered out ten miles no matter what the conditions, suffering the slings and arrows of the nasty winter weather like war-toughened soldiers. My inspiration for all the work was a recent decision to go after the mile/2-mile double at State, a feat no one had accomplished in almost twenty years. An opportunity I missed last year. I still sighed at the memory.

Yet I fretted over the choice all the time. The broken ankle and years of bad luck for the Wilsons demonstrated how capricious life could be, how things could change in the blink of an eye. But that wasn’t the reason for my concern. I already knew I could win both. It was whether I was being selfish chasing that goal.

In the years to come they would never list the runner-up in the State Meet program – only the champion. I worried two victories would steal some of the glory from my best friend, a teammate who had always been there for me, one who had shared some of the best years of my life. There was only one or two runners in the state that might best him in the two mile, but with my absence in the event, his odds of winning went up tremendously.

Each day I struggled with the choices. Was I wrong to want something that was finally within my grasp? Something I’d given my all to for three years, suffering through rain, and snow, and cold, betting all my chips that this would get me the life mom missed out on.

Just as Mr. Wilkson would forever be known as the QB for the East High State Championship football team, in the years ahead I wanted to be known as one of those special athletes - one that has achieved something only a handful attained. Would I regret not trying, dejected whenever I looked back on an opportunity missed, wondering – what if? In the end the choice was resolved by one question. What would mom do?

She had sacrificed to protect us, to give us the meager amount we had no matter what the cost to herself. She gave her body to dad so Ashley wouldn’t have to give hers, stole money out of his wallet to get me the food I needed, did without new clothes so Alice had more. Each act of kindness came with the understanding that she would suffer as a result. What right did I have to steal joy from my friend when it was so easy to share? To make both of us happy.

On Valentine’s Day I gave Liz a dozen red roses with a card that said I would be running at Iowa next year. Tears rolled down her cheeks despite the smile, so excited she squeezed me like a tube of toothpaste at the announcement, leaning back to give me a long kiss. Although she never said it, I knew she was afraid I would leave her behind. Though I had briefly considered going to Iowa State or Minnesota, Mr. Wilkinson’s words left an indelible impression on me. Life is too short. And I cared about Liz too much.

Dad’s three month sentence was completed on February 28th, his debt to society finally paid. But he could never repay the damage he inflicted on our family. The house sat empty while he was in jail, a “For Sale” sign popping up on the lawn in late March alongside the daffodils. It seemed wrong that he would get all the money from the sale, but I would rather not have any stake in the property and be able to put that chapter of my life behind.

He must have applied for unemployment when he got out of jail, the checks arriving next door with the same frequency as flyers from A&P. I recognized the official envelopes from all the Decembers he had no job, writing “Return to Sender” on each one before I stuck them back in the mailbox, letting the State of Iowa deal with the issue. He wasn’t my problem anymore. Through the grapevine I heard he was he living with his brother in Cedar Rapids, working for a painting company there. They deserved each other.

Life was good at the Johnson household, Alice, and Tom meshing like two peas in a pod, sharing an interest in photography and the Cubs at the sink while they did the dishes. He taught Alice how to cook and develop pictures in his attic darkroom, my sister instructing him in the finer points of teenage lingo, teaching him the meaning of words like “Far out, Good night John-boy, Chill, and Right On!”

When he asked me one evening if I would “Dig” another piece of pie I nearly blew milk out my nose. Alice exploded in laughter.

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