Steve Skogstad slammed open the gym door like he was deflecting tacklers on the gridiron, talking animatedly about the Bear’s victory on Sunday as we walked towards the bleachers for Monday’s practice, in the background a syncopated thwack of a ball against a wooden racket from the tennis courts.
Ahead, conversation drifted at us as we neared the rest of the cross country team, some voices high-pitched and piercing, others deep and throaty, all of them much too loud. We crawled up in the four rows of bleachers by the rest of the freshman, listening to their patter as I stared at my beat up Keds resting on the bleacher in front, a big toe peeking out of each shoe.
A peach-faced sophomore leaned into me.
“Did you guys watch the Bears on Sunday?” We both nodded at Chris. “That last touchdown by Sayers was unbelievable. When he broke to the sideline I knew he was gone. Who they playing…”
Our cross country coach cleared his throat.
“OK you knuckleheads. Listen up.” All eyes turned towards Coach Raffensperger. “Today we’re doing half-miles on the track. We’ll finish with some 220’s. So all of you do two loops around the cross country course for a warmup and then we’ll meet at the track.”
Sixteen runners slid out of the bleachers and stood in an informal huddle, everyone waiting for the varsity captains to take the lead. Dave and John broke into a trot, jogging behind the tennis courts and down the hill towards 1st Avenue. Freshmen were clustered at the rear as we shuffled through the two miles at a slow pace. Steve and I were thinking the same thing – how many 880’s we would be doing. Three? Four?
Twenty minutes later we stretched in the grass by the starting line while Coach Raff spoke to the varsity and JV squads about their workout. They changed into their spikes and then he motioned us over.
“OK, you guys are doing three 880’s…”
Even though I was good at this type of training, I never relished work on the track. It had none of the allure of baseball or basketball practice, only a mind-numbing fatigue that showed how much pain you were willing to tolerate. I questioned my pursuit of this sport daily, berating myself for letting Steve Skogstad talk me into joining the cross country team. He claimed it would be fun. Yeah, sure. The workouts tested my willingness to continue through the season, but if it got a letter to put on my jacket, I guessed it was okay.
The first two 880 yard intervals were mostly a wakeup call, the pain like a boxer’s mis-directed shot to the body. They weren’t too bad. But on the third one I had to draw on my inner demons to survive the distance, steeling my willpower to push through the discomfort, aware I would get through it despite the unpleasantness. I was groomed for pain.
On the last interval I raced Steve down the final homestretch, challenging him into the line with an all-out effort, neither of us willing to concede an inch to the other. I leaned at the finish like a sprinter in the hundred yard dash, windmilling arms to prevent a fall on the cinders, barely hearing the “2:17…2:18” shouted at our backs. It was a good time.
Though Steve had trained much of the summer for cross country and should have been in better shape, by the age of seven I had already developed something else that would make me a good runner. I discovered the human body could tolerate a tremendous amount of pain. And that I would always survive no matter how badly it hurt. Even if it meant stitches in your head, a cast on your arm, or a bruise on your body. I knew what it felt like to be slapped so hard across the face that it loosened a tooth or to be pushed to the ground with such force it knocked the wind out of me.
It was a family secret none of my teammates knew. Not even my best friend.
The frosh/soph squad toed the starting line Thursday afternoon, our backs only feet from a storm fence, the seven Little Hawks staring into the sun just over the treetops, flanked by ten opponents clad in the red and blue of the Washington Warriors, each participant shuffling nervously at the white chalk line while we waited for the gun to fire. This was our last dual meet of the ’73 season.
The starter tooted on his whistle and I carefully nudged my foot forward towards the chalk line like I was poking a sleeping snake, glancing to the right at Steve’s dirty blue Avanti spikes and then back at my worn out white Keds. Would I ever have enough money to get a pair of spikes like he had?
At the blast Steve and I jumped out to the front, leading the 1.5 mile race from start to finish, crossing the finish line in tandem, a pair of 5’9” one-hundred nineteen pound beanpoles bending over in mirrored images. We slowed and slapped palms before exiting the chute, waiting for the rest of the field to complete the distance. It was fun to win but I’d come to expect as much - because that’s how we finished every time. Together and at the front.
With only four scoring in cross country, our team had gotten through the regular season undefeated, the 1-2 finish from Steve and I a nearly unbeatable combination in dual meet competition. My teammate was always ebullient after the meets but I was much more subdued, afraid to be chastised for showing off, mindful of the reaction I often got from my father when boasting too much.
After everyone finished Coach Raffensperger shook our hands and had us lead the group on our cool down around the course – the marching band practicing on the baseball diamond while the guys argued back and forth who was the best looking freshman cheerleader. As if any of them would go out with us. Following the varsity race Raff sent us home with a reminder that the conference meet was in eight days.
Steve and I biked home together talking about the Homecoming game, separating as we approached the alley near my house, my thoughts leaping to the hope that there was something good for dinner.
“See ya later.”
As I approached our garage shouts were coming from the house, dad’s slurred words and mom’s shrieks loud enough to hear through the closed kitchen door. If Alice hadn’t been home I would have turned around and rode away, but I knew she was there by the pink bike in the back yard. I had grown tired of my father’s moods and meanness years ago, walking in on many other scenes like this one today. The quarrels had only gotten worse with time. Sigh.
I opened the door just as mom backed into the kitchen with hands raised in front of her chest, the fierce look on dad’s face betraying a perceived injustice exacerbated by too much beer at Donnelly’s tavern. At least he didn’t look as threatening today. There was no fierceness in his demeanor. No clenched fists. He only looked worn out and tired.
He frightened me the most when the eyes were empty, the look on his face devoid of humanity. It was the look I saw when he broke my arm…the first time. Stepping between the two with hands raised I tried to distract dad, to get him to look me in the eyes so I could find out what was wrong. I already guessed.
“What do you need?” Mom slipped around me, tears running down her face as she ran towards her room.
“That bitch didn’t get me any beer! I come home from a hard day of work and all she has to drink is Kool-Aid. She knows that I want beer.“ He glared over my shoulder and shouted. “She doesn’t do shit all day but sit around and feel sorry for herself. This is bullshit!”
I angled him towards the back door and out towards a chair on the patio.
“How about if I go next door and get beers from Mr. Johnson? Have a seat and I’ll check.” I sighed as he continued to mumble.
His eyes were glazed over when I came back with two Old Styles, handing him one and putting the other in the frig. He was still muttering as I walked away. Mom was in the bedroom with the door closed, a spot dad rarely ventured anymore. He slept on the couch most nights with the TV as a nightlight, surrounded by empty cans, mom by herself in their bed.
I paused by her door, listening to the sobs she was trying to quiet, afraid to intrude on her sadness. It was just too awkward. Shuffling down the hallway I knocked on Alice’s door with our special code – my five raps to the tune of “shave and a haircut,” her two knock response against the bedpost immediate.
She sat on the edge of her lower bunk and smiled as I walked in with hands hidden behind my back. Alice pointed to my right and I opened it up empty. She pointed to the left. I handed her the Hersey Kiss. She smiled.
“How was school today?” She greedily peeled off the tin foil and popped it in her mouth as I sat on the edge of the bed.
“Tommy was mean to me. He pinched my arm.” She had an angry expression on her face.
“Why did he do that?” I pinched my face tightly.
“Because he’s mean. He doesn’t like me.” I grabbed my chin in a thoughtful pose.
“Hmmm, here’s what I’m going to do.” I put an arm over her shoulders. “First, I’m going to tie his legs in a knot, you know, just like the bow on a present.” She had a small grin. “Then I’m going to tie his arms together in another knot, dip him in butter, spread salt all over his body, and feed him to the squirrels.” She smiled. “How’s that sound?”
It worked today but I also knew she was getting too old for this routine. I smiled at Alice.
“Do you want to help me cook supper? I’m going to make grilled cheese sandwiches.” She nodded. We walked silently down the hallway past mom’s bedroom, skirting the living room and turning into the kitchen. Dad was laying on the couch watching TV, already halfway through his second beer. I figured he would be asleep in twenty minutes.