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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 24

Sunlight was shining through the bottom of the curtain. I lifted my head, struggling to remember where I was. That’s right. At the Wilkinson’s cabin on Lake Red Rock just outside of Des Moines. We were here for two days of rest and relaxation, compliments of my guardian angels. I turned to watch Liz sleeping on the other side of the bed. It made me smile to see her so peaceful. I leaned over on my elbow to kiss her on the cheek.

“Wake up sleepy head.” She looked at me as if in a fog and then closed her eyes with a smile on her face. “I’m going to make you breakfast while you relax in bed. Bacon, eggs, and coffee.”

Soft breathing returned almost immediately. I was uncertain if she even heard me.

We felt guilty leaving Matt behind with Tom and Alice, but they insisted we needed a break. Some peace and quiet. Neither Liz nor I argued. In the distance the sound of a woodpecker knocking on a dead tree branch as I stood at the kitchen sink, a morning dove cooing in a bush behind the cabin, the putter of a motorboat fading as it slipped across the lake. The setting was idyllic.

I opened the curtains to welcome in the new day, filling the coffee pot with water and pouring grounds in the basket, placing it on the back burner. With six strips of bacon in the frypan a pleasant aroma began filling the cabin as the coffee started to percolate. Liz walked into the kitchen in her short summer pajamas, wrapping arms around me as she kissed my check.

“Grab napkins and the silverware.” I smiled. “Let’s eat on the outdoor table. Sunny-side-up?” Liz nodded with a smile on her face.

After scooping up the eggs with a spatula and sliding them on the plate I gazed out the window, watching Liz staring across the water as she relaxed on a deck chair, her head rotating as she heard the honks, smiling as two geese slid to a stop on the surface of the water about fifty yards away. I balanced one of the S&H melamine plates on my left forearm and the second in my left hand, with the right hand carrying two cups of coffee, using my butt to open the door to the deck.

We ate a leisurely breakfast, enjoying the woodland solitude, absorbing the peace and quiet, comfortable enough to relax and say nothing. The cabin was so isolated we didn’t hear anything but the call of the wild – the repeated chortle of a male cardinal from high in a treetop, the quiet splash of a fish breaking the water as it chased after a fly. I finished my toast, bacon and eggs, sliding back in the Adirondack chair to stretch out, resting the cup of coffee on the arm.

“Do you want to sleep some more or would you like to go for a hike?” Liz sighed.

“Let’s just relax. But I want to hear more of what Mr. Wilkinson said.”

I kissed her on the check and took the dishes inside, bringing the pot of coffee back out. Liz pulled her chair beside me and interlaced her fingers with mine.

“We talked about my desire to be a teacher and he pledged to make the money available for tuition each semester. They made it clear this isn’t a gift, but access to a no-interest loan which I am to repay when I get my first teaching job. His only stipulation was that I continue to work part-time at the bank and resume my coaching duties at East High while I’m at Iowa.”

Liz leaned forward and kissed my hand as I continued.

“He also talked with the Booster Club at East High and they promised to award me a $500 honorarium for the unpaid coaching job last fall and track this spring. It will almost cover tuition for both semesters.”

“This is like a dream come true.” She smiled and then sighed, climbing into my lap on the Adirondack chair. “Let’s cuddle. Then we can go for a hike.”

We lazed for a while and then washed dishes, heading out for a hike on the trail behind the cabin, spotting deer nibbling on grass deep in the trees, returning an hour later to relax on the deck and plan the rest of the day. The idea struck me like a bolt of lightning.

“Time for a swim.”

I jumped up and ran into the house. Liz chased after me, squealing like the teenager she was. I embraced her in the kitchen and we kissed passionately.

“Before you put on your swimsuit I have one request.” She smiled up at me, a nervous look spreading across her face. “Don’t put it on. I’ve always wanted to skinny dip…and there is no one around so…”

Her head went side to side but the whites of her eyes said yes. I pulled off my clothes before she had time to think, grabbing a beach towel off the counter as I sprinted across the grass and towards the dock. Tossing the towel over the upright pole by the ladder, leaping off the last wooden slat from one foot, I landed in the water like a cannonball.

“Yahoo!” My shout echoed across the lake as I resurfaced.

Liz flew through the kitchen door naked as the day she was born, rushing towards me while she glanced side to side to make sure no one was watching, landing in the water at my side with a big splash. Her head went back as she surfaced, squeegeeing the water from her dark hair to the back of her head.

I embraced her nude body standing on my tiptoes while Liz wrapped her legs around me. She shivered.

“Oh my God, it’s way colder than I expected.”

We kissed and then I escaped her clutches, swimming out into deeper water, beckoning her with my finger from fifteen yards away. She swam towards me, her checks white against the dark water, the laughter loud. Grabbing her wrists when she neared I pulled her in tight, kissing her deeply while I rotated my legs rapidly to keep us afloat. We hadn’t kiss like this in weeks. In the background I could hear a soft puttering of a motorboat from somewhere behind an inlet to our right. Liz was shivering so much I didn’t think she noticed.

“Let’s hurry. Time for some more excitement.” She didn’t know what I meant.

I swam on my side towards the dock, smiling seductively as she followed close behind. Climbing up the ladder on the dock the motor got louder, a boat appearing from behind the trees just as I stepped on the platform.

“Quick.” Liz looked over at the sound, her eyes big like a full moon, rapidly scaling the ladder with her back to the boat while I held out the beach towel to cover her nude body. She stepped on the dock and closed the towel around her, leaving me completely exposed to the world as she hid behind my trunk.

This wasn’t the excitement I had in mind.

I turned towards the sound and cupped a hand over my crotch, the boat passing fifty yards away, both of us waving at the two men while they motored by with strange expressions. We laughed like lunatics and then ran towards the cabin, making love that afternoon and many more times over the next twenty-four hours with an enthusiasm we hadn’t shown for months.

My backpack was full of heavy texts and two spiral notebooks, the front pocket filled with pens, pencils, and erasers as I walked across the Pentacrest in concert with hundreds of other new students. This is so cool. I hadn’t been as excited about school since I was five years old. Rhetoric at 8am, a biology lecture from 9-9:50am, Recreational Sports right after in Halsey Hall. Days were filled to the brim, but the hectic life was a welcome challenge. I was finally working towards my teaching degree!

1st National Bank was only two blocks off campus so I had no trouble getting to work, hustling home after to eat and change clothes before the 3pm bike ride to East High. Each day I took delight in holding Matt in my arms while I ate supper following practice, grateful he was finally sleeping through the night. The fatigue which had dogged us for weeks faded over time, our joie de vivre finally resurrected, as was our enthusiasm for sex. If we weren’t careful we would have another child on the way.

The cross country season got off to a great start, the varsity team beaten only once in September, juniors Brian Wilkinson and Danny Skogstad 1-2 in every race. There was a good group of fresh new faces on the team, freshman Jeff Jones showing promise from the get-go, looking like he might be the one to fill a gap on the varsity squad. He won the first three frosh/soph races by huge margins, but lately he seemed to be fading when I expected he might be ready to join the upperclassmen.

I caught him after practice.

“Jeff, hang back for a second.” He glanced at me as his friends walked towards the locker room, thoughts of our confrontation three years ago playing in front of his eyes. I always had to reassure him that he wasn’t in trouble. “Don’t worry. It’s good news, not bad.”

He stood in front of me with chin on his chest, not reassured by my words.

“I noticed you’ve been extra tired at practice. Struggling a bit. You’re always such a hard worker and started the season like you were on fire, but now...well, I can tell something is wrong. I’m concerned I’m pushing you too hard. Expecting too much of you.” He still didn’t look at me. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know.” Jeff glanced up briefly. “I guess I’m not sleeping too good.”

“Alice said you aren’t doing as well in school either. She always talks about what a good student you are, but she’s been a little concerned.” I waited for him to speak.

“I guess…” He shrugged his shoulders with palms up.

“What?” Getting him to talk was like pulling teeth. I was ready to shake his shoulders.

“I…I have to get up at 4 each morning to help dad with the milk deliveries…so I never get enough sleep.” He sighed. “I try to get my homework done after supper but I’m so tired from running that it’s hard to study. I fall asleep in the middle of assignments.”

“Can’t your father wait until after the season is over? I mean, why isn’t Jimmy taking your place? Your brother isn’t out for a sport and certainly has the time.” Jeff shook his head.

“Dad kicked him out because he drinks all the time…so that’s not going to happen.”

I sighed and pointed towards the tennis bleachers so we could sit.

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do…”

We talked for ten minutes and I sent him on the way with a simple message.

“Jeff, you have the talent to become one of the top runners in the state. You work hard and have a great attitude. Please don’t give up on cross country. We need you.” It was the first time he didn’t grimace. “We’ll get this solved. I promise.”

I talked with Alice after supper and then called Mrs. Jones, explaining I needed a good time to talk with her husband over the weekend. He was already in bed.

I sat across from Jeff’s father at their kitchen table late Saturday afternoon, wondering how I was going to explain the dilemma to him. I was at a loss for what to say, so I just started.

“Mr. Jones, you know my father was an alcoholic.” He pursed his lips and nodded at the statement, uncomfortable acknowledging the fact to me. “You know he used to beat me...I have broken bones and scars to prove it.” He nodded again but was much more cautious this time, worried what I would say next. I took a deep breath.

“I come from a background like you. A family with not much money, struggling to get everything we needed. In fact we were so poor I used to shoplift to get food for me and my sister…and my mom.” I sighed at the memory. “I bet I could still steal two T-bone steaks and not get caught.” I nodded. It was clear Mr. Jones was shocked by my words.

“But I also know my mother never wanted any of us to suffer like we did. To feel like life was a dead end.” I traced the pattern on the oil cloth with a finger. “Do you want Jeff to miss out on opportunities?”

“N…na…no.” He shook his head side to side. “No, I want better for him.”

“Good. And so do I. I understand you ask Jeff to help with deliveries because you need it. The family needs it.” He nodded. “But if he doesn’t get more sleep there are going to be consequences. He’s a good student but his grades are slipping because he’s just too tired to study. That’s not good.” I paused.

“And there’s another thing. I don’t say this to brag, but I was a two-time State Champion in cross country. I know what it takes to be good. I honestly believe Jeff can be one of the top runners in the state if you give him the opportunity. He’s a hard worker and could earn a scholarship for college if he continues to run. Would you like that?”

It was the first time he smiled, nodding his head up and down.

“Good. So here’s what I’m going to ask you to do…”

Sunday afternoon, I looked out Matt Jr’s bedroom window and watched Jeff Jones knocking on Tom’s front door. Alice opened it with a smile and waved him in. At supper yesterday she promised to help him with his studies. To get him back on track. And Mr. Jones pledged to excuse Jeff from morning deliveries until the end of the season. Hallelujah!

On Friday Jeff looked like a million dollars, winning the Frosh/Soph invitational at West Branch by eighteen seconds, the extra sleep performing miracles. I stood at the back of the chute with a smile on my face and a hand extended, his face lit like a bonfire as he slapped my palm. I ruffled his hair.

“See, I told you. If you keep running like this I’ll have to think about moving you up to the varsity for the State Meet. What do you think of that?”

He nodded vigorously; his face filled with a grin.

“Okay, cheer on your teammates and then lead the Frosh/Soph group on the cool down. I’ll talk with the guys when you get back.”

We had a short practice on Friday before the conference meet, finishing with the team at 4:15. Raff had already headed home, grateful to have a short day. It was too early for supper and I was a little restless. I put this off for too long.

It was raining as I stepped out the door clad in running shorts and a Little Hawks t-shirt, jogging towards the tennis courts, curious to see if I could get through the first mile on the cross country course. My right thigh was still less defined than the other and the calf a bit smaller from fifteen months ago, but at least the hip was much improved, my daily activities at practice better than any rehab.

Behind the tennis courts and down the hill along the elementary school I let gravity do the work until I was on the far side of the football field, trudging up the two block hill along 1st Avenue. The effort just about killed me, breaths coming in short steady bursts, my willpower disappearing as I finally crested the long slope. Around the north end of the football stadium and behind the press box I made the U-turn around the fence and headed back west, running down the chalk line on the football practice fields, already tired from the meager pace.

It had been so long since I had run anything more than a furlong, my ragged breathing testament, the jarring impact on my body from the unwieldly one-hundred-fifty-five pound frame, a general discomfort in my lungs as though there was a bag over my head. This is fucking killing me. I was going so slow I wondered if I would ever get back to where I started.

Around the softball backstop I ran up towards the baseball diamond and behind the home team dugout, turning left at the right field foul pole and back towards where I took off. One mile. Should I do it again? I wasn’t sure if I had the willpower. C’mon you pussy. Let’s go another loop.

Eight minutes later I slowed to a stop.

I continued the runs each day after practice, never feeling any better but getting a little faster, wondering if one day I would be rewarded. Maybe if I didn’t eat so much of Liz’s food and got rid of the extra weight it would help.

Jeff Jones won the MVC Frosh/Soph title the next day on the Wildcat Den State Park course in Muscatine, handling the big hills as easily as a mountain goat. Our varsity squad won the team title, Danny Skogstad and Brian Wilkinson finishing side by side. It was our 5th conference title in a row, but I wasn’t confident we had enough to win our 5th State Title. We were thin at our #4 scorer.

On the bus ride home I talked with Raff.

“Bryce and Kenny looked awful today.” Raff agreed. “I’m wrestling with what to do with Jeff Jones. He turned in a great performance. Probably his best of the year.”

“You’re right.” Raff nodded. “And I’m thinking what you’re thinking. We need to shake up the mix.” Raff paused. “Let’s have Jeff train with the varsity this week.” I smiled like a devil.

“I seem to remember you did that a few years ago…and I think it worked.” Raff started laughing. He turned around and shouted for Jeff to come up to the front of the bus. While we waited I continued.

“Danny has a great shot at the individual title and his little brother is a solid #3 man. And Brian Wilkinson is capable of finishing in the top five in Marshalltown. So we should be solid. They are the main ingredients for a shot at the championship trophy, but we needed more from numbers four, five, and six or we’re going to have a tough time.” I glanced at Jeff as he walked down the aisle, laughing at the snide comments from his teammates. I continued.

“Chris Stevenson is decent in our #4 spot, but at the State Meet I don’t know if he is experienced enough to respond to the pressure. And our 5th and 6th men, Bryce Fordyce, and Kenny Moylan, don’t hurt us…but they don’t help us either.” Jeff sat beside Coach Raffensperger as I leaned towards them.

“Here’s what we are going to do…”

No one on the team was surprised to see Jeff show up at Monday’s practice. Twelve times a quarter mile on the track at seventy seconds. Then ninety seconds rest. The workout was spirited, juniors Bryce and Kenny giving it all to hold off the freshman teammate, but it was to no avail on the last three 440’s as Jeff Jones kicked their asses. Danny, Brian, and Scott welcomed him after the last one with hand slaps and a pat on the back – Raff and I confident he could be the answer to our problem.

Our squad won the sectional meet in Davenport with a 1-2 finish from Danny Skogstad and Brian Wilkinson, a 7th by Scott Skogstad, and top thirty finishes by Chris, Bryce, and Jeff. Second place Davenport Central was twenty-two points behind, Jeff only four seconds away from our #4 runner. After the race Raff looked at me and smiled with a thumb up. Both of us nodded. We had enough to win a 5th State Title.

Raff’s speech to the six on Friday afternoon before the ’78 State Meet was so inspirational that there was no question everyone was psyched up. It even inspired me. He stood in front of us at the tennis bleachers explaining what he expected of the team tomorrow, unzipping his jacket after he finished, showing off a gold t-shirt with “EAST HIGH SCHOOL” above five trophies, underneath “1978 XC STATE CHAMPS.”

The team cheered excitedly like fans after a winning touchdown, shocked Raff spent money for a feat we had yet to accomplish. So far we only had four titles. Raff leaned over and opened the bag at his feet.

“I’m so certain we are going to win…” He pulled matching shirts out of a sack and held it up. “That there will be one for each of you when you are standing on the stage with the 5th championship trophy.” Everyone shot out of the bleachers, eyes the size of frisbees.

“Whoa, those are so cool.”


“The chicks…” Danny had a huge smile on his face. “Are going to be pounding on my door all night when they see me in this!”

“Yeah.” I grinned. “Trying to get out!” Everyone broke out laughing.

Despite the nervousness, our team responding to Raff’s bold challenge Saturday morning at the State Meet, Danny Skogstad grabbing the individual title with a 9:05 for the two miles, Brian Wilkinson finishing in the 6th spot, Scott Skogstad in 19th, Bryce Fordyce and Jeff Jones 33rd and 39th respectively, their efforts possibly enough for the win. Whether it was the magic number, neither Raff nor I would venture a guess. It was just too close.

The team did a cool down without hearing a final score, so confident about the outcome they weren’t worried, yet Raff and I sweated over the results like expectant fathers in the waiting room. When they returned he didn’t mention we learned of our victory, solemnly asking everyone to meet in the van. They quietly shuffled over to the vehicle with heads bowed, disquieted by Raff’s demeanor, glancing at each other, and sneaking peeks towards us, speaking in hushed tones as they crawled in.

“Raff, you are one cool cat.” He turned so they wouldn’t see him laughing. “I would have shouted out our victory to the world.”

It sounded like an atomic bomb went off in the van when Raff announced, “Boys…WE WON!” I tossed out the t-shirts to the team like a clown tosses candy to spectators at a parade, each runner pulling off a wet singlet and donning the gold t-shirt.

It was much closer than we would have liked, Jeff’s “pusher spot” giving Waterloo Columbus two extra points and enough for our slim victory. The team walked over to the award ceremony with meet jackets zipped to their necks, a black and gold stocking hat on every head, and a giddy smile on every face. Today was as good as sex.

When they announced the first place team at the Award Ceremony we raced up on the riser and stripped off our team jackets so the crowd could see our gold t-shirts, thrilled that we were able to continue the streak we started back in 1974. It was a day I would never forget.

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