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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 6

Friday evening Steve Skogstad and I played ping pong at the city Recreation Center, my arm now wrapped in an elastic Ace bandage for three weeks. After two hours of fun we left at around 9:30pm, shuffling down Gilbert Street discussing Sunday’s '74 Super Bowl VII game between the Vikings and Dolphins, both of us hoping Minnesota would win. Bursts of steam shot from our mouths as we talked, our heads tucked into shoulders to keep ears warm, wondering if spring would ever arrive.

I could run now that the cast was off but was already tired of the endless days of cold, the Midwest January weather never fun. Before we separated I promised to be at his house Sunday morning at eight for our first run of the new year, shouting “later dude” as I turned towards our alley.

Closing the back door quietly I listened for voices, the glow from the TV in the living room casting soft shadows over the room. Glancing over at dad snoring on the couch I turned it off and the room dimmed, the flat aroma of stale beer emanating from four cans lying on the floor like fallen soldiers. Turning towards the bedrooms, I reached the end of the hallway, tapping lightly five times on Alice’s door. I got no response, turning the knob and gently pushing to make sure the wedge was in the door, pivoting towards the bathroom so I could brush my teeth before I crawled into bed.

Sometime later I woke with a start. There was a loud thump. Holding my breath, I listened for more. Indistinct mumbles, fingernails on wood, the twist of a doorknob. Then nothing. Standing with an ear at my closed bedroom door, I could hear his stream of urine hit the toilet water in the bathroom, a quick flush and shuffle of feet down the hallway. Then there was silence.

I waited in my room until I heard his loud snores, softly knocking on the wall between our bedrooms five times, getting two short taps. Alice opened her door immediately, an arm drawn across her eyes as she turned towards the bathroom. I heard her flush and then wash her hands, cautiously opening the restroom door. I whispered.

“Do you want to sleep in my bed?” She nodded, walking with her head down like she was still asleep.

I picked up the wooden wedge and grabbed her pillow, closing the girl’s door as we returned to my bedroom. Opening the covers she crawled in on hands and knees, a minute later her soft breathing coming out in steady puffs. I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling trying to think of solutions. The wedge wasn’t going to be enough. One day he might break down the door.

No one was home when I woke up Saturday morning. I ate two bowls of Fruit Loops and bounced down the stairs with a vague idea. Dad was at work, mom was who knows where, Alice at Kathy’s house. I carried the drill and saber saw up from the basement into her bedroom.

Pushing her clothes in the closet to the side, I drilled holes nearest the outdoor wall opposite my closet, continuing until I found the inside edges of two vertical studs. With the saber saw I cut horizontally through the plasterboard and then vertically down to the floor along the edges, satisfied her narrow frame could sneak through the waist-high 16” space. I did the same thing on my side of the closet, thirty minutes later vacuuming the debris in both rooms, pleased with her secret path to safety.

Sunday morning the thermometer outside the kitchen window showed 9 degrees. I needed to layer up. Skipping down the stairs to the basement I draped my pajamas over the clothesline and grabbed my running gear, holding an insulated top and bottom to my nose see if they smelled. Definitely. I pulled two clean t-shirts from the laundry basket, and my gray cotton sweats, slipping a stocking hat over my head and hands into mittens as I stepped into the cold and jogged down the alley.

Steve Skogstad was in his sweat clothes at the front window of their house, smiling as he flipped me the bird. A loud shout over his shoulder, “Be back in an hour” and he slammed the front door, stepping carefully down the ice-coated stairs.

“Fuck. It’s colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra!” We both laughed.

Into the wind on Market Street, we passed the hospital and then the red brick Unitarian church, coasting down the hill towards the Iowa River, steam floating off the brackish water as we crossed the Student Union footbridge, my body finally generating some heat as we got to the other side. Steve scooped a handful of snow on the run and fired it at a stop sign, the hexagonal sheet of metal vibrating side to side. We both smirked.

Paralleling the Iowa River, we ran south past the city power plant, a shuttered Dairy Queen, and a busy McDonald’s, tiptoeing around the icy corner at Benton Street, our speed picking up as muscles finally loosened. This run was the highlight of my day, my little bit of freedom from screaming and shouting, the heavy load removed from my narrow shoulders.

Steve put a finger over one nostril as we passed the armory, leaning away from me as he blew his nose like a farmer.

“I gotta get some nylon running shorts. These cotton ones are giving me a rash.”

“What are you talking about?” I began laughing. “Your balls are so small…I couldn’t find em with a microscope.”

“Ha ha. Very funny. I almost forgot to laugh.” He turned his head and spit into a pile of yellow snow. “Speaking of your IQ and a shoe size that matches…how do you like the new Cortez?”

“They’re so cool.” Still smiling at his lame joke. “They actually have cushion and are lightweight.” I looked at him and snickered. “And chicks dig them.” We both burst out laughing.

We sat at his family’s dining room table and laid out our training program after the run, writing mileage numbers in the squares on the Nagle Lumber Company calendar. It was thrilling to have a plan. And to be in their home. The atmosphere was so relaxed; the only yelling from his mother shouting up the stairs for the boys to “turn down the music” or for Elizabeth to come downstairs and iron her dress for school. Normal stuff. Like you saw on “Leave It to Beaver.”

For the next eight weeks Steve and I suffered the brutal winds and cold of January, February, and early March putting in daily miles like a long distance trucker, racking up fifty miles every week despite the winter adversity. There was something attractive to pursue a regimen not many athletes chose, a small phase of my life that gave me some control. Something which was only mine.

On school days we ran after seventh period, pumping iron in the football weight room when we returned, the smelly clothes I brought home each Friday testament to my dedication. Every Sunday morning I ran over to Steve’s house before work so he could join me on the ten mile run down Prairie du Chien Road, always deep in conversation as we passed the Jewish Cemetery, the circling City Park and Lower Finkbine Golf Course on the last part of the loop before we headed back home.

After every workout I cleaned the grime out of the Nike shoes with an old toothbrush, wadding up newspaper ads from the Press Citizen and stuffing it into the toes to absorb the moisture, the reverent care I gave to them far more attention than my father gave me. They had to last through the track season because I didn’t have the money to buy another pair.

The poster was the coolest birthday present I’d ever gotten. A photo of Steve Prefontaine at the 1972 Olympics, underneath my idol the words.

“Somebody may beat me but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”

I stared at the quote. There was something about “bleed” which touched a nerve. I loved it, a grin filling my face, mom blushing with joy. It would look good on the inside of my bedroom door. A place dad never saw.

“Thanks mom. This is the best.” I impulsively reached out to give her a hug. She squeezed me tightly and then pointed at the cake while Alice switched off the kitchen lights. They sang Happy Birthday in soft voices, a soft glow filling the room as she set the green cake in front of me. Dad was in the living room watching Friday night fights, drinking beer. Mom pointed.

“OK, blow out the candles.”

Alice put her chin on the table and watched as I extinguished the fifteen waxed candles on my St. Patrick’s Day cake, mom serving me an extra big slice because we didn’t have ice cream. I was so happy. We washed dishes afterward, both of us drying while mom washed, Alice and I describing what we planned to do over spring break.

When we finished, mom pulled out an old bedsheet from a cabinet above the refrigerator and wrapped it over my shoulders, telling me to sit in the chair so she could give me a trim.

“It’s way too long…you’re beginning to look like a hobo.” Mom laughed and got started.

She wet my hair with a plant mister, cutting enough off so my earlobes would be visible, finishing with zig zag scissors to create a layered effect. I always enjoyed her ministrations – the careful way she parted my hair in the middle, the precision cuts around my ears, and the quick thirty second scalp massage when she finished.

The length of my hair was starting to draw snide remarks from dad, both of us aware I was pushing my luck if I thought I could get away with it much longer. Since high school he wore a butch and had nothing good to say about my style. It would only lead to conflict that none of us would win. She held the mirror in front of me so I could see her job, kissing me on the top of my head as I smiled at the results.

Our first track meet of the ’74 season was April 4 at West Branch. It was the same day mom had to move Grandma Gatens out of her apartment and into the nursing home. Grandma’s mind was beginning to slip into never-never land, on our last visit thinking Alice and I were her brother and sister, siblings who had been dead for over twenty-five years. Mom was so devastated by the deterioration that she asked me to drive home, staring out the window the whole way, the tears running down her face reflected in the glass.

I understood the consequence of grandma’s senility; why mom was so anxious and distraught. At the end of the month Ashley would no longer have a free place to live. Whether it meant my sister would move back home or find a friend who would put her up was never discussed. It still wasn’t completely clear why Ashley moved out in the first place - although I suspected. The one thing I did know was that we didn’t have the money to continue the lease for her.

I won the frosh-soph two-mile that afternoon with a 10:09, breaking the varsity school record by twenty-seven seconds, certain I would have run faster if there had been more competition. After crossing the line I bent over and stared at the cinders until I caught my breath, amazed to see second place not yet into the last corner when I stood tall. Wow.

Nothing in my life could match this feeling. The confidence it gave me. The moment of bliss. If I had gotten straight A’s I wouldn’t have been happier.

Coach Raffensperger jogged by and patted me on the back, smiling over his shoulder and shouting, “Good job Matt” as he grabbed two hurdles to place on the straightaway. This is so cool.

Steve Skogstad won the mile later that afternoon, the bus ride back home a joyous affair. It was strange to have so much praise heaped on me – to have adults give a compliment rather than dish out criticism, even my teammates appreciative of today’s performance. I realized that all the running we did in the worst of the winter was worth it – paying off with a reward I’d never experienced before.

As I stared out the bus window after the initial uproar subsided, I thought about serendipity, and the role it played in our friendship. Steve and I were perfect training partners. Blue-collar workers. Guys with little given to them – but ones that wanted more. Though Steve was probably more talented than me, I pushed myself harder in races, possessing a unique ability to ignore the pain that he couldn’t. He always complained about beating me in practice but never in meets, joking that mom must have some special breakfast on meet mornings.

Yet despite my success, I wouldn’t have achieved it without him. Steve was always there when others quit on the tough interval workouts or faster tempo runs, readily agreeing to put in more mileage than Raff suggested, my partner just as excited as me to get in the weight room and add bulk to our skinny frames. We were each other’s best motivator. The yin to the other’s yang.

Over the next three weekends Raff mixed our events between the 880, mile, and two mile so we never ran head to head, allowing our confidence to grow unfettered. We got through the blustery weather of April unbeaten, our confidence growing like July corn, the efforts beginning to grab headlines in the local sports sections. Alice cut out each story and posted the articles on her bulletin board, proudly reciting the articles when we talked before bedtime. It was so cool.

Dad was working more and drinking less, our dinners more substantial than fried baloney or hot dogs, although as Saturday approached meals were still a little iffy. And Alice was seldom beside me in bed when I woke up in the morning, the secret pathway easing her fears, reducing the nightmares. But it was only a temporary solution. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be enough. I couldn’t watch over Alice all the time.

On May Day, Alice came home with a bouquet of violets wrapped in tinfoil before dinner, mom with a big smile in response, fawning over the gift as my sister beamed. She kissed Alice on the forehead, insisting on putting them in a tiny vase above the sink. The small act made mom so happy. I’d forgotten how her face could light up the room.

I reminded myself to be just as gracious.

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