Thursday, July 6, 2017

Sierra Club Invades NYC Park

Lights on the Brooklyn Bridge trace graceful arcs above the East River
            The New York Stock Exchange was closed for Memorial Day. I stood looking up at the building. A flag big as a tennis court draped its front.
Something glinted in the sidewalk seam, shining in the sunlight. I picked it up. Nothing much: A stainless steel sheet metal screw, inch and a half long, Phillips head. Nothing much, but odd in this location. I took a couple more steps. Something else shined on the sidewalk. A Roosevelt dime minted 2001, the year the twin towers came down. 2001. Of course.
I was walking around in Manhattan with two-dozen Sierra Club members. They drifted on while I stood studying the shiny objects. Finally I rushed along to catch up. I held my treasure out to Marianne, a quick thinking woman from Chicago.
“Look at the souvenirs I found back there at the Stock Exchange. I wonder what it means. There must be some symbolism…”
She glanced at the shiny objects in my palm and then pointed at the dime. “It means that if you invest this” —then pointed at the screw —“you get this.” Sierra Club humor.
I’d known her less than twenty-four hours, but I knew she was a quick thinker.
Sierra Club?
Cool forest glades, high-mountain meadows, lonely sun-blasted deserts, these are the usual haunts of the Sierra Club. So what were two dozen Sierra Club members doing hiking the concrete canyons of Gotham?
The above episode happened ten years ago. We were following our leader Jerry Balch, Brooklyn native, son of Ukrainian immigrants. His idea was simple—like any service trip. Come do some useful work, in the process see the sights. In this case the sights were in New York City, a place no less compelling than the starkest desert.  Our work assignment was in Riverside Park. On Monday, the first full day, he led a walking tour of New York City. His Co-Leader Richard Grayson helped keep us all corralled on the busy walks.
The unusual and unexpected events, the events no one would even know to expect, are the ones you remember from a trip. This trip had many such moments. It stuck with me over the years, and each year I’d check to see if the trip was still offered. Finally, after ten years I decided I had to return.
Jerry and Richard were still leading the trip. The group had expanded to about three dozen, and they had added a couple of assistants, Margaret Stephens and George Gibbs. We lodged at Hostelling International, a youth hostel on the Upper West Side, just as we had 10 years earlier. During daytime, we worked on Riverside Park. At night, it was show time! We attended Broadway plays, ballet at Lincoln Center, and such. Some attended baseball games and visited jazz clubs.
Each day, we gathered on the patio in front of the hostel for our instructions. Riverside Park stretches some six miles along the bank of the Hudson. Although we were an easy walk from the 103rd Street Entrance, we usually needed to travel uptown or downtown via bus or subway to our work site.
Once there, Kristen Meade, volunteer manager for Riverside Park Conservancy, met us each day to explain the work that needed doing. The Park encompasses some 400 acres. Its annual operating budget is around five million dollars, nearly half of which is raised by the Conservancy. The Sierra Club is just one of several organizations that cooperate with the Conservancy to help with maintenance, restoration and improvement.
Burdock, one of the evil invasive plants we removed

We did jobs like removing the invasive plants mugwort and burdock, spreading mulch, and building a butterfly garden. The work is important, essential even. We worked rain or shine; it was strenuous. It was astonishing to see the transformation the group brought to an area, and how quickly they brought it. An Amtrak embankment covered in mugwort, vines and hawthorn quickly became bare ground covered by jute burlap, the invasive brush and weeds bagged for delivery to a landfill—all accomplished under pouring rain.
After digging up the weeds, we spread mulch 

Digging mugwort on an Amtrak embankment in pouring rain

It was a messy business

We spread jute burlap on the embankment

Assistant Leader Richard Grayson recalled an incident from my first service trip there, 10 years earlier. As we assembled before work on the hostel patio one morning, he asked me to tell the story to the group.
The story tells itself. It’s based on a coincident that seems too remote to be possible. Members listened raptly. Traffic on Amsterdam Avenue played a sound track. Here’s the story:
We’d gone to the play “Inherit the Wind,” a story based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which John Scopes was convicted of illegally teaching evolution in his biology class. The trial took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, a small town not two hours from my Tennessee home. The two well-known film actors Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer played the clashing lawyers.
The play was riveting and deeply affecting. It was especially revelatory to me. Despite being a Tennessee native, I had never seen either the movie or the play. I realized I’d never learned as much about the historic trial as I should have.
Next morning we showed up at Riverside Park, near 86th Street. Our job was to clear the leaves and weeds from a flower garden. There, we met Charlotte Mayerson, a park volunteer who maintained the garden. The garden was large, making cleaning it a huge task for a lone person. We fell to work. Charlotte was enough pleased with our work and happy chatter that she mentioned she was going to look into becoming a Sierra member herself. She expressed her appreciation for our work, a satisfying sentiment we heard from other New Yorkers often.
Something about the woman’s outgoing presence intrigued me. I asked her a few questions about herself. I learned that she was a writer and that she had served as an executive editor at Random House. As such, she had reigned at the top of the publishing world. I was awed. As a book writer myself I’ve had the experience of sending out 75-page proposals, and waiting weeks for a reply.
This I know: You can maybe get an audience with The Pope quicker than a meeting with a New York editor! Yet, there I stood there talking with one. Although she’d retired from that particular job, she was still very much a part of that forbidding world. This was enough to stamp her on my memory. I didn’t mention the book I’d recently published; I thought that would be rude.
As we worked Richard Grayson and I were talking about “Inherit the Wind,” and the Scopes Monkey trial. Charlotte overheard. What she said next struck like thunder.
“John Scopes was a friend of mine. He wrote an autobiography…and I published it.”
Working on the book, they had become friends. Then Charlotte Mayerson told us this: “He said, ‘if you were 20 years older I’d marry you.’”
It was a history lesson. I’d never seen “Inherit the Wind” until the night before. Now I stood talking to John Scopes’ friend and publisher, a living link to what had only been a dry name in a history textbook.
 I’ve been lucky to meet impressive and important people. Meeting Charlotte Mayerson remains singular.
I made several photos of Charlotte’s garden. The iris, Tennessee State Flower, was in stately bloom. I tried to get low angles and interesting compositions. Charlotte asked me to make a special picture, a picture of a bench. It was a bench with a plague. She had donated it to the park in memory of her son, a gifted journalist who died of AIDS at the age of 35. She wrote an acclaimed volume of poems about the experience, The Death Cycle Machine.
Once I returned home, I mailed Charlotte a CD of the pictures I’d made. We became e-mail pals. Once again she befriended a Tennessee man. She said my photos of the flower garden were the best she’d seen.
That was the story I told my 35 Sierra colleagues a few day ago on the patio of the hostel. We were preparing to depart for the park, just as I had on that day 10 years earlier. They listened with attention, grasping the sheer improbability and spiritual significance of the story. I finished by telling them you never know what might happen.

Coincidence happens all the time. Such an unusual and significant coincident does not. It would be a mistake to expect so much from a service trip. But The City That Never Sleeps is a vast stirring cauldron. It brings many chances for serendipity, for the unusual, the unexpected—even the transcendent. 
That’s why I returned.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

For Amy Dodson Cummins Falls Marathon Is A Homecoming

Amy Dodson completing the New York City Triathlon

             It will be a homecoming like no other when Amy Dodson returns to Cookeville for the Cummins Falls Marathon. She has been so far.
The Arizona athlete has journeyed not only across Earth’s geography but also through the world of endurance. It was here in Cookeville that she started running.
In 2000 Tammie Wright, a teacher and colleague at Cane Creek Elementary, was organizing a race called the Pilot 5K. Amy recalls their conversation. She’d remarked wistfully,
“I wish I could run that…”
“Why don’t you?” replied Tammie.
Amy’s reluctance was understandable. She’d lost her lower left leg to cancer in 1984 while a junior at the University of Arizona. It took her left lung too. Now some 16 years later, here in Cookeville, following the gentle urging of her friend, Amy took the plunge that would change her life. She ran that 5K. Ran it in a prosthetic meant for walking, but not for running.
She soon owned a prosthetic designed for running. She began a life of active training. The maker of her prosthetic, Freedom-Innovations, became her sponsor.
Amy Dodson was featured on the cover of Runner's World, July 2011

Bright titles and records fell. She increased her runs to marathon distance, 26.2 miles. In 2001 she became the first woman leg-amputee to finish the prestigious Boston Marathon.
She set the marathon World Record for leg amputee in St. George Utah, a time of 3:53:21.
There’s too much to note. She owns a roomful of titles and records in her division of “Physically Challenged.” Even a short summary stretches long:

International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Champion, Queenstown, NZ, 2003
ITU World Champion, Hamburg, GER, 2007
ITU Silver at Worlds, Vancouver, BC, 2008
ITU Silver at Worlds, Gold Coast, AUS, 2009
Four-Time USA Half-Marathon Champion
Two-Time National Triathlon Champion, New York City
First Place, Ironman World Championship, Kona, HI, 2012

Amy teaches fifth grade at Ventana Vista Elementary, Tucson, AZ.
In May she heads to Brazil for her sixth Ironman race. This week she returns to Cookeville, the place she moved to in 1993, the place where it all began. It is her first visit since moving away in 2001.
Amy Dodson holds her prosthetic leg aloff atop the Golden Gate Bridge during a 667-mile relay race from San Francisco to San Diego

On Saturday, February 25, she will run the Cummins Falls Half Marathon. It and the Marathon start at 8:00 a.m. The 5K, and 10K start at 9:00 a.m. Registration and packet pickup are at 2-7 in Townplace Suites and also at the park on Saturday morning up until 30 minutes before the race.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Frozen River Stops the Ferry but not the Mail

The Cumberland River gathers its water from the Cumberland Plateau of southeastern Kentucky and eastern Middle Tennessee. It slants out of Kentucky and follows a serpentine course westward across Middle Tennessee; eventually it turns north and re-enters Kentucky, in the western tip of that state, and there joins the Ohio River fifteen miles upstream from Paducah. Along its route it touches the Tennessee towns of Celina, Carthage, Nashville, and Clarksville—and the little-known historical site of Fort Blount. The fort guarded the river crossing and the main road west during the western expansion of  the late 1700s and early 1800s. Adjacent to the fort spread the town of Williamsburg, then the county seat of Jackson County. The fort and town have vanished; a remaining graveyard is the sole reminder.
The river is known to have frozen over five times—in 1779, 1876, 1893, 1905, and for the last time in 1940. An inaccurate newspaper report about an incident at Fort Blount Ferry during the last freezing created a myth which grew to folklore still told seventy-five years later. But the true story is richer than the folklore.

The ferry boat in 1971 as it approaches the east side of the Cumberland River, the side of the ferryman’s shack. Two years later the ferry was discontinued. Fort Blount Ferry was established 180 years earlier, in 1791, by Sampson Williams, owner of Fort Blount. Photo by the author.

The river had frozen over at Fort Blount Ferry. When mail carrier Silas Williams arrived at the ferryman’s shack that January day he saw a slab of ice stretching across the Cumberland. It was rare for the river to freeze. But cold air had come to Jackson County and a week later it was still hanging around.
The Putnam County Herald of January 25, 1940 reported that the temperature in Cookeville had hit eleven below zero on January 18. Putnam County borders Jackson County to the south and Cookeville, its county seat, is only eighteen miles from Fort Blount. The river froze on January 25 and stayed frozen through January 29.  
The ferry boat couldn’t operate, even if its Model-A Ford engine would crank. It was locked in ice. That was a problem for Williams. He needed to cross the river to deliver the mail to Smith Bend and points beyond on the other side.
When the ferry was not operating, he knew what to do. It was a tiresome routine, one the cranky old ferry boat forced on him too much. He had to backtrack to Flynn’s Lick and on to Gainesboro, the county seat where he’d started his route; then continue north on Highway 56 to cross the only bridge over the Cumberland River in Jackson County, and drive nearly to Whitleyville; from there, catch Highway 85, a narrow, steep, curvy road, to Gladdice, the entry to Smith Bend. From there he’d still have to drive all the way to the bottom of Smith Bend, to the Fox Farm, location of the vanished Fort Blount and vanished town of Williamsburg, the land just across the river from where he now sat in his truck gazing at the awful span of ice. He dreaded the extra hour of driving. At best, an extra hour, the icy conditions would make the hills risky and the drive could take much longer.
Williams sat looking. The icy dirt road sloped down to the frozen river before him. One can imagine his impulse.
Several days later the Nashville paper arrived in Smith Bend—Silas Williams himself brought it along with the rest of the mail—with its story of what happened next. It included a photo of Williams standing beside his truck. The caption told how when Williams found the river frozen he was undaunted. He headed his truck across the ice and continued on his route delivering the mail as usual. It evoked devotion to duty, casual courage, and ingenuity. It even uncorked the old cliché, “Neither rain nor sleet nor snow…,” just what you’d expect such a story to say.
The incident wasn’t all happy though. In good time a rumor reached Smith Bend about how the caper had nearly cost Silas Williams his job, presumably for putting the mail at risk in the icy river (likely not for putting his own life at risk). The irony of the secret he couldn’t tell must have been bitter indeed:
He didn’t drive the truck across.
Thus the real story begins. When Williams drove up to the ferryman’s shack that day, old man Les Lynch the ferryman was likely inside, for the reason that he nearly always was inside, and was supposed to be there. And anyway, Lynch lived only half a mile away, toward Flynn’s Lick. A small wood-burning stove kept his ferry shack cozy. The little building was where he sat and watched the river and waited for the occasional car to show, either in front of his shack or across the river on the Smith Bend side. He had another reason to be there, too. The Jackson County Highway Department required him to operate the ferry from sunup to sundown. He needed to be there to earn his pay whether the ferry boat actually ran or not.
It happened that another man was also there that morning, twenty-three-year-old Glen Smith. He lived two miles away on the Smith Bend side. Why he was there is lost to history. He had left his twenty-year-old wife Margaret at home. They had been married two years. Pregnant, she would give birth to their first child five months later, in June, a boy.
A country man, perhaps Smith was out that morning to simply see the effects of the cold weather on the countryside. Maybe he thought Lynch would have some whisky, not an unusual condition. Or maybe he was hoping to find a checkers game in the warm shack. I can only speculate now. While he could have told me these things, he did not.
But I know he was there alright. He was the one who drove Silas William’s truck across the river. The mail itself was never at risk; Williams carried it in a pouch and walked across. He did tell me that.
Why the incident happened at all is a mystery. What did Smith say to Williams, a man thirty-five years older, or Williams to Smith?  Why was Williams willing to risk his truck? The questions spin out. One question roars: What compelled Smith, a man with a young wife and a child on the way, to take such an insane chance, to risk death in the icy water over little more than creating a stunt? Over the years, he never told me. And it’s too late to know now. We can only examine Smith’s life for clues.
He was a strong swimmer and he knew the river well. He swam and fished in it, hunted beside it and plowed fields on its banks. He could swim across the river with ease. He would brag about once swimming the river on his back while holding a pile of fourteen mussel shells on his chest. He needed the mussels for fish bait.
So he had no fear of the river. But swimming ability aside, if the truck had broken through the ice, he would have had scant chance to escape. Had he succeeded in exiting the truck cab, the current might have pulled him downstream beneath the ice where there was no opening overhead. Even if he reached the opening, he could not have climbed out without help. And of course a person dies of hypothermia quickly in such cold water.
When Smith drove onto the frozen river the ice began to crack. He could hear the crack running down the river and around the bend. He told me that part.

Glen Smith at the age of eighteen photographed with his basketball teammates at Granville Junior High School during the 1934-35 season. Photo reprinted by Jackson County Sentinel, November 13, 1991.
Smith was a natural country athlete. He could ride standing on the back of a running horse. He had played basketball at Granville Junior High School. He had also played for Cohn High School in Nashville, until he was kicked out of school for threatening to throw a teacher out an upper-story window. In his telling, the dispute was over an answer he’d given to a question in science, a subject he liked. The teacher claimed his answer was wrong. Other family members candidly claim the dispute was actually over smoking. Perhaps both issues contributed. In any case, he was dismissed from school. That ended his education and his basketball career. While his family lived in Nashville for only two years, he logged other scrapes there and was once arrested for illegally seining a creek for fish.
Not to be denied, he took up baseball, developed a mean curve and pitched in community-league ball for Gladdice, a team that played Defeated Creek, Rock City and so on. He was back in the Gladdice and Smith Bend area now, where he lived the rest of his life.
So fear likely wasn’t the factor when he drove onto the ice that day. Confidence was. He never doubted his own judgment and ability—like the player who knows he’s going to make the shot. Hearing the ice crack didn’t faze him.
Fear wasn’t the factor. Throughout his life, in dangerous situations he always remained calm. Two cases well observed:
He was welding with an acetylene torch in his Smith Bend shop while a neighborhood man Billy James Hackett looked on. The acetylene tank erupted, spewing fire from its top like a blowtorch, and flame quickly ran up the wooden wall. Acetylene is bottled in a heavy high-pressure tank with explosive potential. Hackett ran hard 100 yards across a tobacco field before he stopped to look back. He saw Smith take a log chain, throw a loop over the flaming tank and pull it out of the building and then go to work putting out the fire in the shop.
Another time Smith was sitting on the Gladdice store porch with several other men. His daughter-in-law suddenly burst from the trailer across the road where her family lived, screaming “Gina’s choking! Gina’s choking!” Gina was Smith’s beloved granddaughter. He rushed over. The child was already lifeless. Smith lifted her up; her limp body arched back across his upturned palm. He thought for a moment. We watched. Suddenly, almost violently, he compressed her chest between his hands. The food popped out of her throat and she began breathing again, scared but unharmed. This happened before the Heimlich maneuver was widely known. Nor did Smith know it. He analyzed and solved the problem in the moment. We saw it happen.
His tolerance for risk was abnormal. He had once put his whole family in a scalding pan and paddled across a quarter-mile of backwater. The family had been visiting in Nashville when the Cumberland River flooded, backed up Salt Lick Creek and put a section of Smith Bend Road under several feet of water. The scalding pan was a homemade rectangular vessel big enough to put a hog in. It was used to heat water into which the hog carcass would be immersed to soften its coarse hair for scraping. Smith borrowed the scalding pan to use as a makeshift boat from a man named Ruff Butler who lived where the floodwater started. It was a way to get back home. The pan was made of steel. If capsized or swamped, it would sink immediately. There were three kids in the family then, ranging from six years old to a baby in it mother’s arms. All five souls huddled in the tiny vessel as it inched across the wide expanse of brown water. Smith paddled. The two older kids bailed water from the leaky contraption with tin cans, an episode they recalled later in life with wonder. The father was the only one who knew how to swim.
He was known as a marksman, an important skill in country society. Again, action started on the store porch, where several men were passing the time: Landon Holland, Jr. who lived next door, brought his .22 caliber rifle over for Smith to look at. He had lost the front sight and hoped to talk Smith into making one. Maybe he knew Smith owned a rifle with a homemade sight. Always confident, Smith took the rifle, examined it a minute and then stepped off the porch. He fished around in his pocket and pulled out a live cartridge, worn and dull from being carried there. The porch audience looked on. He dropped the round into the chamber, picked up a small lump of coal and tossed it into the air. Raising the rifle he blew the coal to bits in mid-air. Fragments rained down on rusty pickups and the tin store roof. “That rifle doesn’t need a sight,” he kidded as he handed it back to Holland.
Neighbors remember Smith as a generous man who helped others. He could repair almost anything. Throughout his working life he repaired vehicles and farm equipment for neighborhood farmers, working in the heat and cold, usually charging only enough to pay the cost of welding rods, acetylene and such.
But there was another side. He had what you might call a hyper-sense of justice and would accept no insult. That got him into fights. He once knocked a man cold over a checker game. From the distance of time passed, I can question whether the grievances he held were justified to the extent he believed or if an exaggerated sense of honor common to Southern men of that era was in play. Regardless, he was not to be messed with.
Not a big man, photographs show a lean, muscular man standing about six feet tall, weighing maybe 155 pounds. One time he fought two men at once, jumped off his tractor and flattened them both, got astraddle the stronger one and had to be pulled off. I happened to witness that fight myself from the Smith Bend schoolhouse window. I was a young child, but the memory lingers.
Generally, he ignored authority. He treated other people with respect and expected the same from them. Inconvenient laws, he ignored. Although he owned and flew light planes throughout his life, he never bothered to earn a private pilot license. He flew in and out of a hayfield 1,100 feet long, so short it made most pilots skittish. Hauling passengers and giving instructions without a license was illegal, but he did it. The Frank G. Clement Bridge was the second bridge built over the Cumberland in Jackson County. He flew his plane under it, also illegal, of course.
Smith founded an excavation company and accumulated several units of heavy excavation equipment. He exhibited fearless skill in operating a bulldozer, even in tight and dangerous places.
The qualities Smith evinced throughout his life, in some combination, were those the twenty-three-year-old Glen Smith apparently brought to the frozen ferry the day he drove Silas William’s truck across the ice. That doesn’t explain why he did it, but at the very least, the act seems in perfect keeping with how he lived his life. And that, I think, is as close as we are going to come to an explanation of the event.

Glen Smith in Colorado with a ten-point buck he had killed, circa 1954

Mail carrier Silas Williams continued his service without any further incident, carrying the mail on Route 4 with dedication for ten more years, until his retirement in 1950. His legacy is secure, embedded in the folklore as the man who bravely and dutifully drove across the frozen river to deliver the mail. Whether he or a lazy newspaper writer, or even some other person, invented the fiction that he drove the truck over the ice will likely never be answered.
The river, it rolled on and never froze again, at least not up until this past January, the seventy-fifth anniversary of that 1940 freezing. And the Corp of Engineers has stated that the river will never freeze again due to the dams and locks that have since been constructed on it. The 1940 freezing ended that part of the river’s story.
The ferry died. It was the last of four ferries over the Cumberland in Jackson County. Throughout its life, reliability of the ferryboat had been a problem. It consisted of two boats abreast connected by nothing more than a chain: A shallow barge floored with wood was long enough for two cars. The motorboat, a much smaller vessel, was an open steel rectangle with an engine in the middle and a tiller at the back. It connected to the downstream side of the barge by a chain. The setup was like a motorcycle equipped with an over-sized side car.
The ferry continued its sometimes derelict operation until 1973, when the new Cordell Hull Dam, some twenty-seven miles downstream, quickly raised the water level at Fort Blount. The ferry boat promptly sank at its mooring. It was pulled out, used a while longer, then dragged a quarter-mile up the road and left there. It rests beside the road there yet, rusting in the blackberries and honeysuckle, the sole shabby monument to its decades of service.
    Glen Smith lived to the mature age of eighty, dying in 1996 of COPD, after nearly a lifetime of smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes; in later years he switched to Winston filter tips. Oddly, he always went by his middle name. His first name was Dallas, the same as mine. He and Margaret Smith went on to raise three boys and one girl. Had he been wrong about the strength of the ice on that cold day back in 1940, he would have left behind only one son, a son born five months later, a son his widow would have raised, a son he never would have known.
I was that son.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Running the Marabana Havana Marathon

Runners of the Maracuba  head south through Havana Viejo, Old Havana. The Maracuba 3K is run on the day before the marathon as a benefit for kids.
           By the time the Havana Marathon starts I already know I’m too weak from travel upsets and sleeplessness to actually run 26.2 miles, that this will be something different. I’ll just jog, if I can, forget competing and try to earn no more than the finisher’s medal and tee.
            It is 8:00 a.m., Sunday, November 15, 2015 and the marathon starts now, whether I’m ready or not. Soon we’re trotting beside Paseo del Prado, setting out to run two 13.1-mile loops through the city of Havana. The old dreaded mystery skulks ahead.
            This trip is billed as a person-to-person educational exchange, licensed by the Department of the Treasury. The owner of Insight Cuba, a tour company, successfully sold the idea that runners instantly connect with other runners no matter where they hail from. Accordingly, Treasury gave the company license to take 150 American marathoners to Cuba for the Marabana Havana Marathon. This is the second year for such a tour. The word Marabana is a mere mash-up of the two words “marathon” and “Habana.”
            What do you see when you run 13.1 miles twice through Havana? Streets full of the old ‘50s-era American cars—the ’55-model Fords, Chevys and Oldsmobiles. We’ve all seen those pictures. Somehow they keep the 60-year-old heaps running. Their 6-Volt lights glow yellow at night. Repair of the streets on which they travel can be a problem. A raw ditch is dug into the left lane of the one-way street in front of my hotel. Not even so much as a traffic cone warns motorist. You can see a pile of dirt, can’t you?
Gran Teatro, Grand Theater, the home of the Cuban National Ballet, shows an ornate exterior.
            What you don’t see in Havana is perhaps more telling than what you do see. The U.S. embargo froze Havana in the year 1961. It’s like going back in time to then. What you didn’t see in the U.S. then, you don’t see in Havana now: the golden arches, Colonel Sanders, Starbucks, Holiday Inn, Japanese cars… People walk on the street without talking on cell phones. No billboards mar the view.
            Fidel Castro, whatever else he may be, was a strong personality, given to two-hour speeches. One expects a cult of personality surrounding him. It’s not apparent. Even though the marathon starts in front of the national capitol building, I never see a single picture or statue of Fidel or his brother Raul, the current president. In fact Havana’s José Martí International Airport is named not after Fidel but after the poet Martí—he was also a freedom fighter in the war of independence from Spain. Name an airport after a poet rather than a politician. Maybe we can learn from that.
            My trip started in Cookeville on Friday, November 13—Friday the Thirteenth—with a wakeup time of 3:00 a.m. I had to catch an early Miami flight out of Nashville. I needed to hit Miami before 11:00 a.m., for a program in the 4th-floor Auditorium. That program turned out to be lessons in Cuban dance. This was, after all, an educational trip and runners were obliged to follow the program agenda. Above all, though, I didn’t want to miss the charter flight out of Miami for Havana.
So, yeah, I meant to be prompt. But I needed not worry. The charter flight developed mechanical problems and didn’t leave Miami until after ten that night.
L to R, the author, John Litzenberger, Lynda Wacht and Laura Caille sit outside at a bar in Havana.
I met three strangers on this trip. We became fast friends, a foursome. Runners connect. Lynda Wacht, 46, Littleton, Colorado, and I were both trying to find the place to pick up our charter flight ticket. We teamed up, like two Tributes in the Hunger Games. “I’m not leaving you,” I said. Later we encountered Laura, 47, Houston, Texas. She was standing in the concourse showing runners which tunnel to descend to get to the charter flight gate, just volunteering her help. While Lynda and I were chatting with her, John Litzenberger, 54, Seattle, walked up. We became a foursome. These three were much younger than I am, yet they deigned friendship with the 75-year-old old timer.
The three were extraordinary. If there is such a thing as a Ph.D. in Adventure, these three had each earned one. Lynda and John had completed Ironman races. Lynda had finished the Escape from Alcatraz swim. John had run the Rwanda and Jerusalem Marathons. Laura had trekked Mongolia. Amazing. But, then, what kind of people would you expect on a trip such as this?
We wandered the Miami airport, killing time, waiting for the charter flight, wondering would we ever get started toward Cuba? It was thus we ambled in front of a TV showing breaking news of the two terrorist attacks in Paris on this day. We stood watching in horror, speaking in hushed tones. The unspeakable tragedy lowered a pall around us. Finally, I said, “We need to get away from this.” Unable to do anything else, we walked away.
When we finally reached Havana, it was midnight. There was a problem getting through customs. Our luggage was delayed. Actually, I had no luggage, except for a small carry-on backpack. I travel light. My pack weighed eleven pounds; five of those pounds were food. When I pulled out my bag of vittles and started sharing, grateful Laura christened my little bag the “Magic Pack.”
I had no luggage to wait for. Nonetheless, I waited in the airport with my buds. Lynda and I stretched out on the tile floor. John made our picture. After an hour, luggage arrived.
Finally I reached my room on the fourth floor of the Plaza Hotel. It was not much larger than a walk-in closet. One dim lamp fought the gloom. I needed a flashlight to find anything in the Magic Pack. No hot water. No cold water either—except occasionally. One shouldn’t drink it anyway. What do you want, a bath? I hit the sack at 2:30 a.m. after being on the go for nearly 24 hours.
A young runner holds a sign explaining Maracuba, Proyecto Niños, Project Children.
I was up early next morning, sticking with the program. First a group picture in a park, then a 3K warmup race called the Maracuba. It toured Havana Viejo, Old Havana. I couldn’t take a shower afterwards because, you, know, water. So I just sponged off. Laura tells me she has water but her toilet doesn’t work. We all have our hardships. To be fair, the hotel is undergoing renovation.
Artists display and sell their work along the beautiful Paseo del Prado, a walk bordering Havana Viejo, Old Havana.
Our little foursome met in the lobby and set out to explore the town, stopping at El Floridita, a bar where Hemingway hung out. A girl band was playing Rumba. The place was full of tourists. Nobody goes there anymore. We left without even buying a drink.
We strolled Paseo del Prado, a beautiful walkway, chatting with artists and gazing at the work on display and in progress. We had no cell service or internet service now, but while we’d still been in Miami a friend in Spain sent me a message on Facebook suggesting a restaurant called Astrusiano. It was just off Paseo. Our group was enthusiastic about finding it. It turned out to be a white tablecloth joint with hefty servings of tasty food, a good find. I ordered Chuletas, pork chops, and when my plate came it included three. The four amigos loved the place. I felt like a hero for having inside info from Spain. John and Laura drank Bucanero, a passable local beer. Lynda had wine. Water for me. I was still serious about running the marathon next day.
Lynda Wacht stands ready to run in front of the national capitol. The dome on the building is modeled after the U.S. capitol building.
Ha! That was yesterday. Now I find myself actually running in that marathon, and I know better. I trot north beside Paseo. After three miles or so, the course delivers us to Malecón, a four-lane road curving along the north seashore. The sea is angry, crashing hard on the rocks below, splashing over the seawall and sprinkling the road we run on. It’s a hot day and the sprinkle is good. On my second pass along here I watch a runner in black tee and shorts jog over to the wall. She stands immobile and spread-eagled, facing the angry sea like a virginal offering. The waves wash over her sweat-drenched body.
Later she catches up to me.
“I let the waves cool me off,” she says with a sheepish grin.
“Yes, I saw,” I say.
Here now is the turnaround, a hand-painted sign says. Wait! It’s only for those running the 10K. Marathoners and half-marathoners are supposed to continue straight ahead. Somehow, I figure that out, but many don’t realize it. Laura meant to run the marathon but she turned. Soon she arrived back at the capitol, where we started. James Hill, Austin, Texas, a world-class age grouper my age, made the same mistake.
Police presence was strong throughout race activities.
Runners will ask, “How was the support?” Well, this: aid stations were plentiful and well stocked about two miles apart. But I only saw one ambulance on the course, a good reason why I was careful. I didn’t want to need medical help in a developing country. A scare in Morocco once has left me wary. At the start, there were only two portable toilets for thousands of people. There are no toilets on the course, which fact forces me to improvise a couple of times. Policía look on. Trees help.
The old cars spew unfiltered exhaust as they pass. The streets turn the soles on my sneakers ash gray—from the pollution, I suppose. I smell sewer gas frequently. In 1961, which is the year where I am today, the U.S. didn’t have the EPA either.
About 5K from the finish line my idyll shatters. I’m struck by panic. If I continue my casual trudge, I’ll go over five hours. Five hours is the cutoff for an official finish. Or it may only be the cutoff for traffic control. I’m not sure. There is too much to read and remember. Come all the way here and not get an official finish. What a failure.
I suddenly have to accelerate and go. Go hard! If I have any energy left in my ravaged body I’ve got to find it now. So, I go hard.
I don’t have the precise time; I accidentally stopped my chronograph. Don’t know if I can make it, if there’s time, but I keep trying. A hundred yards from the finish line, James Hill suddenly joins me. I still don’t know. He would’ve beat me if he’d actually run the marathon instead of making the 10K turnaround. He’s doing a friendly honor, bringing me in.
I cross the line glancing at the race clock. Just over five hours. But I still don’t know my chip time, since I started back in the pack. It’s a close call. I chat with Lynda, who was barely ahead of me, and with James Hill. No volunteer hands me any water. There is no water.
It’s over. I should drink something. But there’s nothing. I walk away and head to the hotel. Later, I’ll find my finishing time: 4:59:13. So, I beat the five-hour barrier. Somehow the only two other men in my over-70 age group managed to run even slower than I did. So, I can claim an age-group win. They are both younger than I am, too. That makes me the oldest finisher in this marathon. I get the prize for being not yet dead.
My fear was bogus. Turns out, five hours was not the cutoff for an official finish; it’s only the cutoff of traffic control.
After drinking some bottled water at the hotel, I discover that I still have no running water, hot or cold. I don’t think Hemingway did it this way. I find my buddy John from Seattle sitting at a table in the hotel bar. He’s drinking Bucanero and talking up a couple women. I smell like a mule. His room is on the second floor, two stories lower than mine. He has water pressure. He hands me his room key and says welcome, go take a shower. That shower in John’s room is the best award I’ll get for finishing the Havana Marathon. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Blood on the Trail, Death on the Ice

North shore of Cane Creek Lake
           The episode started with a phone call one Wednesday morning in February. I’m not sure why that call was the start of the story, but it seems to be the case. In truth, it did in a way frame what later amounted to a story that I didn’t then know was happening. It wasn’t an ominous call either, rather a lucky one. A young reporter for the local daily wanted to interview me about a book I’d recently published. I was in favor of that. Any notice for a languishing book is good news.
            I suggested meeting for lunch and mentioned a Thai restaurant. It turned out to be one of her favorites. We set the date for Monday of the following week. I was looking forward to it.
            That Monday rolled around. I did what I normally do and went out for a run, a twelve miler. The route of that run meanders through town, down a street the police call “Crack Alley,” heads toward the western edge of town, circles a fifty-six-acre lake and then returns. The two and a half miles around the lake is the highlight segment of the course. A paved path winds over rolling hills through a hardwood forest, cuts across a quarter-mile-long levee that dams the valley and then follows the north shore. The levee and north shore offer sweeping, open views of the lake.
            Approaching the end of the levee that Monday morning, I happened to look down. There I saw a bleached-out spot on the pavement; it was the size of a saucer. I should not have been startled, but it changed my day. It was strange that I was surprised to see it. I knew the spot well, its shape and location. It was near the right-hand edge of the pavement just before the right-hand turn off of the main levee. Some of my recent runs had been on other loops and I hadn’t had much occasion to consider this bleached spot in a while. But now, once again, all over, I stood recalling. The spot took me back nearly two years. It’s a wonder that it had that power; the spot didn’t look unusual; a bystander would have been puzzled. After all, it is normal for weathered pavement to exhibit a scattering of spots of one kind or another. It may’ve looked ordinary, but this spot was different. I knew what caused it. Blood.
            Blood. Nearly two years before this morning, I’d been running along here when it brought me to a taut stop, a shallow pool of blood, irregular in shape; it spread to twice the size of my hand. I bent down for a close look. It was bright and fresh. Immediately I looked around to see if I could spot an injured animal or human. Something or someone injured ought to be nearby; the blood was that fresh. There was nothing, no one. Short pasture grass made a turf all around, no place where anything could hide or go unseen. The blood was fresh enough it seemed impossible I couldn’t look up and see its living source.
            The mystery baffled me. Somewhat experienced in tracking, I took a closer look. Had a deer been shot here by a poacher on park property? There was no evidence of it. A bullet or arrow cuts hair. Sometimes just one hair provides a valuable clue, tells where an animal was standing when it was shot or helps extend an intermittent blood trail after other signs fail. I turned up not one hair—or feather. The blood itself was pristine, wet. I inspected for traces of the pinkish coloring left by the tiny air bubbles of a lung shot. Nothing. Nor were there any tiny pieces of grass fibers that would indicated a gut shot. The blood was pure and unblemished. Perhaps an animal injured at another location ran to this place, stopped and bled out the pool. But no blood trail led to the spot that I could find, not even a drip. I gave up on the gunshot idea.
            Maybe two animals had been fighting, competing males, say, and one was injured. Again, there was no evidence. The blood was adjacent to the grass. A fight would have raised tuffs of grass, scattered tiny clods from toenails or hoofs. But the ground and grass were undisturbed. I ran out of possibilities.
            In the end, I had no clue, just the blood. The mystery was complete. It was as if living blood had suddenly appeared without the presence of any living thing accompanying it, as if from the very air overhead.
            That spot of blood from two years ago changed with time, but it remained there on the pavement over the following days and weeks. I was surprised by its endurance. I found myself brooding about it, and I anticipated seeing it each time I ran that route. In whatever way it changed, it remained indelible. The color turned to dark rust. It turned still darker and the surface took on a scaly appearance such that no one seeing it now could ever guess that the spot was blood, or had been. I began to think it might never go away. I wondered if anyone else had seen the blood when it was fresh and if they’d wondered about it like I had. I doubted it. It was my secret, this mysterious spot.
            But weather changes many things. After a few weeks, a siege of rain came. I got up one morning after hard overnight rain. It was still raining. I sat in a rocking chair drinking coffee, delaying my run and looking out the window as the rain poured down. This will finally wash away the blood, I thought, dissolve it and flush the pavement clean. I trusted the cleansing power of the rain. It pelted down. I was confident the blood spot would finally wash away.
            A few days later, after the ground had dried, I ran the levee again. Perhaps I should have looked away, but I couldn’t. I knew the spot’s location too precisely. I didn’t need that perfect knowledge. The spot was still there; it was telling me it was still there. It had endured the rain. And it would endure more. It was still there. Although incredulous, I accepted that fact; I could see it was true.
            I accepted the spot and came to believe it would never go away. It endured, identifiable to me, all through the summer and fall. A hard winter followed that. Rain fell many times, but the spot stayed there. Then the snow came. The spot went under the freezing and thawing and refreezing snow and ice—out of sight and eventually out of mind.
            While the snow was still on the ground an especially hard freeze came and stayed several days. My runs grew more challenging. For traction, I screwed ten sheet-metal screws into the sole of each of my shoes. The screw heads acted as cleats and kept me from falling. I tried to keep my fingers warm by wearing thick fleece gloves like hunters use. When that wasn’t enough, I put hand warmers in each glove. That arrangement would keep my fingers warm enough for a while, but on a run as long as the twelve-mile route around the lake they’d start aching. It felt like frostbite.
            The lake behind the levee froze over, hard and thick. The cold weather brought in waterfowl from up north. Duck hunters here know that that will happen and welcome the cold air. As I circled the lake, I could see hundreds of ducks standing around on the ice, maybe even a thousand. I identified many kinds, including Gadwalls, mallards and coots.
            I wondered about that, the standing around. The first two days after they arrived, they simply loitered on the ice doing nothing. They’d better be hunting something to eat, I thought. They stood there like they were waiting for room service to bring shelled corn on a platter. But food wasn’t coming to them.
            The ice was a dangerous hangout for the ducks. Predators like coyotes and foxes could come out after them. For refuge, they only had one spot of water in the otherwise hard-frozen lake. It was not much larger than a tennis court, just off the north shore. I’d come to it shortly after I passed the blood spot. It was close to the trail, and gave me a good view of the ducks gathered around it. Perhaps there is an underwater spring at that place that makes the water warmer. A few ducks worked hard swimming about in it, keeping it stirred up, keeping it from freezing. The rest simply stood around and looked on, like humans, letting a few do the work for them.
            The cold siege dragged on. After a few days, three or so, the ducks began leaving out. I watched as they took to the air, a dozen or two at a time. They were finally heading out to hunt food, I figured. They didn’t get to be ducks by waiting for a handout. They headed northwest. I knew where they were going. Cordell Hull Lake, a shallow lake twenty miles away on the Cumberland River, would have open water. And there were soybean and corn fields scattered around it. They could find food there. But they seemed to come back to Cane Creek at night because the crowd of ducks remained constant.
            It was a show, seeing them fly. Then one morning, I saw another type of bird circling over the lake, drifting slowly and disorganized, not sleek and fast like ducks. My first open view of the lake comes when I leave the woods and hit the levee. I came out of the snowy woods that morning and then I saw them: Buzzards. Here was something new. I continued on across the levee toward the blood place and then I saw why the buzzards had come.
            A deer had gone out on the ice. It hadn’t gotten far, maybe twenty-five yards from the shore, just past the blood place. I was late to the show. Buzzards had stripped the skeleton. A few stringy tendrils of gristle hung from the naked bones. The wind blew through the rib cage. Even the deer’s cape lay separate from the bony carcass, crumbled on the ice like an old Army blanket. The plunder was complete.
            The deer had lost its struggle in a spectacular way. It should never have gone out on the ice, a very dangerous place for a deer. It’s too easy for the hooves to slip. Once a deer does the splits with its back legs it tears tissue that binds those legs together. The deer can never gather its legs underneath its body again. It can never get upright again. The rupture is deadly. Cows have the same problem. Ranchers and farmers know this. A cow down with that ailment must be destroyed. This had been an unlucky deer. Predators and buzzards probably starting feasting before it died, almost certainly did. Food was scarce and urgent for them too.
            The deer should have known this. Why did it make the terrible decision to venture onto the ice? It had started across the lake near its widest point. If it had veered to the right, past the blood place, it could have run in retrograde to my route across the levee, or cut down the levees’ back slope and across the field. Dogs or coyotes might have been chasing it. Maybe they cut off its escape and the deer panicked. I was too late to see what happened, and anyway it might have happened before daylight.
            I could stand on the blood spot, which was now under the snow, and from there see the remains of the deer on the ice. I stood on one mystery and gazed at another, two mysteries I suppose I’ll never solve. It’s frequent that one can’t settle things for certain. I am content with that. My fingers were cold. That much was certain. I would continue my training runs. That much was certain, too. More than that, I couldn’t claim.
            The weather warmed. The deer’s lank skeleton gradually sank into the ice, inch by inch, a little each day; the ducks went back north; the lake thawed; the mysteries faded. I quit using cleats. Spring came. I went off to the Boston Marathon and other spring races. Thoughts on the mysterious blood, the mysterious deer death, or the hungry ducks receded in the warming spring.
            The seasons passed, as they always do. My thoughts turned to other places. I ran many roads. Sometimes I did long training runs with a young friend. We planned adventure runs on the steep hills in rural Jackson County, picking loops off a county map. I’d ridden my mountain bike over those primitive roads years earlier. We explored the county on foot now, without bikes.         
The next winter brought mild days with scarcely any snow or ice. I continued to run and didn’t have to use cleats or deal with cold fingers. That easy winter shaded into mid-February, and that was when reporter Megan Trotter called me about the interview. And on the morning of our scheduled meeting, I ran across the levee at Cane Creek, looked down and in that moment saw once again the familiar shape of the pool of blood, nearly two years old.
Some chemical in the blood had bleached and discolored the pavement precisely to the shape of the pool that had grown so familiar to me. I stood amazed again. I bent down to look closer. Photographers know that weathered asphalt is a good substitute for a neutral gray card, good for taking light meter readings. This asphalt had weathered to that soft color, except where the blood had spread; there, the asphalt was bleached white. I could see the limestone aggregate embedded in it, the tiny distinct stones. The thought hit me: if you examined one of those stones in an electron microscope you’d find yet traces of blood in the pores, iron molecules maybe. It would be there, its sign would.  And the thought grew: Blood is strong. Blood endures long. Blood gives its evidence.
            I stood pondering. The blood on the trail, the death on the ice, even my own struggle to run with cleats and frozen fingers, all these events coalesced somehow. Surely, they did. Each one seemed a piece of a larger principle. All merged into a symphonic whole: the unending struggle for survival. Survival necessarily subsumes mystery, striving and suffering. I’d witnessed this here, had in a small way been part of it. In time, maybe I would devise a unifying summation of it, one I could write down in a single canonical sentence. In that moment, I could only note it as mere demonstration: The terrible need to live. A larger, more profound meaning evaded me.
            I was looking forward to my meeting with reporter Megan Trotter. I trudged on toward home, toward a warm shower and my lunch with her. On the way, I realized I knew the story I wanted to tell. It was this story. And once I arrived at the House of Thai and Megan got her recorder going, I laid out the whole story, even though I knew it was too complex and too long for her to use in a Herald-Citizen feature. It was a story I had to tell.