Saturday, May 12, 2018


            We’d just finished running the race known as Run For Your Mama 5K, a race in honor of Mother’s Day which fell on the next day. I was talking with a man from another town, a stranger to me, an older runner near my age. He told me that he was a high school baseball coach. We talked and laughed easily, as runners at a race always do. Suddenly he turned serious, recalling another time, another place.
His face twisted as he relived the moment, telling me how he'd come home from Vietnam, how he reunited with his mom. I averted my gaze for decency. It took his entire athlete's strength to choke back the catch in his throat.
It had been a long journey. Toward the end, he hitchhiked and finally walked the last stretch, arriving at his mom's home on a cold morning just as she was sitting in the car warming it up to go to work. She didn't know he was anywhere about.
"I dropped...I just dropped... the bag...and went running. I knocked...I knocked on the window." His hand made the knocking motion.
She looked up and recognized him. He described the surprise and joy. The memory was too powerful. His throat caught, his face drew.
"I opened the door... There was the seat belt..."
But they got it finally unlatched.
The telling didn't have to be eloquent. The tears, the joy, the happiness—you could see it all in his face, the memory there.
We stood on the grass, two old men reflecting, remembering. He was every mother’s son and his mom was every son’s mother.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cummins Falls Marathon Welcomes Return of Local Ace

Josh Hite runs alone in first place at the Baxter Street Fair 5K, September 2011, a race he went on to win.
Cookeville half-marathon runner Jan Lowe enjoys the rural scenery along Blackburn Fork. Photo by Monte Lowe.
Cookeville resident Josh Hite didn’t have time to run a marathon.
Even though running marathons was his hobby, back in 2013 when the annual Cummins Falls Marathon was inaugurated, he was busy. Busy teaching English at Vol State Community College, working on a PhD degree at Middle Tennessee State University and even teaching karate after school at his business, Karate for Kids.
So he was busier than most people. But at the last minute he did decide to run that first Cummins Falls Marathon. Good thing too. He ended up being the overall winner of that race. Since then, Josh has returned to Cummins State Park each year to run one of the four races offered in that event – marathon, half-marathon, 10K and 5K.
The Sixth Annual Cummins Falls Marathon will kick off next Saturday, February 24, at the State Park, and once again Josh will toe the line.
Prior to the start, The Tennessee Tech Golden Girls dance team and mascot Awesome Eagle will be on hand to entertain and brighten the mood. The Golden Girls finished third and Awesome Eagle earned first in recent national collegiate competition.
The Cummins event typically attracts over 300 runners. Some 40 percent of runners are from Tennessee. Around two dozen states and a few foreign countries are usually represented.
Winning the first Cummins marathon was just another entry in Josh’s list of running accomplishments. He was not known as a shabby runner. The year 2009 is instructive. He ran 4,000 miles that year. That many miles comes to an average of nearly 80 miles per week. He ran 22 marathons and won five of them outright, appearing on the podium (top three) in 14 of them. The previous year he had already qualified to run in the prestigious Boston Marathon. The following year he would create Cookeville’s first marathon, the Blister in the Sun Marathon—and win it.
Josh’s professional achievements have kept pace with his running milestones. He expects to finish his PhD degree this year. Recently he was named Director of English and Humanities at Hagerstown Community College in Hagerstown, Maryland. When he can, he returns to his Cookeville home, where his wife Martha and two sons, Andrew and Jude, ages 13 and 8, respectively, still reside.  
Saturday Josh runs the Cummins Falls Marathon. The Marathon and the Half Marathon start at 8:00 a.m. The 5K and 10K start at 9:00 a.m. On-line registration is available at In-person registration and packet pickup are at 2-7 p.m. at TownePlace Suites and also at the State Park on Saturday morning up until 30 minutes before the race starts.

Runners stream down Sliger Hill two miles from the start line during the 2016 Cummins Falls Marathon. Photo by Bob Melgar.
Athletes who choose the Cummins Falls Half Marathon run across Blackburn Fork State Scenic River on a temporary pontoon bridge made from plywood placed atop kayaks anchored in the stream, a unique feature of that course.
Josh Hite finds balance in Rock Creek during the Chattanooga Mountains Stage Races in 2010, where runners complete a trail marathon each day for three consecutive days.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Memories of Rabé

El Camino wanders through agricultural land west of Rabé de las Calzadas 
Luz would come in and clean the house of my friend Albino Jimenez. Albino was busy being an executive for a global manufacturer of car components. More than a typical cleaning lady from somewhere nearby, Luz had come to Burgos, Spain from South America, Columbia, I think. She made her way through the world by her keen wit and hard work. You could see her character in the patient and thorough way she cleaned the house. Her name means “light.” It was the fall of 2012.
Luz was a friend of Albino. I suspect he gave her the cleaning job to help her out. It helped him too. He had a spacious two-story house that required considerable maintenance. With her weekly help, he kept it spotless.
While Albino was at work, I was a hanger-on at his house. In the mornings, I'd go for a run on el Camino de Santiago, which goes past his house. After lunch I'd read or take a hike up on the mountain behind Albino's house or go out for a bike ride. It was a king's life.
You could see eagles soaring in the thermals over the mountain. A well-built trail wound and snaked its way up the mountain. You could run it but stretches were steep as stadium steps. Once on top I could look down on the small town of Rabé de las Calzadas and make pictures of golden trees in autumn foliage in the vista beyond the town.
Sometimes I'd borrow Isabel's bike from the garage. She had invited me to use it. Albino's novia then, his esposa now, Isabell worked and stayed in another town during week days. I rode to a nearby creek called Rio Úrbel, where I could sit in the shade and watch trout holding like vanes against the current in the clear water. I thought about rigging up a fishing pole and illegally catching some for supper, like Hemingway, but I was not so bold.
Instead, for supper Albino and I would drive into Burgos and have lamb and wine. There were lots of bars there. One played Americana music. I remember Johnny Cash and Screamin Jay Hawkins, and an antique metal sign on the wall that advertised Harley-Davidson. In agreement with the US and Tennessee vibe, I drank Jack Daniels on the rocks. No one but Albino and I were in the bar that night. We paid for our drinks and left. At the door I paused to hear a little more of “I Put a Spell on You.” I looked back and gave the barkeeper a thumbs-up. He made a wide smile and waved. That bar was near the great Cathedral of Burgos.
One night Albino and I walked over to Rabé for a beer. The barkeeper gave each of us a tiny medallion to tie onto our packs. He thought we were pilgrims on el Camino. In a way, we were. The medallion had a saint embossed on it and a string already attached. There is an albergue in that little town that has been giving pilgrims food and shelter for 800 years. I still have the medallion and I keep it attached to my ultrarunning pack.
One day I returned from my morning run and found Luz cleaning the house. I made lunch for both of us. It was pure improvisation, and food you'd expect a guy to make. We had cold cuts and chips with a side of canned tomatoes. For dessert we had a banana soaked in syrup and drank hot tea. It wasn't bad, and she seemed to enjoy it. I asked her if I could make a picture. It's the one you see here.
Looking back across the years, it's just a memory I have. It seizes me occasionally. And it means nothing to anyone but me. I'll likely never see Luz again, or run el Camino, or see eagles soaring over the mountain.
Albino and Isabel would welcome me joyfully, I know, and they have invited me several times. I treasure their friendship. But I'm older now. Dimming eyesight and fading hearing make arduous travel harder. I consider long trips more carefully now than I once did.
So, on balance, all my recalling means nothing and benefits no one. No one but me, I should say. It's true and it lingers. It's just a memory I have.

Luz at lunch. Her name means "light"

My favorite picture of Albino, standing in his kitchen after a day at work

Flowers decorate a window in the 800-year-old abergue at Rabé

Overlooking the town of Rabé, trees in autumn gold framing its southern side

I have attached the medallion from the bar on el Camino in Rabé to the pack I use in running the so-called Last Annual Vol State Road Race, a continuous multi-state race 314 miles long

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Two Faces of Parsons

Sunrise and fog and a pond beside the road greet the Vol State runner

            No town I run through presents two faces as starkly distinct as Parsons, Tennessee.
            Three times now I’ve approached the western edge of the town on a Saturday afternoon, afoot, tired and hungry. It’s where I always end up on the third night of the Last Annual Vol State Road Race, a multi-day journey stretching 314 miles from Missouri to Georgia. I settle into the Parsons Inn, a shabby fifties-era motel, sleep a few hours and then run on through town in the dark hours of early Sunday morning. I like that run. There is a tranquil quality to my secret passage. The stores and streets are asleep; an eerie silence grips all I see around me. The aggregate of street lamps, storefronts and neon signs bring a grainy, warm light falling to the pavement.
            So I look forward to that dark run. It has left me with sweet memories. Darkness is like a new snowfall. It smooths and softens terrain to its canonical essence, one punctuated by points of light randomly scattered across the countryside. That’s how it is when I reach the far side of town. When the moon is bright enough, I may see a bed of fog blanketing a vale.
            But in darkness, it is sound that defines night and gives it meaning. A chorus of tree frogs, a grunting bullfrog, a distant hoot owl calling, a whippoorwill crying his name-sake song, all these sounds play their passage against the steady keening of a million katydids. These familiar sounds—now largely lost to most people—bring a nostalgic glow, a memory of growing up in the country in an era when their nightly presence was prevalent.
            While I remember my previous runs through Parsons and I look forward to another one, sadly it must be noted, there is another side to Parsons. Near here was the scene of the abduction and murder of young nursing student Holly Bobo by four men in 2011, one of the most horrific crimes in recent Tennessee memory. On my first run here, in 2013, her remains had not been located. Hope remained she might be alive somewhere. Before my second run, in 2015, two hunters had found her skull. Three men now stand indicted for murder. A fourth committed suicide. At the present time, in 2017, the trial yet pends. The memory of loss and pain and heartbreak suffered by the young woman’s family and friends will last forever.
            On this Sunday morning I stumble out of the hotel and pick my way across its pock-marked parking lot. I enter U.S. 412, which is also Main Street. In daylight it is choked with traffic. Cars and trucks are absent this hour.
Although, I can generally see where I’m going, I have only one eye and my night vision is poor. I use a flashlight to avoid twisting an ankle on road debris or a pot hole. Yesterday a hard summer rain came, leaving the ground and air full of moisture. As a result, the night is shrouded in fog. It wraps everything. Light reflects dimly on the street. Visual range is low, the night is close and surreal. The fog wraps me in a ghostly chill.
I walk down Main Street, beginning my fourth day on the road. It will take me eight days to finish this run. I don’t try to go faster than that. I have some 200 miles yet to go. I generally don’t get a lot of rest or sleep during the run. My tired legs need a chance to warm up a bit before I start running. So I walk for now.
I follow my flashlight past the dark stores. Fuzzy halos glow in the fog around street lights. I carry no weapon. Yet I have not been afraid on my runs across Tennessee. This morning I stay wary and alert and occasionally look behind me. Just careful. I recall a pit bull making his nightly round on my last run down this street. He showed no interest in me.
A tall object appears ahead. I peer hard. It could be a person or something else. As I approach closer the object gradually emerges from the fog. It turns out to be just another road sign, not a lurking person. The fog is at once intimate and deceptive, bringing uncertainty, uneasiness. Uneasy or not, the demands of Vol State mean running on all kinds of roads, day and night, fog or not. I drift on, watchful and alert.
A man’s voice shatters the night:
I look toward the call, to the right. Nothing. Only a dark drive-in, a Sonic.
“Who’s there?” I call.
“It’s John.”
Ah, John Price. I recognize the voice now. He has run this race ten times, and likely knows more about it than anybody. He shifts his position slightly and sits upright. Now I see. I can make out his bright rust-colored tee at the edge of the parking lot. Last night, when he reached Parsons Inn, the lone hotel here, no rooms were available, he explains. He spent the night sleeping on the pavement of the drive-in parking lot. We are runners. No one carries a sleeping bag. Pavement, a concrete slab, that’s all we need. Such is our exhaustion. I wish him good luck, and drift on.
It occurs to me, I didn’t ask him if he needed anything. We unaided runners are allowed help from random strangers and from other unaided runners. I have a Payday candy bar he might’ve used for breakfast. But I didn’t ask. I was rude. Because he is so eminently competent at this race, it didn’t occur to me that he might need anything. Too late now.
I reach the beginning of countryside now and once again hear the katydids, the frogs, as I’d hoped.  But there is a pox on the night. No owl calls, no whippoorwill cries. As before, forms loom ahead, grow close as I trudge, emerge from fog, and then turn into familiar objects, trash cans, sign posts, and so on. It’s a tired joke they play on me.
To the right, slightly higher than the two-lane road, is a nondescript field of mixed fescue and weeds, all wet with dew. A form looms in it, too. Another ghostly illusion, I pay it no mind – a snag or gate post. I walk on until I draw even with the still form. Then I realize the object is shaped like a woman.
It is a woman! I can see clearer. She wears blond, shoulder-length hair, black tee shirt, and jeans. She stands perfectly still, alone in the wet fescue. She speaks:
“Do you have a cigarette?”
“Uh, no, sure don’t.”
“I need a cigarette.”
The machine is broke. I can’t get any cigarettes.”
“I was gonna walk to the store and get some. But I’m barefoot and this field is full of rocks!”
She picks up an apple-sized rock in disgust and pitches underhand. The rock bounces and clatters to a stop on the pavement in front of me, an angular chunk, chert maybe.
“Yeah, if you’re gonna walk, you need to be on the road where it’s smooth,” I observe helpfully. “Did you say your car is broke?”
“No, my car is fine. I’ve been drinking and I don’t want to drive.”
I remember, there’s a beer joint just ahead.
“I need a cigarette.”
I’m a runner carrying little more than water. I don’t have cigarettes. I don’t know how to help her. But help is nearby.
He enters from the left edge, a young man of medium height and wavy dark hair, wearing a dark tee and jeans. He walks toward her, never once looking at me, gazing straight at her, stepping carefully and slightly high in the wet weeds, walking gingerly but determined, never looking to the side, his gaze locked hard on her. A bird dog going on point. She knows what he wants, but it’s not what she wants. She wants a cigarette.
“I need a cigarette.”
He stops and asks her something quietly. She demurs.
“I need a cigarette!”
He says it again.
“I told you, I need a cigarette!”
He grows more insistent. The disagreement continues. He curves forward and puts his hands on her arms. She twists away and yells,
“I need a fucking cigarette!”
            Her squall cuts through the fog like a blunt plow.
            It’s a domestic scene, I decide. Time to leave it. Time to move on. The clock is running. The clock is always running. It never stops. I need to be running, too. I drift on and leave the couple quarrelling in the wet field.
The fog is growing lighter now. After a brief distance, I look back over my shoulder. I’m surprised to see another runner. It is New Jersey runner Shamus Babcock, a smart, engaging man. He wears a black beard that tapers and curves to a point below his chin. It makes him look like Satan. He comes through the fog like a mirage. It could be the Devil rising on the roiling smoke of hellfire. But it is fog, not smoke. And Shamus is a friendly man. I turn and wait. The woman with the nicotine jones is still on my mind.
“Did you witness that scene?” I ask.
“Yeah. If you’re gonna spend the night drinking you oughta have plenty of cigarettes on hand.”
Shamus sums it up neatly in a single knowing sentence. The woman made a mistake. She should’ve had two packs in her purse. Now she’ll likely have to make a Sunday morning deal, that or face more withdrawal.
We walk along together, Shamus and I. Soon Shamus peels off to the side for a pit stop. I continue on, alone again. Six miles from Parsons U.S. 412 crosses the Tennessee River over a high plate-girder deck bridge. I look forward to it. On my last run here, I watched the sunrise from the bridge’s west abutment, the sun reflecting in the river below. Approaching, I realize I’ll see no sunrise this time. The fog hangs on stubbornly. As I cross the bridge even the river below is hidden by mist. At least the fog makes for cool air.
            Parsons started my day. Many things will happen before Hohenwald ends it:
A little lost dog, black as night, will follow me for two hours leaving his home, likely somewhere in Parsons, miles behind, until Natalia Harrison, a runner from Fort Worth, Texas, passes me. Then he will choose her. Later I’ll hear from some runners that he found a new home, with a family living near the road who adopted him on the spot.
A man named Terence Teague in cowboy boots and a Predators hat will give me cold water and a peel-top cup of peaches that I save for breakfast the next morning. And he’ll tell me he drove from his home in Lexington, three towns away, to help runners, so moved was he by a Vol State story he’d heard. He will also tell me that Holly Bobo was like family.
And running friend Ladona Lawson from Franklin, Tennessee, whom I’ve not seen much in recent years, will drive to Hohenwald to catch me on the course there, visit roadside in the hot sun, and then drive into town to wait for me at Rio Colorado, a Mexican restaurant, where I can have a rare sit-down meal and a friend to talk with.
Before this year’s run started, I mentioned to Race Director Lazarus Lake that I wanted to make a run empty of drama, one so boring it wouldn’t be worth writing. “That’s not possible,” he’d replied. “Something always happens.” He was right, of course. Something always happens.
The town of Parsons started this day. A story happened. Written or not, it haunts. There are dozens of such towns scattered along our 314-mile path. We pass through them like shadows. Each town is packed with aching stories of the human heart. Some of them find me.

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.