Thursday, December 10, 2009

Life Plentiful in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A nameless north fork of Mancha Creek is joined by still another nameless fork; below, an arctic ground squirrel surveys his holdings among rhododendren and dryas
This is the third part of a 3-part story. Scroll down if you'd like to start with the first one. From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, July 30, 2006.
On our 12-day hike through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this past June we encountered abundant wildlife. Six of us hiked up Mancha Creek, in the eastern part of the Refuge. On the sixth day we turned up an unnamed north fork of Mancha Creek and followed it until we crossed into the Joe’s Creek drainage, on the eleventh day, where a bush plane picked us up the following day.

The animals we most frequently saw were caribou, since the Porcupine herd was following its spring migration route north to the calving grounds on the coastal plain. Caribou were plentiful each day, traveling in groups ranging from two individuals to a few dozen.

We sat eating our re-constituted freeze-dried suppers one evening. I looked up.

“I’m eating Pad Thai and gazing at caribou grazing by,” I said, surprising myself with a little poetry and a lot of truth.

Caribou were indeed drifting past our camp, grazing along. And unlikely as it seems, I was eating Pad Thai, straight from its foil pouch. Each hiker carried a variety of freeze-dried dinners, including Santa Fe Chicken, Pesto Salmon, Turkey Stroganoff, Katmandu Curry, and so on. We looked forward to those dinners and gave great attention to the selection every night. Each pouch held a serving for two, and every hiker ate both servings. With all the walking, we were still losing weight.

Besides caribou, the mammal we saw most was the arctic ground squirrel, a mink-sized mammal. One morning one posed like a model. He invited me to photograph him at his breakfast, reaching high to pull down a green stem and munching earnestly. I talked to him softly and crawled close. He struck a formal pose, looking straight into the camera, standing tall and reverent like a deacon. He’d never seen a human. He knew I wasn’t fat enough to be a bear.

He has to careful about bears. We saw several places where a grizzly had moved great volumes of dirt and rocks, trying to dig up a snack. In the wintertime the ground squirrel hibernates under the snow in its burrow, its body temperature falling to below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

We saw a porcupine, two red foxes—one was dead—a white wolf, an impressive golden blond grizzly bear and some twenty Dall sheep, not to mention a multitude of birds. We never saw a musk oxen, although one day we found some of its hair hanging on a bush. I put it in a plastic bag and took it with me. A few days later, I opened the bag and dropped it on the tundra. Take only pictures.

The animal we saw the most signs of, we never saw at all. That’s because the moose weren’t in the Refuge. They spend the summers at Old Crow Flats, in Canada, a place filled with highly nutritious lakes that produce the aquatic plants they need. Once they get fat enough they drift back to the Refuge and spend the winter. No one knew where the moose went until Fran Mauer did a study where he radio collared several and followed their movements.

Their droppings, which look like elongated malt balls, were everywhere we went. The great palmed antlers shed by them littered the flats. The willows in those flats look like runty shrubs, perpetually pruned. They are—the moose bite the limbs off.

On our walk, Bill Curzie, the age group baseball player from New Jersey, showed a knack for comedy. Don, Fran and I were talking about a merganser they’d seen, and I was wondering if it was one of the ducks we see in Tennessee. We were rattling off the names:

“Hooded merganser.”

“Red-headed merganser.”

“Red-breasted merganser,” Don corrected.

“Extravaganser,” Bill deadpanned. Which ended the duck discussion.

A few nights later I had spread my freeze-dried dinners on the ground like a culinary poker hand. Everyone stood looking down wondering which one I’d pick.

“You want to hear my Jackie Mason story?” Bill asked.

Jackie Mason is a comedian who ends every sentence with an accented word and an exclamation point. In a chance encounter, Bill talked to him in a Las Vegas hotel, mimicking the comic’s delivery perfectly. He now did the dialogue, acting his and Mason’s part both—both in Mason’s voice.

“Are you Jewish!?”


“You can’t help that!”

It went on, the story of a comedian ambushed by his own shtick. Bill had us all laughing, and before the trip was over, everyone was talking like Jackie Mason.

On another occasion someone said he’d never forget something or the other. Bill, the baseball player, said,

“I’ll never forget my first home run! I’ll never forget my last home run! It was the same one!”

He could also sing in a velvet baritone, and make up the lyrics on the spot. At supper one night, talk turned to lasagna, one of the dinners on our menu. Bill broke out a song: “Some enchanted evening, you may eat lasagna/ It may come upon ya, as you cross the room,” and it went on.

A few nights later, Bill surprised us again, telling how he had studied at seminary to be a Roman Catholic priest. He went far enough to be given the name “Albert.” But before he became “Father Albert,” he quit, breaking the news to his disappointed mother on his parents’ twentieth anniversary. He learned appreciation of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment.

Our best campsite came on the eight day. It was elevated enough to offer a view east across the valley. A burbling brook of snowmelt ran through our camp from a valley behind us. Caribou continually drifted from that valley past us.

Don, our expedition leader, wanted to climb a mountain across the valley that rose up 1,400 feet above us. I went with him. He had a purpose in mind. From the air, he had once seen a collapsed mountain nearby, one that sheared off and fell, filling the valley below with a jumble of rocks. From the mountaintop he was hoping to spot it. We hiked a mile on tussocks across the valley and then started up.

Half way up the mountain, Don stopped to show me a delicate bunch of flowers growing on the mostly-barren ground. Forget-me-nots, he told me, the state flower. They reminded him of his friend, Michio Hoshino, a photojournalist killed by a bear 10 years earlier. Don had written a poem titled Forget-Me-Not and read it at Michio’s memorial.

Standing there on the mountain, Don Ross, former fighter pilot, Vietnam veteran, former bush pilot in Africa and Alaska, and former Assistant Director of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, this world-wise man recited a poem:

Forget-me-not where the wind blows free,
Forget-me-not of the frozen sea,
Forget-me-not of a Higher Power,
Forget-me-not of love within a flower,
Forget-me-not of a past September,
All of this I remember,

Michio Hoshino was killed by a rogue bear on Kamchatka Peninsula, August 8, 1996. National Geographic had featured his photos. Exhibition of his photographic collection continues around the world.

Once on top, Don and I spotted the collapsed mountain. On our next day’s walk we were able to reach it.

We saw lots of birds. My two favorites were about the same size but otherwise completely different. The ptarmigan, a grouse-sized bird, spends the winters in the Arctic. It is almost totally white. One startled me in the bushes one day, flushing with a cackling laugh that fell somewhere between Woody Woodpecker and Clem Kadiddlehopper, the funniest sound I’ve ever heard an animal make.

The plover is beautifully decorated. Its black back is dappled with shining gold patches like you’d sling out of a paintbrush. A white band starts at its wing and snakes a graceful curve up the side of its neck and alongside its head. It migrates to Argentina.

The birds of the Arctic Refuge affect practically the whole world. They fly to several continents, including Asia and South America, and all states except Hawaii. Snow geese in the hundreds of thousands nest on the coastal plain, the place Gale Norton called a “flat white nothing”—the same snow geese hunters shoot at in Tennessee.

Birds have amazing capabilities. They do and see so much more than people. It’s a wonder they have any respect for humans.

We stood overlooking the broad tundra of Joe’s Creek. The wide valley opened before us. On the other side the craggy mountains of the Brooks Range rose up. Through our binoculars, we could see Dall sheep clinging to the high slopes. Fran turned to me.

“This place deserves to exist for its own inherent value, independent of people—although people can derive benefit from it. It deserves to exist for its own value.”

Our last day we broke camp and prepared to walk over to where the bush plane would pick us up, past where we’d seen a serene white wolf trot by the previous day. Don and I waited while Bill shouldered his pack—the others had already left.

“Bill, do you want to have a final ceremony and say a few words over our last campsite?” I asked.

Bill raised his arms to the heavens, a hiking staff in each hand, and Father Albert’s voice boomed forth:

“I commend this place into the hands of Saint Francis of Assisi for his blessing and protection from oil drilling forever, amen.”


Trouble and Danger in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Refuge expert Fran Mauer hikes along Mancha Creek; and, bottom, Arctic douglasia, a plant limited to the north slope of the Yukon.

This is the second in a 3-part story. Scroll down if you'd like to start with the first one. From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, July 23, 2006.
As an expert on the wildlife of the Arctic Refuge, Fran Mauer often got calls from hikers proposing a journey through this wilderness. One guy planned to traverse the Refuge on just the food he could find and wanted to know if that was possible.

“It is if you’ve got the stomach of a caribou,” Fran had told him. Fran said he never heard of him again. Another time there was a solo hiker who had nothing to eat but a bag of Power Bars. Power Bars every day. Power Bars for breakfast, Power Bars for lunch, and Power Bars for supper.

The north country attracts strange people with cockeyed notions. Alaskans call them “queer ducks.”

Fran was the assistant leader of our group of six as we hiked through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this past June. He is a former wildlife biologist for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a superb storyteller with a skewed sense of humor.

But he’d been serious about the caribou. They have the stomach for the food they can find here, which includes lichens I would not want to eat. He showed me lichens whose names alone are off-putting: elk horn, white worms, dead man’s fingers, to list a few. Their names are accurate.

Groups of caribou streamed past us each day, all migrating north to their ancestral calving grounds on the Arctic coastal plain, members of the 123,000-strong Porcupine herd. The cows go first and were already there, Fran said. We were seeing yearlings and bulls headed to join them. It is that coastal plain that some want to drill for oil.

There are plenty of animals here big enough to kill us and eat us—including wolves, black bears, and grizzly bears, especially grizzlies, which tend to be unpredictable.

We walked in the season when the sun never sets; plants and animals work overtime. We kept up a silly line of chatter, which had the benefit of telling grizzlies we were around. On another level, maybe the talk was our way of keeping company and asserting our small selves against the immensity of a wilderness that makes one feel diminished, a wilderness where humans are not needed at all.

Ethel, Glen, Fran and I were hiking along one day—the other two hikers were ahead, out of earshot. Ethel Chiang is a former emergency room doctor. Her husband, Glen Freimuth, is an anthropologist, a burly man with a white beard who looks like Ernest Hemingway—two world gadabouts from Illinois.

My hands and forearms were covered by lacerations I’d suffered while climbing two spruce trees. Those trees are covered with sharp stubby limbs that can puncture and tear skin. I’d put a glove on one hand for protecting the sores while deflecting brush.

“I’m doing my Michael Jackson thing this morning,” I said.

“Now there’s a queer duck for you,” Ethel said.

“We’re on the march again,” I said.

Fran began singing, Marching to Pretoria. Then he asked Glen if Pretoria was in Illinois. They decided Peoria was in Illinois, but not Pretoria.

“Roto-Rooter,” Glen said.


“It’s the place where Roto-Rooter is.”

“Oh, is it there?” Fran replied.

“That’s where it got its start.” An anthropologist should know.

Fran mentioned how he’d once had his sewer line reamed out.

“Kinda like a colonoscopy,” Doctor Ethel said.

Talk turned to forget-me-nots, which Fran said he’d told his Japanese wife were “forgive-me-a-lots.” She didn’t believe him.

Thus we repelled grizzlies.

Accustomed to always packing a big gun, Fran was thinking about bears, especially so since he’d lost his bear spray. “There’s no place we can go where they can’t,” he said. He told me that when a man and a bear suddenly meet they both have the same thought: “Kill that thing!”

A grizzly had approached our camp just the previous morning. I enjoyed the whole thing—I wasn’t there. I watched it from above. We were camped on a gravely flat next to Mancha Creek. Across the creek an unnamed mountain rose up steeply. Its slope was covered by spires sticking up like crocodile teeth.

Bill Curzie, who patrols second base in age group World Series baseball, christened the hill “Cathedral Mountain.” “Curzie” rhymes with “Jersey” and so his baseball handle is Jersey Curzie, but I call him Jersey Bill.

Group leader Don, Glen, Ethel and I decided to climb the mountain and check out a cave we’d spotted, curious to see if it was a bear’s den. Part way up we paused to rest. We gazed steeply down on the tents—they looked small and fragile. In the flat to the left, I saw what I at first thought was a caribou, and said so.

“That’s a bear!” Don said. Easy to tell once it moved a bit. It was a golden blond grizzly. “That’s a big one,” Don noted. The bear meandered and then headed toward our tents.

There were two people in camp—Fran, who had lost his bear spray, and Jersey Bill, who’d been worried enough about bears to bring a shotgun, until forbidden to do so. They didn’t know the big grizzly was coming. We could have yelled down. But we wanted to see what he was going to do first.

The bear came to the creek bank, ready to splash across—after which it would be 130 yards from the tents, as I later paced it. He stopped and put his nose up like a bird dog sniffing quail. Then he suddenly wheeled around and trotted off. Good bear. Bill and Fran were denied some excitement.

Fran had told me how fast a grizzly can go when it hits full stride. “(When he charges) his back feet are scratching his ears,” was the way he put it.

Fran had told me about a bear charging him once. The bear stood up 35 or 40 yards away, looked at him, then dropped down and came fast.

“It was like everything switched into slow motion. I could see the drool or slime coming from the corners of his mouth.” Fran made a motion like saliva trailing back.

“How far did he come before he stopped?” I asked.

“Stand here,” he said. He took six steps forward and turned facing me.

“It was that far. I know because I dropped my notebook, and where he turned he left hair on a tree.”

Fran’s partner had been going for the rifle, but couldn’t get it in time—they’d put it under the rain fly to keep it dry.

Death by grizzly can be quick, I expect—the animal is so big and powerful, it can tear one’s head off. Fran had been within seconds of oblivion when the bear turned, an act Fran didn’t expect and doesn’t understand. A true scientist, Fran came back with the data: six steps, the distance from the notebook he dropped to the hair the bear left.

Fran risked his life working at the Refuge, a land he loves. He’s not inclined to surrender it to oil drilling. His Gale Norton story illustrates the fight, one that continues to this day.

In 2001 after President Bush appointed Gale Norton Secretary of the Interior, Frank Murkowski, then senator, now governor of Alaska, asked Interior for a report of historical caribou calving on the coastal plain in the 1002 study area where drilling was being considered. Murkowski, a proponent of drilling, may have thought he could get a useful answer from Norton, who also favored drilling. Murkowski, who headed the Senate and Natural Resources Committee, needed to show that the plain was not important to caribou.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a part of the Department of Interior, was given the job of preparing the report. That agency also had the data and expertise.

“I wrote the report,” Fran told me. His management reviewed it, making what Fran called “editorial corrections” and approved the report for release to Interior. That was in May 2001. The record showed that for 27 of 30 years, there had been concentrations of calving (excluding lesser-important scattered calving).

In June 2001, Gale Norton visited the Arctic Refuge. Fran was given the job of escorting her about. He spent parts of two days with her, a total of five hours, explaining features of the Refuge.

“We sat on the plane facing each other. The Regional Director sat next to me nervous that I’d say something I shouldn’t,” Fran said. In a total of five hours with her, “She didn’t ask one substantial question.”

She appeared uninterested in facts that failed to support her drilling view, and later called the coastal plain “a flat, white nothing.”

When Interior released the calving report, it had completely changed. It said that for 11 out of 18 years there was no concentrated calving in the 1002 area—a stunning reversal of the results submitted by USFWS, which said that for 27 of 30 years there was concentrated calving.

Someone blew the whistle, making the original report available to the press. The Washington Post broke the story in October, 2001, on the very day Norton was addressing a meeting of environmental journalists. Attending reporters, armed with the Post story, questioned her about the discrepancies in the Interior report. Her explanation was simple: “typographical errors.”

At the very least—given the nature of the changes—that answer lacked credibility. The episode supports troubling doubts about truth in government.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Last Great Wilderness

The ice field on Mancha Creek in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and, bottom, a lovely flower with an ugly name, the woolly lousewort

It was the expedition of a lifetime, a one-shot trip, and except for the two leaders, only four people could go, bringing the party to a total of six. That was the number of hikers that a bush plane could deliver to the wilderness in two round trips, ferrying three passengers each time. The trip was the first service trip to the Artic National Wildlife Refuge ever sponsored by the Sierra Club.

I promptly applied, answering standard questions about my health and physical condition. A few weeks later leader Don Ross called me from his Fairbanks home. After a brief discussion he accepted me as a member of the team. My status as an Ironman and marathoner didn't hurt. What followed was one of the greatest adventures I've ever blundered into.

This is the first of a three-part installment. From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, July 16, 2006.


Mancha Creek would be a river in most places. Here, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it’s lucky to have a name. Most of the streams and mountains do not.

Mancha Creek lies in the most remote part of the Refuge, next to Canada, on the eastern edge of the sprawling wilderness. It drains into the Firth River in Canada, which, in turn, drains into the Arctic Ocean 75 miles north of us.

In two flights of three passengers each, bush pilot Kirk Sweetsir delivered six of us here in his Cessna 185 on June 6 of this year. He took off to the west, and I watched the plane grow small against distant, blue mountains. He was the last human we would see until he picked us up 12 days later and 50 miles north, on Joe Creek.

The Arctic Refuge has been called the last great wilderness of North America and one of the greatest wildernesses in the world. Lying north of the Arctic Circle, its abundant wildlife, rugged terrain and expansive solitude are unmarred by modern man, and among one of the last places visited by him. Measuring nearly 20 million acres—the size of South Carolina—it spreads south from the Arctic Ocean for 250 miles, and lies against Alaska’s border with Canada. The plants and animals live here in relationship to the weather and terrain as they have for thousands of years.

The unmarred part is important. There are no roads, fences, or power lines. No motorized vehicles are permitted—except for fixed-wing bush planes, which must land on a gravel bar or on the tundra. All the stuff we’ve become accustomed to seeing is absent here. You stand on a mountain and see ranges of mountains spreading before you in every direction over thousands of square miles, all without the aid of a single blinking strobe light.

“Unmarred” is important, one reason for our trip. My topo map covers an area of 5,000 square miles. It shows only one man-made feature—a cabin on Mancha Creek. It’s not there anymore—U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) burned it. But the debris remained.

Our leader, Don Ross, 63, knew about it. He was the Assistant Manager of the Refuge from 1976 to 1984, during which time a researcher used the cabin to do a bird survey. Following that, from 1985 to 2000, Don was a bush pilot, flying scientific and recreational expeditions into the Refuge. He then sold Yukon Flying Service to Kirk Sweetsir, the pilot who flew us here.

Our assistant leader, Fran Mauer, 60, knew about the cabin site, too. Over the years, he logged a passel of hours in the back seat of a Super Cub, counting caribou and moose in his capacity as Senior Wildlife Biologist.

“I spent 21 years working in the Arctic Refuge. I figure I had the best job in the world,” he says.
Both retired now, these two men may know more about the Refuge than any other two persons in the world. The cabin site offended them. In a trip sponsored by the Sierra Club, four of us joined them in an effort to erase the cabin—a husband and wife team from Illinois, a man from New Jersey, and myself.

Plane gone, we shouldered our 60-pound packs and hiked up Mancha Creek. We were in open country containing a bit of thinning boreal forest. Scattered spruce trees grew in the flats together with thickets of low bushes, generally dwarf birch and willows less than shoulder high. The going was tough, hindered by swamps, potholes and stream crossings.

The closest landing site Kirk and Don had been able to find was five miles from the cabin, measured as the crow flies.

“How long’s it gonna take?” the man from New Jersey asked.

“Oh…we’ll get there before dark,” Don answered. Which was true enough, since, in the summer, the sun doesn’t set in the Arctic.

At late suppertime, we camped. Next morning two bull caribou, their antlers in velvet, posed for my camera. Without much stealth, I managed to approach to within 45 yards. If I’d had my camouflage clothes and bow, I think I could’ve bagged one.

On the second day, we reached the cabin, a discouraging sight crouched in a dense spruce forest. A good deal of its logs had not burned. A mangled metal roof slouched over the mess. Litter lay scattered about: Two barrels, two bear-proof boxes, a stove, four five-gallon cans, a battery, a set of dishes, a load of tin cans, and miscellaneous hand tools.

We flattened all the tin cans. Don chiseled the ends out of the five-gallon cans and we flattened the cylindrical shells, to make it all compact. Some of the junk we put in burlap bags for attaching to our packs, most of the rest we bolted shut into the two barrels and the bear-proof boxes. The metal roofing we tied into bundles.

In his work at the Refuge, Fran often fielded questions from journalists. Those questions dealt with the effects of oil drilling on the wildlife. Whenever truthful answers contradicted the position of pro-drilling administrations, Fran couldn’t answer freely without placing his future in jeopardy. It was a conflict that troubled him.

“You couldn’t even say that, could you?” I said, realizing that he couldn’t even tell them that he couldn’t tell them.

“No.” But he solved the dilemma.

“I referred them to Canadian biologists. They could say any damned thing they wanted to.”
After all, the Refuge animals don’t recognize international boundaries, and many of the animals in question migrate to and from Canada, especially the moose and caribou. The birds nesting in the Refuge fly to virtually all continents. Fran is passionate about protecting the Refuge from oil drilling—for its own intrinsic value, for the animals. Since his retirement he and Don have worked toward that end.

It’s a pitched fight, bringing nothing but truth and passion against lies and greed. Several times the Refuge has hung by the thinnest of threads. So far the vote has always favored preservation.

“But you can’t win; they’ll keep trying,” I said.

“We have to win every time; they only have to win once,” Fran said.

We built a big fire to burn the cabin’s scrap wood. One of the five-gallon cans contained a bit of oily material, which turned out to be creosote, probably used to preserve the logs. We decided to dispose of it by burning. Fran poured a little into a pan and threw it onto the fire. A tall column of flame and black smoke roared skyward and billowed for an instant into a dark mushroom. We all whooped and yelled.

“Isn’t it ironic to be burning oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” Fran exclaimed. “We’ve finally found oil in the Refuge!”

Next day we loaded our packs with as much metal junk as we could carry, and hiked the five plus miles to the landing site, and then back. Our loads included all the metal roofing. My pack alone contained two big bundles of roofing plus the stovepipe and cap, a weight I estimated as over 60 pounds. We left all the junk in a pile for the bush plane to pick up later.

On that walk we mostly followed the serpentine creek bed, walking extra distance to avoid the brushy flats. That creek bed spread into an ice field a half-mile wide and a mile long. We walked on the ice spaced out in single file so as to avoid what Fran called a “larger statistical sample” of finding a spot to fall through. Breaking through into ice-cold water wearing a heavy pack seemed a poor idea.

A two-inch layer of slush covered the ice surface. Rivulets of ice water ran in depressions across our path. My boots leaked like a sieve, continually bathing my feet in ice water. We returned to camp. Total march time—eight hours. My cold, wet toes looked like albino prunes.

We all carried bear spray, and it was on that junk-hauling hike that Fran lost his—ironically Fran, because he had the most experience working in bear habitat. He thought he’d left it in the pile of junk at the landing site. He was upset.

“How much does it cost?”

“Forty-five dollars,” he answered. I told him that the pilot would find it and eventually return it.

“I’m not worried about replacement cost,” he said, surprised at my thought. “I don’t want to be without protection!”

He went on to explain that at USFWS they’d had two rules: Never go into the field alone—have at least two persons—and never go without a gun (And someone qualified to shoot it.). That gun was usually a pump-action shotgun loaded with slugs or buckshot, or a big-bore rifle like a .375 magnum.

Of course, we had no such weapon, that being against Sierra Club policy. After losing his bear spray, Fran carried the flare gun instead.

“At least you’ll be able to light him up,” I said.

After that discussion with the expert, I began carrying my own bear spray in a handy front pocket, not in the pack.

Our bear worries worsened. That morning we’d discovered that we’d set up our tents astride a grizzly’s trail. It was marked by post-holed tracks we’d not noticed and by ample tuffs of hair hanging on a tree where we cooked breakfast and supper. Too tired to move our tents, we decided to sleep there one more night.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Race No One Saw

Until this story happened I didn't know Megan Prandtl (I've changed her name), although I'd seen her running around town. But even a brief glance at her smooth stride is enough to tell you that you are seeing a good runner. On this day, I found out how good. From the Running Journal, June 2009.
To start at the end, this is the moral: Sometimes a door stands open, unseen until it closes. That’s the way of life. An opportunity sometimes passes before it’s even known to be one.

Megan Prandtl (not her real name) could have been a scholarship runner. I ought to know; I saw what she did.

You step through the revolving gate in the chain link fence that surrounds Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium and you find yourself standing on a nine-lane track encircling Overall Field. It’s the place I go to run intervals. A standard track, one lap is 400 meters long, a quarter mile.

It was 400-meter intervals I’d been practicing on that June morning, pressing hard for a full lap, followed by a one-lap recovery of easy jogging, doing the hard laps in a time of 1:30. That’s not too fast, but, then, I’m old and I have to take that.

The morning was pleasant, and I had the track, the football field, the stadium—the whole shebang—to myself. I’d finished the repeats and was jogging through a two-mile cool down when two college-aged men entered the area. They stood around on the infield near the 400-meter start/finish line, doing nothing much, putting in time, maybe considering some exercise. One was lean and wiry, the other pudgy. The wiry one was wearing baggy black shorts; he peeled his shirt off. They waited.

Then I saw her, a young woman, gliding across the parking lot, running tall, head and shoulders visible above the parked cars. She wore earphones and a sandy ponytail that swished about. In her hand was a water bottle. Her stride was easy and fluid—a Tech varsity runner, I figured. She soon joined the two guys in the infield.

I watched as I jogged. The three milled around, kicking the turf, making plans, mulling things over. Something was going to happen.

I soon decided I knew what it was. The wiry boy had a problem. He’d maybe shot his mouth off and talked himself into a corner. It had gone too far, and now there was no backing out. Only his legs could save him. And those legs looked too short, their appearance made the more so by his droopy pants. The pudgy one was going to be the timekeeper.

The short legs, the baggy shorts—they were clues. And I’d seen the woman float across the parking lot—another clue. I knew where I was putting my money.

They lined up, waiting while I approached the start line. That way I’d be past the line and out of the way when they came around. So it was going to be 400 meters then, a 400-meter battle between Man and Woman.

I drew near, the timekeeper signaled, the racers bolted. An audience of precisely two caught its collective breath, captivated by the sight.

I didn’t know Megan then, but on a recent jog she told me how that race had come about. The wiry man with baggy shorts had been a co-worker of hers. At work they’d been talking about running, something he knew Megan enjoyed. I guess he liked to tease her. He’d bragged that he could beat her.

“Was he a runner?” I asked.

“No. Thing was—what got me—he just thought he could beat me, you know, without even knowing…”

“You mean, because you’re a woman?”

“Yeah, yeah, exactly.”

Five seconds after the race started he was a wiser man. Megan snatched the lead at once. Going around the first turn she stretched the gap, piling yards on him like cordwood. Down the backstretch she opened the space to maybe 25 yards by the time she hit the 200-meter mark where the second turn begins.

She was sailing. The man’s legs whipped the baggy shorts into a flapping fury. He was running hard and ugly with all his might, hoping Megan would fade in the second half. It seemed to work—at least enough to stop the piling on. Around the first part of the second turn he managed to halt the deficit. Then he began to take back yards. He was game, but it was getting late.

The danger was that Megan had initially run too fast. Perhaps she was beginning to slow. If so, really, it was quite slight, I think. When she came out of the turn and entered the final straight, her posture was tall, gallant, her stride still fluid. I realized she wasn’t spent at all. The man gained very little after that point. His fate was sealed. As they sailed down the home stretch, the space between them froze, passed before the empty stands like a discreet entity, tangible and inviolate, attached at each end to a runner.

Megan beat him by 20 yards.

After the racers recovered their breath, the three walked around the track, laughing and talking, still friends. Continuing my jog, I pulled alongside.

“That was pretty fast. What did you run that in?” I asked.

“One-ten,” she said; her eyes said it too.

“That’s pretty fast.”

That’s pretty fast—a varsity runner all right. Three months later, she won a local 5K. I’d jogged the race’s companion10K as part of a 30-mile training run for an ultra marathon. After finishing the 10K, I continued on my jog without meeting her. Later that day, my route, by coincidence, took me down the street where she happened to live.

She and her mother were out for a stroll. I stopped to meet them. Megan has large striking eyes. I asked her if she’d won the 5K that morning. She had, of course. Was she a Tech runner? No. She’d already graduated from college, one out west, she told me.

“Did you run in college?”


No! I was astonished at that answer.

“I just like to run,” she said.

“But you could’ve had a scholarship! Saved Mom some money!”

She could have won a college scholarship, something she never realized or considered. That door is closed now. Anyway, as she says, “I just like to run.” In the end, maybe that’s the larger opportunity.

Despite her potential for speed, she doesn’t like speed training, preferring long slow runs instead. A few months later, I saw her taking those long runs more often than normal. Her easy stride and swinging ponytail graced the streets of Cookeville as she trained for the Boston Marathon—a dream for any runner.

The Mystery of Water

It should be no challenge for a writer to fill a page - should be able to fill a page writing about filling a page. And a page is what the editor of the Funrunner needed, facing a lean content one month. Her request for a page arrived. I thought about it and remembered some images of running I'd stored away. A poem seemed a good idea. Since I already had an article scheduled in the issue, and to avoid my byline appearing twice that month, I wrote it under a pseudonym. From the Funrunner, May 2006.
The Mystery of Water

Everybody was waiting for me to die
I kept falling asleep, then waking up
It was trying all around

I arose from the dream
And bolted out the door
Running, running, running

Green plastic penguin
Fat with water
Flaps its arms
Fingertips shooting jets
Swirling, flapping, swirling
Little girl squealing, runs away
From the cold sprinkle
Comes back dancing barefoot
Daring the water
The mystery of water

Rusty circle on the road
Marks the dog’s end
Used to chase me
Belligerent little wiener
Screaming invectives
Loudmouth: “Don’t come back!”
Belligerent little wiener
Rusty stain on the fog line

Bulldozer scraping bushes away
He won’t wave
But I know the smell better than he
Anybody would know sassafras
Who does he think he is?

Storefront window in the town
Full of glaze and curved buildings
White bearded ghost flashing by
I taste salt on my lips

--Jargo Fotcher

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Porch Is Gone

D.J., a.k.a Porch Patrol (Embroidery by Jo Ann Smith)

Throughout his long happy life he never once snarled, bared his teeth or raised his hackles at a human being. Despite his fierce contenance, athletic build, and warrior lineage, a gentler dog was never born.

When he died my fingernails stopped growing. When growth started again, the stop appeared as a shallow groove spanning across each nail. Toenails, too. It took weeks for that reminder to grow out.

It has been three years now, and I still miss him. These were my thoughts on the day of his death. From the Herald-Citizen, Thursday, August 31, 2006.


Porch is gone.

The tan Shar-Pei the family had named D. J., but whom I always called Porch Patrol, is gone. It’s Monday, and he had a stroke Saturday a week ago. Since then he has gradually lost his strength.

Yesterday he was very weak, and he got weaker throughout the day. He was just limp in my arms when I’d take him into the yard to try to stand. But he could not stand; his legs dangled helplessly when I’d lower him to the grass. He drank only once all day long, in the morning. With help he could still stand then, and I’d put some ice water in his bowl. He wouldn’t eat anything, even Kibbles ‘n Bits, his favorite treat.

I stayed with him on the back porch last night until eleven. I’d put his bed, a carpet remnant, in the middle of the floor, and I laid him on it. I turned him from his left side to his right side occasionally and back again later. A few times he found enough strength to lift his old head. I stroked the side of his wrinkled face and put my cheek against his.

“You my little buddy, you my little buddy,” I told him, my usual saying. In thanks, somehow that good dog would find the strength for a feeble tail wag.

He was breathing awfully hard, trying to get enough oxygen. I measured his respiration rate by my running watch—64 breaths per minute. Yellow mucus oozed out of his eyes; I’d wipe it away with facial tissue.

I thought he’d not make it through the night. But this morning he was still lying there, his old ribs heaving with each hard breath. He’d moved a little—enough that I knew he’d tried to get up during the night. He still managed a faint tail wag when I stroked his head and spoke to him. I felt of his feet, and they’d gotten cold. Circulation to his extremities was waning—his body was shutting down.

Jo Ann and I didn’t want him to suffer any more. I called the veterinarian. Dr. Thomas Holt came out. His examination confirmed what needed to be done. He filled a syringe with a pink solution of Phenobarbital and shaved a place for the needle on Porch’s left front leg.

“Are you ready for me to do this?” he asked.

“I am if you’re ready to see me cry.”

He pushed the needle in. The dog’s blood pressure was so low he couldn’t pierce the vein, even after sticking the leg several times. Probing, he wagged the needle back and forth, but couldn’t find blood. He decided to try for the jugular vein and stuck the needle in the dog’s neck several times. That didn't work either. Finally we turned that patient dog to his left side so as to try his other leg.

“He likes laying on that side better anyway,” I said.

Several more sticks, still no success. Finally, Dr. Holt said, "let’s try this." We raised his head and chest to an upright position. I knelt beside his limp body and cradled his head in my hands. His tail gave the faintest of wags, little more than a few trembling jerks, but unmistakably a wag.

"Did you see that?" I said, looking up at my wife—her eyes were wet and red. She nodded; she had seen it too.

Dr. Holt pushed the needle in. I saw blood rush into the syringe.

"There it is," the vet said. He emptied the syringe into the leg. Almost at once Porch relaxed the weight of his old head into my hands, and I eased him gently to the floor.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Dr. Holt said. “I’m sorry it took so many sticks.” We knew he couldn’t help that.

The dog’s body rests there on the back porch yet, covered with one of the towels I used during my swim training for Ironman. It’s a garish rag, red, yellow and brown swirled together in an African motif. I’d rescued it from the throwaway box, and it became my favorite towel—a canine funeral shroud now.

I have to go dig a grave.

This place won’t be the same without him. He leaves an empty space. The empty space will be everywhere: on the cool concrete under my front porch chair; in his corner near the French door on the back porch; around my folding chair in front of the shop when I sit watching the sky at night and eating popcorn; in Jo Ann’s garden when she waters her flowers…

Who knows how many times I've laughed because of him, how many stories I’ve told about him? What is the value of laughter? Of stories?

I spent more time with that gentle dog than with any human. In my day-to-day routine he was a constant presence, watching for me after my morning run, trotting across the yard to wait at the top of the driveway, my simple return being his happiest present. And on and on.

I wrote about him in 2003, in the last paragraph of my book. In equivalent human years, he was at the age of 63 then, as I was. Out of pure exuberance he’d run back and forth fast across the back yard each night. He was old but still strong. I imagined in his running a metaphor for mine.

He came to our back porch in May of 1994, a little pup. Twelve years and two months later he lies on that porch. He ended up where he started out.

I have to go dig his grave.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Hunter's Moon

The old barn tells its secrets to no one
A story for the Halloween edition, is this. But it is just as true in any other season. Or is it even true at all? From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, October 29, 2006.
On that warm October night the young boy Will walked in the dark across the backyard, heading to the shop. He was a hunter, and he always carried his knife, a two-bladed barlow. He opened the big blade and raked his thumb across it as he walked. It needed sharpening, and he was going after the whet rock.

Over the hills west of Smith’s Bend—the loop of the Cumberland River where he lived—the crescent moon hung near the horizon, just left of the big hackberry tree that stood below the barn. The moon was waxing, setting a little later each night, and near the end of the month it would be full, a moon called the Hunter’s Moon.

As he reached the shop he heard a sound coming from the barn. He stopped and cocked his head, listening. Then it was louder, a nervous squawking coming from the chickens in the lower shed of the barn. At once, he knew:

Something’s after the chickens!

He could see them in his mind, sidestepping on the tier poles where they roosted, jostling and flapping for balance, mouths open, wild eyes blinking.

He took off running toward the house, shot through the back door, dashed across the kitchen and into the hall where his .410 leaned in the corner. He shook out a hand full of shells from a box sitting on the chest, grabbed a flashlight from the top drawer and snatched the gun. As he sprinted back across the kitchen he heard his mother calling from the living room, “William?” But the screen door slammed behind him about then, and he kept going.

Once through the gate and on the lane to the barn, he walked slowly and carefully. The squawking talk of the chickens seemed more urgent. As long as that noise kept up, it meant the intruder was still there. That was important. Will didn’t want to scare off whatever it was, until he could get a shot at it.

He was making plans as he approached the barn. He’d have to hold the flashlight and the shotgun forearm both with his left hand. It would be hard to aim both, he knew, but that was his only chance. The light was off now and he wouldn’t flip it on until he was in shooting position. The shed was open at the front except for a gate low enough to shoot over. He had to reach that gate without detection.

He walked slowly in a slight crouch. The crescent moon traveled with him, creeping behind the big hackberry. Leaves had already started falling from the big tree, leaving a skeletal-like crown outlined against the sky. The moon winked through its openings as Will crept toward the barn.

Will had learned to hunt a couple of years earlier with a slingshot when he was eight and nine years old. He made several slingshots, cutting the rubber straps from scrap inner tubes made before the war, using a leather shoe tongue for the pouch and a fork from a small tree for the stock. Eventually he found the perfect fork. Recording his kills, he’d already cut four notches in that fork when one day he shot an indigo bunting, a beautiful little blue bird. The hue of its feathers seemed to radiate a blue aura, a color like electricity, he thought, having felt a spark plug’s shock.

He’d been sad about the little bird that reminded him of electricity and wished he’d not shot it. He dug a grave with his knife under the big hackberry tree. The ground was moist there where runoff from the hog lot deposited manure-enriched silt—he could always find red worms there when he needed fish bait. He put up a little cross made from a horseweed stem. He didn’t want the slingshot anymore. He cut the rubber bands from the fork and threw them into the jimson weeds. He hid the perfect fork in the attic.

He never told anyone about shooting the electric blue bird, about its grave under the big hackberry tree, or about dismantling his slingshot.

But that was a long time ago; he hunted with a shotgun these days. As he approached the barn now, the urgent din of the chickens filled his ears, and his pulse quickened. He hoped it would be a wildcat. That would be something—shoot a wildcat.

He remembered Mr. Reeder. A wildcat jumped on him from his barn loft. Though in his sixties, Mr. Reeder was stout and sturdy. The cat knocked him down twice. He killed it with his bare hands. Once he got his fingers around the cat’s neck, his hard thumbs pushed in its throat, crushing out that fierce life. But the cat had fought with fury and left deep cuts to prove it. Mr. Reeder carried his bandaged arm in a sling as he told Will and his father about it.

Will edged along the front of the barn now, quietly approaching the shed opening. "Wildcat" ran over and over through his mind, merging with the squawking din into a single shrieking turmoil. He paused at the shed corner, the last cover, tensing for action.

Something’s about to happen!

He swung into the opening, shoved the gun over the gate and switched on the light all in one action. There was a flurry of motion at the far end, a rushing toward the double doors there. Will’s .410 boomed loud enough to ring the tin.

But it was gone. Will climbed over the gate and rushed to the double doors. At their junction, the bottoms of the doors were rotted away, leaving a hole big enough a hog could run through it. He couldn’t find any blood on the doors. And he couldn’t see any birdshot in the planks. He pointed the light at the hay-littered ground and couldn’t find birdshot evidence there either. It was as if he hadn’t shot at all, he thought dismally. He’d missed, he decided. That made him angry. He wished he had a 12-gage instead of a puny .410.

He walked back through the shed, flicking the light beam up at the restless chickens, safe on their poles. There was no telling bunch of feathers on the ground. None had been lost.

He climbed the gate, straddled the top plank and swung his trailing leg across. In that precise moment of precarious balance there was a sudden commotion he had no time to understand. A booming whack came like a hard slap on the ear, accompanied by what seemed like flapping and hitting, and Will knew he was falling. He thought, "feathers." Then he didn’t think.

In a while his eyes opened. A light was shining. He lifted his head. It was the flashlight, lying just ahead. The beam swept across the hard manure-soil and lighted a sprig of dead crabgrass at his face. He spit out some dirt absently. He’d fallen on the shotgun and his ribs hurt. A thought was trying to come, but he couldn’t think what it was. Then he jumped up, remembering, and ran toward the house, breathing hard.

In the living room, his mom was peeling apples she planned to dry, catching the peelings first in her apron and then piling them on newspaper spread in the floor. She cut the apples into wedges and dropped them into a white enamel dishpan. She was a slender woman with white teeth and dark hair. Will flopped unhappily on the couch.

“What was it?” she asked.

“A fox in the lower shed. It got away.”

He didn’t mention the rest.

Next morning he returned to the barn before daybreak to milk the two cows in the main hall. Dawn came and sunlight angled into the hall while he did the milking. After letting the cows out, he returned to the lower shed to look around.

Standing at the gate where he’d fallen, he inspected the ground. He picked up a nondescript feather, mostly gray, some brown. Could be a hawk or an owl, maybe even a chicken feather, he thought. Undecided, he let it drop. Then he saw something bright partially hidden under the bottom gate plank, and picked it up. It was a small curved feather, like a wing feather. In the morning sunlight it seemed to radiate a blue aura. It reminded him of electricity.

He twirled the feather in his fingers absently and glanced at the big hackberry tree.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Titan on the Plane

Nashville police continue to probe the circumstances surrounding the July 4th death of former NFL quarterback and Tennessee Titans football player Steve McNair.

In 2006 it happened that I wrote a brief story about an encounter I had had with him in 1998. The story was written as a composition assignment in a Spanish class I was taking. I re-wrote the remembrance in a fuller version, and in English, for the April edition of the newsletter of my running club, the Nashville Striders, a club containing several Titans fans.

And that was it until this July. I was in Spain when I heard about his death. I called my wife back in Tennessee and asked her to search my desktop computer for the story file (I didn't even remember the title.) She found the file and e-mailed it to me. His death had suddenly made the story timely. I read the piece and, without a single change, submitted it to the newspaper. It ran in the following Sunday edition under a note from the editor.

While fans mourned his death, the story served as a gentle reminder of his life. The story did something else. It offered a glimpse of the quarterback at the peak of his power, and, while it was only a snapshot, the view was a different and surprising one. Subsequent events made it poignantly prescient. From the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, July 12, 2009.

At the Houston airport in May of 1998, my mother and I were boarding a Southwest flight bound for Nashville. Prior to that trip Momma had never ridden on a jet, and she wanted to sit where she could look out. She took a window seat at the front, and I sat down next to her.

Soon a tall black man took the seat next to me and nodded. I thought I recognized him, a football player. I asked him if I was right. He smiled kindly and extended his hand—it was thick and tough like a farmer’s. A gentle manner reflected his Mississippi rearing.

It had only been a year since the Houston Oilers had moved to Nashville, eventually changing their name to the Tennessee Titans. I asked him if he still owned a house in Houston.

“No, I live in Nashville now,” he said, expressing with that answer what I took to be a commitment extending beyond his personal residence to his team’s new home as well. He’d been to Mexico on a vacation, he told me.

During their first year in Nashville the Titans’ stadium had been under construction. Without a place to play their home games, team management had considered a number of local college stadiums, but finally decided on playing at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.

That choice proved a disaster. Political tension, if not outright enmity, had long existed between Memphis and Nashville. Fans from the Bluff City were not anxious to embrace a team that belonged to Music City.

The Titans had found few friends by the riverside. At one game, against Pittsburgh, the visiting team had actually enjoyed more fans than the home team, a humiliating rejection for the Nashvillians.

I told him I hated that they’d had to play in Memphis and that it would be much better once they started playing in Nashville.

“Yeah, it was pretty tough playing in Memphis,” he said.

“You’d been better off playing at a high school than playing in Memphis.”

He laughed at the irony in that comment, absurd yet true.

After that, I dropped the conversation, realizing he probably endures boring talks with fawning fans all the time. Three young women occupying the seats facing ours carried on a raucous conservation, hoping for his attention—and getting none. Instead, the man leaned back and took a nap.

I’d felt a bit uneasy talking with such a celebrity. We had little in common: He was half my age, twice my weight and a hundred times as rich. And, by comparison, I owned scant athletic credits.

In college, I’d lettered on the rifle team, breaching the national top twenty, and winning my team’s most valuable player award. While I treasure that, it seemed to pale beyond mention. And shooting glory had been a long time ago.

Perhaps a better athletic link was carried by the message on my T-shirt, a bold ad for the Golden Eagle 10K in Cookeville, an event of only the previous month which had been my first ever road race. In that first race, I had won two trophies—first in my age group and first master (over 50 there)—and discovered at the age of 57 a talent I didn’t know I had, one that has since led to numerous age-group titles and over two dozen state records.

Looking back now, I think my timidity was unfounded, and that I deserved to talk to the man as an athlete, one to another. Our difference was one of degree, not principle: He plays football, I run, we both compete.

In any case, he was courteous to me that day. And I fondly recall shaking his hand—the hand of a man who earns his living throwing a football. He does it well enough to be called by the name “Air.” Two years later he would lead his team to the Super Bowl. Three years after that, he would earn the League’s co-Most Valuable Player Award.

When we reached Nashville, it was late that night; not many people were around the airport. I glimpsed the quarterback as he headed down the concourse. He was framed by the harsh light and receding walls.

Steve McNair walked alone, shoulders slumped, eyes down. It seemed the image of a lonely man.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Notable Runners Slated for Cookeville Race - The Inaugural Komen Race for the Cure 5K

Angela Ivory picking her way down a rocky trail in New Mexico, at the Ghost Town 38.5-mile race, Jan. 18, Hillsboro, New Mexico; and, bottom, Josh Hite on his way to winning the Arkansas Marathon, Sept. 19, Benton, Arkansas
During the lead-up to the first Komen Upper Cumberland Race for the Cure, I suggested the race to two area running friends and wrote this story for the Herald-Citizen, Sunday, October 11, 2009.
Two well-known runners have registered for the Upper Cumberland’s first annual Komen Race for the Cure 5K. Race-day registration begins at 6:00 a.m. and opening ceremonies are at 7:00 a.m., Saturday, October 17 at TTU’s Hooper-Eblen Center in Cookeville, with the race starting at 8:00 a.m.

Extreme runner Angela Ivory of Nashville has scheduled the race, as has elite marathoner Josh Hite of Cookeville. Both runners ordinarily favor much longer distances.

Ms. Ivory has not run such a short race since January of 2004. Friends kid her that maybe she can’t.

In 2003 she discovered cancer in her breast. It changed her life, but not in the way anyone would imagine. She endured the usual weary horror—lost a breast, lost 22 lymph nodes, and endured months of chemotherapy and radiation.

None of that bothered her much; she was already skilled at endurance. It only altered her arc. In 2004, when the medical aggravation was over, she started a new phase—running a marathon (26.2 miles) every weekend. She ran 47 in one year. After barely more than a year, she had run a marathon in each of the 50 states.

She was just starting.

She made two new goals: run two marathons in each state, and run an ultramarathon in each state. An ultramarathon is any race longer than 26.2 miles; typical distances are 31 miles, 50 miles, 62 miles, and 100 miles.

She only lacks five marathons for the first goal and 18 ultras for the second goal.

Each weekend requires a trip for Ms. Ivory, usually a long trip. To make time for her weekend travel, she usually takes leave on Monday or Friday from her job with the State of Tennessee, where she works as an environmental engineer. Last weekend she was at a 24-hour race in her hometown of Memphis. The week before that she was in Bellingham, Washington. This Sunday she is at a trail marathon in Lincoln City, Indiana. And next Saturday she will visit Cookeville.

All this, she does while fighting cancer. After four years, it has returned. Bothered by back pain in 2007 that she thought was caused by all the running she went to a chiropractor, and she tried physical therapy. Neither helped.

She then had MRIs and a bone scan. The images showed that breast cancer had metastasized as an inoperable tumor on her lower spine. It ate holes in her pelvic bone as well. She now takes a medicine to rebuild her bones and another medicine to inhibit the production of estrogen, which the tumor feeds on.

The 41-year old Ms. Ivory is in continual pain now. Her iron count sometimes gets so low that just walking makes her out of breath, and she occasionally has to take iron infusions. She has a bone scan every four months to look for signs of new cancer. Except for her spine and pelvic bone no new sites have appeared.

In her online blog, “See Tiger Run,” Ms. Ivory discusses her various treatments candidly and with humor, absent of any self pity. And through it all, she runs.

Local marathon ace Josh Hite is a runner near the top of his game. He has penciled in the Komen Race for the Cure too. This year alone, Mr. Hite, who is 31, has won three marathons, and he has finished among the top three seven times.

He strives to run about two marathons per month and has run 13 so far this year. He is on track to complete 20 to 22 marathons this calendar year, he says.

Conventional wisdom holds that an elite marathoner should not run more than two or three marathons per year. Mr. Hite scorns that practice. Additionally, he runs high mileage during his training, and expects to exceed 4,000 miles of running this year. His success has led to a sponsorship with Marathon Guide, an online race service.

Komen Upper Cumberland, which carries the formal name Upper Cumberland Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, was approved by the national organization in December 2006. Since then, Komen UC has raised and granted $240,000 to non-profit organizations to help provide education, screening and treatment for breast cancer throughout the 14-county region of the Upper Cumberland.

Eileen Stuber, President of Komen UC, recently explained how the local affiliate was formed.

“The impetus was being a breast cancer patient. And when I was through with that I felt like there were lots of things that patients needed that weren’t available to them,” said Mrs. Stuber.
She had discovered her breast cancer in July, 2004. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy followed. As it had for Ms. Ivory, cancer changed the life of Mrs. Stuber. She was inspired.

“I started looking at what was out there,” she says.

She discovered Komen, the national organization, and in June of 2005 her physician husband Harry and she attended the Mission Conference in Washington, D.C. They were impressed enough with Komen’s work that they decided to form a local affiliate.

“They said, ‘Here’s the application,’” Mrs. Stuber said. “It was two inches thick,” she chuckled and then added quickly, “I’m not kidding.”

One element of the application was called a “Community Profile.” That required demographics of cancer in the 14-county area. An enormous undertaking of data gathering followed. Mrs. Stuber is quick to credit the work of many colleagues in that sweeping effort. A lack of needed data and consistent record keeping emerged as one of their discoveries. That fact made the job harder than it should have been.

“We learned about poverty and illiteracy,” she adds.

A key discovery: Only 39 percent of women who needed screening were being screened, and there was an excess of late-stage cancers among those who were screened, diminishing the odds of a stricken woman’s survival. As a result, Mrs. Stuber says Komen UC is trying to increase the screening rate to 50 percent and to reduce the incident of late-stage cancers.

The application took a year and a half to complete. The National Board approved the application in December 2006.

And now it will all culminate, finally, in what Mrs. Stuber called the signature event for Komen, the Race for the Cure 5K. Come next Saturday, Mrs. Stuber and all the other Komen volunteers will be joined by Angela Ivory and Josh Hite, and hundreds of other runners—some of whom are cancer survivors—in a collective celebration of life and a united resolve to fight breast cancer to a sulking standstill.

A large turnout is expected. Summer Brown, Chairman of Logistics, says her committee is preparing for 1,000 to 1,500 runners. Chip timing will be used. The race course has been certified by USATF. More race information can be found at, and runners can complete online registration there.

It is fitting that Angela Ivory and Josh Hite meet again, and here. Their first meeting came this past June 13th, at the Moonlight Boogie in Ellerbe, N.C. That meeting cemented them in running folklore. Mr. Hite had heard of Ms. Ivory but had never met her before then.

That Ellerbe race started at 6:00 p.m., and so proceeded into moonlight. Both a marathon and a 50-mile race were being contested, the two distances laid out on courses that partially overlapped. The temperature at the start was 102 degrees, Mr. Hite recalls. He was running the marathon while Ms. Ivory was running the longer distance.

After the race Ms. Ivory disclosed how it had ended up. “There were only two from Tennessee. He was first and I was last. We were perfect bookends.”

Around 21 miles into the race, Mr. Hite had lapped Ms. Ivory on a common portion of the two courses, coming up behind her. He was leading the marathon, but the heat had taken away his strength, and he was barely able to go on.

“I was just trying not to crawl,” he says.

He had to keep going if he were to hold off the man he’d passed a mile back. Mr. Hite pulled even with Ms. Ivory. He recalls the subsequent events:

“Angela, help me. I’m about to fall. Just run with me,” he said.

“No, honey, I can’t keep up with you,” she told him. But she smiled and encouraged him. “You’re doing great! Just keep going. Just keep going.”

“But I’m only running nine-and-a-half minutes per mile,” he protested.

“That’s all-out for me,” said Ms. Ivory.

Mr. Hite grabbed her hand and pulled her along a short ways, drawing energy from her exuberance and praise. She told him he was looking great, that he had it all wrapped up, that he was making her proud.

Mr. Hite went on to win that race. The energy that pulled him through the last few miles, he credits to Ms. Ivory.

“Her positive energy was beyond encouragement. She had a positive energy about her…better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Period.”

So it was that the one who was last helped the one who was first.

That day Mr. Hite had not known about Ms. Ivory’s cancer. She joined his fight to win the race then; he joins her fight against cancer now.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Beautiful Art of Rejoneo - Bullfighters on Horseback

Portuguese rejoneador Diego Ventura fights a bull in Burgos, Spain (Photo/Albino Jimenez)
The bull needed to die but could not. He stood looking dully ahead, his shoulders slicked with blood oozing from the eight darts sticking in them. A sword stuck out of his back. Cuadrilleros, the bullfighter’s helpers, swarmed around. The matador who had made the weak stab walked up, studying the bull’s face. The spell was bad. The crowd was uneasy. We watched. Cuadrilleros prepared to chop the spinal cord. The matador stopped them. He raised his hand, palm outward as if appealing for peace.
The bull was already at peace. He didn’t want to fight any more. He needed to die but could not. We waited. The bull stood. It was taking too long. The people murmured. The matador had performed poorly.

Then the bull fell, toppled more than collapsed. He laid still, his legs sticking stiffly out. The blade had finally done its job. Relieved, the crowd gave scattered applause. A team of three mules trotted in, pulling a long singletree, and dragged the dead bull out. His broad flank made a smooth curving path in the dirt.

The matador was from a wealthy family, Albino told me. Perhaps he didn’t need to fight bulls for money and only did it for women and glory. He walked away dejected. He would not gain the bull’s ears or tail, the prizes awarded to a matador for a good kill.

My companion Albino Jimenez and I were celebrating July 4th in Burgos, Spain. Earlier, we had found a restaurant called Richi’s that Albino had heard served American-style food. We ordered the classic—hamburgers and fries. In my pocket was a small piece of cardboard cut from a Band-Aid box. It was folded over and taped at the edges. Sandwiched inside were two toothpicks topped by tiny American flags, the kind you find sticking in the muffins at a backyard cookout in Tennessee, which is exactly where I had found them a few weeks earlier, at my sister’s cookout in Mount Juliet.

We stuck the flagged toothpicks in the hamburgers and sang the Star Spangled Banner. Then honoring the American tradition of violence, we decided to go to a bullfight.
It was Saturday afternoon, the last day of an eight-day bullfighting festival bearing the ponderous name Feria Taurina San Pedro y San Pablo, a festival so grand that one saint was not enough. It took Saint Peter and Saint Paul both.

This last evening was reserved for a historic kind of bullfighting known as corrida de rejones, developed hundreds of years ago for training the cavalry. In rejones, the matador works from horseback. He sticks the eight barbed darts known as banderillas into the bull’s shoulders, and he kills the bull from horseback, too.

We’d just seen the first matador of three, Fermín Bohórquez, who was 39 years old. Although his record was respectable, luck had not been with him on today’s bull. In 2007, his best recent year, he appeared in 60 events, gaining 107 ears and five tails. He would fight one more bull here today. Perhaps he dreaded it.

The matadors appeared in order of increasing skill. Hermoso de Mendoza, 43, was next. He appeared in 120 bullfight festivals in 2007, gaining 278 ears and 33 tails. In 2008 his production dropped to less than half that. The festival program described him as “…without doubt the best rejoneador of all time.” Still plenty formidable at 43, he was maybe no longer as quick or as strong as he had been. His age favored a decline.

The third matador, Diego Ventura, was from Lisbon, Portugal. At 27 years of age, the youngest, he had gained the position of headliner. He appeared in 63 festivals in 2008, gaining 167 ears and 16 tails. He turned out to be a cheerful crowd pleaser, carrying out his deadly work with the exuberant glee of a kid having a water fight, smiling broadly and gesturing with raised arms after each good move, seeking approval and getting it.

It is the bravery, intelligence, and athletic skill of the horse that amazes the most. The horse wears no armor, yet works inches from the bull’s horns. One lucky upthrust can rip his belly open, letting his entrails slip heavy-sliding into the dirt. For the horse, stakes are grave.
The bull’s charges are quick. The horse must avoid the horns with better quickness, yet bring his rider in close enough to plant banderillas and thrust the sword.

Altogether, the matador sticks eight banderillas into the bull’s shoulders, four on each side. Their colorful handles dangle downward, rolling and pulling the flesh where the barb entered. This helps infuriate the bull. On the last set, the matador inserts both barbs at once, one in each shoulder. It must be done powerfully and quickly.

Horse and rider communicate by unknown magic. As the bull charges, the rider leans far out, holding no reins, tilting his body nearly horizontal in order to reach the bull’s shoulders, a banderilla in each hand. The horse knows what his rider needs in this vulnerable position. He must be precise in permitting the charging bull to come close, while yet avoiding the horns. If he makes an unexpected step he could dump the rider on the horns.

The horse of Ventura knew where the limit was. Once, the bull got just close enough to rake a four-inch gash up his ham. The cut turned bright red in the afternoon sun.

A rejoneador uses three horses to kill each bull, substituting when his horse grows tired. The work is strenuous, and the horse needs rest. Toro competes against a relay, getting no such rest.

A horse can outrun a bull. That is not his normal job, but Ventura’s had a special trick he sometimes showed a charging bull. The horse ran, staying just inches in front of the horns, his tail practically in the bull’s face. Then he did a full-circle pirouette, maintaining his forward motion and distance from the bull all the while. This required that he run sideways to the right, backwards, sideways to the left, and finally forward again, outpacing the bull throughout the rotation. This move delighted the people. The crowd roared its approval.

He had another trick. Bull and horse stood facing each other, taking measure. The horse then raked the ground a few times with his hoof, like a bull does. Then he straightened his leg and pointed it at the bull. A horse can’t talk. But this one spoke clearly. Everyone understood him:

“You, Toro! I’m talking to you! Bring your best.”

Toro could not know that no bull ever left the arena, not until the mules dragged him out. All he could do was fight hard. And die bravely.

Ventura delighted the crowd and killed his bull. In the last moment, after he’d already thrust the sword, he jumped off the horse and ran up to Toro, shaking his finger in his face, scolding Toro in words we could not hear.

Bohórquez, the first matador, who’d had hard luck, must have watched this dominating performance. Now it came time for his second bull.

And his luck had not improved. Unlike Ventura’s smiling countenance, Bohórquez’s face wore a sweaty red scowl. It seemed hard for him. He even failed to plant one of the banderillas. It fell out and laid there. He couldn’t erase that failure or cover it up. The garish proof, red and white, lay in the dirt mocking him.

Finally he rode to the wall and called for the sword. The trumpet played the lonely tune it plays before a bull dies. Toro charged, but the sword of Bohórquez did not strike. A matador must hit a small spot and shove the blade completely in, a demanding athletic challenge. Bohórquez brought the bull in close, charge after charge. But he could not make himself strike. We wondered what he was waiting for. Something like target panic had gripped him. He couldn’t pull the trigger. It was like a baseball pitcher losing his stuff.

“He’s lost his confidence,” I said.

“Yeah.” Albino could see it too. All the people could. The humiliation was very public.

When the sword finally did plunge, it was tentative and puny. Toro stood, half the blade sticking out of his back. He had won. The matador could not kill him.

But he had to die anyway. A cuadrillero rushed up and chopped his spinal cord. Toro fell in a heap. Bohórquez walked away frustrated and took up a position behind the wall near us, the scowl solid on his face. No one spoke to him.

The second bull of Ventura was the finale. As before, the cocky Portuguese dazzled the crowd with his playful confidence and nonchalant flair, gleefully working the bull. Bohórquez watched it all.

When the sword of Ventura fell, no part of it was left showing except the handle, sticking out of the back of the bull. Toro stood perfectly still. Ventura jumped out of the saddle and ran up to him, nearly touching his face. The triumphant matador dropped to one knee, spread his arms back wide and thrust his chest into the face of Toro, mocking the stricken bull. The people cheered wildly.

Toro didn’t move. He didn’t care. He looked at Ventura with dead eyes. Bulbous strings of crimson slobber drooled from his mouth, and red foam gathered at his nostrils.

Toro collapsed. The crowd roared. Ventura strutted, arms high. The people waved scarves, handkerchiefs, hats, anything they had. The stands turned to a stirring white flurry. Raucous applause continued. The judge, who was positioned behind and above us, flopped a tassel onto the front of his desk—it looked like a bull’s tail. It meant one ear.

They go by the crowd’s reaction; they have a computer to help them, Albino told me. A cuadrillero cut off one of the bull’s ears and handed it to the matador. He held the ear high, walking in front of the cheering people, and then threw it to some waving hands. Cheering continued. The judge flopped out another tassel. And again, Ventura strutted, holding the ear up for all to see before throwing it in the stands.

Cheering persisted but tapered off a bit before the judge could award the tail. It depends on the place, Albino said. Some towns are harder than others. Ventura had to settle for two ears, a triumph nonetheless.

I glanced at Bohórquez, the hard-luck matador. He had watched it all. He stood alone behind the wall. The scowl was hard on his face.