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.