Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Whatever Happened to Guadalupe Santos?

A story that describes the interior life of a runner on his way to a marathon would be, I thought, a running story. The Running Journal disagreeded, however, and rejected this piece. They want more running. No importa. I understand their reasons, and I substituted another. But I love words and stories for reasons beyond running. And I still love this story. From the Herald-Citizen, Jan. 23, 2005.

* * * * * * * * * *

At the age of 13 she was raped and then sent to prison for killing the creep who did it, a crime she did not commit—if, indeed, you could call it a crime; but then the event happened in Latin American. In prison, Guadalupe Santos discovered she was pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter whom she had to surrender to the care of her older sister, a woman who later betrayed her.

After serving fifteen years and with credit for good behavior, her release date was drawing near. But calamity struck again. To save her life and the life of her best friend, she was forced to escape from prison. On the run, she worked her way north and crossed the border into the United States.

Rebuilding her life here, she met a man and fell in love. He didn’t know her awful secret. Whether they had a future together seemed doubtful. She remained a prisoner of her past.

How things eventually worked out for Guadalupe will be forever lost from me. With remarkable bad timing the last three episodes of Prisionera air while I, myself, head toward Latin America.

This December Thursday of 2004 I am riding an early morning flight from Nashville to Memphis, the first leg of a trip to Negril, Jamaica, where I plan to run the Reggae Marathon. I sit idly reflecting on the coincidence of my trip and the program’s conclusion.

In an attempt to augment my Spanish lessons, I’d started watching Prisionera, a telenovela on Telemundo, only ten days earlier—I certainly needed the help. I’d never watched a soap opera before, and I thought they went on forever. I happened to pick one, however, that not only aimed to end two weeks after I started watching it but would manage to do so precisely while I make an unlikely December trip. Once again the ready occurrence of the highly improbable gives me cause for wonder.

With several shows to choose from, why did I pick Prisionera? Simple—Guadalupe Santos. She grabbed my attention like a magnet grabs a compass. While maybe not the great beauty that some of the show’s other women are, she is nevertheless bonita enough. But her attraction comes from something beyond mere physical perfection.

I decided to read about the character—another Spanish lesson. Telemundo’s online literature described her as noble, strong and dreamy. I was surprised at how well those descriptions fit my impressions. The actor, Gabriela Spanic, who plays her, is able to convey those qualities without doing much of anything at all.

She can just stand there. When she cries, tears streak down her cheek and drip off her chin. Even her smile is tinged with sadness, and she seems to gaze into the distance. Her eyes are big, maybe too big, but all the more poignantly expressive. Her lips pout and her profile suggests comic petulance.

Her beauty is flawed, and therefore the more exquisite.

This December morning I ride along, gazing out the Airbus window, my thoughts rambling in daydreams about beauty, about what it is—and why do I care? In an expansive mood, it seems I find it all around.

I pick up a book about Alaska I’ve brought to read during the warm days in the Caribbean. The book is titled Coming into the Country, by John McPhee. It’s a book full of rugged and beautiful images. McPhee’s language has rare power. I read the book slowly, trying to make it last, scanning the words like a prospector looking for gold. I find a glittering nugget on every page.

He is describing a canoe trip on the Salmon River—one of thirteen Alaskan rivers so named—in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. I want to be there with him. His party flew to the put-in with a helicopter pilot from the flat country of Louisiana who got them all lost. While they flew up and down river after river, the pilot handed the map to McPhee, a passenger and non-pilot, asking for his help in finding their position. Of the map, McPhee says, “…the mountains looked like calves’ brains over bone china...” He describes the immensity of the wilderness: “…if anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be the place to hide it.”

McPhee is skilled at evoking vivid images. He tells about a barber who was a lousy shot going on a bear hunting trip. He emptied his rifle and only hit the grizzly once, in the foot. “The damage the bear did to the barber was enough to kill him several times.”

A woman runs a small boarding house made of cottonwood logs at Talkeetna where mountain climbers stay. She works hard, enforces strict rules of behavior and prepares meals for which people make long drives. “She is dour, silent, stolid as a ceramic cat.” Ceramic cat! No one can use that simile again. McPhee uses it up right here in this book.

Alaska is beautiful, but dangerous—beauty with a price, a price only a few are willing to pay. The flaw of danger is what protects Alaska’s beauty. But is it enough?

I look up from the book and gaze out the window, savoring McPhee’s thoughts. Thirty thousand feet below I see not Alaska, but west Tennessee. It is cold this morning, even on the ground—thick fog hindered my predawn drive to Nashville. The sun is up now, spilling a warm glow over the sleeping landscape.

I notice a scene unlike any I’ve spotted before. A river valley meanders endlessly through a velvet woodland. The valley is filled to the brim with fog, but not a droplet over. None spreads out over the surrounding countryside; it perfectly outlines the valley’s imprint. From this height the fog looks solid. The slanting sun reveals its surface texture by shadowy shades of gray, like a glacier of dirty snow.

For some reason I suddenly remember John Dodson, conductor then of the Bryan Symphony Orchestra, telling me why he likes the music of Gustav Mahler. It was like explaining Newtonian physics to Porch Patrol, the tan Shar-pei. I understood it poorly, and I can relate it only crudely.

He said Mahler’s music unfolds with beautiful promise but then somehow falls short—by design, I took it. It seems headed toward the perfect moment like when you hit the ball thock! on the sweet spot and you know you’ve nailed it. Mahler instead pulls back, turns, preferring to introduce a deliberate shortfall, the perfect imperfection, a feature that makes his music intensely interesting. Some might consider that to be a flaw. If so, to John it was an exquisite one.

Then he said something surprising. “Amy is like that.”

He was talking about Amy Dodson, my running colleague, who was then his wife. I hope he - and she! - doesn’t mind my mention of his comparison; I thought it was endearing. When he said it, we were standing on Laycock Bridge in Smith County, while a movie crew of some fifty people filmed Amy running, beautiful and brave, across the shaky old bridge for a television commercial.

As she ran along the wooden floor, Amy’s exquisite flaw was apparent to all—a graphite device that replaces her lower left leg. Perhaps John sensed that it is that very flaw that helps drive Amy to accomplish the feats she has, both as a runner and as a person. She had already become the first woman leg-amputate to compete in the Boston Marathon, a prestigious race with a 100-year plus history. She has since gone on to set the woman’s marathon world record for a one-leg amputee. She will go on to finish Ironman races, 100-mile ultramarathons, and to win a triathlon world championship. Remembering her searing courage helps drive me through hard marathons such as Reggae, where the Caribbean heat raises the challenge.

This morning’s flight to Memphis is brief. The pilot must have gotten clearance for a straight-in approach. We’ve dropped steadily and I doubt any turns at this altitude. The morning sun is behind us. The angle is just right for me to watch our shadow sweeping the ground. It slides over the pastures, wafts through the bare woods, flicks across the freeway and swipes the roofs of warehouses, all the while growing larger and larger until finally—over grass now—it comes up and thump bumps into us.

We’re down. First leg finished. I look around. The passengers are anxious to get off the plane. I don’t know anybody. Next stop, Montego Bay.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Come Home, Hokie

The 32 stones encircling the reviewing stand in front of Burruss Hall forms a memorial dedicated to the 32 students killed on the campus of Virginia Tech, April 13, 2007.


Once again, time for the Boston Marathon rolls around - the second Monday in April, Patriots Day in Massachusetts. It's unfair to that storied race, but each year its arrival triggers a different kind of memory for me - the murder of 32 students and scholars at Virginia Tech. Both events occurred on the same day in 2007 - Monday, April 13.

Today, a semi-circle of 32 "Hokie stones" fronts the stone reviewing stand in front of Burruss Hall. Buses stop there and tourists walk around taking pictures of the memorial, just as I have done.

When tragedy brushes close you pause, or stop, or maybe even make a turnaround. But then you go on. Because that's what humans do. You go on, but you don't forget. Going on is required. Forgetting is not part of the deal.

So I go on, but I remember. This was my tribute to the fallen Hokies. This is my memory. From the Herald-Citizen, April 29, 2007.


When the gunman carried out the bloody massacre at Virginia Tech Monday last week, his shots pierced the hearts of Hokies everywhere. A scattering of that mourning community lives in Cookeville.

But you don’t have to be connected to that university to appreciate the enormity of the tragedy. The gunman snuffed out 32 of the best and brightest, and injured several more. Scan the list. You only have to look at photographs of their engaging smiles, reaching out from a time now snatched away, and read their biographies to see that these fallen were extraordinary. Their talent and accomplishments humble me.

Here is one: in high school he ran track, played football and basketball, played the trombone and was valedictorian. To mention even one is to unfairly omit the others. Nonetheless, here is another example: he was scheduled to graduate in a few days with a triple major and a 4.0 grade average. A leader in the VT band, he spent his summers working at a camp for special-needs kids.

The list of gifted victims stretches out, including also a number of staff members. Some, like the two professors from the Engineering Science and Mechanics Department, had drawn international attention for their research.

All snuffed out.

The loss! Our country can’t replace such gifted persons. Their university can’t replace them. And now their stricken families and friends can only mourn their passing. It is a loss the whole nation feels. One of the e-mails pouring in to VT said simply, “We are all Hokies now.”

I myself dug out an old hat I hadn’t worn in a few years. I wasn’t sure I still had it. But there it was, mashed flat at the bottom of the stack. I smoothed it out and pulled it on, a white hat with the familiar maroon “VT” on the front. It’s the hat I wore when I first ran the Boston Marathon, a race, incidentally, held again, for the 111th time, this Monday last, the very day of the tragedy at VT. Once more, I wear that hat.

We are all Hokies now.

That Monday morning I had just finished my last track workout before the Country Music Marathon, the hardest one I attempt, running nine long intervals at 5k pace. I walked into the snack area and the TV was on. It showed a squad car and police running with drawn weapons. A shooting had happened. This time it was at Virginia Tech.

“That’s where I went to school!” I said to the only person present, a young woman sitting at a table watching. Then I left. It is a sad measure of how familiar such scenes have become that I don’t even remember if the TV reported one or two dead.
Just another day in America.

When I got home, I decided to check the story again, and switched on the TV. I watched incredulously. The fatalities climbed past 20, heading toward the eventual total of 33, the number we all now know.

A shaky video a student made with his cell phone showed Norris Hall while the shots rang out. It showed the corner windows on the second floor that belong to the office I occupied when I was a professor there. The shots were coming from the classrooms a few steps from it. I watched in disbelief.

Most of the slaughter took place in those second-floor classrooms. I knew the rooms so well. I had both taken and taught classes in them, taking graduate courses toward a Ph.D. while teaching undergraduate engineering classes. Eventually I earned the degree, accepted the professorship and moved from my graduate student cubicle to that corner office.

The student’s video yanked me across the misty stretches, back to that long ago time and place, back in spirit to Norris Hall—now become a scene of unfolding horror. The shots rang out time and again. I sat in my study sobbing.

Altogether I’d lived out three and a half intense years in that building, afraid I’d never master the arcane mathematics of continuum mechanics, pursuing what seemed at times impossible dreams - dreams no different from those snuffed out with each student cut down. Madness honors no dream.

Burruss Hall, the main administration building, sets adjacent to Norris Hall. In front of Burruss a stone reviewing stand looks out over the drill field. On Sundays when the campus was quiet, I’d take my son to that place. He was old enough to be in grade school then. We’d launch our rubber powered model plane out over the field. The little model sailed across an expansive view of sunshine and grass.

And peace. The timeless stone buildings stood silent guard, speaking not at all about the horror fated to unfold there. Spirits of the fallen fill that space today, buoyed by the defiant cry “Let’s go Hokies!”

One day the peace will return.