Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On the Eve of the Reggae Marathon, No Bananas

For these hot summer days, a hot story from Jamaica. From the Running Journal, May 2010.


The man latched onto me like a hungry tick.

I was at the pre-race pasta supper for the Reggae Marathon in Negril, Jamaica one December a few years ago. A long line of open tents covering tables of food had been set up in a sports park. Serving would start soon. At a separate tent I’d just registered and picked up a plastic goodie bag containing my race bib, timing chip, tee shirt and other complimentary items.

The one item of food I was looking for on this tropical island and could not find was the same one every other runner wanted but could not find: a banana. At the registration tent I learned the problem. A handwritten sign stated, “Yes we have no bananas, courtesy of Hurricane Ivan.” Ivan had barged into town a few weeks earlier. He stayed for a couple of days and blew the bananas slam off the trees.

Runners milled around, waiting for the food lines to open. I wanted to talk with some of them, but a man from New York had taken over my party. He was friendly enough—too friendly enough. I thought he was going to talk my leg off. His life history was mine for the taking—or listening. Philip, as I will call him, was red-bearded, maybe fifty years old, and he was wearing a bicycling hat like riders in Europe use.

He’d gotten lucky and won the lottery at his running club back home. The prize was a trip to Jamaica for the Reggae Marathon. He was observing the race, not actually planning to run it. The club paid his way just to promote the race. He’d already decided to come back and run the race next year.

Philip’s wife had come too. But that was not lucky. Their plane had been scheduled to leave New York at seven in the morning. Everything unraveled; it was a long story. There were mechanical problems, plane substitutions, re-scheduling and so on. They flew errant flights around the eastern United States for a while before actually heading toward Jamaica. Instead of arriving in Negril later that afternoon as planned, they didn’t arrive until three in the morning the next day.

His wife was mad as a wet hen.

“She had to go five hours without a cigarette,” he shouted. “Even after we got on the ground, she couldn’t smoke until we cleared immigration.” She was still back at the hotel, he told me, on a section of the beach where clothes are optional. She could smoke there. That was a good place for her.

“Next year I’m bringing my girlfriend instead of my wife,” he announced. That’ll work out a lot better, he thought. She likes to swim and bike and run. Yeah, that’ll be better. Oh, he still lives with his wife, you know—that’s not a big problem—but it’s just that his girlfriend likes to do what he does.

Of course, he hadn’t been looking for a girlfriend—she just came along. “We went running together a few times,” he explained. She was just a running partner. But one thing led to another. They got to be friends. Soon they went bicycling together. And so on. It was all very natural. She likes the same stuff he does. He’d made up his mind about the matter—next year he was bringing his girlfriend. Even his wife might like that better.

He was friendly, but I needed to scrub him off before he started talking about real estate and brothers-in-laws. I couldn’t even catch a chance to look through my goodie bag. A woman from California saved me. She sat down behind me and started talking about San Diego’s Rock and Roll Marathon, of which the back of my T-shirt reminded her. She was as big a talker as Philip, and for a minute I thought I’d made a mistake taking her on. I was caught in crossfire, yammering coming from two directions instead of one.

Then I had an inspiration. I gently deflected her comments to Philip, nurturing a tentative dialog between them. It blossomed into a full-blown storm, an even match. I took the opportunity to duck out. I wanted to find Burt Carlson.

I found Burt sitting on the curb at the head of the line of food tents, waiting for the food bars to open. He’s a story. When he finishes this Reggae Marathon it will bring his total to 268 marathons. He’s 79 years old (this was in 2004) and he’s here to run in this humidity and heat. A doctor wouldn’t recommend it.

But I wasn’t surprised; I’d seen his picture in the online race literature, where he’d run the race the previous year. I figured he’d show up. Still, how old do you get before you learn you won’t be back? Older than 79, if you’re Burt.

It was Burt who blew my cover on the bus ride from Montego Bay. A bunch of beer-drinking senior citizens had been throwing a loud party on the bus. A situation I don’t recall confronting before that day—rowdy senior citizens! I’d hoped to keep my mind quiet by avoiding marathon questions from people who I figured didn’t know a marathon from a motorcycle.

The driver had made a restroom stop for his revelers—smart driver. As passengers climbed back on, someone tapped me on the shoulder and I looked up.

“Have you run this one before?” Burt Carlson said. I hadn’t seen him on the bus—he’d been seated behind me somewhere. He looked surprised when I called his name.

Actually, I’d run a race with him, the 41-mile Strolling Jim ultra marathon in Wartrace Tennessee, on an unseasonably warm day in May four years earlier. A man from St. Louis had introduced us. The man from St. Louis quit the race, got in his truck and split for home. Burt kept going, even past the hilly section they refer to in the plural as “the walls.” He kept going—on through that day’s heat—until he got to the finish line where the race’s namesake, Strolling Jim, the first world champion walking horse, is buried. The race director was drinking beer and grilling barbecue chicken, a victorious woman runner was throwing up while her mate tenderly held her hand, and I was sitting very still in a folding chair concentrating hard on staying conscious.

Images of a race, I remember Burt.

The food line opened, and Burt and I started through. I believe it was the most elaborately abundant collection of food I’ve ever seen. It was not a fiesta; it was several; each tent was a fiesta unto itself. Here were local delicacies—curry goat, jerk chicken, whitefish—and a variety of cooked vegetables. Food of every description was kept warm over open flames, attended by chefs in white hats. One tent featured a table piled high with baked bread shaped like animals—squid, fish, snake, alligator….

From the total available, only a tiny sample was possible. I had primavera, seafood pasta, boiled dumplings, sliced tomatoes and fried eggplant. Sadly, that was all I could allow myself the night before a marathon.

Burt and I sat in folding chairs eating. A man with a gray goatee walked up and asked me if I was Burt Carlson—I’m pretty old, too. “No, but he’s right there,” I said pointing. He handed Burt a laminated copy of a page from the local paper, and walked away. Burt sat looking at it bemused—he hadn’t seen it until that moment. It was a story dated November—after Burt had registered for this year’s race. Twin headlines told the news—“Burt’s Coming Back”—and announced a profundity I wish I’d written: “The Human Body Was Made to Run.”

Next morning, the stroke of 5:15 would prove it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Doomed Slue Was Scene of Fishing Adventure

This story seems an abrupt shift in topic from the last post, which concerned the children of Jamaica. This story is about youth, too - but youth in a different time, a different place. This story occurred to me when I was jogging in New York's Central Park and I saw a couple of kids squatted at the edge of a lake. Kids everywhere love messing around water. From the Herald-Citizen, February 6, 2010.


Before the waters of Cordell Hull Lake drowned it forevermore, there was Billy White’s Slue, a shallow two-acre lake standing in the bottomland of Smith Bend, in Jackson County, Tennessee. It could have been called a lake or a pond, even a swamp, but we always called it a slue. Each winter the floods of the Cumberland River filled it with backwater and fish. Then the floods receded, leaving the water and fish trapped.

Brush and trees lined its banks. River bottoms stretched beyond, fields of rich, black dirt strewn by flint chippings and stone tools left by ancient humans. The bottoms grew corn and soybeans, and dropped steep sandy banks down to a languid river. Plowed cropland abutted woodlots, thickets and canebrakes.

In the branches muskrats and raccoons caught crawfish, discarding pinchers and shell fragments on the bank. Lowlands oozed oily water and grew dense stands of swamp grass where cottontails and quail took cover.

When I was young, the slue belonged to Joe Myers. When he died in 1949 the farm passed to his son, Billy White Myers, who farms and lives there yet. He has always been called by two names. We dropped his last name and simply called the slue Billy White’s.

As a boy, I prowled that slue and all the land surrounding it whenever I could. Everything was there—squirrels, fish, turtles, snakes and, sometimes, ducks. I’d sneak up on the waterfowl with my .410 single-shot. They always flushed out of range of the little gun.

That patch of earth had everything an 11-year old boy needed. It had always been there. He could not have known it would one day be gone.

It sustained me until I grew up and left the Bend. In 1973 it slipped away, sinking beneath a cold flood that had come to stay.

Before then, though, it was the location of the great carp adventure. I think Carson Givens gave me the idea that led to it (I have changed his and his family’s names.)

Carson and his family lived in the three-room house near the bottom of the hollow on our farm. He rented the house for half of whatever he and his mules could grow on the farm, a typical arrangement for farmers lacking their own land in those days. “Sharecroppers” is the rude term, but we called them renters, and there was no shame in it. A man did what he had to do.

What Carson had to do was fish. It was a calling and a gift. He could catch fish better than anybody I knew. A place where he couldn’t catch fish was a place with no water. I admired him very much. Fishing was important.

He kept trotlines and funnel-shaped nets called fish baskets strung out in the current of the Cumberland River. Each morning and night he checked his lines and baskets, cranking up an old Ford sedan and bouncing a mile over the farm road that wound along the fields and across the spring branch down to the river.

The fish he caught he stowed live in a cage suspended in the river. Thus he always had fresh fish on hand when people came wanting to buy some for supper. He caught buffaloes, catfish, drums, jacks and carp.

His wife and kids helped with the fieldwork. That arrangement gave Carson time to fish. He made money from fishing, and it helped support his family.

This gave me the inspiration to cabbage the carp in Billy White’s slue and to sell fish steaks.
Carson’s son Harold and I threw in together. Harold was 11 years old, the same age I was. He brought along his young brother Pee Wee, not big enough to help much, but his presence increased Harold’s share.

It was a hot summer, and the slue was drying up. When we got there, all that was left of it was a yard-sized puddle of roiling gray water surrounded by two acres of cracked blue mud. You could see the hemmed-in fish as they sloshed and churned, their backs slicing though the gray water. We had a fish bonanza.

But we could not reach them. The mud near the water was worse than quicksand. The waxy sludge grabbed our feet and would not let go, and the closer we got to the water, the deeper we sank.

We solved the problem by finding a rotting flat-bottomed boat resting against the bank at the slue’s normal edge. We dragged it across the cracked mud, then got in and poled across the slime until we arrived in the middle of the gray puddle. There we sat surrounded by a swarm of agitated carp.

My frog gig was no help. The fish were so big, their scales so tough, the prongs of the gig bent each time I tried to spear one. Did not need it anyway. The direct approach was better. We simply reached over the side and lifted the sagging fish into the boat. Soon the boat bottom was full of flopping carp.

Getting our haul home was the next hurdle. We strung the fish up in three bunches, a small one for Pee Wee. To do that, we slipped a cord through their gills and out their mouths. Their lips would open and close in gasps, kissing the air. We each slung a string of limp fish over our shoulder and starting walking. The fish hung down our backs, nearly dragging the ground.

The weight was too great. The cord cut into our hands and shoulders. We had to stop and rest every few steps. Two miles seemed a long way. Finally, half a mile from home and just past our spring, we lightened our load, throwing some of the fish in a cornfield for the crows.

I arrived at the house with a lightened but still heavy haul. Harold and Pee Wee walked on with their share. I started cleaning fish, squatting in the backyard, working on a board. I figured that if people buy whole fish from Carson, they would give even more if the fish were already cleaned and sliced. Somebody would.

The fish scales were big and coarse, and scraping them off was hard work. My pocket knife was not big enough, and I had to borrow Momma’s butcher knife. Even with her big knife, it was slow going.

I put slabs of coarse, white meat into a pan. The pan filled slowly. I worked until nearly suppertime and still had fish left to clean. After working so long I was tired. I gave up on cleaning the last few fish and flung them over the fence, a present for the hogs.

Nonetheless, I had managed to build a hefty stack of fish slabs in the pan, and Momma agreed to fry some for supper. The rest I stored in the refrigerator until I could find buyers. I was hungry and ready for the payoff.

It did not come. The fried fish tasted just like the mud they had lived in, impossible to eat. I think Momma expected that. I had to throw away all that fish, all my hard work. A mouth full of that fish was like a mouth full of mud.