“Time’s on the wing…”

My dad’s moving out of his little apartment with us, into a “senior living” facility. It’s been a tough choice to make, but I’ve pretty much come to the end of the road and can no longer do him justice here. I’ve found a great place, and I’m content with the decision. I think he will be, too.

The fact of this major change has brought to the surface more memories of moments we’ve shared over the years. Some are utterly mundane, some are pretty awful, but so many involve laughter and joy. Here’s one that popped into my head Thursday as I was driving home from a chat with the people at Maplewood.

In mid-October, 1963, when I was 15, I ran in my first large cross-country meet, sponsored by my high school due entirely to the energy of our coach. It was the third running of an event that continues to this day. I’d been having a good season for a new runner, which had been a great surprise—to me most of all. I’d lost only once, but I’d so far run only dual meets, which have an entirely different dynamic than meets with a dozen or more teams. My dad had given me a little shake that morning, to add a “Good luck today” to the standard kiss before he left for work. We all hoped I’d do well, of course, but others were favored.

It was a two-lap course that allowed good views from a hill near its center, and the meet was big enough to attract spectators. My mother was there, and she brought her mother and, I think, one of her sisters. Schoolmates, teachers, other adults, little kids—all a real kick for us runners, who seldom performed for crowds. It was especially great for me, because it was a home crowd. It’s an indescribably wonderful feeling to have a mass of people cheering for you.

But it’s a nervous-making feeling, too. You don’t want to let people down. I took off at the gun like a scalded cat. There was no doubt who was going to win the first half mile: this inexperienced idiot in the blue singlet. But that would leave another two miles to go. A little after the mile mark, though, when I needed a bit of a boost, we came back through the starting area and that wonderful crowd, and I got energized all over again. I ran scared the whole way, but when I took my last look back with just over a quarter mile to go, I knew I had it.

Unexpected victory is pure joy, and I experienced a fantastic half-hour or so getting pummeled and congratulated. (And scolded by my grandmother: “I’m never going to watch you run again. You look like you’re going to die!”) Great stuff, for sure. But the very best moment of the day came later. My mom had had to go back to work, and I walked to my grandmother’s house to wait for my father to come through town to pick me up on his way home. He stopped on the other side of the street, and I jogged stoically out and got into the car with my gym bag. He said, “So, how did it go?” as if it didn’t really matter all that much, because he knew I hadn’t been likely to win, and he didn’t want to make me feel worse than I probably already did. I managed to keep a straight face while I fumbled with the zip on my bag. “Well,” I said, “not too bad.” And I pulled out the trophy. “You won!” he said, showing just enough amazement to confirm he’d thought I wouldn’t. “Of course,” I said, showing just enough irony to confirm I hadn’t thought I would either. And we laughed, both at each other and out of the pure happiness of the moment.


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