Why We Run: A Natural History - Bernd Heinrich (2002)
Chapter 5. High School Cross-Country
Be a good animal, true to your animal instincts.
—D. H. LAWRENCE
My mother, barely five feet tall and weighing about a hundred pounds, and my father, also not a natural-born lumberjack, worked together as a team with a crosscut saw that first winter in the Maine woods. The snow that winter (and since) was deeper than anything we’d ever seen. When a tree fell, the trunk got buried and had to be shoveled out by hand, to be sawn into four-foot sections, and then to be dragged to the road with Susie, our neighbor’s draft horse. Mamusha and Papa were later even less adept at helping to make kite sticks inside the dark and dusty confines of a tiny woodshop in the town of Wilton. It was not long before Marianne and I ended up in a boarding school for homeless kids while our parents were off for six years collecting museum specimens. They went first to Mexico and then for years were in Angola, Africa.
At Good Will, as it was called then, there were many trails through a forest wilderness of three thousand acres. All the boys worked in the house, the barns, the fields, and the woods. During those six years there, I went from being a “houseboy,” washing dishes and floors, to becoming cook, to shoveling manure and helping with the twice-daily milking, to ultimately the top position—runner of the mail route.
In our play at Good Will, we often lived in our own little world of Indians and frontiersmen. The woods were our proving ground for survival skills. Some of us built crude cabins, waged mock wars, and occasionally even killed and ate a porcupine or snowshoe hare. I eventually cleared about a half-mile stretch on one of our forest trails that I ran all by myself, feeling the freedom of wind on my face as the sole but ample reward, visualizing myself as a loincloth-clad Iroquois brave who would be strong and free.
By venturing deep into the woods, we could explore unknown territory at the edge of our tribal world. We armed ourselves with spears made from maple saplings and practiced our throwing skills in remote clearings. Soon after the ice went out of the Kennebec River and the spring sun shone warmly on the yellow matted grass, several of our tight little gang lay naked on the ground in our remote clearing, trying to acquire the proper complexion. In our boyish ways we thrilled with excitement at the thought of fighting other, rival gangs and to hunt and bring back food to our forest campsites.
Philip and Freddie, my two buddies, were at first skeptical about eating common pigeons, which populated the barns with the cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, and chickens. But to me they seemed prime food, like the wood pigeons from the Hahnheide pines. However, eating out is also an adventure where atmosphere matters. For our eating adventures we helped ourselves to one of the school’s rowboats that were anchored in a quiet cove of the Kennebec River near the gardens. Then, like the cannibals in the story of Robinson Crusoe, we struck out with our by-then-dead captives, rowing to sandbanks on the far shore, over to an area known as the Pines near a large level clearing of short grass. I loved those sandbanks along the river, because bank swallows had tunneled into them to build their feather-lined nests of grass and laid their pearly white eggs. A pair of belted kingfishers dug their own much larger burrow here as well. The kingfishers’ travels into and out of their tunnel left two parallel grooves in the sand as they waddled in and out on their short, stubby legs, which are otherwise useful only for perching on a snag, from which they dive bill-first after minnows.
The grass of this pine-and-birch-enclosed clearing by the river was prairielike, and about a foot or two down from the top of the sod was—still is—a ragged black line in the fine yellow sand. It extended almost the whole length of the hundred-yard-long bank. The charcoal from ancient Indian campfires! At the time that this charcoal was deposited, and in the eons after that, the river must have swollen to much greater height than now, in order to deposit those layers of silt. Maine was partially covered by glaciers, and this was later tundra, populated by caribou and ptarmigan.
I envisioned the Indian encampments along the river of perhaps ten thousand years ago, when the glaciers retreated, and I searched for clues of what they might have been like. There were bits of bone among the charcoal, and once I even found a small stone ax of greenish, smooth-ground stone—a tomahawk (technically a “celt”)—among charcoal and three fire-reddened stones that had protruded from the sand. The small, otherwise unremarkable celt tapers smoothly from a 1.6-inch thickness to a 2.6-inch broad cutting face. The ax head made an impression on me mainly because the finely ground cutting edge had at least ten chips apparently knocked out of it at about the same time; there was no wear on any of the chipped edges. Someone had, apparently, deliberately and repeatedly hammered this valuable object against a rock before tossing it into a fireplace. Had two parties of competing hunters met here on the riverbank and, through a symbolic act following a feast of caribou, “buried the hatchet” by destroying it? If so, the reminder of their act had lain through the millennia, to show that our penchant for warfare is as strong as our yearning for peace.
The river flowed smoothly and swiftly along the bank. After we pulled our rowboat onto the sand at the bottom, we secured it onto a snag with a towline. Then we scrambled up onto the grass. Our feeling of remoteness, timelessness, and independence was complete, and we soon drew together around our own campfire among fieldstones. While roasting our plucked squab to a rich brown on fresh maple sticks, we undoubtedly complained about our strictly confining existence on the other side of the river. Tasting freedom was the best part of the meal.
In spring and early summer we’d all spend unbearable hours on our hands and knees, up and down endless assigned rows of vegetables, pulling out the blanket of weeds threatening to choke out everything we planted. But the gardens yielded much more than food. Over the years, the school gardens along the river had produced flint knives and arrowheads. Many of them were then in glass cases on the top floor of the huge brick school museum. The Bates Museum, as it is called, was once a great showcase, but it was then in disrepair and not open to the public as it is now again. It was then inhabited by colonies of little brown bats that squeaked in the walls and left a musty smell. It was a house of treasures, and I was one of the few persons who had reason to enter the museum—through a broken window in the basement. Down there in the dark, not far from the stuffed polar bear, caribou, and bobcat, was a jumble of ancient carriages and farm implements. This was the safest place for me to hide the pupae I’d raised from the tomato hornworms (i.e., hawk or sphinx moth larvae) I’d found while weeding the garden. I overwintered many pupae here, not only those of these large hawk moths.
In late summer, the river in between the school gardens and our safe and lonely camping place on the sandbanks was at times almost solidly covered with pulp logs floating from the north woods down to the paper mills below. Each had a paint mark on the end, to signify specific company ownership. Yet in the coves that were cordoned off with long boom logs strung across the entrances there grew pickerelweed with bright blue flowers. Bass and pickerel lurked under shadowing lily pads, to lunge at the metal “goldfish” and bright red and white “daredevils” that we flung out with fish poles and reeled back, hopeful for a strike. Black ducks nested in the weeds on the wooded banks, and little green herons built ragged stick nests in the dense willow tangles.
Martin Stream, which flows into the river and marked the boundary between the boys’ and the girls’ farms, was cool and shaded with hemlocks and always free of logs. It had many great swimming holes, but our official swimming hole, the one where we went when supervised, was about a half mile upstream by a large hemlock tree that leaned far out over the water from a high bank. A long rope dangling from it propelled a continuous progression of us naked boys far out onto the stream. We swimmers were always naked, per regulations, because a boy had drowned once after his swimming trunks got entangled on a submerged snag. Nakedness was one of the few rules we willingly obeyed.
A well-worn trail along the banks of Martin Stream led far upstream, past the hermit’s cabin and up to the trout fishing holes. I ran there often on Sundays, hurrying to be there as soon as possible right after church to practice my swimming strokes. I found bees streaming in and out of a hemlock tree along this path, and with Mr. Graft, a teacher who also liked bees, we cut down the hemlock and hived the bees. This adventure nourished much longer than the honey. One other time, while scanning for bees in the trees, I spied a tiny owl, no larger than a coffee mug. The yellow eyes of the saw-whet owl looked at me in surprise, as mine looked back in wonder. I needed this creature. I craved it. So I picked clay from the stream bank and with my slingshot, still as in the Hahnheide my most prized possession, I hit and stunned the owl with a clay pellet. It revived soon after I had it in my hand. I could not get enough of the little owl and maneuvered it into a cage in a hiding place up in a spruce tree in the woods. I felt the bird would be at home there and I could see it frequently. But after a few days my memory of it was secure, and I let it go to live free in the woods.
I loved the old sugar maple trees in the woods just behind Guilford Cottage, along Uncle Ed’s Road. In May, the pointed leaves of the brown-mottled trout lilies poked through the layers of matted moist maple leaves on the ground, to be followed by bright yellow nodding flowers. Blue and yellow violets, purple and white trilliums, and Dutchmen’s-breeches bloomed here as well. One day, while practicing hand-over-hand rope climbing on one of these trees, I heard a faint, dull hammering sound above the usual shrill chatter of the overbird and the lisping of the just-returned yellow-rumped warblers. I tracked it to a nearby maple, and then noticed little chips of rotted wood on the ground. Looking up, I saw a red-breasted nuthatch fly out of a tiny round hole in a dead tree limb about fifty feet up. The nuthatch flew to another branch, shook its head, and released a billful of wood chips, then returned into its hole and resumed the hammering. The nest inside was built of fine strips of cedar and birch bark, and the four fresh eggs were evenly marked with brownish lavender spots. I hadn’t yet encountered the mind-set of “Don’t swat it, don’t catch it, don’t eat it, don’t touch it” that tends to make nature into a frozen museum exhibit. Nature becomes intensely exciting and real through active participation, beyond just looking at it.
Finding birds’ nests in the spring became my burning passion, and through it I observed birds closely, to learn and record intricacies of their habits and habitat requirements, and maybe to “love” them. To be safe, it was best not to reveal that love. As much as I possibly could, I tried to hide my interests, although some of the kids may have suspected them when in our evening study hour and Bible reading I often sketched birds instead.
I’d eventually run away from the school with Philip and Freddie. We walked fifty miles one day and one night before we got hungry and tired enough to be willingly caught. I was much on punishment duty as the housemother made me stay in, first to wash every wall and ceiling in the house, then paint many of them. I had almost no free time, not even to earn money on Saturday afternoon so that I could buy such necessities as clothing and toothpaste. Near that time we took to sneaking out at night. We’d slip out from the otherwise watchful eyes and ears of Mrs. Lizotte, our ultrastrict housemother. We’d leave rumpled clothing as dummies in our beds, then tiptoe down the stairs from our bedroom, but only after we’d hear her impressive snore.
We went in the moonlight to the barns, where Philip worked with the horses in the daytime. He knew what to do. We saddled up, and galloped at top speed across the fields, once even venturing all the way across the Martin Stream bridge to the girls’ farm, probably hoping to meet up with other night wanderers.
In the winter we went night-skiing instead, often to the old golf course, then overgrown with brush, to practice our downhill or jumping technique on a snow jump we’d built previously. We also made nocturnal excursions on skis or snowshoes into the woods. It was strictly forbidden and therefore an exciting adventure.
Winter was, next to spring, my favorite time of year. There was then no tedious and endless crawling in the dirt in the hot sun for weeding. Instead, we worked in the woods chopping trees. There were crews of us working together. We built bonfires of brush, and the girls sometimes baked cookies and doughnuts and brought hot chocolate.
At night, as I lay awake on my bed, I could sometimes hear the ice crack down on the river. It was a booming sound, like a combination of thunder and rifle shots, and on cold clear nights that sound carried for miles. In contrast, the silence of gently falling snow was peacefully mesmerizing. Once, in a snowstorm, I came close to a flock of white-winged crossbills. The purple males on the snow-laden fir branches contrasted beautifully with the greenish yellow females.
When Philip, Freddie, and I went on excursion, we wandered mostly to our camp deep in the woods, toward an area called Kendall Annex, an abandoned farm donated to the school. (It would later be sold off as the site for the construction of a giant paper mill with metal stacks that you now see for miles.) It was then all woods and overgrowing fields, and it was the edge of the world as we knew it. We’d eventually push the boundaries when we struck out to try our luck on the aforementioned runaway venture. We didn’t even leave the school premises the first two days. It started to rain in torrents, and the crust on the deep snow that April melted, making walking in the woods almost impossible. Martin Stream was quickly flooded and we couldn’t cross to Kendall Annex. So we returned along the stream bank and spent the two days under an overturned rowboat in back of President Garrison’s house. Meanwhile the state police searched fruitlessly far afield.
We walked across the bridge after dark when the rain stopped, and then we went on into the night to start our long walk. I was cheered somewhat by hearing dogs barking on isolated farms we passed, and by barred owls hooting in the swamps. I had once found a barred owl’s nest in the dead top of a large basswood tree, and I’d come back there several evenings to watch and listen to the bird’s amazing caterwauling. In college, I wrote one of my many required English papers on that experience. We normally wrote themes about poems, like the one about how “lovely” a tree is because “it has a bird’s nest in its hair.” I’d never seen, heard, or felt anything like what I’d read in any of those poems, and so I generally got C’s and felt thankful. I’d resisted the temptation to write with a pen rather than in pencil because I didn’t want to be putting on airs. For once the theme I’d written, on the owl’s nest, felt right, but this time the instructor said the writing was out of my style, and “obviously” too good—hence, as far as he was concerned, it was proof that I’d cheated.
Running would be different. What anybody might think does not matter. Credit would go where credit is due.
We had few formal athletics, but Mr. Moody, our eighth-grade teacher, made a long-jump pit next to our big brick grammar school and encouraged practice and competition. I loved the fast sprint, the takeoff from the edge of the pit. Virtually flying through the air, I would land in the soft sand, mark the spot, and measure the distance.
Running speed was basic to gaining momentum and making distance. Running, Mr. Moody told us, was of more significance than just being able to long jump and make a mark on the sand. The Iroquois Confederacy of six tribes that dominated upper New York State had been potent as a result of the speed of its runners, who could quickly carry messages along the 240-mile Iroquois Trail through the wilderness. Relays of runners could cover the length of the trail in three days, and that speed of communication made the confederacy possible. The Iroquoian tribes held running contests, as did the Mandans of North Dakota and numerous other cultures, from the Incas to the Greeks. The Mandans cleared about a 3-mile track in a giant horseshoe, and winners received a red-painted feather as a victory token that could be exchanged for goods.
Mr. Moody redirected our sometimes destructive urges by encouraging us to aspire to athletic skills. Miss Dunham, another grammar school teacher, gave us further inspiration and direction. She told us about Indians who could catch deer by pursuing them relentlessly and wearing them down. The deer I’d seen ran swiftly through the forest in giant leaps and bounds. They represented the ultimate in running performance, and I could not envision them ever tiring. How could a human possibly catch one? She didn’t say, but she did tell us about Roger Bannister, who had just three or four years earlier run a mile in under four minutes, which had until then been considered physiologically impossible.
We didn’t satisfy our urges in real battles or actual hunts, but eventually we found an outlet for all the running we needed in cross-country competition. Bob Colby, our high school English teacher and cross-country coach, had announced at the morning convocation in early fall of my junior year that all boys who were interested in running cross-country should meet him in his homeroom after school. Cross-country is a fall sport, and at Good Will, with fewer than a hundred kids in the whole high school, it was, next to baseball, a major sport.
“Cross-country is a team sport,” Mr. Colby began after we assembled, “where the team with the lowest score wins. The first man in gets one point, the second gets two points, and the twentieth gets twenty points, and so on. Five men score. A team that gets these five men in first scores one plus two plus three plus four plus five—equals fifteen points. That’s a perfect score. Those runners who don’t score directly can still help the team win by beating other scorers, so that their numbers are higher. Any questions so far?”
The rules were simple and direct. The better anyone on the team did, the better for all. I liked the idea of individual initiative contributing to our team of Harriers. Here was my chance to belong, but could I make it? As I looked around, I wasn’t overly confident. There was Jerry, who was already man enough to shave. There were about twenty other hopefuls. At the age of nineteen years then, I was the smallest, most peach-faced, and underdeveloped of the lot, with only a few pimples showing a first sign of adolescence. Worse, I was called Nature Boy because I liked bugs and birds. There was Jughead, a foot taller than I. He was thin and lean and had his long, dark hair slicked back with greasy Vitalis. “Did you ever notice,” he asked Mr. Colby, “that intellectuals aren’t developed physically?” I did not by any means claim or want to be an intellectual. Nevertheless, the assumption behind that question—namely, that physical excellence might just possibly exclude thoughtful pursuits, maybe even loving birds and bugs—agitated me. It was too much in line with other forced stereotypes. “No,” Mr. Colby said, “I haven’t noticed.”
Our educational programs incorporate physical training, assuming a mind-body connection. Plato, who participated in the Isthmian Games as a wrestler, as well as Socrates, who was said to keep himself in excellent condition by training in a gymnasium, emphasized the necessity of physical training in a sound education. Some of Plato’s dialogues, I later learned, took place literally in a gymnasium. The Indian and the Greek ideals that we have adopted emphasize the development of the whole person.
“We’ll train for two weeks, and then we’ll have time trials to see who makes the first string—that’s the first seven. Those seven who make the team get to go on road trips,” Mr. Colby continued.
“Road trips,” Mr. Colby went on, “are when we go to race at other schools.” Our longest road trip would be to Vinalhaven, an island off the Maine coast. We’d take a ferry ride in addition to a long car ride. I wanted to make the team more than ever. But could I outrun enough of these brutes to do so?
We were issued uniforms and equipment. We each got one pair of white cotton socks, one jockstrap, and a pair of narrow black canvas running shoes with a thin, hard rubber sole. Our running uniforms were black shorts and an orange T-shirt with the Good Will emblem. We met on the lawn outside for our first training session. We met there every day, at 3 P.M. sharp. As we lined up on the lawn in back of Averill High, Coach Colby began our routine by having us hop while swinging our arms and legs to the sides. We got down on our hands and in unison pushed our bodies up and down from the grass.
Among the Penobscot tribe in Maine, each family group used to have some young men who were specifically designated as runners to chase down moose and deer. These “pure men” were chosen because of their fleetness of foot, and to be one of these few was considered an honor. The runners were guarded by some old men to make sure that they did not have sex, that they slept with their legs drawn up, and that they did not chew spruce gum, as those transgressions were thought to impair their breathing as well as make their testicles clack when they ran, warning the deer. Change only a few of the parameters, and we students at Good Will were like those pure men. We also were fed myths that, from a more rational (that is, distant), unbiased perspective, were probably similarly absurd. I never did figure out why we all had to wear jockstraps, for example. But I would never have dreamed of going without one.
Putting on uniforms and doing jumping jacks and push-ups in unison does not make a team. That takes pride, and pride comes from exclusivity. After the warm-up, our real workout began. We were told to run up Green Road, turn left at the top and come down Uncle Ed’s Road, run down past the front of the cottages, and then finish up in front of Averill High. That would also be our home course for meets. The whole distance was close to 3 miles, and it was almost all on dirt road. “Now let’s line up here…Ready, set, go.”
We were off in a rush, Jughead and Jerry galloping on ahead. Everybody tried to keep up with everybody else. It seemed forever by the time we finally all made it back to the school building, but I was glad I was not one of the stragglers. Some weeks we probably ran close to fifteen miles. The consistent stragglers soon handed in their uniforms. We were beginning to have a team.
Our first meet during the next year—my senior year—was a home meet. I was “going steady” at the time, which basically meant I had butterflies in my stomach when I happened to meet the object of my affections in the hall. I very much hoped to see her at the finish line. Imagining her there, I counted the days until Friday afternoon, the time of the first big meet.
I remember the tension beforehand, and then the lonely, agonizing battle of about eighteen to twenty eternal minutes as I strained every nerve and muscle and never once looked back. My overpowering wish was that it might end. During it all, I anticipated how good it would feel finally to stop running and to see my girlfriend’s face. Coming across the small cement bridge through the pines, I could see the finish line, where several spectators had gathered. I rushed to it and nearly collapsed in ecstasy. I was first. As is usual in situations like that, the pain is soon forgotten. The happiness remains.
My surprising ending seemed like a fluke, but it then happened four more times in a row. After that, I was no longer derisively called Nature Boy. I was instead “an animal,” which of course we all are. However, that sounded much better. In fact, it felt great.
Every morning before classes, all of the students and teachers gathered together in the school auditorium. In unison we held our right hands over our hearts and solemnly chanted the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and then sang a patriotic song about bombs exploding in the air, which made me cringe. After bowing and murmuring for a while, we lifted our heads and listened to announcements. On one particular morning after our fifth cross-country meet, Principal Kelly announced to all the assembled crowd that our cross-country team had won all our meets so far, and that I had won the distinction of being the school’s first “ace”—a five-time winner. I did not think of myself as a better runner. I had just tried harder and been more careful about what I ate.
I was never known to be a fussy eater, which was sometimes a topic for jokes. However, being as active an animal as I was, I knew proper nutrition was essential to my running. My gums were bleeding a lot, a sign of scurvy, vitamin C deficiency. That worried me a lot.
In one letter to Mamusha and Papa in Africa, dated July 3, 1958, I wrote: “My coach thinks I could become state champion in the fall…. Tomorrow I have to go to the dentist, again. He sais [sic] he might have to pull a couple of my back teeth—too bad. I don’t think it’s because I don’t brush my teeth enough because I do quite regularly. It must be the diet here—it isn’t very good. Many of the other kids have the same trouble. It’s no use crying over spilled teeth.”
On February 3, 1959, I wrote: “I have a boil right now—we have had an epidemic going round. It is baffling and kind of scary. Yesterday in church Marianne had to throw up twice and one of the girls just collapsed…. Quite a few of the others besides myself have boils, too. This all makes me quite made [sic] because I think a lot of this can be avoided if they made an effort to provide a balanced diet. At least I think there would be more resistance.”
I did my best to provide myself a balanced diet. Aside from the occasional captured squab from the barns in spring-time that we roasted out on the flats across the river, I once stole canned fruit cocktail assigned to our housemother, and when I worked at the barns I often reached into the bins and ate the grain mixture meant for the cows, assuming the diet of the cows to be unrefined and nutritious.
My appetite was increased by my new job as mail boy. The mail boy picked up the morning outgoing mail in a leather mail pouch in the Prescott (administration) building after breakfast, bicycled with it to the Hinckley post office, then brought back the morning incoming mail. After school, he did the same again. I left the bike at Prescott, and I ran.
The one-room post office was the domain of Gordon Gould, a short, battle-scarred tank of an Irishman. He liked to be known as Lefty. And Lefty he was to me, and in my memory will remain so always, even though I never actually saw him swing that left hook he said he was famous for when he was on his way to become the welterweight champion of the world, before he got shot up in the war. “I never got knocked out,” he told me, and, “I’d run five miles every day, and I could do two hundred push-ups nothing flat.”
Lefty was once a Good Will day student, and I felt comfortable with him because he knew what our life was like, and the outside world as well. He had served in the A Company, 504, in the U.S. Army Eighty-second Airborne Para-trooper Division, in World War II, before he came back home to Hinckley crippled, to become postmaster. He was usually the only person I saw in the one-room post office, every morning before and every afternoon after school. The faster I ran, the longer I could stay and listen to his adventures.
Before my two years as mail boy were up, I’d listened to Lefty for hundreds of hours, standing awestruck in front of his little barred window as he talked about his war experiences in Anzio, Northern Africa, Sicily, Belgium, and Germany. I could almost smell the powder, hear the thunder, and see the tracer bullets as he told of his exploits with his buddies Ed “Arab” Adams (Adamczyk) and T. J. McCarthy. Beads of sweat would sometimes form on his broad forehead as his gray-blue eyes looked deep into mine, as he tapped his vivid memories.
“One time when we were firing at the Germans on the hillside opposite us, one machine gunner over there didn’t hide his position. He’d keep hoisting up Maggie’s drawers (a little white flag), telling us we’d missed. When it came time for us to finally advance, we went around him. Another time a couple of them came over at night. They’d somehow got through our lines and completely surprised us—held us up with machine guns, demanded cigarettes, sat down and smoked, and talked with us, and then went back. One night I was inspecting our machine gun positions—and at one the gun was gone. ‘What happened?’ I asked the crew. One said: ‘Well, one of the guys has been bringing up coffee every night from the rear, and to identify himself he says, “Don’t shoot—coffee coming up.” This night the same thing happened, only the Krauts saying it, and then they told us, “We just want your guns. You can stay. Explain that to your officers.”
“Heidelbrink (another of Lefty’s comrades) could speak German. He went to school there, and knew their psychology. He’d go behind their lines. One time he came back wearing a German major’s uniform and he had a whole company of prisoners with him. He’d ordered them all to line up and march. They did. They couldn’t disobey an order.
“We sang ‘Oh Susannah.’ Then one night one of them comes over with his hands up, saying, ‘I’m not surrendering—I just love to sing, and I want to sing along with you guys.’ He did, too, in a deep, baritone voice.”
Of course, it usually wasn’t like this. The officers on both sides kept them moving around, so that they’d remain enemies.
I didn’t hear about all the battles, but he did recount riveting events of the last one.
“I saw the tracer bullets coming, then the Krauts had got me—I saw this thighbone lying next to me. I realized it was mine. I got mad—I flung it at them. Then I passed out. They overran us. It was kids, really, that dragged me off afterward.”
It had been near the end of the war, and he was put into a Belgian hospital. “The German doctor told me that when the war is over, when your army doctors get to you, they’ll tell you your leg will have to be amputated. It’s the easiest thing to do. Refuse. Your leg can be saved.”
And that’s how it turned out. “When they shipped me stateside to the veterans’ hospital, the first thing they told me was, ‘We’ll have to take off your leg.’ I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘If we don’t, then you’ll die.’ So I said, ‘I’ll die, then.’” Lefty didn’t die just then, but he could never again run.
To me, Lefty was a great friend and ego booster, and if I ran to please anyone, to make them proud of me at Good Will, it was for him, and for Coach Bob Colby.
Our totem at Good Will was the beaver. “The beaver,” we were told, “works when he works, plays when he plays, is strong in individual effort, yet labors for the community good.” The beaver cuts trees individually, yet its dams and lodges are built and maintained communally by the whole clan. Efforts from one generation of beavers contribute also to the well-being of future generations. This was not just school propaganda. They are ideals that encapsulate what makes us human. We are also social animals, and that sociality has been handed down to us from our apelike ancestors of millions of years ago, as it has in beavers, ants, chimps, and bees. Like other animals, we play at those things that are important to our survival, and social play promotes social cohesion. Our school sports teams gave us a feeling of belonging, an identity as a group. Gangs that fight one another with knives and guns, like those some of the boys I knew had come from, do the same thing, but at a high cost. If we can’t find allies in one context, we will in another. But there is a prerequisite: in order to forge alliances, we first need worthy adversaries. Without adversaries, no alliances are necessary.
One morning at the post office, Lefty pointed one out to me. With his stubby fingers he poked into our newspaper, the Waterville Sentinel, at a headline about Bert Hawkins, an undefeated cross-country runner from Waterville High who set a course record every time he ran. Hawkins immediately loomed, almost menacingly, larger than life.
There is nothing that can make one feel smaller than seeing someone big, which is why many try to talk down those who are more capable than they are. In running, you can’t deceive yourself or anyone else. You have to confront facts; I knew that Hawkins could outrun God.
A meeting with Hawkins was inevitable, since Waterville was just a few miles down the Kennebec River. Waterville High was a class L (large) school, whereas we were S (small). Nevertheless, Coach Colby invited them down to run against us, and they came. I did not see the Waterville Warriors until they came out of the locker room for the showdown in front of Averill High. We were not favored. I knew, too, that in a very few minutes I’d be exposed: I was not a great runner. I just tried harder.
As with all insecure kids, a large part of my existence teetered precariously on a thin, fine edge, with independence on one side and pleasing my all-powerful parents and parent figures on the other. The scales were uneven; my housemother saw me as fundamentally flawed from the start. She called me a little Hun because I had the wrong accent and spoke poor English. Her logic then filled in, supplying an ironic twist to every innocent act of fun, curiosity, and survival, to color them into evil and grotesque crimes. After a few years I felt robbed of precisely those qualities I valued and aspired to. With nothing more left to lose, all I had left to develop for redeeming my pride were dare-devil acts and physical prowess, and I tried a little of both. The first induced me to commit outrageous acts that got me kicked out of school just a week before I would have received my high school diploma, while the second helped me get an education. This race against Hawkins indirectly contributed to the latter.
Someone pointed him out to me. He was the skinny kid with the black crew cut—the one who gave me just the barest hint of a smile (or was it a sneer?) as we lined up for the start.
As was his well-known custom, Hawkins took off fast and established a big lead. We approached the mile-long gentle uphill grade of the Green Road, where I’d once tried to outrun Principal Kelly in his paneled station wagon after he had caught sight of me during lunch break, just as I was lighting a firecracker that I’d made in chemistry class. The firecracker had fizzled, but it ignited the rumor that “the little German kid was trying to blow up the bridge.” But Lefty only laughed at this nonsense and talked to me as always.
This was home turf. I knew that if I could just hang on to the top of the hill, Hawkins might feel as if he were having a bad day. It was my only chance. Gradually I crept up on him—he must have begun to hear footsteps, because he turned around and looked, and before running another hundred yards, to my utter amazement he stopped to calmly take a leak beside the road.
Once you turn on the spigot you can’t very well immediately turn it off again; you’ve got to let it run awhile. I took the advantage and went past to grab the lead. After reaching the top of the hill, it was all downhill, and I pressed my advantage all the way home. By the time I was coming over the little cement bridge where I’d set off my little sizzler, he still hadn’t caught up. I could hear the girls cheer and the coach holler, “Atta go, Ben!” (Ben was my nickname throughout high school and college in Maine.) I gathered my last bit of strength and managed to finish just a few strides ahead. Running prowess may seem unimportant to an antelope until that rare moment in its life when a lion gives chase. To me, that last moment had been important. It had been mind over matter.
Modern biology has now proven the physical reality of the mind-body connection and uncovered some of the mechanisms that back then would have seemed like science fiction. The mind serves as the mediator between sensory input and physiological output. Who could have imagined that on a specific schedule of darkness and light, or even at a mere flash of light at precisely the right time, a moth pupa would “decide” whether to remain in torpor for months or to metamorphose into a flying adult? Who could have imagined that a male sparrow, experiencing a longer day length, would get surges of testosterone into his bloodstream that initiate a cascade of physiological changes that then alter his behavior and also cause him to molt his drab feathers into brilliant ones? Who could have imagined that a dove would go through all of the profound physiological changes in enlarging her ovaries and developing and laying eggs, just by seeing some twigs and a courting male? In all three cases, the sensory stimuli excite, or activate, the brain, and the brain induces a cascade of hormones that then affect the body. We humans have the same mind-hormone axis, and we are additionally blessed with consciousness, which can excite our brains sometimes with very little provocation from sensory input; we can intensify any input with the lens of our minds. But there are limits. We can’t cure a cancer with good thoughts, but good thoughts can make us feel better and allow us to function more effectively. They can also help us accomplish what seems otherwise not possible.
High school cross-country had provided the transition from running to racing. I had tasted the lure of the chase, and I was changed. As cross-country runners, we learned to focus our energies, to shackle every atom of our energies for one clean task, if only briefly. Yet we worked hard for a specific and well-defined goal not only during the chase but also in long preparation for it. It turned out that for me there was another bonus.
The possibility of going to college had at first been too remote for me even to consider. We had no classes in any branch of biology, and I had done poorly in Latin, which Papa said is the language of biology. How could there be hope for me to do anything in a subject where I did not even speak the language? Chemistry? Instead of doing experiments, we sometimes made firecrackers, but unsupervised. In physics we only read aloud from the book. I retained little from the textbooks, learning instead from what I lived and the things I touched that held emotional content for me. My head was filled with what was (and maybe still is) considered in many circles as esoteric and probably trivial knowledge about almost everything that flew or crawled or swam. I was also influenced by equally nonacademic adventure stories of explorers in Africa. I had absolutely no means of financial support. The few Saturday afternoons I’d had off from work I hired out at the barns for a dollar the afternoon. It was enough to buy my secondhand clothes and other necessities. What more could I want? Nevertheless, consider going to college I finally did, in the late fall of my senior year, when Mr. Kelly, our principal, said to me, “Ben, they have a great cross-country team at the University of Maine.” I knew right then that I needed a college education.