One Leg Up

When I first heard that an epidemic had grown into a pandemic and might be heading our way, I reasoned that the calculation could prove erroneous, much like the mile-wide asteroid that was projected to hit the Earth in March 2018 and do to us what a space visitor did to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The asteroid missed us by 600,000 miles. I shrugged off a pandemic as just another scary projection based on data that might be faulty or exaggerated. Even if it arrived here, I was confident it would be stopped in its tracks thanks to modern technology and the excellence of our American health system.

So much for optimism.

We got a pass on the asteroid and a slam from the virus. And suddenly, the world we knew was gone, changed overnight. No one knew when we would get it back or what kind of world we would inherit when we did. It was too fantastic, too science fictional to comprehend.

Since the virus was a human-fed contagion, we were requested, then ordered, to go home and stay home, shelter in place and hunker down. Here I had an advantage. I was home anyhow. 

Surgery to replace my right knee had me housebound just before sheltering became mandatory. I wasn’t walking, but I was one step ahead of the national indoor migration. You can’t be more sheltered than what I was: a shut-in, going nowhere. 

Physical tasks were more difficult for me than the average householder, but we all shared the same problem: how to adjust to a limited space, how not to annoy your housemate, how to keep in touch with similarly isolated friends and loved ones, how to find indoor interests to keep yourself entertained, and how to look on confinement as an opportunity rather than a lockdown.

Confined for the most part to a bed or a recliner, I could of course read a newspaper, begin a novel, or binge on TV newscasts with the latest stats on coronavirus cases and crises. That was my habit at first.

There was fascination as well as fear in the novelty of an invisible, relentless plague. The nation had been caught unprepared and was racing to catch up. I kept well-informed on all of it—from shortages of essential supplies and workers to rates of infection and the mounting death toll. I tried not to miss Governor Newsom’s well-informed and conservatively encouraging press conferences. By contrast, I wondered if the president fully understood the catastrophe he was trying to explain and why he declared he was not being sufficiently appreciated. 

Slowly, I returned to the writing which has long been a daily habit of mine. I began work on a new detective story featuring the Delta-based character of a sleuth who’d rather go sailing and the strong women who guide and influence his life. And much to my wife’s delight, I began winnowing numerous files in an effort to make the house less stuffed with the accumulated souvenirs of a long writing career.  

I also rummaged through short fiction I have written over the years, finding a tale to reward a friend for her kindness in delivering fresh eggs from her farm to my front door. “Just look for the only green door in the vicinity,” I directed her, “and hanging on it, a bouquet of carrots for the Easter bunny.” 

With clues like that, the egg lady had no problem locating me. I limped to the door to greet her arrival and found the wise woman had retreated more than the required six feet for ultimate social distancing. 

After daily exercises to strengthen my knee, I move to a comfortable recliner and wrap a soothing ice pack around the swollen joint. With a view of family photos, my library and garden, this is a time I cherish for relaxation and meditation, remembering as I do certain personalities and events that for various reasons remain unforgettable, fixed in time and memory.  

And so it was I recalled a day in the last century when I stepped outside my old Stockton home and heard cries high overhead. I knew what I was going to see before I looked up. But there was a surprise in what I saw.

Two formations of wild geese were flying south. The first formation was flying tight in a classic V. It was a thing of beauty. The victory formation.

The second group must have washed out of flight school. It was filled with slowpokes and stragglers who couldn’t find south without a compass.  Maybe even with.

I wondered if the first group was berating those bumblers to get with the program, dress it up, show some pride. It didn’t happen. The first group flew on, proud role models of the goose tradition. The second was all over the map. The classic V was pursued by a random Z. I’d never seen the like and stared at the comically differing patterns until the birds were out of sight.

Was there a message for me here? If signs of fall were in the air, ought I try not to be a lazy goose? Should I get cracking and prepare for the new season? Stock the firewood? Check the antifreeze? Order the turkey? How about delighting the wife with an offer of early holiday shopping?

Reader, I must confess. I did the guy thing instead. Why get organized when you can do what you want to do? And what I wanted to do at that moment was to take a run across the park to touch a piece of history I knew existed but had never seen.

For a long time, I had wanted to visit one of Stockton’s most unknown memorials and see for myself what its lettering said. I decided to run all the way to the Don Bowden plaque.

Bowden was a University of California, Berkeley, student who came to Stockton on the first day of June in 1957 to compete in a track meet in old Baxter Stadium. It wasn’t a particularly good day for him, he told me when we talked by phone. 

“I had to take my final econ exam that day, and I wasn’t in the best of spirits with all the stress,” Bowden said. “I barely had time to dash to Stockton. It was a rush act to get there and get ready for the race.”      

It wasn’t an auspicious start. Bowden had his doubts whether he could get to the track in time for a warmup; but the ensuing race would prove to be the most memorable of his life—one that ensured his name would be immortal in the annals of American sport.

Bowden gave credit where credit was due. He said he might never have come to Stockton if coach Brutus Hamilton hadn’t assured him that the clay track at Baxter was his kind of track.

“He always seemed to know what I could do,” Bowden praised his motivating coach. “He said it would be a great opportunity for me.”

Bowden arrived at the track with barely enough time for the necessary warmup, but with a plan firmly in mind on how to pace himself in the race.

“The easiest way to run a long-distance race is to run as evenly as possible. You want to expend your energy as evenly as possible.”

I kept that game plan in mind as I set off on a race of my own. Could I beat the clock to my destination? Could I set a record of my own? Was I overestimating my limited abilities? 

“For me, it was a race against the clock,” said Bowden, a champion half-miler in the 1957 season. He had a shot at another record the day he came to Stockton. Despite the pressures of a final exam and a hurried drive afterward, he remembered feeling comfortable once he’d completed warming up and setting his mind to the challenge that lay ahead. But he knew better than to be overconfident.

“I felt pretty relaxed, but you never know what’s going to happen in a race.” 

Amen to that. In my case, the run was uncertainty itself, especially because the park I ran across was full of the ups and downs of an uneven surface. My warmup had been hurried and incomplete. I felt relaxed and assured when I set off, but the farther I went, the less confident I became. I had to pay close attention to where I was stepping. Every step became a test. It wasn’t long before I lost the “even measure” Bowden advised. Then I began to huff and puff. Being winded is not a good sign if you’re racing the clock.

Bowden had none of those problems. He felt fast and loose as he flew through the first lap at 59.1. He was just over at 61.1 on lap two, but he picked up the pace and blew through three at 59.8. The stadium crowd came to life then, with a little coaxing from the public address announcer. 

“The announcer was a track enthusiast,” Bowden said. “When I came around the final turn, he said the first four-minute mile in America was definitely possible. Brutus was telling me to go for it, and that I was going to make it.”

If you can’t believe your announcer, believe your coach. The crowd cheered Bowden to the tape and cheered even more appreciatively when the announcer gave them the news they were hoping to hear. Bowden had done it! They all had been witnesses to a milestone in American sports history.

Getting down the home stretch was a psychological barrier more than a physical one, Bowden recalled. For me, the home stretch was both. 

I stumbled out of the park and wobbled across Stadium Drive to the campus of the University of the Pacific. Yes, I was closing in on the Bowden plaque. No, I wasn’t running evenly. Reality was closing in on me. I ignored it and told myself nothing could stop me now. I didn’t believe that, but it kept me going.

Are you all right, sir?” a passing student asked, sympathetically noting my too-red face, gasping mouth and a clumsy running technique that had abandoned all pretense of style. She was right to be concerned.

“Don’t try this at home!” I cautioned her and pressed on, trying to summon whatever reserves of energy I had left and trying not to acknowledge the fact that my reserves were gone.  

Forcing myself forward on legs that protested their abuse, I managed somehow to reach the Bowden plaque, located outside the west entrance of Elbert Covell dining hall. It was the finish, all right. I was done, spent, shot. Kaput with capital K. But I had reached my objective. Don’t ask me how.

“Approximately 10 yards north of this spot,” the inscription read, “was the finish line where Don Bowden became the first American to run an under-four-minute mile in the history of track and field, on June 1, 1957, with the time of 3.58.7….”

My time for the under-mile run is not a matter of record.  But I could not leave the plaque without paying tribute to Bowden’s achievement—and to myself for reaching the site of its commemoration. I bowed my head and chose an appropriate quote to honor both the champion miler and the never-mind-the-time misfit: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”

The only problem now was getting home. That took some doing. One step at a time. With frequent timeouts.

“Where have you been?” the wife demanded when I came limping up to my front door. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”

“I went out to run a four-minute mile.”

“You’ve been gone over an hour! Or is it two?”

“If you agree not to tell anyone, you can take me shopping with you,” I said, making the supreme sacrifice.

Now that you know the secret of my ultimate sports challenge, kindly keep it to yourself, along with whatever chuckle you had from it in this dark time when laughter, the best medicine of all, is the scarcest commodity.

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