Monday, November 23, 2015

Protectors.

Last week, when Islamic militants executed a series of attacks throughout Paris, I thought of a picture I have in my house.  It is an old sepia-toned picture of the Eiffel Tower that my uncle took after helping liberate that city from the Nazis in late August of 1944.  The picture is beautiful, the tower standing out amid a mix of fog and an eerie, spectral light.  Looking at that picture gives me hope that our nation and our world can once again defeat a growing evil.

My uncle Raymond was a soldier.  I know very little about his time serving this country in our Armed Forces.  He didn't talk about it much, not to my father and certainly not to the little kid I was when I knew him.  I think he stormed the beaches at Normandy.  I know he was shot and wounded in battle.  I remember a picture of him standing at the end of a dock on a lake in some foreign country, mountains in the background, wearing a cleanly pressed uniform and leaning on a cane.  In that picture he looks like the American soldier you would see on a propaganda poster of the Second World War.  He is handsome, and young.  He radiates bravery.

I knew him many years after he served, through the eyes of a little kid.  I remember him buying us ice creams.  I remember how cool I thought it was that he worked for John Deere, as I played with the model tractors he brought as presents.  I remember how he always got up early when visiting and cooked Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages and eggs.  I remember his holiday visits, the way he would give us a smack on the backside as we headed off to bed.  I remember him as a kind and joyful man who always seemed to smile a lot.  In my eyes he was an uncle rather than a soldier.

I wonder how much his experiences as a soldier haunted him, or simply influenced his decisions once he was back in civilian life.  I wonder if his nearly obsessive love of Mozart and Bach was motivated by a desire to again find beauty in the world after witnessing the horrors of war.  He used to love taking walks, and I remember distinctly that even as a kid I noticed the distant look he would sometime get walking along.  I wonder what he was thinking about.  I know from stories my father has told me that when my uncle returned from war, he walked around his childhood home and turned each picture of himself face down.  He could not bear to look at himself after what he had been called upon to do.  He made that sacrifice to provide the rest of us our freedoms.  

With all this spinning around in my head, I opened my classroom door the other day to see one of my former students dressed in uniform, a newly fledged Marine.  He graduated last year, and just completed boot camp.  He stood before me, hair closely cropped, hands clasped behind his back, having completed the first step toward doing what he always knew he would.  I want to introduce him to you. 

I met Pat Byrne as a student in my senior English class.  Like many kids not headed off to four-year colleges, his grades struggled.  Unlike most of those kids, he led our class discussions and was actively engaged in every topic we covered.  He knew the success of class depended on people contributing, so he contributed.  That is Pat.  While he did not always look out for the best interest of his own grade, he did always look out for the best interest of the class.  There were countless days he carried that class on his shoulders.

Last year when I asked Pat about becoming a Marine, he spoke of wolves and sheep.  Bad guys are wolves; innocent people are sheep.  Pat is a sheepdog.  He is genetically wired to protect.  He believes that there are evil people in this world and innocent people, there are good things that happen and bad things that happen.  It is black and white for him, crystal clear.  Many of the conversations I have had with him revolve around that stark dichotomy and his place in it.  He often stopped to talk with our main office secretary - a wonderful woman who lost her husband a few years ago - perhaps because he wanted to protect her from loneliness.  He asks about my sons every time we speak, because he wants to protect them from the bad guys.    

Pat tells me that he always knew he wanted to serve.  "It was a calling," he explains, "to serve something larger."  The simplicity with which he says that leaves me with the feeling that I am speaking with someone who has had decades to figure out his convictions.  

I don't know very much about my uncle's time in battle.  Nor do I know what Pat Byrne will face.  I do know they both felt compelled to join the fight, and embraced an instinct to protect.  In my life as a civilian, I can only imagine and admire what it takes to give action to such stirrings.  My Uncle Raymond helped build the foundations of a world where my children are free to play outside, to ride their bikes around the neighborhood, to laugh carelessly and frequently without fear.  Pat Byrne has committed to taking the next watch so that world may continue.  I owe them both my gratitude, my respect, and most of all my attention.  I think about them often.  

I look at that photo of the Eiffel Tower, and doubt this type of evil ever goes away for good.  It morphs, it relocates, it changes; I am not sure we will ever be free of it.  It has found its way back to the city my uncle helped chase it from more than seventy years ago.  But, I know it will not win.  I believe good will prevail just as it has done in the past.  My uncle's example taught me that when I was young.  Pat helps me have faith in it now.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ben Franklin Run the Bridge 10k

The night before.

I put my well-worn Bialetti espresso maker on the stove and stand there waiting for it to brew.  I run through a mental checklist for the morning: espresso, Cliff bar, beet juice, banana, water.  I peek under the lid to see if it is brewing yet.  I fidget.

I run through a mental checklist for the morning: shorts, socks, shoes, number, shirt, pins, watch, spare clothes.  I lift the top of the Bialetti to see if it is brewing yet; it is not.  I walk back to my bedroom.

I double check the four safety pins, adjust the laces on my shoes for no good reason.  Socks...check, shorts...check, t-shirt...check, bib number...check, Garmin...check.

I go back out to the kitchen, stare at the espresso cup, a gift from my sons with the Philly skyline painted around it.  I turn the cup so the Ben Franklin Bridge is facing me.  I stare at the bridge.  Tomorrow is race day.

The morning of. 

The day starts off well: great temperature, free parking, and actual bathrooms.

The span of the Ben Franklin Bridge I have driven so many times is beautiful.  Standing just after the tollbooths and looking up, I am surrounded by thousands of people who woke up early to test themselves, to prove something, to see how they measure up.

Some people are wearing singlets declaring their connection to a local running club, others wear colorful tights and headbands declaring their total independence.  One man is pushing his disabled son in a wheelchair, while another carries an American flag in remembrance of his fallen brothers.  People are running to celebrate anniversaries, weightloss, and friendships.  Others are running so the demons of addiction won't be able to catch them again.  Some run for the fun of it, the challenge of it, the discipline of it, the hell of it.

Standing there, staring at the start that heads straight uphill, I can't wait for the gun.  It is race day, and I am a sucker for the electricity of a start line.

The race. 

I soak up the ambiance for the first half a mile.  I look at Philly in the distance, the Battleship New Jersey down to my left, the cables holding up the highway I am running across.  Then, I go into race mode.

I focus on the next quarter mile, the next person ahead of me.  I push to keep up with a group that I feel pulling away.  I try to surge the corners, try to ignore the feelings in my chest and legs.  I push aside the doubts that hit at the three-mile mark, wondering if I have blown it all on the bridge.  I try not to think too much.

Before I know it I am turning into Campbell's Field, feeling the outfield grass with all its forgiving softness beneath my feet, trying to duck across the line before the next minute clicks over on the clock.

The rewards.

Immediately, my quads tighten up, hinting at the misery I will face muddling through a Monday in a haze of fatigue and soreness.

But the rest is wonderful.  I down a bottle of water, devour a Tastycake Cookie Bar, grab a free coffee, and then sit with my wife and stretch.  We smile at each other, talking about the days before we had two kids, when we did this all the time.  We wonder out loud if we will ever run this race with our boys, and smile at the thought.

The only mental checklist is of what we will be eating the rest of the day: Whole Foods pizza (Mediterranean and Spinach/Ricotta), Chipotle Burritos, Long Trail Limbo IPA and DuClaw Sweet Baby Jesus, Chocolate and Vanilla Peanut Butter Ripple Ice Cream, a bit of our kids' Halloween candy.

The morning after.

Monday.  I feel like a zombie.  Fatigue strains my quads and strangles my thinking.  I put my Bialetti on the stove and make an espresso.  A double.  I am relaxed while it brews.

I think of how good it feels to have accomplished a hard race.  I think of the Wednesday night group runs that are becoming a more consistent part of my training, and look forward to pulling out my hat and gloves, headlamp and windbreaker.

After a long break from racing, I feel like a runner again.  I turn the espresso cup so the image of the Ben Franklin Bridge is facing me, and start planning my next race.