Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Living a Dream: Coffee With the Boys I

The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights. Muhammad Ali

I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. Michael Jordan

My granddaughter's University of Arizona's graduation announcement said Magna Cum Laude. Mine said "Good Luck".  Dave Doerrer

 Previously on Living a Dream
 Dave: Maybe you should focus on something else for the time being.
Garry: Like what?
Dave: Oh, I dunno. Maybe something like, "Two old guys humbly training with ALTIS and living a dream."
The interview with Steve Lewis is set and the Dave and Garry show is on the road.  It's early evening and out spirits are high.
Author's note: 'A picture is worth a thousand words.' Especially when the interviewers forget to take notes on the unique ambiance of  Maverick Coffee. So link up and get you  some.

We find Steve chatting amiably with a young lady who could have been a friend or a customer. 
Steve: Here's the boys now. Glad you could make it. Can I get you some coffee? You know what  you like or can I make some suggestions?
I'm sure the brew he  suggests is of savory aroma and beguiling palate, but it's lost on me. I'm too busy rifling my pockets for my grubby but brilliant glom of interview questions.
Steve: Black ok with you boys?
 Dave: Works for me.
Garry: (grunting absently) Yeah, me  too.

Steve: (as the young lady moves sprightly off to get our coffee) I don't think she knows who I am. But I'm sure she'll take care of us. I told her I know the owner. Gotta take care of you boys, you know.

Dave: So you getting a girl or a boy?
Steve: Boy.
Garry: (having fished out his Interview questions) Do you have any cream?  
Dave: In my experience black coffee usually doesn't come with cream
Garry: Did I say black?
Dave: I think you agreed to it.
Garry: Dang! Really. My bad. Can I get some cream?
Steve: You can get anything you want, man. Just ask me.
Garry: Right, you know the owner.

The waitress returns with the coffee. My cream request is promptly honored and I've located my questions. Game on! Unfortunately at exactly that moment I overload my cup with cream and cause my first spill.
Garry: Whoops! I think I need to slow down.
Steve: (producing a cleaning cloth seemingly out of thin air) Too much cream, Garry?
I move the cup quickly out of Steve's cleaning path. Too quickly! A slog of coffee literally leaps out of the cup onto the table.
Steve: I think you might need some more cream there, Garry. What do you think, Dave? A Liter of cream for Garry?
Dave: I think he needs a Sippy cup.
Garry: Maybe you should get me a straw.
Dave: (shifting gears) So the body's holding up better than last year (2015) maybe? I remember you were struggling at times.
Steve: Yeah, we changed things up this year with our loading. So just backed off in the weight room. Still lifting weights but like smaller sections. More frequent but smaller. And with sprinting, backed off doing any really fast stuff. So I'm doing 80% and staying healthy all the time, and it's working, man. Took me two years to figure it out, and I have faith in it too. That's the problem, you know. You can change a program, but if you're like, "I'm not doing what I used to do. I'm not going to be good." Scary, you know.
Garry: Yeah, I can see that. (pause) So how old are you?
Steve: Turning thirty in twenty some days.
Garry: You don't look a day over twenty-eight.
Steve: Dude, that's solid. I'll take that.
Dave: You don't act over twenty-four.
Steve: I try not to man. Gotta keep up with the kids. No, it's funny. I don't feel old, and not that thirty's old, but in a sport context it kind of is. So I started young, jumping high when I was nineteen. Eleven years ago. So you think, that's almost a decade of doing the same thing.  And now I'm jumping with kids who are nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. So I'm the older guy now. Which is funny. But I don't feel like the older guy and that's kind of cool.
Garry: How did you come to choose the pole vault?
Steve: I did pretty much everything growing up. Swimming, gymnastics, tennis, track & field. My whole life's been sports, you know? And then with the pole vault it was like as I got better, I got more interested. As I got more interested, I got more serious.
Garry: Do you come from an athletic family?
Steve: Not really. My brother did the same as me. My dad played soccer, and then he played badminton on a pretty high level. But he never wanted us to do team sports. He just kind of thought that the politics of team sports wasn't good. He didn't like that when he was playing, so he was like, "Do an individual sport like gymnastics."
Garry: Gymnastics, you need good balance for that. I would think that would be very important in pole vaulting.
Steve: It's such a good sport for youngsters. I could still do tricks that I haven't done in twenty years, you know. It's incredible how, if you live with that every day...I think I was five or six when I started. Then I did it for five or six years after that and it's just in me. Like that timing and the feeling, and the skills.
Dave: So if you were standing on the edge of a cliff, you could just  do a back flip and save yourself?
Garry: Or when you do a winning vault you could celebrate with a back flip?
Steve: It's honestly like  riding a bike. If you learn it, you have the confidence jus to do it and that's all it is. It's just confidence.
Garry: Growing up, did you have any sports heroes?
Steve: I was always a big Muhammad Ali fan. I had all the poster, all the quotes so that was kind of my bedroom theme.
Garry: How cool is that? I was a Muhammad Ali fan before he was Muhammad Ali. You know we're close to the same age, him and me?
Steve:  That's cool. I was always a big fan of him and Michael Jordan. Obviously watching Jordan in his heyday.
Dave: So you thing you'll compete after the (2016) Olympics?
Steve: Yeah, for sure. I'll go through the 2017 World Championships back in Olympic Stadium in London. That's kind of nice career for me.
Garry: Ending back home, so to speak?
Steve: Yeah, like the last year and then I've got to decide if pole vault fits into my life. You, know, I've got a family. I've got a bunch of obligations.

Air Lewis update:  Most recent competition. ALTIS Track & Field Invitational at  Paradise Valley Community College on 5/21/16. Cleared 5.56 meters (18 feet 3 inches in American). Attempted 5.71(Olympic qualifying height is 5.70) which is well within Steve's wheelhouse.
Coming up in Living a Dream: Coffee With the Boys II
  • Steve shares appreciation of mentor Dan Pfaff, ALTIS legendary Head Coach
  • Garry goes sleuthing on a rumor that Constance Delaney is living in Scottsdale
  • Link to Dave and Garry doin work on the track. A must see event!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Living a Dream

No matter how fast we run
How far we throw
or how high we fly
the earth will claim our mortal forms
and we will wait
like ordinary men and women
for our spiritual transformation
But until that day
We are free to set the pace
raise the bar
and claim the glory that is ours
because we are athletes

Some believe sports to be a metaphor for life. Others believe sports to be life itself. Like most of us, Steven James Lewis, British Pole Vault Champion and two time Olympian, would fall somewhere in between these parameters. Steve and his bid for a third Olympic experience is the inspiration for this blog series.

It's 1958
I'm a sophomore in high school. Our town, once a thriving coal mining community, is now hustling to bring in new industry and foster new dreams of solidarity and progress. My high school champions academic relevancy but lags somewhat behind in fostering respect for diversity. The name of our sports teams will become a serious sore point for many Native Americans.

Also in 1958
Elvis Aaron Presley, the King of Rock & Roll, has surpassed Francis Albert Sinatra, King of the Bobbysoxers, as pop artist of the half century. Over in Rome, Italy they're gearing up for the 1960 Summer Olympic games. Down at Tennessee State University, Wilma Goldean Rudolf is training to storm those Olympics much like her hero Jesse Owens did in Berlin back in 1936.

Here at home the Reverend Bob Richards, two time Olympic Pole Vault Champion, just sailed over a cross bar dangling from a cloud. His way of warming up for his upcoming motivational speech to our student body. The speech will get mixed reviews, but we all sit through it because, hey, the man was featured on the Wheaties Box. You don't get much bigger than that. Or do you?
Steve doin work

Elvis, Wilma and Rev Bob will each find their way into our adolescent psyches. Take me for example. I'm planning to be a Rock & Roll star like Elvis. I got the hair and the moves down already. And I'm going to marry Wilma, even though I'll have to wait two years to see her run.

Wilma will come along just in time for me to recover from my crush on Constance Delaney, arguably the prettiest girl in our school. But to me, pretty is as pretty does and the thing that Constance does is  glide like a gazelle around the playing fields during gym class. Sadly, before I work up the nerve to talk to Constance, we will graduate high school and I'll never see her again.

Fortunately I will be two years older and out of high school when I see Wilma run for the first time. Who knows, I might be a rock star by then and actually have the courage to talk to her.

But my dreams are not limited to music and leggy females. I'm also working on becoming a track & field star in my own right. I made the varsity team as a freshman middle distance runner, even anchored a couple of winning relay teams. So if the Rock Star thing doesn't work out, I can always shoot for the Olympics. Wilma can coach me if she wants to.

It's 2016
Elvis has long ago left the building. British born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins is the most successful Pop Artist in the history of the planet. Garry Lee Cox is joyously singing in the Unity of Phoenix church choir. Garry never met Wilma Rudolph, but still occasionally googles  up her 1960 runs for glory.  He also watches, in his mind's eye, his graceful classmate Constance Delaney flowing in the grace of her youth.

But before that there was The Dave and Garry Show
Often asked Dave and Garry Question:  How come you guys still run at your age?
Often given Dave and Garry Response: We suck at golf.

Phoenix 1997
The National (Senior Olympics) Games are being held in Tucson, Arizona. Here in Phoenix, guys and gals 50 years old and up (we're talking way up) will participate in our version of the Olympic Torch Relay. The torch will pas through Phoenix, then down to Tucson. Dave Doerrer and I have met briefly while being assigned our legs on the Relay. Dave is supposed to pass the Torch to me.

Dave: Hey, would you mind if we switched places. I'd like to pass the torch to my friend, Bud. He's an older guy I know and he'd get a kick out of it.

Garry: Don't differ me none.

The die is cast. Dave and I will become friends and get after it hammer-and-tong for the next fifteen years, mainly in the 400 meters. We will outlast most of our staunch competitors to the point that we were both semi-retired from the sport in 2011, the year my wife, Bernice, passed. But by then hooking up for track workouts will be ensconced in our DNA.

What's in a name? A rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.
William Shakespeare
What good is a name if you can't drop it to your advantage?
Garry Cox

Garry: Dang, I still haven't caught up with Steve for the big interview. I sent him the questions a month ago. And if I don't get a post in soon, I'm toast. No Steve, no story.
Dave: (always the pragmatist) Well, he does have a few things going on. Training. Traveling to meets. Working on getting the Olympic qualifier. Opening a new business. He just got married in the last year or so. Didn't he tell us something about having his 29 week baby scan with his wife.
Garry: So what's your point?
Dave: Maybe you should focus on something else for the time being.
Garry: Like what?
Dave: Oh, I dunno. Maybe something like,"Two old guys humbly training with ALTIS and living a dream."
And there it was, having appeared on the event horizon like an F-1117 Nighthawk. The name that will change the entire landscape of Track & Field the world over--ALTIS

Coming nest in Living a Dream:  
  • An Evening with Steve, Dave and Garry
  • Progress report on Steve's training for Rio
For more on ALTIS training and Steve visit

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dad and Me: Acorns

It’s summer, Bible School is over and I’m too young for Little League. Mom works 60 hours a week as a caretaker, so that leaves me and dad to fend for ourselves most of the time. 

Mom and dad are starting the day doing what seems to come most natural to them, talking about me.

 Mom: Now let me get this straight. Those boys down to the sales barn want to give Garry a job tending ponies?
Dad: Not a job exactly. They just want him to ride the ponies whenever he’s got time.
Mom: Don’t those ponies belong to their daughters. Why don’t they just get the girls to ride them?
Dad: Well that’s just it. About the only times the girls like to ride is for the Boots and Saddle Club affairs, mainly the County Fair. It’s just not good for animals to be stuck in their stalls all the time.
Mom: Well why don’t they just let ‘em run free out in the pasture. Like we used to do.
Garry: They ain’t got any pasture. All they got is the woods behind the sales barn and they can’t just let ‘em run off in the woods.
Dad: That’s only about half true. Perkins has some land out on Star Route. But far as I know, Steele lives in town. Both of them have their own horses so it just makes sense to keep all of them in the same stable.
Garry: You should see their horses, mom. Especially the one Mr. Perkins rides. He’s a big old Golden Palomino. Just like Trigger.
Mom: Now Ben, I know those boys are busy. They don’t have time to be saddling up those ponies every time Garry has a mind to ride.
Garry: They’re teaching me how to saddle 'em and how to cool 'em down from a ride. I already know how to curry.
Ben: He’s tellin the truth there Zoe. Surprised me some, how he took to it.
Mom: (softening) Course you would be right there with him. (pause) You sure he’d be alright out on the trail by himself.
Dad: I reckon he would. He’s already had some short rides.
Mom: Well, I guess it’s alright with me. Now Garry, you listen to your dad. When it comes to horses, he knows what he’s talking about.

Looking back, I don’t know who was happier, me or dad.

Mom: So tell me something about these ponies.
Garry: Ones named Pepper and the other is Silver. Pepper’s a boy and always does what I tell ‘im to do. Silver is a girl and she’s ornery. I like riding Pepper way more than Silver. 

Every time I mount Pepper I become two different people. One is me, the world’s luckiest boy, riding a real flesh and blood pony through a woods big and thick enough for my imagination. The other is me grown up to be a movie cowboy hero, symbiotically joined to my horse in a partnership uniquely forged for grand adventure.

I am both the boy, ever mindful that he is responsible for his pony, and the hero, ever trusting in the sentient loyalty of his horse. As Pepper and I saunter along the trail this cloudy morning, I see no need to choose between the two.

By now I know the woods like the back of my hand. I know the rising and falling of the creek, the disappearing trails, the treacherously steep embankments disguised as sunflower and cattail groves, as well as every low hanging tree limb along the main trail. 

As every B Western fan knows, low hanging tree limbs are especially useful to cowboy heroes whenever they have to escape a band of desperados or a totally misinformed posse. The way it works is the hero and his horse are galloping furiously along, dodging lead as they go. All of a sudden a huge tree appears with a horizontal tree limb extended at least two feet over the heads of horse and rider. The hero, armed with mother whit and unheard of athleticism, heads directly for the limb, stands in his saddle, then with impeccable timing leaps for the limb and pulls himself up into the protective foliage of the tree.

 This scene never set well with Dad.

Dad: You mean to tell me they didn’t see him go up that tree and then they don’t see his horse just standing around?
Garry: Well maybe he was so far ahead of them they couldn’t see and maybe his horse just hid someplace. That’s why he hadda whistle for him.

My low hanging tree limb juts out from a huge White Oak. The tree sprawls back away from the trail but my limb stretches across it defiantly. 

 Heading into our third week together I feel like Pepper and I are as close as boy and pony could possibly be and capable of anything I can imagine. Including pulling off the (overhanging limb) tree limb escape. The big Oak looms just beyond a sharp bend in the trail. As we come around the bend I feel a jolt of excitement. Today is the day!

I give Pepper rein and deliver a sharp kick to both flanks. He responds with a jerk before altering his gait. I pop the loose reins on his neck and he breaks into a gallop. As I rise in the saddle I am totally locked into the fast approaching limb. Closer...Closer…Closer…NOW! 

In the blink of an eye I’m horseless but instead of looking down in triumph I’m still dangling from the limb. It never occurred to me that I might not have the arm strength to pull myself up into safety. But I’m only momentarily deterred. I hear myself saying, “Just get a leg up. It’s not like you never climbed a tree before.”

Once astraddle the limb, I realize that anybody looking for me could see me plain as day. So maybe Dad was right. It was a stupid plan. But what magnificent execution! Pepper and I could join the circus with tricks like that.

Swinging to ground, I can’t wait to congratulate Pepper on his performance, getting up to speed at just the right moment. But the trail is empty, no Pepper in sight.  And unlike the movie cowboy, I can’t whistle worth a damn.  I’ll have to catch up with Pepper before he gets too far away, or stumbles down an embankment or worse yet, wanders back to the Sales barn without me. 

I want to call him but I don’t know how. He’s not a dog or a cat. “Here Pepper, here Pepper, good horsey” just wouldn’t cut it.

Most likely he'll keep running for a spell. Until he gets tired or maybe wonders what happened to his rider. So I take off after him on the trot. I stay to the main trail and only glance at clearings or side paths.

Then I hear Dad’s voice in the back of my mind.

Dad: Now don’t let that pony run off on you. You ain’t no Indian.
Garry: What’s Indians got to do with it?
Dad: Indians know how to track horses. They’d take a real close look at the fresh hoof prints, feel em and smell 'em, then up and tell you how fast the horses were moving and how long ago they left. That’s tracking.

I’m not tracking Pepper. I’m just hoping to catch up to him without having to cover the mile to the dirt road that shores up the back end of the woods. The trail stops dead at a fence with a wooden gate that opens to the road. I know Pepper isn’t likely to jump the fence, but what if somebody left the gate open? No telling how far he could get on the road. Or what might happen to him either.  I run faster.
By the time I reach the gate I’m sweating, breathing hard and beginning to fear the worst. I start thinking about dad’s warnings.

 Dad: Stay out of that creek, whatever you do. Your pony can swim. He can even swim with you astride. But what he can’t do is pull himself out of deep mud. And you won’t be able to help him much.
Garry: I wasn’t thinking about going swimming with no pony.
Dad: Another thing. Don’t wander off the trail. You get to traipsing around in high grass or uneven ground, like as not he’ll step in a hole and break his leg.

 So what is Pepper most likely to do? Go crashing through the cattails and land in the mud, or wander off on a side trail looking for a hole to step in so he can break his leg.

In the end I decide to check the creek since there is only one of them and who knows how many side trails there are. The creek comes down from the north, then heads west and runs along side the trail for a ways.

About a quarter of a mile before the end of the trail, the creek turns sharp and runs south. Its departure is marked by a wide grove of sunflowers.  On the run again, I head for the sunflowers.

The ground leading to the grove is rough from hoof prints and slick. Probably rained some during the night. As I elbow through a thick spate of sunflowers I’m thinking how dumb it would be for Pepper to plunge through on the run and wind up in the creek.

Then I plunge through myself and realize that only a few feet of dead grass and mud separate me from the edge of the embankment. I try to dig my heels in but it’s too late. As my feet fly out from under me, my mind flashes on the fire escape shoots at school. Curvy and fast as the dickens, especially if you strategically place a waxy bread wrapper under your seat, which most of the kids do. I don’t need any wax paper today. The rain slicked embankment is plenty fast enough to shoot me right off into the creek.

 I land in the pike position. Only my head and shoulders are sticking upright above the water line. The shock of the cold water numbs my brain.  For a long moment the only sensation that gets through comes from my fingers groping in the sandy bottom. A sliver of hope rises in my chest. “At least it ain’t mud.”

That hope vanishes like quicksilver as soon as I stand up. I’m crushed with the conviction that no matter how things turn out, Perkins and Steele will never trust me with a pony again. Dad will be mad because I didn’t listen to him, and Mom will wonder how on earth I managed to fall into the creek in the first place. 

 I try desperately to fight off these thoughts. I need a clear head to come up with a new search plan.  Since I’m already wet I might as well stay with the creek. I can follow it back to the trailhead near the sales barn. At that point I will know for sure that Pepper isn’t mudded down somewhere.  And since I’ll be so close to the sales barn, I can sneak back and try to get a bead on Dad. If he’s still sitting on the benches, then more than likely Pepper hasn’t wandered back on his own.

 My heart sinks when I see the empty benches where I had left dad. I can barely stand still long enough to survey the yard and squint at the office building. Then my mind turns on me altogether. It flashes images of Perkins and Steele lashing saddle and bridle to their horses, grim as sheriffs setting off on a man hunt disguised as a search party, already expecting the worst.

I turn in a panic and start back out on the trail. How in the world can I search all the side trails before they come after me for real?

 Again, dad’s voice in my head.

Dad: Another thing. You want to stay clear of apple trees. Sure as hell that pony will want to eat some off the ground.
Garry: What’s wrong with that?
Dad: Could give him a bellyache if you let him eat all he wants. Besides, you don’t want to waste your riding time. These horses get fed plenty.

 Apple trees! Where had I seen apple trees? Had I seen any? They would have to be close to the trail to do me any good and Pepper would have to still be there working on a bellyache. This time there isn’t much pep in my trot. Nor hope either.

I’m almost back to the big Oak with the cursed overhanging limb when I come up on a clearing with a ring of small trees. My heart jumps into my throat. Apple trees! But it doesn’t take my heart long to sink again. No Pepper. As I traipse back to the trail, I notice there are no hoof prints either. “Ok, gotta look for hoof prints before I waste more time looking in the wrong place.”

Dad’s voice in my head brings the truth crashing down on me.

Dad: You ain’t no Indian.

No I ain’t no Indian. And I ain’t no cowboy hero either. I’m just a kid who's lost a pony and let everybody down. So I do what a kid feeling sorry for himself would do. I sit down in the middle of the trail and cry. Though as cries go it didn’t amount to much. Just long enough for me to resign myself to returning to the sales barn for help.

I’m just about to stir in that direction when I hear dad’s voice. But this time it’s too loud to be in my head.

Dad: Boy, what in hell are you sitting in the middle of the road for?
Garry: Dad! Whatta you doin here?
Dad: Well, what’s it look like I’m doin?
Garry: Pepper! You found him. Dang you horse! Where in hell you been hiding?
Dad: Good question but I wouldn’t let you mom hear you talk like that.
Garry: But I looked everywhere dad. I looked in the creek. I looked around apple trees. I ran all the way to the end of the trail and back. I thought you were all were out looking for us.
Dad: Ain’t no all to it. The boys went over to Albia to pick up some livestock. Said they’d be gone a couple of hours. Told me you could curry Pepper down and put him back in his stall. Asked if you was coming back tomorrow.
Garry: Well what made you come looking for me?
Dad: Figured your mom would be sore as hell if I came home without you.
Garry: So how did you find Pepper?
Dad: I’ll tell you that as soon as you tell me how you lost ‘im.  
Garry: (Tentatively) Dad, you know how in the movies the bad guys are chasing the good guy, shooting at him and all…so the good guy sees a tree…
Dad: And Grabs the limb and….(chuckling) hauls himself up...(starting to laugh) and you tried it didn’t you…

Dad is danged fool when something strikes him funny. I’ve seen him fall out of a chair laughing. This time he just leans on Pepper and laughs himself out. I was so mad I picked up a big clod of dirt and threw it at him.

Dad: I can just see it. You dangling from the limb and the horse…Oh Lord, Garry. I tried to tell you about those stunts…
Garry: I knew you were gonna say that. I knew you were gonna give me a big ‘I told you so’. Think you’re so smart.
Dad: I ain’t so smart. You think I never lost a horse before. And I doubt I hand any better reason than you did. It’s just…(stifling himself) Ok, Ok. I know how bad you felt. Like it’s the worst thing you ever did in your life.

And then dad up and hugs me.

Dad: You know you’re gonna have to tell me how you got so wet.
Garry: You know you’re gonna have to tell me how you found Pepper.
Dad: Acorns.
Garry: Acorns? How the heck could acorns…
Dad: I told you about the creek and the holes and the apples. I forgot to tell you about the acorns. Horses love acorns.
Garry: So where did you find him?
Dad: You know that big ole Oak that has the…that’s it aint it. That’s your limb hanging over the trail. I shoulda known.
Garry: Well you didn’t so where did you find ‘im?
Dad: Not too far from there. He was standing just off the trail, munching acorns big as you please.
Garry: (to myself) I musta run right by the ornery devil. (To Dad) Dang, what am I gonna tell Perkins and Steele?
Dad: I wouldn’t worry too much about them. Nothing bad happened to their horse and you didn’t get hurt. You problem is gonna be…
Garry: Mom!

We’re home now and mom has just heard the story. Mom can be straight as a poker, but I can see a smile trying to break through before I can get to the end.

Mom: Well, here’s my two cents. I don’t think either one of you needs to see any movies for a month. And Ben, we need to get this boy some swimming lessons. Case he finds a deeper creek to fall into.  


Monday, July 15, 2013

Me and Dad: Dad on baseball

Garry: Hey dad, guess what my team is gonna be called.
Dad: What?
Garry: The Yankees
Dad: The Yankees? Sounds like the Civil War.
Garry: Just sounds stupid to me. We could a been the Indians.
Dad: So how did you get to be the Yankees?
Garry: We voted on it. I was the only kid to pick the Indians. The rest of the kids thought I was stupid.
Dad: I'm on your side on this one. Indians is the way to go. Take an Indian over a Yankee any day.

It's 1950 and the New York Yankees will sweep the Philadelphia Phillies in the 47th World Series. The sweep will be the second of five straight World Championships for the Yanks. Everybody on the planet knows who they are. Except for me and dad.

It's summer and I'm enrolled in the Lincoln Elementary Bible School program. Baseball is a staple in our activity schedule.

 One of the local coaches comes in once a week to extol the virtues of sports and ump a pick-up game for us.  He has just announced that we are having a Bible School Championship game in two weeks. He and the bible school volunteers will assign us to teams. From there we get to pick our team names and vie for playing positions.

 Credit the vagaries of the voting system for us becoming the Yankees. Credit divine intervention for Miss Baldwin becoming our coach. Miss Baldwin is a college student spending her summer volunteering at our bible school camp. Friendly, lively as any kid, and pretty like a movie star. We all like her but some of us are skeptical of her baseball acumen.

First Team Meeting
Miss Baldwin: Ok team, baseball is a game. You play it for fun. Some of you might be a little nervous about the big game coming up. Maybe afraid you won't play very well. So I want you to try something for me. I want you to pair up and just start playing catch with your partner. What I want you to think about is this. Every time you catch the ball, your hands get quicker. Every time you throw the ball, your arm gets stronger. Later we'll have batting practice. Same thing. Every time you swing at the ball, your eye gets sharper. Quick hands, strong arms, sharp eyes. Easy as playing catch.
Harold: But miss Baldwin. What about catching fly balls and running bases.
Miss Baldwin: We'll get to the fly balls. Meanwhile I'm not too worried about your base running. You're all fast as jack-rabbits.
Saundra: Miss Baldwin, do I have to throw overhand?
Miss Baldwin: It's the best way to throw for baseball. I'll show you how. You'll get the hang of it.
Saundra: (unconvinced) Then why does the pitcher always throw underhand?
Miss Baldwin: The pitcher has a special job. The pitcher has to give the other team's batters something to swing at.
Tank: The pitcher is supposed to strike people out. That's what my dad says.
Miss Baldwin: Your dad is right, and the best way to do that is to try to keep the ball in the strike zone so the batter can swing at it. Nobody swings at a pitch in the dirt or ten feet over his head. (laughter) So, underhand is the best way to do the job. Ok, no more questions, let's partner up and get those balls flying.

There is a scramble for partners.
Teddy: I don't have a partner Miss Baldwin.
Miss Baldwin: Well in that case Mr. Teddy, you'll just have to play catch with me.
"Lucky dog," I say to myself.

It's Championship Game day. For some reason known only to herself, Miss Baldwin has picked me to pitch. I can't decide if she picked me because she actually believed I could do the job, or because she didn't think I could handle any other position.

Like most of the kids, I was chauffeured to the game by my dad. Unlike most of the kids I did not receive the fatherly pep talk. Dad knowing squat about baseball had something to do with it, but pep talks were always a mom thing. After all, it was mom who signed me up for Bible School and mom who was overjoyed that I was developing an interest in sports.

On her off days from her caretakers job, mom would play catch with me and pitch me batting practice. I had a bat that was already splintered and pitted from swatting rocks and a plastic-laced catchers mitt that provided about as much protection as a woolen mitten.  Mom would underhand- loop me a rubber ball that bounced off my glove like a baseball off cement. The same ball that would fly off my bat with the predictability of a home-made rocket. Once in a blue moon it would launch into a long and perfect arc.
Mom: If you want me to keep throwin, you have to chase after the long ones.
Garry: Not very many of those.
Mom: Maybe not but I think you're getting better.
Looking back, it didn't take mom long to get the hang of tossing me balls I could hit.

 Game Day
Lincoln Elementary School sits atop a long hill that bottoms out at the ball field. Dad parks and shuts off the engine. I'm out of the car before he can apply the emergency brake. As I run down the hill to join my team, I'm smiling at the lightness of my feet, compliments of my new tennis shoes.

My teammates are milling around in front of the Yankees bench. I'm welcomed into the fold with a few "hey Garry's" and a couple of back pats. In the long moment before Miss Baldwin huddles us up for last minute instructions I check myself for signs of the nervousness she has told us to expect. None so far. I'm too busy comparing my bargain basement mitt with the whale catchers dangling from the skinny arms of my teammates.

Miss Baldwin: Ok Yankees. Quick hands, strong arms, sharp eyes. Run fast and have fun. The coaches flipped a coin and we're on defense. Soon as the ump checks the lineup cards we can take the field.

I use this time to approach Miss Baldwin with a question.
Garry: Why did you pick me for pitcher?
Miss Baldwin: I was watching you playing catch with Saundra. You were under-handing balls to her that she could catch. Tossing catchable balls and hittable balls are pretty much the same thing. I think you can hit the strike zone often enough to make a fun game.
Garry: My mom does that for me when she pitches me batting practice.
Miss Baldwin: Then just go out there and do it like mom does it

It's the first inning and all is going smoothly. Nothing but short pop ups and slow grounders. The pop ups are caught and the slow grounders are fielded and delivered to first base just like we practiced.
But now Pauline Pondexter is up. Pauline the Pounder we call her. She has already beaten up half the boys in camp. For some reason I fear I'm next on the Pounder's list. Like maybe if she didn't like one of my pitches she would rush the mound and pummel me.

She won't have to. She has just lined one over my centerfielder's head and is doing a home run trot that would have done the great Bambino proud

Next batter pops up to me. I'm not surprised that I drop it. Just hell bent to pick it up in time to throw the batter out at first. The baseball Gods are smiling on me because I don't over-throw first base and the inning is over. Down only one run. 

I'm heading to our bench when I catch sight of Dad standing behind the home plate fence. He's beckoning me. "What the heck?" I say at first. Then "Oh, jeez!" as he goes into a full arm beckon.

Dad: Garry, I been watching you out there. Throwin the ball in the same place all the time.
Garry: That's what I'm supposed to do.
Dad: Ok, but listen. (He's grinning like a Cheshire cat.) I got this idea. What you do, see... you step up and swing your arm back. (demonstrating in slow motion) Then swing it forward like you're gonna throw. But just when they think you're gonna let fly... you stop dead and just hold onto the ball. They won't know what to think. (he takes a wide-eyed pause for my reaction)
Garry: That is the stupidest thing I ever heard.
Dad is crestfallen for about three seconds before the grin resurfaces.
Dad: Well what if you do this?
Garry: Dad, I gotta go.
Dad: Wait, you'll like this one. See, you do everything the same like you been doin except this time you toss it straight up in the air. High as you can. Bet they can't hit that.

Then I hear Miss Baldwin say, " Come on Garry. You're the next batter up." 
As I trot over to grab the lightweight bat she has wisely chosen for me, I realize how close I had come to calling my dad a lunatic to his face.

Miss Baldwin: Let the ball come to you, Garry. Don't go fishing.

Fishing or no, I pop up the first pitch I see. My teammates don't fare much better as we quickly collect two outs with nobody on base. Tank is coming to the plate. Tank is bigger than most of us and his bat is almost as big as he is. He stands disdainfully in the batters box until the first pitch, then blam! He wallops one to deep center field. Our bench goes nuts. We are sure it's a homer. Oddly, Tank doesn't think so. Otherwise, why isn't he running?

Pauline the Pounder is why. Tank watches his herculean swat disappear into her glove for out number three.

 There is a lull throughout the middle innings as both teams get better on defense and neither team does much hitting. As far as I'm concerned, the only excitement during this period is my mad dash around the bases. 

I'm batting in a two-out, nobody on situation. I'm hitless so far but I have been making contact with the ball and haven't struck out yet. I hit a surprisingly sharp grounder down the first base line and take off. I know nothing about base running, but I figure it's pretty much like playing tag.

I blow by first base hauling hard for second. The right fielder throws behind me and the ensuing throw sails over the second baseman's head. I'm flat-out flying to third with serious intentions for home. Safe. Not gonna be "it" today. As I round third I catch Miss Baldwin out of the corner of my eye. She looks really excited. Charging home I'm savoring my victory. Nobody can lay a glove on me. King of the schoolyard!

I don't know where the ball came from but I'm twenty feet from home plate when I hear it plop into the catchers mitt. As the catcher steps out to protect the plate, Miss Baldwin's words rush into my head. "Nobody can outrun the ball, so just get it where it goes." But I've already crossed the Rubicon. I don't know how to slide and my patented schoolyard dodge to avoid the tag at the plate fails. Out three. 

Miss Baldwin is trotting back to the bench. She is smiling and shaking her head.
Miss Baldwin: Hey, jack-rabbit Garry. You're too fast for your own good. You were supposed to stop at third when I gave you the hold-up sign.
Garry: So that's what you were all excited about.

Now it's the bottom of the last inning. Game tied. Bases loaded. Two outs. Pauline the Pounder is the next batter.  As she settles into the batter’s box, I do something I never dared do before. I look directly into the Pounder's face. Mouth turned hard down. Eyes wide and cold. Nostrils flaring. I'm sure I know what she's thinking. "I'm gonna drive this ball down your throat."

Something snaps in me. My fear of Pauline the batter and Pauline the intimidator has turned into defiance. I want to defeat her somehow. But with what? A slow pitch in the strike zone?

The count goes to three balls and two strikes. Even her two strikes are formidable. One a towering pop up that lands behind the home plate fence. The other a screaming line drive just foul of the left field line. 

The moment of truth. I'm motionless on the mound. I hear the umpire say, "Ok pitcher, let's play ball." Like any kid in a pickle, I look for the nearest parent. I don't see dad in the crowd behind home plate. But curiously I do see him in my mind’s eye. And hear him, too.  "...this time you toss it straight up in the air. High as you can. Bet they can't hit that."  

I'm suddenly struck by an irresistible impulse to do something totally unexpected. I step into the throw harder, dip down further, and heave it heavenward with all my might. I watch the ball on its upward arc, much higher than I had any reason to expect. But as it plummets to earth I'm watching Pauline.

She appears momentarily dumbfounded, but even before the ball thumps to ground, she is looking my way. Neither of us realize that the ball has landed a foot from Pauline in foul territory.
Pauline: You jack-ass. Whatta ya think you're doin?
Umpire: Watch your language, batter. That's ball four. And that's the ballgame. 

The Dodgers go wild and swarm Pauline. She ignores them, still staring at me. I stare back. I have thwarted the Pounder's desire to go out in a blaze of glory, and she knows I did it on purpose. I don't think she will come after me in front of all these people, but I don't care. I'm one of Miss Baldwin's jackrabbits and she could never catch me anyway. 

Some of the Yanks wear hang-dog expressions, but most just seem eager to get onto the next thing in their kid lives.
Miss Baldwin: I know you're anxious to get with your families and friends. I just want you to know how proud I am of everyone of you. You did everything I taught you and you did your very best.
Saundra: It was fun Miss Baldwin. I didn't think it would be. Thank you for coaching us.

Dad is beaming all the way back up the hill to our car. The joy of a co-conspirator. We had actually pulled off his cockamamie idea.
Dad: That was some throw, Garry. I didn't know you could throw so high.
Garry: It was high, wasn't it.
Dad: Why didn't the girl swing?
Garry: She's not stupid. And who cares anyway.

 We are home now, eating supper.
Dad: I tell you Zoe, you shoulda seen it. Garry just dipped real low and slung the dang thing so high you would a thought it would never come down.
Mom: Well why on earth did he do that?
no answer
Mom: Garry, what made you do such a thing?
no answer
Mom: If you asked me, you should have pitched it like you were supposed to.

The boys are smiling down into their plates. We know mom just doesn't get it, but we also know mom always has the last word.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Bernice and Garry: Requiem and Godspeed

Today, 20 months after her passing, I find this memory, above all others, to hold the essence of the woman I knew and loved.

February 2009 My daughter Brett is here on her annual escape from the frigid climes of Detroit. While I was working (I retired from Rio Salado College in 2008) Brett spent most of her time hanging with Bernice. Since Brett was most interested in warmth and sunshine she fell right in with Bernice's habit of spending afternoons in our condo pool. Bernice would read and Brett would lay out. Bernice's job was to watch the clock and turn Brett every fifteen minutes. This scheme never produced a full-blown tan, but Brett at least acquired some light browning to show for her time in the desert.

This year was different. My being home more gave the three of us a chance to do more things together.
Sitting on west patio taking in a sunset
Brett: I thought you guys did a lot of hiking. I told my boss I was going get some exercise this time out.
Bernice: We've been slacking off. Making excuses. Too tired. Too old. Just too damned lazy really.
Brett: Bernice, I thought you hiked with your girlfriends.
Bernice: My main partner Dominica just up and quit on me one day. The rest of them are just too fast for me anymore. Can't keep up. One girl died up in Canyon De Chelley. Right in the middle of the hike.
Garry: We've been doing North Mountain some.
Bernice: Your dad's been doing North Mountain. I just hike around the ramadas at the bottom until he comes down.
Brett: Is North Mountain where I beat you running up that really steep incline?
Garry: Where you bushwhacked me you mean. I didn't know you could run that fast.
Brett: I think you let me get ahead.
Garry: Like hell! You know I never let you girls (daughters Brett and Amy) beat me at anything if I could help it.
Bernice: You're lucky he didn't trip you, Brett. He hates to lose.
Brett: That was a good hike. I wouldn't mind doing that again.
Garry: Hell, we can do it tomorrow if you want to.
Brett: You feel like doing it Bernice?
Bernice: I'll go with you guys. I don't know about the mountain. It's been a while.
Next day the three of us hit North Mountain. Not early because Brett likes to sleep late on vacation. Heat not a factor given the time of year. Bernice is sporting her walking stick that she has used as far back as I can remember now. She seems eager to get started.
Bernice: I'm gonna be slow on these rocks. You all go on ahead. Wait for me where the road pitches in.
Brett: I'm not in any hurry. I remember this hike now. Like Camelback Mountain at first. Then the paved part gets really steep.
Garry: We'll stay with you babe. We be the Three Musketeers.
Bernice: Make that two musketeers and one slowpoke.
So slow and steady we ascend the rocks. We take our first breather and our first water "where the road pitches in", less than half-way to the top. Bernice is huffing a bit but still smiling as we banter.
Garry: So what you think Brett? Shall we run it?
Brett: Get real! I might run down if I'm not too tired.
Bernice: You two just take it easy. You may need your strength to carry me down.
The paved portion of the hike consists of long, sometimes nasty stretches of up, hidden from each other by switchback-like curves. Impossible to see what lies around the bend. After a couple of these stretches you start thinking that what lies around the bend might be the end of your journey. NOT! Brett and I are keeping a close watch on Bernice. By the end of the first stretch she has fallen silent. As we round the curve for the next stretch she seems to be searching the mountain's rocky wall.
Bernice: I need to lean on something for a minute.
She finds an indentation with enough angle for her to partially sit. She settles in and takes a long drink.
Garry: You OK babe?
Bernice: (not looking at either of us) I can't seem to catch my breath.
Garry: Your legs holding up OK?
Bernice: My legs are fine. Stop trying to talk to me.
Brett and I exchange nervous glances. Bernice seems to be shifting her focus internally, taking stock of her reserves.
Brett: We don't have to do this today. Far as I'm concerned I already got my exercise.
Bernice: You came here to climb the mountain, you should climb the mountain.
Garry: I'm with Brett on this one babe. I say we ease back down the road and go to lunch.
Bernice: Do whatever you want, but don't say you're quitting on my account. I don't want to hear it.
Brett gives me an "it's up to you shrug". I have nothing so we fall into a long silence. After a while Bernice brightens and breaks the silence.
Bernice: How you doin Brett?
Brett: I'm doin fine. So far. I just know it's a long way to the top.
Bernice: Be even longer if you two don't get moving.
Garry: You packing it in?
Bernice: I ain't packing it out!
Garry: Well let's just rest then. We got all the time in the world.
Bernice: I'd feel better if you two just went on without me.
Garry: You know we can't leave you here.
Bernice: I don't know why not. You been leaving me places for years. Always wanting to see what's around the next corner, scrambling up places too steep for me.
Garry: That's because I knew you'd be OK.
Bernice: You didn't know, you just hoped I'd be OK.
Garry: But you always were.
Bernice: That's my point. Why should now be different? I got water. Getting my breath back.
Garry: (treading lightly) I know you'll be OK if you stay put. But you've never been good at that. How many times have I come back to the spot I left you and you weren't there.
Bernice: So I get bored easy. I'm getting bored right now. Make up your mind. Are you gonna hike the damned mountain or not? Sorry Brett. Your dad can be aggravating at times.
Brett: No apology necessary. I'm with you on that.
Garry: (after giving Brett a scathing look) So you'll head back down to the car?
Bernice: How about I just do what I feel like doing. Like I always do.
Garry: I worry about you falling on the rocky stretch.
Bernice: I worry about you falling off a cliff lookin at some lady's backside.
Garry: Smile when you say that.
Bernice: (brandishing her walking stick) I'll smile when I land this stick on top of your head. (she is smiling now)
Garry: C'mon Brett. We don't have to stand here and take this abuse.
Brett: What's this "we" shit Tonto?

Brett and I take off at a pace we can't possibly hold longer than it takes to get out of earshot.
Brett: You think she'll be all right?
Garry: I'm more worried about me right now. You in a hurry or something?
Brett: Seriously dad.
Garry: I think she'll be OK if she stays put. I've seen her like this before. She always rallies after a rest.
Brett: But have you seen her like this lately?
Garry: Not really. It's like she said. I do the mountain and she does her loop. Then we go to breakfast. She's been OK with that.
Brett: What if she doesn't stay put? What if she goes down those rocks by herself?
Garry: Got to think about that. (We walk on in silence, assuming a more comfortable pace. Typically we meet folks coming down from the summit, alone, with a group, couples, people with dogs)
Brett: Dang! How come all these folks look so happy.
Garry: We'll look happy too, on the way back down.
As we spiral toward our destination we take a few breaks to appreciate the view of North Mountain Park. To me the most scenic respite is the one just below the final short-but-brutal stretch leading to the towers at the top. Hikers can sit on a stone bench and enjoy a great look at the city as it spreads out far below. I told Brett that we could stop there for our last major break before starting back down.
Brett: Dad, look at that woman up ahead. Is she reading a book?
Garry: I'll just be damned! She sure as hell is. Walking right on the edge too. That's an insult to nature.
Brett: Maybe she just likes to get some exercise while she reads.
Garry: Exercise my ass. For two cents I'd shove her right off the edge.
Brett: You're sick dad. I'm gonna tell Bernice you said that.
Garry: Speaking of Bernice, I wonder how she's doing.
Brett: You think she'll start down without us?
Garry: I'd make book on it.
Brett: You worried?
Garry: No, I think she'll get to the rocks and hunker down and wait for us there.
Brett: (sudden exclamation) Dad, look. I see the towers. They don't look too far.
Garry: They're not. But the last 50 meters are vertical. Just when you think you got it made.
Shortly we arrive at the vertical. We stop. Look at each other
Brett: You've got to be kidding.
Garry: Hell no not kidding! You say "go".
Brett takes two cheater strides and says go. We battle kneck and kneck to the top, then across the top to the big metal Warning sign hung on the chain mail gate that keeps folks from fooling around with the towers. We smack it simultaneously for a tie. After a five minute pant we start down the vertical, allowing gravity to pull us into a trot.
Brett: We gonna stop at the bench?
Garry: Let's not. I want to get back to Bernice as quick as we can.
Brett: Good! Me too.
Leaning back to provide plenty of braking time should the incline pull us too fast, we descend the mountain. We round the first down stretch laughing and start into the second. Suddenly we put on the brakes and come to full stop. The figure coming up towards us is all too familiar.
Brett: That looks like Bernice.
Garry: It is Bernice. My God, she's goin for the top!
Brett and I scamper like two kids to greet her.
Bernice: My aren't we the frisky ones.
Garry: Hey, you. We were just streakin down the mountain to save you.
Bernice: Don't need savin! Might need some pushing though.
Garry: You must have caught a second wind.
Bernice: More like a second opinion.
Garry: From who...whom?
Bernice: From myself. My first opinion was "put a fork in me", I'm done. But every time I started to go back down something stopped me. (She lets the thought hang for awhile, conserving her energy.) 
Then I started thinking about all the times I did this hike. I would get tired sometimes but I never quit. She looks and nods her head at both Brett and me. Determined. Confident. Happy. Through with words.
Brett: You go girl!
From that point we move on in reverent silence, three companions on a mission. Me, 'I'm thinking The Three Musketeers got nothing on us.'

Finally we reach the vertical before the summit. To our left is the stone bench and it's accompanying view. To our right is the final challenge.
Bernice: I want to sit awhile on that bench coming down.
Garry: Gotta earn it first babe. It's all about the sign now. What did we always say?
Bernice: 'You don't bang the sign you never did the climb.' Let's go!
Bernice reaches the sign, raises her hand and then pauses. Hard to say how long. Maybe seconds. Maybe years. Maybe long enough to remember every single time she declared this victory. At last she lays her hand on the sign, pats it and turns around. Invites us into her moment.

The three of us are sitting on the stone bench, Bernice in the middle.
Garry: I think I like this view of the city better than the one from South Mountain.
Brett: I remember that one. We drove up to the top, right?
Garry: Right. We called that our Chamber of Commerce tour.
Bernice: Funny how people remember different things.
Garry: How so?
Bernice: You guys remembering South Mountain. You'd never guess what I'm thinking about.
Garry: All the times you and Dominica did this hike?
Bernice: I miss Dominica. Our non-stop conversation. But that's not it. You should know this Garry. Think night time.
Garry: We did this at night?
Bernice: Several times. Certain time of the month. (pause as she waits for my light to go on) Too slow. I'm remembering when several of us would hike all the way to this bench just to get a view of the full moon. Just hanging there over the mountains. So big and bright. So close you could almost touch it.
Garry: Oh my gosh! How could I forget. But you know what I remember most? How we all forgot to bring flashlights and we blamed Walking Ellie because it was her idea in the first place.
Bernice: I just remember how beautiful it was. How thrilling. (pause) You would have loved it Brett.
Brett: I'm sure I would have.

Bernice was in her 80th year. She would not do North Mountain again in her earthly form. On her birthday, the October following her death, we hiked eleven strong to a secluded space on the backside of the mountain to scatter her ashes. I have returned to that space alone several times since. Each time I've spoken my heart, told her how it was with me. Being without her. Bernice never spoke but somehow managed to lever the workings of my mind. The last time we met I shared this epiphany. Caught in the twilight zone between wanting to forget and wanting to heal, I came to the happy conclusion that the one thing I would never have to give up was loving her. I could keep on loving her and still have room in my heart to love others.

This is the final episode in the Bernice and Garry Story. I began telling the story as a way to work through my grief. At first I thought I was simply preserving Bernice's memory for myself. But early on in the telling, I realized that my greatest need was to share our story with others. I wanted family, friends, the whole world if it was so inclined, to know that we once lived and loved and formed a beautiful partnership. In short, I began to approach our life together more as a storyteller, a writer. Perhaps I can be forgiven that because I am a writer. But as a writer, I'm still a mensch, a human being, a good person. It is the mensch in me that thanks you for reading this blog. I take your readership as an act of love, for both me and Bernice. It is the mensch in me that cannot say farewell. I can only say what is in my heart-Godspeed good souls, Godspeed

The Bernice and Garry story will remain available on the Run for Your Life blog. Still to come are new posts under Notes on Grieving and Progress Report. In the near future Run for Your Life will be included on my still-in-the-works website, Garryspeak. The website will include new blogs featuring all my writing projects. One to look for is my current novel, World Without Midnight.