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Monthly Archives: April 2016

My Boston Marathon story from 2016 requires a bit more patience than my usual blog posts. Paul Revere, my dad, Walter Payton, two high school boys from Harlan, Iowa, and Katie make appearances here that I hope will make sense by the end. Here goes.

Our New Car. Nelson Pontiac called. Our new car would be ready Monday. Dad had ordered a white 1967 Pontiac Catalina station wagon with blue vinyl seats, AM radio and air conditioning similar to the one pictured above. Dad always liked a fresh new car. We looked forward to picking it up.

Monday was cool, clear and sunny in Harlan, Iowa, population 5,000. I don’t remember the day in Mrs. Howe’s second grade class or hearing the fire whistle blow 15 minutes after I got home. Harlan had a volunteer fire department and in 1967, a siren downtown on top of the fire station summoned firemen. Pretty much everyone in town knew when there was a fire.

My dad, Bob, worked at a small bank owned by another family in town. The bank backed onto an alley adjacent to the fire station. When he heard the siren, Dad would have stood up from his desk, walked quickly toward the back door, unlocked the two deadbolts, and hustled down the stairs into the alley, then run with his distinctive gait less than 40 yards before rounding the corner and stepping into the 1930s-era brick fire station next to city hall.

Missing a right leg, Dad used a prosthetic. His license barred him from driving a car without automatic transmission but if he was the first one onto a truck, Dad got into the driver’s seat, started the engine, turned on the lights, cued the siren, depressed the clutch, shifted into gear and made sure that everyone held on.

As Dad’s truck left the station, I am not sure he knew what awaited at the small white house a few blocks south of “The Square,” Harlan’s one square block downtown area. A woman had been ironing clothes. She took a break for just a few minutes to go out to her garden to water a rose. She could keep an eye on the house from there. But by the time she noticed the smoke, flames engulfed her house. Her three year-old, two year-old and twin infants were taking a nap in the bedroom.

It was just about 3:40 p.m. and two boys walking home from the World War I-era brick high school came to the burning house. One of the boys’ mothers stood outside and said, “Clinton, there’s babies in there!”

A neighbor supplied a fire extinguisher. The trapped children’s mother pointed to the room where they had been sleeping. The boys, Clinton and Brent Petersen, made one trip in and brought out the three year-old girl and laid her in the grass. They returned once again and brought out the two year-old boy, laying him in the grass. By the time the boys returned to find the infant twin boys, the heat was too intense, the smoke too thick. Clinton and Brent crawled out of the house, lucky to have made it out alive.

The two and three-year old kids laid in the grass, unconscious as the fire trucks and ambulance arrived.

One of the firemen put on a respirator, fireproof coat, pants, boots and helmet and tried to crawl across the floor to get to the infants’ room. He didn’t make it. The heat was too intense. He crawled back out. Another tried and achieved the same result.

My dad volunteered. He took off his leg and put on the fireproof gear, the respirator. The other firemen tied a rope around his waist. If Dad had gotten into trouble, the other firemen would have used the rope to pull him out. Dad could also have followed the rope to return the same way he had come through the smoke and flames. Dad crawled into the house and hugged the floor.

The 120th Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon stands for a lot of things. Runners think that it is about them and it is, partially.

Paul Revere. The Boston Marathon runs on Patriots’ Day, a holiday celebrating the battles of Lexington and Concord. For those of you Longfellow fans, his poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride”immortalized Revere’s midnight ride through the streets of Boston to alert the city to the British troops’ approach preceding those battles.

Spring. The Boston Marathon marks the arrival of spring in one of America’s most historic cities – and a day off of school for kids. Without a school holiday, it might not be possible to haul so many runners from Boston Common to Hopkinton and the starting line. Hundreds of school buses, buses as far as you can see, line up to take runners the 26 or so miles west to the runners’ village near Hopkinton High School, which certainly can’t operate with 28,000 runners on its grounds, helicopters flying overhead and snipers on the roof.

Qualify. Qualifying for Boston represents many runners’ highest personal athletic aspiration, a chance to number among the relative few who can run the qualifying times for respective ages and genders.

2013. In 2013, Boston’s finish line was also the site of one of our country’s worst incidents of domestic terrorism. The chaos that ensued immediately following the explosions and in the several days following riveted the world’s attention. As we walked toward the expo to pick up my race number on the Friday preceding the race, we passed an empty storefront. Daffodils in pots lined the storefront and a handwritten sign on the darkened window said simply, “No More Hurting People.” A few people paused to look at the flowers just beginning to bloom and small memorials to people who were injured or died on that very spot. People remember.

The story of the Boston Marathon weaves these themes together – achievement, history, community, tragedy, healing. If sport can provide a venue for heroism, Boston seems like the place.

Heroes According to an App. The Boston Marathon, predictably, has an app for cell phones. It offers a paperless way to keep track of marathon weekend activities and to follow individual runners’ progress along the course on race day. To follow a runner, app users enter information on their participant in a section of the app entitled “My Heroes.”

A New Midnight Ride. A couple of Katie’s friends participated in a hybrid marathon-midnight ride event the night before the marathon. At midnight, a group of bike riders took off from the start line in Hopkinton and followed the course all the way to the finish line. I am not certain if they shouted that the “British are coming” or  just shut up and rode. The extremely early morning pancake breakfast near the marathon finish line has no known historical antecedent.

Race Morning. Margy, Katie and I returned to Boston Common early on race morning. It was the same place we had seen Katie and her friends run the BAA 5K the preceding Saturday. We snapped a few photos and I boarded a school bus. Our bus driver, Sandy, gave us an extremely thorough safety briefing. She pointed out the first, second, third and fourth choice means to get out of the bus if something bad happened. I couldn’t tell if the briefing derived from heightened vigilance since 2013.

Heather from Gettysburg sat by me. Heather was 4’10”, a PE teacher with two kids. We talked for the entire hour as the bus rolled toward Hopkinton, mostly about our kids. The conversation paused for a few moments as I looked out the bus window onto the Charles River and all of the local college rowing teams gliding along the course of the Head of the Charles Regatta that Katie had rowed for four years at Bowdoin. I bragged on Katie and hoped again that parental pride is only a venal sin, not a mortal one.

Once delivered to the runners’ village, Heather and I found a spot on a grassy lawn about the size of a football field ringed entirely by porta-potties. We continued our conversation as the sun rose warm and bright in a clear blue sky. I shed the garbage bag that had kept me warm on the walk to the buses, then my hooded sweatshirt, then my long-sleeve tee shirt. Sitting in my singlet and shorts, I began to perspire.

When called on the PA system, I said goodbye to Heather and dutifully made my way across a parking lot and down a quarter mile hill toward the start area along with a sea of synthetic-clad people. (I was in the second of four waves of approximately 7,000 each.) We sauntered down the hill toward yet another galactic complex of porta-potties. Last chance. I jogged to the far corner of the parking lot to take advantage of the shortest lines. All of my experience at running marathons had been good for something.

Corralled. I stepped into my corral, about 1,000 runners grouped according to qualifying time. I heard the starting gun sound a thud over the crest of the hill about 300 yards ahead. Then we just stood there. It took more than a minute before we even began to walk while 5,000 runners ahead crept toward, then across, the start line.

Finally Running. Of the run, I remember relatively little of note. Only about four miles into the race, I noticed a very fit looking woman on the side of the road sobbing inconsolably. Another fit looking woman hugged the crying woman. It appeared that the crying woman’s day was over almost before it had started. I wasn’t sure why.

Hello? Shortly after passing the crying woman, I experienced a personal marathon first. A woman said in a very snippy voice, “No, I am not talking to myself. I am talking on the phone.” Apparently, a runner near her thought that she was the marathon equivalent of a crazy bag lady conducting a monologue with herself. The lady held the microphone attached to her headphones up to her mouth and resumed her conversation. “Meet me at the 20 mile mark,” she said. I sighed and felt glad that she wasn’t texting.

Sweet Caroline. The sun felt hot as we traced the course through the modest cities of Ashland and Natick. We heard the Fenway Park Red Sox game favorite, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, several times.

The Path in Front of Me. While running, I couldn’t help thinking about the runners who had come before me. Years ago, runners wore leather-soled shoes and ran over unpaved roads. Of course, there was Johnny Kelley, a man who ran in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin, finished 58 Boston Marathons, won two, finished second seven times, finished in the top five 15 times and ran his last full Boston Marathon at age 84. Bobbi Gibb was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (without wearing a race number) in the mid-60’s and Katherine Switzer was famous for trying to run the race with a number, then getting physically attacked by a marathon official trying to remove her from the course. Bill Rodgers won three straight, 1978, 1979 and 1980. Bowdoin College’s own Joan Benoit Samuelson won in 1979 and 1983, then went on to win the first women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles. If anyone deserved to wear laurels for running 26.2 miles, these people did.

Matter? So the Boston Marathon is, at least in part, about heroes, people whose ordinary lives ascend to higher planes, people whose names we know, whose accomplishments we admire. I admit that I felt just a bit ennobled by running the same streets as Boston Marathon immortals who had run before me. Just one problem: Does running marathons, no matter how fast, no matter how many, matter? Or at least does running fast or multiple marathons matter? If it doesn’t matter, why do people consider these – and other – athletes heroes? Put otherwise, who is a hero?

Wellesley. Running in the cool shade of the tall pine trees on the north side of the Wellesley College campus is one of my favorite places on the course. The Wellesley girls line the road and cheer loudly but sweetly. For some reason it reminded me of Guster’s version of “All the Way Up to Heaven” on “Lost and Gone Forever: Live.”

Back on the Marathon Course, Literally. Ironically, my entry into the city of Newton marked another personal marathon first. I found myself on my back looking straight up into the clear blue sky all the way up to heaven. It happened like this: While concentrating on running the inside line of a turn marked with tall traffic cones holding a plastic ribbon dividing spectators and runners, I neglected the heavy rubber feet on the bottoms of the cones. Those feet extended about eight or nine inches out from the bottoms of the orange cones. I must have clipped one of the bases with my left foot, then sprawled under the ribbon and onto the pavement. As I fell, I rolled onto my back. A few runners beside me gasped but kept running. A man, who I didn’t really see, came to my aid. He asked if I was OK. At first, I didn’t respond but finally said “yeah” when he asked again. Still kind of stunned, I just started running again. A woman held up the ribbon so that I could pass beneath and reenter the course. It happened that fast and I am very sorry that I didn’t thank the man for his help.

Brave. I thought a little more about heroes. To be a hero, I thought that you needed to do something brave. But that didn’t seem quite enough. (As you can tell, my running pace must not have been so fast; I had a lot of time to think.) Then I thought that to be a hero, someone needs both to do something brave and something that matters. Running a marathon is brave because you just know that it’s going to hurt but nothing much other than your comfort changes as a result of finishing a marathon. For instance, bungee jumping is brave but doing it really doesn’t produce any result that matters.

Persistence and Determination and Then What? Maybe people believe that the persistence and determination to run a marathon or an Ironman – or many marathons and Ironmans – would also make a person brave in a bad situation when action really matters. We’d look to them when the chips were down – raging rivers, burning buildings, the fog of intense battle, the works. Those with the fortitude to shine in intense, exhausting athletic pursuits should have the right stuff to do something heroic, something both brave and something that matters when the chance arises. For my part, I hope never to prove the assumption one way or the other. I hope never to encounter the burning house, freezing river, or world war, thank you.

No War for Dad. The military never wanted my dad’s help. The lack of a right leg made him “4F” and that always made him feel bad, maybe that much more so because his dad served in France during World War I. It was important to my dad’s generation to serve in the military whether in World War I, World War II or the Korean War. I have wondered whether Dad felt like he was robbed of the chance to be brave, maybe even a hero, while wearing a U.S. military uniform.

1967: Our Trip to Nelson Pontiac. It was starting to get late so I asked my mom if we were going to pick up the car that night. Mom said that we were. I said that I was excited and that Dad must have been excited, too. Mom said that Dad had had a very sad day. She said that the fire had been very bad, that two babies had died. She said that Dad had tried to save them but that he couldn’t. As an eight year-old, I couldn’t quite understand. I couldn’t imagine anything my dad couldn’t do.

We went to Dairy Queen that night. Dad was especially quiet. I asked Dad about the fire. He told me about putting on all of his gear. He told me about the rope. Then he told me about crawling along the floor. It was a small house. He knew exactly where he needed to go. He knew exactly what he needed to do. But he said that he couldn’t make it through the heat. He couldn’t see anything through the smoke. The fire was burning all around him. He said that by the time he was trying to reach them, the babies may already have died.

Once the fire had been extinguished, my dad volunteered again, this time to recover the  two infants’ bodies. He and his friend carried the tiny bodies out of the blackened house.

I am not entirely sure how my dad felt when he gave Bill Nelson the keys to our old car and put his three kids, ages eight, almost five and almost two, into the back seat of his brand new station wagon. It was a pretty quiet drive as we returned to our house on the western edge of town, the sun slipping low into a clear Iowa sky.

Harlan to Boston. You may wonder how running the Boston Marathon made me think of my dad and a fire in Harlan, Iowa, 49 years ago. It’s a fair question.

Heroes create a path for the rest of us to follow. Maybe if we do something brave, something that matters, we will have followed our heroes’ examples. So here I was following the path run by Johnny Kelley, Bill Rodgers, Bobbi Gibb, Katherine Switzer, Joan Benoit Samuelson and thousands of others. Why this path? Did it matter?

Harlan Tribune, April 13, 1967. In 1967, nobody used a cell phone to video volunteer firefighters crawling into a burning house. Nothing there to “go viral,” though the local newspaper covered the fire including pictures of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of the three year-old girl on the lawn and of the charred crib where the infants died. The story did not belabor the failed attempts to rescue the babies, though it did name the three firemen who entered the burning house with “breathing apparatus and lines even before the hoses.” To say more might have made my dad and the other firemen who unsuccessfully crawled into the flaming house feel even worse.

Our family didn’t subsequently discuss the fire. I think that the subject just made Dad feel sad. It’s hard to know how often he thought of that fire in the years following. I doubt he felt like much of a hero given the lack of discussion and the failure to save the twin babies. I can disagree with his conclusion now but it doesn’t do much good.

Walter Payton and Our Driveway. So 49 years have passed since that clear, spring day in Southwest Iowa. And it’s been more than 20 years since my dad died. Without a doubt, he was my hero. I also idolized Walter Payton. Inexplicably, the Chicago Bears neglected to draft me despite the fact that I lettered in football all four years at Grinnell College. I didn’t join Walter in the Bears’ offensive backfield. Their loss.

The long run from Hopkinton gave me time to ask how my heroes inspire me to live differently than I would have except for their example. Have I really followed their path? Maybe more importantly, what path have I left? What happens to someone who follows the rope that I trail behind? I don’t have good answers but one small remembrance has become habit.

34. Every time I do strength work – sit ups, lunges, squats – I count. Walter Payton wore “34” on his jersey so whenever I reached 34, I paused to remember him. I remembered how joyfully he played football, how when tackled especially hard, he bounced up, smiled, helped the tackler to his feet, patted him on the back, tossed the ball to the referee and trotted back to the huddle. I remembered Payton’s distinctive high-stepping gait as he neared the goal line. When he reached the end zone, he waited patiently for a teammate to arrive, then handed him the football, allowing his teammate to spike it. Football, even NFL football, for Walter Payton was joyful and generous.

After a time, I recognized that my ties to Walter Payton were not so strong as those to my dad. Maybe it would mean more to think of my dad when I reached the count of 34.  I remembered my dad saying over and over again how lucky he felt, how contented he would feel when he drove into the driveway of our white house with the big tree in the front yard and a healthy family in the car with him. Not many people would draw equivalence between my dad driving up our driveway and Walter Payton high-stepping into the end zone but I saw a similar joy, generosity and dignity, a strangely equivalent triumph.

Sometimes heroes don’t manage to pluck the drowning person from the rushing river or pull the person off the tracks before the train rolls through. To matter, do heroes need to succeed in what they set out to do? How many people do something really brave but don’t quite do what they set out to accomplish? I guess that heroes jump in, never quite knowing what will happen. I doubt Dad thought about the floor falling out from under him in the burning house and how it would have been if the three of us kids and Mom had to go pick up the new car without him.

So any time I do strength work now and count 34, I take a figurative tug on the rope and say to myself, “Bob’s boy.”

Finish. Margy and Katie saw me at the appointed spot on the course near the finish and I slogged in. My race had been neither immortal nor a disaster. I had just made it from start to finish, a privilege that I probably did not fully appreciate. After crossing the line, I looked back at the course and wondered what it would be like in a year to finish the race with Katie.

Postscript: The two and three year-old children rescued from the fire recovered. Clinton and Brent Petersen, the high school boys who rescued two of the four kids, became local heroes. The fire burned hot enough to melt light fixtures in the bedroom and kitchen. The house and all of its contents were a complete loss estimated to total $3,500. No home has been rebuilt on the site.

Photos from the weekend:

Upper left: Katie and Margy before Saturday morning’s BAA 5K.

Lower left: Marcus Schneider, Katie, Pete Edmunds and Taylor Stockton after the BAA 5K. Pete and Taylor did the midnight bike ride on the Marathon course.

Right: Me waving with a little less than a mile to go.



Bob Ross in a painting by Katie Ross. From a photo taken circa 1979.

Thanks to Margy and Katie for making the weekend in Boston great, as always. Thanks, too, to Marcus Schneider, Pete Edmunds, Taylor Stockton, Luisa Lasalle and Emily Carr.