In August of 1973, heading into my junior year in high school, the world seemed as if it had shifted sideways. My father had moved our family to a new town twelves miles away from my former high school. That meant a whole new adventure at a whole new school.
Fortunately my mom got me an introduction to a cross country runner named Rob Walker in the new hometown of St. Charles. We’d seen each other in track and cross country meets the year before, so there was a nominal familiarity. And he was cousins, it turned out, with a close friend named Anna from my old school.
Rob introduced me to another buddy named Paul Morlock, who was supposed to be the quarterback that year for the football team, but somehow he’d made up his mind to switch over to running cross country. It was a mini-scandal, but a wise one. The football team went 0-9 that all. The cross country team went 9-1.
Th nucleus was formed for a unique period in our lives. That year some other runners including another friend Jack Brandli and a sophomore named Greg Andrews turned out to run, and we’ve all remained close friends ever since. 44 years now. Same number I wore in high school basketball.
Some of that friendship was heightened by the things that happened that year. We defeated a team that had not lost in sixty straight dual meets. We won a county championship and won the District meet too. All of it was a wonderful thrill ride of challenges confronted and met. The bonds built from all that shared effort on the hills and fields formed the relational cement that has lasted to this day. And every day, after it was all done, we sang our hearts out in the shower. We were throwing down deep roots that would stand strong for the next four decades.
Which is why I flew to Norfolk, Virginia to meet up with a few of these friends to conduct a group birthday party. We all turned 60 this year. Rob and I actually share the same birthday, July 26. Paul celebrated his in June and Jeff Olson is going to catch up soon.
Paul did not know we were coming to visit him in Norfolk. That was all arranged during my wedding in May. But our encounter there was so brief the group decided it would be fun to meet up as we’d long promised to do for a weekend of food and fun and memories.
As it worked out, we all parked ourselves out on the beach as instructed by his wife while his son Jimmy led him out after work to find us all standing there in greeting.
He’s not exactly a demonstrative guy, but the appreciation was evident in his raised arms and exclamations. “I had no idea,” he admitted. So it was Mission Accomplished.
The rest of the weekend was stories shared and even some running talk. But not too much. There is other ground to cover these days, including aging parents and the nature of responsibilities. All stood by me through all those years of caregiving for my mother, who died in 2005, and my late wife, who died in 2013, and my father, who passed away in fall of 2015. They all expressed happiness with the fact that I’ve found love with my wife Suzanne, and looked forward to the next gathering when she was not rocking a Half Ironman as she did this weekend.
Time surely passes. We all are doing pretty well despite life’s shares of challenges in one form or another. The hugs are heartfelt and real. The spouses put up with our loud laughter and stories of stupid things we’d done. “You’re all lucky to be alive,” one of them said.
And it’s true. We are lucky. Because we also shared news of classmates that have passed on, and brothers. One of our clan has been battling Lyme disease for years, but only knew recently what it really was. Now the doctors at Mayo are treating it with full focus, and there is great promise of improvement. He was the sprinter among our midst, but finds himself in a marathon program of medications and treatment. But he has a sweet companion now named Dawn, who seems like a soulmate and we’re all happy for that.
Paul and I got out for a run on Sunday morning because Saturday featured a thick and unrelenting rainstorm. We parked outside a beautiful state park and trotted into the bottomlands where cypress knees stuck up from the black water and moss hung from the trees. A mild ocean breeze caught the top of the pines in a whisper, and we ran along talking as longtime running buddies do. Nothing dramatic or deep. Just the movement of bodies and thoughts. We were teammates and we remain so.
The evening before I’d wandered out to the beach at sunset. The water was calm and the skies were dramatic. I can see why they love living so close to the shore.
On the way back home, I arrived at the airport in Norfolk only to realize that I’d incorrectly booked the flight home the next day. So I humbly made my way to the counter and asked to get on a flight to Chicago. Blessedly, there was room on a 4:24 flight. So I actually made out better for an additional $75 and no connecting flight through Newark, New Jersey. Ugh.
Driving home from O’Hare after such a weekend the passage feels like the timeline of a semi-sordid novel. So many checkpoints and familiarities mixed with memories of people picked up and dropped off at that airport. Love and hopes. Heartbreaks and losses. The inevitable traffic jams. The ads for hair replacement that can be ignored because I’m happy being bald. The ads for strip clubs promising $10 dances from women you’d never know. Signs for the I-90 interstate offering passage all the way east to where I was raised and all the way west to where the wind blows away the faintest wisp of relatives. It is both great and sobering to be sixty years old. But at least my life has not been a line from a Pink Floyd song. Someone did tell me to run. I did not miss the starting gun.
Amen to that.