By March 6, 1983, the weather in southeastern Pennsylvania was beginning to moderate. I ran a sixteen-miler in 1:43 on a route that I now knew well enough to do with confidence. No more getting lost in horse country. I wrapped up the week with a set of 8 X 400s in 68-70 and a total of 51 miles. I was shooting for a ten-mile race in Cherry Hill, New Jersey the 20th of March.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I stayed home rather than go out drinking. “My phone’s off the hook,” I wrote. And quoting Jackson Browne, I noted, “Never shoulda had to try so hard to make a love work out, I guess. I wonder what love has got to do with happiness.”
Despite my ongoing angst over my relationship with Linda, everything seemed relatively under control until the night of March 18. I had decided to order some rainbow trout for dinner from a restaurant a few miles away, but a rainstorm hit and the roads were a blurry mess. As I crested a hill in my Plymouth Arrow, I came upon an accident scene. A car sat sideways on the curb with its lights aimed directly at the roadside bushes. And next to it, a man lay crumpled in his own blood. Immediately I thought, “That’s not good.”
There were people running around the scene, and one crossed the road directly ahead of me. So I slowed my car to a stop to wait for them to move out of the way. That’s when a set of car headlights came flying over the hill and rammed hard into the back end of my car. The Arrow lurched forward, flinging my head toward the steering wheel. I blacked out for a moment, but woke quickly and sat there stunned. My neck hurt, and so did my chest, because I’d been thrust hard against the seat belt. Thank God I was wearing one.
I unbuckled the belt and crawled slowly out of the car door. The guy that hit me was already outside his car staring at the back of my bumper. “I’m so sorry dude,” he confessed. “I hit you so hard. My music was on. Are you okay?”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure. I glanced across the road at the scene of the original accident. Something made me want to check on the man I’d seen lying by the side of his car. I wrote in my journal that night: “Fuckin March luck. Bad luck held out again. Got slambanged on a simple trip west on 30. Ka-thump. Never saw it coming. The wet road disappeared for a moment but I knew immediately what the do was. Some poor kid with the tunes cranked rapped the Arrow’s rear end. One more assault on the poor exterior of my baby. Fender looks poor. Then I wandered up the dripping road to see the man with blood on his head and hands. He moaned in the darkness. I hope he lived and is o.k. The experience must be horrible, but shock must buffer the pain. The cars are ripping by outside. Gotta ride the Schuykill tomorrow. God works in strange ways. It’s 12:06. I love Linda.”
The next day my neck was sore, and the day after too. But I’d committed to running the Cherry Hill ten miler so I drove through Philly and crossed the bridge to fulfill my mission. My neck was so sore that I tied a blue kerchief around it to keep warm. I must have looked ridiculous, like an addle-brained pirate that couldn’t put the thing on top of his head, but I didn’t care. Sore as I was in many places, I’d come this far and wasn’t turning back. Little did I know at the time that what I was experiencing was a medical condition called whiplash. Years later, I learned that the accident permanently altered the position of my neck vertebrae. Life tectonics.
Racing in Cherry Hill
The day turned breezy and the air alternated between cool breezes and warm temps that at points rose as high as sixty-eight degree, but shifted back as colder air from the Atlantic battled for dominance. The winds thus came from different directions at different points on the course, so it was hard to settle into a rhythm. But I took it out in 4:55, ran through three in 15:00+, eight miles in 43:00, and came home in 53:54, my best ten-mile performance to date.
“First mile in 5:00 was effortless,” I wrote. “Will I gain further efficiency by going out even slower? I finally beat the Plaisted guy, or Converse or whatever. Didn’t notice mile markers for some reason. Took two small sips of water. Right foot blistered but mostly got numb and sore. Kept stride the entire race but let down against the wind. The psychology of the turnaround got me. Consider, Pete Crooke ran 49: something. Only 4+ minutes ahead. Placed seventy-first overall. Equates to about a 50:17 15Km, which isn’t that bad. Run a 15KM and go under 50:00. That’d be the fun race. Had a real good stretch past five miles, smooth, relaxed. Beat fucking Jack Myers. Try to edge the mileage toward sixty a week, but stay health. So I’m going to bed. I wanna girl like Sigourney Weaver…”
Yes, I’d been watching Aliens on the TV. That underwear scene. Who can blame me?
The race felt like a metaphor for everything going on in my life. Buffeted by forces unseen, I was plowing through with everything I had to give. I confessed my twisted soul in the journal that weekend, quoting a bit of Pink Floyd, “Got admit that I’m a little bit confused. I don’t know whether to go out or stay home. I think about the girls I’ve known and I quantify them in terms of beauty. They’re beautiful inside, stupid. That college girlfriend was a hell of a love. The woman from work a Copernican shooting star. The theory is correct but the universe is different than we think. Now Linda, a honey sweet bit of barley girl, an Amoreena when I need her most and I deny her. I should marry that girl and quit looking upon it as giving in. Have a last fling. Run to the beach and pray that the God of erect nipples bestows a beach baby upon you. But will you ever be satisfied? You’ll always want one more beautiful girl. You can’t have them all. You’ve never lived…but…I have had fantasies come true. Which is the path with heart? Which is controlled folly?”
That last observation was a product of my reading the works of Carlos Castaneda and the Teachings of Don Juan. Now I was applying those fictional principles to real life, and real love, or the fear of it, “I’m probably looking for replacements for Linda, fearing the hurt and guilt I know will come. It’s like I know I won’t go through with it and I’m looking for excuses. My poor best friend heard the dim story for the umpteenth time. I wonder how much pressure there would be if I were still there? Then there’s that elder girlfriend; the perfect fuck I seldom lived up to. So weird after sex, a sixties mind trip hold out. Big jugs in the dark, a soft set of lips that kissed and palpitated. And teeth, always teeth. When will I ever find a girl who gives a good blow job? That’s what I need. A real suck queen. But I also need a wife. And I shan’t just possess her. Keep your eyes open and your heart in control.”
All the existential pandering hardly prepared me for the practical ugliness and confusion of what came next for my banged-up car. By Pennsylvania law, while getting my car registered, I’d had to repair a small rust hole on the underside of the vehicle. Anything bigger than a quarter had to be fixed before you could register for a license plate. I’d quickly purchased car insurance from a storefront agent in downtown Paoli. It turned out that he wasn’t entirely on the up and up. When I showed up to discuss the bumper claim, he walked outside and declared… “No problem!” Then he turned to me and said, “Obviously not your fault. We’ll get this paid for and get you a couple hundred bucks on top of that. How’s that sound?”
We walked back inside. He filled out paperwork and shoved it back at me. “Drop the car off at this repair shop and they’ll throw a new bumper on there for you. You’ll get a check from me. There will be something for you in there too.”
I sat there numb for a minute. Was this insurance fraud? I took the car to get fixed and went for a run while they put the bumper on. It was clearly not the same style bumper as the original manufacturer. I called the agent to discuss the matter and he said, “Whattaya want? It’s a bumper, isn’t it? Did you get the money I sent you on top of the payout?”
Indeed, I’d received a check for $200 more than the amount I owed for the bumper and installation time. I needed the money, so I decided not to ask any questions. But I thought to myself, “So this is how this shit works…” The entire Pennsylvania registration system felt like a massive scam.
I drove to work late that morning and lamented, “Wish I could do that whenever I felt like it. Left Philly and hit the roaring Schuykill on the way home. Boathouse Row like a string of lights along the river. Now I’m home home home. Good night.”
March had been one helluva month
I was about to collide with another form of reality.