Navigating childhood is a wandering path of growing friendships, responding to parental influence, and engaging in varying degrees of imagination. My best memories of childhood all center around playing in the yard of our Pennsylvania home. For starters, there were multiple types of trees to climb, and getting off the ground felt like a form of liberation to me.
The dogwood just off the driveway stood twenty feet high and I had to reach for the lowest branches and crawl up the trunk with my feet. Often while climbing that tree I thought of the popular Batman show starring Adam West and Burt Ward, and sometimes hung a bit of cotton rope to pretend I was a caped crusader crawling up a building in Gotham City.
At six years old I loved superheroes so much that I asked for a Superman costume for Halloween. It hung baggy and loose on my body, but the red cape was so gorgeous I did not care that my skinny body did not fit the suit tightly. It had the right colors. And I was so convinced that the suit imbued with some level of superpower that I bragged to two neighbor girls that I was going to attempt a short flight of the maple tree. With my red cape fluttering below me, I crawled up the tree and out on a long maple limb. Then I took a deep breath and dove out of the tree. Wham. I hit the ground hard. Fortunately, nothing was broken. The girls were somewhat impressed I’d flown at all. So they helped me up and I tried to look brave.
The yards of our childhoods are exactly that; one part fantasy and the other part hard-earned lessons. As I’ve already described, I gained my first hard lessons in running endurance by sprinting around the side yard carrying a watch to time myself. There was no way to fantasize yourself any faster.
So while I was a dreamy kid in some ways, I was also disciplined in many respects. By the time I got old enough to play organized baseball, I begged my parents for a pitching net that would return the baseball to me in a personal game of catch. My two favorite teams were the New York Yankees with players like Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Clete Boyer. I also admired the Pittsburgh Pirates with Roberto Clemente, Willy Stargell, and others. I’d pitch entire games of “ball and strike” and proceed with absolute honesty about whether my pitches fell inside the strike zone.
The romance of baseball in the 1960s was clean and honest to a kid my age. As a result, something in me demanded that type of strict honesty in my own efforts. I hated the idea of cheating at my own game, and hated when others cheated even more. My admiration for pro baseball players drove me to become a solid player myself. The last year I pitched competitively as a junior in high school my record was 7-1, the same as the teammate that went on to become the star pitcher for the high school team. But my athletic career was headed in different directions…
I’d also pursued a career in basketball most feverishly, modeling my game from the age of eleven around the flashy style of Pistol Pete Maravich. I schooled myself in the art of behind-the-back and between-the-legs dribbling and passing. I learned to spin a basketball on my finger, and could shoot the lights out from most any range, once making 29 consecutive free throws at the Elburn Days carnival when I was fourteen years old. But while choosing a superstar like Pistol Pete Maravich as a hero made me a popular player with teammates and friends, coaches were not always convinced that my flashy playmaking fit their plans. That is how I learned the price of individuality. It’s not always welcomed by the straight and narrow in many avenues of life.
But by the time I reached high school and had become a full-time runner, that individuality was vital because in running the principal demand is doing your absolute best, and the team scores fall into place after that.
As my notions of what constituted a “hero” migrated from Batman and Superman to baseball and basketball players, they ultimately shifted to runners such as Steve Prefontaine, Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Craig Virgin, Alberto Salazar, and Henry Rono, to name a few. To this day, I view top-level athletes as a bit like superheroes. Granted, my running heroes never wore capes but the way they ran sure seemed like a superpower to me.
But I’ve also met a number of those heroes over time and learned that their fates and lives often have as many vagaries as mine. Like the “supes” in the hit series The Boys, it is true that even superheroes have flaws. It’s all proof that some boyhood fantasies never end until they fully run their course.