Now if you've been reading awhile you may remember previous posts (this one this one or this one) where I gently poke fun at the fact that I'm not...what's the word, athletic? Sure. That can be the word: I am not athletic. But this, my friends, is not that post. You see, there is somewhere deep inside of me an oddly athletic ability and it comes out in perfectly useless places, for example my brother lives on a golf course and was chipping balls from his back yard into the water hazard behind his house (I would call it a pond but this is my athletic post). Well, I wanted to try so, after all the brothers and their wives and their children and their dogs all either got a safe distance away, behind the sliding glass door, or covered from head to toe in some sort of padding, I was allowed to touch the club. I took two practice swings and then popped the ball right over the water hazard and on to the green. It was prefect. But gained me nothing. Nothing like the time at scout camp.
My finest most athletic hour came at camp Maple Dell when I was 14. They had this thing called the 'Iron Man' and the year before my little brother had come in second place and it was all anyone in camp was talking about...even though he came in second they seemed to think it was worthy of chatter. So the Iron Man was a three pronged race, Run around the lake, swim across the lake, Canoe back across the lake. Well, the year before it had been up to one kid to do all three, but this year, for reasons undisclosed to me, they were splitting the race into a relay with three kids taking a different prong. Well, one kid in our troupe had just finished his Canoeing Merit Badge and another kid was a life guard back home so the only leg of the race up for grabs was the runner. And I was not up for grabbing. However, an over zealous Assistant Scout Master rallied all the boys down to the lake to have a little race of our own. Simple: fastest one around the lake would be the runner for our team. I stayed behind by the camp fire. It wasn't really my gig, mostly because I used words like gig for sporting events, and also my little brother was sure to win and if he didn't then it would be this other set of brothers, "The Lake Brothers" (Lake was their last name and they were on the track team and we were running around a Lake! So they could not be stopped). My troupe clamored off toward the lake and then, as if scripted in an after school special, the assistant scout master broke off from the pack, "Hey guys, you keep going. I'll be there in a minute." Then he came over to give me the talk. And here's the thing, men who genuinely like sports think that every guy likes sports, and that to be left out of them would be the worst thing in the world. Where guys like me are happy not to have to join in. Usually they don't care about guys like me, but every now and then you get a guy who thinks they will take you under his wing and carefully coach you to a love of "The Game". Like after 14 years of hating sports, after one pep talk from him and I would all of the sudden get it and then be amazing at running...well, he was half right. I can still remember sitting on a log by the campfire and he was so earnest and truly believed I would enjoy racing my scout-mates around a lake in the dead of summer, if I would just give it a try. Of course I resisted, but in the end, I had seen too many after school specials to know when it was my turn to look up at him and say, "Okay, coach, let's go for it."
In a mangle of scouts, on the banks of a lake, we waited. My fellow scouts eyed me head to toe, and while there was a look of impression, it was more likely for the scout master that coached me down here to be humiliated. I was somewhat impressed myself. And so we lined up. My little brother saddled up next to me and gave me his own pep talk, "As long as one of those Lake brothers don't win." he said with a smile. In brother talk that was, "I'm proud of you for stepping so far out of your comfort zone and don't you think those Lake brothers are jerks." I didn't care about beating my little brother, this was his thing and he could have it, but I did fine a fresh and seething hatred for those Lake boys.
There we stood, in a perfect line, no one giving me a second thought, I could have walked and no one would have cared then something deep awoke inside of me. This sleeping but competitive dragon that only woke when my younger brothers touched the remote control or apparently when running races at scout camp. And so we ran. Wind rushing, head down, eyes closed, fists white with fury, my feet hardly touching the ground and then I won. It hadn't been my intention, but toward the end it was me and the older Lake and I would not relent, perhaps on the track team he had been told that a 14 year old boy could run so hard his heart would explode out his ears and eye sockets and so he held back, but I had never been told such a thing and so I ran with out restraint and won. And for winning, I had to run again. For some reason I thought everyone would be excited for me, but they were not. I distinctly remember hearing some kid say, "Yeah, and look at his shoes." They were pea green canvas shoes I had got at the GAP for nine dollars. I loved them and I loved the GAP for finally finishing off my outfit. The Assistant Scout Master, realizing what he had done, actually gave some sort of, "Sorry guys, but rules are rules and he won so I guess he will be the one who races."
So my part was to run around a lake. There was this grassy part, then a rocky part up a hill, then on this dirt path into this foresty part, then down a big hill, and then, at the end, a steep grassy hill where you tagged your swimming partner and then you got to be done. We all lined up for the big race. I remembered from my earlier race that being on the inside track gave me the inside track. (hilarious) So I elbowed my way to the left, all the way to the left, right up along the lake itself. This was the big race at the end of the week so all the troupes were gathered around the lake (in my mind they have pennant flags and troupe colors and a brass band was playing somewhere but as I think about it now they probably didn't have any of that.). There was, however, a gun shot. (of course there was a gun shot this was Scout Camp) And we were off! I was feeling great about my "Inside Track" scheme until, that is, the lake started cutting in to my path. There was a moment, when I ran past my absolutely silent scout troupe, that I was quickly tip toeing on little patches of earth growing like mushroom islands in the lake. My hands high in the air with my middle finger tip touching my thumb as I ran, my other fingers flexed for balance. I remember looking over at my entire troupe on the sidelines and they looked like one of those sepia western photographs where the camera took ten hours to take the picture so you had to stand frozen, without a smiles. It was not heartening. And so I ran... well first I tip toed and then I ran. I ran up the rocky part and a past a few kids who lost their footing on the terrain, but once I got on to the dirt path I could see like ten runners a head of me. Then the dragon awoke. And I ran. I started to feel the colors on my clothes bleed off me and form puddles of slick for the runners behind me. The skin on my face tightened as the G forces increased. And me and ten other runners ran into the foresty part. And the dragon spoke, "This is it. After the trees is a huge down hill slope. Whoever is the first to that hill will have gravity as their horse and will win the race. And so, I lifted my feet off the ground and I flew. I was passing boys like they were Oldsmobiles in the far right lane. One. Two. Three-four-five. Six. Seven-eight. Nine...then there was one. And he was almost to the break in the trees. I was right behind him when I knew what would happen. Somehow I knew he was going to fall, and when he did I was ready for it. Right at the moment we shot out of the trees he went down and I jumped. Like a gazelle over a charging crocodile I jumped out from the trees and back into view of the spectators. Both feet in the air, leaves and branches in my wake. And for a moment the lake was silent. The birds and the sunshine held their breath. Then I landed. And sound erupted. The dragon was right, I was at a deep pitch downward and all I had to do was hold on and not fall. My canvas shoes spinning a green blur beneath me. And far off, from the other side of the lake I could hear people screaming. Wild and hysterical screams of those who had lost hope or, rather, never had hope to begin with, seeing, for the first time, there was a chance. I bled down the hill remembering my last obstacle was the grassy hill sure to be slick and sure to be my down fall. I planted each foot hard into the sod and bound my way up the hill. Unbeknownst to me, my partner had come half way down the hill to touch my hand for the pass off. I ran right past him. I got to the top of the hill and looked around for him only to find him running up behind me. He slapped my hand and ran like a maniac into the water.
In the end neither the swimmer or the canoe-er were all that apt. They were average at best, but later, when we were all sitting around the camp fire they told me that when I shot out of those trees, three feet in the air, that no other scout followed me for at least ten seconds. I had so thoroughly crushed the running competition that mediocre swimming and canoeing were enough to win the race. Finally, when the canoe touched the other side of the lake, my troupe rushed from their seats screaming like feral cats on fire. And it's true, they surrounded me and lifted me up on their shoulders chanting our troupe number, "668 668 668!" and, for a moment atop that swarm of scouts, I did genuinely love the game. The game of winning.