Reminiscences on Childhood in the Valley of the Moon: Part 5

Wendi and I raced numerous times over the years, and the results always ended the same; but I never gave up! Year after year of determined futility spurred me onward, and though I couldn’t ever catch her, my admiration for her grew, and in a sense she caught me. The image of her long straight hair dancing behind her as she ran, fluttering and flowing like a Jetstream as she left me in her wake, flustered me and mocked my efforts but also galvanized me to continue to try. I will admit, the thought occasionally occurred to me, the idea tantalized me, to just reach out and grab that hair of hers, just this once, and give it a little tug, to give myself a chance. But of course, I never did that; one cannot touch the hair of a goddess and live.

Wendi gained an almost mythical stature within my family as I described her to my parents and siblings. Someone of us christened her ‘Windy’ because she ran like the wind, and for years later, even into adulthood, I recall a sister, or my mother asking me “whatever happened to ‘Windy’?”

My friends and I played a lot of nerf football in those days; that squishy multi-colored football was the perfect size for third-and-fourth-grader-sized-hands to throw great distances. And the rush gave the playground quarterback ten whole alligators to find his target. Everyone wanted to either throw it or catch it, and fortunately since I could run, I often got the call to run deep and catch a long-bomb. Touchdown! It was always so satisfying to blaze past the defense and receive that football at the end of the asphalt and score! I was given the nickname, ‘Greased Lighting’ by my friends, deriving from the movie Grease which hit the theaters that year.

Feeling pretty great about myself, I challenged Wendy to another rematch. Who knows what number rematch this was; but did it really matter? We were older now, and we ran on the track now, which made some difference, but not to the outcome. I lost again. But she was gracious as always and made losing almost a pleasure. Her smile always warmed my heart, and I never really cared that I lost to her, which was surprising because I was very competitive and hated to lose.

In fourth grade we officially could play on the other side of the backstop; the dividing line between the little kids and the big kids playgrounds. It wasn’t that we had never gone to the west side, the other side, before, but it just wasn’t done all that often. At least not by me. And it wasn’t long before I learned of new dangers over there that I hadn’t considered before. I had never been in a fight before, never really had much of any confrontation so I was nonplused and confused when I learned from quite a few of my friends that there was a kid, a sixth-grader, who wanted to kill me. They assured me that I was definitely going to be beaten up by him, and I would probably die, because he was just that tough.

Who in the heck was John Caven?! I had never heard of him or seen him before. And why didn’t he like me? How did he even know who I was?! I couldn’t understand any of this but I knew my situation was dire, and I needed a plan. First, I should find out who he was. And when I first saw him, I agreed that he was as advertised; he looked pretty tough and scary. Who wears black leather jackets in sixth grade?! With metal studs and chains on the shoulders he looked very intimidating; and with his feathered hair he also looked very cool. I was impressed, and realized I was doomed.

But I could run. I couldn’t fight, but I had two legs and they could carry me along pretty well; and I intended to use them. One morning recess, not long after the initial threats to my life made circulation around the school, my assailant finally came after me. He just walked slowly towards me, and I believe the kids on the playground parted like the red sea, giving him free access to me. Everything was in slow motion then, he was in no hurry to murder me, he just came at me relentlessly and I stood there frozen, incredulously, until something clicked and I turned and ran. It was as simple as that, he didn’t chase me, he let me go and I ran out across the playfield until I turned to see that he had gone away and I was safe. He never bothered me again, but it occurred to me that while I was running terrified across the field, as I was saving my life, I wished I could also have been racing Wendy; that it would have been an excellent time to have been simultaneously racing her because I was pretty sure I could have beaten her that time.

It was the following year, in fifth grade, when I least expected it, during a standard rematch, as I fully expected to be creamed yet again, that the unimaginable happened. I was feeling pretty good that day, it was nearing the end of the year, and the annual inter-school track meet was coming up. I was at the top of my game. Earlier in the morning I had been running the track, pacing myself against some youngsters. We were running the curve, which is always my favorite part of the track to run. Something about leaning into the curve adds a little bit more exhilaration, and somehow gives one the impression they are going faster.

Wendy was out on the track too, running as she always did; like a human-gazelle, almost magically in flight as she went. But I was ready for her this time. I challenged her to a race and as I recall we started at the far western end of the track, just behind the backstop and we only ran fifty yards, to the little white post which marked the middle of the straightaway. The race was wonderful, as all our races were, she glided beside me, her hair lifting into the air and streaming behind her as we went. I turned and could see she was smiling, but also very determined as she always was, she was fierce but at ease simultaneously, focused as she ran but effortless at the same time. For me, she was a miracle as she ran. I on the other hand, hunched over and dug in, and grunted it out like a beast, pounding the earth and scraping along as hard as I could, trying to gain an advantage. And for the first time in three, almost four years, when we passed the finish line I was ahead! I finally won!

It was a strange feeling to win that race. Like most of our races, I don’t believe there were any witnesses; we raced incognito, with no fanfare, and little consequence. But like all of our races the world around us vanished for a short moment, while we shared the joy and freedom of running; we ran for the fun of it, and we ran joyfully! Though I felt it was a great accomplishment to win that race and I felt satisfaction having done so; strangely, it also didn’t matter to me as much as I thought it would. Wendy was gracious, and I believe she held out her hand to shake mine, and she congratulated me. Though I’m not sure if she realized that it was the first time I had ever beaten her; it didn’t appear to bother her in any way, she just took it in stride. I don’t recall ever racing her again after that. Perhaps we did, although I suspect I decided to stop while I was ahead—ever so briefly ahead.

~FS

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