Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jim Ewing

Jim Ewing taught English at Howard Payne when I arrived there. He was a distance runner, and he'd come to the U.S. from Scotland to be on the HPU track team. He'd been a star of the team, and he was still a runner. Four or five years after I met him, he finished first in a marathon in San Antonio. I wouldn't be surprised if he were still running somewhere or other.

Because I couldn't play handball at the college, I talked to Jim about running. He said it didn't require any talent, just persistence. I certainly lacked the talent, but I wasn't sure I could be persistent.

He explained that he liked the idea of training with LSD, which surprised me a little, since Howard Payne was a Baptist school. But then he told me that he meant long, slow distance. That was the key to success. Well, that was fine with me. In addition to lacking talent, I also lacked speed. Compared to me, statues are speedy.

I thought over what Jim had said, and I figured maybe running was for me, in spite of my bad experiences in Corsicana years earlier. After all, being slow and lacking talent, I had two of the three qualifications he'd mentioned.

I never dreamed of training with him. I knew he was too fast and too good. It would have been embarrassing to try to keep up with him because I knew that by the time I'd gone ten yards, he'd be somewhere in the next county. I thought, however, that I might be able to sneak out on my own.

But there was a catch. I was now married, with two little kids. Finding the time to run wouldn't be easy. Jim told me that if I really wanted the exercise, I could find the time. He suggested the weekends to begin with, and if that proved workable, I could try to get more time on the road going out in the late afternoons when I got home from the college. I lived near the location of an old army camp, Camp Bowie. There were lots of deserted roads to run on, and traffic was light. Hardly anyone would see me, and for the most part I could stay well away from the main roads. He encouraged me to give it a try. If I didn't like it, or if things didn't work out, I could quit and try to find some other way to exercise.

I told him I'd think it over.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Years Between

In June 1965, I married Judy Laverne Stutts, and we moved to Denton, Texas, where I worked on my M.A. at North Texas State University. I gave up on getting in shape for a while.

In August 1966, we moved to Austin. I planned to get a Ph.D. in English at The University of Texas. I had a couple of friends in grad school there. Bob Vaughn was a journalism major, and Fred Williams was in the business school. They figured I needed some exercise, so they taught me to play handball in the school's new gym, where there were some pretty swanky handball courts. One of them even had plexiglass walls on three sides.

I'm not coordinated enough to play handball. I look like a spastic goose on the court. I can't use my left hand very well, I'm half blind in my left eye, and I have the reflexes of a brick. But I make up for it with enthusiasm.

Handball in a four-sided court's not a game for sissies. The ball's hard as a rock, and it bounces off the walls, floor, and ceiling at rifle-bullet velocity. You hit it with your hands, and you're wearing only a thin leather glove.

I've heard that in the big city, the game's even tougher. Sometimes there's only one wall, sometimes three. Guys play with cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths. They sip beers between points.

We weren't quite that tough, but we had fun. After Fred and Bob got their degrees and left, I played with John Henry Irsfeld and Richard Freed, both of whom beat me like a drum. Didn't matter. I loved the game. I think I still have a pair of those gloves somewhere. I may even have a handball. I planned to play forever.

Then I finished my degree and moved to Brownwood, Texas, to teach English at Howard Payne University. One of the first things I did was check out the handball courts. There were a couple of them, I think. They were about the size of a bathroom, dark, with low ceilings. Like something Torquemada might have designed when he was in a bad mood. I was told that I'd have to use a squishy, air-filled ball. I never set foot on one of those courts or any other handball court again.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

False Starts: 1964

Early in my second year of teaching in Corsicana, Spencer Olesen and I gave up on living in manufactured housing and moved to an new apartment building located just across the highway from Navarro Junior College. The most interesting event of that year was a tornado that came very close to the apartment building.

We hadn't lived there very long before I became interested in "getting in shape" again. There was a good reason for this. Behind the apartment house was a dirt road about a quarter of a mile long. It led to a paved street, but nobody ever traveled on it, as far as I could tell. I figured it would be ideal for jogging. It was far enough from the college campus and the highway that no one would see me if I went out in the daylight, and that was my main consideration.

The weather was still mild, so one afternoon I put on the tennis shoes and an old pair of shorts that I'd worn in my college p.e. class, along with a white t-shirt. I went downstairs, walked around the apartment building, and jogged down the road.

I got all the way to the end without incident. Coming back was equally simple. I don't remember how fast I ran or if I was winded. I really have no idea if the road was really a quarter of a mile long. Whatever distance it was, and however I felt, I know I was pleased with the effort. I'd found the perfect place to jog. I was going to get in shape.

Or so I thought. We all know what Robert Burns said about the best-laid plans.

What happened was this: there was a spy in the apartment house.

It never occurred to me that a high-school student would be living in an apartment with her parents. I thought parents were supposed to have houses. Which shows how naive I am.

Anyway, the student spotted me that first day, but I didn't have a clue. I went out the next afternoon, feeling self-righteous about getting in shape while all the rest of the slugs in town watched TV and ate Cheetos.

I just made my turn to go back when the carload of my students showed up. I'm sure the one who lived in the apartment called them to let them know. They pursued me all the way back, hooting, hollering, honking the car horn, and laughing. Mostly laughing. The road that I'd guessed might be a quarter of a mile long suddenly seemed to stretch all the way to infinity. And beyond.

Somehow I got to the end of it and back to my apartment. I ran upstairs and looked out my bedroom window. I saw that the car still sat there, and the students were still having a good laugh at my expense.

That was the last time I went jogging in Corsicana, Texas.

It was the last time I went jogging anywhere for a long, long time.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

False Starts: 1963

In the winter of 1963, I was living in Corsicana, Texas, where I taught junior English in Corsicana High. I shared a "manufactured home" with Spencer Olesen, who taught English at Drane Junior High.

In those long-ago days, guys believed in "getting in shape." Or, if they thought they were already fit, they wanted to "stay in shape." So they exercised. In theory, that is. Mostly they just talked about staying in shape or getting in shape and never did anything to achieve "shape."

I, however, was determined to do something. I was going to run.

One winter evening, I put on a pair of tennis shoes, bluejeans, and an orange sweatshirt with a big white logo of The University of Texas at Austin on the front. I pulled a stocking cap down over my years, stepped out the front door of the manufactured home, and took off.

The conditions were not ideal. It was dark. It was cold. There was no moon, and a strong, gusty wind drove thick black clouds overhead. The narrow road had no shoulder, and there were drainage ditches on either side.

I hadn't gone far before I'd had a couple of close calls with passing cars. Those weren't as bad as the close encounters with dogs that came running out at me from yards and bushes. The dogs didn't maul me or anything, but it's pretty scary to have an animal the size of a dump truck come charging at you out of nowhere, barking like crazy, whether he attacks you or not. Gets the old heart rate up, though, I must say.

After a short time (I have no idea how short), I turned back. I'd had enough for one night.

I tried again the next evening. The wind was even gustier than it had been the previous night. They sky was darker. The dogs were more frightening. When I turned back, I decided that I didn't need to get in shape after all, at least not for a while.

One might reasonably ask, why not go during the daylight hours? I didn't want anybody to see me, that's why. I especially didn't want any of my students to see me. That would have been disastrous, or so I thought. I was right, too.

I still have the sweatshirt with my alma mater's logo on the front. I'm nothing if not loyal. The shirt's a little the worse for wear after all these years, but then so am I.

Monday, September 03, 2007


It was 1971. I was thirty years old and full of vim and vigor. Or maybe just vigor. I've never been quite sure about vim.

At any rate, it was 1971, and I had decided to take up running for exercise.

One of the first things I noticed about running was that it was a sport for people of any age. Occasionally I'd even see some gray-haired old guy in his 60s plodding along, and I'd think, "It's great that he can still keep going without a walker."

Thirty-six years have passed since then, in what seems like hardly more than a few weeks.

When I go out for a "run" in the morning, teenagers flicker past me like humming birds.

People in their twenties and thirties move by like the Keystone Kops in a speeded-up silent movie.

Folks in their forties and fifties go around me as if I were a statue planted in their paths.

And that's when I realize I have become that old gray-haired guy that I used to see.

This is the story of how it happened.