The Truth, Mainly - 05/21/1990

Father was a 'dash man,' but genes not passed on
by Leon Satterfield

I am 16 years old in 1950 and I am a ticking athletic time bomb. I'm halfway through the third lap of the mile run at the league meet in Satanta, and I remind myself that it can't be much longer before my latent abilities explode.

Because wasn't my father a college dash man back in the 1920s? And even into the 1940s, wasn't he the fastest grownup in our county because he could outrun all challengers down the three-block main street of my hometown? So I figure it's only a matter of time for me.

My high school coach has me running the mile because my lack of speed is not so noticeable there. I don't like getting as tired as running a mile makes me get, but I have achieved some modest success: going into this last meet of the season at Satanta, I have never finished last.

Next to last seems honorable enough while I wait for my blinding speed to come around, but my father takes no pride in that.

"When you run," he tells me, his voice slower and quieter than usual, "you're supposed to point your toes straight ahead. And try not to run so long in the same place."

I don't want to make excuses, but the league meet is being run on a quarter-mile track and I have done my training on our town's half-mile track. It's a horserace track and we call it "Little Churchill Downs" during our annual racing season the last weekend in August.

In the spring, before the sandburs and Texas tacks get a good start, our coach uses it for the track team. He says training on a half-mile track will make us run faster on a quarter-mile track, but it doesn't work for me.

Even on quarter-mile tracks, I am always watching for horse poop and I cannot concentrate on keeping my toes straight. And while my mind accepts the fact that there are four laps to a mile on quarter-mile tracks, my body is always disappointed by the news and grows sullen.

So now I am halfway through my third lap at Satanta and I am jogging along in my usual position, next to last. I have a comfortable 25-yard lead over a freshman kid from Rolla with an Ace bandage on his left ankle. The dirt is smooth—the Satanta municipal roadgrader scraped it just before the first race—and the day is sunny. Even the wind has died down so that I can hear the song of the meadowlarks in the wheatfield just west of the track, and I can smell the wintergreen smell of the Atomic Balm our coach tells us to rub on our legs to make us run faster. I am running about 20 yards behind a pudgy sophomore from Sublette and I have a fine view of the leaders strung out on the straightaway at the beginning of the last lap.

It is a pleasant way to wait for my potential to develop.

And that's when the little pissant from Rolla quits. I don't know he has dropped out until I get around the turn to begin the fourth lap and my dad says, "Pick it up, dammit. You're dead last. Turn it on."

I look over my shoulder and see the Rolla kid limping across the fifty-yard line of the football field. There is nobody behind me. And while I know the little dipstick has quit and ought to be considered dead last, I also know that by the time I finish, everybody will have forgotten him and they'll see me as dead last.

So I try in that last lap to catch the pudgy Sublette guy ahead of me. I pick it up. I turn it on. I get to within five yards of him with about 100 yards to go when his coach sees what I am up to.

"Look out," he yells. "You can't let this guy beat you."

The Sublette guy looks at me over his shoulder and then he picks it up and turns it on too, and my side begins to hurt. Despite the Atomic Balm, my legs feel all quivery and I can't breathe fast enough. How would my mother like it if I died finishing next to last?

So I say let the pudgy little hayseed have his eighth place finish and I let him go. The strain of it all makes me belch and I taste again the zweibach and American cheese and Sunkist oranges and Hershey bars (without almonds) our coach has given us for lunch. He says they'll make us run faster without throwing up.

I finish dead last and I don't throw up, so he's half right. Nobody says anything to me—my dad is looking west at the wheatfield—and I hear our coach say to the Sublette coach, "I don't know. His old man was pretty good."

My spirit is broken.

I will continue to go out for football and basketball and track because I don't want anyone to question my sexual orientation. But it's a damn shame, I tell myself, all bent over with hands on my knees watching a red ant crawl up my ankle, to have a career ruined by a gimpy little pissant from a podunk town like Rolla.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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