My first experience with running at any notable length would be gym class in seventh grade at the Washington College Academy. We ran laps around the basketball court’s defining lines in the gymnasium, standard stuff for any gym class, really. Sneakers padding, slapping, and squealing against that polished and buffed wooden floor as a couple dozen kids from the diminutive seventh and eighth grade classes combined into a seething mass of kids from different walks of life joined under one banner of general misery.
Except for Charles Kennedy. Lap after lap, he high kneed his way through the mandatory mile as though nothing in the world, nigh, the universe mattered more.
Alow me to pause and afford you, dearest reader, with some back story on Charles Kennedy, not all of it flattering, though much of it why I considered him a friend, even if he were someone unable to form or reciprocate similar sentiments.
I met Charles during the summer between fourth and fifth grade, we attended the same camp, a special project camp to be sure, yet a summer camp all the same. I’d been seeing counselors at the Watauga Behavioral Health Services to work on decrypting, deconstructing, and ultimately defusing my behavioral and emotional issues. A couple IQ tests discerned I might just be something other than an idiot after all, though quite what was anyone’s guess.
All ages of folks walk into Watauga Behavioral Health Services for help, and sitting in the lobby while my Mom talked to kindly women often casting strangely sympathetic or sorrowful expressions my way allowed me to overhear a lot of the troubles that ailed others far older than my Mom or me, especially from the staff of orderlies and nurses at the station near the door. Apparently people got to live there full time inside those powder blue walls and halls, a color that remains one of my favorites, and I wondered then as I swung my feet over the flecked Formica tiles that my reception chair elevated me up above what things might be like to live in such a place.
Not knowing then that part of my Mother’s urgency about places like this came from her own mother spending time in one, and not electively. Found that family fact out later, strains of crazy run in the family, and judging by the full measure of my spontaneous outbreaks of rage and fury, might well have found purchase in my gallon drunk from the gene pool.
Not knowing any of that I sat swinging my feet listening to each weeks gossip about the residents sequestered in the many floors overhead. I’d look up at the ceiling, bangs falling back out of my face, squinting as though I might somehow see what these people were up too, and imagining that I could. The guy that each week required new solutions for helping him resist the temptation to shove his metal cutlery into the wall sockets. The lady with the penchant for furs that kept making faux fur shawls with rolls of toilet paper and bathrobe ties. The guy that inadvertently yelled bad words during conversation, then sobbed uncontrollably until someone gave him some Kool-Aide. Sugary fruit flavors will soothe most ills I could think of then.
So being a member had it’s privileges, and on my birthday that summer I woke to find far less presents than I probably expected and a single envelope containing a card with a picture of the forest as I’d come to appreciate a real forest looks like from the many Ranger Rick magazines I’d read from the subscriptions my Grandma C. and her sisters sent over our childhood years, that and Highlights with those tantalizing pictures for words puzzles. Inside the card, a simple printed note declaring that I would be heading off to summer camp, when and where, followed by a note in my Mom’s handwriting wishing me a happy birthday, love Mom & Dad. I looked up from the card at my parents, my expression largely somewhere between perplexed and utterly neutral, while their expectant smiles grew strained as they waited a response. When I nearly exploded with enthusiastic glee, their smiles widened into the real, non-coached variety, and a couple weeks later I was on a short bus to the camp of crazy kids.
If you didn’t know the pedigree of the attendees, the summer camp would be largely the same as any other in the Appalachian Mountains and the rest of the woody hippy bush spread across the crux of where Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas meet like the smooching siblings they are. All the normal summer camp archetypes were there; the no neck Neanderthal lads shaving off beards before breakfast and puberty, the shy reclusive bug eaters, the nerds, geeks, jocks, richies, and every shade of archetype and kid camp filmic cliché Earnest Goes to Camp, Psychonauts, and the Meatballs series would have you believe. What you might not expect were kids with disabilities, physical or mental. While the physical ones minimally mingled with the rest of us, the Booby Hatch never closed or segregated otherwise. Down syndrome, fire bug, autism, anger management issues, lecherous kin survivalist, dropped baby syndrome, recovering Kool-Aid clown style red-lipper; come one come all.
And somewhere in that wondrous madness I met Charles Kennedy. Shy, stuttering, socially awkward, and terrified of his own shadow. When I saw Crispin Glover in Back to the Future, I wondered what Charles might be up too in life. When I met Crispin Glover in person, I hoped Charles found as good an outlet for addressing his own social incapacities.
In school I’d already drawn the attention of pretty much ever bully could heed the call by that age. Something about the weird kid in the back of the room, too desperate for friends, for validation from others, wide open target for the weak minded, mean spirited, and the conveniently cruel. Add to that my impotent rage anger management issues and I’d shone like a beacon in the night for the creeps and crawlers of the secondary school set.
And while I never stood up to much of anyone in school, perhaps for fear of lasting repercussions, I had little qualm about standing up to bullies at summer camp. Maybe it was that chance to work from a clean slate, be someone without precedent or history, though I doubt that, considering the bullies started after I changed schools the first time, became the new kid, and failed to make the most of that like the downtrodden in films seem to always manage too. Not that Twilight or Heathers remotely reflects life, rather just wistfully reflects upon it. More likely my bravado came from an immediate refusal to let some punks ruin my vacation. Sometimes rash acts stem from stimulus that simple, a refusal to accept corruption of an experience I felt I’d earned and arrived fully entitled to enjoy.
True, the brute I talked out of beating me up for yanking his pants off in the deep end of the pool probably should have hit me. I’d been imitating the other boys more comfortable with swimming, the ones also not in water wings, the others that could leap fearlessly from the high dive and cannonball into the midst of unwary swimmers down below. The ones that could hold their breath and skim along beneath the surface, the ones that accepted me as one of their own when I demonstrated that I could, too. Learning to swim through being tossed into Watauga Lake in an adult size life jacket to fend for myself had some perks, after all. My confidence in an enclosed body of water knew few bounds, pardon the pun. I recall feeling amazed and a touch superior upon seeing all those kids my age and older that were clinging to inflatable rafts, wore water wings, or life vests better suited to youthful frames than that behemoth I’d first been cast to the tides like Moses in. I felt the same way seeing all those young men leap into the pool a couple days into the Navy during the mandatory aquatic proficiency test.
A mandatory test for a branch of military based around a presumption of the life aquatic. About every third person reluctantly jumped in when told to by the commanding officer, and with varying degrees of struggle or concession, dropped to the bottom and had to be prodded with a long pole that the swimming impaired could use to cling to and be dragged out or manage to clamber up and climb out of the massive indoor pool with. The rest of us tread water for ten minutes, then swam by any means possible to the distant far end and back, then tread water some more. I elected to conserve energy since no time limits for the swim had been mentioned, and I’d clued in that instructions were very literal in bootcamp, things were said or left unsaid deliberately. When I’d passed the test and climbed with unasked for burly Navy SEAL assistance one armed fishing technique assistance out of the pool, my Chief quietly said I wound be one of the few with the right instincts to survive a sinking ship. One of the best, and strangest, compliments I’ve ever received.
So a couple armchair bullies tried to poke some fun at scrawny, wire thin, big headed, coke bottle glasses wearing Charles Kennedy and I intervened. Not that I was a lot beefier, not by much, however I made up for that with showmanship, and the bullies pissed off and didn’t return. From then on when not separated by mandate, as we were from different bunk houses, Charles and I were generally in near vicinity to one another, and I kept an eye out for anyone picking at him.
To say we were buddies would be inaccurate to some degree, because Charles had some issues that might have been a highly functional version of autism. He didn’t connect to folks, tended to take what they said with some confusion, or very literally, and shied away quickly as though fearing a smack. Clearly Charles had been bullied a lot through his young life, and having an inability to read people seemed to exasperate the problem. We were friends in that he recognized me and relaxed, knew I wasn’t there to hit him, and when I gave him instructions like stay put or get back from that running car, no ill consequences befell him and he lived to see another day without bruise or blemish.
Another kid I met and played with a lot during camp looked a lot like a young Kevin McDonald with glasses, named Jeff.
When I arrived at Washington College Academy and once classes began I soon discovered that in the class a year ahead of me was Charles Kennedy. A year later, when I moved from seventh to eighth grade, Charles’s younger brother Paul began at the school, and we got to be great pals, even after Paul took his youth group leader’s warnings a little too seriously and convinced me to help him burn all his Marvel comic books in a pit in the dirt at the back end of his parent’s property in Jonesboro one fine late spring night. Charles and Paul’s father did restoration architecture around Easter Tennessee, particularly around Jonesboro where he’d been buying up a lot of the more noteworthy historical properties. Paul assured me his family is a branch off the same tree as JFK and Arnie’s ex. Never know who you’ll bump into when you shake a tree in one of the original 13 colonies.
I also discovered as classes began at Washington College Academy that Jeff also attended, a couple years ahead of me and the person to introduce me to Kitty Pryde and Lockheed and the alien Brood through the pages of the X-Men comics he’d been purchasing with his modest earnings helping his dad with yard work and the like. Like me, his parents also gained his admittance into the expensive school through working for it. The maintained grounds and filled in when the dorms needed house mothers on short notice. Jeff had convinced himself if he squint his eyes hard enough, scrunched his forehead fervently enough, he could teleport. I didn’t help, trying to be nice while watching him lock up for five minutes at a time, then assuring him I’d been hanging around wondering where he’d gone only to see him reappear in front of me again five minutes later. Did my heart good to see him dance and exclaim how he’d proven it could be done, hoping no one else could hear him and ruin his teacup temporal victory.
Charles played the pipe organ. He played it with nearly mechanical precision, and is the only kid I’ve ever met with a functional pipe organ salvaged from a tiny Southern Baptist church somewhere that’d failed to floss sufficient flocks to keep the chapel open for business. He played for the big church downtown on Saturdays and Sundays, always arrived on time, and would become agitated to the point of aggression if anyone tried to mess with his regular schedule. When I saw Rainman, I thought of Charles.
During my seventh grade year the school sent out a short, brown bus driven by the history and civics teacher to collect the kids bussing in from Johnson City, Jonesboro, and anywhere in between. Two of the kids that bullied me most were on that bus every morning. So was Charles. No one said anything when Charles started showing up in class with bruises until I saw the ones on his ribs as he changed shirts in the locker room before gym class. I said something to every adult I could find. Those bruises weren’t from home, or from abusive parents. There were from the boys that could simply stand next to Charles in the locker room for half a minute and Charles would sit there, slumped, shoulders drawn in, and begin to pee.
I’d begun trying to write stories around that time, and as the bullies turned more and more in my direction, especially after Charles’s parents pulled him out of school, and some of those stories entailed gaining super powers that would allow me to right the wrongs and punish the wicked, in particular on behemoth slack jawed idiot problem kid that had ended up at WCA because his parents paid away their problems and after Junior had been expelled from all the local public schools and failed a couple grades besides. I believe what got me expelled when my history teacher, the same one that later went to jail for molesting boys, confiscated my journal story notebook during a quiz, read it, photocopied it, gave the copies to the school’s president, the same guy that embezzled funds, bankrupt the school, and fled for the Caymans a few years later. Apparently repaying all those swirlies and locker room humiliations with the punitive application of a plunger equals a call to the parents and a week’s suspension, followed by watching my tearful, white faced Mother purge every poster, magazine, and cassette she could find from the tiny room I shared with my brother. She never found my Motley Crue or Ratt tapes, but all those Def Leppard posters, gone. The three hard won Heavy Metal issues? Gone. Judy Blume’s Forever? Gone forever.
Right around my week of home imprisonment, the short brown bus pulled up to school with a spider web crack in the wide back window. Chares had a concussion, and an ambulance came for him. Junior claimed Charles had done it all on his own. DeAngelo seconded that though I believe DeAngelo, the “good cop” of the two bully’s Abbott & Costello act turned Junior in as soon as his ass hit the hardwood of the chair facing the school president, the same guy that had given me a week’s exile only days earlier.
Charles returned to school a few days later, though he never rode the short bus again. Junior got a week suspension, ironically the same amount of time I got for wanting him worked over with a fictional plunger wielding super power. And that’s about when running laps in gym class took on a new dimension.
Charles could run fast, old man style cotton shorts flapping against his corn stalk thighs as his knees shot up to about even with his waist line. The day he first lapped Junior we saw Junior’s power begin to slip. The day he lapped Junior twice we knew Charles had stuck gold. And whether for my loathing of Junior or my admiration of Charles, I began trying to keep up. After a couple weeks of this I also lapped Junior, and laughed at him as I did so, despite the obvious risk of repercussion in the locker room thereafter. I took to grabbing my things and running across the parking lot to the classroom building to change, I knew a bathroom down by the band room where the high school age drummer kid practiced none of the other kids seemed to know about, smelled like mothballs but had a lock on the door.
The behemoth of a gym teacher, a guy named Mr. Matthews with horror stories of playing soccer back in his military heyday were players’ cleats were circles of leather punched onto tacks that players would pull off so that they could gouge opponents kneecaps off on the field. Mr. Matthews caught on quickly to the shift in power happening between the bullied and the bullies, at least in the gym. He stopped indulging all DeAngelo’s whiny protests about needing a special cloth under his hair to protect his jerry curls while he did sit ups. He began goading Junior to hurry up, calling out the fact that the brute was being lapped by kids his breaking wind could knock over.
And then Mr. Mathews showed up with a stop watch and a decree. The laps would equal a mile, and would be timed, and anyone failing to beat the federally mandated mile time minimum per their gender would be forced to do extra exercises to help strengthen them up to run all that much faster the next time. Charles always won and always had the fastest time. What surprises everyone is that I almost always came in second, and often by only a few seconds.
I began practicing on my own, running a circuit of farm roads that formed approximately a mile if you ran intersection to intersection to intersection to home again. I recall leaving to run, and arriving home panting, and hearing my Dad ask what I’d done, and I told him I’d run the mile. He looked at me with feigned disbelief and said that I surely must be pulling his leg, no one runs that fast. While I had to pause and decide whether he honestly doubted me or had an intention of giving me praise by pulling my leg, I realized that I needed to overcome my distrustful nature and appreciate that to that point in our oft strained relationship, that comment turned out to be one of the nicest things my Dad had ever said to me. I’d accomplished something. Nothing Forest Gump, sure, but for this troubled teen, definitely something somewhat constructive. I could run, could temporarily forget worry and obligation and things to be angry at, and focus on trying to reach the end, to not stop, to not let anyone see me falter.
And all these years later, I’m freshly rediscovering the attraction to the run. Thanks to my running buddies at work, I’m now running two or three times a week. Certainly a far cry from the six minute something mile I used to manage in seventh and eighth grade, yet still feels pretty good to manage a four and a half minute kilometer after needing more than five minutes for each of the five kilometers that had preceded it.
It’s been a skittish start, a couple 5k event runs last year that I didn’t prepare or train for, and went into with too much gusto, burning out quickly and struggling to finish. My colleague cohorts are compelling me to pace myself, to stretch appropriately, and with the mighty power of positive peer pressure, to preserver through the intermittent walls of doubt, pain, heavy breathing, or other barriers real and more often than not imagined.
And I have to think Charles would be proud, in his way, because while my so called bullies now are age and professional accountability and all the awesome responsibilities of family, his example is readily apparent as I rediscover just how much I love to run, and how much more able a good run leaves me towards dealing productively with almost anything. Beating back your inner doubts and demons is pretty ravishingly refreshing, after all.