I miss the stumble but what I see is the cameraman, whom I've hired at absurd expense to cover my son's high school invitational cross-country meet, rolling, as if in slow motion, down a gentle grassy slope above the one-mile mark, cradling his $43,500 Ikegami video camera.
At that moment I am not what I consider my usual compassionate self. In a rush, I am saying to myself, "George, why are you so clumsy? Don't break that damn camera before the race has really unfolded!"
We have just shot the start, at a pleasingly artistic distance, as the broad field of runners poured down the long declining greensward, narrowing through an invisible funnel, my tall son Frankie swallowed up by the pack, until it swept off uphill to the right, out of sight. Then we jumped into an open-bed truck and jolted and careened past the girls' hockey field to the next position, where the cameraman took his tumble.
The runners are still offstage (it is almost always like that in cross-country races, which is why videotaping a meet is slightly crazy) but their imminent presence is almost unbearably palpable—at least to parents, coaches and schoolmates. We have maybe a minute to get ready—the camera is still working—before the front of the pack will be upon us. Indeed, as we run to get a good vantage, I see the runners pelting toward us, accompanied by a rising, yelping chorus of cries from the small fanatic cluster of supporters, myself included.
The rationale for my being there—aside from the mingled love that I have for my children and sports—is that you can't cheer your kids in public for their wise and witty comments in English and history classes, while you can go to the field or court and yell like mad, watching your kids at play. I never stop to justify taking an occasional day off from work, sometimes driving as many as 250 miles round-trip to be there and make noise.
It is an old habit. When my oldest daughter, Katie, played volleyball and basketball in high school, I would shout from the stands while she almost vibrated with intensity on the court. If I were to draw her cartoon-fashion, or in a comic strip, I would encircle her body with shaky concentric lines. And the only time she ever ran in a track meet—a half-mile, in which she long-legged from third place near the end to win—legend has it that I almost tore my younger daughter Sally's arm from its socket as we dashed hand-in-hand across the field to the finish line, after cheering Katie on at the 700-yard mark. Well, Sally did cry.
Sally is now in the ninth grade and vibrating the same way her sister did on the volleyball and basketball courts, and her legs are even longer than Katie's. She also competes on the track team in the 220, the mile and the long jump. I am almost overcome with excitement watching her run. But what I really treasure is the memory of her gritty play in seventh grade as the only girl in an all-boys' basketball league. For away games, she had to change into her uniform in the girls' bathroom. And the other team's players buzzed when they spied her long blonde hair—"It's a girl...It's a girl." She sat on the bench most of the season, but how could I ever forget her first and only basket, a soft two-handed jump shot from about 10 feet out on the right side. Swish! And the next year, in one incredible game, she scored 18 of her all-girls' team's 20 points in a gallant losing cause. The Gunner!
But now I am at another cross-country meet, the finale of my son's senior season, the league championship. After the start, a handful of us—myself, the assistant coach and some students—trot into the woods to wait under the high, brown, leafless trees. It is absolutely quiet. So much effort is being expended by the runners offstage that I feel guilty just standing there deep in the woods, with great unease, my heart pounding unreasonably, invoking magic to bring my child (if a child can be 6'3") up to the front of the race.
"It is the enormous probability of failure," writes Roger Angell, the graceful chronicler of baseball and other pastimes, "that gives all difficult sports their seriousness and their rare and thus splendid moments of triumph."
This is somewhat overstated—there are still satisfying gradations of "failure"—but I attend my children's sporting events with just those terrible daunting odds in mind. There is that strong chance that they and their team will fail. And it is the relief when neither takes place that is so glorious. Their efforts are not only their very best, but they turn out to be winners as well. I remember an earlier fall when I waited and waited until the last runner told me, with great kindness, "Sir, I don't think Frankie will finish. He's O.K., though." Anguish overwhelmed succor at our reunion.
So, apprehensively, I am waiting in the silent autumn woods near the two-mile point of a 2½-mile cross-country course, waiting for my son, his teammates and the other runners to reappear 10 minutes or so after vanishing 150 yards from the start.
Suddenly, before I hear anything at all, someone shouts, "There they are!" And indeed a figure in a white shirt appears abruptly, descending a narrow twisting dirt path through the woods, and then another, and another, wearing a blue T shirt under his school singlet, 20 yards in back of the leader, a glimpsed familiar face and legs and arms—my son. They veer and plummet toward the handful of spectators, as amazed as we are, as I later found out, after the silence of the high woods, by the gathering noise.
For the quiet is now shattered, blown to bits with yells of encouragement and cheers and all kinds of hopeful deceit. "Way to go! You've got him now! He's tiring." Pleas, exhortations, demands, together with arms wheeling, fists in the air. "Go.... Go.... Go.... Gogogogogogo."
They come right by us, so close, a few feet away in the exploding woods that the runners and spectators seem almost mutually surprised by the sudden immense conspiracy of effort—their run, our cries. Frankie's weary anxious eyes, his flushed hard-working face pass by, borne before me as though painted on a heraldic shield. I suffer the almost unbearable immediacy of my son's features. And then the eternal moment is over and they are by us, their backs climbing the leaf-strewn hill into another deeper part of the woods, another invisible passage. Exhausted by fear and joy, I trot quickly up toward the track and the finish. How can he ever catch up?
There is another momentary wait until the runners come into sight once more, the three leaders almost together now at the woods' edge, my son ducking and plunging under the pines, bursting from the woods onto the track, a step or so in the lead, for the final 200 yards of cinder track. Now there are two front-runners churning down the track with Frankie barely in first, both of the runners driving their arms and legs in the race to the finish.
My shouts of encouragement are inchoate and impossible to remember an instant afterward. My son holds on, winning by a scant yard or so, the first time in his racing life that he has ever beaten anyone in a close sprinting finish. Moments later, in great joy, his mouth still frothy, Frankie exults, "My feet, they never touched the track! I just blew him away, didn't I?"
Ah, the sweetness of the paean. History. It happened. Once. Enough. Never enough.
Am I transported into absurd realms? Why not? These athletes, no matter how modestly endowed, are my children. What an intimate, privileged sharing of effort and acclaim.