I'm going to tell you a story about an incident that only two other people know about. One of them has forgotten it; the other one was sworn to secrecy. It's about how I came to set the record for the Black Cat Relays in the 180-yard low hurdles.
I have kept silent all these years because the story makes me look like a damn fool. The only reason I'm willing to speak out now is in the hope it might help young athletes understand that mistakes, however foolish, must be dealt with at the time of their inception.
The story begins with a thunderstorm the evening before the Black Cat Relays. This was back in April 1952, in Bay City, Texas, and the Black Cat Relays was one of the premier track meets in that part of the country. I was pretty excited that night, and not without reason. I wasn't much in the high hurdles, but the longer low-hurdles event seemed to fit my stride and my tall, skinny frame. My times had been improving, and it was not totally out of line to think I might have a chance against the athletes from some of the bigger schools in Houston and Galveston. Besides all that, I was particularly interested in impressing a girl who was going to be in the stands. (She later married a rice farmer who couldn't have beaten your Aunt Martha in a flight of hurdles.)
After supper the night before the meet, I was trying to relax with the radio when the most violent thunderstorm I had ever heard burst in the skies over Bay City. The thunder boomed and rumbled, the wind blew, and hail hit the roof and windows as though it had been shot from a cannon. In between the thunderclaps, the lightning flashed so brightly that it looked to be about noon outside. The static on the radio was so bad you couldn't tell if it was Eddie Fisher or Patti Page singing. Finally, around eight o'clock, the storm turned into the homestretch, gave one final kick and blew out every bit of electricity on our side of town.
May 10, 1987
Time to get out the candles. Normally I would put this disruption to good use: scaring the hell out of my little brother with ghost stories, waiting for the ice cream in the freezer section of the refrigerator to get in such desperate straits that it would have to be eaten immediately, reading by candlelight and pretending to be Abraham Lincoln.
But this night was not the same. I was too nervous and excited about the track meet to enjoy it. I needed peace and quiet to compose myself and prepare my body and mind for a third-place finish. I had no thought of winning, not against the kind of competition I knew to expect. Third place would be a major victory for me.
We sat around until 10 o'clock, waiting for the lights to come back on. I was getting more nervous by the minute. Finally my family went to bed, and after sitting there for a while, I decided that I ought to at least rest my legs by lying down, even though I knew I couldn't sleep. I got a candle and lit my way into my bedroom and undressed. I set the candle down beside my bed and crawled between the sheets, listening to the last of the storm groaning and grumbling as it moved on. I wasn't worried about the meet being rained out. Such spring storms were common in our part of the country. They would come in, raise hell for a couple of hours and then go on away, never to be heard from again.
I lay there for a while, stiff as a board except for an occasional nervous twitch. I tell you, without being able to read or listen to the radio or distract my mind in any other way from the track meet, it was terribly hard to compose myself. I was so desperate for distraction that I would probably have played Go Fish or Old Maid with my little brother if he had been awake. Finally, I decided it would be a good idea to go to the kitchen and check on the condition of the quart of strawberry ice cream I knew to be in critical danger. So I threw the sheet back and swung my legs over the side of the bed. I set my feet down. My right foot hit the floor. My left foot landed directly on top of the candle that was guttering in a saucer full of molten wax.
It got my attention. It got my attention like nothing had ever done before. I don't think I actually reached the ceiling on my first spring, but I think I got it on subsequent leaps as I went jumping and hopping around my bedroom. I don't know for sure, because when I put the candle out with my foot, the room had gone pitch-black, and I may have just been hitting the walls of the room rather than the ceiling.
I didn't yell—not out of consideration for the rest of the family but simply because I didn't have the breath. Just set your foot down on a lighted candle sometime and see how much breath you have.
After a time, I figured that rolling around on the floor with my teeth gritted wasn't helping, so I stepped and hopped my way to the bathroom. I turned on the cold water in the tub and put my foot under it. The relief was instant, but with the absence of pain came the sudden realization that I might have done myself considerable injury and that one-legged hurdlers don't even finish third.
My stepfather came into the bathroom holding a candle. I figured he must have been awakened by the sound of the water. He said, "What in the hell have you been doing, gymnastics? I never heard such a racket in my life." By that time he was close enough to hold the candle down and see my foot. I was afraid, but I looked too. Naturally it was the ball of my foot I had set on the candle. I could already see a blister forming under the layer of wax. It was the size of a quarter and growing. My stepfather asked me what I had done. I told him.
"Well," he said, "you have exceeded yourself. I thought last week when you nearly killed the cat with the lawnmower that you had reached your potential, but I see you have uncounted reserves left."
I didn't know what he meant and I didn't care. I got out something about the track meet. He said, "Oh, I wouldn't worry. You being on the team, you ought to be able to get a good seat in the stands."
I told him I had to compete, that my life and future depended on it. I told him that if I didn't compete and the reason why I didn't ever got out, I would be ruined for life and would probably never be able to get another date until I was 30 years old and living in some other state.
Well, maybe I didn't really say that, but it was close enough to give him the picture of how serious I considered the matter. He said, "Well, we got maybe one chance. We got to draw that blister and toughen it up, and the only thing I know that will do that is salt water. But it's going to hurt."
I said I didn't care, that I could stand a pain in my foot but not in my heart. He just gave me an odd look and said he hoped I didn't go around town talking like that. He also said, "And if I was you I would be sure and not wake up your mother. If she gets a look at that foot you won't be going out of this house, much less to a track meet."
While I limped back into the bedroom, my stepfather went into the kitchen and put a little water in a pan, got out the salt and the bottle of iodine. He put a lot of salt in the water and about half the bottle of iodine. I wanted to know what the iodine was for, and he said infection. I couldn't see the point to that, since I associated iodine with cuts and I didn't have a cut. Then he got a razor blade and slit the blister, and I understood. I understood even better when he stuck my foot into the salt-iodine-water solution. I understood so well that I nearly bit my lower lip off trying not to scream and wake up my mother.
It took about 15 minutes before I could keep my foot in the pan without my stepfather holding it there, but he was finally able to let go. He stood up, shook his head and said, "Now about all you can do is sit there, as long as you can stay awake, and soak your foot. It might work."
Indeed, it did seem to work. The next morning I bandaged my foot and put on thick socks and tennis shoes. I had a slight limp, but it was less from pain than from not wanting to put any weight on the ball of my foot. At breakfast my stepfather asked me how my blister was doing, and I said, "Well, at least we know there's no danger of infection." I said it sarcastically, because I was pretty sure he had put a good deal more iodine in the water than was necessary.
My main concern was hiding my latest misadventure from my track coach, Joe Rogers. He already had enough ammunition against me to seriously question whether I had the mental and physical aptitude for track.
The preliminaries for the low hurdles were at 10 that morning. I was in the second heat. I got dressed without anyone noticing anything, but during my warmups, through the thin sole of my track shoe, I could already feel a tenderness starting that was shortly going to bring tears to my eyes. I was warming up on the infield grass rather than on the cinder track when Coach Rogers noticed me. He came over and said, "What's the matter with you? Get over there on the track. You don't see any hurdles set up out here, do you?"
Now, it was Coach Rogers's habit to give all his sprinters and hurdlers a Hershey bar about 30 minutes before their event, obviously on the assumption that the sugar would give them that explosive energy necessary for a good start out of the blocks. I had eaten my Hershey bar, but all it did was make me feel a little sick to my stomach. Or something made me feel sick to my stomach. Probably the thought of how big a fool I was about to make of myself.
I was walking around by the starting blocks, trying not to limp, when Rooster Andrews asked what was the matter with me. Rooster was the starter. He had started me in any number of races and probably officiated at more track and field meets and other athletic events than anybody in Texas. I think he was fond of me because we both shared athletic handicaps. He had overcome his (being only five feet tall) to play football at the University of Texas. I was still suffering with mine—an erratic coordination that always seemed to strike me when I least needed it. I told him nothing was the matter.
He said, "Well, you act like you are limping." I told him that, no, I was just practicing being light on my feet, trying to walk without letting them touch the ground, and right then I was working on my left foot. He said he'd never heard of such a training method, but that it just might work.
Coach Rogers's rap on me was that I didn't sprint between the hurdles. This was especially true of the highs but didn't hurt me so badly in the lows. Apparently, the greater distance between hurdles in the lows gave my brain more time to communicate with my legs and tell them, "O.K., you're over the hurdle. Now the idea is to run like hell until you get to the next one."
Or something like that.
It came time to get down in the blocks. My heart was going like a trip-hammer. Gone was any hope of making the finals, much less placing. All I wanted to do was finish the race. If I didn't, if I had to limp off the track, the coach was going to examine me and find the blister. And what would I tell him then? That I had stepped on top of the kitchen stove? That I had been striking matches with my toes? I sure as hell wasn't going to tell him the truth. If I did, I would be known as Candlefoot the rest of my days at Bay City.
Rooster called, "Set!" and an instant later the gun went off. I don't remember much about the first part of the race. All I knew was that I was springing off that left foot, trying to limit its time on the ground to the smallest possible duration, and racing like hell to the next hurdle so I could get it up in the air for a brief instant of relief before I had to snap it back down and drive for the next hurdle. I wasn't even aware of how fast I was running. It didn't even begin to occur to me until I cleared the last hurdle and was on my way to the finish line. That's when I noticed, for the first time, that unlike my usual races, nobody was in front of me. I hit the tape a clear winner by 10 yards.
I coasted a few steps and veered off onto the infield grass and just stopped. I was scared to take another step. Coach Rogers came running up to me, and he was ecstatic. "Boy," he said, "that's what I been trying to teach you! Sprint between those hurdles! Boy, you did it today!"
I mumbled something about how it must have been the energy I got from the Hershey bar.
He said, "Well, whatever it was, you keep it up. Now cool out. Jog around."
Of course, I didn't. As soon as the coach was off somewhere else I started to make my way out of the stadium as unobtrusively as I could. But before I could get to the gate, I caught the tail end of what the P.A. announcer was saying: "...a new Black Cat Relays record in the 180-yard low hurdles. Nineteen-point-six seconds."
The crowd started to applaud, and Rooster came over and clapped me on the back. "That's the way to go! Congratulations." I made some reply and started toward the parking lot, still wearing my spikes and warmups. I didn't dare go in the locker room to change. Rooster watched me for a few steps and said, "Still practicing walking without your feet touching the ground?" "Just about," I said.
The finals weren't until that afternoon, so I went home to survey the damage. It was bad. The blister, now about the size of a silver dollar, looked like a piece of raw calf's liver. I was pretty melancholy. Here I had just set my first and only track record (I had never before broken 21 seconds in the event), and I probably wouldn't be able to run in the finals.
Fortunately, my mother was out when I reached home, so I got out the pan again and set to work with the water, salt and iodine. But I knew it was a lost cause, because I had only about three hours before the finals, and the foot was worse than it had been the night before.
I ran the race, mainly because I couldn't think of a good way to get out of it, but I would rather not tell you too much about that. The part I remember best was between the third and fourth hurdles. Coach Rogers was at the side of the track yelling at me, "You're not running! You're not running!" Which was true, but I wasn't limping either. I had about an inch-thick pad of bandages on my foot, which wasn't doing anything to improve my style or my coordination.
I finished last. When the race was over I went out to the middle of the infield and sat down, trying to figure how I was going to get out of the stadium and to my home.
Coach Rogers came over and said, "What in the world was the matter with you? You looked like you were running on one leg. Where was that guy who ran this morning?" I mumbled something about him forgetting to give me a Hershey bar. He turned around in disgust. "Oh, the dickens! A Hershey bar wouldn't have made that much difference. Good grief! Hershey bar!"
I said, "Well, it was psychological."
"Psychological! You don't even know what the word means! Psychological, my foot!" And he turned around and walked off. I could see by the set of his neck he wasn't real happy with me. I wanted to call after him, "Yes, it was my foot. Psychological or not!" After a while Rooster came over and squatted down by me and asked what was the matter. He said, "And don't tell me any more of that stuff about walking around without your feet touching the ground."
Well, I had to tell somebody, and Rooster was a good guy. I knew he wouldn't spread it around, so I took off my shoe and showed him. I also swore him to secrecy and told him the whole story. He asked what explanation I had given to Coach Rogers. When I told him, he nodded and said, "I guess it was psychological. On your part anyway."
I didn't know quite what he meant.
He said, "You know, you aren't the first trackman who ever got a blister the day before a race. They got stuff that will take care of that. If you had called the coach last night, or even come in early this morning, they could have treated it with something like Tuf-Skin and you could have run. You ought not to have tried to hide it. Coach Rogers wouldn't have told anybody."
So there you are, young athletes. It pays to be honest and forthright. Deceit might get you through the prelims, but it will never last through the finals.
Giles Tippette, a lifelong Texas resident, is a novelist and free-lance writer.