Then, four years later, the wallop. Max left his wife and son, having fallen in love with a therapist who'd lost relatives to the same butchers, a woman with whom he could finally talk about the depression and nightmares from all the memories he'd buried. Evelyn turned Al over to her sister in Cleveland and sank into depression too. Nobody could say how it all affected the boy, but he didn't take it sitting down. He bounced off walls, crawled under chairs, ricocheted through stores, ran circles around his house when he returned home to Columbia, Md., a few months later.
He kept slipping out of the quiet house, finding his way into a chair at neighbors' dinners, materializing in the empty seat at strangers' restaurant tables. Evelyn took him to see a play and nearly choked when she looked up during a dance number and saw Al on stage, shimmying for all he was worth. He ended up on Howard High's pep squad, the only white boy among a flock of African-American girls, bringing down the house with his hip-hop moves. Sure, depression was rampant among children of Holocaust survivors, but how could it catch that dynamo out there with the gold chain, backward cap and baggy clothes all a-flapping?
His father, by now, had found a mission. He'd joined a group of Holocaust survivors and organized an international seminar on the subject, begun delivering lectures and laying plans for two books and a movie he would produce about his family's experience, all under his new name, Amichai—Hebrew for "my people live." Al stopped staying with him every other weekend and in summers. He wasn't going to be the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor. He was going to be a winner, baby, red, white and blue.
One problem: He had to be an athlete first. He was too short and scrawny to play the ail-American sports he adored, but there was one thing, God knows, that he could do: run circles. He became one of the top three distance runners at his high school, amazing teammates when he'd run off after races to run some more, but it wasn't enough. He wasn't the best. One day when he was 15, he and a buddy shook with laughter at a Junior Olympics meet as they watched some little kids bobbing around the track in a most peculiar way. "I'll do that next week," Al said. "You watch."
"Bet you a dollar you'll never do it," said his friend. Al entered the next week's 3K race walk, drawn to the strange discipline that both released and restrained his boundless energy but seduced even more by the heft of that first-place medal draped around his neck. So what if he was the only entrant in his age group?
His relatives and neighbors were astonished and relieved. The pinball had a path. A calling, like his father. The kid who couldn't afford college had an athletic scholarship. The boy who had to run would walk.
Curt veered to the toilet again. Philip and Sean, too, were wincing with stomach distress. Everyone was wrong. Al kept increasing his lead—1:30...1:40...1:45—as the halfway point blew by. His form was flawless. Out front, alone, he didn't have to struggle with his doubts or his impulse to run. Out front he commanded everyone's eyes.
This was better than the best night of his life, that magical eve in Poza Rica, Mexico, six years earlier, when Al—dead last and racked with intestinal pain in a race the U.S. team had entered solely for conditioning—defied his coach's order to stop after 30 kilometers, obeying instead the adoring cries of the female spectators who'd fallen for his baby-face grin, who waited five hours for him to finish and showered him with kisses, flowers and lollipops until security guards escorted him away. It was "a brief moment in my life," he wrote in an article, "that I will always treasure."
Yes, Al was race walking's bard. Singlehandedly, he'd solved his dilemma—what if he became an Olympian and no one ever knew?—by making sure people knew, by writing previews and wrap-ups of all his races, by collecting the e-mail addresses of everyone he met, nearly 500 of them, and sending his stories to them and to a half-dozen race walking periodicals and websites. The off-weeks he spiced with amusing Day in the Life of Al and His Fellow Walkers chronicles that were so well done that you'd wonder why he was walking his life away instead of spending it with all those other sports-smitten Jewish lads who couldn't jump or jack a curveball—the ones in the press box.