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.
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.