One raw, wet
afternoon last spring a high school mathematics teacher, Jim Strock, and myself
met a straggly band of 50 boys and girls in a pasture adjacent to the Fairfield
Area School. The school, which serves several rural townships, is itself
adjacent to metropolitan Fairfield, Pa., a community of some 500 in the
foothills of the central Appalachians. More or less in order of appearance, the
pasture recently had been designated as the Fairfield track, the children were
candidates for the institution's track team and Jim and I were track coaches.
None of these phenomena had previously existed in Fairfield. Also, none of them
bore much resemblance to the tracks, track teams and track coaches that are
To begin with,
the pasture had become a track in the same way that strips of colored paper
became money in the Weimar Republic—by fiat. As pastures go, it was relatively
level, but it had a distinct tilt toward the east. (Later we used this
topographical eccentricity to advantage. When we wanted to build a kid's
confidence we let him, or her, run a couple of 220s downhill. Cocky ones got
the opposite treatment.) The day before our first practice session Jim and
I—with a transit, tape, balls of string, stakes, two bags of lime and a lot of
little boys—had attempted to mark off a 440-yard circular track in the pasture.
After a few false arithmetical starts we got the calculations down pat, only to
find out that the final curve hit a swamp that was created by the overflow from
a small creek that flowed past the low easternmost corner of the pasture. After
some indecision, we finally lined off only a 400-yard circle.
for the track team were in some ways as irregular as their track. They showed
up in sneakers, sandals, galoshes and clodhoppers ( Fairfield being mostly an
agricultural area). They wore overalls, school pants, hip huggers, skirts and a
collection of sweat shirts that had things like "Batman" and
"'Wildwood, N.J." emblazoned on the breast. It was determined by a show
of hands that only three of our hopefuls had seen a track meet. One of the more
experienced members of the squad, a transfer student, had actually participated
in an intramural field day at his former school. His event had been the sack
race. A portly girl allowed that she had come out to "play track" in
hopes of losing 10 pounds before the junior prom. A prospective weight man said
he could throw that "gadget" (he was speaking of an eight-pound shot) a
lot farther if it were not so heavy.
Jim and I were
not exactly unprepared for the greenness of our squad. To put it bluntly, there
was no tradition or record of athletic excellence at Fairfield. For example,
during the previous year the three varsity teams fielded by the school—soccer,
basketball and baseball—had amassed what must be one of the worst
interscholastic records in the nation. Among them they had won two contests
while losing 38. At schedule-making time coaches from other schools fought to
arrange meetings with the teams from Fairfield. Other Fairfield coaches viewed
the track project with weary cynicism. "Everybody thinks that if you tell
them loud enough to go out and win they will win," said the dispirited
basketball coach. "You guys will find out soon enough."
Which brings us
to the track coaches. Fifteen years and 30 pounds ago Jim Strock had been a
good sprinter, while a few years before that I had had a brief and
undistinguished career as a miler. Jim knew about starting blocks, that you
pass a relay baton with your left hand and similar matters. I remembered
something about not passing on a curve and a phenomenon called the oxygen debt.
Both of us, after a few days of secret practice, were able to hit the right
button on a stopwatch eight out of 10 times. But, despite certain technical
deficiencies, we had a lot of enthusiasm, for ever since our own pale, fleeting
days of competitive glory we had remained track buffs. There is no worse sort
of sports addict.
It is perhaps
illustrative of the nature of track enthusiasts to explain that, contrary to
common sense, nobody made or even asked Jim and I to organize a track team in a
swamp out of a group of boys and girls who didn't know a shot-put from a
mushroom and who hadn't won an athletic contest within living memory. Quite the
contrary, we had begged the school board for permission to do so, badgered the
superintendent of the school for sawdust and equipment, stolen a sprinter and a
half-miler from the baseball coach and shelled out some money and a lot of time
to get things going. Despite all of this it has been many a spring since I (and
I am sure the same holds true for Jim) have had so much fun or been so
satisfied with how I spent my hours.
There were a
variety of happenings that made it a good spring. There was a thin, raggedy
little boy who comes from what is now stylishly called "an Appalachian
poverty pocket." He could run fast but not very far—boiled potatoes and
coffee not being the best training meal. When he heard his name read out as one
of those going to the first boys' meet he said solemnly, "That's the first
time I ever been on a good list." There was the discovery of a handsome
14-year-old who looks and talks like an all-American Eagle Scout but who turned
out to be much better than that. He just may be another Jim Ryun in half a
dozen years. There was a tough, Huck Finn sort of kid—giving away several years
and a lot of size—coming to the tape in a 440 with a six-inch lead. Trying to
make a last, ultimate effort, he fell in the cinders but crawled across the
line on bloody knees to save third place. Ten minutes later, his face and legs
patched with Band-Aids, he was running and winning in a relay.
there were a dozen or so little girls. Little girls when they get enthused,
involved and turned on are, I now think, absolutely beautiful. The word is used
in the hippie, not Lolita, way. For all of us down in this corner of Appalachia
they were the true flowers of spring.
Early in April I
paid a visit to a fellow named Don Sterner, the track coach at Biglerville. a
community some 20 miles into the Blue Ridge from Fairfield. Don was a real
track coach, with a real cinder track and a real track team—boys who ran
49-second quarter miles and threw the shot 53 feet. More important for my
purposes, Don was, in our part of the world, the pioneer, virtually the only
promoter of girls' track, and when he died last September of cancer, at age 37,
we lost a good friend.
Don, when I saw
him in April, was more than obliging, because he was an obliging man by nature
and because, as I have learned, people involved in girls' track are like
castaways on a desert island. Everybody is anxious to help everybody else.
Though our land of the free effortlessly produces teeny boppers, girls who
officially run for the sport of it are hard to come by. Anybody in this, so to
speak, game always welcomes a newcomer who wants in for no other reason than
that it will increase the competitive field.