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Once when I was working in an office in Washington, D.C., our tall, blonde attorney asked me up to her apartment at noon. She looked like Catherine Deneuve, except her eyes were sea green instead of gray. "I'll give you a cello lesson," she said.
As we walked through the lobby of her building, she took my arm. I felt breathless in the elevator. Her apartment was a sanctuary of Persian rugs and palms. The air was rich with Shalimar.
The cello lesson turned out to be a cello lesson. I found that disconcerting on a number of levels, the least of which was that I'd never before touched a cello.
This memoir is like that. No matter how much it may titillate the reader with references to an illicit sporting event that entangled a movie star, dragged the name of an Olympic champion and his family through the mud and saw a gorgeous sex tester run rampant, it doesn't really deliver solid scandal. It isn't supposed to. This story is more a try at evoking the wistful expression I now get when I hear the phrase "cello lesson," a tale to be told not for its substance or its gossip, but for its unexpectedness.
For one thing, it happened in Eugene, Ore., a pleasant university town of 100,000. Eugene has sometimes affected visitors from harder-driving regions with its simplicity. A New Yorker observing citizens sorting out a traffic jam without the aid of the police once said, not entirely in approval, "It's a toy city." Another found the natives' sweet temper unsettling. "It's as if the waiters in my hotel suffer from a dreamy sort of retardation," he growled. "They serve me oversalted wild rice, and when I complain, they serenely and without consultation replace it with cottage cheese—like that's an even exchange."
"Maybe they shouldn't be called Eugenians," said the first New Yorker, "but Eugenics."
"I would hardly consider them an improvement on the breed," said the second.
Eugene happens, however, to contain its share of farmhands, sporting-goods salesmen and orthopedic surgeons who are ruled by antic imagination. As proof, I offer our subject, The Put Up Or Shut Up Mile Run, conceived two winters ago in the brackish murk of Chuck Jaqua's hot tub and strenuously overorganized at the Olde Towne Pizza Parlor.
A lot of Eugenians run, and most of those runners talk big. The idea of the mile was to shame the dozen loudest of roughly 4:40 to 5:00 ability—the Alberto Salazars and Mary Deckers of Eugene being very soft talkers, as well as being intent on the upcoming Olympic Trials—into each ponying up a $25 entry fee for a race the evening of June 26, 1980 on the track of Lane Community College. The winner would receive 50% of the total purse, with decreasing money through fifth place.
A race committee headed by attorney Kip Leonard did the preliminary shaming with its invitations, which merely described the potential contestants. Of Bruce Ronning, 34, the entry form said, "His special petition for a weight class was denied on the grounds that his weight has no class." Leonard's law partner, Bill (Sheephead) Martin, "whose personal record of 48.5 is for the 100-meter freestyle," was said to be praying for rain. And for Leon (Nearly Normal) Henderson, a ranch foreman who had finished second in the 312-mile Great Hawaiian Footrace in 1979, "an especially attractive young heifer had been installed as pace calf at the LCC track."