One hour. That's how long Dick remained under the impression that their short, happy, hellish racing life was over. That's how long it took Rick to squeeze out a single sentence and get his father off the floor to read it.
Dad, when I am running, I don't even feel like I am handicapped.
It dawned on Dick as he stared at the screen: I run. I push. He is.
Dick takes a deep look into the blue sky. Then he turns the chair and wheels Rick back toward the starting line. Realizing that he doesn't have the car keys, that he can't get into the van to grab his tools to try to fix the damn wheel, that this whole thing's right back at its roots, its essence: It's impossible.
Only, back then, at their first official road race—a 10K in nearby Springfield, Mass. in 1980—there were none of these sympathetic murmurs and head shakes from the audience and race officials. Only whispers and paper shuffling at the registration table, hand-wringing over safety and what category to place the Hoyts in, and the stares of 300 runners, the unease of the fittest with the misfit. Dick cringed. His partner, ever the optimist, hoped, They're staring at me because of my stunning good looks.
This time Team Hoyt was ready. For two years Dick had been training and searching for someone who could make a suitable racing chair, a precursor of the baby-jogging chairs that would one day be common. At last he found a man who achieved it with a welding torch, a few lightweight tubes, a molded seat, two bicycle tires and a smaller third wheel up front, all for the princely sum of 35 bucks—and who could dream that its final resting place would be the Sports Museum of New England? Off the Hoyts bolted, once the Springfield officials finally relented, sizzling the 6.2 miles in 38:30, dusting half of the field. Finally the memory of Rick as a nine-year-old, shaking and howling on the floor as his six-year-old younger brother climbed onto his first bicycle and pedaled away, began to loosen its grip on Dick's heart.
A short, wiry building contractor named Pete Wisnewski approached them after the race, undaunted by Rick's silence, spasms and drool, and started telling them about all the great road races in the region just waiting for Team Hoyt. Nearly every weekend from that day on, Dick would lie awake all night, convinced that his alarm would forsake him, then rise in darkness and roust Rick from bed. The kid was a zombie at dawn, a sack of spuds that Dick would hoist and haul to the bathroom to empty his bladder, bathe, shave, towel and dress, then to the kitchen to coax some blended mush and pills past Rick's reverse tongue and gagging throat—all the grunt work that Judy had always done because her husband had been too busy. All Dick's irritation on the road at traffic impeding his progress, all his impatience at home when family members didn't have what it took to get a chore done ... where did it melt to on those race mornings with Rick in his arms? That was the boy's gift. He showed his father the trail to his own heart.
Something else bloomed on the city streets and country roads of New England, something not so easy to find for a no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes guy or a "vegetable": camaraderie. Their new buddy, Pete, glimpsed at once what most people missed: Rick understood everything, loved people and was a sucker for a joke, any joke, even at his own expense. Rick's eyes danced, his head flew back and his hands and mouth contorted at Pete's tomfoolery, a joy that turned to jaw-clenched fury just once, when Pete slowed at the end of a race to let Rick beat him. Slack was what Rick didn't want, and to make sure of it he banged out a proposition to Pete on the Hope Machine: From now on, loser has to pin the other's racing number to his wall at home till the following weekend's race. The rivalry was on, Rick flapping his arms as if trying to breaststroke when Dick slowed, his hands flailing as if to hold Pete back when they caught up with him.
Along came a fun-loving, race-loving bartender named Tommy Leonard who knew everyone in every bar and made sure everyone knew Rick, and a county cop named Eddie Burke, a Vietnam vet all volume and all heart, who strode up to Rick after races and bellowed, "Hoyt, get out of the chair, you rotten bastard, I need it more than you!" then lifted a monster plastic cup of 151 rum and Coke to Rick's delighted lips. Suddenly he'd be airborne, Eddie and Tommy hoisting his wheelchair to their shoulders and carrying him like a sultan into packed taverns to share their postrace revelry. Nah, there was just no payoff to busting Super Serious Dick's chops, but one well-timed "Hey, Rick, can we call a cab for your brain?" could convulse his son and make everybody's day.
So what was Dick to say to the people who, when Team Hoyt began appearing in newspapers and on television, called or wrote to him demanding to know why he was dragging this kid to races, and if he were seeking some sick sort of glory—Come see a race? Come see Rick's eyes squint with animal pleasure and his hair fly in the wind and his arms spread out and his torso pulse with so much excitement that sometimes Dick had to bark at him to cool it or he'd topple the damn chair. Come see and listen to the tune that played in Rick's head, the song that so captured how he felt when they raced that he had its title etched on a poster board and bolted to the back of his running chair. Come see a mute, spastic quadriplegic turn into Free Bird.