I like our neighborhood a lot. There’s a good mix of people: some elderly folks, some families with kids, some young adults.
It’s only the YAs who really aggravate me. Well, “aggravate” is too strong a word. Basically, I’m just jealous.
I know, down deep, that movies about aging, like “On Golden Pond,” and tear-jerking poems like the one that mentions “The last of life, for which the first was made” are warm and cuddly sentiments, in their place. But their place is not sitting beside a kitchen window at sunrise, drinking strong coffee, massaging one’s arthritic aches, and trying to remember one’s name, rank, and Social Security number when, as sudden as wild birds, a young person or two come bounding along the sidewalk in jogging gear, taking the kind of strides you take when the train you’re trying to catch is already pulling out of the station.
I envy them, wish them well, and brew another cup of coffee. I used to be an avid runner myself, back in the day, and if I were the Scots-Irish world’s only boundless optimist, I would rationalize that it’s because of all the exercising I did (plus a goodly measure of luck) that I’m in as decent health as I am.
My running life started when I turned 20 years old, my college draft deferment was canceled, and I knew it was just a matter of weeks or months before the fateful letter from the U.S. Army would come. Bummer, to the tenth power. Especially since the draft physical had pronounced all my childhood illnesses and impairments magically cured — quite a turnaround from my former life as a 98-pound weakling who spent so much time at doctors’ offices that I may as well have had a school-absence excuse tattooed on one of my hands.
I decided I wouldn’t let some drill sergeant get me “into shape,” I would do it myself and at least have some control over the process: nutrition program, daily runs, weight room at the gym, you name it. I became lean and mean ... relatively speaking, of course.
How that fitness program worked out for me at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., is a nightmare for a different day’s telling, but suffice it to say that when at last I got out of the Army I took up running for “pleasure” once more.
I put the pleasure in quote marks because one day as I was coming off the two-lane blacktop after an eight-mile run, I met a farmer on a tractor who asked me, “How far do you go?” When I told him, he said, “Why would a-body want to do that?” The term “runner’s high” and endorphin-related science being in vogue back then, I replied, “I run because I feel so much better when I get through.”
He considered this for a moment and said, “Well, my hand feels better when I get done hitting it with a hammer, but that don’t make me want to do it.”
Point taken. Because my running was nowhere near any competitive level, I decided the only way to get rewarded for the time and money I put into the hobby was to write articles for a then-new magazine in New York City named, ironically enough, “The Runner,” an upstart competitor to the more established “Runner’s World.”
I started pitching ideas to the “Runner” editors and they actually gave me some assignments, even when I pushed my luck and pitched things like, “I saw somewhere that Willie Nelson is a really avid jogger. Why don’t I meet him on his concert tour for a couple of days and write an article about running with him?”
The outcome of that particular assignment was another nightmare for yet a different day’s telling, but eventually the magazine wanted me to write about being a first-time runner in the New York City Marathon — air fare, hotel, etc. all paid in advance. I tripled my training regimen and got such a runner’s high that I needed a tail and a string before it was done.
But four days prior to the fateful race, I came down with the worst case of bronchitis in my life, which somehow simultaneously triggered my childhood asthma to its former glory. Me, bitter, at missing out on a marathon? A little. I coulda been a contender. (Not really, but I’ve always been a contender where expense accounts were concerned.)
So when I see healthy young folks out running through the neighborhood at dawn’s early light, I know how glorious-and-painful it feels. On a more realistic note, I occasionally get into a walking program these days. It’s not bad, especially with an MP3 player and a digital camera along for the trip. But it’s never the kind of trip that running was. Is, still, for these neighbors.
Enjoy it, folks. More power to you. I’ve even got some extra coffee, band-aids, and leniment I’ll give to the cause, if you need ‘em. And, trust me, eventually you will.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His newest book, “I Left My Heart in Shanghi, Alabama: 25th Anniversary Edition” is available on his website carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 p.m. on Oldies 101.5 and is archived afterward on his website.