Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Natchez Trace VIII: Gentleman, Scholar, Athlete

"I am not an athlete," was all I could tell Hank when he asked me a cycling question just before we unloaded my bike near mile marker 102. He must have realized then how hare brained this trip was for me. He gave me his cell phone number in case I got into trouble.

It is true—I am not an athlete. If I managed to finish the Natchez Trace, it would rank as the greatest athletic accomplishment of my life.

I have never belonged to a gym or run more than 1 ½ miles, and that was for middle school cross country. I should be able to claim having run three miles, back in the dark days of MBA intramurals, an athletic program designed as punishment for students who didn’t play varsity sports. The curriculum consisted of rounding up the debaters, drama kids, slackers, and other athletically inept for a three-mile run through the neighborhoods in the vicinity of campus. At a school with the motto “Gentleman, Scholar, Athlete,” we were the short bus kids shoved into the module with the broken AC unit farthest from the principal’s office.

None of us were in a particular hurry on those milk and honey spring afternoons. We’d trail behind whichever teacher drew the crap assignment of babysitting our run. The teacher was usually a jogger who had more interest in maintaining his pace than keeping tabs on the delinquent pack behind him. He would soon stop checking over his shoulder and start pulling away. The slackers had long dropped off, lighting their cigarettes in the first bushes suitable to hide the smoke. The debaters’ jokes would lose subtlety after the first half-mile, the teacher having grown smaller in the distance. After another half mile it was back to argument. The theater kids did, in English accents, whatever it was thespians do on an afternoon walk in the suburbs.

I would have been happy if they had given us a football or basketball and told us to play a game. Yet field space and court time was at a premium at old Montgomery Bell, and this limited the options for the non-athlete. The option was to run, away from campus.

So we schemed. Once we knew what days we’d have which teacher-jogger for our thrice-weekly runs, we could predict the routes he would be taking. Then a couple of us would coordinate in the mornings to stash a car somewhere along the route. This took some creativity in the last generation before cell phones.

Occasionally our taskmaster would catch on that not all of us were coming back from the runs and change up the course. He’d keep tabs for the first mile and a half and jog in a straight line away from campus. At this point the teacher could resume his normal pace and the rest our sorry crew would be forced to complete the three miles, by jogging, walking or smoking our way back to school.

On one of the afternoons we had guessed wrong I found myself stranded almost two miles from my car. I had stashed it along the Latin teacher’s normal running route to the west of campus; he took us south and east. Suddenly I didn’t have so many jogging buddies, and none of these fair weather delinquents offered me a ride to my car once we got back to campus.

At the halfway point the teacher blazed for home. The debaters grumbled, the slackers found a smoking bush, and the thespians traded old Monty Python lines. I didn’t feel like arguing, didn’t smoke during the school week, and didn’t find Holy Grail jokes that funny. I didn’t feel like jogging either.

I stuck out my thumb to the next car that passed. No luck. The second car I thumbed slowed then stopped about 15 feet in front of me. I caught up with the car as the driver lowered the passenger window.

“I’m probably not supposed to do this,” she said.

“Probably not.” I said.

“Get in the back.” she said.

I could hear a couple of the debaters snickering about 50 yards back. The same guys who hadn’t offered me a ride when the route changed. I opened the back door and flipped them a bird.

“I have to go the bank first. My son Charlie has a soccer game on campus.”

She knew where I was headed, the alma mater’s letters were branded across the chest and thighs of our gym clothes. I knew of her son, his dad had been my pediatrician. Like most kids, I idolized my pediatrician. I told her what a swell guy I thought her husband was.

“ EX-husband,” she snarled.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You wouldn’t believe how cheap that bastard is with his own children. A doctor who can’t find the money to pay his alimony!”

In our wait at the bank’s drive thru lane, the EX-wife was determined that I get a fuller picture of the man. I thought about getting out of car, but I was still on the other side of campus from my car, and I was afraid she might figure out who I was and report me for siding with her cheapskate husband. I just sat in the backseat stone-faced, waiting for her to change the subject. She didn’t. Who knew the guy whose jokes kept the shots from hurting and whose amoxicillin cleared up countless ear infections would have…well, Nashville people read this blog.

I kept my mouth shut.

The unforeseen dangers of hitchhiking with a soccer mom—she might smash your childhood idols.

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