THURSDAY: Air Eagles


This story was previously published in Living Springs Pub.’s Stories Through the Ages Baby Boomers Plus 2017. Copyright is held by the author.

IT WAS bright and cool when he pulled his pickup in behind a car unloading near the bottom of the hill leading to the Elks Club. He didn’t want to take a chance on finding parking in the lot at the top. He would have time to pick up his sweatshirt and drain out the last of the coffee before the race started. He liked to plan these things early. The place was just as he remembered, but instead of 400 or so runners, there must be well over 1000 now. Also, he realized that he was one of the oldest. At least they had a 60 plus division now. Maybe he could win a prize.

Studying the crowd and the young bodies bending and stretching and jogging around before the final call, he thought back to those early days when Zack and Tommy and he last ran this race. It was 30 years ago. Even then, their friendship had faltered: No, it was dead. That race was the last time they tried to bring it back to life. He thought of better and earlier times when they had been like brothers. High school and the cross country team, even before that, as ten-year-old neighbours racing down the dirt roads together, past the farmhouses with their old barns and broken fences. As they jumped at the crest of the small grassy hill just before the pond came into view, they would stretch out their arms and pretend to fly down to the water. Zack in the middle, he and Tommy on the wings, like Air Eagles, Zack called it.

Later they would sometimes skinny-dip with Elaine and occasionally Sylvia or Lydia. What joy and innocence. By late high school, they had paired off. Maybe that was where it began when sexual attraction overcame male bonding. They all wanted Elaine, but she chose Tommy, and that never changed. After a while, he found himself with Lydia, and Zack ended up with Sylvia. None of them ever reached out beyond their small group. Maybe it was because of their secrets, the boys’ secrets, the girls’ secrets, and eventually the couples’ secrets. It was a wonderful time. He’d trade the rest of his life to relive that one enchanted summer before the war.

He pulled out his number and the four small safety pins he’d picked up at the registration table and pinned the bib number onto the front of his sweatshirt. The new shirt was in the car. He was wearing the one from thirty years ago. It was black, with a turkey image on the shoulder. The only other time he’d worn it was to a nightclub after that race when Zack and Sylvia had fixed him up with a girl whose name he could no longer remember. Tommy and Elaine had wanted to go back to Canada, saying that they hoped to cross with the Saturday night traffic. But Zack talked them into staying over one night. Carter hadn’t signed the amnesty bill yet, and Tommy didn’t want to take any chances. That was what he still despised about Tommy.

They won a round of drinks when Zack recalled an oldie’s tune’s name and singer before anyone else. He felt a little funny about wearing a sweatshirt to a nightclub. But Zack said that we should think of the image on the shoulder as an eagle, and they would tell everyone that they were Air Eagles, like Navy Seals. That seemed a little disrespectful, but since he had just come to town for the race and hadn’t brought dress clothes, and nothing Zack had would come close to fitting his small frame, he let it pass.

He lifted his left arm a bit and checked the yellow ribbon above his bicep. The ribbon was for Zack. It probably should have been black, but he had found the black shirt and wanted to wear it. Besides, Zack would have appreciated the bright yellow. Sylvia hadn’t answered his note, and he didn’t even know where she might be. He didn’t expect to see her. He almost tried to contact Tommy, but after that last meeting, ten years ago at the Bruins game, they had practically fought. That friendship was long gone.

He was about 10 yards behind the starting line. He remembered the aspirin, took it out of his pocket, chewed it, and swallowed. The slightly bitter dry taste was refreshing. He clicked his wrist monitor from clock to pulse and started the Heart Rate recorder clipped to the waistband of his black running shorts. He even had his step counter cleared and ready. Christ, he felt like some kind of lab animal. All he needed was a GPS or accelerometer tracker to feel like a complete fool. But he had to admit; the monitor was useful. It could help keep him from going out too fast, and he could use it to push himself if he wasn’t close to max. Doc Rigel had told him not to push his rate above 148, which would be 95%, but he had already run at 160 for ten minutes in practice. That wasn’t quite 110%, but close enough. He knew he could go faster if he pushed it, but he would wait till late in the race to decide. He didn’t want to die, but there wasn’t a lot to look forward to either, and this wouldn’t be the worst way to go. Except for the possible ticker problem, he was in the best shape since he’d quit drinking nearly 20 years ago.

It would be nice to win something and get called up for an award, maybe get a chance to say something in honor of Zack. As close as he was to the start, he saw only one guy wearing an orange headband, a short distance ahead of him with a bib number in the 600s. He would be one to watch.

BANG. It took about three seconds to reach the starting line, and the pack started to thin out almost immediately. He surely was going too fast, but his heart rate was rising slowly. Another minute and it was 145. He hadn’t planned to start as quickly, but the orange headband was still five yards ahead and running smoothly with long even strides. His upper body stayed almost level, and he looked like he was breathing easy. The guy knew how to run. Well, the race was a 10k, and there was plenty of time to make a move. It was essential to run his own race; he’d learned that in high school. Having run this course before, he knew where the hills were, and he’d won a few races in his day coming from behind.

As he approached the first-mile marker, the timer called out, “SIX FIFTY-ONE . . . , 653 . . .” At least 50 runners had passed him so far, and the leaders seemed to be close to a quarter of a mile ahead, but the old guy hadn’t increased his lead, and he hadn’t seen any other six hundreds go by. He felt pretty good, but he wished the pulse was a bit lower. It was still at 145. The real test would come during mile five.

As the trail levelled out and began to turn gradually around the reservoir, he was surprised to see the glare from a thin film of ice next to the shore. It didn’t feel that cold, not like 30 years ago, when there was a fierce wind and an inch of snow and ice on the trail. Times would be faster now. Zack and Tommy liked the snow and the cold. He blamed that for his unexpected loss to his comrades in that last race.

Comrades indeed; comrades were soldiers who stood together, who risked their lives for each other. You couldn’t run from the battle and be a comrade. Zack was a comrade. He didn’t run; he was shot, but Tommy; Tommy was a coward. He had always been a coward; it just didn’t show up until he got drafted. He pondered this. Tommy hadn’t seemed like a coward back then. He was the first one to swim across the pond. He was the first and only one to dive through the hole in the ice that day in January when they were daring each other. It took some guts to go against your friends, family, and country and take that huge risk that you might be wrong. How could anyone really know what was right and wrong? And, of course, Tommy had been chosen by Elaine.

For the first time, he wondered if he was simply jealous of Tommy. Zack hadn’t seemed to feel quite the same way about Tommy, but they had never talked much about it. Zack was just an easygoing guy who didn’t share his deep-rooted convictions about courage and patriotism. But he liked Zack; he wished they could have shared some time at the end, and he wondered again about Sylvia. She probably knew where Lydia was. But like everything else, that was a world ago.

They were coming up on mile five, and his time was about where he had hoped. At least a hundred runners had passed him. His pulse was just over 150, and the orange headband was still moving easy, about 20 feet ahead. He didn’t dare make a move yet; the guy seemed too comfortable; he might just take off. He wanted to see a little weakness first, a slight change of stride, a less level upper body, more or less arm motion. It wasn’t the right time. He was pretty sure he could rev it up to 165 for two or three minutes, so he would wait until sometime after mile five to make a move. But he would keep his current pace till then unless, of course, the old guy made a move.

When he used to run with Zack and Tommy, he would wait until late in a race to make his move. He had always had a little more of a kick than they did. Their best strategy was to get an early lead and then speed up before he was ready. If they did it on the uphill, sometimes it would work for them; but if they waited too late or made their move on a downhill, he would catch them. He remembered that the steepest hill in this race was two or three hundred yards before the end. He would make his kick at mile five and a half and hope he could push it to the end.

He was amazed at how seriously he was taking this race. He had never been like this in high school, and he hadn’t run many races since. The last was over ten years earlier, and he hadn’t trained seriously until last spring. Who was he trying to impress? He didn’t even know any of the other racers, and he would be lucky to even be in the top three of his small 60-years-plus age division. Surely among the 150 or so runners ahead of him, there must be more than one other 600 bib number.

He remembered how he had felt when he learned that Zack was dead. He wanted to do something for Zack. That was this race, and that’s why it was so important. Also, of course, it was personal. Nothing meant much anymore, so he just decided to create some meaning, and he was using the only tool he had. It didn’t matter that no one else would see it for what it was. For a long time now, he had been a loner, and he didn’t need or expect anyone’s approval.

The hill was just ahead. Suddenly it became the most important thing in his life. He wished he could have shared it with someone. His monitor showed 159. He began to realize that his training hadn’t been enough for this pace and distance. The heart was working too hard. He had to slow down, but he just wouldn’t. He was breathing way too hard. Now he was gasping for breath. The wrist monitor was jumping around crazily like the chest strap was loose. The orange headband had sped up, and he was trying to catch him. They were on the hill with just a hundred yards to go. He wasn’t going to make it. Rigel had said to stop and lie down if . . .


He opened his eyes. For a minute, he thought he was in Nam. The medic was staring down at him, talking, “Your buddy may have saved your life with that Canadian CPR technique. He had good hands and good timing. You probably had a small heart attack, but the CPR was so good and quick that you may not have had much damage. We’re gonna take you in for the tests. Said he’d be back pretty soon. I guess you were together in the Air Eagles?”