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No Escape from the Unhappiness Machine
I attended Roosevelt (the Teddies, Teds, or Roughriders), a public high school in North Seattle, while my friend John William Barry was a student at Lakeside, our city’s version of an East Coast private academy like Phillips Exeter or Deerfield. Besides slumping at my desk all day and getting high in Cowen Park at lunch, I also ran the 880—today called the eight-hundred-meter or the half-mile—for the RHS track team. It was a good niche for me. You didn’t need to be fast or have the wind of the distance runner. Mostly what you needed was a willingness to sign up. As a sophomore in 1972, I was a good enough half-miler to represent RHS with a time of 2:11.24. To put this in context, the world record in ’72 for the half-mile was held by Dave Wottle, with a time of 1:44.30. Roosevelt’s best half-miler of all time is Chris Vasquez, ’97, at 2:01.23. This is a race that takes runners twice around the red cinder oval found behind many high schools—I say this so you can imagine me losing to Vasquez by about thirty yards, or think of me still rounding the last bend, at the far end of the grandstands, while Wottle is crossing the finish line, arms raised victoriously. Either is a useful picture of me—of someone intimate with the middle of the pack. There’s good and bad in that.
I remember one race more vividly than others. It’s ’72, so Nixon is president, though he and everything else, the world, seem far away from Seattle. I’m sixteen and wear my hair like Peter Frampton’s and a mustache like Steve Prefontaine’s. (Because of this mustache, I’m sometimes referred to at school as “the Turk,” after the guy in the Camel cigarette ads. I’m not Turkish, but my mother’s father, whom I never met, was what people call Black Irish, and possibly I inherited his coloring.) I’ve got on hi-cut satin shorts and a satin jersey emblazoned with Roughriders, and I’m at the starting line along with seven other runners, six with better qualifying times than mine. Despite them, I’m a believer that if the ninety-nine-pound mother in the apocryphal story can lift the front end of a Volkswagen off her crushed toddler, I can win today.
I’ll dispense with the obligation to describe the weather—whether or not it was a sultry afternoon, with clouds of newly hatched mayflies above the track, or a windless May day smelling of moist turf and mown grass, is beside the point—and cut, literally, to in medias res: the eight of us stalwart and tortured young runners rounding the third curve of a high-school track and coming up on 250 yards. It’s my usual MO—out front early and counting on adrenaline to keep me there, but with heels nipped and a sinking feeling that’s anathema to winning. A race is a conversation with yourself, motivational in quality, until somebody interrupts by pulling away from you, and then it becomes an exercise in fathoming limits. Losing is like knowing that, in the movie scene where a thousand die but the hero lives, you’re one of the obliterated.
The right track term is “running in a pack.” That’s us—a band of runners hardly separated. One keeps exhaling humidly on my shoulders. Another’s left forearm hits my right elbow on its backswing. A runner pulls up beside me—the way a freeway driver pulls even in the adjacent lane to take your pulse—and I assess his chances with a panicked glance. Not strictured yet; striding with more ease than I feel; biding his time; relaxed. Working up a freshly adrenalized surge, I gain a quarter-step on him, but purchased with the last of my reserves.
The early leader in a half-mile race rarely crosses the finish line first. But he wants to have had the experience of leading—that’s part of it—and he’s perennially hopeful that, this time, things will be different in the home stretch. I still feel that way in the early part of curve three: that I might have heretofore undiscovered deposits of leg strength and cardiovascular capacity, not to mention will, at my disposal, all this against the grain of my foreboding. It turns out that my foreboding makes sense; at the curve’s apogee, I know I’ll flag, and with that, the flagging happens. Three runners pass me, going strong.
I’m needled by regret. Why don’t I have a better strategy than running as fast as I can from start to finish? I’ve squandered my energy; I’ve incurred too large a deficit. But it isn’t in me to plan; I just run, as my coach says, on unfocused emotion. These other runners, by the halfway mark—end of lap one, where we’re lashed on by friends and exhorted by teammates, a small fire zone of screaming and technical advice—are just stretching out and finding a rhythm, while I’m already in a battle with depletion. I drop to sixth, dragging with me a familiar sense of failure.
Then, on the back stretch, the runner in seventh tries to pass me, too. To anybody watching we’re in a pointless and even pathetic battle between losers, but for me what’s happening feels critical. Against good tactical judgment—it’s a move that slows you—I indulge in another assessment of an opponent: like me, long-haired; like me, in earnest; like me, goaded forward by, the word might be, convictions. In other words, this runner is approximately my doppelgänger.
Ask any track coach. The half-mile is a race for unadulterated masochists. Neither a sprint nor a distance event, it has the worst qualities of both. It’s not a glorious race, either. A lot of people can name a sprinter or two—Carl Lewis, for example—or a famous miler like Roger Bannister, but can very many name even a single half-miler? No athletic romance attaches to the half-mile. It’s not a legendary or even notable feat to beat other runners over 880 yards. At track meets, the half-mile contest is somehow lost between more compelling competitions, an event that unfolds while fans thumb their programs or use the bathroom. Into this gap of a race, this sideshow, step runners in search of a deeper agony than they can find elsewhere. They want to do battle with suffering itself. It’s the trauma they want, the anguished ordeal. It’s the approximately two minutes of self-mortification or private crucifixion. All half-milers have a similar love of pain. So this race is an intimation and an opening. In two minutes’ time, you get a glimpse.
I do, on the afternoon I’m telling about. There’s a kind of synchronicity that can happen in a running race, and it happens now. We run in tandem, my near doppelgänger and I. In running parlance, we match strides. I’m measuring him, as he, no doubt, is measuring me—all the while throwing ourselves forward into fresh pain, so that there are two perceptions, pain and the close presence of another agonized half-miler. In parallel this way, and canceling each other out, we’re neither of us ahead or behind for maybe forty-five seconds. That’s an unusually long time to run neck and neck in the 880. I’m oxygen-deprived, so everything looks well lit and startling, and from this perspective I see what I probably wouldn’t see otherwise. This guy, right here, running next to me, is a version of me. We both feel, romantically, that our running is transcendent. How do I know this? From running alongside him. I also have the benefit of hindsight.
Thirty-four years have passed, but I still remember how, in the final five yards, my double frees himself—like a shadow in a cartoon or a mirror-figure in a dream—and beats me by three-quarters of a stride.
I’m bent over and spent, my hands on my knees after the race, breathing hoarsely and looking at the ground, when he comes over to shake my hand with what I think at first is a grating sincerity. The grip is vigorous. The expression is heartfelt and, post-race, ruddy. The stance is upright, the posture exclamatory. This is gracious victory personified, and for a moment I think—it says Lakeside on his jersey—that what I’m seeing is obligatory patrician good manners, a valorous lad with his cursory and vapid Victorian Well done! while his heaving breath subsides. But no. He’s just fiercely putting forward what he feels—he’s honest. There’s a sentiment to be noted, life is short, and he doesn’t want to just pass by. “Thanks for the push,” John William declares, between bouts of sucking wind. “I just about died.”
That’s how I met the privileged boy who would later become “the hermit of the Hoh”—as he’s been called by the Seattle newspapers this spring, in articles mentioning my name, too—that loner who lived in the woods for seven years and who bequeathed me four hundred and forty million dollars.
My name’s Neil Countryman. I was born in this city of wet, high-tech hubris, which was called, at first, maybe with derision, “New York Alki,” meaning “New York Pretty Soon” in Duwamps. Besides me, there are seventeen Countrymans in the Seattle phone book, and all of them are my relatives—my father’s two brothers; their sons, grandsons, and unmarried granddaughters; and my two sons. We’re close-knit, as we sometimes say about ourselves. Over the years, we’ve closed ranks around deaths, accidents, follies, and addictions. On the other hand, we shy away from intimacy as if such shyness was a value. We don’t ask each other the more difficult questions. I’m generalizing, of course, but a Countryman who wants to go his own way will find, among his relatives—universally on the male side—straight-faced if sometimes dishonest approval. Clannish as we are, we believe in privacy, even when it’s obvious that someone you love is making a terrible mistake.
As a boy I enjoyed, with my sister, Carol, Laugh-In, Get Smart, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. We lived in a ranch house in the northeast part of town, modern for its time and built by my father, with an intercom system my mother used to call Carol and me from the rec room. My family went on summer vacations in-state, sometimes to Ocean Shores, but always to Soap Lake, in the sagebrush interior, where we would join other Cavanaughs—my mother was a Cavanaugh—for an annual rendezvous. At Soap Lake, my mother liked to loll around on a blow-up mattress and drink Tab. Once, I lost a beach ball in the wind, and by the time I noticed, it was a quarter-mile out. My mother brought it back, breathing hard but looking athletic. I remember how surprised I was, when I was eight, to see her so competent on a pair of skis at Alpental. I was under the impression that we’d gone to Alpental so that Carol and I could slide down a hill on inner tubes while our parents stood around with their hands in their pockets, but instead my mother, on rentals, disappeared up a chairlift and materialized much later to spray snow at my father with a stylish hockey stop. My father brushed off the snow as if it was lint on a tuxedo, which was his idea of humor. He was compact, with a recessed hairline and long sideburns, tight-lipped when corrected, and famous among my cousins for his forearms, which bulged like bowling pins. I remember him stretched out on the Cavanaughs’ steep roof after it was damaged by a fallen tree, his head downslope, a hammer between his teeth, reaching with his left hand to start a nail by stabbing it into a rafter until it stuck there. My father was a finish carpenter first, but he was also a pack rat. He brought home, from his jobs, used refrigerators and freezers, washers and dryers, coils of plastic pipe, and rolls of scavenged wire, and stored it all in our backyard under an open-air shed he’d built out of salvaged materials. When he got older, he drove a Corolla, but he didn’t listen to its radio very much, because, as he said, it was more interesting to listen to its motor. He also felt it was useful to smoke a Camel before heading for the bathroom. When I asked him if he got bored in there, he told me he read the Post-Intelligencer, starting with the obits, first to see if anyone he knew had “kicked,” second to mull the ages of the deceased in relation to his own years, so that he’d remember not to feel sorry for himself.
For a while, my mother sang with the Merry Mavericks—about a dozen men and women with a Peter, Paul and Mary look but an Up with People sound. They performed at Christmas in the Food Circus at the Seattle Center. My mother was a soloist. Hitting her high notes, she sounded like Judy Garland. I remember her coming off the stage dressed in red-and-green satin and taking Carol and me across the food court for caramel corn. Carol and I were glad when all of this was over, because we only liked pop tunes. In fact, the first album I bought, the summer after eighth grade, was Bread’s On the Waters, because “Make It with You,” sung by David Gates in falsetto, moved me. In wood shop, I built speaker cabinets out of low-grade walnut, then installed tweeters, woofers, and de rigueur large woofers from SpeakerLab. I traded a cousin some speakers like this for a battered drum set, and he showed me how to play the opening licks, complete with cowbell, of “Honky Tonk Woman.” For two years, I washed dishes at a Mexican restaurant for $2.65 an hour, partly to fund drum lessons from a burned-out but still-hip jazzman. I kept a fish tank in my room, went bowling sporadically, and played hockey on roller skates. I had a normal interest in girls, which I admit is a declaration dispensing with the subject, so I will add that I was the sort of hapless boy who came away from cheap encounters with the blues.
John William and I were of the generation that was slightly late for the zeal of the sixties and slightly early for disco. The most popular song, I think, in ’74, was “Takin’ Care of Business” by the Bachman-Turner Overdrive, though the Doobie Brothers were also esteemed. In Seattle, white guys wore flares, shags, and Pacific Trail jackets; white girls wore sailor pants or 501 jeans and let their hair fall around their faces. We were seven when JFK was killed, twelve when King was killed, and fourteen when four students were killed at Kent State, but by the time we were old enough to fathom “the Zeitgeist” (a term getting play in ’74), there was détente, H-bomb drills were quaint, and there was no more draft. Always on the front page of the Seattle Times was inexplicable news, for a teen-ager, of tariffs and wage and price controls. Who cared? Gerald Ford became president in ’74 and began hitting people with golf balls, apparently, thousands of miles away from Seattle. Everything, in fact, was thousands of miles away from Seattle. It was the portal to the North Pacific. It was where you outfitted to travel in Alaska, gateway to the Last Frontier.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2008 by David Guterson
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